Archive for March, 2008

Pedagogy First? Whatever.

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

In dealing with faculty and instructional designers, a series of almost default phrases are vocalized once technology is mentioned: “We need to start with pedagogy”…”It’s pedagogy first”.
Or, whenever I’m in a meeting and someone says “pedagogy first”, the apparently genetic instinct to nod viciously is enacted by everyone around the table. “Yes, that is right. We need to have priorities here. Let’s tame technology and focus instead on what we already know and are comfortable with. Let’s ensure that technology does not get away from the tried and true method of containing innovation and new approaches.”
On the surface, I share this sentiment. I’ve used it many times as well. It’s a nice comforting way of letting people know that we are people with good priorities. We are not from the dark side. Come a little closer to the edge. We are just like you.
Another one of my favorite conversations that cause me to feel with warm, glowing edu-speak goodness: “We need to design our course/program on sound pedagogy”.
But my angst can no longer be contained.
What is sound pedagogy?? Let’s lay aside for a moment that pedagogy traditionally has referred to the instruction of children and Malcolm Knowles’ concept of andragogy is likely a more correct term to use. I’ll assume that those advocates of sound pedagogy use the term as it is commonly understood in most educational conferences and discussions. Well, what is this mysterious sound pedagogy? Is it found in the research of no significant difference? Or significant difference? Is the media used important? (.pdf) or is the type of media not important? Oh, wait, here’s another fun one: transactional distance (.pdf). Better yet, let’s talk about brain-based learning, learning styles, and problem based learning. Simply put: if you want to create your very own pedagogy, you can likely find research that supports it. If you think we should do “a” or shouldn’t do “a”, if you think we should use technology or shouldn’t use technology, if you think learners need more guidance or less guidance, you will be able to find research that supports what you’re saying. (For a slightly less, but not much more so, cynical view of the quality and value of educational research, see Arthur Levine’s report Educating Researchers (.pdf)).
The term sound pedagogy means nothing unless it’s used in a very specific context in which individuals hold to generally similar views of what is and isn’t not appropriate educational research. The use of sound pedagogy as a concept for a diverse group of educators with a diverse group of interests is of no value. What, however, does the term vaguely mean? Common definitions provide some type of reference to art and/or science of teaching. Wikipedia (which is not pedagogically sound), adds additional detail: “generally refers to strategies of instruction, or a style of instruction”. Art? Science? Style? How can these be determined by research? Who is to say art is sound?
The confusion I find most difficult to deal with is the type that arises from using a certain (apparently sound) line of reasoning in service of the wrong role. While consideration of pedagogy can be important in how we use technology, pedagogy should NOT be the basis of deciding what type of technology we should use. The logic (can I use that word in reference to what is also called an art?) of pedagogy ought to be applied after this selection has occurred.
Pedagogy is not the starting point of planning to teach with technology. Context is.
Consider, for example, an educator who decides to start using Second Life in class. Pedagogically (again, I have no idea what it means due to diverse use) people could suggest it’s not the best approach. The uncertainty can be high…it’s an additional barrier to learning materials…spatial orientation can be difficult for people who have not used virtual worlds before…it’s a clumsy way to present content. Educationally it’s tough to say that Second Life for teaching is the best way to go in teaching (other than in fields like engineering, architecture, game design, or research of group behaviour where using 2L is the primary task. Learning poetry is a secondary (pun!) task in 2L). Why then would anyone want to use Second Life? Because of the learners. It’s new, it’s different, and it captures their attention. Second Life in this instance is a motivation tool (hey, let’s throw that in the pedagogy bin, then we can say 2L is pedagogically sound because it invokes motivation).
I had the experience of students being awakened to learning several years ago while still at Red River College. A colleague – Steve Yurkiw – designed an Authorware game modeled after Jeopardy!. Students worked with basic knowledge terms, a section of the curriculum that was generally dry and boring. In this instance, however, students were motivated and engaged, with about half the class crowded around the laptop and the other half shouting answers from their seats.
Or consider teaching students in a remote location. How should we select technology? In my eyes, selection should be based on the funds available. The experience of the educator. The technology learners can already access. The intended outcomes of the program. And so on. In the end, we may end up using video conferencing in central room. Or we may use ustream with distributed participants. Perhaps skype and chatterous for interaction.
Pedagogy should not even be a consideration during the planning stages of technology use. Harsh statement? Perhaps, but it’s a reality. Few Utopian situations exist where our decisions on how to teach can be based exclusively on pedagogy. Resources, expertise, technology, needs (of learners, educators, society), and funds impact what we choose to do. In a world: context. The mix of multiple, mutually influencing factors determine what we types of technology we select. For more information on context, see this wiki page on the subject that I’ve used at U of Manitoba for workshops (much more detail is required, but I haven’t got around to expanding it). Or for a more esoteric discussion, see pg 61 – 63 in Knowing Knowledge (you can download the book, no charge). Or a page I’m working on related to research.
Let’s abandon the somewhat silly notion of pedagogy first and recognize that the choice of technology is driven by many contextual factors and therefore context is what we are evaluating and considering when we first start talking about possible technology to use. Then, after we have selected technology, we can start talking about pedagogy. Pedagogy is just not a practical starting point for deciding the technology we should use.

