The Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV) – Heatmaps of Student Activity

Introduction

This blog post introduces an emerging implementation of learning analytics for lecturers that offers a novel approach to the visualisation of learning analytics within the Moodle LMS called the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV).  The motivation for its design was born from the frustration of using the standard analytics reporting functions available in Moodle 2.2 by lecturers at my institution. While there are many efforts underway to improve this functionality within the latest releases of Moodle, at least for my own institution, these improvements are likely to be years away from adoption.  One emphasis with these improvements, is a greater use of graphs over tabular lists, most common in earlier Moodle 2.x versions.

What is MAV and How Does it Help Lecturers?

MAV takes a fresh approach to representing student activity within Moodle, by using heat maps (or click heat maps) as shown in the screenshot below:

Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV
Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV

In the example above, MAV is representing the number of students who have accessed various resources and activities on a Moodle course site by colouring the links accordingly.  In this way, MAV is focused on assisting with teacher reflection – identifying which elements of the course were used by the most students, and those which weren’t.  On presenting the above snapshot to the lecturer,  they responded: “Aaaah that’s interesting.  I’m surprised that as many students as that used some of the links.”  After further discussion, they shared the following comments:

I do feel that [the course] is guilty of that to some degree that we baffle them with BS and overwhelm them with far too many resources till they can’t separate the forest from the trees. I was certainly in two minds about even including most of those resource links at the beginning of the semester. I can certainly understand the results in the mid-term tests…they were compulsory

This is exactly the sort of teacher reflection that was intended by its design. Another excerpt from a Moodle page rendered using MAV from a much smaller postgraduate course is illustrated below.

Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students
Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students

The lecturer of this course has been experimenting with MAV for a few months, and had the following to say about what changes might be made in future offerings:

… academics as students may already know and understand about the feedback resources I gave them, that is why they didn’t bother reviewing. Now I’m thinking of removing them. But in saying that, it is up to me to provide the scaffolding they require, so I’m thinking I should leave it there because it is good practice, even though I know they aren’t using it, but could potentially use it for their own students.

When asked about MAV’s ease of use:

It was very easy to use MAV to get an insight into useful resources. I
would have no idea how to get this info through normal Moodle tools and
activity reporting.

Within higher education, learning analytics is predominantly used to identify “at-risk” students with the view to prevent or limit student attrition (Chatti, Dyckhoff, Schroeder, & Thüs, 2012; Lodge & Lewis, 2012).  Identifying learners “at-risk” is only one, albeit important complex issue to act upon.  MAV in its present form is designed to assist lecturers with teacher reflection and course learning design.

Why heatmaps and How Does MAV Work?

How to turn on and off the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV)

Norman (1993) reminds us that “We humans are spatial animals, very dependent upon perceptual information. Representations that make use of spatial and perceptual relationships allow us to make efficient use of our perceptual systems, to think experientially.” By using heat maps, it allows the lecturer to visualise student activity spatially within the real-world Moodle site itself, rather than through abstract graphs or tabular totals.  This is not to say that graphs and tables are not valuable.  The heat maps are just an alternate approach, and one that is more accessible to a broader cross-section of lecturers, as it easy to use and requires no training or guided instruction – it simply leverages our anthropological intuition.  The screenshot (left) shows how the MAV can be switched on and off in the same way that Editing mode can be turned on and off – something even the complete Moodle novice quickly masters.

The tool presently has a modest list of configurable options, which it is planned to expand over time.  This expansion will be balanced with the value of keeping the tool simple and focused on the tasks that lecturers wish to perform.  At present, the options are largely focused on teacher reflection where lecturers are able to change the following properties of the representation:

  • display count of clicks versus count of distinct students
  • select specific weeks of the term for activity (incomplete)
  • select specific groups within the class
  • select either a heat map visualisation or a font size (think wordle or tag cloud) visualisation (for those with colour-blindness)

These options are changeable through the dialog (below) that is presented in the browser page, when the lecturer clicks on the Activity Viewer Settings option immediately beneath the on/off option in the settings menu (shown above).

MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page - Display Mode
MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page – Display Mode

How is MAV Implemented?

