Sometimes, on looking back at previous work, you find a fortuitous thread that suggests more coherence exists than is felt through daily developments of concepts. I had such an experience this past week as I prepared and delivered a presentation to Mozilla’s Open Education course. Formal learning, and as a result, the entire infrastructure that supports it (curriculum, instructional design, delivery, technology incorporated in its service), is heavily content-centric. Most courses require a textbook, access to journal articles, or a course “pack” of some sort. In our digital age, the physical resources have been replaced somewhat with online video, wikis, or ebooks. Even then, content is a fundamental starting point of formal learning.
This affection for content is revealed in the current developments in open educational resources (OERs). Institutions like MIT, Yale, Open University, among many others, proudly proclaim their open content initiatives. And that’s great. But OERs are low-hanging fruit and they are biased to a view that content precedes learning. Never mind the lack of sustainability of large institutional OER initiatives – I’m in favour of smaller initiatives driven by faculty and experts directly in the field. This view was expressed in my open source in education part 2 and the Open Education community I formed with Stephen Downes (both in 2003). I’m unsure of the end-game of OERs. After we have opened up all of our content, then what? Then we will need to turn our attention to the more fundamental aspect of education: how it’s designed, who has access, how it’s structured, etc. Opening up content is a first step in transforming the academy more broadly.
Jyri Engeström advocates for object-centered sociality, drawing attention to not just the people involved in socialization, but the objects that make socialization possible. I agree, but this view is incomplete. Our social exchanges are also information objects. Engeström emphasizes the tools of sociality (social networking sites) as critical, but given educations emphasis on content, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to add textbooks and other resources into the “object-centered sociality” category. Educators, in their design of courses, select resources as objects around which to plan social activity. In a classroom, this might be handled through small group activities and reflection. Online, it can be handled through discussion forum posts and blog entries. Laying 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 centered.
I’d like to draw attention to two courses I’ve been involved in over the last several years that shift the focus from “object-centered sociality” to “socialization as information objects”: Noncourse and CCK08.
In 2002, I posted a short introductory article on elearnspace asking for participants in a noncourse. From the article:
Lately I’ve been yipping about the need for a shifted perspective on who provides content in the learning experience – the instructor, student, or both. In an information society, the concept of one person (i.e. the instructor) playing the sole role of information provision, seems antiquated. Things change…fast! The teacher is the student is the teacher.
While an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process (spiraling knowledge – I present a concept, you tweak it and improve it, next person improves on that, etc.) is not suitable for all areas, it certainly seems like a great way to explore the emerging field of elearning…Instead of having an instructor provide the content, a facilitator provides a topic topic for the group to debate and disseminate. Essentially, the content is one sentence…i.e. “What is the effectiveness of elearning when compared with traditional classroom delivery.”
That’s it. From there, the group dissects the issue. Learners (and the facilitator is a learner in this process) present viewpoints, provide links to articles, resources, and theories.
At the conclusion of the week, the discussions will be summarized and presented as a paper on elearnspace.
The course was quite successful and result in a half dozen articles or so. The concept I was advancing – and was advanced in CCK08 – is that content does not need to precede learning. Content can be a byproduct of the learning experience. I occasionally (almost) tempt myself into offering a similar version of the noncourse again today. Given the growth of social media and participatory technologies in the last seven years, the course would likely produce a far richer conversation.
Connectivism and Connective Knowledge
In fall of 2008, Stephen Downes and I taught a large open online course. To varying degrees, our goal was to do for teaching what MIT’s OCW did for content. An introduction is available here. Stephen has also provided several commentaries on the course: Access2OER and new technology for informal learning. I’ll present the course from my perspective.
Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) was offered by University of Manitoba’s Learning Technologies Centre and Extended Education faculty. The course consisted of two components:
- enrolled students seeking formal evaluation and recognition
- participants engaged for personal learning.
The course cap of 20 enrolled students was exceeded (24) and the open portion of the course exceeded 2200 participants (I think we were up to 2400 at one time). Readily available technologies were utilized to involve as many learners as possible. Dozens of countries were represented and multiple language translations (Portugese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Hungarian) of course materials were undertaken by participants. Translations are still linked from the course wiki.
