Monday, December 29, 2008

Bits of Honey

The holidays...they've been oh so least online. This means that the Web 2.0 and other assorted news items that have caught my attention are sparce. Here are a few that made the cut...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bits of Honey

As I was out for my jog this morning, I realized that I've been posting some really cool links to Twitter lately. While I can view just my Twitter posts, there isn't a search tool to locate them later. "Bits of Honey" will hopefully be a solution to that problem. This will be a weekly feature that outlines the links of the week - ones that might eventually develop into a full post at a later time. Without further ado, here are the links for December 14-20...

Monday, December 15, 2008

More on the Digital Natives "Myth"

According to the findings of a study conducted by UK researchers, Margaryan and Littlejohn (2008, December 11), digital natives may not be the tech-savvy multitaskers portrayed in the literature. These authors continue by suggesting that moves to integrate technology into the curriculum simply to satisfy this new group of students may be a mistake.

Margaryan and Littlejohn begin by presenting some of the claims made about today's students and their relationship with technology. In the academic literature, as well as the mass media, scholars argue that the adoption of emerging technologies (i.e., the Web 2.0) has created an ever-widening gap between young people and the educational institutions they attend. But as the authors of this report note, the claims have yet to progress beyond the rhetoric. In fact, very little is known about the reported transformations that supposedly occur in young people due to their exposure to and use of technology.

While empirical research on this topic has started to surface, the conclusions are far from clear - some of the findings support the Millennial claims, whereas others run counter to them. Following their review of the research, Margaryan and Littlejohn conclude that evidence to support the digital natives rhetoric is lacking. Thus, the goal of their research is to investigate the ways in which students and instructors use technology to support learning. Students (Year 3 individuals in Social Work and Engineering) completed surveys and a selected group (students and instructors) participated in semi-structured interviews.

First the survey results:

Overall, more males than females participated in the study (39F, 121M), which is not surprising given that there are more males in Engineering than females. What is perhaps more interesting is the upper level age range of the students: the maximum age of the Engineering students was 38; in contrast, the maximum age of the Social Work students was 50. Margaryan and Littlejohn note that most of the Engineering students were around 20 years of age; however, the fact that there was quite an age spread, especially with the Social Work students, suggests that these were not the typical undergrads (age 18-22). It is worth mentioning that the authors do acknowledge that they had both "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" in their study.

In terms of technology, one of the first findings is that the students have home internet access. In addition, the students make use of the internet in the library, labs, and cafes. The top technologies owned by the study participants include: mobile phones, computers (PCs and laptops), portable media players, and digital cameras. When broken down by age, the digital natives owned mobile phones, portable media players, laptops, and game consoles. The digital immigrants owned similar technologies, yet were more likely to own a PC than the digital immigrants. A higher percentage of the digital immigrants owned a digital camera in comparison to the digital natives. Google and websites were the top technologies the Engineering and Social Work students used in the classroom. Course sites and text messaging were near the top as well. A much higher percentage of Engineering students mentioned the use of Wikipedia when compared to the Social Work students - 84% and 47% respectively.

One point that surfaced during the course of the interviews is that the participants had difficulty distinguishing between formal and informal learning situations. When asked about informal learning technologies, once again websites and course websites ranked the highest in use. The use of mobile phones and Google/Google Scholar were also frequently noted. For this question, the Engineering students ranked Wikipedia as a technology they consult for their informal learning activities. When looking at informal learning technology through an age lens, the findings suggest that older students are more likely to use Google Scholar, text messaging, and mobile phones than the younger students.

This study also examined technologies used during personal time. The Engineering students used video sharing, blogging, Wikipedia, and YouTube more than the Social Work students. Recreational access of virtual worlds such as Second Life ranked the lowest among the students as a whole. When comparing the students by age, the main difference is in their use of photo sharing and file sharing sites. Digital natives use photo sharing more; digital immigrants use file sharing more. The least frequently used technologies by the digital natives include virtual worlds, chat rooms, and discussion groups; digital immigrants infrequently used virtual worlds, blogs, chat rooms, and internet gaming. Overall, the difference between the digital natives and the digital immigrants includes the use of virtual worlds and internet games. And, as the data suggest, a small percentage of students is accessing virtual worlds.

