Archive for the ‘Connectivism’ Category

Teaching in Social and Technological Networks

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Technological networks have transformed prominent businesses sectors: music, television, financial, manufacturing. Social networks, driven by technological networks, have similarly transformed communication, news, and personal interactions. Education sits at the social/technological nexus of change – primed for dramatic transformative change. In recent posts, I’ve argued for needed systemic innovation. I’d like focus more specifically on how teaching is impacted by social and technological networks.

What is the role of a teacher?

A teacher/instructor/professor obviously plays numerous roles in a traditional classroom: role model, encourager, supporter, guide, synthesizer. Most importantly, the teacher offers a narrative of coherence of a particular discipline. Selecting a textbook, determining and sequencing lecture topics, and planning learning activities, are all undertaken to offer coherence of a subject area. Instructional (or learning) design is a structured method of coherence provision.

This model works well when we can centralize both the content (curriculum) and the teacher. The model falls apart when we distribute content and extend the activities of the teacher to include multiple educator inputs and peer-driven learning. Simply: social and technological networks subvert the classroom-based role of the teacher. Networks thin classroom walls. Experts are no longer “out there” or “over there”. Skype brings anyone, from anywhere, into a classroom. Students are not confined to interacting with only the ideas of a researcher or theorist. Instead, a student can interact directly with researchers through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and listservs. The largely unitary voice of the traditional teacher is fragmented by the limitless conversation opportunities available in networks. When learners have control of the tools of conversation, they also control the conversations in which they choose to engage.

Course content is similarly fragmented. The textbook is now augmented with YouTube videos, online articles, simulations, Second Life builds, virtual museums, Diigo content trails, StumpleUpon reflections, and so on.

What is the impact of conversation/content fragmentation?

Traditional courses provide a coherent view of a subject. This view is shaped by “learning outcomes” (or objectives). These outcomes drive the selection of content and the design of learning activities. Ideally, outcomes and content/curriculum/instruction are then aligned with the assessment. It’s all very logical: we teach what we say we are going to teach, and then we assess what we said we would teach. This cozy comfortable world of outcomes-instruction-assessment alignment exists only in education. In all other areas of life, ambiguity, uncertainty, and unkowns reign.

Fragmentation of content and conversation is about to disrupt this well-ordered view of learning. Educators and universities are beginning to realize that they no longer have the control they once (thought they) did.

However, in order for education to work within the larger structure of integrated societal systems, clear outcomes are still needed. Growing accountability emphasis in all levels of education – primary, secondary, and post-secondary – suggests that the system needs to produce concise outcomes. Fragmentation, it would appear, pushes against this.

How can we achieve clear outcomes through distributed means? How can we achieve learning targets when the educator is no longer able to control the actions of learners?

The Knotted Ball of Education

Based on the courses I’ve taught with Stephen Downes over the last few years – CCK08 & CCK09 – I’ve come to view teaching as a critical and needed activity in the chaotic and ambiguous information climate created by networks. In the future, however, the role of the teacher, the educator, will be dramatically different from the current norm. Views of teaching, of learner roles, of literacies, of expertise, of control, and of pedagogy are knotted together. Untying one requires untying the entire model.

And that is precisely what I suggest.

In this short article, I’ll focus on one specific aspect of the knotted ball of education: the role of the teacher.

Given that coherence and lucidity are key to understanding our world, how do educators teach in networks? For educators, control is being replaced with influence. Instead of controlling a classroom, a teacher now influences or shapes a network.

The following are roles teacher play in networked learning environments:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modelling
7. Persistent presence


Social media like Twitter provide a few examples of how teacher’s roles might change. Twitter has an option available to users called re-tweet (RT). This is essentially amplification. If one Twitterer posts a link to an article in NY Times, her followers may find the article useful and then respond by re-tweeting the article. Each RT amplifies the message. Even a handful of Twitter users, with say 20 followers each, can quickly spread a message to hundreds of people. Each RT amplifies the message much like an electronic amplifier increases the amplitude of audio or video transmitters.

In networks, teachers are one node among many. Learners will, however, likely be somewhat selective of which nodes they follow and listen to. Most likely, a teacher will be one of the more prominent nodes in a learner’s network. Thoughts, ideas, or messages that the teacher amplifies will generally have a greater probability of being seen by course participants. The network of information is shaped by the actions of the teacher in drawing attention to signals (content elements) that are particularly important in a given subject area.


Several years ago, I suggested curatorial teaching (10 minute presentation):

An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored.

While “curator” carries the stigma of dusty museums, the metaphor is appropriate for teaching and learning. The curator, in a learning context, arranges key elements of a subject in such a manner that learners will “bump into” them throughout the course. Instead of explicitly stating “you must know this”, the curator includes critical course concepts in her dialogue with learners, her comments on blog posts, her in-class discussions, and in her personal reflections. As learners grow their own networks of understanding, frequent encounters with conceptual artifacts shared by the teacher will begin to resonate.

In CCK08/09, Stephen and I produced a daily newsletter where we highlighted discussions, concepts, and resources that we felt were important. As the course progressed, many students stated they found this to be a valuable resource -a centering point of sorts. Criticism was directed at our curatorial activities with concerns voiced that we were only selecting resources that supported our views. This wasn’t the case. We drew attention to both supportive and critical views. However, The Daily was not the only source of information for learners in the course. In the Daily, we aggregated blog posts and twitter posts as well. More on that when we consider aggregation.

Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking

How do individuals make sense of complex information? How do they find their way through a confusing and contradictory range of ideas? To address this, I’ll turn to Darken’s concept of wayfinding. Darken’s work is based on large virtual worlds, but I think it translates well to the challenges we face in making sense of fragmented information. When I first started learning about the internet (pre-web days), I felt like I had stepped into a alternate realm with its own norms of behaviour and conduct. Bulletin boards and chat rooms presented a challenging mix of navigating social protocols while developing technical skills.

By engaging with these conversation spaces – and forming a few tentative connections with others – I was able to find a precarious foothold in the online medium. After a period of time, I was able to navigate the space fairly effortlessly. When a new technology appeared, such as blogs, my existing knowledge base enabled me to recognize potential uses. With a bit of background of html, ftp, and webhosting, I was able to use Pyra’s Blogger service to post to my own domain. I found my way through personal trial and error.

Today’s social web is no different – we find our way through active exploration. Designers can aid the wayfinding process through consistency of design and functionality across various tools, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the individual to click/fail/recoup and continue.

Fortunately, the experience of wayfinding is now augmented by social systems. Social structures are filters. As a learner grows (and prunes) her personal networks, she also develops an effective means to filter abundance. The network becomes a cognitive agent in this instance – helping the learner to make sense of complex subject areas by relying not only on her own reading and resource exploration, but by permitting her social network to filter resources and draw attention to important topics. In order for these networks to work effectively, learners must be conscious of the need for diversity and should include nodes that offer critical or antagonistic perspectives on all topic areas. Sensemaking in complex environments is a social process.


Aggregation had so much potential. And yet has delivered relatively little over the last decade. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps RSS was too effective. Perhaps we need to spend more time in information abundant environments before we turn to aggregation as a means of making sense of the landscape. Pageflakes, iGoogle, and Netvibes have largely plateaued innovation in aggregation.

During CCK08/09, we used a variety of techniques to pull together fragmented content and conversations: Google alerts, Pageflakes, and grsshopper. The Daily included a list of blog posts tagged with CCK08/09 and any tweets with the course tag. But these are still rudimentary. Techmeme provides a slightly more sophisticated option of grouping broad themes. For the last seven years, I’ve held hope that information visualization (i.e. IBM’s ManyEyes) would provide a solution. After all, why should we do the heavy cognitive work when technology is uniquely suited to analyzing and generating patterns?

Unfortunately, visualization continues to be confined to what we input. I’d like a learning system that functions along the lines of RescueTime – actively monitoring what I’m doing – but then offers suggestions of what I should (or could) be doing additionally. Or a system that is aware of my email exchanges over the last several years and can provide relevant information based on the development of my thinking and work.

With the rise of social media, and with it the attention organizations pay to how their brand is being represented, monitoring services such as Viral Heat are promising. Imagine a course where the fragmented conversations and content are analyzed (monitored) through a similar service. Instead of creating a structure of the course in advance of the students starting (the current model), course structure emerges through numerous fragmented interactions. “Intelligence” is applied after the content and interactions start, not before. This is basically what Google did for the web – instead of fully defined and meta-described resources in a database, organized according to subject areas (i.e. Yahoo at the time), intelligence was applied at the point of search. Aggregation should do the same – reveal the content and conversation structure of the course as it unfolds, rather than defining it in advance.


Filtering resources is an important educator role, but as noted already, effective filtering can be done through a combination of wayfinding, social sensemaking, and aggregation. But expertise still matters. Educators often have years or decades of experience in a field. As such, they are familiar with many of the concepts, pitfalls, confusions, and distractions that learners are likely to encounter. As should be evident by now, the educator is an important agent in networked learning. Instead of being the sole or dominant filter of information, he now shares this task with other methods and individuals.

Filtering can be done in explicit ways – such as selecting readings around course topics – or in less obvious ways – such as writing summary blog posts around topics. Learning is an eliminative process. By determining what doesn’t belong, a learner develops and focuses his understanding of a topic. The teacher assists in the process by providing one stream of filtered information. The student is then faced with making nuanced selections based on the multiple information streams he encounters. The singular filter of the teacher has morphed into numerous information streams, each filtered according to different perspectives and world views.


During CCK08/09, one of Stephen’s statements that resonated with many learners centers on modelling as a teaching practice: “To teach is to model and to demonstrate. To learn is to practice and to reflect.” (As far as I can tell, he first made the statement during OCC in 2007). Modelling has its roots in apprenticeship. Learning is a multi-faceted process, involving cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions. Knowledge is similarly multi-faceted, involving declarative, procedural, and academic dimensions.

It is unreasonable to expect a class environment to capture the richness of these dimensions. Apprenticeship learning models are among the most effective in attending to the full breadth of learning. Apprenticeship is concerned with more than cognition and knowledge (to know about) – it also addresses the process of becoming a carpenter, plumber, or physician.

What cannot be communicated and understood by lecture and learning activities alone can be addressed through modelling by the teacher.

Persistent Presence

An educator needs a point of existence online – a place to express herself and be discovered: a blog, profile in a social networking service, Twitter, or (likely) a combination of multiple services. What do you do when you meet someone? Most likely, you search for them in Google. Having recently relocated to Alberta, I used Google to gain a sense of my children’s teachers, the social media network in Edmonton, colleagues at work, meetups, democamps, etc.

