The reusability paradox – WTF?

WTF?

The reusability paradox.  How can reusability be bad?

When first presented with this concept last year, I must admit I really did struggle with it.  As a techhie, every fibre of my being compels me to focus on reuse.  Hence, the paradox.  After some weeks of struggling with the reusability paradox, it did start to make some sense, emphasis on some’.

I have recently revisited this concept, both in discussion with my (to be) PhD supervisor, but also in my day-to-day work as an Educational Developer/Lecturer/Educational Technologist.  My revisit has prompted this blog post as a way of recording some connections I have made to real-world examples of this phenomenon, and how this impacts my thinking about technology (re)use.  This thinking is far from crystalised.

David Wiley explains the reusability paradox in the context of reusable learning objects, and more broadly, the open content movement.  When this concept was initially presented to me, it was already positioned in terms of technology.  I find it easier to start with the original context in learning design.

What is the reusability paradox?

David explains it quite succinctly as:

A content module’s stand-alone pedagogical effectiveness is inversely proportional to its reusability.

He explains that the more contextualised a learning object is made, the more meaningful it becomes to that context.  However, it also means the learning object becomes less reusable to other contexts.  We have a trade-off situation – effectiveness (in learning) vs. efficiency (in scalability). David concludes:

It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another, unless the end user is permitted to edit the learning object. The application of an open license to a learning object resolves the paradox.

I don’t think an open licence alone will resolve the paradox, but that is a discussion for another post.

The reusability paradox in the wild

So enough of abstract concepts – how does the reusability paradox play out in the wild and in other ways besides learning objects?

i-see-dead-people
“I see dead people the reusability paradox.”

I often see the reusability paradox when working with lecturers – conceptually the same as David Wiley explains, but at a higher level.  My particular experience relates to the contention of reusing units of study between different awards/degrees.  This is pretty typical in the STEM areas – in my institution we refer to them as service courses (units).  I work with a science school, and a key foundation unit of study taught from the school is anatomy and physiology.  There would be a dozen or more degrees that require students to have a sound knowledge in this area.

Conventional management wisdom seeks to reuse anatomy and physiology units for health related-degrees.  This is efficient use of resources, right?  And “why re-invent the wheel?”

But before I explore those questions, let’s first take a step back for a moment.

The key criteria for reuse is applicability to other contexts.  If there is sufficient overlap or congruence with another context, then a reusability factor could be considered high, thus worthy of reuse.  Learning is very contextual, particularly when you factor, as David does, the underpinning of constructivist learning theory.  Learners construct new knowledge, upon their own existing knowledge.  This is very individualised, and based on each learner’s past experiences, and ways of thinking.

Learning designers have some tricks to help deal with such diversity, such as researching your cohort, conducting a needs analysis, and ultimately categorising learners and focusing on the majority.  Clearly, this is flawed – but this is how massification of education works.  For instance, if you are preparing a unit of study for nursing students, then you can make some reasonable assumptions about those students motivations (i.e. they want to become a nurse); their prior formal learning (i.e. previous units studied within a structured nursing curriculum); and even down to smaller groups such as pathways to study (i.e. were they enrolled nurses – ENs or school-leavers). These assumptions of course aren’t always correct.  Nevertheless, the key point is that this unit of study is reused by all nursing students studying for the Bachelor of Nursing degree.  A more or less reasonable trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency.

So let’s return to the example of an anatomy and physiology unit of study.  In this instance, we see different discipline areas, albeit health related, attempting to reuse a unit of study.  Despite all being health related, a paramedic student’s needs aren’t the same as physiotherapy students’, or medical science students’.  And while some disciplines hail from within the same school, others disciplines are situated elsewhere within the organisational structure.  Now, consider the diversity of the cohort.

So to cope with this type of diversity, I typically see three approaches:

  1. Make the unit of study as abstract (decontextualised) as possible making no assumptions about learners or their backgrounds, and “teach the facts”.
  2. Design the unit to cope with the highest represented context (i.e. the discipline with the most students).
  3. Design the unit of study to address multiple contexts, in an attempt to make it meaningful to multiple disciplinary groups.

In other words, make it meaningful for no-one; make it meaningful to the biggest group, and nobody else; or, try to make it meaningful for everyone.

Approach 1 is obviously ineffective, especially considering constructivist thinking.  You end up with students asking “why do I need to know this?”, or “that course was so dry and boring.”

Approach 2 while not quite as flawed as approach 1, can be less than ideal.  Particularly when the highest represented group is small compared to the entire group.  In such cases, the other groups feel marginalised, “I want to be a Paramed, not a Physiotherapist.”

