Friday, May 30, 2003

Blogs and Knowledge Management

"Blogs in Business: The Weblog as Filing Cabinet". Dave Pollard's Blog (March 3, 2003)

"Open Source Knowledge Management: The Blogging Phenomenon: What the Internet may have to teach corporate managers." Joe Katzman (November 2002).

See the review of recent articles/posts on KM and weblogs by Jim McGee.

How can weblogs be used in conjunction with CoPs in the international development community? Is it not going to favor development workers in the North who are often better able to use web-based tools while Southern partners are focused on email-based tools. What are the real differences between a weblog and an email-based discussion list with searchable archives. Is it possible to contribute to a weblog via email? I must be missing something.

Note to self: It will be easier to continue posting to this blog on a regular basis if it satisfies multiple purposes and builds on several ongoing projects rather than if I try to make it a separate daily activity.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Laura Devries,"The Convergence of Knowledge Management and E-Learning"May 2002.

"People are more receptive to tacit knowledge when they are faced with a problem or an opportunity. But how can this knowledge be captured and applied to other situations? In fact, this is where Km and e-learning converge," notes Laura Devries. E-learning allows people to get familiar with key concepts, theories and examples or case studies while KM reinforces this background knowledge by enabling people to apply the lessons to real-world situations.

E-Learning should be an integral part of an organization's approach to KM. I have argued elsewhere that KM was not the most appropriate approach for development organizations and I am now working more on elaborating what Knowledge Networking across organizations and at the community level in developing countries would really mean. I am convinced that E-Learning will be a crucial component global knowledge networking for development. There are very few organizations catering to this need for E-Learning among development organizations at the moment. Just as KM initiatives have focused on the internal needs of large development organizations, existing E-Learning initiatives have been largely the domain of the same organizations (UNDP, World Bank, etc...). What is also needed, is a more grassroots approach to knowledge networking and E-Learning, making knowledge sharing and learning a reality at the level of the NGO worker and Community-Based Organizations in developing countries rather than in the headquarters of large development organizations. I think that Knowledge for Development, LLC has a future in this field? Absolutely! Knowledge for Development, LLC is just getting warmed up!

Monday, May 26, 2003

Coding Data Resource Kit

I have been trying for a few years to get some funding to do some systematic analysis of online course interactions through the discussion list used in my 'ICTs for Developing Countries' course. My research approach is qualitative and assuming that I do get some funding, this will involve a huge amount of time spent coding data. In this context, the data consists in email messages sent to the discussion list. In my preliminary research to develop the proposal, I looked for but did not find much practical explanations of how to handle this coding most efficiently and effectively.

Today I finally came across something that will be very, very useful. The Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) is a research project across several academic institutions with the goal of improving learning and teaching through effective uses of technology. Many of the specific research projects undertaken within the VKP include qualitative data analysis and coding. The project has therefore put together a coding toolkit that is very practical and more detailed than anything I had come across in the past.

There is much more on the project's site that deserves further visits to look at the research methodologies, research questions and findings.....

Friday, May 23, 2003

Carleen Shaffer. "A Tale of Two Online Communities: Personal Observations of Online Community Building"

The article has a very simple structure. The author first describes an online community that clearly failed where participants are not communicating with each other. ... well... that's not a real "community" I guess... The second section of the article describes a thriving online community where participants are actively engaged in sharing ideas, thoughts, etc... actively communicating with each other as a group. The third section highlights key strategies for building such a thriving online community. I can't say that I follow all of the strategies suggested in trying to build an online community in my courses, but I do try a lot of different things.

This rather simplistic idea that if you apply all the strategies you will get the thriving online community also implies that the responsibility for success or failure should be placed solely in the hands of the facilitator.

My own experience suggests something slightly different. The article describes two opposites. I see shades of success and failure within each session of my online courses, where some participants seem to engage with others and others don't. Whatever the reasons for interacting or failing to interact, I don't think it is entirely in the hands of the facilitator and I don't think we should underestimate the learning of lurkers who do not participate actively in the discussions. Also, at times, some of the most active participants are not necessarily those who contribute the most in terms of learning. The qualitative nature of each message also needs to be taken into account.

