Archive for February, 2010

Teaching in Social and Technological Networks

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Technological networks have transformed prominent businesses sectors: music, television, financial, manufacturing. Social networks, driven by technological networks, have similarly transformed communication, news, and personal interactions. Education sits at the social/technological nexus of change – primed for dramatic transformative change. In recent posts, I’ve argued for needed systemic innovation. I’d like focus more specifically on how teaching is impacted by social and technological networks.

What is the role of a teacher?

A teacher/instructor/professor obviously plays numerous roles in a traditional classroom: role model, encourager, supporter, guide, synthesizer. Most importantly, the teacher offers a narrative of coherence of a particular discipline. Selecting a textbook, determining and sequencing lecture topics, and planning learning activities, are all undertaken to offer coherence of a subject area. Instructional (or learning) design is a structured method of coherence provision.

This model works well when we can centralize both the content (curriculum) and the teacher. The model falls apart when we distribute content and extend the activities of the teacher to include multiple educator inputs and peer-driven learning. Simply: social and technological networks subvert the classroom-based role of the teacher. Networks thin classroom walls. Experts are no longer “out there” or “over there”. Skype brings anyone, from anywhere, into a classroom. Students are not confined to interacting with only the ideas of a researcher or theorist. Instead, a student can interact directly with researchers through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and listservs. The largely unitary voice of the traditional teacher is fragmented by the limitless conversation opportunities available in networks. When learners have control of the tools of conversation, they also control the conversations in which they choose to engage.

Course content is similarly fragmented. The textbook is now augmented with YouTube videos, online articles, simulations, Second Life builds, virtual museums, Diigo content trails, StumpleUpon reflections, and so on.

What is the impact of conversation/content fragmentation?

Traditional courses provide a coherent view of a subject. This view is shaped by “learning outcomes” (or objectives). These outcomes drive the selection of content and the design of learning activities. Ideally, outcomes and content/curriculum/instruction are then aligned with the assessment. It’s all very logical: we teach what we say we are going to teach, and then we assess what we said we would teach. This cozy comfortable world of outcomes-instruction-assessment alignment exists only in education. In all other areas of life, ambiguity, uncertainty, and unkowns reign.

Fragmentation of content and conversation is about to disrupt this well-ordered view of learning. Educators and universities are beginning to realize that they no longer have the control they once (thought they) did.

However, in order for education to work within the larger structure of integrated societal systems, clear outcomes are still needed. Growing accountability emphasis in all levels of education – primary, secondary, and post-secondary – suggests that the system needs to produce concise outcomes. Fragmentation, it would appear, pushes against this.

How can we achieve clear outcomes through distributed means? How can we achieve learning targets when the educator is no longer able to control the actions of learners?

The Knotted Ball of Education

Based on the courses I’ve taught with Stephen Downes over the last few years – CCK08 & CCK09 – I’ve come to view teaching as a critical and needed activity in the chaotic and ambiguous information climate created by networks. In the future, however, the role of the teacher, the educator, will be dramatically different from the current norm. Views of teaching, of learner roles, of literacies, of expertise, of control, and of pedagogy are knotted together. Untying one requires untying the entire model.

And that is precisely what I suggest.

In this short article, I’ll focus on one specific aspect of the knotted ball of education: the role of the teacher.

Given that coherence and lucidity are key to understanding our world, how do educators teach in networks? For educators, control is being replaced with influence. Instead of controlling a classroom, a teacher now influences or shapes a network.

The following are roles teacher play in networked learning environments:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modelling
7. Persistent presence


Social media like Twitter provide a few examples of how teacher’s roles might change. Twitter has an option available to users called re-tweet (RT). This is essentially amplification. If one Twitterer posts a link to an article in NY Times, her followers may find the article useful and then respond by re-tweeting the article. Each RT amplifies the message. Even a handful of Twitter users, with say 20 followers each, can quickly spread a message to hundreds of people. Each RT amplifies the message much like an electronic amplifier increases the amplitude of audio or video transmitters.

In networks, teachers are one node among many. Learners will, however, likely be somewhat selective of which nodes they follow and listen to. Most likely, a teacher will be one of the more prominent nodes in a learner’s network. Thoughts, ideas, or messages that the teacher amplifies will generally have a greater probability of being seen by course participants. The network of information is shaped by the actions of the teacher in drawing attention to signals (content elements) that are particularly important in a given subject area.


Several years ago, I suggested curatorial teaching (10 minute presentation):

An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored.

