Sensemaking artifacts

What do the following three items have in common?

mooc_cow (source).

They are all examples of sensemaking artifacts. Teaching and learning in social and technical networks is difficult (at first) because many of the routines and activity markers from traditional courses and classrooms are not present. There is no centre, no one space where everything is held. Conversations are fragmented. The teacher’s coherence or subject views aren’t “duplicated” by students. Of course some basic knowledge elements exist, but the way we come to know them in networks is different from the process of coming to know them in classrooms.

When learners enter complex information settings, the first experience is one of disorientation. “Where do I go?” “Where can I find what I need?” “Who else is here?” As a learner orients herself, she begins to form connections with a few others, resulting in sub-networks often based on some similarity (same country, similar interests, previous connection). In our work in open online courses, we’ve found consistent patterns emerging as learners interact with each other and with information. Through joint processes of sensemaking and wayfinding – see presentation below – learners begin exploring and negotiating the domain of knowledge. In the process, they produce artifacts, such as the images posted above. Artifacts can include a blog post, an image, a video, a podcast, a live performance – basically anything that allows an individual to express how they’ve come to understand something.

These artifacts serve two roles:

1. They reflect the sensemaking activity that the individual has experienced – how he connected different concepts within a course or how he came to understand the relationship between different entities.

2. They are a sensegiving tool. When learners are transparent in their learning through the production and sharing of artifacts, they teach others.

Sensemaking artifacts are valuable in that learners use them to self-organize around important ideas, negotiate the scope of a topic, correct each other, and curate key ideas.

I often grapple with the question: “if we designed education today, what would it look like?”. Would it look like our existing classrooms? Textbooks? Libraries? Or would it look more like the internet? What roles would teachers play? Or learners? What would “teaching” look like if we had a system that jettisoned the legacy baggage of our current education system?

We don’t yet know how to answer these questions – there are too many unsettled trends and change pressures to strongly assert the future of education. However, we sometimes get glimpses of where the system is trending. At its core, digital technologies change how people relate to each other and how information is created and shared. These trends influence the power structures in classroom or online settings. One such power change centres on the learner: she has more power today than ever before, requiring both educators and institutions to rethink what they do for her and what she can do for herself. Sensemaking artifacts reflect this power shift: learners can self-organize and guide each other, rather than simply walking established knowledge paths created by educators and designers. Each artifacts serves to “re-centre” the conversation around the sensemaking actions of learners. In this regard, sensemaking artifacts are in competition with the planned curriculum (learning content) for the attention of students and teachers.

Obviously, there are things to consider – namely, the need for educator intervention when it appears that students aren’t “fact checking” each other. Overall, however, sensemaking artifacts are another node in the learning model that distributes control and power away from the institution and the teacher and moves it (power/control) into the networks formed by students.

2 Responses to “Sensemaking artifacts”

  1. MooCow says:

    Despite my busy schedule I was pleased to drop in on your blog and take my rightful place as a Prime Sensemaking Artifact. Been all over this year (Heathrow is my favourite airport too!) doing conferences etc. But now I’ve been asked to do something quite different – have to colour my nose for it.

    “So, let the raucous sleigh bells jingle,
    Hail our dear old friend Kris Kringle,
    Driving his reindeer across the sky.
    Don’t stand underneath when they fly by.”

    Seasons Greetings! MooCow

  2. Agardnahh says:

    Think about all the different kinds of “sense making” objects that can be produced. 2 examples above are visual, 1 text, but they can vary greatly: songs, equations, conversations, sculpture – any form of expression. I like the idea of giving students myriad tools to express understanding, and letting them choose the one best suited for their skills or area of expertise. This leads us to a one primary (but oft overlooked) role of education – building enough self awareness to determine the means best suited for self expression.