Without an online identity, you can’t connect with others – to know and be known. I don’t think I’m overstating the importance of have a presence in order to participate in networks. To teach well in networks – to weave a narrative of coherence with learners – requires a point of presence. As a course progresses, the teacher provides summary comments, synthesizes discussions, provides critical perspectives, and directs learners to resources they may not have encountered before. In CCK08/09, we used The Daily, the connectivism blog, elearnspace, OLDaily, Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Second Life, and numerous other tools to connect with learners. Persistent presence in the learning network is needed for the teacher to amplify, curate, aggregate, and filter content and to model critical thinking and cognitive attributes that reflect the needs of a discipline.

Still at the start…

I’m often surprised when I hear a declaration of web company’s birthday – Facebook at six years, Youtube at five years. It seems like these tools have been around much longer. Teaching and learning in social and technological networks is similarly surprising – it’s hard to imagine that many of the tools we’re using are less than a decade old (the methods of learning in networks are not new, however. People have always learned in social networks).

We’re still early in many of these trends. Many questions remain unanswered about privacy, ethics in networks, and assessment. My view is that change in education needs to be systemic and substantial. Education is concerned with content and conversations. The tools for controlling both content and conversation have shifted from the educator to the learner. We require a system that acknowledges this reality.

Socialization as information objects

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Sometimes, on looking back at previous work, you find a fortuitous thread that suggests more coherence exists than is felt through daily developments of concepts. I had such an experience this past week as I prepared and delivered a presentation to Mozilla’s Open Education course. Formal learning, and as a result, the entire infrastructure that supports it (curriculum, instructional design, delivery, technology incorporated in its service), is heavily content-centric. Most courses require a textbook, access to journal articles, or a course “pack” of some sort. In our digital age, the physical resources have been replaced somewhat with online video, wikis, or ebooks. Even then, content is a fundamental starting point of formal learning.

This affection for content is revealed in the current developments in open educational resources (OERs). Institutions like MIT, Yale, Open University, among many others, proudly proclaim their open content initiatives. And that’s great. But OERs are low-hanging fruit and they are biased to a view that content precedes learning. Never mind the lack of sustainability of large institutional OER initiatives – I’m in favour of smaller initiatives driven by faculty and experts directly in the field. This view was expressed in my open source in education part 2 and the Open Education community I formed with Stephen Downes (both in 2003). I’m unsure of the end-game of OERs. After we have opened up all of our content, then what? Then we will need to turn our attention to the more fundamental aspect of education: how it’s designed, who has access, how it’s structured, etc. Opening up content is a first step in transforming the academy more broadly.

Jyri Engeström advocates for object-centered sociality, drawing attention to not just the people involved in socialization, but the objects that make socialization possible. I agree, but this view is incomplete. Our social exchanges are also information objects. Engeström emphasizes the tools of sociality (social networking sites) as critical, but given educations emphasis on content, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to add textbooks and other resources into the “object-centered sociality” category. Educators, in their design of courses, select resources as objects around which to plan social activity. In a classroom, this might be handled through small group activities and reflection. Online, it can be handled through discussion forum posts and blog entries. Laying aside the challenge of courses as a learning construct (see world without courses presentation and follow up post if you’re interested), learning is treated as object/information centered.

Two examples…

I’d like to draw attention to two courses I’ve been involved in over the last several years that shift the focus from “object-centered sociality” to “socialization as information objects”: Noncourse and CCK08.


In 2002, I posted a short introductory article on elearnspace asking for participants in a noncourse. From the article:

Lately I’ve been yipping about the need for a shifted perspective on who provides content in the learning experience – the instructor, student, or both. In an information society, the concept of one person (i.e. the instructor) playing the sole role of information provision, seems antiquated. Things change…fast! The teacher is the student is the teacher.

While an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process (spiraling knowledge – I present a concept, you tweak it and improve it, next person improves on that, etc.) is not suitable for all areas, it certainly seems like a great way to explore the emerging field of elearning…Instead of having an instructor provide the content, a facilitator provides a topic topic for the group to debate and disseminate. Essentially, the content is one sentence…i.e. “What is the effectiveness of elearning when compared with traditional classroom delivery.”

That’s it. From there, the group dissects the issue. Learners (and the facilitator is a learner in this process) present viewpoints, provide links to articles, resources, and theories.
At the conclusion of the week, the discussions will be summarized and presented as a paper on elearnspace.

The course was quite successful and result in a half dozen articles or so. The concept I was advancing – and was advanced in CCK08 – is that content does not need to precede learning. Content can be a byproduct of the learning experience. I occasionally (almost) tempt myself into offering a similar version of the noncourse again today. Given the growth of social media and participatory technologies in the last seven years, the course would likely produce a far richer conversation.

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge

In fall of 2008, Stephen Downes and I taught a large open online course. To varying degrees, our goal was to do for teaching what MIT’s OCW did for content. An introduction is available here. Stephen has also provided several commentaries on the course: Access2OER and new technology for informal learning. I’ll present the course from my perspective.

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) was offered by University of Manitoba’s Learning Technologies Centre and Extended Education faculty. The course consisted of two components:

  1. enrolled students seeking formal evaluation and recognition
  2. participants engaged for personal learning.

