Dialogue online

The shape of dialogue changes based on the medium. Television only permits one-way flow (with the rare exception of call-in shows…and even then, the feedback voice is only audio). Radio has a lower access barrier for two-way flow, with greater symmetry in voices. Newspapers and magazines are largely one-way flow, with limited feedback in the form of “letters to the editor”. With all media, the feedback flow is subject to power or control by some type of filter (the editor, the DJ).
Classrooms have a similar dialogue model to traditional media. The expert pontificates, the learner responds based on parameters set by the expert. The space of learning is created and bounded by the educator. Exploration is held within the structure created for the learners. In this model, learners do have a voice (hence a capacity to dialogue), but the voice itself is shaped and influenced according to intentions and interests of the teacher. Learners are generally not able to explore free-range interests or hold serendipity-inducing conversations.
The controlled nature of the learner voice in dialogue has the (I assume) unintentional effect of eliminating the learner from the conversation. The learner is not able to speak herself into existence as her voice is held within approved (filtered or controlled) parameters. Admittedly, not all subjects require a great deal of dialogue (basic level biology or physics function at a memorization level, and there is limited room to debate how photosynthesis occurs). Once we have formed a base in a discipline, or if the discipline itself consists of soft knowledge (i.e. politics, sociology, or any subject area where perspective and bias play greater roles), dialogue becomes critical to ensuring the situation is seen in all its complex glory. Instead of falsely simplifying a concept for ease of understanding, we need to complexify (i.e. Weinberger) the subject matter sufficiently to understand its nuances. Decision making happens only after understanding the messiness and chaos of a subject. Instead of permitting the educator to filter out elements not deemed relevant, the learner maintains control over the depth of complexification. In the end, understanding is achieved as a function of comprehending the diversity (and complexity) of an issue – a concept quite antithetical to how most of our learning is designed today. Learning is often designed to eliminate not accentuate complexity. I argue that complexity, held in context, is the more effective model of sensemaking and, as a result, decision making. Moving forward not-knowing is more valuable than moving forward assuming we know. Doubt, not certainty, is the foundation of reasoning, emotion, and learning.
If traditional media and classroom models strip learners of voices, and in th process, their ability to understand the nuanced complexity of a discipline or subject, what is the alternative? Which model should we be considering as we move forward with attempts to better align education today with the needs of learners and society? Social software adds a new component of dialogue not found in other tools/media. Consider blogs as a simple example. Blogs allow for two significant levels of dialogue:

  • Direct – author and reader interact in comments – a model where the author still maintains control to delete or filter unflattering comments
  • Parallel – author interacts with authors of other blogs through his own blog. Someone writes something on their blog in response to what I write here…and I can reply in parallel conversation on this blog. We essentially write in awareness of each other, even though we do not directly engage in dialogue.

Most of my conversations online are parallel, not direct, in blogs. I am frequently criticized (via email) for the lack of commenting feature on my elearnspace blog…with the implied suggestion (is there any other kind?) that I am not practicing what I preach by not permitting feedback. While I’m in danger of rationalizing (and I do intend to add comments in the future, once I have an appropriate spam filter), that line of reasoning is a hold over from the framework of thought created by both traditional media and education. I cannot silence anyone’s voice today. Dialogue happens regardless of my urge to stifle criticism of my ideas.
Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It’s the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.
In a learning space, blogs and other social software, allow learners to have full control over their own voice. Filtering is not in the hands of the educator, the editor, or even colleagues. The right of expression, a requirement for parallel dialogue, enables each individual to explore and walk where he or she is inclined. Perhaps this gets to the heart of my concerns with LMS (learning management systems). An LMS is intended for direct conversation (discussion forums, email, etc.) where individual voice is shaped by the instructor (i.e. post here, talk about this, and do it by this date). This has been the long history of education.
A parallel conversation, on the other hand, is one where the learner controls the space of their interaction. As I’ve said previously, we need to stop expecting learners to come to our space to dialogue…and instead, we should enable our content to come to the learners in their space, and to hold the dialogue in a manner that permits individuals full control. Let learners aggregate their digital personalities, rather than force them to splinter themselves into hundreds of digital identities in our LMS’, organizational blogging systems, or community blogs.
The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)…because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space – a space not held or controlled by others. I fully expect that we will start to see a much more pronounced demarcation between the “come talk us in our space” mindset and the “I’m here talking in my own space” mindset. Main stream media is starting to see it. I hope educators will not tarry too long.

