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

**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.

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

  1. If you tried to post…and it’s not here, then something went wrong. I’ve had several people contact me stating their posts didn’t appear. As mentioned in the intro…try posting again, or send me an email…

  2. Chuck Hamilton says:

    I’m planning to approach you formally about an alternative model for learning but I thought I’d ‘out myself and thinking’ here first. Recently Dr. David Vogt (a long time friend/mentor) and I discussed whether I might be interested in graduate work. Based on our common interest and leadership in the learning and new media fields, we discussed ways I might take what I do and meld into a bigger academic direction. I detailed my thinking around something I call the evolving Learner 2.0 model (I can detail this more later) as well as, how I felt that current social technology directions have forever changed the way we learn and work. David laid out the current academic landscape and options. Makes for great dinner talk.
    Some key thoughts from this dialogue:
    - We are becoming more socially aligned than at any other point in our collective history;
    - We believe we are on the brink of an important and much needed ‘collaboration for innovation’ leap;
    - Our strong desire to collaborate combined with the power of collected wisdom enabled through evolving social media can not to be underestimated a leading learning direction; and
    - The communities that surf today are both web centric, highly collaborative and new media savvy. They connect through a myriad of new tools and processes in search of richer, more collaborative experiences and we are all pushing us for more.
    As a learning practitioner and referenced thought leader in this space, I’ve not really stopped to ask myself whether I needed more credentials. My work puts me in a position to learn everyday and I have worked endlessly to build a network of people much smarter than myself to be my guides. I lead and participate in research, publish and serve as a graduate student advisor as time permits. I also lead and participate in, as many panels and think tanks at the intersection of new media and learning as possible.
    By design and happenstance my work is multidisciplinary. Working at the confluence of learning, new media technology and business, calls for both horizontal and vertical domain thinking and provides me with a rich learning landscape. In fact, this is likely why this work captured my attention and became a career direction for many years. Still I realize that there are likely many core bits or foundational elements that I could gather and use to shore up my understanding of my field and its future direction. Should I ever want to teach and share my passion with others, I know that I’ll be forced to jump through some very specific hoops.
    So what would graduate work look like for me? Would I derail a perfectly good career to do it? The areas that most interest me cross several faculty boundaries, so where might I start? As David points out, graduate work is about the company you keep, your mentors and connections made by the protégé. That level of connection means a whole new game today. Couldn’t there be a better peer aligned system developed to build toward accreditation? Oh yeah, brand can help you too!
    We began to think about a person as being at the center of a tag cloud of understanding, like a detailed learning resume floating and continually updating over one’s head. This shared tag cloud would leverage at least three prevalent filters of our connected society. Mine are presence, trust, and authenticity and I use those key filters to sort and coalesce thoughts into knowledge chunks today. We imagined that an organized social network could easily and accurately validate a person’s understanding and if this core knowledge was shored up with some key directed work from the entire network, it might be able to be accredited, a sort of Connectivsts degree. It would certainly be high quality and very context aligned, but it would take some major ‘outside the box’ institutional thinking, as well as more guinea pigs like me.
    After much discussion David and I agreed on a couple of things. First, it is abundantly clear that the classroom and many of those tired eLearning/collaboration spaces are no longer big enough to contain the amount, nor type of learning most next generation learners require. I know that some will argue this point, we did. We also concluded that after consideration of the amount of effort I would expend to realize something like a PhD within the current educational regime, I would likely find the whole proposition simply not worth it. This is a bit depressing I suppose, but as a motivated, self directed learner, I’m certain my life will be rich and full. Sarcasm aside I believe there is a new way to learn here, we need only imagine it. Should we begin here?

  3. Tony Hirst says:

    At a meeting of the Open University SocialLearn team today – which is looking at the development of a potentially disruptive social learning platform – I scribbled three components I see as critical in the SocialLearn model (note this is my opinion, not necessarily that of the rest of the SocialLearn team…):
    “At the individual level, SocialLearn should provide:
    - social contact: peers, co-learners, student – mentor/tutor relationships;
    - content discovery, training provision, learning delivery, knowledge sharing;
    - recognition, qualification, accreditation – does learning/training have currency in the context of the employer? – audit.”
    The accreditation step is key to validating individual achievements and is something I’ve started to explore in the context of an ‘open achievements API’ that we might be able to use to transport in principle verifiable statements of achievement between different contexts:
    When anyone can talk to anyone, and Google-find anything, trust and reputation are going to be the killer apps…

  4. [...] aside the challenge of courses as a learning construct (see world without courses presentation and follow up post if you’re interested), learning is treated as object/information [...]