In its present form, MAV has limited affordance for action.  It like many other existing analytics tools focuses heavily on information, and not enough on supporting action.  For MAV however, this is surmountable due to its technical architectural design, which is somewhat unusual. MAV is not implemented as a Moodle plugin on the Moodle server, but rather as a browser addon on the lecturer’s computer.

Student activity in Postgrad Course Moodle Book Table of Contents, using MAV

This browser driven approach is not new.  SNAPP, a tool for conducting social network analysis within Moodle uses what’s called browser bookmarklets and has gained considerable popularity.  Another approach more closely resembling MAV was taken by Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) who created a browser addon that “talks” to a related server component sitting along side Moodle from which it retrieves analytics data, and is then “drawn” into the Moodle page as a graph in a custom block.  To the viewer, the graphing block appears as a seamless part of the Moodle page, but in reality, the information has been synthesised between the analytics server and Moodle. MAV too has a server component that “talks” to a copy of the Moodle database and extracts statistics for display by the browser addon.  Where MAV diverges from the approach of Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) is that it is not focused on the conventional approach of using a Moodle course block to display information.  Instead MAV treats the entire Moodle page as a canvas for conveying information, and in a way that is contextual to the canvas itself.

The problem with traditional Moodle plugin development is that “the LMS is commonly managed at an institutional level and it must support several courses, [and so] installing a customised module becomes a complicated procedure both technically and administratively.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012) By using a browser addon and matching analytics server, “we simplify the task of providing visualizations to participants of the course, valuable for the execution pilot studies or the evaluation of visualizations.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012)

This approach makes it easy to be agile and innovative without disturbing critical high-availability environments such as Moodle.  If the browser addon breaks in someway, it is easily disabled in the browser settings restoring the default Moodle functionality.  It is of course not without drawbacks.  To name a couple, changes in Moodle are likely to break the Browser addon and there are sure to be variations to consider between Moodle versions.  It is believed on the whole, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  This thinking will be tested over time.

MAV and Open Source

MAV is licenced under the GPL, and will be made available in the coming weeks via github.  It is hoped that other educational institutions using Moodle may be interested in collaborating with the technology and the approach to refine and improve on the concept, and implement new ideas.  Research is planned around its design and use.  An announcement will be made when the source code is available and how people can get involved.

Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV

Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV

MAV in the Future

The following outlines a sample of ideas for MAV in the future.

Allow the lecturer to visualise the activity of individual students

As a scenario, consider an assignment extension request from a distance student.  In evaluating the request, one of the things lecturers often consider is the amount of work the student has done leading up to the due date, offset by any mitigating circumstances that may have prevented such work.  Using MAV, the lecturer could select this student through the MAV settings, and see how often the student has accessed relevant aspects of the course, when, and perhaps in what sequence.  This would assist the lecturer in making an informed decision about the validity of the student’s extension request claims.

Provide affordances for action based on the analysed data within MAV and Moodle

As previously mentioned, MAV presently offers little in terms of affordance for action on the visualised student activity.  One useful function supportive of teacher reflection would be to assist lecturers in capturing their reflections on their course sites while they view the heat maps.  In the examples given at the start of this post, the lecturers were analysing the student activity and making decisions about how they might change their course in the next offering.  What if lecturers could click on a resource that they wish to change in the future, and make notes within the Moodle site itself using MAV.  The change and their thinking is captured immediately as they reflect, without having to venture somewhere outside of the Moodle site and thus breaking the natural flow of their reflective activity (Villachica, Stone & Endicott, 2006).  A small icon could be attached to the resource or activity as a reminder that a change is to be made.  Then when they need to update the course for the next offering, sometimes in a years time, the information is readily available and still in context of their course site.

Integrate contextual information in Moodle pages in other ways besides heatmaps

As an example, wherever a student name of number is displayed on a Moodle page, provide a hover menu or visual that provides additional information about the student.  This could be things like their contact details and other info from their profile page.  But it could also be a range of information from other sources (see next point).  This also marks a shift from the low hanging fruit that is clickstream data to information that embodies more depth.  As a contextual menu to each heatmap link, options could be provided to see a list of students who haven’t, and perhaps just as importantly have accessed a given resource.  These students could then be contacted via mail merge either encouraging them to engage with the resource or activity, or praising them for doing so.