And now the interview data:

Almost all of the students owned a mobile phone. Desktop computers appear to be more popular than laptops. (Students mentioned adequate access to computers on campus.) When asked about portable computing devices such as a PDA, several students mentioned that they didn't know what that was. Very few of the students owned game consoles.

In terms of technologies used for learning, virtual learning environments (VLE) such as Blackboard ranked the highest. Many of the students indicated that they use these spaces as content repositories. Lecture slides, notes, and course readings are commonly uploaded to the VLE. While the VLE reports by students were positive, they were puzzled by the inconsistent use of these online repositories by instructors.

Moreoever, when asked about Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and other similar tools, some students were not familiar with them. In fact, some of the Engineering and Social Work students had never heard of Google Scholar or Wikipedia. The terms podcasting and blogging were unfamiliar to a few students as well. Interestingly, those who were familiar with Wikipedia, for example, use it in a passive rather than active manner. In other words, they consult it for information but do not contribute to its content. Further, there was no evidence that digital games were used for learning.

The students were also asked about the advantages and disadvantages of technology in a learning environment. One suggestion was that the students should be taught how to use a particular technology rather than being told to go out an use it for an assignment. Several did suggest that the use of technology to improve course communication would be a positive thing.

What were some of the barriers to the integration of technology into the courses? 1) Students' lack of technological skills; 2) instructors' lack of technological skills; and 3) instructors' lack of engagement in teaching.

In addition to the student responses, the instructors were given a chance to contribute to this study. An interesting finding came from the Engineering instructors who viewed the Web 2.0 as a fad and not worth investing the time and energy needed to integrate these tools into the curriculum. One Engineering instructor admitted that he experimented with technology in his classroom but reported that he received negative feedback from his students. Some of the instructors noted that the Web 2.0 technologies are for "soft" subject areas and for pre-college education. Other barriers included time, reluctance to change, and lack of student/instructor IT skills. Of this group of instructors, handheld devises, wireless networking, texting, and instant messaging were considered to have the most educational potential.

Overall, students are using the Web 2.0 in a very limited manner. In contrast to claims that suggest they are demanding technology in the classroom, these findings suggest that students are content with the more traditional pedagogies. Many students are looking to their instructors for guidance in their use of technology; however, the instructors report that these tools are merely fads or indicate that they are simply unaware of them. Thus, this study provides empirical evidence that not all digital native are demanding an educational revolution - one that involves the integration of technology into the curriculum. Was this group atypical or is the rhetoric wrong/skewed/biased/etc.? If the digital natives (individuals who may not be as tech-savvy as they are portrayed in the literature) are not driving the revolution, then who is?

The Future's Not Ours to See, Or Is It?

The folks at the Pew Internet and American Life project, with help from Janna Quitney Anderson, Elon University, have examined what the Internet might look like in the future. In this December 14, 2008 report, the authors outline the results from a survey of more than 1,000 Internet specialists, critics, and analysts. Based on the responses, the following picture of what the Internet might look like in 2020 emerged:
  • Mobile phones will be the way we connect to the Internet.
  • Social tolerance will not grow as a result of the Web 2.0; in fact, these technologies may expand hate, bigotry, and intolerance.
  • There will be advanced touch, talk, and typing options. A "thought-based" interface may be on the horizon too.
  • IP law and copyright issues will remain problematic.
  • There will be no distinction between personal and professional time.
  • It is unlikely that a "next-gen" Internet system will be developed.
  • Will more transparency make the world a better place? The results are mixed.
  • More than half of the respondents think that virtual worlds will impact a large number of individuals, which means that a little less than half disagree. However, the consensus among the respondents is that virtual and augmented reality user interfaces will have to become more intuitive for there to be wide-spread adoption of these technologies.
In addition to these nuggets, the report also includes a series of quotes from respondents such as Howard Rheingold, Steve Jones, and Victoria Nash.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Value of E-learning

