ePortfolio Implementation: Inhibiting Creativity?

I know, I know. Job complaints are rarely the sort of thing you want to read, nor that I want to write. I really don’t! I love my job, the things I do which are varied and interesting. I’m at a bit of a crossroads though, I’ve been doing this job long enough that I worry about the documentation of how to use tools influences the way the tool is used. Quite often the most creative, interesting ways tools get used are in that first few hours of learning how to use a tool – one of the reasons I believe that blogs end up used for a short time, and people abandon them as time wears on – they’ve learned all that they need to know and with curiosity satisfied, there seems to be little value to them going forward.

So I’ve been writing lately documentation for Desire2Learn’s ePortfolio tool specifically for our instance of the platform. I’ve put together a diagram that shows the different parts of the layout with pixel dimensions, a guide to setting up the Chrome plug-in, and now a guide to using the Chrome plug-in. In my initial draft, I had examples of how one might use the plug-in, because it seems to me, you have to know why you might add a file, or take a screenshot of a webpage, before you actually do it. Maybe these examples will be held up as some sort of  “best practice” or worse still “the way to do something’? I have always strived to write neutral documentation, where it just told you how to do something, with pictures illustrating the concepts. With ePortfolio though, you can do many tasks in different ways, none of the wrong or lesser than another. You can add an Artifact through the plug-in, through the Learning Environment, and there are valid reasons to add that Artifact both ways. You can tag things, you can choose to use collections if you want. You can have a big mess of things in your ePortfolio.

Who am I to tell someone that the way they’re doing it is wrong?

Apparently, I’m the one to tell people how to do it. The problem is that I instinctively want to find the most efficient way to use a tool – that’s part of my job. With ePortfolio, each path is equally complex (if you let it) or simple. There is no best path, there is no way to do it “right”, which again, will frustrate many, annoy others, and please a small few. The design of the tool pleases me ultimately, because I’m fascinated with how people deal with obstacles in learning. Unfortunately, there’s a part of me that wants the technology to not get in the way. Maybe that’s what my problem is ultimately.

When people are faced with problems they tend to either get collaborative and/or creative. Both of these conditions I love, because frankly the world can use more of both qualities at the moment. Does providing a path for those to follow stunt people’s instinctive creativeness? Is there a way with documentation to make it useful without making many decisions on what goes in, and that editing process then leaves alternative paths to grow over and be forgotten? Or is this another way to see who is really creative and thinking differently, because it allows everyone access to the tool, and then those who are energized by it, can take it places I’ve never thought about?

Power Structure in MOOCs

I’ve thought about power in it’s relationship to students a lot. When I taught I was always uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone something, and having no one question it because I stood at the  front of the room. It’s the biggest reason I left “teaching”. In the greatest irony, now I run training… anyways, it seems like that power structure is nigh impossible to subvert. I had hopes when MOOCs started to appear because it seems like the self-empowerment idea on steroids – but in most instances the students are guided/forced to learn things. At the end (and there’s always a start and end to these things), the instructor via the marking of the computer, puts a stamp on your booklet, and you’ve completed the course. These kinds of MOOCs do very little to disrupt the notion of power in a “classroom”, in fact they reinforce the existing power structure entirely. I reckon it’s because we replicate the environments we know online, we have a “semester” or course start and end dates, we have teacher telling us what to do, and in what order to do them in. We follow lockstep, because that’s the role we expect to be in.

There’s the more connectivist MOOCs, and these seem a little more freeform. I know that in the Connectivist and Connective Knowledge and DS106 models, there’s more empowerment. Still, there’s George and Stephen, or Jim, Alan and Martha at the heads of those MOOCs. Those mentioned will really balk at my idea of them being at the head of those courses and will point to the many others that make them happen (in front of the proverbial curtain and behind), and my statement isn’t intended as a slight against them. The personalities of those contributors are key in driving people to those ideas within those courses/events/happenings.  Within that structure, people will look to those who champion the idea to guide how they experience it. How does one break that implicit power structure?

I think the next step in breaking the power structure is to set up an open course on a loose subject and have people set their own objectives. Guidance should be given on how to set good objectives, and other’s objectives should be ranked/rated using the Coursera peer marking strategy (except up the number of people marking to 5 or 6 to improve the reliability of the results). So if you set up a too easy, or too difficult to manage objective, the crowd can give you feedback on how to challenge yourself or how to manage your expectations. Scalable is important… then students use the tools they have to to find and aggregate content. Using the DS106 model, they can design their own assignments and periodically submit them for peer marking.  Pull in Howard Rheingold’s work with information reliability on the Internet. Really, the whole thing becomes crowd sourced, content, marking, assessment, how to assess your own learning, setting your own goals, creating your submissions.. everything.

Of course, all this pipe dreaming is predicated on the open web staying open. As copyright lawyers seem intent on locking down information behind paywalls, this approach may not be possible. Hell, it may not be possible now…