The course cap of 20 enrolled students was exceeded (24) and the open portion of the course exceeded 2200 participants (I think we were up to 2400 at one time). Readily available technologies were utilized to involve as many learners as possible. Dozens of countries were represented and multiple language translations (Portugese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Hungarian) of course materials were undertaken by participants. Translations are still linked from the course wiki.

In addition to weekly guest speakers, course activities spanned Second Life and included the use of blogs, wikis, concept maps, podcasts, live and recorded web conferencing (Elluminate, Ustream), Facebook, mailing lists, aggregation technologies, as well as the development of several face-to-face study groups. The primary goal of the course was to have the method of instruction and learning mirror the content of the course.

We gained valuable insight into participative sensemaking and distributed learning, including the challenges of participation, varying technical skill levels among learners, differing pedagogies, and, perhaps most importantly, how philosophies of knowledge and education impact actual implementation of new innovations in higher education.

The joys of friction, ambiguity, and wayfinding

From the beginning of the course, both Stephen and I emphasized that we were not playing traditional instructor roles. We were nodes within a larger network. Ambiguity, even confusion, was necessary. The acts of grappling with many different sources of information, of trying to determine what was important, of deciding which learners to interact with, and choosing which resources to read and comment on, were all fundamental to learning. Wayfinding and sensemaking are by products of the internal friction of choosing what to value and pursue. As instructors, we provided navigation options through the deluge of information and commentary, but we consistently emphasized that our voice and perspective should be enlarged by interacting with peers and through the formation of personal network (I addressed the formation views in narratives of coherence).

Emphasis was placed on the personal agency of learners, fostering learning networks that reduced the prominence of the instructors and sought to assist learners in forming learning networks that lasted beyond the duration of the course.

The course

The pedagogical approach of this course ( was designed to mirror the subject matter – networked learning and learning in distributed environments. The
growth of web technologies has created opportunities for educators to “thin the walls” of classrooms by accessing open educational resources and engaging in conversations with learners and experts around the world. The course was designed to encourage personal agency and views of learner success (Bruner) on the part of the learner through scaffolded support (Vygotsky) as the course developed.

More from the course description:

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge is a twelve week course that will explore the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge and explore their application as a framework for theories of teaching and learning. It will outline a connectivist understanding of educational systems of the future. This course will help participants make sense of the transformative impact of technology in teaching and learning over the last decade. The voices calling for reform do so from many perspectives, with some suggesting ‘new learners’ require different learning models, others suggesting reform is needed due to globalization and increased competition, and still others suggesting technology is the salvation for the shortfalls evident in the system today. While each of these views tell us about the need for change, they overlook the primary reasons why change is required.

Instructor led support was provided through a daily email newsletter summarizing important forum discussions, exemplary blog posts or podcasts, and related research. Live presentations were held three times weekly (at varying time zones to accommodate European, Australian, Asian, African, and Middle East participants). Weekly online presentations by invited guests included the following prominent educators and learning theorists: Valdis Krebs, Terry Anderson, Alec Couros, Grainne Conole, Nancy White, Howard Rheingold, Women of Web 2.0 (recordings are available here).

As the course progressed, participants were encouraged to form personal networks for
learning with peers and guest presenters. Reducing learner reliance on course instructors was an important. We didn’t want the learning to end once the course ended.

A few marketing-type highlights of the course:

  • Largest ‘open teaching’ course ever offered with over 2200 registrants
  • Coined a new acronym ‘MOOC’ massive open online course – subject of an upcoming The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) special issue on open educational resources.
  • Translated into Portugese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Hungarian by participants
  • Used a wide array of technologies – under the control of course participants
  • Aligned design of the course to the course content/philosophy
  • Each week would begin with a podcast, video recording, or paper posted by course facilitators introducing the weekly topic. Readings and video/audio recordings by experts in network theory or networked learning were also assigned.
  • Sessions in Second Life in the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge site created by Fleep Tuque (Chilbo Community)
  • Daily email newsletter
  • Weekly Wednesday live sessions were held in Elluminate
  • Friday sessions were broadcast online through UStream
  • Twitter profile was created for the course to alert participants to guest presenter times and events.
  • The following is a list of RSS feeds harvested as part of the CCK08 course:
  • Course tag was used to challenge learners’ assumptions about how to access information. Instead of centralizing course materials in an LMS or course blog, learners were asked to post in their preferred environment and tag items with the course tag CCK08, allowing for discovery through Technorati search and Google Alerts
  • All course participants were asked to use the course tag CCK08 when posting, bookmarking or publishing material related to the course. A google search of CCK08, a unique search term, produces about 50,000 hits (updated)
  • Aggregation of course activity through Pageflakes and Memetracker (Memetracker attempts to group concepts based on similarity with other postings, reducing the reading requirements of participants)
  • Facebook groups were setup in various languages (by participants) to permit learners to interact with each other around course content
  • Several groups formed additional online study groups as well as organized face-to-face meetings with other course participants
  • Learners were asked to use concept maps (CMAP) to present their interpretation of how course concepts were related, reflecting Bruner’s assertion of: “”Learners are encouraged to discover facts and relationships for themselves”

Reflecting on the experience of this course, we made two significant departures from traditional courses:

  1. Encouraged learners to host course related discussions, reflections and conversations on their own sites/blogs, rather than expecting learners to come to “our space” (LMS). Search services like Google Alerts and Technorati served as tools to tie-together conversations through use of the course tag.
  2. Experimented with distributing learning across multiple platforms (face-to-face, online through blogs, wikis, Moodle, email, and aggregation sites), and in virtual worlds (Second Life).