Using the browser addon architecture to integrate and aggregate other information services and data

The browser addons need not be limited to aggregating/synthesising information from only the server analytics component and Moodle.  Opportunities exist to integrate MAV with other initiatives at my institution such as the Student Support Indicators Project (SSI).  This integration can work in both directions.  Identify using MAV which students have not made use of critical resources or participated in activities, and then look up their student success factors through the SSI.  Similarly, on identifying a student within the SSI who is showing lower engagement with their course, redirect the lecturer to the Moodle course site with MAV switched on, and only showing the elements of the course used by the student, giving further detail to their behaviour.

References

Chatti, M. A., Dyckhoff, A. L., Schroeder, U., & Thüs, H. (2012). A reference model for learning analytics. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 318. Retrieved from http://www.inderscience.com/link.php?id=51815

Leony, D., Pardo, A., Valentın, L. de la F., Quinones, I., & Kloos, C. D. (2012). Learning analytics in the LMS: Using browser extensions to embed visualizations into a Learning Management System. In R. Vatrapu, W. Halb, & S. Bull (Eds.), TaPTA. Saarbrucken: CEUR-WS.org. Retrieved May 25, 2013, from http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-894/paper6.pdf

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Villachica, S., Stone, D., & Endicott, J. (2006). Performance Support Systems. In J. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (Third Edit., pp. 539–566). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

McLuhan’s Tetrad

McLuhan’s Tetrad comprises 4 laws of media that can be used to analyse the effects of technological change on society, rather than the causes.

Timothy Kraft describes the tetrad as:

Enhance
The technology must enhance some capability of the person. The medium is an extension of the person.

Retrieve
The result is a retrieval of some earlier service or capability that was lost and is now brought back into play in a new form.

Obsolesced
What is pushed aside and made obsolescent.

Reverse
If the new media is taken to extreme what will result that reverses the original characteristics of the media when it was first introduced.

While the first three of the tetrad seem quite obvious to me, the fourth, “reverse” has troubled me somewhat.  McLuhan suggests that a medium “overheats”, or reverses into an opposing form, when taken to its extreme.

Reading articles of how people have interpreted and applied reversal to other medium has caused some confusion, as I think many who have written about the Reverse law of the tetrad may have misunderstood its meaning.  Or perhaps it is just different interpretations of what McLuhan defines as the reversal.  Or more likely, maybe I have it all wrong. :) After reading through some of the Canadian Library Archive notes about McLuhan’s work, and listening to a radio interview with Nina Sutton in 1975, it became more clear to me.  McLuhan says that when a medium is pushed to extremes, it reverses or flips into an alternate form.  In an excerpt of an interview with Nina Sutton hosted on the Library and Archives Canada webiste, McLuhan discusses the revolution of the steam printing press to the telegraph press.  When the telegraph press emerged, the way that people wrote for newspapers changed immediately and flipped.  The type of writing that was required for the telegraph was inverted so that all the very important information was transmitted first sentence, and then all the other information followed in order or most importance.  This was due to the risk of the transmission being interrupted, so that the critical information had the lowest risk of being lost.

The misunderstanding of the Reverse is derived from the word “extreme”.  I wonder whether the flipping or reversing is not a result of extremes of adoption as seems to be alluded in examples online such as here or even here where the more it is used, a flipping effect occurs. I take from McLuhan’s examples, the demonstration that it is extreme changes to the medium, rather than the application thereof that is the catalyst for the reversal.  I don’t know whether this is significant or not.  The flips that McLuhan speaks of are in response to extreme changes in the medium, that then have extreme impact on their use.  So the flipping of the steam press was a result of introducing the telegraph press, rather than changes in how they used the original steam press or how much the stream press was used.

