Forum .LRN Q&A: My vision and priorities for .LRN.

Posted by Alfred Essa on
This should be read in conjunction with Lars' excellent post, which has more detail and substance!

I agree with Lars that as a community we need to push aggressively this year for adoption of OpenACS | .LRN. But that's like a company stating as a goal: "we want to increase revenues". Great, how do we do it? Here Lars again has some great insights. I urge you to read it if you have not done so already.

My priorities for OpenACS | .LRN would be:

  • Come up with a easy installation process, similar to RPM.
  • Identify no more than five modules (e.g. forums, file storage) and make each one best in class.
Much ink has been spilled with the first and I don't need to spill any more. The second is consistent with Lars' observation that the strength of OpenACS is in the groupware space. If we can demonstrate that one can be up and running with .LRN quickly and easily (it goes without saying that it should be rock solid) and that the core collaborative modules are each best class, OpenACS | .LRN will adopted.

Best in class for me means that it's qualitatively--not just incrementally-- superior functionally and technically to anything out there in the market. This should be achievable technically because, as Lars points out, "a core strength of OpenACS over most of the competition is that every thing is integrated."Take forums as an example: it has been tied to notification from the beginning and it's extremely advantageous to be able to receive and reply to posts via email. We might be able to do more with protocols such as RSS etc. The user interface for forums, however, sucks royally. It's dreadful. We should aspire to best in class so that forums in OpenACS | .LRN is in a class of its own. This is where we need the most help with from the user community.

I would like to avoid the "feature-itis" syndrome, where we add more and more features but each one itself is mediocre. Let's concentrate on a few core modules and make each one qualitatively superior, technically and functionally.

We need a critical mass for adoption, but we don't necessarily have to appeal to the mass market. First and foremost it should be attractive to the cognoscenti or connoisseur, not through gimmickry and obscurity but through quality.

Posted by Lars Pind on

After having spoken with a number of users and user advocates/trainers, including Carl Blesius, Bruce Spear, Hannah Wermuth (Copenhagen University), and others, over the past few weeks, I very much agree.

Bruce told me about how something as simple as the login screen confuses people. And about how he had to turn off almost all features, and help people learn how to use each feature one at a time, with much hand-holding.

That certainly suggests spending much more effort on making the features that we do have extremely easy to use, with good auomated hand-holding and help, rather than just piling on new features, when the current ones aren't good enough yet.

What should those few core areas be, though?

The ones that come to mind are the most central ones are:

- Constituents: Who are participating in a class/community, in which capacity, what can they do, which info do we have for them (street address, major line of study, IM contact information, etc.), sending email/SMS to them. (SMS is very hot around here.)

- Communications: People need to communicate. Teachers need to tell students what to study or that the schedule changed or whatever. Students need to ask and answer questions.

- Documents: Teachers need to put teaching materials online. Students need a place to share project work files with other students, as well as turn in their reports.

- Scheduling: Students need to be able to see when they have classes. Ideally, they can coordinate meetings with other students, integrating with their own calendars (Palm, Outlook, Apple iCal, Yahoo! Calendar).

We can easily add survey, curriculum, faq, news, and many others to the list, but if we want to do a superb user experience, we need to be prioritize very hard.

In addition, there are some equally important larger, structural issues:

- Navigation: People "get lost in the levels". We all know this. We need to fix it. Part of this is OpenACS, part of this is the way .LRN attaches to OpenACS, particularly the portals.

- Help system: We need to build some more hand-holding into the system. "Where can you go from here". "Things you can do that you haven't done yet". "Tips". "What can this feature do for you and how does it work".

- Consistent design: Consistent navigation and help both in the framework and inside each of the packages.

How much of this can we accomplish by when? I'm not sure. It's going to take time to do right. It's going to take involving real users a whole lot, and it's going to involve thinking outside the box.


Posted by Bruce Spear on
Re: Priorities (Scenario Building)

The idea of improving what we have is supported by the observation that most instructors use the technology at first in a most limited way and exploit it more extensively over time.  Once they get "hooked" on the system they come to depend on it, but the first step is the most difficult.

This is what I've found, anyway, and it has lead me and my colleagues to design a two-step implementation model (we are just starting, we have less than a dozen instructors at this point) based on user scenarios.  So, I totally agree that we would do well to coordinate our efforts by concentrating on a limited number of improvements, make a couple of them the best in the class, and build from there.

I'd suggest that we determine our priorities by developing user scenarios whereby we start at the beginning and do the things that will have the greatest effect first. I offer just two steps, to start, as that's basically as far as I've gone, and I'm hoping others will amend them.

Use Scenario #1) Getting a course off the ground: syllabus, file storage, and calendar.  Instructors have to do this anyway, we offer them and their users "one stop shopping" by helping them prepare for and look good on the first day of classes.  These features can be explained to new users rather quickly as they already know the score, and mastering a simple skill set easily is highly motivating: they take care of their problem and get a professiona e-learning web presence without too much work on their part.  Design goal #1, then, would be: tighten up the design of these three elements as the "starter package", the one thing that every new instructor could sign on to immediately.