We sought to use the social exchanges and learning networks to provide a bounded structure to the learning experience. Instead of stating “this is the course content”, we promoted a view of “this is the course ecology”. This shift resulted in, I think, a different experience for learners. We did have weekly topics planned, but the conversations that emerged on Moodle and on blogs were of a far more diverse nature than we could have possibly planned. Ideas, concepts, conversations (and as a by product, information) emerged based on the interests and needs of a particular group.

Learner control is not without frustration for the instructor. I recall feeling a bit frustrated that the concept of connectivism that I was trying to communicate – the neural, conceptual, and social/external dimensions of networked learning (expressed in this presentation)- was not resonating with participants. As many theorists in education have stated, what’s important for learning is not what the educator has to share, but the current state of knowledge and interest of the learner. My attempt to move the conversation in one direction was not successful in this instance because participants were not interested in engaging in the concepts I presented. End result: learners took the course in directions that reflected their needs and interests. Not the instructors.

Course design, delivery and administration partnerships

The course was a collaboration with Extended Education and Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Through Stephen’s involvement, we can also claim a link to the National Research Council. Cross-department and multi-institutional teaching and learning offer potential for new learning experiences for both students and educators. Courses don’t need to be taught based on the geographical limitations of either student or teachers. This seems obvious, but the strong pull of tradition and existing systems often causes educators to overlook what is now possible. It’s difficult to unlearn habits that have become systematized.

Additionally, several learners and institutions used the course as a backdrop for their own teaching. For example, we had a student from Israel involved in the course. Her evaluation was handled at her own institution. While we were technically the instructors, the quality of the students’ contributions were assessed and evaluated by her institution. This is just a small example of what is possible when teaching and learning are opened up. To a degree, it requires educators and institutions to let go of what is possible. Much like open source software (and proprietary tools like iTunes and Facebook that allow some open APIs) created an environment where individuals could take concepts far beyond what the creators initially imagined, open teaching serves as a similar launching pad for new innovations that can’t be yet conceived by those opening up their teaching.

What is next?

The move to sociality as information objects is a foundational thread through the noncourse and CCK08 experiments. Content, while important, does take a less prominent role in this model. But that’s not the main change. The main change is that learners have control in creating personal networks and shaping ideas. Information pheromones, driven by social networks, lead, guide, and direct other learners to important ideas. In this model, we “wayfind” together, with each node sharing important elements with others, leading to greater exploration of complex subject matter.

Stephen and I will be offering the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge again in fall of 2009. We’ll both post more information on our sites on how to participate if you’re interested.

Building up to the next course, I would like to hear from you. What concerns do you have with the model presented above? What am I overlooking? What could be done to improve CCK09 (we don’t want to just repeat last year’s course, we want to improve it)?

Connectivism Positions

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I’ve been somewhat peripherally following this discussion on connectivism:

A stand for connectivism:
“Contrary to criticisms against this theory, information and knowledge do not only lie in human brains, but in electronic networks that are constantly moving and being shaped.”
A stand against connectivism: “If any part of the theory were relevant it would be the recognition of the potential of networking and connecting, but these are ways of learning, the pedagogy. Otherwise, the theory does not describe how we learn, how we make the connections inside of ourselves nor does it describe what we learn.”
If the discussion was being conducted with blogs or an open discussion forum, it would be a bit easier to provide comments (none seem to be linked from the wiki)…or to provide links to others who have provided extensive commentary on networked learning in general. Perhaps of greatest value with concepts of networked learning is, as I’ve stated previously, that it has evolved through many contributors – developed, if you will, in the same manner many of us have been stating learning occurs.

Learning and Knowing in Networks

Monday, February 4th, 2008

I’m currently presenting a paper to ITForum on Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing Roles for Educators and Designers (.pdf). From the abstract: “Current developments with technology and social software are significantly altering: (a) how learners access information and knowledge, and (b) how learners dialogue with the instructor and each other. Both of these domains (access and interaction) have previously been largely under the control of the teacher or instructor. Classroom walls are increasingly permeable. Google Scholar, Scopus, and open access journals offer increased access to academic resources; an extension to more informal approaches such as regular internet search and Wikipedia. Social software (blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, instant messaging, Skype, Ning) provide opportunities for learners to create, dialogue about, and disseminate information. But what becomes of the teacher? How do the practices of the educator change in networked environments, where information is readily accessible? How do we design learning when learners may adopt multiple paths and approaches to content and curriculum? How can we achieve centralized learning aims in decentralized environments?”
Feedback/reactions/comments are appreciated.

