Archive for April, 2006

Scientists and Artists: Who should design learning?

Friday, April 21st, 2006

It’s generally considered cool to quote Marshall McLuhan. I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend where I presented the notion that learning networks should filter themselves – they should not be pre-filtered the way most of our classrooms and courses are created. Courses are designed by eliminating knowledge elements that the designer feels doesn’t belong. As a result, we end up with a focused, often one-perspective, view of a particular field. This structure is generally perceived as being valuable in providing learners with information that they need to master particular tasks or skills. Anyway, somewhere during the conversation we turned to McLuhan. My friend, an artist by trade and passion, shared his reaction to McLuhan (quite different from what I generally encounter). He stated that an artist finds magic everywhere. The entire landscape of existence holds magic and beauty for an artist. McLuhan entered the space of artists and started defining and detailing and casting a sociologist’s or scientific perspective on elements. In the process, he “killed” the magic. Approach an artist, for example, and ask, “how many birds do you think there are?”. She’ll reply, “I don’t know, lots I guess”…and begin to talk color and beauty. Approach a scientist (my friend’s analogy, I recognize that it’s a generalization), and she’ll start shooting and counting them in an effort to classify types and number.

While this example is perhaps a bit extreme, it does bring to the forefront the challenges that we face as educators and designers of educational environments. I’ve been following a discussion in a listserv that is attempting to parse the nuances of designing learning materials (and surprise – the methods are scientific, outcomes-based). The first question asked, when discussing learning approaches, design methodologies, and theories, is “what’s the evidence?”. Evidence in this case is almost always defined empirically (i.e. scientifically). “What is the return on investment (ROI)?” Where’s the magic and beauty?

I feel it’s important to understand (and be able to measure – though I would like to extend measurement beyond simple dollars) the impact of training and learning. Unfortunately, the “scientists of learning” have the dominant voice in the learning space. The artists aren’t being heard.

If the scientists role is one of determining best approaches to instruction (through empirical research, qualitative and quantitative analysis), what is the role of the artist in the learning space? I believe the artist is the individual who sees the magic in learning. He/she may not know exactly why something worked well, but can see (and dare I say, feel?) that the learners are changing, growing, and developing. The artist of learning sees beauty in the dialogue, in the interaction, in the connections formed between what is known and what is becoming known. The artist sees (and accepts) the beauty of uncertainty, and values learning as both a process and a product. In creating a learning environment, the artist splashes the magic of learning across the entire canvas of life. Tools are used like paint brushes to create the desired painting of learning. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, courses (yes, even an LMS), conversations, communities of practice – these elements are all seen as pieces in the learning experience and ecology.

I would like to see our learning design include the voices of both the scientist and the artist. Neither is necessarily better than the other. In some cases, a business may require the metrics and method of a clear defined, scientific model. In other cases (especially when pursuing innovation and creativity) they may desire the beauty of learning created by the artist. Both, held in balance and for the appropriate task, are needed for the benefit of the learning, the organization, and the instructor.

Restructuring our Structures

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

I’ve posted a 10 minute podcast – Restructuring our Structures – on the the nature of the change occurring in society, business, and education. Essentially, two changes are driving everything: 1) the breakdown of centralized structures (and move toward network models), and 2) the increased capacity for “quick connectivity” – i.e. the ability to for connections with ease.

Ill-structured process, clear outcome

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

Structure (lack of it) is a common concern I encounter when talking about connectivism. A recent discussion on a listserv highlighted the concern: for some, the notion of an exploratory process is against the concept of acquiring specific skills. Their argument rests on the assumption that people learn because we expose them to a clear, structured, static process…i.e. sit in this chair, I’ll lecture for one hour (or click through these tutorials on your computer). Structure is equated with intended outcomes.

Learners learn different things even if they are exposed to the same content. We learn different things from the same event because we bring our emotions, previous experiences, current mental states, beliefs, and assumptions to bear on new information. These elements filter incoming information. When five people read the same book, all of them walk away with a different understanding of what happened, what’s important, and how they were impacted emotionally. Common understanding is only achieved through dialogue as each reader shares her/his thoughts/reflections (each perspective is a piece of the whole) (that’s something to consider for learning design). A book is a highly structured content presentation object. Everyone experiences it in the same process, yet each individual has a unique experience. It would appear that structured exposure to content is not a prerequisite for learning specific skills (or concepts).