In addition to weekly guest speakers, course activities spanned Second Life and included the use of blogs, wikis, concept maps, podcasts, live and recorded web conferencing (Elluminate, Ustream), Facebook, mailing lists, aggregation technologies, as well as the development of several face-to-face study groups. The primary goal of the course was to have the method of instruction and learning mirror the content of the course.
We gained valuable insight into participative sensemaking and distributed learning, including the challenges of participation, varying technical skill levels among learners, differing pedagogies, and, perhaps most importantly, how philosophies of knowledge and education impact actual implementation of new innovations in higher education.
The joys of friction, ambiguity, and wayfinding
From the beginning of the course, both Stephen and I emphasized that we were not playing traditional instructor roles. We were nodes within a larger network. Ambiguity, even confusion, was necessary. The acts of grappling with many different sources of information, of trying to determine what was important, of deciding which learners to interact with, and choosing which resources to read and comment on, were all fundamental to learning. Wayfinding and sensemaking are by products of the internal friction of choosing what to value and pursue. As instructors, we provided navigation options through the deluge of information and commentary, but we consistently emphasized that our voice and perspective should be enlarged by interacting with peers and through the formation of personal network (I addressed the formation views in narratives of coherence).
Emphasis was placed on the personal agency of learners, fostering learning networks that reduced the prominence of the instructors and sought to assist learners in forming learning networks that lasted beyond the duration of the course.
The pedagogical approach of this course (http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/connectivism/) was designed to mirror the subject matter – networked learning and learning in distributed environments. The
growth of web technologies has created opportunities for educators to “thin the walls” of classrooms by accessing open educational resources and engaging in conversations with learners and experts around the world. The course was designed to encourage personal agency and views of learner success (Bruner) on the part of the learner through scaffolded support (Vygotsky) as the course developed.
More from the course description:
Connectivism and Connective Knowledge is a twelve week course that will explore the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge and explore their application as a framework for theories of teaching and learning. It will outline a connectivist understanding of educational systems of the future. This course will help participants make sense of the transformative impact of technology in teaching and learning over the last decade. The voices calling for reform do so from many perspectives, with some suggesting ‘new learners’ require different learning models, others suggesting reform is needed due to globalization and increased competition, and still others suggesting technology is the salvation for the shortfalls evident in the system today. While each of these views tell us about the need for change, they overlook the primary reasons why change is required.
Instructor led support was provided through a daily email newsletter summarizing important forum discussions, exemplary blog posts or podcasts, and related research. Live presentations were held three times weekly (at varying time zones to accommodate European, Australian, Asian, African, and Middle East participants). Weekly online presentations by invited guests included the following prominent educators and learning theorists: Valdis Krebs, Terry Anderson, Alec Couros, Grainne Conole, Nancy White, Howard Rheingold, Women of Web 2.0 (recordings are available here).
As the course progressed, participants were encouraged to form personal networks for
learning with peers and guest presenters. Reducing learner reliance on course instructors was an important. We didn’t want the learning to end once the course ended.
A few marketing-type highlights of the course:
- Largest ‘open teaching’ course ever offered with over 2200 registrants
- Coined a new acronym ‘MOOC’ massive open online course – subject of an upcoming The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) special issue on open educational resources.
- Translated into Portugese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Hungarian by participants
- Used a wide array of technologies – under the control of course participants
- Aligned design of the course to the course content/philosophy
- Each week would begin with a podcast, video recording, or paper posted by course facilitators introducing the weekly topic. Readings and video/audio recordings by experts in network theory or networked learning were also assigned.
- Sessions in Second Life in the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge site created by Fleep Tuque (Chilbo Community)
- Daily email newsletter
- Weekly Wednesday live sessions were held in Elluminate
- Friday sessions were broadcast online through UStream
- Twitter profile was created for the course to alert participants to guest presenter times and events.
