Posts Tagged ‘cognitive media’

Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning?

Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning?
aka, Are social networks disrupting models of education?

I spoke recently at a panel on Rebooting the University: Disruptions in Models of Learning.[1] In preparing my presentation, I found myself thinking about the topic of the panel. Are there new “models of learning”? The brain hasn’t changed all that much, has it?

The real disruption is not in models but modes of learning. Let me explain. Students today care about their education, perhaps more so than ever. In fact, 4 out of 5 students stress about their grades.[2] Yet class attendance is down. The more technology is used, the less likely students are to attend.[3] After all, why sit in a one-hour lecture when one can download the powerpoint and skim it the night before the exam? 60% of students find lectures “boring” and powerpoint “sleep inducing”.[4]

Students aren’t reading their textbooks either.[5] That’s an easy problem, you say—this is the digital generation, let’s digitize their books. Surely textbooks will be more accessible (and affordable) on their laptops, their Kindles, their iPhones? It turns out 60% of students read less when using e-textbooks instead of physical textbooks.[6] 600-page PDFs do not make the grade with today’s youngsters. Frankly, I can’t read 600-page PDFs either.

The problem starts well before the university. In the recent Silent Epidemic study[7] funded by the Gates Foundation, 47% of high school dropouts said a major reason for dropping out was that “classes were not interesting” and they were “bored”. Remarkably, 88% of dropouts had passing grades. These kids are not failing out of school; they are simply disengaging.

But wait, you say. Students are bored, they don’t go to class, they don’t read their textbooks—how in the world do they learn enough to get passing grades? That’s where modes of learning come in. Students do learn—but from Wikipedia, nearly 80% of them.[8] They learn from MIT’s OpenCourseware—50 million and counting[9], over 200 thousand visitors a month. That is a lot of engagement. And most significantly, they learn from their peers. 55% of teenagers report using IM to discuss homeworks—a larger percentage than dating.[10] Students are studying, but the web is their classroom.

But wait, you say again. Universities offer more than knowledge delivery; they offer community. As George Siemens says of Open Yale, “Great video and talented presenters. My only complaint: I’d like to interact with others who are viewing the resources. Creating a one-way flow of information significantly misses the point of interacting online.”[11] Don’t universities provide this interaction? Isn’t that their value?

Students do need community. But let’s look at where their communities are. 95% of college students are spending up to 10 hours a week in social networks[12]—blogging, updating their profiles, trading pictures, and—yes—talking about schoolwork. “With so many hunched over their laptops and cell phones”, as Preetha Ram says, “who is left on the college quad?”[13]

The college quad. The very phrase conjures up images of the walled gardens of academia, laced with ivy, filled with knowledge, brimming with students eager to absorb that knowledge. But, as my former student Chris Sprague puts it, today’s students are casting a wider net. The web is their classroom, Facebook is their community, the world is their study group. The days of walled gardens are over. That is the true disruption.

Modes of learning have changed. George Siemens talks about connectivism—the new mode learning in the digital age.[14] The university is no longer a walled garden; it is a hub that connects students to the world around them. It is open. Not just in the sense of free video lectures; rather, the community (which, after all, is the real value of the university) is open.

My colleagues and I have been building an online community called OpenStudy.[15] Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance, OpenStudy is a kind of Facebook for learning. A place where students come, not to trade pictures and jokes, but to study. A place that connects them to other students in their university, to students in other universities, so they can study together.

We’ve seen this disruption in other areas. People collaborate online to create everything from music[16] to software[17]. Is creating knowledge any different?[18] As Rich DeMillo says, “social networks are well adapted to producing value in higher education.  The hubs and spokes of social networks reflect the long-tail effects that influencers have on learning.”[19]

I do research on games[20] and collaborative learning[21]. Anyone with a teenager at home knows how engaging massively multiplayer online games can be.[22] Stephen Downes and George Siemens are experimenting with massively multiplayer online courses.[23] OpenStudy can be thought of as a kind of massively multiplayer online learning—a world wide “guild” (if I may borrow a gaming term) of students interacting, helping, collaborating, studying together. A place for “user generated learning”, if you will.

Students get this. The world is their social graph, their gaming guild, and now, their study group. Student response to OpenStudy has been very positive. University response has also been positive, but many want to know if they can create a private network for their students. A closed network. AKA a walled garden. Universities still don’t get it.

The topic of the panel is Rebooting the University. My point is simple. The university is no longer a closed system, located in a tiny land-grant town a hundred miles from civilization. The days of isolation are over.[24] The university must be a hub for students to explore the world, expand their horizons, reach out to others. Students are doing this anyway, and if universities won’t adapt[25], students will do it without them.

[1] B Konsynski (2010), Knowledge Futures.

[2] SJ Cech (2008), Poll of U.S. teens finds heavier homework load, more stress over grades, Education Week.

[3] Personally, I have abandoned technology in favor of the good old whiteboard. It is more work than flipping through powerpoints, but (speaking purely anecdotally) attendance is up, students are more engaged, grades have improved. And students seem to like it—I get more Thank A Teacher awards now J.