At the end of most of our learning activities (higher education or corporate) we expect that we will have gained something that made the experience worthwhile. We want a new skill, a new perspective, or greater understanding. Most of us, partly due to long term conditioning in regular education environments, are not comfortable with processes that allow for “free-roaming”. We want to know what to do, read, think about, and produce. Lecture, create (assignment, product), assess – these are viewed as cornerstones of learning skills.

I wonder if we couldn’t extend that value of learning slightly if we didn’t equate it so strongly with structure. I think we can achieve intended outcomes, even if the learning isn’t structured or sequenced in a particular manner. While I lack a particular research example, I have life experiences that support the value of chaotic learning approaches…that still produced specific skills. Learning how to play basketball (or any sport), use a computer, play a video game, drive a car, build relationships, think critically…these are all skills that I acquired in ill-structured ways.

Clear learning outcomes (i.e. driving a car) are essentially goals that individuals can achieve in what ever manner is most in keeping with a) how they learn, b) what they already know, c) the immediacy of use, d) motivation, e) success as a learner (confidence), and f) the “state of life” (stress, relationships…and all that other personal stuff that influences learning). In a similar manner, we solve most of our work problems in an ill-structured way – we often only have a goal (i.e. “business presence in India”), and we then take numerous approaches (trial and error, expert guidance) in attempting to achieve the goal.

Skills are not only created in highly structured, sequential learning approaches. Certain types of skills are uniquely suited to formal learning…but for many, that luxury ends after graduation. Most skills are learned through experiences – work or personal. Periodically, the formal opportunity may present itself (when implementing a new accounting system, for example), but generally, the skills needed are acquired in an ill-structured way. Surprisingly, the more clear the goal, the less we need to structure the learning. Learners will do that on their own as the move to goal completion…and I would posit that the results and processes used will often be much more innovative than what is created around the instructional design table. Again, it gets back to designing ecologies versus designing learning.

Learning, assessment, outcomes, ecologies

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

I enjoy instructing instructors. Any long term change in our formal learning institutions will be bottom up – as educators change and experiment with new ways to maximize the learner’s experience and value. Recently, I instructed a course on “testing, evaluation, and assessment”. Some learners responded quite favorably to my approach, others felt I was downright cruel. The traditional view of education (teach and test) is strongly rooted in our schools/colleges. New methods of instructions are often seen with distrust.

One of the most disconcerting mindsets I encounter is that learning should be a clear, objective-driven process…and that confusion is a bad sign. We can still move learners toward clear, concise outcomes/competencies – even though the journey to this destination is at times confusing and ambiguous. Testing (or traditional assessment) is a powerful holdover from command and control world views. I don’t think we can substantially change our educational institutions until we take a long, hard look at how we evaluate and assess our students.

I perceive learning as a network formation process. We are not always actively constructing our learning, but we are always creating and loosening connections (even when we are constructing learning, it only becomes truly meaningful when we connect it to existing elements). Part of the experience is to evaluate and recognize patterns. In many courses, content is structured to provide progressive linear explore to new concepts and ideas. While academically effective, few aspects of life work in such a coherent fashion. Even when we design learning in a linear model, learners seek information that they find relevant (or what they think they may encounter in a test). We need to encourage learners to accept confusion and ambiguity as part of the learning process. From my experience, most learners recoil from confusion as a barrier to learning. I personally believe it is a door to learning.

Every instructor has his/her own philosophy. I believe that the learners are the ones who should adjust the content to their needs. I don’t see learners as containers to be filled. I trust learner’s ability to define what is important to them (the notion if information foraging). I trust that they will know what is needed to meet the requirements of their learning problem or opportunity. When the teacher is the king/queen of the classroom space, they control what happens, what gets adjusted, how much is “taught”, etc. When the learner is the centre of the space, the learner determines what gets reviewed, how much to read, and how to adjust. This “free” approach still occurs within the boundaries of assessment and evaluation (i.e. we can still move students toward an objective, and measure the degree to which they achieved the intended learning).

