Archive for November, 2005

Connections and Content – currency

Monday, November 28th, 2005

In recent posts (here and here), I discussed the importance of connections over content (i.e. the pipe is more important than what is in the pipe). In a network sense, an element/node (content) that is not connected to a network is unnoticed. As others stated in the comments section of my post, a connection needs content as well. Obviously, content and connections are interdependent. I still maintain, however, that connections should have supremacy in the relationship (which means learning designers need to create ecologies (rather than courses) where rich connections can occur).

Connections have greatest value when they generate a certain type of content for the learner. It’s not content in general that learners want. They want content that is current, relevant, and contextually appropriate. Connections are the devices that enable this to occur. Consider an employee who is working on site and needs to access a product manual (current, relevant). The contextually appropriate format (cell phone, laptop, PDA) makes the content more useful. Contrast this with traditional learning. A textbook (or classroom) rarely meets the criteria of current/relevant/contextually appropriate. Classrooms teach in advance of need (which is useful in forming mindsets, but not too effective for skill transfer), and textbooks present content in a static “point in time” manner. Neither are accessible at the point of need.

Put another way (slight paraphrasing of a conversation I had with Stephen Downes) – content and connections serve interoperable roles – content can become a connection, a connection can become content. The real challenge that concerns educators is how to assist learners in creating a network that will ensure their continued learning and growth.

Will Richardson has introduced the concept of connective writing (”…it’s a type of writing that is inspired by reading and is therefore a response to an idea or a set of ideas or conversations. It is writing that synthesizes those ideas and remixes them in some way to make them our own and is published to potentially wide audiences.”). The notion that our writing/literacy skills are driven by a need for dialogue and conversation is the heart of connective writing (and providing content that is relevant, current, and contextually appropriate).

It’s also worth considering what happens when we create connections between content – we create a network or aggregation of different ideas…which adds meaning (pattern recognition) to the individual voices. Connections change content. Content is imbued with new meaning when situated in a network (or is it more accurate to say that the network acquires new meaning when new content is added? – either perspective validates the importance of creating connections over content). When the network is sufficiently large to account for diverse perspectives, it achieves a certain level of meaning that is reflective of the combined force of individual elements.

Perhaps my view of the situation is simplistic: I can’t shake the idea that our relationship to content has to change when content creation accelerates. We can no longer consume all relevant content items. The capacity to stay current is more important than any individual content element.

Currency of information is the function of a network – and educators need to teach the skills on network-making. The network, in a sense, becomes a separate cognitive element – it processes, filters, evaluates, and validates new information. If content has a short lifespan (as new information is acquired), then it would logically extend that our education system should not be about content in particular – it should specifically be about current content. And current content is a function of a connectivist approach to learning, where we create networks of information and knowledge to assist in replacing outdating content with current content. We off-load many cognitive capabilities onto the network (so that our focus as learners shifts from information processing to pattern recognition).

Update: Just read this statement: “People don’t want a network, but they DEMAND the benefits a great network delivers.” While this statement applies to cell phones, I think it translates very nicely to learning. We don’t build a network (or content) for no reason. We build it to get the results/benefits a good learning networks offers.

Matching tools to tasks

Thursday, November 24th, 2005

Seven years ago, I started work with elearning. Initially, it consisted of a software program that managed student marks and organized content. The internet was still in its infancy. Most technologies were simply used as an extension of what was done in the classroom (marks were entered online and then transferred into the official “marking sheet” – paper-based…content in the software platform was sequentially organized – much like a textbook or binder).

As WebCT and Blackboard entered the stage, new functionality was added to elearning tools. Grade books, discussion forums, and chat tools provided the first generation of interactive tools. The greatest value of the LMS was the integration it provided between various tools (all of the tools were available in various shades already – but most teachers lacked the skill to integrate them technologically). The concern, evident immediately – but overlooked due to convenience, was the software vendor’s control of integration. The vendor decided what went into the tool, and this control has driven the last seven years of teaching with technology. It’s a shame.

Teaching and learning with technology could be much more than is revealed in current trends. In some ways, technology can cure some of the short comings of classrooms – scalability, costs, distance, time, interactivity, etc. As long as we want to duplicate classrooms online, the value of technology will be stunted. I’ve sat in meetings where the focus rested on “how we can make best use of this tool”, rather than “what do we need for our learners”. Vendors were more focused on promoting the features of their tools, and many administrators and executives (lacking a technology background) accepted the forecasts of vendors and consultants. In the process, we’ve done a disservice to learning. Anytime we subject a learner to a structured, limited, locked-in tool (even the content of the learning process stays locked in the system – inaccessible by the students (who created much of the content) themselves). LMS’ work for certain types of learning – but they do not, in their current conception, work for all types of learning.

