From knowledge to bathroom renovations

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.

18 Responses to “From knowledge to bathroom renovations”

  1. Pat Parslow says:

    I think the “What is knowledge?” question has another important reason for being asked – when discussing knowledge, or learning, or teaching, it can be necessary to understand the other person’s personal understanding of what knowledge is, in order to be able to attempt to communicate meaningfully on the subject at hand.
    The problem often seems to be that people hold on to their own view so tightly that they then refuse to communicate with others who have different, but in some cases quite compatible, views.

    • Rosa A. Ojeda Ayala says:

      Hi, Pat! Hi, George! I have to partially agree with George on this one. These debates have to do more about arguing than changing our minds. But even though, these debates contribute to the clash of ideas among people… and maybe, just maybe, if underlying assumptions are confronted through these encounters, it is possible for us to change our perspectives, understandings, values and our whole paradigm of learning, teaching and knowledge.

      Ufff! Someone’s at the door… I have to leave now! Be back!

    • Rosa A. Ojeda Ayala says:

      OK… back a day later, but still, I’m back again! Jack Mezirow states that there are no fixed truths or definitive knowledge. People negotiate understandings; we negotiate meanings. From his standpoint of view, we do this through reasoning, mediated by a dialectical discourse. Thus, our knowledge is conditioned by the context in which it develops. Context is important (personal, emotional, social, cultural, etc.). In that sense, what Pat brings into this discussion is also an important consideration to take. When people blindly adhere to arguments and opinions, we would have to try to understand, not only the ideas, but the feelings and intentions underneath their opinions. These might have a good deal of cultural and socio-emotional connotations.

      And George, I do think there is much to argument, debate and investigate in relation to MOOCs! And not only bathrooms deserve this kind of treatment!

  2. [...] George Siemens, From knowledge to bathroom renovations, connectivism, 2. Juli 2011 [...]

  3. gsiemens says:

    Hi Pat – your last sentence sums up my concerns nicely. I don’t think people change their minds in these debates. It’s more about arguing :) .

  4. Rita Kop says:

    Hi George
    Helene Fournier and I are still analyzing data from Plenk2010. That is the problem with Massive courses, they generate massive amounts of dispersed data. We expect to finalize a systematic analysis of the Plenk data in the next few months and come up with some answers to your questions above. We will also be interested in continuing research in MOOCs and it would be good to work with you and the others on this.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Rita – great! I’ll follow up with you via email. We haven’t met yet (as a team), but I hope to arrange a time for an online meeting in the next two weeks or so.

  5. Frances Bell says:

    I was going to blog my thoughts on the rather puzzling set of exchanges but I am feeling too spaced out by the antibiotics that are supposed to be making me ‘better’ so I’ll settle for a quick comment here.
    I am not sure that the discussion particularly the slightly tetchy edges of it is about MOOCs at all. It seems a bit like a mini-paradigm war and reminded me of the ‘Emotion and Reason’ discussion in CCK08.
    Surely it must be possible to have dialogue between people who would define, say, knowledge differently without resorting to terms like nonsense and snob. What I liked in CCK08 (and I think you supported this well George) was when participants could explore ideas and sometimes change their minds or reach new conclusions.
    When the subtext “I am right and you are wrong” comes across so clearly from some participants, you know that dialogue is unlikely.
    Maybe you shouldn’t characterise this as the “Wiley/Downes/Cormier/Siemens debate” but let us find an inclusive for the testing questions you mention, looking for quality contributions from all comers and minimising grand-standing.
    P.S. An area I would love to discuss re MOOCs is the power relations around the determination of what is in and out of the curriculum (in which one’s epistemology is a key factor).

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Frances – very good point – this shouldn’t be characterized as a debate issue with Wiley/Downes/Cormier/Siemens. I was sloppy in framing it that way. It is a broader discussion.

      btw – I hope you feel better soon!!

  6. peps mccrea says:

    I think the formation of a research team will be a *significant* component of the fall campaign. As you say MOOCs are providing an activity off which to hang some highly relevant questions that deserve serious attention, massive open online attention…

    …you may need to put a research group together to look at the research process!

