Friday, November 17, 2006

3TU Graduate School

Being a member of two working groups (ICT & Education and ELO-Groupware), I participated in the 3TU Graduate School (GS) Day which was held in Utrecht on November 16th. Very near to the famous Dom Church it was good to meet a lot of the members of the several development and project groups in the 3TU GS organisation. Since September 2006 the three Dutch technical universities already offer two master programs within the collaborative 3TU setting: Sustainable Energy Technology and Embedded Systems. The morning program was mostly filled with short presentations by the project groups who worked on several issues of the 3TU GS. It was interesting to hear about the achievements of the other groups, the problems and questions they have encountered and meet the people in person, which you normally see listed in mail headers.

The presentation of ‘my’ ICT&E group focused on the results that have been achieved in the past year, but also tried to give a realistic perspective for the future learning environment for the 3TU GS. Our main problem was that the development groups primarily focused on the development and organisation of their curriculum. Therefore, the ambitions with regard to an advanced ICT-based instructional design (face-to-face, distance education, campus blend, etc.) were rather modest. The problem for the ICT&E group was that it was not very clear what was needed and when it was needed to facilitate the 3TU curriculum. The danger of this situation (and a known pitfall!) is that the discussion narrows down to all kinds of interesting and nice working tools (the bottom up method). People may even experiment how these tools can be used within their course or project. Before you know there is a complete chaos of ICT tools, which cannot be managed from an ICT perspective. For fast prototyping it is not a problem to do some experiments, just to see how things might work, but these prototypes have to be thrown away as soon as the experiment has finished. This perspective, however, is not very attractive for instructors. Only few have an intrinsic motivation and interest to participate in this type of innovative experiments. The majority likes to use proven technology, which is easy to use, is serviced and maintained and –most importantly- which helps them to organise their work in a more efficient way.

The ICT&E group argued that we should first take a step back and look at the problem from a 3TU ICT Architecture. First, take the business process (the education process starting from subscription till becoming an alumnus) as a starting point, then define the information process (which functions do you need, required integration processes) and finally the technical process (which tools, operating system, one integrated system (e.g. Blackboard or TeleTOP) or a smart and coherent combination of technical components, thus creating a sort of personal learning environment). It is important to broaden the discussion by looking at the architecture as a digital learning and working environment (DLWE), and not solely as the classic virtual learning environment (VLE) such as Blackboard, WebCT or TeleTOP. The purpose of an integrated information architecture is much broader than the classic VLE. Moreover, it is stressed that we should look at it by taking account of open standards and interoperability issues. Even if the 3TU will not achieve a common DLWE (both from a short or long term perspective), the open standard approach will guarantee a second best scenario that components can work together. The information process which is required to support a student’s learning process should not be hindered by technical barriers. Even if the underlying systems are different, the front-end interface for the end-user may still be one coherent environment.

An important outcome of the 3TU GS day (in my view) is that the ambition level (with regard to ICT&E) of the board of directors seems to be more in line now with the realistic context in which the project group has worked so far. The follow up work (starting from business processes and mapping these on a functional architecture design) is already in a preparation stage. The next 3TU GS day (one year from now?) will demonstrate how far we succeeded in the achievement of a common / shared 3TU-DLWE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Open Innovation

On November 14th and 15th the SURF Onderwijsdagen took place in the Jaarbeurs buildings in Utrecht. First, I joined the keynote opening by Emile Aarts of Philips Research. An interesting and stimulating talk which was closed by a statement that eagerness is a better predictor for learning success than brightness (or smartness). For a more extensive impression (in Dutch) of this keynote take a look at Wilfred Rubens' weblog.
As a sort of follow up of my last contribution to my weblog I visited the Open Innovation track. The first presentation was by Thea Derks from the Free University of Brussels. She was talking about the implementation of the open source learning environment Dokeos (based on Claroline). It was implementated under the name of Point Carre, which would refer to the educational concept that the VUB would like to communicate: it's a central learning point where everything comes together. Before Dokeos was implemented the VUB used Blackboard. Dependencies (licensing and support agreements), lack of integration with other systems in combination with interesting open source developments made the VUB look beyond the world of Bb. Dokeos was implemented in the educational context of competence-based and flexible learning. Moreover, the VUB uses a blended learning concept (comparable to the model the University of Twente is using). Important demands for the new ELO were:

  • Users should have more or less the same appreciation level for the functionality of Dokeos;
  • Dokeos Company offers support, consultancy and hosting services;
  • Collaboration in the Flanders region (especially Ghent University).
After the pilot phase Point Carre was implemented within one semester (2004-2005). First-year students started on the new environment right away. For other cohorts there was a timeframe of 6 months to migrate from Bb to Point Carre. Point Carre was launched at the VUB on the Day of Educational Innovation. It's important that there was a migration tool that helped instructors to migrate their courses from Bb to Point Carre. Instructors were able to do the migration by themselves. Furthermore, there was a great offering of manuals, helpdesk and a FAQ page. The usability level of Dokeos is considered high. It's performance is stable and users like it. Compared to Bb the learning path function and the Wiki are considered as interesting new functions. Thea pointed out that the choice for open source didn't mean that the total costs were reduced. The VUB negotiated that the license costs could be re-allocated for further development of Point Carre. This way it was possible to develop tailor made links to other systems (e.g. curriculum information, a reservation system, peer assessment tool). So basically the message is: get more for the same money. Future developments are also focused on strenghtening the possibilities for collaboration. The current community is mostly build in Belgium. Just recently there is a Dokeos representative in the Netherlands. Take a look at:, or

One of the other interesting talks I heard was by prof. Fred Mulder from the Dutch Open University. He claims that the Lisbon issue of lifelong learning still has no high priority within the academic world. One of the most promising developments in this field can be found in several initiatives focused on Open Courseware. MIT already showed in 2001 the potential of this paradigm by putting all their learning materials (lectures) on the web, for free. The Dutch Open University will take this one step further in the so-called OpenER project.
The aim of OpenER is to increase the participation level of adults in higher education, this way creating more opportunities for lifelong learning. The Dutch OU has also initiated a European project in this field, together with nine partner universities throughout Europe, supported by the Hewlett Foundation. An important remark - to which I fully agree - is that open educational resources should go beyond content. It's also about dialogue, communication, collaboration and establishing learning communities. In his SURF keynote speech in 2005 Prof. Martin Valcke (University of Ghent, B) stressed that the strongest benefit from e-learning is found in situations where collaboration and communication are major ingredients. In these kind of settings students are forced to work actively with the resources which are provided, thus incorporating new knowledge in their cognitive schemata. Open ER will deliver it's first results around this time of the year. Also take a look at OpenLearn from the British Open University and the European Moril project (EADTU).
In his conclusions Fred Mulder mentioned that in a comparable way as Wikipedia one might think about a establishing a concept such as Wikiversity, based on two important aspects: high quality academic content in combination with collaborative learning projects.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The power of knowledge sharing

Five or six years ago I visited LearnTec in Karlsruhe. There is still one presentation that comes to my mind when I reflect on what was being presented over there. It was a presentation about the power of knowledge sharing as a key factor in future competition. Basically the presentator argued that a key factor for successful entrepreneurship is the ability to share knowledge instead of keeping it to yourself. The paradigm is no longer 'the power of knowledge' but the power of knowledge sharing.
Looking at the current situation in educational organisations there is still a lot of hesitation (or even resistance) towards sharing knowledge with others (colleagues or not). This is probably one of the major problems why collaborative content projects have so much trouble in letting people make contributions. But why? MIT already gave access to a lot of learning content years ago. Working together and providing feedback can help the originator of the content to improve it to a next version, hopefully a better version. Wikipedia shows that shared contributions can lead to quality content. The networked organisation and more specifically the networked employee has (virtual) access to a lot of knowledge and experiences compared to those who act in an isolated way. This external knowledge can often help or speed up your own process of knowledge achievement. In a more confronting way I would like to argue that most content is developed during working time, which makes it rather strange that people attach a sort of personal copyright to things they have created. A lot of organisations even state that all content/products that are being produced are automatically owned by the employer and not the employee. Sometimes even for things you create outside working hours. For the latter situation I believe there is a difference between work related productions and things you produce in a completely different context. In my situation it seems clear that content I produce for the website of my Taekwondo school does not belong to the university I work for.

Of course there are clear exceptions that can be used to argue against the free sharing of knowledge and content. For example, when you're working on getting a patent on a certain product it is obvious that you don't want your confident information to be on the internet. Another example is a research paper that is expected to be a major breakthrough in your line of expertise.

As a concluding statement I believe the default paradigm should shift from "closed unless" to "open unless".

Thursday, November 02, 2006

About deliverables

This week can be considered a week of deliverables. The first one is related to the Integrated science project which is run within the Digital University consortium. The team developed an instructional design document including a practical guide for instructors to transform their education according to the integrated design principles we defined in the project. The deliverable was accepted by the program management of the Digital University and is also considered a worthwhile contribution to share with others. Therefore it will be mentioned in the next DU newsletter and the document (in Dutch) will be available as a download.
The second deliverable is the finishing of an evaluation project on the use of laptops within courses of the faculty Science and Technology. The evaluation was held amongst 154 first year students of the academic year 2005-2006. Although the number of laptop-based courses should further increase, the students in general did appreciate the way that the use of laptops was embedded in a didactical way. This year the number of students using laptops at the Campus has further increased. The notebook service center is supporting around 2000 students who acquired their laptop via the university. In addition to that there are also hundreds of students who have laptops which are maintained by themselves. This increase in laptop users has caused that the number of wireless access points will be doubled in certain areas in order to guarantee an acceptable performance.