Approach 3 can also ineffective because you can end up with a study unit that is incredibly complex.  This group of students does this, that group does that.  As the lecturer, you have to manage the mixture.  The students too can become confused about requirements. You can also run into “equity” type policy constraints, such as “all students must do the same assessments.”  This is an important point.  If you end up with such complexity, you really have to ask the question, “why not just have separate units of study?”

But solving this challenge isn’t the focus of my blog post.

The Reusability Paradox as it Applies to Education Technology

So does the concept translate to technology?  Yes it does!  And similar issues arise as a result.

Recall the three approaches I see people use to deal with the challenges of reuse for multiple contexts?

  1. Make abstract
  2. Contextualise for the largest group
  3. Contextualise in multiple ways for multiple groups

Let’s consider Approach 1

David Wiley says of the reusability paradox:

The purpose of learning objects and their reality seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, the smaller designers create their learning objects, the more reusable those objects will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning objects are, the more likely it is that only humans will be able to assemble them into meaningful instruction.

I think this statement has some “translatability” to an education technology context as:

On the one hand, the smaller developers create their learning technology tools (e.g. programming libraries rather than complete systems), the more reusable those tools will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning technology tools are, the more likely it is that only developers (and not designers) will be able to assemble them into functional learning technologies.

David Wiley also says:

To make learning objects maximally reusable, learning objects should contain as little context as possible.

To remove context is to make something more abstract – to take away intrinsic meaning or specific function.  Indeed this makes things more reusable, it also requires re-contextualisation.  In the context of technology, abstraction leads to dependence on the developer.

Let’s skip to approach 3.  With this approach, we end up with technology that attempts to do everything for everyone.  These technologies become so complicated to use, that people simply don’t use them.  My favourite example of approach 3 is the Moodle Workshop activity which is a “powerful peer assessment activity”.  I consider myself to have a reasonable grasp of technology, and yet after 45 minutes of tinkering with the workshop activity in Moodle, I gave up.  I have only seen 1 person at my institution use it.  It has so many options, too many options, because it tries to account for all the different ways one might attempt to embed peer assessment into their course.

So what about approach 2?  We reuse a learning technology without change – meaning it is focused on the majority of requirements (however that might be determined).  This is typical of COTS (commercial off the shelf) solutions.  This inevitably leads to functional gaps – “the system does this, but I want to do that.”  If the gap is substantial, it can lead to workarounds.

Does technology need to be reusable?

This is where I struggled last year with the reusability paradox.  If you can’t reuse a technology, then isn’t that a serious limitation?  Management are constantly looking to replicate successes – “This worked so well, so how can we use this in other areas?”

When I am creating/adapting/augmenting technology for others, I have to demonstrate “bang for buck” in terms of my time invested.  Does what I create, at least have to pay for itself in affordances?  I normally look for economies of scale, and the obvious way is through reuse – it is usable by X number of people.  Management/decision-makers get this – easy. However, technology can offer other economies.  For instance, depending on the technology, it may instead allow a specific group of people to do something much better, quicker, cheaper, or if its very innovative, something they couldn’t do before.  But that something might be very specific, so specific that it isn’t very reusable, and limited to a small audience.  Yet, if it still yields a net gain, is that bad?

What if a technology is so specific, it’s designed for just one person – yourself?

Workarounds

At some stage in our lives, we have all had to engage with some form of workaround to get from A to B.  Not just in terms of technology but life in general.

If you create a workaround, does it need to be reusable?  Perhaps not.  But what if you want it to be?  How can you go about it?

This is where my time (and thinking) ends for now.

 

Frames and Context: Toomato or Tomato

This post relates to my study of CCK11.

A fellow student, Jaap recently took the time to comment on my week 3 concept map, plus share his own (thanks Jaap :)).

Jaap asked in a comment on my concept map: “I think in connectivism context and framing are look-a-likes, do you agree?”  Jaap similarly makes reference to an article by Lindsay Jordan where she too asks: “So it’s Week 2 of CCK11 and I’m thinking about Frames (which seem pretty much the same thing as ‘context’ – am I right?).”

I am not sure that context and framing are exactly alike, although I do think they are related.  My interpretation (and my confidence in this interpretation is not high :)) is that framing is a way of seeing the context.  A filter or template for evaluating and interpreting a given scenario or perhaps context, based on past experience and attitudes.  I think people’s frames also relate to the concept of pattern entrainment as explained quite succinctly by David Jones.

