Archive for April, 2009

Teaching as transparent learning

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

I’ve gained much from being a transparent learner. Over the last nine years – on blogs, wikis, and recently Twitter – I’ve expressed half-formed ideas and received the benefit of constructive (and critical feedback). I generally focus on what I’ve gained, but I suspect readers of my sites and articles have gained something from the experience as well. Putting ideas out for discussion contrasts with formal “reach a conclusion and publish” model.

My thinking on “digital natives”, for example, has evolved significantly. I used to adhere to the view that today’s learners are fundamentally different. If you read blog posts I made (on elearnspace) from 2002-2003 you’ll see numerous references to the need for educational change driven by “today’s learners”. I’ve since largely abandoned that view. While learners today may be different, I’m more interested in finding a firm foundation of educational reform. I’m presenting on this topic at the upcoming Canadian Network for Innovation in Education in Ottawa. My work on blogs, articles, handbooks, and so on is an invitation to engage in conversation, not a proclamation of what I absolutely know.

Prominent and transparent learners

I can’t speak for them, but from reading prominent educational technology bloggers – Will Richardson, Terry Anderson, Stephen Downes, Grainne Conole – I’m left with the impression that they too seek not to proclaim what they know, but rather to engage and share with others as they explore and come to understand technology and related trends.

Watching others learn is an act of learning.

Let me explain. When someone decides to share their thoughts and ideas in a transparent manner, they become a teacher to those who are observing. Social technology – such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook – opens the door to sharing the process of learning, not only the final product. As a result, over the last few years, I’ve observed Alan Levine initiate and fine tune 50+ web 2.0 ways to tell a story. And D’Arcy Norman do battle with spammers while fostering significant adoption of blogs and wikis at University of Calgary. And Janet Clarey developing her voice in the corporate learning space, Brian Lamb embracing and then pushing the boundaries of open educational resources, and Alec Couros experimenting with open teaching. There are many others. All have contributed to my learning by being willing to share how they develop and advance ideas.

Last fall, during CCK08, the value of transparent learning became more apparent to me. Stephen and I structured the course to augment the role of networks for assisting learners in making sense of subject matter. We encouraged blogging, discussions in Moodle, language translations, cohorts in Second Life, and so on. As the course facilitators, we were active in sharing our ideas and views, but we were only two nodes in multi-node network.

The real value of the course was in fostering connections between learners and concepts. We haven’t follow up to see if the networks formed during the course continue to exist. I’m aware of several clusters of learners that are still involved in dialogue on Twitter, some who are conducting research on the course, and others who are active in commenting on the blogs of learners they met in the course. For each of these learners, CCK08 was important not only for the content discussed, but for the relationships and connections that were formed and continue to provide a source of inspiration.

Gary Klein and researchers on expertise suggest that novices and experts possess differing cognitive architectures. Experts utilize pattern recognition in comparing new situations to previous experiences. They are adept at recognizing nuances and focusing on important, rather than superfluous, elements.

Novices, in contrast, have not yet developed a rich experience base. As such, learning for novices is sequential. I remember my first days as an adult educator trying to tediously evaluate learning outcomes against Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy. Each identification of a unique element required intentional effort. Over time, as I developed experience, I was able to readily identify suitability of outcomes based on the framework. Since then, I’ve largely given up on Bloom’s, but that’s a different post.

The varying cognitive architecture of those who are new to a subject and those with significant experience provides support to the value of peer-to-peer learning. A student who has just started blogging can likely relate better to someone who is still only considering blogging. Or a student who has just mastered key math, physics, or philosophical concepts is better able to relate to students who are still grappling with the concepts. I can’t cite research to support this assertion (though I would think it exists), but it seems to me that individuals who share similar cognitive architectures (novices with novices and experts with experts) have greater capacity to communicate.

Consider a group of researchers who have spent decades exploring a subject. They will be better able to understand new research in the field than a masters student with limited experience. By the same account, a student who has just overcome hurdles in understanding a new subject area can provide better help to others who are still struggling than could an expert who has long since forgotten the experience of being a novice in the field.

My argument is this: when we make our learning transparent, we become teachers. Even if we are new to a field and don’t have the confidence to dialogue with experts, we can still provide important learning opportunities to others.

I’ve recently become somewhat negative on the notion of lurking. From communities of practice research, we are told that legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) is an important stage in developing our confidence to contribute and belong to a community. I’m not sure I agree. LPP suggests we observe the discussions of experts and once we have a developed base in the field, we begin to participate and contribute to the advancement of the field. However, this places the needs of the field above the needs of the individual. As an amateur in a field, I will likely learn more from those who have a similar understanding to my own. I can relate better to learners at this stage.

This doesn’t mean we don’t need experts – we should constantly bounce our own emerging understanding off of the concepts already established in the field. But the value of dialogue and discourse in learning can’t be subjugated to the view that all contributions should advance a field. Transparency in expressing our understanding, our frustrations, and our insights helps others who are at a similar stage. Yes, we’ll participate in the broader discussions held by experts in time, but lurking is no excuse to deny others (who are also new to the field) our progressive insights.