It’s not about tools. It’s about change.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Since I’ve started blogging and playing around with social technologies, most of my connections and contacts have been made within the educational or technology field. I connect with individuals who are aware of blogs (or might even be bloggers) and what’s called web 2.0…and more recently expressed as Personal Learning Environments. When I step outside of this fairly insular network, I need to operate on an entirely different set of assumptions and language. Have you tried sitting down with a colleague and talking about using Pageflakes to aggregate distributed/fragmented conversations through RSS? How about telling them that the best way to stay informed about emerging technology and trends is to use “live” search engines like Technorati or Icerocket? Use Google alerts to stay informed on a subject of interest? Use Trailfire to share browsing habits/history/commentary? StumpleUpon to comment on websites? Social bookmarking with Tags? Folksonomies? Creative Commons? Let’s not even get into digg or social news sites and user recommendations and ratings. Oh wait, I know, how about we tell them how to create and edit a podcast with Audacity? Better yet, the value of collaborative work with wikis…or more precisely, with Coventi. Or lets really let loose and tell them how easy it is to mashup data with Pipes? Or how to dress their avatar in Second Life? And, for good measure, let’s share with them how all of this relates to Vygotsky, Papert, or Piaget. Wow, what fun we can have with family and friends!
It is worth noting that those of us in the educational technology space draw on terms and concepts straddling numerous disciplines – psychology, learning theory, technology, and social trends (Freire/Illich-type power issues with a smattering of democracy and undertone of power and opression thrown in) – each generally viewed to be fairly incomprehensible, but when carefully blended, is absolutely alien to the daily thinking habits of most people.
If your experiences mirror my own, chances are you have only a few colleagues within your organization where you can have a conversation of this nature. Most of your “intellectual colleagues” are probably part of a social network you have created through blogs or other social technologies. So, here we are – more optimistic than educators have been in a long time, feeling that many of the tools we have at our disposal represent the beginnings of a true revolution in education (though we are periodically rebuked by those “who have seen it all before” and are happy to remind us that the same conversation was happening with radio, TV, and whatever else). Our experience confirms the tremendous values of connecting with others, forming networks, sharing and reusing content, collaborating, building together, fostering a crescendo dialogue threatening at any moment to break from our secluded networks into the broader consciousness of society. We already see these spikes of our dialogue moving into conferences, education reports, and university curriculum. But the victories feel a bit hollow. Teachers are talking blogs. We want them to talk educational reform. Administrators are talking about “learner-centric”. We want them to talk policy, faculty contact hours, preparation time, and open networks. It seems, in our edublog network, that transition and uncertainty have set in. Now the talk is on Personal Learning Environments (on a personal note, I’m becoming as impatient with this term as I was with Learning Management Systems six or seven years ago). We are at a point of transition – will our tools be absorbed by education systems, and then become part of the problem? Or do our tools result in real change?
I personally would like to see change. At deep levels. How we design curriculum. How we teach. How we assess. Our classrooms (break down the four walls…). But the language of our discipline will continue to render our activities impotent. Will the change come only from conference-tour academics that adopt current trends and present them without passion for change to an audience seeking to hear what’s new in tools, but not what’s new in process, knowledge exchange or society? I’m concerned that the current tone of talk about read/write web tools in the conference circuit is one of shoring up an approach to teaching and learning that is fundamentally at odds with how people learn and interact.
Or put another way – we are seeking a window dressing solution when it is the house that needs to be renovated. If we present blogs and wikis as ways to improve education, our aspirations are noble. If we present them as ways to fundamentally alter the system to align it with the knowledge needs of the next generation, then we are fighting for real change. Sure, people like Andrew Keen (erroneous though he may be) suggest it is all hype. And it is. Or, at least the tools are.
It’s the change underlying these tools that I’m trying to emphasize. Forget blogs…think open dialogue. Forget wikis…think collaboration. Forget podcasts…think democracy of voice. Forget RSS/aggregation…think personal networks. Forget any of the tools…and think instead of the fundamental restructuring of how knowledge is created, disseminated, shared, and validated.
But to create real change, we need to move our conversation beyond simply the tools and our jargon. Parents understand the importance of preparing their children for tomorrow’s world. They might not understand RSS, mashups, and blogs. Society understands the importance of a skilled workforce, of critical and creative thinkers. They may not understand wikis, podcasts, or user-created video or collaboratively written software. Unfortunately, where our aim should be about change, our sights are set on tools. And we wonder why we’re not hitting the mark we desire. Perhaps our vision for change is still unsettled. What would success look like if we achieved it? What would classrooms look like? How would learning occur? We require a vision for change. It’s reflected occasionally in classroom 2.0 or enterprise 2.0 projects. But the tool, not change centric, theme still arises. We may think we are talking about change, but our audience hears hype and complex jargon.
What is your vision for change?

How things change…

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

I often talk about how fast knowledge changes. Research, cross-industry collaborations, and technology are driving knowledge development at the fastest pace in the history of humanity. ASTD and others have suggested that our global knowledge doubles every 18 months (some say it’s much faster). Berkley’s How much information study shows remarkable increases in information between 2001 and 2003 (I’m not going to get into the information/knowledge distinction – it’s a waste of my young life).

Susan Spero brought an interesting discussion to my attention a few weeks ago – namely “is Pluto a planet”. Most of us have grown up knowing there were nine planets. Now there are only eight (or twelve…or whatever). Different types of knowledge change more rapidly (consider technology over gardening). Yet even the most stable knowledge sources change as new information, theories, and views emerge.

We have designed education to promote certainty (i.e. a state of knowing)…we now need to design education to be adaptable (i.e. a process of knowing).

If you’re bored, I’d love your comments on a book draft

Monday, August 14th, 2006

I have completed a rough draft of my new book “Knowing Knowledge”. I would love some neutral/honest feedback. If you are interested, please email me at: . The draft version is not ready for public posting :) .