So as an example, a teacher after completion of a course of study may reflect on the poor performance of some students.  Being a large class, the teacher does not know each of these students personally, and so judges the performance of the collective, based on his interactions and knowledge of the few that he knows.  The few that he knows did not attend class regularly and in his view appeared lazy and just bad students (ie. Level 1 teacher – Biggs Constructive Alignment).  On this anecdotal evidence or stereo-type, he concludes that those who performed poorly were lazy or just bad students.  This is the frame that he has developed, but is not necessarily the true context.

Damien

REPOST: Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

This post relates to my study of CCK11.

I found an article I wrote two years ago regarding improving university teaching, learning theories and instructional (curriculum) design while studying instructional design through UManitoba.  I thought it was relevant to my current study of CCK11, and so am reposting so that it would be included in the CCK11 daily.

While reposting this article, I’ll also link to a more recent blog post I wrote postulating whether learning theories is too much naval-gazing.  In particular, David Jones‘ comments were pertinent to the discussion in my opinion.

Hopefully someone will find this interesting/useful. 🙂

Damien.

Does connectivism facilitiate surface learning?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11, and is inspired by a blog post from a fellow classmate, Skip titled Are we dumbing down? Is multitasking taking away of our ability our ability [sic] to absorb?

While Skip I believe is referring to the distraction of back-channels during an online live web-conference when his refers to multi-tasking and inability to absorb, its his use of the word absorb that I am focused on.  Absorb in the context of surface versus deep learning.

Some suggest that surface learning should be avoided as it promotes memorisation and regurgitation – a lack of deep understanding of a concept or idea.

Yet George suggests in his article Connectivism:
A Learning Theory for the Digital Age
that today’s learning environment has changed considerably through technology, and amongst a range of questions relating to these changes, asks:

How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

Later in his article, he makes the point:

A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.

So I take this to mean knowledge at point-of-need. With such a high-rate of change in modern times, it seems to me that this is a real change for 21st century workers.  Employees more and more will not intrinsically have the knowledge required to do some tasks and therefore rely on their connective network knowledge.  Is it necessary to always know the “ins and outs of a duck’s bum” to achieve your goals?

Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

(Update: This post I wrote two years ago when studying instructional (curriculum) design.  It seems quite relevant to my current study of CCK11, so I thought I would add this reference so that it may be included in the 2011 MOOC offering.)

I read this article by David Jones some time ago, and have been thinking it over.  As an early career curriculum designer, I am trying to find my place in the world of education, and how I can be an effective learning designer.

My understanding is that David in his article argues in order to improve university teaching, we should focus on teacher reflection, rather than learning theories.  Reflection is the lowest common denominator in any improvement of learning and teaching practices.  Without it, the teacher is destined to make the same mistakes over and over.  This is highlighted by Biggs and Tang in their book Teaching for Quality Learning at University 3rd edition, which I am currently (trying to) read, and reflect upon, and is drawn upon in part by David (I believe – it is getting late and I have an assessment due tomorrow :)).  Biggs and Tang state:

Wise and effective teaching is not, however, simply a matter of applying general principles of teaching according to rule; they need adapting to each teacher’s own personal strengths and teaching context… Expert teachers continually reflect on how they might teach even better.

Let us imagine that Susan and Robert graduated 20 years ago [as teachers].  Susan now is a teacher with 20 years’ experience; Robert is a teacher with one year’s experience repeated 19 times.  Susan is a reflective teacher:  each significant experience, particularly of failure, has been a learning experience, so she gets better and better.  Robert is a reactive teacher.  He goes through the same motions year after year …  The kind of thinking displayed by Susan, but not by Robert, is known as ‘reflective practice’.”

It occurs to me that prescribing any particular learning theory (such as constructive alignment) is not the answer, after reading a blog post by Stephen Downes.  Stephen critiques a paper by Dicks and Ives that conducted a study into how instructional designers design.  In particular, Stephen highlights the following quote from Dicks, and Ives:

Our interviews appear to confirm the findings of Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, and Campbell (2004) that instructional designers do not do their work by following established models, nor by basing actions on theory. Instead, our designers’ tactics suggest they view design as an ‘ill-structured problem’ (Jonassen, 2002; Schon, 1987) or ‘wicked problem’ (Becker, 2007) with many possible solutions, which they pursue with a large repertoire of social and cognitive skills.

