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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2015 / Winter 2016)

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Q&A about CourseNetworking with Dr. Ali Jafari

Q&A by Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Photos by Bob Epp, Johnson County Community College

Dr. Ali Jafari participated in a face-to-face Q&A on July 30, 2015, after his keynote presentation to the SIDLIT 2015 conference attendees. The title of the keynote was “Next Generation of Learning Management Systems: Social, Global, and Engaging.” Dr. Jafari is currently working as a Professor of Computer and Information Technology at the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology and Director of the CyberLab at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). In CourseNetworking, Dr. Ali Jafari has 26,689 anar seeds. His biography is available on Wikipedia.

Q: Please describe CourseNetworking (CN) for us. What are the functions of this system?

Dr. Ali Jafari: The easiest way to describe it is to consider it as a new next-generational learning environment, which we’ve been referring to as “LMS”. And also the other major difference is this functions as an academic social network. And so you can imagine mixing the LMS and putting it into an academic social network, so so many new features, so many new functionalities get created. For example, one functionality would be that if students and teachers want, they can very easily be connected to their peers all over the world. That offers a “classroom without walls.”

In the old days, the way people would socialize at a bar. Today, for this generation, the most easy way is Facebook. CN provides this functionality as compared to an LMS which does not offer this functionality.

Q: Who is on CN currently? What are some of their demographics?

Jafari: The entire world. There are two ways to join and use the CN. One of them is the free version. Anyone from anywhere can create a CN account, and if that person is teaching, could put his or her course online. And basically receive the full functionality of an LMS. As long as the person is doing it individually, it is free. If an institution, they get so many functionalities: integration with campus systems; a social site for their university like a Facebook page. They get a very elaborate advanced e-portfolio. And on and on and on. They can use the CN to give badges to the student.

Q: What about for campuses with LMSes already? Does CN work for those learners?

Jafari: So we do understand that especially in North America, many universities have already made commitments of what LMS to use. We do understand that sometimes it’s very difficult to move away from somewhere else. So appreciating that, we came up with the so-called LTI integration between CN and the legacy LMS. We offer the functionality that the legacy LMS does not provided, embedded inside the learning management system. We can also provide this one for free. So the person responsible for administering the LMS, we can provide the account, the secret and password for the LTI connection, and we help them with questions with the integration.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for CourseNetworking? How did you conceptualize this to be different from the prior learning management systems [OnCourse (later Sakai), Angel, and Epsilen] you helped create?

Jafari: Six years, ago Angel learning was sold out. As a research faculty member, I had to do something new. I conducted research to see what is wrong with the LMS as a technology and what would be the solution. So that’s how I started it. I started the whitepaper (“From Course Management to Course Networking: Conceptualizing a New Learning Environment based on Social Networking”) published on the Motivational Experience website in 2012, with Amy L. Baylor, Research Advisor. Instead of just ending this research by publishing a white paper, I thought and in fact my colleague told me that I have the interests, the credentials, and also the university who is interested in these entrepreneurship ideas, so I should pursue the idea. So I wanted to start another private company like we did with OnCourse and Angel and not just talk about it.

I wrote up a business plan for a company and discussed it with the university. In the matter of a month, it was understood, and we created the company (CourseNetworking, LLC). Indiana University is a major shareholder of this private company. I am a majority shareholder.

Q: Is CourseNetworking competing with the other LMSes that you’ve contributed to, or do you see this as complementary to them?

Jafari: Actually both. We intentionally designed it to be complementary in a sense that we provide the (social) functionality that the LMS cannot provide. Universities cannot easily get out their LMSes. There are political, legal, and contractual issues; sometimes, it’s that faculty members don’t like change.

Definitely competing because we are providing information technology solutions to enhance teaching and learning and to provide a solutions to online learning because this is what CN could do. This can be seen as competition. But so far we have not been into the U.S. market. We are just focusing on S.E. Asia market to license to CN.

I think they are more open to new innovations and new ideas. In the U.S. pretty much all universities have made their minds and their commitments. That’s not true with other universities in other countries. There’s less legacy to other universities (abroad). Switching from a legacy to a next generation is pretty troublesome. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to just stay in S.E. Asia. Beginning this fall, we are going into the market in the U.S. by offering the LTI integration with LMSes…but we are not going to use our resources to hire a dozen of sales managers and go neck-to-neck with Canvas and all of those. I strongly believe if the product is good that you don’t need all those marketing techniques. If we want to open a sales and marketing office in the U.S., that will require new capital investment and take the focus away from what we are doing.