A different take on an analogy for McLuhan’s press example for flipping or reverse, is with the mobile phone as described by Library and Archives Canada.  Mobile phones changed things a lot and brought to prominence aural communication, over written anywhere anytime.  However, the mobile phone taken to extremes saw the advent of SMS texting, which became very popular and evolved as a result of the high cost of mobile telephony.  SMS Text Messaging quickly became much more frequent than mobile phone calls.  So the mobile phone taken to the extreme (at the time) has flipped the prominence of aural communication to short written messages, perhaps akin to the telegraph.  Of course mobile phones have evolved considerably more since text messaging, and McLuhan in his radio interview with Nina highlighted the fact that there has been many “flips” in the printing press leading up to the 1975 interview.  So extremes seem to be able to persistently take on new heights again and again, flipping as they evolve.

Looking at internet technologies is considerably harder than the examples of printing presses and mobile phones, because the rate of change is significantly faster, and because of the modern convergences of technologies.  I also wonder whether many of these technologies have not yet reached the extremes necessary to cause a reversal.  Dan Pontefract’s article highlights the following reversals for Learning 2.0 as a medium:

  • Everyone is an expert
  • Content & opinion overload
  • 90-9-1 hypothesis
  • Time mismanagement
  • Learning groupthink
  • Loss of certified company staff

I suggest that each of these items is part of the extends or enhances category.  These are aspects of learning 2.0 that are enhanced, intensified, made possible, or accelerated as a result of the learning 2.0 medium’s introduction.  They are just some of the negative outcomes that sit along-side the positive ones, and likely emerged around the same time.  In other words as learning 2.0 extended positive things like formal classroom/eLearning, Social Networking/Web 2.0, Traditional Corporate University, and so on, it also extended the everyone is an expert paradigm, content & opinion overload and so on.

So what would I consider the reversals for learning 2.0?  Well I guess it depends on context.  My context in higher education and curriculum development appears different to Dan’s article which uses terms such as training which makes me think of VET type education rather than education via the academy.  This assumption may be incorrect of course.  Nevertheless, from a university context, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of pushing learning 2.0 to the extreme is the explosion of the MOOC concept.  Within higher education, MOOCs have flipped the learning 2.0 medium by breaking the mould of the traditional university course as being closed and elitist, to open and accessible.  It is the MOOC that has pushed learning 2.0 to extremes that has caused this flip, rather than the amount of people engaged in learning 2.0 in higher education.

The idea of the reverse law sings to the swings and round-a-bouts we see in technological circles.  McLuhan’s tetrad is a fascinating construct for analysing the influences of technology on society.

 

McLuhan says the medium is the message

McLuhan is probably most popularly known for his theory succinctly posited “The medium is the message”.  Federman offers a very clear explanation of this concept in his article “What is the meaning of the medium is the message?”  Federman explains that McLuhan considers the medium in quite broad terms, more so than perhaps first impressions give of this famous statement.  In particular, McLuhan considers anything that is an extension of ourselves as a medium.  So medium is more broad than human communication, and can encompass any technology that extends our physical and intellectual essences.  Federman puts it well when he states: “… since some sort of change emerges from everything we conceive or create, all of our inventions, innovations, ideas and ideals are McLuhan media.”

There are examples of “the medium is the message” everywhere in modern society.  For instance, the rise of social media has seen changes in television entertainment programs.  While in the past, some programs might have had a “mailbox” for you to post a letter or more recently an email, containing your thoughts and opinions on a matter, there would then be a delay until the next broadcast where these letters would be selectively read on-air.  In the past year or two, more new and diverse approaches to interacting with audiences have occurred afforded by social media.  Twitter was one of the first medium’s to be used to facilitate “talk-back” or back-channels for live television programs, typically syndicated across the bottom of the television screen.  Question and Answer from Australia’s national broadcaster, The ABC famously (within Australia) use the QandA hashtag to denote tweets relating to the political television program.

 

 

In the past week, Australian television programs are now making use of a service called zeebox.com.  This provides even tighter integration with the television format where the television programs can have their own “space” within the zeebox medium itself – the cloud service.  It is also mobile enabled so viewers can participate in television programs no matter where they may be viewing them.  It is also an approach to stem the flow of viewers resorting to digital video recorders to playback television programs, and skip the ads while they are at it.  The use of social media offers an incentive to be present at the live broadcast, and consume those wonderful advertisements that keep the television network executives happy.  McLuhan is quoted in Federman as saying “a ‘message’ is, ‘the change of scale or pace or pattern’ that a new invention or innovation ‘introduces into human affairs.'”.  This change in television programming would have been an unintended consequence of social media at inception. There are many other examples that demonstrate McLuhan’s theory.