So... that is what I will be trying to do... raise the qualitative nature of messages while at the same time trying to encourage increased participation. The idea is that higher quality discussions will actually increase participation. Here the assumption is that low participation is the result of the perception among participants that the discussions do not contribute to their learning. If the quality of discussions is raised to the point where they see it as key to the learning process, then participation is more likely. The key is to avoid over-structuring and regulating the discussions to the point where it becomes a burden for participants and stiffles spontaneity and open discourse.

Monday, May 19, 2003


How can I structure discussion assignments to ensure participation and make sure that contributions demonstrate the participants' learning process?

How can I vary the writing assignments so that
1) not everyone is writing about the same thing;
2) participants get to try different types of writing assignments.

To what extent do I need to explain what I am trying to do to the participants so they understand what is asked of them and why?

There seems to be a significant amount of literature related to online discussions for academic/learning purposes but I have not yet come across anything that specifically applies some of the lessons from Writing-to-Learn to an online learning environment... though it would quite obvious that most online learning environment have a strong emphasis on written communications and therefore we might as well make the most of our writing as a learning instrument.

The key difference in an online learning environment is that writing is not just for learning, it is also meant as the primary communication tool between participants and with the teacher/facilitator. Does that mean that in an online learning environment it becomes important to differentiate between writing-to-learn (as in writing assignments) and writing to communicate? I can't imagine always being able to differentiate between the two.

Some resources:
Integrating writing into any course (Kate Kiefer)

Writing to Promote Learning (U. of Kansas)

Learning Logs

Writing Across the Curriculum

Friday, May 16, 2003

Here is a thought: Learning is connecting.
Two examples that make sense to me (that connect for me):

1. Knowledge Management has now been adopted to various degrees in many international development organizations and even some NGOs.... However, KM came from the business sector with a lot of its own jargon, tools and methodologies. If KM fails in international development organizations, I think it will be because they will have failed to connect it to what they were already doing. What they were doing may not have been called KM, perhaps it was called M&E (monitoring and evaluation). I am not saying that KM and M&E are the same thing and I would not say that M&E as practiced in development organizations is likely to bring the same results as KM. The point is that KM walked in the door and it was not sufficiently integrated and connected with existing "systems". When applied on top of existing systems, it will fail.

2. An even simpler example: Most of the posts in this blog are reflections based on my daily encounters with documents, web sites, etc... My intent is not so much to summarize what I read or come across. Neither do I try to highlight the intrinsic value of any particular item I post about. An item has value for me at a particular point because it triggers some thinking and helps me connect various ideas to one another and most importantly, it has value when it helps me think through something that has real implications in terms of action.

This particular post is the result of 1) a presentation on Knowledge Management I attended yesterday where the failure to "connect" was very obvious; 2) a paper on Personal Webpublishing as a reflective conversational tol for self-organized learning by Sebastian Fiedlerm that I came across this morning by following a link from George Siemens' elearnspace blog summary email; and 3) some earlier disorganized thinking around personal KM, writing and learning.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Keith B. Hopper, "In Defense of the Solitary Learner: A Response to Collaborative, Constructivist Education." Educational Technology, March-April 2003.

The article ends with this sentence, "Pedagogy and technology... must not exclude the solitary learner", which pretty much captures the essence of the article. It is not an attack on collaborative learning but rather a warning that constructivism may go overboard in failing to support students who by temperament, simply prefer to work alone. Collaborative learning, online or in the classroom, is not for everybody.

I certainly was one of those students who preferred to learn alone, did not appreciate being graded on my level of participation in the class discussions (since I never opened my mouth) and still managed to get a decent education and to survive in the real world of work... so while I try to encourage participation in online class discussions (otherwise we might as well do one-on-one tutoring), I remind myself once in a while that I would probably be one of those students online who do the readings, submit the assignments on time, sometimes read all the postings that other participants contribute to the discussions but never post themselves.... and there is nothing wrong with learning that way.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Sivasailam Thiagarajan, "Unconventional Instructional Design: Faster, Cheaper, Better." Educational Technology, May-June 2002.

