Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dogster? Not for This Dog Lover

            If you know me at all, your may have trouble believing that I knew nothing about Dogster before this week.  I probably landed on one of its Training and Behavior pages a few times in the past, when I was searching for background on terms like “separation anxiety” and  “coprophagia.”  I probably jumped off that page as fast as possible, instinctively distrusting anything I found there.
            How could a person who teaches Canine Behavior and Psychology not like a site like Dogster?  Would you believe me if I told you that my dog’s photos are not posted along with their stories, and that I don’t play dog games there or check out the great dog product deals?  What’s wrong with this picture?
Dogster was founded in 2004 and grew slowly and steadily until 2006, when they got a $1 million angel investment from three venture capital firms. (Aspan) (ChubbyBrain alpha)  It is considered a vertical social network, described as “… an amalgam of 600,000 people built around their love of canines.  Stephen Reading, co-founder and head of biz development at Dogster, said the site has drawn an audience that is 80 percent female, well-educated and average about $70,000 a year in income.” (Wasserman)
The two biggest competitors are Mydogspace and  Mydogspace is very limited in scope and is a sub-site for Petsmart, and only Petsmart products are advertised on it. (AppAppeal)  So for the present, Dogster is heads, paws and tails above the competition.  Its biggest strengths appear to be the thousands and thousands of photos and the special interest groups that members can join.  Groups range from “Snoop Dog Beagleys” (for Beagle owners) and “Rotties Rule,” to “Dog Sports” and “Home Cooked Food”, as well as hundreds more.  Recently, partnered with Dogster to offer members special discounts on dog products. 
            So why don’t I have an account there, and why don’t I refer my students to their Behavior and Training articles? 
First, there is not enough depth in the content to interest me.  None of the articles are bylined, so we don’t know the author’s credentials and although the content is not contentious, it is also tentative and unsubstantial.   Often, complex matters are tossed off with a statement such as “Be sure to seek out a professional trainer to help you with this.” 
The section titled “Dogs 101” should be titled “Dogs 001.”  All right, maybe that’s too unkind.  Maybe it should be “Dogs 050.”  After all, how much research does it take to cover a topic such as how to pick the right bed for your dog?  Search the site for special topics, and you’re just as likely to find the community forum where members talk about their experiences and give advice to one another.  It’s a nice way to build community, but the information isn’t always valid or might even be dangerous. 
Second, I am not happy about promoting the idea of dogs as furry kids, which is where this site is headed.  I think this does a disservice to both species.  While I am firmly attached to my canine family members, I respect and honor them for their unique qualities as dogs.  There is a difference, and when people start blurring the distinction between people and other species it leads to unsatisfactory results for both.
And finally, the last reason I don’t have an account or use the site is that although I am well-educated and more than 80 percent female, I don’t make $70,000 a year with enough spare time to play at this. 

Works Cited

AppAppeal. Dogster Review. 2011. 4 March 2011 <>.
Aspan, M. "Media Talk: It's Dogster, for when family pets network." New York Times 18 September 2006: 6.
ChubbyBrain alpha. Dogster - Investors and Funding History. 2011. 4 March 2011 <>.
Wasserman, T. "Smaller Social Networks Seen as Next Big Thing." Brandweek 2 October 2006: 15.