Let me add that during the past week I have suddenly found one of my contracts with a department under direct assault by the Blackboard crowd, and they asked me to brief them on how best to respond.  Maybe the question of head-to-head marketing should be another thread, but let me say that, besides the advantages in costs, I argued that with .LRN we were:

    a) Developing an implementation model that was associated with educational research (as opposed to simply solving an administrative problem and treating the matter as "reserve desk, typewriters, and toilet paper") and towards the higher ground of "bildung", meaning, a goal of strengthening the academic seminar in the name of Humboldt.

    b) That all LMS systems were in their infancy, many interfaces might look slick but we do not yet have a standard (like we do with the operation of automobilies, there is a wheel to turn, pedals for brakes), and that the needs of individuals and departments are most likely different, specific, and to accommodate these needs we have far to go.

    c) Accommodating specific needs likely involves educational research and a highly flexible interface, such as one where you can turn on and off just about every component so you present user with what they need and not what they don't need. (This flexibility I want to extend, as I will note below).

    d) Developing the local support team is a much better use of moneys that would otherwise go to a Blackboard license; not only is this better institutional and labor politics, but it puts the emphasis on developing successful users and uses and providing the man- or woman-power to follow the implementation through.

I now start off showing people how to set up only those first three items -- syllabus, texts, calendar/schedule -- and most of that time is spent either discussing the principles (how to get back "home", how to turn portlets on and off, how the portlets are views of tables, how permissions and therefore groups work) or how this particular user or group will use the technology to service their particular classes. That is, I'm offering a service that, as far as the users are concerned, just happens to be using .LRN because it is the cheapest, most flexible tool for the job -- a job which depends on .LRN's unique customizing features.

Use Scenario #2) Developing communications protocols. Bulletin board and forum.  Research shows that student learning is greatly facilitated by reinforcement of the class lessons and homework during the other six days of the seek and that among the strongest reinforcements are structured interactions among peers.  Experience shows that organizing activities and questions conversations that use the Forum is for many quite difficult to do.  My successful uses include the use of the forum for organizing, reporting on, and discussing a student strike event.  Carl tells a good story of physicians seeking assistance in diagnosis.  Others may not find such natural uses so readily.  It is one thing for instructors to prepare lectures, but quite another for them to prepare problem-solving activities that would use and so fully exploit the technology. It seems to me that we might best design the forum in the context of specific user scenarios and then build into the system advice on how to use it successfully.

Here I would add that I am designing a project whereby we hire an expert in classroom assessment techniques, she helps us apply proven methods involving short written exercises students do in class and discuss with their instructors, and then we figure out how to integrate them with the technology so that the students have a good reason to log on the days before and after the class to do important, interesting exercises that they see will help them learn. In this way, I would jump-start the development of the use of forums by piggy-backing on an extensive research and practice literature.  My hope is that discipline-specific uses would follow.

For example.  One of the models that showed me this wasy is the very sophisticated problem-oriented approach to learning programming one finds in the Nell Dale books, published by Jones and Bartlett Computer Science, including the programming books that got me going last year, including "Programming and Problem Solving with C++" and "Object-Oriented Data Structures usind Java".  Here, programming features are: a) thoroughly integrated in a discussion of the real world problems they would be used to solve; b)  integrated in a discussion of how many levels of understanding are relevant to learning and using the technology; and c) integrated in a discussion of how different and complex and coordinated might be the best way to learn it.  I don't think a anywhere near this has been developed for the use of learning management systems, yet the problem is certainly as complex.

I think it would be helpful to build enough flexibility and documentation functionality into the system that we can both encourage and somehow capture the creativity of our users, and especially, the early adaptors who provide the examples, and often tutor, those that follow.  I don't know how well my project design will work, but I'm hoping to pay a bunch of tutors to spend half of their time on this project assisting instructors in the classroom using .LRN and the other half of their time discussing it in our tutor seminar and documenting all of it constantly.

This design has led me to look at how we might capture this conversation and reflection in a meaningful way, including their use of forums, blogs, and surveys, but also, how we might design the interface, such as context-dependent help files with wiki functionality, or the structuring of these files, using the permissions structures as well as rating systems, so users of the forum are invited to comment on what works or not and others, especially the designers, might be able to edit and arrange them. I'd like to offer a tutorial in the user of the forums that is backed by a dozen examples pf different forum protocols – a real handbook of use which instructors could use by tearing out pages and rewriting them in their own terms.  Organizing and reflecting on strikes is one, cooperative advice on medical diagnosis is another, there must be dozens more.  A catalog of such uses would give us an empirical basis upon which to improve our interface.  Carl would like to integrate the forum and the photo gallery.  I would like to see expanded sorting and rating functions.  Interesting stuff!