- The following is a list of RSS feeds harvested as part of the CCK08 course: http://connect.downes.ca/feeds.htm
- Course tag was used to challenge learners’ assumptions about how to access information. Instead of centralizing course materials in an LMS or course blog, learners were asked to post in their preferred environment and tag items with the course tag CCK08, allowing for discovery through Technorati search and Google Alerts
- All course participants were asked to use the course tag CCK08 when posting, bookmarking or publishing material related to the course. A google search of CCK08, a unique search term, produces about 50,000 hits (updated)
- Aggregation of course activity through Pageflakes and Memetracker (Memetracker attempts to group concepts based on similarity with other postings, reducing the reading requirements of participants)
- Facebook groups were setup in various languages (by participants) to permit learners to interact with each other around course content
- Several groups formed additional online study groups as well as organized face-to-face meetings with other course participants
- Learners were asked to use concept maps (CMAP) to present their interpretation of how course concepts were related, reflecting Bruner’s assertion of: “”Learners are encouraged to discover facts and relationships for themselves”
Reflecting on the experience of this course, we made two significant departures from traditional courses:
- Encouraged learners to host course related discussions, reflections and conversations on their own sites/blogs, rather than expecting learners to come to “our space” (LMS). Search services like Google Alerts and Technorati served as tools to tie-together conversations through use of the course tag.
- Experimented with distributing learning across multiple platforms (face-to-face, online through blogs, wikis, Moodle, email, and aggregation sites), and in virtual worlds (Second Life).
We sought to use the social exchanges and learning networks to provide a bounded structure to the learning experience. Instead of stating “this is the course content”, we promoted a view of “this is the course ecology”. This shift resulted in, I think, a different experience for learners. We did have weekly topics planned, but the conversations that emerged on Moodle and on blogs were of a far more diverse nature than we could have possibly planned. Ideas, concepts, conversations (and as a by product, information) emerged based on the interests and needs of a particular group.
Learner control is not without frustration for the instructor. I recall feeling a bit frustrated that the concept of connectivism that I was trying to communicate – the neural, conceptual, and social/external dimensions of networked learning (expressed in this presentation)- was not resonating with participants. As many theorists in education have stated, what’s important for learning is not what the educator has to share, but the current state of knowledge and interest of the learner. My attempt to move the conversation in one direction was not successful in this instance because participants were not interested in engaging in the concepts I presented. End result: learners took the course in directions that reflected their needs and interests. Not the instructors.
Course design, delivery and administration partnerships
The course was a collaboration with Extended Education and Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Through Stephen’s involvement, we can also claim a link to the National Research Council. Cross-department and multi-institutional teaching and learning offer potential for new learning experiences for both students and educators. Courses don’t need to be taught based on the geographical limitations of either student or teachers. This seems obvious, but the strong pull of tradition and existing systems often causes educators to overlook what is now possible. It’s difficult to unlearn habits that have become systematized.
Additionally, several learners and institutions used the course as a backdrop for their own teaching. For example, we had a student from Israel involved in the course. Her evaluation was handled at her own institution. While we were technically the instructors, the quality of the students’ contributions were assessed and evaluated by her institution. This is just a small example of what is possible when teaching and learning are opened up. To a degree, it requires educators and institutions to let go of what is possible. Much like open source software (and proprietary tools like iTunes and Facebook that allow some open APIs) created an environment where individuals could take concepts far beyond what the creators initially imagined, open teaching serves as a similar launching pad for new innovations that can’t be yet conceived by those opening up their teaching.
What is next?
The move to sociality as information objects is a foundational thread through the noncourse and CCK08 experiments. Content, while important, does take a less prominent role in this model. But that’s not the main change. The main change is that learners have control in creating personal networks and shaping ideas. Information pheromones, driven by social networks, lead, guide, and direct other learners to important ideas. In this model, we “wayfind” together, with each node sharing important elements with others, leading to greater exploration of complex subject matter.
Stephen and I will be offering the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge again in fall of 2009. We’ll both post more information on our sites on how to participate if you’re interested.
Building up to the next course, I would like to hear from you. What concerns do you have with the model presented above? What am I overlooking? What could be done to improve CCK09 (we don’t want to just repeat last year’s course, we want to improve it)?