While “curator” carries the stigma of dusty museums, the metaphor is appropriate for teaching and learning. The curator, in a learning context, arranges key elements of a subject in such a manner that learners will “bump into” them throughout the course. Instead of explicitly stating “you must know this”, the curator includes critical course concepts in her dialogue with learners, her comments on blog posts, her in-class discussions, and in her personal reflections. As learners grow their own networks of understanding, frequent encounters with conceptual artifacts shared by the teacher will begin to resonate.

In CCK08/09, Stephen and I produced a daily newsletter where we highlighted discussions, concepts, and resources that we felt were important. As the course progressed, many students stated they found this to be a valuable resource -a centering point of sorts. Criticism was directed at our curatorial activities with concerns voiced that we were only selecting resources that supported our views. This wasn’t the case. We drew attention to both supportive and critical views. However, The Daily was not the only source of information for learners in the course. In the Daily, we aggregated blog posts and twitter posts as well. More on that when we consider aggregation.

Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking

How do individuals make sense of complex information? How do they find their way through a confusing and contradictory range of ideas? To address this, I’ll turn to Darken’s concept of wayfinding. Darken’s work is based on large virtual worlds, but I think it translates well to the challenges we face in making sense of fragmented information. When I first started learning about the internet (pre-web days), I felt like I had stepped into a alternate realm with its own norms of behaviour and conduct. Bulletin boards and chat rooms presented a challenging mix of navigating social protocols while developing technical skills.

By engaging with these conversation spaces – and forming a few tentative connections with others – I was able to find a precarious foothold in the online medium. After a period of time, I was able to navigate the space fairly effortlessly. When a new technology appeared, such as blogs, my existing knowledge base enabled me to recognize potential uses. With a bit of background of html, ftp, and webhosting, I was able to use Pyra’s Blogger service to post to my own domain. I found my way through personal trial and error.

Today’s social web is no different – we find our way through active exploration. Designers can aid the wayfinding process through consistency of design and functionality across various tools, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the individual to click/fail/recoup and continue.

Fortunately, the experience of wayfinding is now augmented by social systems. Social structures are filters. As a learner grows (and prunes) her personal networks, she also develops an effective means to filter abundance. The network becomes a cognitive agent in this instance – helping the learner to make sense of complex subject areas by relying not only on her own reading and resource exploration, but by permitting her social network to filter resources and draw attention to important topics. In order for these networks to work effectively, learners must be conscious of the need for diversity and should include nodes that offer critical or antagonistic perspectives on all topic areas. Sensemaking in complex environments is a social process.


Aggregation had so much potential. And yet has delivered relatively little over the last decade. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps RSS was too effective. Perhaps we need to spend more time in information abundant environments before we turn to aggregation as a means of making sense of the landscape. Pageflakes, iGoogle, and Netvibes have largely plateaued innovation in aggregation.

During CCK08/09, we used a variety of techniques to pull together fragmented content and conversations: Google alerts, Pageflakes, and grsshopper. The Daily included a list of blog posts tagged with CCK08/09 and any tweets with the course tag. But these are still rudimentary. Techmeme provides a slightly more sophisticated option of grouping broad themes. For the last seven years, I’ve held hope that information visualization (i.e. IBM’s ManyEyes) would provide a solution. After all, why should we do the heavy cognitive work when technology is uniquely suited to analyzing and generating patterns?

Unfortunately, visualization continues to be confined to what we input. I’d like a learning system that functions along the lines of RescueTime – actively monitoring what I’m doing – but then offers suggestions of what I should (or could) be doing additionally. Or a system that is aware of my email exchanges over the last several years and can provide relevant information based on the development of my thinking and work.

With the rise of social media, and with it the attention organizations pay to how their brand is being represented, monitoring services such as Viral Heat are promising. Imagine a course where the fragmented conversations and content are analyzed (monitored) through a similar service. Instead of creating a structure of the course in advance of the students starting (the current model), course structure emerges through numerous fragmented interactions. “Intelligence” is applied after the content and interactions start, not before. This is basically what Google did for the web – instead of fully defined and meta-described resources in a database, organized according to subject areas (i.e. Yahoo at the time), intelligence was applied at the point of search. Aggregation should do the same – reveal the content and conversation structure of the course as it unfolds, rather than defining it in advance.


Filtering resources is an important educator role, but as noted already, effective filtering can be done through a combination of wayfinding, social sensemaking, and aggregation. But expertise still matters. Educators often have years or decades of experience in a field. As such, they are familiar with many of the concepts, pitfalls, confusions, and distractions that learners are likely to encounter. As should be evident by now, the educator is an important agent in networked learning. Instead of being the sole or dominant filter of information, he now shares this task with other methods and individuals.