While there is an obvious connection between cheaper and faster, the connection between cheaper and better may seem contradictory. Since I was never indoctrinated into "instructional design", never studied it in formal educational settings, I tend to adopt what works for me rather than follow the rules as dictated by academia. Here are some key points highlighted by Thiagarajan:
1. When you are working faster, you limit yourself to the absolutely essential skills and concepts.
2. When you are working faster, you transfer more responsibility to the learner. The learner spends more time actively making sense of what is being taught, rather than passively listening and reading the content.

The focus of this faster and cheaper approach to instructional design is on ACTIVITIES rather than CONTENT.

One more thing I really like about this approach:
"Accept the fact that you are never going to produde The Final Version of any training package. Instead, keep continuously updating and upgrading training materials and methods." That's exactly what I have been doing for the past 4 years, that is how I avoid being bored teaching the same course session after session and that is what keeps me learning both about the content of the course and the methods and tools used to make it happen.

Other key principles listed by Thiagarajan and some thoughts about each:

1. Combine delivery and evaluation with revision activities.

It's the easiest and fastest way to make revisions because all the problems to be addressed are so fresh and clearly in front of you while delivering the course. In the post-course evaluation mode, the details are lost in the rush to close the session and move on.

2. Incorporate content generated by current participants in future versions of the training package

There are two types of participant generated content that I can think of. First, content is generated through the class discussions. With each session I promise myself to revise the instructor's notes (course notes) with inputs from the discussions and I have yet to find time to do this effectively. I have had more luck in reusing content generated in past discussions in ongoing discussions, and in particular reusing my own summaries of previous discussions and adapting them to ongoing discussions.
The second type of participant-generated content consists of assignments. I have included some participant assignments in the most recent edition of the course CD-ROM (with the authors' permission, of course!). I was able to do what with some assignments that were independent projects and not standard answers to the graded assignments.

3. Locate different types of existing content materials and incorporate them into training activities
It's usually not difficult to find relevant content materials. The difficulty is in determining which should become required readings and how they fit with the learning objectives and specific learning needs of the participants. There must be a way to use a pilot session of the course to test a broad range of readings and identify the most appropriate.

4. Reuse effective templates for learning activities in future training packages.
In my current context, it is more a matter of reusing materials previously developed or being inspired by experience with previous instructional design efforts.

5. Shift a significant part of the responsibility for training design and delivery to participants themselves.
That is exactly what I intend to do with the pilot session of the knowledge networking course.

6. Treat all evaluation as formative: Always use evaluation feedback to improve the training package.
To me, evaluation is about learning how to improve something. I do not care much to put a "success" or "failure" label on anything but I will always find ways to improve something.

A final quote from the article: "My model for instructional design is to combine what works, irrespective of what ism it is based on."

Guglielmo Trentin, "From Formal Training to Communities of Practice via Network-Based Learning." Education Technology (March-April 2001).

An interesting article that looks at internally driven training that is based on mutual learning within communities of practice rather than externally managed by training providers. Communities of practice are an important tool within knowledge management perhaps not so much because they really help to manage knowledge but more because they can help with knowledge creation because they focus on the transition from tacit to explicit knowledge. People communicating informally through electronic networks trying to address similar problems build up new understanding and knowledge in the process.

The key difference between learning online through formal courses and what the author calls "reciprocal learning" is that reciprocal learning within communities of practice is not structured. I tend to think that it's important to foster this type of reciprocal learning within more formal online courses as well.

This less formal approach to learning is part of what I hope to explore in the second research project I am currently involved in, looking at how transnational civil society organizations can use ICTs for capacity building purposes. See the project outline and resources for more information.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Greg Kearsley, "Is Online Learning for Everyone?" Educational Technology (Jan.-Feb. 2002).