Caroline Haythorthwaite, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes that higher education courses that take place in the physical classroom could learn a thing or two from the world of online learning (or e-learning). According to Haythorthwaite, higher education tends to rely on the lecture or "broadcast" model, whereas e-learning is a more shared and democratic activity. For example, she describes in this brief article the way in which e-learning can foster an immediate discussion between students and the instructor - the instructor posts an article from the news and the discussion begins immediately; in contrast, for students in the physical classroom option may have to wait several days to discuss an article sent out via email by the instructor.

But why can't the discussion begin immediately with the physical classroom students too? If you take a blended learning approach to teaching, a discussion thread could be added to a course management system (CMS) such as a Moodle or Oncourse - tools that are typically available to e-learning and physical classroom instructors in higher ed - and the physical classroom students could have a conversation about that piece prior to the class meeting. No access to a CMS? No problem. Just start a conversation through email or IM. Another point Haythorthwaite makes is that the role of the e-learning instructor changes; instead of a lecturer, the instructor is more of a facilitator.

While I think Haythornthwaite makes a valid point about physical classroom instructors adopting some e-learning strategies, I also think her experience with e-learning is somewhat different. The LEEP program that is mentioned in this article begins with a "boot camp" experience, which occurs in a face-to-face setting. Prior to the online component of the program, the students get to know one another and work together in a physical setting. Many online courses do not anchor the instruction in this manner. Thus, creating an environment where students and instructors feel comfortable adopting roles outside the norm may be more challenging, at least at first. Also, there is much institutional support for the LEEP program, which may not be available for many e-learning instructors, particularly those who hold adjunct or part-time positions.

While it's easy to say that higher ed should adopt e-learning strategies, I would argue that some instructors have already integrated some of those techniques into the curriculum. I would also contend that without support, it can be a struggle to experiment with alternative approaches to teaching and learning.

Gaming and Gender

Williams, Consalvo, Caplan, and Yee have produced a piece (pre-pub version) that touches on the gaming and gender issue. As you may recall, Williams, Caplan, and Yee published in July 2008 an article that attempts to debunk the gamer gender stereotype. In other words, the image of a young boys playing video games alone in their parents' basement is no longer an accurate one. The latest article, which has been accepted to the Journal of Communication takes a more obvious gender approach due to its use of gender role theory as a lens with which to view the data. The data used in this analysis came from a large survey dataset and unobtrusive behavior data from one year of game play. The focus of this work was on the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) EverQuest 2 (EQ2), and the primary research question centered around the basic differences between male and female EQ2 players.

Starting with some of the demographics, 80% of the sample were male (N=2,006) and 20% were female (N=434). Williams et al. found that the females were older, less likely to be students, less likely to be employed, but played more hours than their male counterparts. Females played for social reasons, but the males played to beat the game. Also, the females typically played with a romantic partner, whereas the males played alone. In cases where the males and females played together, the males were often less happy than the females. Why? Maybe the males felt like their space was being invaded? Maybe they didn't like their female partners interacting with other male players? Maybe the females were as skilled (if not more so) than the males, and they didn't like being shown up by their partners? Questions, lot of questions.

There's more. Both genders underreport the amount of time they play video games. However, the female players underreported their gameplay activities at a substantially higher rate than the males. In terms of the players health, the males thought they were healthy and fit. Interestingly, even though the females played for longer periods of time, which means they were engaged in prolonged periods of sedentary activities, the females were actually healthier than the males. The health and fitness levels of the males were aligned with the assumptions but the female levels were not. Could this be the result of inaccurate self-reports by the females? The authors claim that more research is needed to further investigate this issue.