12 Responses to “Dialogue online”

  1. Bill Kerr says:

    hi George,
    Dialogue is happening in parallel? Sometimes, yes, but I don’t always see that. Direct criticisms or useful comments have been made about some of you ideas and I can’t see where the parallel conversation has taken place.
    For example, I thought the comments responding to your Constructivism vs Connectivism post by Christian Spannagel (connecting and constructing are not different processes), Richard Giroday (there is a time and place for each learning theory) and tanbob (activity theory / Engestrom addresses the concerns raised by George) were all thought provoking and deserving of a response
    I realised then that I was remiss in not posting a link as a comment to the parallel critique I wrote of that same post, so I just did that then.

  2. Juliana Gense says:

    I have just started my way into connectivism; well I suppose when you say parallel conversations, you mean a sort of indirect conversation…like, I read something you wrote here and associate with other things I know – this generates a point of view,that I can express in another blog, or somewhere else…is that it? Then you enter in contact with these ideas, by reading my blog and let’s say, associate it with your ideas and write a new post…a kind of answer…and this would consist in a dialogue, a communication within the net, that anyone who can and wants acesses and participates in…
    Also, I agree with you when you say that eveyone should have their own voice, control their own nets; it is a big paradigm shift in education but possible! Wonder if educators and teachers (as I am) understand it…

  3. Hi Bill – I think very few things fit into the “always” category. Most fits into “sometimes”. In stating “parallel” dialogue, I am referring to dialogue of awareness…that I gain understanding not necessarily by engaging others in direct dialogue (which you and I are doing here), but with an understanding of the views of others. As an example, when you posted your criticism of “network is not god”, I am influenced not in replying to it directly, but in knowing your views and ideas. I did not directly post to your comments, but I did encounter them…and that connection of encounter was sufficient to think and reflect. In the same line, Christian Long posted on the above post here: http://thinklab.typepad.com/think_lab/2007/01/the_commenting_.html . I personally have no intention of commenting. but I am aware of his thoughts.
    Direct dialogue certainly has value, and on your comments, I will revisit the comments in my connecting vs. constructing post you feel I should have responded to.
    In a slightly different view point, not every comment or view point must be answered. Opposing ideas can simply exist. When Plon Verhagen presented his criticism of connectivism, I replied in the nature of academic dialogue – ie. directly, as his critique was requested by the conference committee, so I felt it my duty to reply. But my (and others) use of blogs is different. With blogs, if someone disagrees, they state it, the web “records” it, and anyone who references or reads the post in the future has the benefit of both perspectives.
    I’m trying to walk a line here between not being flippant and trying to portray the value of allowing ideas to exist without response. This next section is a bit idealized and needs to be held in the context of our discussion here (I guess almost everything requires context): How much do we influence the ideas of someone else? What is the real value of replying to the comments of others? Are we trying to convince them? Ourselves? Seek the truth? I’ve stated, with connectivism, that value rests in diversity of viewpoints. If someone comes along and says, connectivism is loopy, no problem. That’s diversity. What is the value in my reply? Does Plon think differently after my reply to his critique (which you, Plon, and others have critiqued as being too long and indirect)? I doubt it. Did my viewpoints change based on his critique? No. What happened was entirely different. I didn’t change my mind, but instead, my subsequent thinking and writing occurred against the backdrop of criticism others put forward – including your own post. So while my key ideas have not changed, they certainly have been sharpened.
    Consider your wiki in preparation for the connectivism conference. I value your views. As with many conversations I’ve had – with those in favor of connectivism and those opposed – the dialogue sharpens in my own mind what I’m saying/not saying. I spent time in Knowing Knowledge trying to emphasize context. I have stated in different forums the co-existence of different views of learning. I have upheld behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, construtionism, etc. I have suggested connectivism as a theory applied to knowledge of a particular type – namely rapidly developing, multi-faceted knowledge. A type of knowledge which I feel will continue to grow in prominence. (Un)Fortunately, periodically, having the attention span of a gnat, I get distracted and follow paths of personal learning and interest. So, in a certain frame of mind or prompted by a certain question, I’ll offer a viewpoint or opinion that is in reaction to the nature of a particular context. Simply stated, my answer on constructivism will differ based on context. it makes communication extremely hard. When in direct dialogue, we are attempting to influence the context of others. We want them to see as we do, or at least consider the elements important that we do. In “dialogue of awareness”, we are less focused on influencing the thought of others and more focused on learning from others and having their views sharpen and advance our own.
    I feel I have feebly explained the value of context in relation to type of dialogue. If it’s particularly off-mark, let me know and I’ll clarify. I’m always up for direct dialogue :) .