Arrow key scroll in Mac Excel

Ever been using Microsoft Excel on the Mac and found that when you use the arrow keys on the keyboard to move from one cell to the next, instead the whole worksheet scrolls?

This is actually a feature of Microsoft Excel carried over from the Windows version on which you press the Scroll lock key to enable or disable.  Older Macintosh computers had the F14 key mapped to the Scroll lock key of PC keyboard, so it was quite easy to enable or disable.  However newer Macintoshes no longer have a F14 key.

This makes disabling this feature tricky to say the least.

In the past I have attached an older Mac keyboard to my 2010 Macbook Pro and pressed the F14 key.  However for those of you who do not have ready access to such legacy keyboards, you can use a simple applescript application that I have written called Excel Scroll Lock.

What it does is “send” an F14 key press to Microsoft Excel as if you pressed the Scroll lock key, thus toggling on or off this function within Excel.

To use, simply download the application, unzip, and drag the application into your Applications folder.  Then run it.

For those interested in the applescript, it is shown below, and also included in the downloaded application bundle under the Contents/Resources/Scripts folder.

--Applescript to fix scroll-lock problem with Microsoft Excel on Mac OS
--Written by Damien Clark (http://damosworld.wordpress.com)
--Licenced under GPLv2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-2.0.html)
--18th of June, 2012

--From time to time you may find that using the cursor keys in MS Excel for Mac will scroll the worksheet, but not shift the selected cell.  This is a feature of Excel that is enabled by pressing the Scroll Lock key.  On Macintosh computers once upon a time, F14 was the equivalent key to Scroll lock on the PC.  Modern Macintosh computers are no longer furnished with an F14 key, and while I am sure there is a keyboard combination to emulate F14, I have yet to find it.  As a result, you can find yourself stuck with this special scroll lock mode of Excel and it is very frustrating.  This script effectively "sends" an F14 keypress to Microsoft Excel, thus turning on or off this scroll lock feature.  So if you find yourself in this situation, you can execute this program to toggle the feature on and off as necessary.  Simply run the application and click OK.

set returnedItems to (display dialog "Press OK to send scroll lock keypress to Microsoft Excel or press Quit" with title "Excel Scroll-lock Fix" buttons {"Quit", "OK"} default button 2)
set buttonPressed to the button returned of returnedItems

if buttonPressed is "OK" then
	tell application "Microsoft Excel"
		activate --Make it the active application to receive System keyboard events
	end tell
	tell application "System Events"
		key code 107 --Send the F14 key which is scroll-lock on Mac keyboards
	end tell
	activate
	display dialog "Scroll Lock key sent to Microsoft Excel" with title "Mac Excel Scroll-lock Fix" buttons {"OK"}
end if

Week 11: OERs – The future of text as we know it

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba. Our instructor has asked us:

Apple recently announced the iBooks 2 – an app that collaborates with major textbook publishers to release books on the apple device. See the YouTube video of someones excitement about this. The Huffington Post’s report suggest books will cost $15. How long do you think it will take for books to become available at the college level? Is this an initiative you will encourage in your schools or business? Do you think Apple will succeed in pushing traditional textbooks out of the market?

Books have long followed a model of depth and linearity.  Consider the scroll – a long sheet of continuous paper that is rolled from one spindle onto another as you read the text from the top of the sheet all the way down to the bottom. This provided a simple and sequential approach to reading information.  At some time in history, technology moved onwards to the book format, which broke the physical linearity of the text from the scroll, to virtual linearity by allowing text to continue on the page adjacent in a repeating fashion.  Some clever people using their imagination have given a popular comical portrayal of what the transition was like from scroll to book as shown below with the youtube video titled “Medieval Helpdesk”.