One demographic question the authors asked was related to sexual identification, which produced, according to Williams and his colleagues, unpredicted results. The analysis found that female players were more more likely to report being bisexual; in contrast, males were less likely to report being homosexual. These findings were surprising in that they did not match the general population estimates. Almost 4% of the males and approximately 7% of the females declined to respond to the question put forth by Williams et al., so the difference between the EQ2 players and the general population estimates could be even more pronounced.

Gender differences among individuals who venture into virtual worlds is a rather untapped area. Thus, research like the Williams et al. study is important to further our understanding of gameplay activity. This is a first step, and more research is definitely needed to investigate the plethora of questions that remain. Are EQ2 players unique or do they share characteristics with World of Warcraft (WoW) players or even Second Life (SL) residents? Longitudinal research is needed as well to determine whether these characteristics represent a snapshot in time or whether they persist over extended periods of gameplay in virtual environments that continue to evolve.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hypertext - A Blast from the Past

A professor in my department recommended an article to me by Dr. Andrew Dillon about hypertext. As you may guess by the topic, this is not a recent article; in fact, it was written in 1996. However, much of what Dillon talks about in this piece is very much aligned with the issues I've been wrestling with as I've been reading the virtual world literature, writing my qualifying exam paper, and beginning to outline a proposal for my dissertation research.

Dillon begins this piece by discussing the three sides of a triangle that scholars fall into when debating the integration of technology into the curriculum. First, according to Dillon, are the educationalists who prefer a technological approach to education and who advocate a virtual, networked, and non-linear learning environment. Next are those who hold a counter viewpoint and dismiss the educational potential of technology. And finally, there are those who view the technologies as a tool that can be a powerful learning aid when used correctly, and nothing more than plastic and electronic circuits when not. Dillon falls in the third category and wants to see evidence of the impact of technology on education.

Dillon highlights a definition of acceptable technology that was put forth by Shackel (1991). Based on Shackel's definition, a technology must satisfy specific criteria in terms of functionality, usability, and cost. Dillon also notes that the physical world can be an important shaper of theory. Further, he contends that just because a learning has replicated the instructor's representation of knowledge does not mean that a meaningful learning experience occurred. To me, this calls into question the value of Vygotsky's (1978) zone of proximal development in that just because a learner can accomplish tasks with assistance from a more knowledgeable individual (e.g., instructor, more experienced peer) - ones that the learner could not complete alone - does not mean that this individual actually had a meaningful learning experience.

One of the myths Dillon points out is that that paper, as opposed to hypertext, is constricting for the learning. While on this surface this notion appears to have nothing to do with virtual worlds, Dillon's follow-up statement does: that it's not the technology that frees us from the constrictions of the physical world, but rather the methods. (Sounds a bit like Clark's 1983 position on technology, doesn't it?) Dillon continues by suggesting that as the arguments for technology move from advocating that these environments are liberating for the typical learner to one that claims that they are good for beginning learners, which may not be the case.

Much of the literature "pretends" that technology will solve all our current educational problems. This, as Dillon rightly notes, is aligned with technological determinism. Dillon concludes that educators need to view learning at the task level. In other words, how do learners complete tasks in the physical world. By moving to the task level, educators can conceptualize the technology as a supplement, and not a replacement, to the learning process.

Socrates in the Boardroom

Should the top university officials come from academia? In the past, these individuals were selected from among the pool of research faculty; however, many institutions are now drawing candidates with business experience instead of academic experience. They claim that leaders in the upper levels of university administration need a wide variety of skills to be effective in their positions.

However, based on Dr. Amanda Goodall's interviews with 26 university leaders, the response to the opening question is yes - top university officials should come from academia. She notes that top research institutions such as Standford and MIT would never consider hiring an outsider to fill a leadership position. In addition, she points to the fields of law and accounting, and argues that no one would consider fill a top job in a law firm with a non-lawyer; similarly, a top job at an accounting firm would not be filled by a journalist, for example. Nonetheless, institutions, like the University of Colorado and the University of Missouri have hired business executives to fill the job of university president.