Social Network Characteristics

In his blog of January 28, 2009, Steve Hargadon says “You don’t really know which social networking sites you create will take off or succeed.”    I think that could be said of all startups, but it is especially true of businesses that depend on the interaction of their customers to grow.  When customers drive the content and the purpose, the control moves away from the original authors and the group takes shape on its on.  It’s like giving birth to an amoeba, except that amoebas have certain constraints within their cell structure that always keep them looking something like an amoeba.  In a social networking site, what started as an amoeba may grow into plankton or kelp or even kudzu. 
            This brings up the question of how to define a successful social networking site, and what is an optimum number.  Hargadon says that “a network doesn’t have to be 17,000 people.  It can be 40 or 50 if there is a good conversation taking place.”  If you were a venture capitalist looking to bankroll the technological needs of a large site, you would walk away from 17,000 people.  Investors want big number of participants so they can sell big amounts of advertising, thereby not only making a profit but also keeping the behind-the-scenes infrastructure going.  Without big numbers, as in millions of visitors, that won’t happen.
            I have to wonder also, even if the context for the social networking site is free or low cost, whether 40 or 50 is large enough for a group to be self sustaining.  We know that the site will gain some participants and lose some participants, but if the two always balnace, the site won’t grow.  Without growth, the conversations can become stagnant, since the same people are always contributing.  If the site is only about having conversations, it lacks the avid ownership that people have when they post to places that store their photos and allow them to create their own pages, play games and interact with others.  I wonder if there are any small sites that have survived with only 40 or 50 people.  I believe there is a critical mass below which the site will eventually drift apart and die.
            Hargadon’s post left me with more questions than before I read it.  To start with, how do you define success?  Is it the number of registered users, or the number of pages or options the site offers, or the number of advertising dollars?  Or is it something less concrete, such as being a social networking site that makes social change possible in our world?
            For people who want to start social networking sites, how many ideas do you have to test before you find the key?  I suppose this is like asking how many business models an entrepreneur must test and toss away before finding one that works.  Still, are their people who have had multiple successes, and if so, why?
            Social networking sites aren’t like other businesses in their appearance, but they do have one thing in common with all startups:  You can’t force people to play.  You can invite and lure and entice, but if it’s not what people want, you’ve got a solution looking for a problem.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Should My Class Have a Wiki?

If you search the web, you won’t find many arguments against using wikis in educational classes.  Every disadvantage or objection listed (vandalism, privacy, etc.) can be overcome with moderate ease.  So why isn’t everyone doing it?
Actually, if you search for wiki lesson plans, it looks as if everyone is doing it.  There are incredibly creative examples of wiki use abounding on the internet, with K-12 teachers leading the way.  It may seem odd to think of third graders having a class wiki, but there are plenty of examples.  It seemed to me, though, that as one looks into higher and higher education levels, that wiki use starts to taper off.
If it is true, and not just my impression, why would that be?  Is it because many higher education classes are taught by older educators, who are not as willing to embrace something that may be a passing educational fad?  Is it because at the college and university level, the idea of “authoritative sources” is still the only recognized and approved method of scholarship?  (Follow this link to an interesting debate between the leaders of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica regarding what constitutes an authority:
Or is because in many colleges and universities that lecture is still the preferred means of delivering content, and wikis are just too “hands-on” to be effective or the instructor doesn’t want to give up control?
I don’t have the answer, but my search for college level wikis turned up only about one-tenth the examples of those used in elementary and secondary schools.
How I might use a wiki in my college class:
 If I were to introduce the idea of a class wiki right now, in the middle of the semester, I would introduce it to my students with the invitation to join me in an experiment.  I think I need to be truthful and tell them that I’m not an expert on the editing tools, and haven’t looked at a million wikis to see what ours might look like.  That might actually encourage a few of them to explore this idea with me.   If they feel that they have nothing to lose and something to gain, possibly they will be willing to test this new process.
Even though wikis have been around and have been used in education for a while, most of my students probably haven’t used one in a classroom setting before.  I don’t think the idea is widespread in our county K-12 school system yet, so the 18 to 25 year old group might have a modest introduction to them but certainly haven’t been overloaded.  For the 30 and up group who are returning to school while working, it is unlikely that many have used a class wiki before.   
I don’t want to jump on a bandwagon just because everyone else is doing it.  I could see a class wiki being very beneficial to the students, though, since we don’t use a textbook and they could actually create the textbook themselves.   
As I look at the physical access my students have to the necessary technology, I am quite sure that not all of them would contribute.  For many of them, access to computers is just barely adequate to get done what they need to do right now.  It is not so much the idea of
Because we’ve already started the semester, I can’t make this part of the student’s grade.  If the process turns out to be workable and beneficial, it could become part of next year’s assessment procedure.  I am especially interested in the idea of being able to see how students are developing, so that if there is a need to change the approach to a concept, I can do it before we get to an important test.   More important, though is the question of whether my students are willing to explore and experiment with this with no reward from me.  We have built such a “pay for your effort” reward base into our system, though, that I think only those who are truly, deeply interested in the subject matter will follow me into the wiki jungle without getting something in return.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Online Learning or Learning Online: What's the Difference?