Q: What are some of the most popular features on CourseNetworking? Why do you think such features are so popular?

Jafari: The interface, overall look-and-feel, the ease-of-use. Let’s talk about Blackboard. It’s a powerful functionality. CN is offering the functionality that Blackboard provides, but we’ve made it easily easy to use and a look-and-feel that is very easy for the new generation…the interface of social networking. There’s similarity between CN and Facebook. Always there is a chance for you to like something and to reflect something. Ideas are nothing you can patent. We are using the concept of social networking and built a new learning environment built on that concept. I’m not using the various algorithms, for example, that Facebook is using to network people together. Maybe. We don’t know. Maybe some of the functionality within CN has got a patent protection on it. You don’t know it unless they come and tell you.

Q: Are you in competition with Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks then with your idea of a “life-long cyber identity”?

Jafari: That’s different than the way we are doing it. I cannot see a faculty member want to encourage a student to go to Facebook for social interaction. Once you get to Facebook, you get distracted from everything that is happening. I don’t think that would be wise. The noise of it is extremely high. If you’re asked to discuss what happened last week, your friends want to talk to you, and you get distracted by your cousin getting married. In fact you may want to note this somewhere. My initial idea was to build an LMS on top of Facebook, but I realized this was a big big mistake because this would be totally distractive to everyone.

Q: What are some upcoming features that you’ll be adding to CourseNetworking? Why?

Jafari: The future or the new services that we are offering is CNPost, which is providing the social aspect to the LMSes. We have already released the hashtagging in a very evaluative way. It’s different than hashtagging in Twitter. We are going to release by the end of this summer a full blown badge system, so instructors can give badges, and institutions can give badges as a macro certification. We are totally compatible to Mozilla repository. We also provide with the repository and a seamless integration with course, with the students within the university. Every person will have unique URL for their own lifelong profile page and a social e-portfolio page. The badges would show up on the portfolio.

Q: How does CN authenticate students?

Jafari: The campuses will, and this is the incentive for the campuses to license us. When the campuses get a site license with CN, they get a CN channel, and through that they can basically link to their student information systems.

Q: Are there tools in CourseNetworking that ensure that students are being honest in their test-taking and work?

Jafari: This is the same as any other online testing. We have a ready comprehensive online testing tool like other learning management systems, and there are some measures and some capabilities made available to make sure a student to some extent to see if a student is cheating or not. But the issue of student dishonesty in online learning is not if it’s an old learning management system, or this is an online testing tool or is Canvas. The problem is for the concept. If I put a test online and the student is in China, the student can call his cousin to his room to help him out. Of course, there are some means (to head off some cheating). There are some third party companies now that they even provide the video feed. But again, there are ways…if you want to do it you can do it. The only way to know is if you have a student in front of you whom you know for 16 weeks, and you’re watching him, that he doesn’t have a textbook on the table. Once we make this virtual, we are opening up the possibility of cheating.

Q: Community is so important to create for online learning, and yet, it’s very hard to cultivate and maintain a community, particularly a global one (with a mix of cultures). What have your experiences been with this effort?

Jafari: We came up with the reward system that is the student is receiving pomegranate seeds or anar seeds. They are excited to collect more anar seeds than others do. The more they participate, the more opportunities they have to find and meet new friends globally. And you know there is that accident of discovery that Facebook has. We as human beings are very social. We always want to have friends. If there is means of finding friends in a country, we will pursue that. You see a student, you see a post from a student in your biology class, and you are always interested to get to know someone in China, that becomes an opportunity. Social networking is very sticky, it’s very engaging. We like it. Maybe 90% of us like it. It’s very entertaining. It’s very rewarding.

Q: What sorts of data do you capture in offering this CourseNetworking service? At the macro level, what insights do you have about the learners? The faculty? The others on your system?