Filtering can be done in explicit ways – such as selecting readings around course topics – or in less obvious ways – such as writing summary blog posts around topics. Learning is an eliminative process. By determining what doesn’t belong, a learner develops and focuses his understanding of a topic. The teacher assists in the process by providing one stream of filtered information. The student is then faced with making nuanced selections based on the multiple information streams he encounters. The singular filter of the teacher has morphed into numerous information streams, each filtered according to different perspectives and world views.


During CCK08/09, one of Stephen’s statements that resonated with many learners centers on modelling as a teaching practice: “To teach is to model and to demonstrate. To learn is to practice and to reflect.” (As far as I can tell, he first made the statement during OCC in 2007). Modelling has its roots in apprenticeship. Learning is a multi-faceted process, involving cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions. Knowledge is similarly multi-faceted, involving declarative, procedural, and academic dimensions.

It is unreasonable to expect a class environment to capture the richness of these dimensions. Apprenticeship learning models are among the most effective in attending to the full breadth of learning. Apprenticeship is concerned with more than cognition and knowledge (to know about) – it also addresses the process of becoming a carpenter, plumber, or physician.

What cannot be communicated and understood by lecture and learning activities alone can be addressed through modelling by the teacher.

Persistent Presence

An educator needs a point of existence online – a place to express herself and be discovered: a blog, profile in a social networking service, Twitter, or (likely) a combination of multiple services. What do you do when you meet someone? Most likely, you search for them in Google. Having recently relocated to Alberta, I used Google to gain a sense of my children’s teachers, the social media network in Edmonton, colleagues at work, meetups, democamps, etc.

Without an online identity, you can’t connect with others – to know and be known. I don’t think I’m overstating the importance of have a presence in order to participate in networks. To teach well in networks – to weave a narrative of coherence with learners – requires a point of presence. As a course progresses, the teacher provides summary comments, synthesizes discussions, provides critical perspectives, and directs learners to resources they may not have encountered before. In CCK08/09, we used The Daily, the connectivism blog, elearnspace, OLDaily, Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Second Life, and numerous other tools to connect with learners. Persistent presence in the learning network is needed for the teacher to amplify, curate, aggregate, and filter content and to model critical thinking and cognitive attributes that reflect the needs of a discipline.

Still at the start…

I’m often surprised when I hear a declaration of web company’s birthday – Facebook at six years, Youtube at five years. It seems like these tools have been around much longer. Teaching and learning in social and technological networks is similarly surprising – it’s hard to imagine that many of the tools we’re using are less than a decade old (the methods of learning in networks are not new, however. People have always learned in social networks).

We’re still early in many of these trends. Many questions remain unanswered about privacy, ethics in networks, and assessment. My view is that change in education needs to be systemic and substantial. Education is concerned with content and conversations. The tools for controlling both content and conversation have shifted from the educator to the learner. We require a system that acknowledges this reality.

Provocateur of Systemic Innovation

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

In light of the dampening influence of established systems on innovation, it’s worthwhile to focus on what can be done in response.

We cannot get away from systems. Even if we succeed in disrupting a particular system – say the classroom model of education – we will find ourselves confined by a new structure. What is needed is the right system for a particular era or context, not a lack of systems. As history demonstrates, even revolutionaries conserve.

A hurdle must first be overcome: the intent of any system is to normalize deviation. It’s tough to be a radical in society, for example, when you have been systematized through a mortgage, car payment, and the soft influence of social norms – i.e. what it means to be successful or well-regarded. Critical commentary is difficult because when we criticize “the system” we are in essence criticizing ourselves. By our daily actions, we reinforce the existing norms. So, in most cases, it is easier to deal with the irritants of how things are, erupt with the odd rant, but still generally play by the rules that are conducive to societal integration.

An approach of acceptance and integration is fine in many instances – especially when it meets the needs of the majority. Life is far less stressful when you’re not fighting against everyone. At a certain point, however, change becomes an obligation for self-preservation. And in extreme instances, change becomes a duty in service to future generations (such as civil rights movements).

A recap of the situation: systems normalize and we are biased in supporting existing systems because they form part of our identity. But, change is needed when a substantial mismatch exists between structures in society and the external reality or dominant ideology.

