Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When "Best of Breed" maybe isn't best...

My latest thinking has been about what the current web2.0, best-of-breed, approach to learning technologies may mean for future learning systems--technically speaking.
When evaluating a new LMS or any large-system, vendors are keen to repeatedly point out how their open architecture will allow our system admins to plug-in, extend, add-on, and integrate any number of "best-of-breed" applications. (This can be code for "we don't have that service, don't plan on developing it, and rely on (hope that) others will build system extensions with your desired functionality.)

As attractive as so many of these nifty, browser-based, Ajax apps and web2.0 widgets are, what does it mean to have VLE or LMS systems that are so customizeable, personalizable and decentralized--read dependent on others' services?!?. Currently my Facebook, iGoogle, Firefox and similar pages or apps already come up now and then with unreachable services, or unavailable extensions. These can become especially problematic when any component piece is upgraded.

Companies like Blackboard have had what it calls "building blocks" for some time now, Facebook has created an api, now chuck full of more privacy-hemorrhaging gotta-haves than I even care or have time to explore. Moodle has numerous plugins and modules. Angel doesn't yet, but seems to be headed that direction. In the web2.0 world, there are seemingly endless tools (many in alpha, beta, gold) that have relevance to learning and digital expression. Mashable published a great list of 400+ tools for photographers, videobloggers, podcasters and musicians. Similar resources can be found go2web20.net and allthingsweb2.com.

Say you identify the best of breed apps for your course needs and want to integrate even just a tiny handful of these--and you just might after you try some of them--integrating the services, dealing with uptime, maintenance, server space, buy-outs, loss of venture capital, authentication, privacy could be a nightmare--especially if you are:

  • An instructor who has built their learning activities and assignments around the provided functionality
  • A student whose grade or portfolio relies on having stable services and storage for your assignments
  • The one tasked to provide simultaneously innovative, flexible and reliable services to the college or university
I plan on using some of these in an upcoming course I teach, but the what-if's are starting to worry me a touch. Still, as a designer and educator I want to use/explore many of these tools, and I think I want our systems people to facilitate it...but the more un-integrated 3rd party accounts I sign up for, the less I'm sure about it's positive effects on the overall and long-term learning experience. There's something to be said for tight integration , vs. Best of Breed (think Mac vs. PC). Does integration itself at some point make the whole system best of breed?

I'm not sure where its all headed, but those affiliated closely with Educause are concerned and write/speak on the topic. Feel free to share some good posts/articles you've see related to this post.
-Joel G.
(image source: soldierant)

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