Archive for July, 2011

From knowledge to bathroom renovations

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

I’ve learned to run, frantically, from questions like:

- How old do you think I am?
- Does this outfit make me look fat?
- What is knowledge?

(I’m soon going to upgrade “how is connectivism different from constructivism” to the “run” status. Right now it’s more of a “stroll away” question).

Underlying questions of this nature is not the pursuit of an answer, but rather something more personal and value laden. Have you even seen anyone respond with giddy happiness when you over guess their age by 10 years? (well, except maybe a teenager trying to get into a night club). However, intentionally under guessing someone’s age is almost a show of flattery. The questions aren’t the point; the answer is expected to massage an intention.

For a few thousand years, philosophers, theologians, and academics have debated knowledge. They’ve developed multi-syllabic terms like “epistemology” and “hermeneutics” to reflect this exploration. But they certainly haven’t come to an agreement on what “knowledge is”. Which is fine. Stephen Downes and I have explored this topic in every one of the CCK courses. It’s a great developmental question – the value is in the experience of thinking, debating, and understanding the entities that are involved. Rarely do two people agree on the answer. This lack of agreement stems from, I think, the complex interplay of our knowledge definition and our world views (religious, social, political, and so on). Attempts to define knowledge are really attempts to define ourselves. So, tongue-in-cheek: the only time the “what is knowledge” question is worth answering is when the purpose is to expand thinking, not to actually provide a definition.

Over the last few weeks, a rather odd discussion has arisen in relation to massive open online courses (MOOCs). I say odd because at first glance, it’s not a topic that seems worth of much debate At first, I was confused that this topic has generated the level of debate that it has. But, on closer reflection, it makes sense: with MOOCs we are questioning numerous relationships: educator, learner (individual), institution, power, control, and, for that matter, the structure of knowledge and the process of learning. These are high stakes questions. Societies and political systems are built on how these complex issues are perceived.

The MOOC conversation was ignited through several factors:
David Wiley’s post #1,
eduMOOC (more on that in a separate post – particularly how the U of Illinois model differs from the one Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, and I have employed),
Chronicle of Higher Education article,
David Wiley’s response #1,
my response,
David Wiley’s response #2,
Dave Cormier’s response,
David Wiley’s response #3,
Stephen’s response, and
David Wiley’s response #4.

Changing education is a bit like bathroom renovations gone awry. You go in with the noble goal of replacing a faucet. But once you start, you realize that the sink needs to be replaced because the new faucet doesn’t fit the existing sink. So you remove the sink. Before putting on the new sink, you realize that the drywall needs to be replaced. You remove a panel. And another. Suddenly, the toilet, the bathtub, the floor – everything is fair game for upgrading and replacement.

MOOCs have been our attempt to replace a faucet. But the system is connected. As Martin Weller stated during our ED-MEDIA keynote debate this week, when you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining. When you release one thing you release the adjoining. What started as an open online course (CCK08, Alec Couros’ EC&I831) has created a ripple in my thinking. If we see courses as open knowledge spaces where
1) all actors/agents have equal access to information,
2) personal agency is not restricted by pre-planned course structure,
3) democratic practices define participation and rule creation,
4) educators focus on introducing the “big ideas” of a domain and model how they navigate those ideas, and
5) learners, through social sensemaking and wayfinding, orient themselves to complex topics and begin to draw connections between various concepts (big ideas),
then we find ourselves questioning many of the attributes of today’s education system. In the process, we need to address concerns such as David’s emphasis on learner preparedness, the effectiveness of learning in a MOOC in contrast to other learning models, how to structure learning and knowledge spaces in different disciplines and in different topics, and so on.

We need evidence. We need research. Philosophically, the conversation is fun and could go on for years. I’d like to take an empirical approach to expand the possible mode of answering the questions raised in the Wiley/Downes/Cormier/Siemens debate. As I mentioned in the original post announcing our fall MOOC, we are forming a research team to frame and explore the unknowns in open courses. If you’re interested in joining, let me know.