I mean, really, where did we think all of this was going to go?

Friday, March 14th, 2008

**UPDATE – for some reason, I’m having issues with comments on this entry…several people have said they posted a comment, but it’s not showing up. If all else fails, send me an email (see bottom of post).
About a week ago, I posted a short presentation on A World Without Courses. It generated a fair number of comments, was picked up by Wired Campus (with the attendant dismissal found in many traditional academics). Chris Lott (one of the more thoughtful edubloggers I follow) interacted with the idea as well, posing some important questions about implications and practicality.
With this conversation, I’ve been trying to trace current directions to some future point. Is it speculative? Absolutely. Anyone who claims to know where we are heading societally and educationally doesn’t understand the current climate. We are in a complex space with multiple competing factors. Corporate sponsorship of educational activities is increasing. For-profit providers are showing strong growth. Middle Eastern countries (such as Saudi Arabia with KAUST) are aggressively pursuing research and advanced education. China, India, Brazil, Russia – are all rapidly developing their economies and educational systems. No one – outside of some degree of speculation and extrapolation of trends – knows what type of climate this interplay of trends will ultimately create. I’ll posit, however, that the current pace of development of participatory and social technologies will have a significant impact on how we create, deliver, and administer education.
But then, what were we expecting? What did we think would happen when learners started using the web for creating and accessing content? When they started creating social networks to assist each other in learning? What did we think would happen when large distributed, global conversations started to occur around how to teach? What did we expect would happen to classrooms when the walls became increasingly permeable and learners could directly access video and audio recordings of experts? What did we think would be the final outcome of a tremendous shift in control over what and how our learners deal with content, each other, experts, and the rest of the world? Did we actually think that we could have a revolution within the confines of existing structures? Without getting too melodramatic, consider the revolutions ignited by individuals like Luther and Newton. Both were devout spiritual men, seeking to live a life of obedience to God as they felt they were called. Luther wanted a revolution within the Catholic Church. Along comes Calvin and draws his ideas to an unintended (by Luther at least) conclusion. Newton viewed his work in math and science to be an exploration of the spectacular universe of God’s creation. Newton’s followers took his ideas in entirely unintended directions.
In order to better represent what I was attempting to say with the presentation, I have been forced to open up Fireworks and actually attempt to graphically represent key concepts.
As you’ll notice with my selection of lovely pastel colours, three key areas are under consideration:

  1. Content
  2. Conversations and Connections
  3. Reputation and Accreditation

The first component – content – is often freely available. Open educational resources, open journal articles, TED Talks, conference proceedings, and so on. Unfortunately, an individual needs to know the content exists, and where it exists, before this is of significant value.
The second component – conversations and connections – faces far less barriers than only a decade ago. Skype, ustream, blogs, podcasts, department websites, Facebook, Second Life, and a myriad of other tools, allows learners to connect with each other, with content, with experts, and with peers from around the world. I’ve also become somewhat intrigued by eharmony (not for personal reasons). Think about it: if we can find life partners through an online profiling service, don’t you think it’s possible to match educators and learners?
The third component – reputation and accreditation – is perhaps the least developed. Example systems do exist, however, when we look at eBay, Amazon, Digg, and other rating services that provide individuals the ability to provide commentary on value of a resource, significance of a contribution, or even a statement of the competence of an individual. Is it perfect? No. But it is an indication of what a system of accreditation in distributed social connections and content might look like.
As presented here, this approach raises a few significant concerns (and reflected in Chris’ comments as well as those on the initial post).
First: How will be find valuable content? And how will we know we need it before we find it if we are novices? How will we be able to validate it? Wikipedia has consistently been challenged by educators for its sometimes sloppy articles. I tackled the idea of finding content once before in a presentation on online and blended learning, but that project has stalled.
Secondly, how will learners make sense of the content space. How will they navigate an obviously confusing network of content? We need a mix of structured learning material put together by others (say and expert) for newcomers in a field…much like open source software sites often have tutorials available for newcomers. Those who have a bit more experience in a discipline can then happily go out and consume/create the material they need. It’s possible if the content is in small enough chunks so it can be aggregated/mashed up as needed. Feasible? Absolutely, and seen in many of the self-organizing communities around Facebook, WordPress and other sites. Will that model transfer to other fields? I’m not sure. But, keep in mind, I’m currently in brainstorming, not implementation mode.
Thirdly, how will we find teachers that we want to learn from? How will teachers find learners they want to teach? Again, we can find a rudimentary beginning in online social networks, where one connection leads to another, which leads to another. Or a service like Twitter where we connect based on those who are actively contributing content, or connections, to the network. Is this simplistic? Absolutely. I cannot, however, think of a better approach that participatory web tools in connecting people. It far exceeds the classroom model for allowing learners to form global networks.
Finally, the tension point I’m least clear on relates to accreditation. Accreditation is the main task of educators in colleges, universities, and corporate training departments (well, ok, in universities, research is the main task…but teaching is still a key component).
Another critical element which runs as a strand through this discussion relates to learner ability to be self-motivated. Is it simply about teaching learners new skills to function in this environment? I hope so…but I don’t think so. Humanity is as it is…and I recall my post high school days when my motivation to learn was hardly academic. We need to conceive a system that captures the interest of as diverse a learner need base as possible. What will that look like? I’m not sure, but with smart people like Chris Lott, Gráinne Conole, Terry Anderson, Stephen Downes, Will Richardson, Jennifer Jones, John Connell, and many other edubloggers contributing to the conversation, I suspect we can at least have a good crack at the problem.
These changes are not certain, nor will they be uniform in their impact. As I stated at the outset, times of transition provide uncertain glimpses into the future. The best we can do is consider existing trends and extrapolate possible scenarios. What I am convinced of, however, is that the tools and approaches we are using will impact education. Significantly. Courses will be rethought. So will schools. Classrooms. (See OECD’s future schools scenario).
What are next steps?
I have proposed – as linked to above on blended learning – a model of certificate design that partly does away with courses, but still retains some of the key concepts or support structures that courses and educators can provide for novice learners. An initiative I was working with has stalled, but I’d be interested in working with:
a) Colleges/universities who are interested in developing an alternative model for learning delivery
b) Software developers who are interested in tackling a model or approach that permits the delivery of learning as detailed above.
If you fit into a) or b) above, let me know: gsiemens AT elearnspace DOT org.
Beyond that, I’d appreciate thoughts/reactions/etc. on this concept.