Our technological sophistication marches forward as we continue to refine and improve ways of being knowledgeable.  Going from an analogue device such as a hardcopy book to a digital device such as a tablet is no great leap, and has been attempted many times in the past by various innovators.  So Apple’s new iBook software in conjunction with their iPad technology should come as no surprise. But will Apple succeed in pushing traditional textbooks out of the market?  My answer is “if not Apple, then someone else will.”  In my estimation, the traditional hardcopy book will be a relic – an artefact of history in the future anywhere from 5 to 50 years from now, just as man moved on from the scroll to the book.  I also predict that many people – particularly the older generations will initially struggle with this transition, just as our medieval friend depicted in the youtube video.

My reason for lack of confidence in Apple being the “pusher” is one of interoperability.  Apple are renown for “vendor lock-in”.  Their marketing spin is that they are innovative and ahead of the pack, and that their tight integration between software and hardware provides a better and more reliable “user experience”.  While these statements may to be true in some of their ventures, it also smells of anti-competitive behaviour and market control.  Afterall, they are a company whose sole purpose is to make money for its shareholders, not further mankind’s quest for knowledge and enlightenment.  This political viewpoint aside, the upshot is unless all your readership (students and faculty for instance) have and use Apple iPads, then committing to a service such as Apple’s is simply not “open”.  Emerging standards in electronic publications will help to ensure interoperability such that you can use any device, much like the World Wide Web standards, but it will take time for these to evolve and mature into a stable publishing platform.  Which brings me to my next point.

What I find interesting is that even with the move to electronic publications, we are still tethered to the concept of a depth-wise linear body of work with this new technology.  This is in contrast to the World Wide Web which is a distributed non-linear publishing system. I do understand that the tablet computers can do non-linear things, but I bet for the mostpart, people who create content don’t use this – at least initially.

I have heard many decry the loss of depth in writing with the popularity of the WWW.  Modern society sets an incredibly high pace, and I wonder if this is simply a sign of a new era of enlightenment.  We live in an incredibly complex world with technology that requires very specialist knowledge to develop and maintain.  Typically no one person knows everything about something because it is so complex.  Think about your car for a moment, and how they have evolved over the past 20 to 30 years.  Once upon a time you could do most of the maintenance yourself, but these days even mechanics plug the car into a computer to find out what is wrong with it using software and hardware developed by someone else.  So we use layers of abstraction or black box approaches to break the complexity down into smaller consumable pieces.  Depth has been subsumed by breadth of knowledge – knowing enough about something to get on with what needs to be done.  I’m not suggesting that writing no longer requires any depth.  I am saying that there has been a shift of priorities that means for the masses access to quick high-level rapidly changing information is in greater demand.

Of course I hope there will always be a need for linear formats for creative bodies of work such as novels – digital or analogue. :)

Week 10: OERs – The dream

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba. Our instructor has asked us:

What are your impressions of Open data, open research, open books, open journals, open government? Is this the reality or just a dream? Can this happen in your school or business environment? What are the implications? Blog about this.

Is this the reality or just a dream?

Taking a deeply philosophical analysis of this question, consider the following quote from Social Evolution, Psychoanalysis, and Human Nature by Daniel Kriegman and Charles Knight in relation to Freud’s evolutionary biology:

Freud’s view of human nature is generally consistent with the experience of capitalist competition and its adjunct philosophy at the extreme, social Darwinism. The inevitable tendency of human motivation is toward competition. Inevitably struggles ensue and yield a “survival of the fittest” dominance hierarchy.

Information has increasingly become a commodity that can be bought and sold and therefore has inherent value.  Modern online companies for instance provide free services in exchange for information about their customers.  This information is often aggregated and/or sold to other companies.  In the context of competition and survival of the fittest, sharing information is counter-productive.  By this reasoning, you are giving wealth in the form of information to your competitors thus strengthening their position while weakening your own.  Western society is largely based on capitalist models, so it is no wonder there is such an emphasis on ownership of information such as in the form of copyright.  So one could argue that while there is an economy based on information as a commodity, it is not likely that these open initatives will become mainstream.