The key issue rests in the mismatch between tool and process. Most people who have spent time in the field of teaching and learning will readily admit that learning is not a clear, structured, uni-directional process. Learning is, as I’ve often stated, messy and chaotic. If our main function as educators and trainers is to foster learning, then we have a terrible match with current technology tools. As a simple analogy, if our main goal is to travel somewhere fast (our intended function/process) and we opt to walk (even when a vehicle is available), we are being foolish. In this situation, we (and no one else) feel the impact of our actions. However, in implementing technology (blended, F2F, online), others are impacted by our poor choices. In this case, our poor choices consist of giving vendors control of learning – due to their control of tool integration, not allowing students continual access to content they helped to create, and not matching tools with intended function.

I’m somewhat pleased with current developments – though I fear they are to fragile (and to unlike the language of board room tables – i.e. metrics, ROI) to be lauded as alternatives to LMS’. These tools are unique in that they give the integration control to the educators and learners. Integration happens through open APIs (for software integration) and RSS for content integration/aggregation. Those who are used to LMS find this process confusing – “What, I can’t control what they do?” “How do I know they are learning if I can’t track their activities?” “It’s too loosey goosey”. If you want to control learning (if that’s actually possible), by all means, use an LMS. If you want to foster learning, rethink the tools you’re using. Do the tools work in the manner in which people learn? Who has control of the tools? Who benefits most from implementation of the tools (administrators, educators, learners)? What are the metrics of success (ROI, learning)? Do the tools represent how the learners will be functioning in “real life”?

Connectivism – Wiki Presentation

Sunday, November 20th, 2005

I just finished delivery a presentation to Australia on connectivism and the role of networked learning. I’ve created a supporting wiki summarizing the talk: Connectivism Wiki

Adaptability – Learning as we Teach

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

Adaptive learning is a fascinating concept. In theory, the environment in which we function learns from our activity (strengths/weaknesses, test results, interactions). After the environment “knows us” as learners, it adapts to respond to our actions. Instead of one-way, same content for all, the system provides personalized content reflective of our true learning needs. It’s a great concept…and one that I imagine we will see soon. Currently, it’s prohibitive. Few organizations (and likely not public education) can afford an implementation of this level. The task of creating an intelligent agent capable of reacting to learner competence and providing personalized content/instruction/interaction, is simply too expensive for anyone but select research institutions and corporations.

It appears that we will have to wait before technology provides the adaptable learning experience we crave as educators. Adaptability is something that we as educators can readily provide to our learners through simple, social tools currently available. It’s unfortunate that our current approach to curriculum design (in both K-12 and higher education sectors) is structured to eliminate personalization. Obviously a teacher in the classroom has the ability to take existing content (i.e. text book or curriculum) and present it in light of current events or recent developments. But this isn’t the same as personalizing to each learner. It’s simply updating the curriculum. Personalization requires adapting curriculum to each individual learner…adaptability is a dance between learner, educator, and content. Adaptation/personalization is time-intensive – a teacher in K-12 with 25-30 learners will be unable to provide the level of attention required by each learner. Curriculum and time are antagonists to my own idealism of education and learning.

If technology is not able to provide affordable adaptability, and educators are constrained by design and time, what is the option? I see a very simple solution – social technologies like blogs, wikis, and RSS. Hold the skepticism for a bit. I’m an idealist…but not utopian. I don’t think blogs will fix all that ails education today. Blogs, like wikis, have many limitations (but that’s another post). They do, however, enable a personal experience for learners. They do allow educators to adapt to a greater degree than most classroom environments. Consider a class with 30 learners – all bloggging. An RSS feed aggregates their combined voices. As the teacher, I am able to see how they are/aren’t “getting the content”. Their knowledge needs will most certainly not be fully met by the work of the instructional designer. As I hear the aggregate voices of learners, I will recognize large-scale knowledge gaps…and be able to fill them by providing supplementary resources. Instead of a canned course on Macbeth, I’m able to provide a course that adapts to learners needs based on how I see them interacting and learning.

Additional value is provided in the ability for learners to teach each other. Reading the opinions of 30 classmates is a far richer learning ecology than hearing the opinion of one teacher. The learner is the teacher is the learner.

This is obviously a very simple way to add some adaptability into a course, but at least it’s a start. We need to start having this important discussion. We have many resources available that can create a richer learning experience. We don’t need to rely on learning management systems as our primary learning tool. We can start the learning experience by focusing on connections first and content second. Our most limiting challenge is our existing views of learning. I think I’m going to make a New Year’s resolution to spend 2006 being discontent with existing approaches to learning…and to stop accepting notions of learning that have little to do with the instructors and even less to do with learners. We can do better. We have the tools for change. Do we have the vision?

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you are creating a more personalized learning environment…and how you’re creating adaptive learning.