Archive for June, 2006

Knowing before doing?

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

I’ve been involved in conversations with numerous organizations (corporate and public) over the last year. The central topic of discussion: what’s changing and what does it mean (this them is not always expressed this explicitly, but when the concerns are reduced, the message is clear).

A consistent challenge I encounter is the abundant use of terms like “blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, webcasts” etc. Organizations are awakening to a changed world – and they sense it. But the language is still ensconced in the mindset of hierarchy and control. New technology is still applied in traditional means – with the intent to manage, control, and direct activities or outcomes.

The last decade has fundamentally re-written how we:

  • consume media (music, TV, news – all moving to web-based models)
  • collaborate (wikis, groupware, skype)
  • find information (Google)
  • authenticate (trusted networks instead of established sources)
  • express ourselves and our ideas (blogs, podcasts, vlogs)
  • relate to information/knowledge (the relationship time is much shorter – compare 1/2 hour reading the morning newspaper vs. reading 50 news sources online in 10 minutes…or the deluge of information, requiring that we become much more selective and that we start using external resources (tags, OneNote, Furl, del.icio.us) to cope)

These changes are still being interpreted through existing beliefs of how we should structure our organizations, and what it means know and learn. When people first encounter distributed tools, the first attempt at implementation involves “forcing” decentralized processes into centralized models. We then end up with LMS for learning, learning object repositories to manage our content, corporate lock-downs on instant message, and district-wide bans on social networking tools.

In recent discussions with museums and education providers, the desire for centralization is strong. These organizations want learners to access their sites for content/interaction/knowledge. Learners, on the other hand, already have their personal spaces (myspace, facebook, aggregators). They don’t want to go to someone else’s program to experience content. They want YOUR content in THEIR space (it’s called decentralization :) ).

Yesterday, I was involved in a meeting about communities of practice. The desire to control and manage communities (the notion that control equates to better prospect of achieving intended outcomes was, as usual, evident) struck me as being a bit at odds with how things need to happen for online spaces to prosper. I made the statement that CoPs have traditionally been conceptualized to function in hierarchical structures; they were to be pockets of innovation (with horizontal industry/intra-industry connections) in structured environments. When we try and create CoPs online, we take the same approach – come to our community. I think that’s the wrong approach. The community should come to the user. Whether the conversation occurs through blogs, wikis, or podcasts, the true value in the conversations is the connections formed between individuals. Essentially, a CoP is a structured connection-forming space.

Most individuals, however, have started to create a scattered identity and presence. I have pieces of my thoughts scattered across numerous articles, website, podcasts, and presentations. I don’t really want to join a CoP. I want the connection values of communities to be available to me in my own online space and presence. I imagine there will be disagreement here, but I think edubloggers have formed a community of practice. We dialogue (sometimes directly, but mostly with an awareness of others). We share resources, presentations. We offer opinions, reactions, and (for new bloggers) informal mentorship. The nice aspect of this community is the end-user control. I don’t have to go to anyone who owns my identity and my content. We still achieve centralized aims (dialogue about learning and technology), but we do so through decentralized means.

“Clear aims through decentralized means” is door waiting to be unlocked. This is one of the most significant limiting factors to adoption of various open tools and processes. I recall an extended conversation with a corporate client where the values of decentralization were understood, but the familiarity of centralized/controlled processes and outcomes were too prominent. In the end, the appeal of control exceeded the prospect of value from decentralization. The question the client put my way that I was, at the time, unable to successfully answer: “how can I make sure that things are happening the way I want them to?”. In my eyes, that was the wrong question (it presupposes control as a requirement for effective functioning).

We have a mindset of “knowing before application”. We feel that new problems must be tamed by our previous experience. When we encounter a challenge, we visit our database of known solutions with the objective of applying a template solution on the problem. I find many organizations are not comfortable suspending judgment. The moment a problem takes an initial known shape, the solutions begin to flow. I notice it as well in my conversations. Once a person has acquired a sufficient understanding of my views/ideas, labeling begins. “Oh, so you’re a conservative/liberal…you believe knowledge is objective/subjective…you…blah, blah, blah”.

The act of labeling is an attempt to provide order where order does not exist (at least in the mind of the listener). Applying solutions to problems is also an order-creating attempt. This is, I think, a very natural process. We all engage in it (labeling is a cognitive off-loading process – once we can put someone or a concept into a box, we don’t have to be as active in making meaning. Instead, we can rely on our memory bank to provide meaning and understanding. While natural, it is the root of much harm – racism, prejudice, and misunderstanding).

