Mellon Foundation Closes Program Funding Sakai: It’s not about PowerPoint

March 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm 2 comments

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is closing a grant program that financed a series of high-profile university software projects, leaving some worried about a vacuum of support for open-source ventures.

Mellon’s decade-old Research in Information Technology program, or RIT, helped bankroll a catalog of freely available software that includes Sakai, a course-management system used by Stanford University and the University of Michigan; Kuali, a financial-management program recently rolled out at Colorado State University; and Zotero, a program for managing research sources used by millions.

via In Potential Blow to Open-Source Software, Mellon Foundation Closes Grant Program – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This news got me thinking about something completely different from Sakai.  I went to one of the early meetings when the Mellon Foundation was forming these coalitions.  There was a lot of excitement about universities working together to create open source software to solve important educational problems.  At the meeting that I attended, a number of wish-lists were generated: What should future educational software include?  Then these lists were sorted into what absolutely, positively had to be there, what would be useful to have, and what was unlikely to happen. What surprised me at the time was how much was on that “absolutely, positively” list.  Some of the items didn’t seem so absolute-positive to me, like image databases (for fields like mechanical engineering) that could search based on similar images (e.g., “Here’s a picture of a gear.  Where do gears of this pitch and size show up in other pictures?”).

One of those items on the absolutely-positively list was called “PedaPoint.”  The idea was to create a kind of PowerPoint that enforced what we know about good Pedagogy (“Pedagogical Powerpoint” => “PedaPoint”).  At the time, I thought that that was an outlandish goal.  Today, in reflecting back on the Mellon Foundation’s ending of this research program, I realize that it was also the wrong goal.

I’ve been reading more of the literature to which Carl Wieman pointed in his SIGCSE talk.  It’s not rocket science, looking at it from the cognitive/learning sciences perspective.  It’s totally obvious considering it from what we know about learning.  And yet, as Carl pointed out, we don’t teach correctly from a scientific perspective.  It’s not what we say, it’s what the students do.  Getting the students to think, getting the students to argue, getting the students to make decisions, and get those decisions corrected if they’re wrong — that’s where the learning comes from.  You can’t make learning work much better from fixing PowerPoint so that a teacher only says the right things.  (Of course, you can make learning work better by changing PowerPoint so that it’s more about what the students do!)

Sakai probably helped student learning more than a PedaPoint might have.  We use Sakai here at Georgia Tech, and there are lots of people worried now that Mellon support has faded.  Still, Sakai is a learning management system, and while that’s the “standard” for online courses, I do hope that we can do better.

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