Skypecast – invite to attend

Monday, June 26th, 2006

I’m hosting a skypecast this week: Changing Nature of Knowledge (time of the skypecast is listed). If you’re interested in attending, leave a comment, or simply throw me an email ( It will be a very informal session/discussion. Not much of a preset agenda – simply an opportunity for people to share their views of how knowledge is changing.

Constructivism vs. Connectivism

Wednesday, June 21st, 2006

Constructivism, as a model of learning, holds the duality of much promise, and much frustration. On the one hand, it breaks from the structured models of learning that dominated the first half of the last century, giving voice to the “softer” elements of learning (educators often understand this intuitively – we see the lack of direct connection between what we lecture about and what our students actually learn). On the other hand, constructivism has not been well-defined. It can essentially mean anything to anyone. It’s an idea without boundaries, a philosophy without root. This vague definition results in everything being labeled as constructivism (see these six paradigms). If anything, my experience with constructivism places it more in the domain of a teaching philosophy, and less in the domain of a theory (consider these attributes of constructivism).

Any discipline that is largely self-directed and informal will draw critics…lack of structure and the ability to “managed” outcomes is frustrating to pragmatics. Jeremy links to Why Minimally Guided Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching (.pdf). While I have issues with constructivism, I don’t think the concept of self-directed (or minimally-guided) learning is a function of only constructivism (a behaviourist could say that the students failures in solving a problem, resulted in different approaches until the right problem solving behaviour was exhibited). The article does present an interesting example of limited differences between problem-based learning (PBL) and lecture learning for medical students – essentially concluding that PBL resulted in higher grades, but they ordered more tests (indicating that the lack of theoretical construct resulted in minimal ability to make decisions based on nuanced factors).

The article’s main contention is that constructivism is at odds with what we currently understand about “human cognitive architecture”…and approaches its argument based on cognitive load – the notion that our minds can only manage limited information, and learners without a base of established knowledge have difficulty understanding key elements due to extra stress on our working memory.

The numerous factors that impact learning is overwhelming – I’m almost at the stage of throwing up my hands and saying the real challenge lies in defining context, need, and intent of learning. Most often when we are debating about learning theories, we are really debating how we’ve framed the questions and the context of learning. As always, monochromatic views of learning fail. Each tool for the task (or the context).

On to my concerns with constructivism: Several individuals have provided excellent guidance in suggesting that I don’t try and position connectivism as a replacement for established learning theories (i.e. constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism). I’m generally supportive of integral thinking, and agree with a matrix posted by Derek Wenmoth on online learning (including a continuum of learning theories).

Constructivism, for me, fails on two levels: 1) it is not capable of functioning in rapid knowledge growth environments, as it doesn’t account for learning that happens in networks and 2) constructivism is a “sometimes” learning habit (we are always connecting, but we only construct in certain situations).

Constructivism, as with other learning theories, assumes that learning happens in our head. In fairness, various flavours of constructivism acknowledge the importance of the social context in which the learning happens, and that learners learn from each other. The act of learning itself is still perceived to be in the head of the individual. Most learning needs today are becoming too complex to be addressed in “our heads”. We need to rely on a network of people (and increasingly, technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use. The network itself becomes the learning. This is critical today; the rapid development of knowledge means that we need to find new ways of learning and staying current. We cannot increase our capacity for learning ad infinitum. We must begin to conceive learning as socially networked and enhanced by technology (it’s a symbiosis of people and technology that forms our learning networks). We need to acknowledge our learning context not only as an enabler of learning, but as a participant of the learning itself.

Constructivism is complex. Let your mind wander a bit: My learning is a function of previous life experience, the people around me, the actual environment in which I function, my previous learning experiences (both emotional and cognitive), the nature of group relationships (socially-based), etc. When new information enters the space, I (according to constructivism) construct knowledge of its meaning/relevance against the backdrop of the above mentioned factors. But I can’t simply construct – because, to use the molecule metaphor of learning objects (or microcontent), many of the elements that comprise the base of my knowledge come previously constructed (by a discipline, the teacher, the article, etc.). For example, the elements that comprise a new idea come “chunked”. I don’t construct that entire concept or idea. Instead, I connect it with existing knowledge. If anything, the learning suggested by constructivism is actually in the deconstruction of these packaged elements into smaller pieces of knowledge. A simple example: if someone teaches me the skills of critical thinking, I will largely acquire the elements in “pre-constructed” formats. I will acknowledge that I need to question and validate knowledge sources for authenticity (a concept which can take a lifetime to integrate into practice and habits, and even then I’ll still make mistakes). I don’t construct anything to make use of this at a basic level. I simply adopt it and try and interrogate new information. My actual learning happens when I deconstruct the knowledge itself (getting deeper into the full meaning of the notion of “validating”). We don’t always construct. We are often much more passive in our learning. We read an article and we link it to our existing understanding. We subscribe to a newsletter (or magazine)…we attend certain conferences…we dialogue with certain people/communities. In the end, much of our learning is a connection-forming process (the conduit, not content, is what is king) where we add new elements that augment our capacity to know more. We rely on Google, libraries, friends, social bookmarks/tags, etc. to serve as our personal learning network (we store the knowledge external to ourselves). When we need something, we go to our network (know-where is more important than know-how or know-what)…or we expand our network. In the end, the constant act of connecting in order to stay current is a much more reflective model of learning than constructivism.