Will Richard’s February 16, 2011 Blog “Online Learning Isn’t Learning Online” ( struck so many chords with me that I had to respond as if I were in a debate.  For clarity, I’ve highlighted specific statements from his text, and then posted my viewpoint underneath. 
WR:  “Sure, taking a course online may offer more individuation and student choice in how to manage the process, but at the end of the day, I wonder what those online students have learned more or better than the ones who took the course in a classroom.”
KC: Why do they have to learn more?   Why do they have to learn better?  Isn’t it enough that they meet the same learning outcomes as face-to-face classroom students do?  I see no justification for thinking that they learned any less.  In addition, I think students in an online course can develop skills that students in a traditional classroom do not.  One of the most important is the building of self discipline.  The very flexibility of some online, asynchronous courses means that students must approach learning as a job.  They must make active decisions about time management or they will not be successful.  This is an employable skill that is rarely measured in student learning outcomes.
WR:  “And it’s about, as I mentioned yesterday, a growing business interest that sees an opportunity to make inroads into education as ‘approved providers.’”
KC: And exactly what is wrong with this?  You could apply this same statement to the textbook industry, who are also “approved providers.”  The profit motive drives this capitalist country, and while it might be utopian to have education be free of economic interests, the ideal does not meet reality.  Reality is that if we want educated children who will grow into educated adults and lifelong learners, we have to pay for that dream every step of the way.  If there are business interests to whom we can contract part of the job, then why should we not do so?  Online learning does not replace the instructor; it simply requires a different kind of interaction.
WR:  “As I asked in a comment on the post, do students practice inquiry in these settings? Are they able to ask their own questions? Are they assessed any differently? Do they create any new knowledge in the process and, if so, is that knowledge shared anywhere? Does their experience in the course replicate real life in any new way? Does it teach them how to learn on their own? To go deep?”
KC: And why would they not be able to practice inquiry in these settings?  Why would they not be able to ask their own questions?  What does “assessed any differently" mean?  Why would the standards be any different in an online class?  Whether or not they create any new knowledge is a matter of how the course is designed, but it is certainly probable that they could.  And that knowledge, in an online course, is generally shared via discussion boards and collaborative projects.  One of the great advantages of the online environment is that it is easier to share information and ideas. 
WR:  “ We have goals and outcomes for our participants, but we don’t say to them “here is the path, work ahead if you like, and your grades will be posted online.” We let them find their own way, supporting and prodding as needed, trying to keep them moving in the general direction of shift. With any luck, they experience the change in their own way, on their own terms.”
KC: Letting students find their own path and trying to keep them moving in the general direction of shift is all very well for students who are not involved in a compulsory education or even higher education setting.  Unfortunately, since taxpayers are paying for the education, they want to know if they are getting their money’s worth, and that means that students have to be able to pass certain tests by certain physical maturation dates.  That means also that teachers are supposed to be getting certain concepts across, regardless of whether the student is interested in learning them.  The dispute belongs, not to the online learning process, but on the nature of our educational system.  We’ve never been able to balance the idea of tax supported, mass education with the ideal goals of self directed, self motivated learning. 
WR: “ …let’s make sure they take advantage of the online piece to let participants develop the connections that will sustain them far beyond the class.
KC:  Where is the evidence that this is not happening?  What connections are being referred to here, and why do they appear to be missing?  In the online classes I’ve taken, there have been a number of different approaches.  One used nothing but a voluminous textbook that stepped us through the methods of mastering certain skills.  The instructor’s contribution was to help each student individually if he or she got lost.  It was an excellent course and I use those skills frequently and refer back to the textbook every now and then.  In another fully online course, each student was assigned two research papers each week.  Each student was required to comment on the other student’s papers in a constructive way.  I made connections all right– all over the country, since this was an asynchronous university class.  Oh, you mean connections between bits of knowledge?  That certainly happened also, because writing reflective papers requires that I not only see the knowledge but also use it.  Whether or not students make learning connections is a function of the way the class is structured, not a fault of the online learning context itself.
Online learning is not merely a different way to deliver content. It is a different way to learn.  We live in a global village where being able to work collaboratively online is a vital business skill.  I’m not sure what Richardson means by the difference between “Learning Online” and “Online Learning”.  Perhaps this concept is covered in an earlier blog.   At any rate, it is certainly possible to deliver a class that depends on rote memorization either online or in the classroom.  Conversely, it is equally possible to create a class that requires students to actively engage in deep learning both in a traditional classroom or online.  As with anything else in life, it is possible for the attempt in either context to fall short of the ideal, but that doesn’t make the medium the villain.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Philosophy of Education