More on this issue can be found in Dr. Goodall's forthcoming book published by Princeton University Press titled, Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars.

Adults, Video Games, and Contradictions

Pew just released a new report that focuses on adults and their video game playing activities. The data were collected October - December 2007 as part of a gadget survey. Information on video games is very popular, and it is surprising that it took Pew almost a year to process these results. This is a rapidly changing area, so I wonder whether the figures present an accurate assessment of the current population?

Regardless, the findings do represent at the minimum a snapshot in time of video games and the adults who play them. Here are some of the numbers:
  • 53% of adults (age 18+) play video games. In fact, the 18-29 age bracket includes the largest percentage of game players.
  • While the younger generations are more likely to play video games than older groups, the length of game play time increases with age.
  • A slightly higher percentage of males play video games than females, 55% to 50% respectively.
  • A higher percentage of students play game in comparison to non-students - 76% vs. 49%.
  • Younger people prefer to play video games on consoles, whereas older individuals prefer games on a computer.
  • Parents are more likely to play video games than non-parents.
Overall, the largest percentage of video game players are between the ages of 18-29, their estimated salary range is between $50,000 and $74,999, they have completed some college or are a college graduate, they are more likely to live in urban areas and be Internet users.

Questions: One question I have is related to the findings about virtual worlds. According to this Pew report, only 2% of gamers say they visit virtual worlds like Second Life (SL); 11% of teen game players responded that they have visited a virtual world. However, in an earlier Pew report on video games and teens, the percentage of teens visiting these worlds was 10%. A rounding error? The other numbers mentioned in the two reports match.

Next, Williams, Yee, and Caplan (2008) recently surveyed EverQuest (EQ) players. Their data from 7,000 participants suggests that the average of of game players is a little over 31 years of age. Stated another way, these researchers found that more players were over 30 than in their teens or in the college age range. So, are the game players younger or older? Like the current Pew study, however, Williams and his colleagues found that game play increases with age.

Another question deals with gender. The survey conducted by Williams et al. found that a large percentage of game players are male - 81% male in contrast to 19% female. The Pew findings were more balanced at 55% male and 50% female. Who's right? Or, is there a right answer? Is it possible to get an accurate assessment of video gamers given that it's difficult, if not impossible, to survey the entire population?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

I Read the News Today...

In the past week, there have been several articles in the mass media about Second Life. The interesting thing about the following pieces is that they take a more negative/cautious stance on this virtual world - the first two in particular.

Second Life's Second Wind: Has Second Life moved away from the hype and into a gloom stage?

Why is It Called Second Life When There's Nothing Alive There?: "Wandering around Second Life today is like visiting Blackpool in February; all sad empty shops, deserted car parks and the stench of loneliness..."

Is There a Second Life for Teaching?: Two sentences in this piece sum up part of my dilemma with educators appropriating technologies designed for non-educational purposes in hopes of making the learning process more palatable to students.

"Salmon believes that Second Life constitutes a good example of 'edutainment' - the idea that students are more likely to learn if they are first amused."

"A recent Jisc/Mori report indicated that Second Life remained the least popular technological pursuit among students. As many as 76% have never, or only rarely, stepped inside a virtual world, and some students polled thought that environments such as Second Life were 'sad'."

And finally...Studies in Second Life: "Duncan Innis stands in front of the class wearing a suit and a semi-up hairdo longer than the real professor’s real-life hair. It’s 11:35 a.m. and class is in session. Of all the students, Deerhunter immediately makes an impression. Maybe it was because he raised his hand before anyone else in class to discuss the media empire of Cosmopolitan."

The instructor stands in front of the class, and the students raise "their hands" to speak. How is this different from the physical classroom. This article concludes by noting that the educators interviewed for this piece recognize that SL will not replace the physical classroom. Nonetheless, they believe it (or another three-dimensional virtual world like it) will become a part of the educational curriculum, at least in Canada.