Many educators – the silent majority – are not pining for change. Funding for research and national innovation goals suggest existing universities will be here for a long (long) time. Based on my experience chatting with conference attendees and interacting with faculty, a compelling argument for dramatic change in education has not been made. Sure, we see people with mobiles, we might even post to Facebook, or we might read the odd ebook, use Google Docs, but beyond that, really, how big is the change we are talking about?

Change-blindness is related to our integration with existing systems. To step into unknown and uncertain spaces is a risk-taking action. Humanity is often more concerned about preservation.

How then can a school or university innovate?

All organizations need a new position: a provocateur (or director) of systemic innovation. The role of this individual is to specifically challenge which regular organizational activities no longer make sense and to recast policies in light of the affordances of networked technology. Many organizational policies and work routines reflect the trailing ideologies of a previous generations – a different society, a different set of needs. Innovation and adaptation are in order.

Think of a university. Do we need a bookstore? Do we need professor’s “course notes” for only $45? Do we need textbooks? Do we need lecture halls? Do we need face-to-face faculty meetings? Do we need courses? What about the current research grant writing process? Does that even make sense (especially from a perspective of time/resources invested to prospect of succeeding and length of time to required by the council to reach a verdict)?

We could get into class scheduling…or student fees…or the need for new building projects…or the administrative structure of universities…faculty unions…and so on. In each instance, many opportunities for innovation exist. But, absent someone being assigned the explicit role of thinking about innovation, most of us spend our time doing our work. And the daily drubbing drives out creativity to reflect on what we could do differently, what we could do better. Which is why we need an explicit focus on innovating the system itself.

Now that we have selected the curtain colour, let’s build a new house

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The ideologies of an era are embedded in its systems. Eras change. Systems don’t – at least not until they are disrupted. As a result, existing systems are substantial in determining what will be adopted. Systems serve as boundary markers for innovation. The test of whether or not a new idea will be adopted is often determined how well it integrates with what exists.

Society itself is essentially a series of interlocking systems. Because we have an education system that takes care of young students for eight hours a day, both parents can work. Because we have some level of centralization of government in most countries, education systems are subject to governmental curricular and structural mandates. The book made the library. Society’s systems make the schools. More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in education. All ideas are vetted by how they integrate with the system.

Different eras require different modes of thought and action. For example, in times of innovation in a sector – like computers in the 80’s or the web since 2000 – a blue sky mentality is needed. All things are possible. Limitations exist only in our capacity to visualize a new reality. Very few innovation push-backs are found in these periods. In a sense, these are the teenage years – our ignorance prevents us from listening to no-sayers. Other periods – such as the 50’s and 60’s in manufacturing – are periods of tweaking. The boundaries of a system are in place and systematization is the key focus.

In education we are today at the teenage years. We are at a point where we ought to be conceiving new models driven by the affordances generated by networks, technology, openness, and social software. Instead, many systems are at the equivalent stage of being pushed down the hall in a wheelchair at a senior care home.

I want to resist the mindset of measuring what is possible by the existing system.

Look at a few of the biggest technological “innovations” of the last decade: learning management systems, student information systems, interactive whiteboards, iclickers, and virtual classrooms. These tools integrate with existing systems, which is why they are successful. The systemic design of education, from curricular planning to delivery to evaluation, has not been recast in light of the web. Instead, the web has been recast in light of existing systems. In many instances, teaching and learning has been transferred to, instead of transformed by, the internet.

What is the impact of this mindset? When I present on alternative views of assessment and accreditation, or suggest non-course approaches to teaching, the inevitable push-back is “well that won’t work because of _____ aspect of the system”. Perhaps it is time that we turn our attention explicitly to working on, rather than in, the system.

Yes, working against a system is difficult. Sometimes even futile. I’m not suggesting that we “fight the man” and organize marches decrying the failure of the system. I’m suggesting something much more subtle: that we no longer allow systems-based arguments and criticism to dampen our creative exploration for what is possible in education. A period of “no boundaries” in our thinking. Forget even arguing against those who appeal to integration with existing structures. Just ignore those discussions completely. I’d like to focus instead on creating a compelling vision of what education could be given new technologies and almost global connectivity.

The timing is somewhat ideal. The growth of the internet, advancement in social media, frustration with quality of the current system (primary to university), reduced budgets, and greater awareness of the importance of creative and innovative thinkers, has created an almost perfect storm for reform. I doubt we’ll see, in our lifetime, similarly favorable conditions for change.

We are, after all, in the youth of educational reform. No point in spending it in a wheelchair or pushing around a walker.