Kearsley argues in this article that online learning is not the most appropriate approach in certain cases and for certain target audiences.
- 1 - Online learning is not for all students: It requires a lot of self-discipline and initiative. Some students simply prefer the classroom experience.

That's certainly true but the choice of online vs. classroom may not always be there!

- 2 - Online learning is not for all teachers: Not all teachers want to spend a lot of time in front of their computer answering messages from students.

Some teachers may find the ability to think through an answer and provide feedback to students via email more comfortable than having to provide immediate answers to questions in the classroom!

- 3 - Online learning is not appropriate for all content: Not every subject can be taught online. Soft skills such as leadership, communication, customer relations, etc... cannot easily be taught online. The same apply for hands-on skills.

I always think of health professionals and their need for hands-on training.

- 4 - Online learning is not for all organizations/institutions: If the organizational culture is not technology-oriented, online courses are not likely to be successful. Online learning is not always necessary if the classroom option is available and more convenient.

- 5 - Online learning is not for all cultures: Some groups do not embrace technology at all. Online learning can put those who have no or limited access to technology at a disadvantage.

I would add that since most online learning is still very much text based, it puts people from mostly oral cultures at a disadvantage. Well, there are all kinds of issues here... see my research project on Global Online Learning. I tend to think that there are many ways we can improve online learning so that it addresses different learning styles and cultures.

In short, online learning is not for all.... I would add that neither is classroom learning appropriate or effective for everyone.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Van der Velden, M. "Knowledge Facts, Knowledge Fiction: Notes on the Role of ICT in Knowledge Management for Development." Journal of International Development 14 (1) 2002.

An earlier version of this article was online at one point but I can't find it now. Maja van der Velden discusses the dangers of development agencies adopting corporate knowledge management approaches and suggests that alternative approaches are required. Such alternative approaches should focus on the "knower" and on the context for creating and sharing knowledge.

This article came up in my readings for today because I am collecting resources for my new Knowledge Networking for Development course and trying to focus on Knowledge Management only to the extent that it applies, fails to apply (or needs modifications) in the context of "knowledge for development." I had argued in an earlier paper that a key difference between corporate KM and KM for development is that corporate KM has a strong internal organizational focus while KM for development is much more about knowledge sharing across organizations and across cultures. There is more to it than that....

Now I need to take an in-depth look at the collection of papers on Knowledge and knowledge management in development agencies by Kenneth King and Simon McGrath at the University of Edinburg in the UK.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

More resources for assessing electronic discusions in the context of online courses:

1. Discussion Board Posts
2. Discussion Fora Evaluation Rubric

Some very good ideas about using electronic discussions in learning can be found on the Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum web site.

One of the key elements of effective discussions online is to make the expectations very clear. Having taught the ICTs course online a few times now I tend to expect that the participants know what they should be doing to contribute effectively to the discussions. Also, since there are always one or two participants who do a great job at contributing excellent messages, I tend to assume that other participants will know an excellent message when they see one and will us those excellent messages as models.

I have seen this happen to some extent. For example, one participant starts all of her messages " In response to so-and-so's question : "quoting the original question", I would like to say that...". After following this approach that for several messages, suddenly other participants start using the same approach in starting their messages without any prompting on my part as the facilitator.

This advice to start message by referring to the message the participants are answering has always been included in the course materials. It takes just one or two students to do it early on in the course for more students to see the model and copy it. Of course, it helps if the facilitator follows the same approach as well.

Monday, May 05, 2003

"Writing provides food for thought—it enables you to knead small, half-baked words and sentences into great big loaves of satisfying thought that then lead to more thoughts. Developing ideas involves getting some ideas—in whatever form—onto paper or screen so you can see them, return to them, explore them, question them, share them, clarify them, change them, and grow them." -- Catherine Copley in The Writer's Complex (1995).