Networks – Revisiting Objective/Subjective…

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

Read this post at your own risk – I revisit the open wound of objective/subjective…

Words and concepts (knowledge and knowing, meaning and wisdom) are not static in their conception in the minds of individuals. The does not directly lead to notions of an abstract (or worse, subjective) nature of the entities or concepts considered. Instead, it states that the capacity of comprehension is relative in the minds of the individuals only. Most thinkers mistake the subjective nature of interpretation and instead, reflect the inadequacy of interpretation in aligning with the “what is” aspect of objective entities. I’ll define “what is” as the element, notion, concept, or occurrence that possesses objective attributes external of what I/we may think of it…and out thinking is only relevant to the degree that it aligns with the nature of the objective entity. Many interactions with objective elements result in subjective entities (which do not in themselves possess “what is” attributes) – my feelings looking at a situation may be different from yours…subjectivity happens on this level.

When we deal with issues like learning (or teaching), we are attempting to move individuals toward some type of target or goal. Perhaps we wish to foster creative/critical thinking. Or the steps in operating a forklift, or flambéing an entrée. Whether the task is physical, mental, metaphysical or emotional, we have an intended target to which we desire our learners to aspire or achieve. In a similar sense, we generally have certain values to which we would assign “objective status”: tolerance, value and dignity of all people, honesty, etc. These elements become subjective only when applied by an individual in light of personal thoughts/considerations (i.e. an individual’s view of honesty may change when they find the wallet of a very wealthy person – which still retains the objective nature of the element (honesty), but becomes subjective in the application). The question that then follows is “what is the value of an objective element if it becomes subjective in application? The simple answer relates to it’s capacity to form connections in a network (a concept I’ll discuss a bit latter in this post).

Learners don’t enter our learning spaces devoid of logic or experience. They enter with a plethora of understandings that can be nurtured, connected, or de-constructed through the learning. To amplify the challenge of learning, learners bring emotions, learning approaches, preferences, and beliefs based on previous experiences or information acquired indirectly through reading or comments from others. The complexity of the learner and the learning process results in many defining it as an unknowable concept, and instead state that the process is subjective.

I will be direct (okay, rude) in stating that seeing the world as subjective is inadequate in today’s society. Complexity requires simplicity…or as some would say, simplicity is the ultimate complexity (simplicity involves removing the elements that aren’t directly relevant (and in Einstein’s logic – no more than only those). While that may sound insane, I believe our tendency to misappropriate comprehension and misapply logic based on the derivative of an element, not the core element, is the source of substantial confusion. Calling something subjective says “okay, thinking about this hurts…I’ll abandon thought and appeal to the objective ideal of subjectivity…in this manner, I don’t have to see the broad rich array of the painting, and instead can focus on simply the element I choose to perceive as valuable.”. In this manner, the thinker is largely saying, “the concept of objective elements possesses too many implications; I am more comfortable choosing only one objective concept (namely subjectivity) and use that to minimize the mental anguish of seeing elements as objective and then tackling the hard task of capturing the meaning of objectivity”.

If I’m part of a group that witnesses an accident, I will describe it in a certain manner (based partly on what I saw, what’s going on in my head at the time (i.e. the existing flow of thought and the manner in which the accident disrupts my thought flow and how quickly I am able to juxtapose the shape of the new occurrences external to myself and exit my thought flow), and where I’m standing). Each individual who views the accident has a different version of what happened. This is called perspective and, while often confused with, it has no relation to subjectivity in this instance. In essence the “what is” is the combined views of all of our insights (though in certain instances, as in node connections in network-formation, the by-product created is itself subjective by being comprised of individual objective nodes. We are now getting into the complexity of exploring an event through our senses versus an element itself…and thus we enter the logic loop of is it an actual event if we cannot explore it via our senses…etc. That is a discussion for another day). The accident happened; it was someone’s fault (or the weather perhaps). An investigation may not turn up all of the reasons (or adequately create the reality “that is/was”. Some certainly feel this is the case with the JFK assassination.

Why do I care if elements are objective or subjective? Why do I keep referring to this simple, yet age-old philosophical discussion? In order to move to a networked view of learning, we need to see learning nodes (people, software, concepts, or ideas) as possessing some consistent state (note, I didn’t say static) that has less malleability than is typically ascribed to subjective entities. Connections, and neuroscience support this strongly, are enabled when certain nodes connect with others based on the unique attributes of each node (i.e. each node “is” something that is not directly influenced by the attempted connection – in fact the connection can only happen because the node “is”…and meaning is derived from the connection (or recombination) of certain key nodes).

If something can’t possess “what is” attributes, then it cannot be of value in the process of connection forming. A node can form connections based mainly on its intrinsic (objective) attributes. The related by product of connecting several different nodes may create an entirely different entity. The combined objective elements of each node amplify and create something new. But the core attributes of each node do not change. They retain their “what is” attributes. In the same sense, a node may play different roles in the formation of different networks. Again, the capacity of a node to favor key attributes in certain relationships is not an indication of subjectivity, but rather an expression of its ability to adapt and play varying roles as an indication of its holistic makeup. If a node were subjective, in a network sense, it would cease to have substantial meaning and value. To muddy the waters even more: the recombination (and thereby creation of different networks that mean different things to different people) of (objective) nodes is the basis for subjectivity. A network cannot provide subjective interpretation unless it first possesses objectivity (i.e. the “what is” state).