The paper continues with discussion of the more modern theories of social evolution and reciprocal altruism:

… [Trivers] developed the concept of “reciprocal altruism.” This fascinating evolutionary construct undermines the simplistic notions of social Darwinism and provides a basis for reviewing the erroneous thinking underlying the misuse of evolutionary theory in support of reactionary dogma.

The concept of reciprocal altruism suggests that there may be a bio-genetic basis to altruistic behavior. At first glance, altruistic behavior, which in evolutionary terms reduces the altruist’s fitness and leads to an increase in the recipient’s fitness, appears to be in contradiction to the basic self-serving survival interest of any organism. However, the concept of reciprocal altruism is based on the notion that an altruistic act is often returned to the altruistically behaving organism.

So contrary to Freudian views, and considering the development of OERs as altruistic, perhaps there is hope for OERs afterall. The authors of the paper continue with what they believe to be the prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism.

What can be demonstrated by the evolutionary analysis are the prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism: high frequency of association, the reliability of association over time, and the ability of two organisms to behave in ways that benefit the other…   The prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism are present in our species and have been shown in other species to be capable of shaping extremely cooperative behaviors.

So in the context of these open initiatives, will they involve frequent and reliable association and interaction between collaborators; and will such association and interaction be mutually beneficial?  It would be interesting to conduct an analysis of OER initiatives to see whether those with the above prerequisites perform better than those that don’t.  From my perspective, while the production of open resources can be mutually beneficial to contributors, I suspect the first two elements (frequent and reliable association) are under-represented in OER initiatives.  To me it implies frequent and ongoing collaboration for mutual benefit.  With the current rate of change in modern society, long-term collaboration does not seem likely in many instances.  Consider your own work initiatives over the past 5 years.  My guess is many have a duration of no longer than a year or two before moving onto something else.  So can these prerequisites be artificially contrived, or must it be organically arranged by chance? Perhaps the slow uptake of OERs and open initiatives is a result of lower naturally occurring situations with the right prerequisites for reciprocal altruism?  Time will ultimately answer this question.

A final quote from the article: “Once a cooperative strategy begins to invade a population, it should be able to outcompete the selfish strategies.”  On this reasoning, perhaps there is hope for a future of more open sharing of information and co-operation for the benefit of all.

Week 9: OERs – Accessibility

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba. Our instructor has asked us:

An interesting perspective to accesibility is the US’s America with disability Act Section 508. Is there as similar act in Canada? Do we need a similar act or are existing laws sufficient to address the disabled? What would these laws be? How does this apply to your own context? Blog on!

Instead of responding from the Canadian perspective, I’ll instead respond as an Australian.  Australia does have a provisions in law commensurate with the USA accessibility disability act.  It is known as the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.   So that Australian Government agencies adhere to the DDA, all Australian Government websites must adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guideslines (WCAG) version 2.  This is inline with the USA’s Section 508 which too “… requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities.”

However, unless I have misinterpreted both the Australian DDA and US Section 508, interestingly, in both cases the requirement is only for Government websites, not corporate or hobbyist sites.  This seems rather peculiar to me.

Recently my employer has renewed it’s commitment to accessibility guidelines with a push to improve the publishing of Moodle course websites.  Although the Moodle course websites are not published publicly, they still provide a service to enrolled students and need to be inclusive of all learners including those with disabilities.  Being a government owned university, I believe it is bound to the same rules as described above as part of the DDA.  The interesting challenge in my context is that our academic staff are not web publishing experts – they are discipline experts teaching Engineering, Business, Science and so on. Having to grapple with the WCAG standard and ensure compliance is going to be a difficult challenge for some staff who are not tech-savvy.

There are a wealth of tools available online and commercially to assist with ensuring adherence to accessibility guidelines, such as the WCAG.  I’m not sure whether they are targeted at web publishers or whether there are options for those less tech-savvy such as the example given above.  While it does take extra effort and time on the part of the author, I can imagine the appreciation felt by those who can then access your material using their screen-readers for instance with greater ease, than is otherwise possible.

In terms of how they laws could be improved or extended, I wonder whether Section 508 or the DDA could be mandated across all corporate websites for instance?  If the government is able to ensure accessibility, then with the appropriate education, and supporting technology, why not the rest of the community?

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