Networks are getting faster…

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I was born in Mexico. Spent the first six years of my life in a society very different from what I have known since. Somewhere, in my already weakened neural connections, reside memories of a world not based on explicit networks. Our community was without paved roads and electricity and its many associated benefits. News and information didn’t travel very quickly. Some homes had a diesel generator that would be operated for a few hours a week, allowing community members to gather around a radio listening to news reports. Others – those crazy young kids – had access to small battery operated radios, though their interest was not in news, but rather music and culture.
While information flowed slowly, an entirely different reality existed. I recall evenings sitting around an oil-lamp, listening to (but not understanding) the conversations of adults. They spoke of “big things” – church, country, world conflict. Even though I had only an anaemic cognitive awareness of what was being discussed, I could share emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Laughter. It was a good feeling to be sitting in the peripheral world of adults – a small network sharing ideas, feelings, and world events. But it was not just the network that mattered. It was also the context in which the conversations took place. The memory of the oil lamp is to this day revived in certain settings and by certain smells. The flickering shadows cast on walls, moving almost rhythmically with the tone and energy of the conversation. And most importantly, the sense of oneness, of belonging, and of seeking to know and understand the big things of the world. While modern networks of electricity, news, information, roads, and technology were largely non-existent in this setting, the spirit these networks serve for me today already existed. It was the spirit of being human. Of connecting.
When my family moved to Canada in the late 70’s (under less than ideal conditions), the world views established in Mexico prevailed. Disdain for technology ran high in the minds of my parents. No TV. No computers (once they became broadly available in the mid 80’s). No radio. No newspapers. My distraction was found in books – forming connections between ideas and concepts that spanned centuries, instead of minutes and days as afforded by the technology at the time. The setting had changed – sand and cactus were replaced by farmland and snow. The oil lamp no longer attended animated conversations. Instead a chandelier above the dining room table provided a uniformity of light. Conversations, though not accentuated with dancing shadows, still formed the basis for coming to know and coming to understand the world in all its complexity. At least at home.
At school, newer networks were becoming prominent. In-class discussions of current events, use of textbooks and instructional video (after I learned English) replaced the filtering of ideas that had previously occurred through conversation in a trusted small group around a table. While principles were similar – small networked group – the humanness and the sense of belonging was missing. It was replaced with obligation and routine. I was not fascinated by the speakers, not enthralled with their ideas, and certainly not emotionally involved. The network had become a bit faster, a bit more diverse, and a lot less personal. Laughter was gone. The teacher and I played our respective roles, largely void of passion.
When I started university, my exposure to networks was ramped up significantly. Universities are awash with ideas, information, and opportunities for networks. But networks of what type? From my experience, these networks fit into two broad categories and do not necessarily meet often. The primary network is the connection to information, to theorists, to multiple world views. This is a cognitive engagement that is can be invigorating intellectually, but in university settings, is largely void of the humanness I encountered around discussion tables. The second network is social and relational, formed with other students and generally not academically focused (outside of the occasional study group). Learning and social networks, which for me had in my youth shared the same context and domain were torn asunder (always wanted to use “asunder” in a blog post). The trend of accelerating networks and decelerating humanness continued.
But then, in early 2000, I came across an interesting piece of software referred to as “a blog”. In the very choppy hit-and-miss Blogger tool at the time, I began playing around with different ideas and started forming a small network of likeminded individuals. Our conversation was largely parallel, not direct, but a new level of energy existed in the network. A trackback, link, or comment relating to a blog post formed the basis of an emerging network. Learning was becoming somewhat social. Information dissemination was accelerating at a much quicker rate than in traditional media. A newspaper published once a day. The evening news on TV was a similar “fixed time” summary of the day’s events. “The expert” dispensed information at select times. In contrast, blogs and other web-based tools enabled information to be disseminated at a significantly more rapid pace. The cost of this speed? Amateurs were granted equal footing with experts in the production and exchange of content.
The network trend has since continued and even accelerated., Myspace, Facebook, ustream, and Twitter represent an acceleration of information sharing on par with the distinction between a traditional newspaper and blogs. Growing up, my information network was slow, but social contact was high. In early school years, the information network accelerated, at the expense of humanness of the exchange. In university, both information and social networks grew in intensity but did so separately. And with the growth of network tools for learning, socialization, and information exchange, the world became rather small. It was not unusual for me to spend more of my day in conversations with people in Europe, Australia, Middle East, US, or across Canada, than with others a few desks down from me at work (see Barry Wellman’s article on Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism (.pdf) for a more thoughtful exploration of the topic). In a digital sense, my early experience of small network conversation (though peripheral due to my age at the time) was revived in these global conversations. While we didn’t share the same geographical space, we shared the same ideals and passion for learning, information creation and sharing, and desire to belong, to be a part of something.
I have been critical of Twitter in the past. Recent experiences, however, cause me to rethink Twitter (my profile is here). Tools like Facebook and Twitter continue the long trend of “binding back” to our social, networked, small-group past. A past centered on the social sharing of information and making sense of the world together. The breakdown of distance and the growth of the speed at which information flows in our networks, is fortunately balanced by the rise of social tools. We don’t, after all, make sense of our complex world as individuals. We make sense as a network…a network in which we possess a unique identity and in which we find our sense of belonging and our sense of humanity. The flickering oil lamp has given way to Twitter, yet the context of engagement and need to socialize remains as it was then.