Jafari: We continue to add more data that is useful for research and also analytic data that is useful for teachers. We make it available to the people that have the need for it as long as it is not violating any privacy or any FERPA or any of those rules. In terms of the typical data that we collect, student activity, how many posts they make, how many reflections they make, how many anar seeds, how they are doing compared to their classmates. We have a growing number of researchers interested in doing research. Such as which of these factors are improving the engagement. What are the major variables? So one of them is like the notion, of the post…and encourages the members to contribute their knowledge, what they find with others. The research that they are doing, we are looking at independent variables like gender., the course subject like biology , the culture, the age, the socio-economic factors…some of that data we have. It truly is a research project. The improvement from the research that adds into the product that becomes a product.

Q: Your site offers MOOCs (massive open online courses). What are some of the most popular MOOC topics? What sorts of other MOOCs would you like to see?

Jafari: We provide the engine for people to create MOOC courses, but we are not like Coursera. We are not like edX that team up with the faculty members to team up to create MOOC courses and offer it there. We are just a tool provider. We are aware of some faculty members who have used the CN and have tried to market on their own or (through) their university. They may not get as many audience (members) as Coursera or edX would get.

Q: As an entrepreneur, how do you balance your academic and research work with the entrepreneurial endeavors? How do you know you’re on to a winning service or product?

Jafari: When I was hired as a faculty member, that was part of my responsibility to do research and create new educational technology. I was in a tenure track position. If there is a commercial opportunity, we commercialize it, and actually the university helps us. If there is no (commercial) opportunity, we open source it. And as I mentioned, I’ve been always (been) interested in entrepreneurship. Just publishing the results of my result in the paper never meant to me to be the last step. I enjoy this conference. I appreciate this conference. I see thousands of courses all over the world. I see that is working. I see a new model that I created, a new paradigm. I see that is working. So that is the satisfaction.

I’ve been told that there are not many faculty members like me. The way that the tenure and promotion is defined and practiced is you know people need to just do their research and publish. They do not mention the last part of it that you have to roll out the research as a product.

Q: How do you create a conceptual architecture for an LMS? What do you look for in user interface design? How do you know that the coding aligns with your vision? What are some of your design philosophies regarding learning management systems?

Jafari: Every project that I’ve done, I’ve been the conceptual architect. I do all of those. You can see me as a kind of overall chief architect of that from the conceptual perspective. From the technical, I leave it to good engineers and good developers, senior developers. This (coding) is no longer my expertise. This used to be my expertise. I have written millions of lines of code. That was the time when I was the student, and that was the time before I got my university position job. You are creating the environment. I translate those into the developers. They come out with the alpha version, the beta version, and we constantly test it. We have a very efficient and nicely working model for the R&D. I create the concept model and then the design document (with specifications). I send that to the developers in China. They put it on the beta server, and we look at it from here. We debug it, and we refine it, and that goes back and forth. And it goes to production. Very cost effectively. Every two weeks we have a new release; (by contrast) commercial products have a new release every year.

Let’s say if a campus or a university or community colleges, if they have enough students to justify hosting it themselves, we give them the source code, we help them set it up, give them an opportunity to host it the way that they want and to customize it. The systems would have to have at least about 100,000 students. We are currently in discussions with several ministries of education, so they can use it with the entire country. We could be talking tens of millions of students, so this would be very cost effective for them, to maintain it, to customize it, to focus on their language of preference, and to change it based on their curriculum needs.

In fact, we do understand. At least I do understand. Let’s think Afghanistan, for example. They should not be in a financial situation. I’m talking about the higher education institution, even maintaining a Moodle server. We came up with a business model for the U of Afghanistan come to CN and get it for free. 100% free.

Q: What are some of your ideas regarding potential intelligent agents in CourseNetworking?

Jafari: This is how we are going to do the agent. If a research group is interested in developing an agent, we will give them the API to CN. We are also developing agents ourselves. What we have begun conceptually is a learning agent. That’s the agent that is going to look at the millions of posts that are out there for a given student in a given class, and we’re showing the best posts and the best news, based on the assignment that the student needs to do that week and based on the learning objectives of the course.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Jafari: Many people actually already mentioned in their talk what differentiate us from other learning environments. We are truly truly truly developed by educators. Look at people who are involved in the R&D.

Of course we have senior developers. This group is in China…so this is offering an opportunity to design a system that is defined and designed by the end users.

C2C:  Thank you for your insights and for making the time, Dr. Jafari.

Jafari: You’re welcome.

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University, where she has been since 2006.  

About the Photographer

Bob Epp is a Senior Educational Technology Analyst at the Educational Technology Center at Johnson County Community College. 
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