Stephen had the following to say about this quote:  “Which really forces the question of whether our discipline should continue its ill-founded focus on (this person or that’s) theory. ”

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few different seasoned instructional designers over the past couple of weeks, and I have seen a common theme emerge that is aligned with the findings of Dicks and Ives above:  there is no one ultimate learning theory.  All have stated that while they may have a preferred theory, it is rarely implemented solely to a learning design.  Choice of theory is informed greatly by the context in which the learning is to occur.  No less is the actual teacher of the course a critical factor in deciding which theories are appropriate.  If the teacher has been teaching for many years and has a traditional behaviourist approach to their teaching; trying to model their course design around constructivism or connectivism is not going to prove to be an effective learning design.  This is unless the teacher was motivated to reflect on their practice and consider alternate ways of doing things.

I have been investigating various learning theories over the past week – hardly a deep analysis, but I always considered religion as an appropriate analogy for learning theories.  Everyone has their own view, and they can’t all be right.  However, what I am discovering is that learning theories tend to support one another more so than contradict, which was my former view.  So its probably not so much about which one is right, but which one is right for the given context.

I am finding learning theory absolutely fascinating, yet I do not have sufficient time to study as deep as I would like.  I have decided to remain completely open minded in terms of what tools (theories) I choose to inform my learning designs.  Studying many different theories arms me with many tools, and I hope this will mean I am a more rounded designer.  The skill will be to use these tools in the right combinations to maximise effectiveness.

Biggs: Ch2 – Constructivism and Phenomenography

Constructivism as a concept is something that I am slowly coming to understand.  Then along comes phenomenography to upset the party.  Biggs provides a very brief discussion of the two and highlights their differences.  Let’s see if I have got it.

Before I get started, I’ll add that my conceptualisation of constructive alignment is ever evolving.  I’ll be keen to revisit this page some time in the future to see how my understanding of this concept has deepened.  In fact, I’ll probably update my conceptualisation of constructivism and constructive alignment as I progress through Biggs.

Everytime I hear the term constructivism, the following picture is what appears in my mind (well not exactly this picture, but you get the picture :).

Metaphor for constructivism
Metaphor for constructivism

Each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it builds upon the cards below it.  It is this scaffolding that underpins constructivism – you construct new knowledge on the basis of what you already know.  Furthermore, hearing about it (transmission – level 1 teacher) is not going to build another row of cards (new knowledge).  Neither is watching someone else demonstrate it (teacher centric – level 2 teacher) – the demonstrator will have constructed a new row of cards (knowledge), but not the learner.  So the other underpinning concept of constructivism is that you construct knowledge through activities that are likely to result in achieving the desired outcomes. It is all about what the learner does (student centric – level 3 teacher). It must be an active learning environment, not passive.

Back to the analogy, each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it fits or aligns with the cards below it.  If we are learning something new and it doesn’t neatly fit with what we have done before (the existing rows of cards), then we reject it, and attempt it another way. Now enter phenomenography.  The learner’s perspective or view of the world influences what they learn.  If a new concept challenges their current understanding (their existing stack of cards), then they will reject it in favour of something that does fit.  Biggs makes the comment that through teaching, it is possible to change (broaden) a learner’s stack of cards (perspective), or to in fact build a new stack of cards to assist learners in constructing knowledge.

Biggs: Revision of Chapter 1 – 3rd Edition

I thought I’d re-read through the initial chapters of Biggs’ 3rd edition to see what has changed.  In fact, there were a couple of particularly interesting discussions added that were absent from edition 2.

Biggs’ has gone to great lengths to explain the history of outcomes-based education (OBE), and to separate his theories around constructive-alignment from more radical, less accepted or country specific practices.  He states:  “Because of the confusion, and the emotion that OBE has aroused, we must clarify what we are talking about, and forthwith.”  Biggs’ has introduced a versioning system for identifying these practices. The version that curriculum alignment belongs to is version 3, which he calls outcomes based teaching and learning.

Something else that I noted in the first chapter was Biggs’ updated description of the current state of Australian Tertiary Education.  Biggs says:

Twenty years ago, public funding paid for virtually 100% of costs of the tertiary sector, but today that is very far from being the case.  Australia, for example, is now heading towards 30% of university funding from the public purse.  The bulk of the missing funding comes from student fees.  That is having profound effects on both students and on university teaching.

However, the reason for the enormous cuts in public funding was not only to save money and keep taxes low, although that was the rhetoric; it was ideological.  It stems from the neo-conservative belief that education is a private good and therefore one should pay for it, like one does for any other goods.  That changes the nature of universities and the university mission:  they became corporatized and competitive for markets.

I believe that succinctly describes the former conservative government of Australia’s attitude towards education.  It’s not one I am particularly fond of.  I hope with the new labor government, this attitude changes.   In my view, education is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but a basic human right of man-kind and equitable access should be afforded to all, no matter how wealthy or poor you may be.

On that point, I’ll kick my soapbox back under my desk and get on with things.