This is exactly why I started this blog... to make time for this type of very productive "writing-to-learn"/"writing-to-think" activity. Now I am also thinking that I need to really make the most of this approach in class discussions of my online courses. The discussions are THE most important interactive part of the course yet few participants really use the discussions as a learning opportunity. The time has come for some changes. What if the discussions truly became 50% of the course's overall grade and the contributions to the discussions were graded more systematically, replacing some of the more time consuming written assignments that end up not being shared with other participants?

Friday, May 02, 2003

"Written Interaction: A Key Component in Online Learning."
An article by Judith Lapadat in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, July 2002.
Do we read the literature in our respective fields mostly to find confirmation of our existing ideas and opinions? I came across this article and immediately thought "I really like this. I could almost have written it!"

The article provides a rather detailed argument highlighting the value of interactive writing in asynchronous online conferencing environments. I happen to think that the class discussions in my own course are the heart of th course and where some of the most effective learning can happen. Of course the participants can learn from doing the assignments and the readings, but it's in the discussions that they can really do some interesting collaborative learning.

Until today, I had seen collaborative learning as something limited to group work and group work as an assignment that a small group of participant had to work on as a group and submit as a group. I have stayed away from this type of collaborative learning because it is simply not feasible with the target audience I am addressing. Group discussions reflect more than the sum of the messages posted, they reflect the interaction among the participants, they show how the participants reacted to the course notes, the readings, etc...

Well, that's in principle and it does happen but a good number of posting don't contribute a lot to this collaborative learning. And then, there are those participants who never post but still benefit from reading other participants' messages. So, what I'm really...really interested in is finding ways to maximize this potential for collaborative learning. This is particularly important in my existing course (and probably in future courses) because of the great diversity of participants and the great potential for harnessing this diversity of views, opinions and experiences.

The article also emphasizes the benefits of asynchronous communications as opposed to synchronous (chat) communications. I tend to agree with this as well. Synchronous tools are useful for community building and perhaps to motivate some of the students who find the asynchronous mode a little too challenging, but they are not very powerful "learning" tools.

Now, all of this is probably seriously biased by my own teaching/learning style (100% text based) and it fails to address some of the challenges in multicultural virtual classrooms such as the one I am facilitating. As a matter of fact, I am leaning away from the 100% text based approach and just developed an audio/slide presentation today to replace a previously 100% text based document. This particular document is an introduction to eLearning that is buried somewhere in the course CD and seems to get little attention from course participants. Putting it in audio/slide presentation format and in a more prominent location on the CD should help give it more visibility and attention.

Why did I start this blog?
Because writing helps me to remember ideas, thoughts and connections that suddenly emerge at unpredictable moments and because writing helps me to solidify my thinking. It helps me to think!

Why not use a journal and keep it to myself?
I need the pressure to post regularly and to try to make my posts reasonably coherent. Those are the same pressures students face when posting to an asynchronous discussion group. The key difference is that in this blog I am not interacting with other bloggers.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

"eLearning Course: and now for something completely different."
elearnspace article of August 27, 2002

This article describes an unusual and rather interesting approach to online course development where the content is minimal and build over the period of the course. In essence, the content is built by the course participants themselves. I am considering trying a modified version of this approach for K4D's new course on Knowledge Networking for Development (KN4D) which I have promised to develop for several years now. The time has come!

Here is a tentative plan of action!
Between now and the end of June, I will find the resources (lists of readings on the web), develop a basics structure for the course and identify key issues to be addressed in the group discussions. The non-course session will happen over a period of 6 to 8 weeks over the summer and a real session can perhaps start in September. The non-course would bring together carefully selected participants and would be free.

"I don't have to know everything. I just have to know where to find it when I need it."
A. Einstein.

I couldn't agree more but it seems that you need to know quite a lot if you're the course developer, instructional designer, facilitator, accounting, marketing and IT departments all in one. That's one of the challenges of the one-person business.

It's also one of the things I like most because it forces me to learn new things all the time. It certainly requires a little adjustement when I end up working as part of a larger team where my responsibilities are limited.