  7. George –

    Just my two cents here. I have been blogging the “behind-the-scenes” of eduMOOC . My Friday reflections included:

    “Carrie mentioned the debate over knowlege transfer to me today. Does knowledge transfer take place in online (or any other) learning? I am not taking sides on this. But, it is engaging in the discussion itself that is worth more than winning this debate. And, that’s part of what MOOCs are all about – questioning, discussing, engaging. Out of that comes better understanding of each other…. It is late here on the prairie – nearing midnight. I hope to steal away early in the morning to wet my fishing line in the Sangamon River that winds through our region. Much like the knowledge transfer debate; it is not whether you catch the fish, it is the process of fishing that is the most meaningful.”

    I didn’t catch any fish Saturday. But, I came away with a better life perspective.


  8. Naming / what’s in a name gets people going… necessary to agree on terms of course but it sure can stall a dialog. It’s a filing / tagging problem too: what am I going to name that folder? (why tagging takes the aggravation out of filing). The exchanges brought to mind my own process renaming folders. I ended up with separate folders for ideas, opinion, knowledge and wisdom (entries x-tagged as I deemed appropriate). Do I need one for information too? I file/tag that by subject: news, NM, poetry, books, MOOCX, highered, etc

    I also agree with Frances that the comments are not really about MOOCs. Lines are being drawn in the coming higher & other ed paradigm war. Much at stake.

  9. [...] in einem weiteren Artikel von George Siemens From knowledge to bathroom renovations lese ich von Entitäten und Heuristiken. Eines meiner Lieblings-Themen! For a few thousand years, [...]

  10. [...] from TELMap saying that ‘real’ university education required long years on campus. As George’s blog about updating education shows, he’s heavily involved in TEL but it is not a panacea to solve [...]

  11. Keith Hamon says:

    Ray is correct that “engaging in the discussion itself … is worth more than winning.” Proselytizing always undermines a fine discussion, and yet, discussion is necessary for sharpening our own concepts and opinions. Unfortunately, rubbing our opinions against others sometimes results in sparks.

    Still, George is correct that MOOCs need this discussion to force those attracted to the method to sharpen their ideas and tweak their techniques. I’m volunteering, then, to participate in research. I’m especially interested in the use of writing in MOOCs, as writing seems to replace in-class conversation.

  12. Bill Seitz says:

    I think the biggest step of progress will be running a MOOC about a topic *other* than education and technology. You don’t have to leap to remedial-math. How about a history-survey course?

    I suspect you’d like to be “more prepared” in terms of having more mature technology in place. But it’s been 3 years since the first MOOC: you have to get out of the meta-ghetto. Or it’s just wanking.

  13. Anon says:

    Pat said: “The problem often seems to be that people hold on to their own view so tightly that they then refuse to communicate with others who have different…views.”

    I wonder how much this lack of openness to shifting/being shifted to a new view has to do with the perceived need to maintain a consistent public identity within a given context.

    How many of us have found ourselves in public debates where, once we have articulated a particular view or laid out a particular line of reasoning, it becomes difficult to back down?

    Politicians (who are all about public identities) are called ‘flip-floppers’ if they shift their views — this is seen as a sign of weakness that undermines their credibility.

    One of the beauties of online communication is the lack of physical bodies — and so the ability to ‘present’ as different identities.

    What if a MOOC were run in which all the participants (including facilitators) used pseudonyms only — so you wouldn’t know if the person putting forth an idea were a Stephen Downes or a David Wiley or a first-year undergrad?

    And what if the pseudonyms were automatically generated each time anybody posted, so you couldn’t even be sure whether you had entered into a debate with a single individual or if it were a group conversation?

    Would this help to focus on the value of the ideas being put forth rather than the individuals articulating them?

    Would it then become easier for everybody to shift to new positions?

    Would this help to ‘democratize’ the conversation?

    • Rosa A. Ojeda Ayala says:

      Anon, that would be a great scenario for conducting a research on power relations within MOOC’s environments. It could include Frances’ interest for researching “…the power relations around the determination of what is in and out of the curriculum (in which one’s epistemology is a key factor)”, and probably beyond! When arguments and opinions are not sustained by reason, we tend to adhere to authority figures to validate them. I think it could be a good investigative track to follow. But I’m not sure it could be done in the next MOOC… Right, George?