Philosophy of Education
“You should be ashamed of yourselves!” the instructor shouted from his stage at the bottom of the 300-seat lecture hall.  The disruptive students barely paused.  “You don’t realize what an opportunity you’re missing!  If you don’t learn this now, you never will!”
            That scenario came from an early college experience of mine.  The instructor was one of those prime examples of poor teaching.  He sat in front of the lectern and read to us from the book he was writing.  He also reflected a popular view of the time, that learning was basically set by age 30 and that education had to be completed early in life. The concept of lifelong learning was not yet a buzzword and adults returning to school were anomalous misfits.
            I left the education industry because the business world beckoned with not only more pay but also with less politics than the academic world.  I found that as a supervisor, I was still a teacher; I just taught a different subject.  In time, I discovered that most of life is about teaching in some way.  After leaving the corporate world to start my own business, I still had to teach my customers; in order to sell the products.  I had to instruct them on how to use them for their benefit.   
            Running my own mail order business left me with enough of a flexible schedule so that I could offer private students lessons in teaching their dogs how to herd.  Individuals came with various backgrounds and talents and the situation became a true test of my teaching skill.  Imagine that each of your students paid you money when they walked out the door at the end of your class, according to how good their learning experience was that day.  If they did not advance in learning they would not be back and you would shortly be unemployed.   
This became the almost ideal example of learner centered teaching.   My students’ minds were not blank slates.   While most had never done any herding, some of them had done other things that we could build on.  For example, for those who had experience with horses, I could explain the concepts of pressure in an analogy with equine motivation.  For my English-born student, I was able to make a comparison about the relationship of dog, handler and sheep to that of the billiards player, cue stick and cue ball.  I didn’t know this had a major educational field of theory called constructivism until recently. 
Each student learns by doing, although sometimes I refer them to a classic text if I think they are people who can learn from books.  Each individual’s lesson is unique.  The students often tell me what they need to repeat, or what direction they want to go.  Students continually ask questions.  Students tell me that a herding lesson is better than going to a psychiatrist.  Although students are often fearful at first, they begin to relax and discover the exhilaration that a successful lesson can create.  
Is this learner-centered education?  Here is one researcher’s view:  “The review of literature supporting learner-centered education suggests several important dispositions including (1) education should be experience based, (2) each individual learners own unique qualities and dispositions should be considered when planning experiences, (3) the learner’s perceptions should shape the curriculum, (4) learner’s curiosity should be fed and nurtured, (5) learning is best when it involves the emotions, and (6) the learning environment should be free from fear.”  (Henson 10)
I think the private lessons fit this description.  There are no tests and no grades but if students want, they can have their abilities evaluated and certified by an independent individual in a formal trial.
But although this format has worked well for individual lessons and even small groups, it is more difficult to bring this style into a classroom situation.  Sometimes just being in a physical classroom with desks all oriented to the front shapes the students’ expectations that all the learning is going to come from the instructor.   It is harder for the content to become directed by the learner, because we have learning outcomes that must be achieved.   We can still make the learning experiential and creative a positive emotional climate, and we can encourage questions and dialogue. 
Today’s classroom, even with all its limitations, is a darn sight better than the college lecture hall experience I described earlier.

If you want to know more about some specifics of my teaching philosophy, here's a three-minute video I made to explain some additional thoughts.  

Works Cited
Henson, K. "Foundations for learner-centerededucation: A knowledge base." Education (2003): 5-16.