[4] S Mann (2009), Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?, The Guardian.

[5] Clump, Bauer & Bradley, 2004; Burchfield & Sapington, 2000; Murden & Gillepsie, 1997; McCabe, 2003.

[6] JT Rickman, J Von Holzen,  PG Klute, & T Tobin (2009), A campus-wide e-textbook initiative, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 32(2).

[7] JM Bridgeland, JJ Dilulio Jr, KB Morrison (2006), The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.

[8] MH Miller (2010). Students use Wikipedia early and often, The Chronicle: Wired Campus.

[9] MIT OpenCourseWare marks 50 million visitors, The Boston Globe: Business News, 2008.

[10] 2007 AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey, reported in:

[11] G Siemens (2007). Open Yale.

[12] National School Board Association (2008). Creating and Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social—and Educational—Networking.

[13] P Ram (2009). An Empty College Quad?

[14] G Siemens (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. eLearnSpace.


[16],, and others

[17],, and many others

[18] D Wiley. Open source, openness, and higher education. Innovate Journal of Online Education.

[19] RA DeMillo (2011). Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities in the Twenty-First Century, MIT Press, in press.



[22] Actually, the average age of gamers is 35 [ESA 2009:] so this holds for adults too. This is good; universities will need to engage adults too as they begin to address lifelong learning seriously.

[23] Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs):

[24] It is no surprise to me that student-voted “best college towns” are no longer Ann Arbor and College Park, but places like Georgetown and our very own Emory [Princeton Review]. The campus town isn’t Emory Village, it is Atlanta, it is Washington DC, it is Greenwich Village. Students today are indeed casting a wider net, in more ways than one.

[25] Rich DeMillo (ibid.) describes one such vision: open courseware, hacked degrees, no brick walls, and above all an increased emphasis on access and a de-emphasis on selectivity and exclusion.

PML: Representing Procedural Domains for Multimedia Presentations

A central issue in the development of multimedia systems is the presentation of the information to the user of the system and how to best represent that information to the designer of the system. Typically, the designers create a system in which content and presentation are inseparably linked; specific presentations and navigational aids are chosen for each piece of content and hard-coded into the system.

We argue that the representation of content should be decoupled from the design of the presentation and navigational structure, both to facilitate modular system design and to permit the construction of dynamic multimedia systems that can determine appropriate presentations in a given situation on the fly. We propose a new markup language called PML (Procedural Markup Language) which allows the content to be represented in a flexible manner by specifying the knowledge structures, the underlying physical media, and the relationships between them using cognitive media roles. The PML description can then be translated into different presentations depending on such factors as the context, goals, presentation preferences, and expertise of the user.

Read the paper:

PML: Representing Procedural Domains for Multimedia Presentations

by Ashwin Ram, Rich Catrambone, Mark Guzdial, Colleen Kehoe, Scott McCrickard, John Stasko

IEEE Multimedia, 6(2):40-52, 1999

Cognitive Media and Hypermedia Learning Environment Design: A GOMS Model Analysis

In our research, we have been developing a design framework for educational multimedia, based on the cognitive aspects of the users of that information. Design based on “cognitive media” appeals to the particular cognitive aspects of learners, whereas design based on types of “physical media” appeals to particular sensory modalities. This framework informed the design of AlgoNet, a computer science educational hypermedia system that used cognitive media as its basic building blocks.

In this paper, we describe a model of student usage and learning with AlgoNet. This model, using the GOMS methodology, provided a useful description of the procedural knowledge required to interact with the AlgoNet system. In addition, our implemented simulations provided estimates of learning and execution times for several instances of the model. Together, the parameters in the simulations and their resulting estimates help clarify the impact of system design, and hence our design framework, on students’ browsing and learning strategies.

Read the paper:

Cognitive Media and Hypermedia Learning Environment Design: A GOMS Model Analysis

by Terry Shikano, Mimi Recker, Ashwin Ram

International Journal of Artificial Intelligence and Education, 9(1):1-17.

The Role of Student Tasks in Accessing Cognitive Media Types

We believe that identifying media by their cognitive roles (e.g., definition, explanation, pseudo-code, visualization) can improve comprehension and usability in hypermedia systems designed for learning. We refer to media links organized around their cognitive role as cognitive media types (Recker, Ram, Shikano, Li, & Stasko, 1995). Our hypothesis is that the goals that students bring to the learning task will affect how they will use the hypermedia support system (Ram & Leake, 1995).

We explored student use of a hypermedia system based on cognitive media types where students performed different orienting tasks: undirected, browsing in order to answer specific questions, problem-solving, and problem-solving with prompted self-explanations. We found significant differences in use behavior between problem-solving and browsing students, though no learning differences.