Perhaps, in a learning sense, part of the concern here is our views that order doesn’t exist unless we enforce it. We feel that we must sufficiently grapple with an idea or situation until we have “extracted” value or meaning. It’s difficult to accept that order and meaning can emerge on its own (think chaos theory). Randomness may conceal order, and acting too quickly may result in missing the true meaning.

What does this have to do with CoPs, blogs, and wikis? Instead of trying to force these tools into organizational structures, let them exist for a while. See what happens. Don’t decide the entire solution in advance. See the process as more of a dance than a structured enactment of a solution. React as the environment adjusts. Allow feedback to shape the final product. Let the process bring its own lessons before applying structured approaches. Perhaps a learning experience exists in the knowledge/information that emerges. Centralizing decentralized processes results in killing the value inherent in decentralization. Relaxing on control is vital for sustained knowledge growth, sharing, and dissemination. Centralization works well for organized knowledge or established structures. Decentralization is effective when things change rapidly, diverse viewpoints are required, and knowledge hasn’t settled into a “knowable, defined” state.

The views that we must know before we can do, and that problems require solutions, can be limiting in certain instances (especially instances of high complexity or uncertainty – see Snowden’s knowledge ontology). Knowing often arises in the process of doing. Solutions are often contained within the problems themselves (not external, templated responses). And problems always morph as we begin to work on them.

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 (gsiemens@elearnspace.org). 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).

The emperor has no clothes, but the air temperature is still good…

Monday, June 5th, 2006

I’m constructing this post from memory based on recent museums I’ve attended in Austria (I’m here for a panel at Microlearning 2006). I tried searching wikipedia, but was not able to find significant information beyond standard biography.

Kaiser Maximilian was a king/emperor in the late 1400’s/early 1500’s (Innsbruck was his home base). He has been referred to as “the last knight” – an indication of the substantial change occurring during his rule. The armies of previous centuries (armed knights, hand to hand combat) were giving way to the development of a cannons and explosives. Maximilian was able to overtake enemies due to his early recognition of fundamental change. Nations unable to sense and adapt to the core changes in how war was conducted were quickly conquered. The capacity for war of these defeated nations was as significant as ever (at least as I understand it). The key change was in the technology and method through which war was conducted. The environment had changed. Some nations didn’t adapt. Failure was the outcome.

What does this have to do with learning? I believe we are at a similar cross-road. We are moving to the age of the “last teachers” (classically viewed as dispensers of information and knowledge). We are at a point where the entire space of education has been changed. The previous “hand-to-hand combat” of learning has transitioned to group-based, collaborative (wisdom of the crowds), self-organizing, end-user in control, adaptive, sometimes chaotic, and systems views of learning.

I’m tired of writing this (perhaps not as tired as some are of reading it), but our educational structures don’t seem to understand what’s going on. I take some comfort from Will’s recent post: “If nothing else, the last two days here speaking to and with the superintendents from about 50 districts and the staff developers… made it clear that these people either get it or want to get it and will do whatever it takes to move the schools in a new direction.” Overall, I’m not convinced that this is the norm (though I can hope that it is the start).

Most frustrating for me, is that all indications (statistics in particular) support world-wide growth in formal education. A degree is a must in most fields. China, India, and other developing countries are investing significantly in their education systems. In US and Canada, trends indicate that enrolment is on the increase (as are costs). So, why am I (and people like Will Richardson and Stephen Downes) standing up and saying “the emperor has no clothes”? It appears that the system is very healthy, if gauged by enrolment.

The risk centers on the relevance of education. I’m sure the countries surrounding Austria in early 1500’s felt quite good about their knights – they were competent, protective armor was increasing in quality, and better swords were being made. It’s all good. Then Maximilian’s army arrives with a canon. Things changed fast. The problem is not that the existing system wasn’t healthy. The problem is the lack of recognition and reaction to foundational changes in the environment.

In terms of education, or existing system is healthy from an enrolment stand point. But it’s very unhealthy from a relevance standpoint. We have created our structures for stability and for one-way flow. We need to create our structures for adaptability and for maximum flexibility (i.e. responsiveness to core environment changes). This transition requires a reworking of how we organize our instructions, the types of tools we use, how we foster dialogue, how we engage each other etc. It changes everything. Instead of planning, we experiment (see Meyer and Davis’ “It’s Alive). Instead of hierarchy, we create networks. Instead of static spaces of information exchange, we foster ecologies.

As stated in the title of this post, the emperor has no clothes, but the air temperature is still good…