It is worth considering that different types of learning exist, and that the concept of learner-controlled exploratory learning will be more applicable in certain domains. By the same account, even when we give learners structured exposure to content, they are still only learning what they value. They may remember certain elements for testing, but long term retention consists of content that they find valuable and useful in their work/life. We are mistaken if we believe that we control learning primarily through content sequencing and arrangement. Design does have an important role in the process, but saying that our course design leads to learning is on level with saying that breathing is a process that we can manage through external influences. Our learning, like breathing, is a constant. It’s who we are. Learning can be guided, but by no means managed. Designers need to understand this key element. Good design, if not relevant, focused, holistic, motivational, etc. won’t necessarily result in better learning. The task of design is to move people toward intended targets. The learning will happen regardless of poor/good design. The key difference is whether the learner makes the connections (i.e. learns) that comprise the field of knowledge that is deemed relevant or necessary for that field.

Learners should be free to choose and learn based on their interests, but needs to express their efforts against clear evaluation criteria. Part of my intent is to eliminate the false constructs of courses (jumping through hoops provided by an instructor) and linking learning to real life. This ambiguity can be frustrating to learners, but I believe it results in deeper, more focused thinking. As I’ve stated in other posts, our goal should be to create the ecology in which learning happens, not the learning itself.

As a learner, I often learn (jump through hoops) in order to get a grade. Part of my journey has been finding ways to not focus on the grade and focus instead on the learning that I experience. I don’t remember my grades in the various courses when I was a student, but I do remember the concepts and applications. One of the reasons I try to avoid “high stakes testing” (and use a portfolio process instead) is to ensure that I’m not evaluating a learner’s ability to handle stress, but their personal philosophy of evaluation, and their ability to write test questions and pursue authentic evaluation approaches. A concept map, which is simply a learner’s representation of how pieces fit, provides a sense of how the learner has “connected the dots”. I think our evaluation and testing should not be the focus – the focus is learning, and too often, the evaluation and testing process becomes what learners are focused on – we, as educators, have to assist in shifting learner’s perspective on evaluation.

Evaluation is part of the teaching and learning process. A good grade is certainly desirable, but if our teaching/learning processes have been well thought out, learners who are competent should know they will do well. By the time a learner is finished a “courses”, she should know where she is in terms of grades. As an instructor, I should provide continual feedback against which a learner can sharpen and measure his/her own thinking. The evaluation outcome should not be a surprise to the learner. Unfortunately, we make the grades the focus (instead of the learning), and our learners think that the reason they are taking our courses is to get a certain grade. In reality, the focus of evaluation is to ensure that a learner has a framework upon which she/he can build and function within a field or within society as a whole. The grade, while mandated, is really one of the least valuable parts of the entire learning process.

Not every learning experience is one where we acquire new knowledge. Sometimes we unlearn, or learn how “not to do” something. I guess I see it as real life – in life, we don’t have clear, concise objectives or evaluation points. We learn and find new ways to recognize the patterns or highlight our own needs. Learning is secondary to the task we want to achieve/accomplish.

Our schools are at fault in not meeting the needs of learners. We mislead learners into thinking that life provides clear problems with clear solutions. It doesn’t. Life, in my eyes, provides us with the type of situations we should provide learners in courses – some data/information, some time for reflection, discussion, dialogue, and ultimately, the formation of a personal opinion or view that is not simply a regurgitation of the instructor’s view. This process of “fuzzy learning” – where we don’t have a clear outcome, but the learning happens through the act of solving the problem – is central to learning that does not have clear boundaries. Learning a particular task (where “best practices” or standards have been created) may be well-suited to formal, structured, sequential education. More and more of our work habits don’t fit into this category. Our education systems ask that we construct these problems into outcomes/objectives, and attach evaluation to each. Fine. We can do that. But it is my hope that educators will continue to extend themselves and add real life into the process. We can’t change “the institution” over night – but we can be creative and work within the confines while improving the value of the experience for our learners.

I can understand the discomfort of trying new approaches (especially for educators who are used to more traditional approaches). From my experience, the discomfort is what shocks us out of our current thinking. I have a quote on my wall by Dudley Herchbach (Nobel prize winner): “You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything”. I imagine some learners will agree with that quote, but many others won’t. We are too used to seeing learning as a neat, tidy, 3-6 credit hour experiences.”