Read the paper:

The Role of Student Tasks in Accessing Cognitive Media Types

by Mike Byrne, Mark Guzdial, Preetha Ram, Rich Catrambone, Ashwin Ram, John Stasko, Gordon Shippey, Florian Albrecht

Second International Conference on the Learning Sciences (ICLS-96), Evanson, IL, July 1996

Exploring Interface Options in Multimedia Educational Environments

Multimedia technology presents several options to the developers of computer-based learning environments. For instance, it is common to organize information by its physical characteristics. However, organizize information based on how users understand the material might improve comprehension. This theory of cognitive media – media organized by cognitive characteristics – was examined in studies using the AlgoNet system, a multimedia learning environment (Recker, Ram, Shikano, Li, & Stasko, 1995). To explore several interface options, AlgoNet2, a second version of AlgoNet, was created with the same domain information, but several new interface concepts. Students in an introductory programming class used AlgoNet2 to solve a problem involving graph theory. Students’ performance and comments suggest that many students lack effective learning strategies and those that do employ effective learning strategies are unaware of them.

Read the paper:

Exploring Interface Options in Multimedia Educational Environments

by Gordon Shippey, Ashwin Ram, Florian Albrecht, Janis Roberts, Mark Guzdial, Rich Catrambone, Mike Byrne, John Stasko

Second International Conference on the Learning Sciences (ICLS-96), Evanson, IL, July 1996

Evaluating the Structural Organization of a Hypermedia Learning Environment using GOMS Model Analysis

Network-accessible hypermedia environments offer the potential for radically changing the nature of education by providing students with self-paced access to digital repositories of course information. However, much research is still required to identify ways to best organize, present, and index multimedia information to facilitate use and learning by students. We have been developing a theory of design for educational multimedia, which is based on cognitive aspects of the users of that information. Design based on “cognitive media types” appeals to the particular cognitive aspects of learners. In contrast, design based on physical media types appeals to particular symbol systems or sensory modalities.

To evaluate our theory of cognitive media types, we have taken a 3-pronged approach: design, empirical evaluation, and analysis of student models. In this paper, we focus on the third component of our approach: a model of student usage and learning with cognitive media. This model, based on the GOMS methodology, helps us better understand the usability of our system, and how it may support and hinder student learning. Furthermore, our user model provides feedback on our theory of cognitive media, and offers suggestions for the design of effective hypermedia learning environments.

Evaluating the Structural Organization of a Hypermedia Learning Environment using GOMS Model Analysis

by Terry Shikano, Mimi Recker, Ashwin Ram

World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, Boston, MA, June 1996

Structuring On-The-Job Troubleshooting Performance to Aid Learning

This paper describes a methodology for aiding the learning of troubleshooting tasks in the course of an engineer’s work. The approach supports learning in the context of actual, on-the-job troubleshooting and, in addition, supports performance of the troubleshooting task in tandem. This approach has been implemented in a computer tool called WALTS (Workspace for Aiding and Learning Troubleshooting).

This method aids learning by helping the learner structure his or her task into the conceptual components necessary for troubleshooting, giving advice about how to proceed, suggesting candidate hypotheses and solutions, and automatically retrieving cognitively relevant media. WALTS includes three major components: a structured dynamic workspace for representing knowledge about the troubleshooting process and the device being diagnosed; an intelligent agent that facilitates the troubleshooting process by offering advice; and an intelligent media retrieval tool that automatically presents candidate hypotheses and solutions, relevant cases, and various other media. WALTS creates resources for future learning and aiding of troubleshooting by storing completed troubleshooting instances in a self-populating database of troubleshooting cases.

The methodology described in this paper is partly based on research in problem-based learning, learning by doing, case-based reasoning, intelligent tutoring systems, and the transition from novice to expert. The tool is currently implemented in the domain of remote computer troubleshooting.

Read the paper:

Structuring On-The-Job Troubleshooting Performance to Aid Learning

by Brian Minsk, Hari Balakrishnan, Ashwin Ram

World Conference on Engineering Education, Minneapolis, MN, October 1995

Cognitive Media Types for Multimedia Information Access

Multimedia repositories, libraries, and databases offer the potential for providing students with access to a wide variety of interconnected information resources. However, in order to realize this potential, multimedia systems should provide access to information and activities that support effective knowledge construction and learning by students. This article proposes a theoretical framework for organizing information and activities in educational hypermedia systems. We show that such systems should not be characterized primarily in terms of the kinds of physical media types that can be accessed; instead, the important aspect is the content that can be represented within a physical media, rather than the physical media itself.

We propose a theory of “cognitive media types”based on the inferential and learning processes of human users. The theory highlights specific media characteristics that facilitate specific problem solving actions, which in turn are enabled by specific kinds of physical media. We present an implemented computer system, called AlgoNet, that supports hypermedia information access and constructive learning activities for self-paced learning in computer and engineering disciplines. Extensive empirical evaluations with undergraduate students suggest that self-paced interactive learning environments, coupled with multimedia information access and constructive activities organized into cognitive media types, can support and help students develop deep intuitions about important concepts in a given domain.

Read the paper:

Cognitive Media Types for Multimedia Information Access

by Mimi Recker, Ashwin Ram, Terry Shikano, George Li, John Stasko

Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 4(2/3):185-210, 1995. Earlier version presented at the.Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Franciso, 1995.