The Honour of Attention

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Gardner Campbell’s post stirred my thoughts on attention. Linda Stone coined the almost intuitive “yeah, that’s it!” term “continuous partial attention”. While we might not always see it as such, our attention is limited and how we use it has notable consequences. For example, I am not a goal setter, nor do my “to do lists” embody an organized spirit. I find myself frequently distracted from perhaps more worthy pursuits as I engage in fragmented activities, hoping in the depths of my sub-conscious mind that these disjointed pieces will one day snap into place and form a holistic (advanced?) understanding.
This disjointedness of thought is reflected in my conversations with others. I frequently retreat to interior considerations as comments made by family and friends trigger a side-journey of reflection. When dialoguing with others at conferences, each statement provided by others seems to serve as a conversational hyperlink into contextually unrelated, but personally important, thought streams. Quite simply, I’m distracted and wish I could slow the world down frequently so I can more fully pursue the conversational side-journeys, tracing ideas and connecting them with what I already know into a new synthesis. But, the ease of distraction, while valuable for being able to briefly explore and connect ideas with weak links, can be seen as rude.
This evening, while speaking on the phone to my dad, I found my attention gallivanting to all kinds of peripheral concerns. Should I have phrased the concept of networks differently in that last paper? What about this Edmodo thing? Oh, wow, that relates to Plotinus’ notion of Nous. I wonder why I’m not more creative? I really should start working with images more in my blogs. Why hasn’t that person replied to my email? And on and on. Then, almost outside of my own consciousness, but in keeping with the well worn path of social ritual I heard myself ending the phone conversation. And I was shocked. An entire conversation had essentially passed me by while I permitted myself to explore personal interests rather than to focus on what was being shared by a family member.
A few thoughts (heh) arose from this conversation. First, giving attention to others is a sign of respect. It is an act of getting out of ourselves, our thoughts, our concerns, and becoming willing to receive the perspectives, opinions, and ideas of others.
Second, technology can make this more difficult. I can surround myself (in Twitter, Google Reader) with people who share my interests. I end up needing to pay less attention because my own thoughts already overlap with those I’m reading or listening to online.
Third, while continuous partial attention is a part of who we are and who we have been for centuries, it seems to be much easier today to not pay attention to people around us. When is the last time you’ve had a difficult conversation (difficult defined as one where you needed to focus on what others were saying because world-views/opinions were so far removed from your own that you had to ramp up cognitive capacity to follow)? I personally spend the majority of my day being a one-dimensional person. My focus is fairly consistently on educational technology. Reading blogs, journal articles, listening to podcasts, etc .all centre on that particular focus. When engaged in conversations outside of that space, my thoughts begin to exhibit addictive withdrawal traits (jonesing for ed tech?).
Finally, attention plays different roles in different contexts. In fields where I am well versed, attention can be partial and distributed, as it allows me to quickly explore different ideas. However, when interacting in a field where I am not well versed, or when talking with others, this can be a challenge. Fragmented attention can be seen as a sign of lack of interest…and can result in missing key points of information. I’m just not very consistent at using my attention appropriately in varying contexts.
All of which, as I continue to seek ways to absolve myself of the guilt of being a distracted listener when people are not talking about things that I already predispositional interest in, comes down to the importance of developing habits of respecting and honouring (yes, I’ll use that outdated term) other people. Thoughtful and intentional attention directed at understanding others – even those not in my field – forms the basis of weak ties to worlds beyond my own (”Please, help George become a multi-faceted human being…send weak ties…”). Weak ties are connections that bridge worlds. Serendipity, an underestimated value in learning – occurs in those moments where we bring together two or more ideas that appear to not have direct relation. The smashing together of varying, unrelated, and contradictory ideas forms the basis of innovation. Purposeful attention serves not only to honour those people around me (virtual and physical), but also to aid in my personal growth and learning. Deep understanding, after all, is a function of ongoing, sustained focus and attention on a particular field or discipline (see Biggs Solo Taxonomy). “Time on task” is a key point of value in learning and often a critical distinction between those learners that succeed and those that don’t.
Is paying attention (appropriate to the context) a skill we ought to be teaching learners? Something we (ok, I) ought to be more vigilant in addressing in ourselves (myself)?