  4. Bill Kerr says:

    “I spent time in Knowing Knowledge trying to emphasize context. I have stated in different forums the co-existence of different views of learning. I have upheld behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, constructionism, etc. I have suggested connectivism as a theory applied to knowledge of a particular type – namely rapidly developing, multi-faceted knowledge. A type of knowledge which I feel will continue to grow in prominence”
    Well, you were generous enough to invite me to participate in your forum and I have agreed. Initially I was attracted to the “feel” or “vibe” of your connectivism theory, that we are hopefully entering a period of radical social and educational change and we might need a new theory for that.
    But the above quote represents a significant change of emphasis from your original paper, which does emphasise far more separateness from behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, constructionism IMO. OK, everyone is allowed to rethink and modify their views, that’s only fair and fits under connectivism too, of course. But the above quote is also at a level of generalisation that makes it difficult to come to terms with clearly. I’m looking for something more grounded in a theory-practice spiral, something that has a more down to earth aspect as well as a theoretical aspect
    For example, Papert in his book ‘Mindstorms’ developed both a theory and practice of learning, using the logo programming language for turtle geometry and much more. The ideas were inspirational for their time and they could be tested out in practice. They were tested out in practice and the results varied. Some were very critical, others supportive. Papert replied against his “technocentric” critics and the debate, the theory and the practice continued.
    This is just one small example, but in my study of significant learning theories they all have such examples, where there is a clear, dynamic connection between theory and practice.
    I’m not so much complaining that your ideas are a moving target (to an extent) but that having read a fair bit of your material (part of your book, not all) I still haven’t found a clear example of the sort of theory practice spiral that I’ve illustrated above.

  5. Hi Bill – not sure if I was being generous or selfish by inviting you to present in the connectivism forum :) . I’m looking forward to the dialogue.
    While I imagine this is obvious to you, the process we are currently going through is why direct dialogue is so difficult. We are each trying to create a context for our conversation. You have admitted parts of connectivism may have merit (at least in previous posts), but you have a strong root or grounding in constructivism. I have, in the past, had varying levels of criticism of existing theories of learning – sometimes admitting them as useful in certain contexts, other times vilifying them as inappropriate. While it appears that we are dialoguing, we are actually only surface-clashing the unspoken assumptions, viewpoints and beliefs. Ideas may remain similar, but be expressed from different perspectives or in reaction to different circumstances.
    I partly see why you classify my ideas as “moving targets”. The context of each situation of discourse, and even an individual’s state of mind that day, all influence what is spoken, emphasized, and debated. I’m not sure if I’m drifting into cynicism, but I’m nearing a point in my views – due to the extreme complexity, multiple factors, hidden assumptions, personal bias, attributes of a space – where I’m wondering if direct dialogue is even possible. Too many factors, too many shifting elements. As I stated in Knowing Knowledge – stealing from Wittegenstein’s language games – context games are our key challenge in dialogue and learning. What you term as shifting ideas is, in my eyes, sensitivity to shifting context in which ideas are expressed.
    One of the things I’ve found surprising is that no one has asked what I think are the weaknesses of connectivism. I believe I am aware of the corners not yet illuminated. I have grappled with the parts that don’t make sense yet (or perhaps never will). Or the areas where I would like to waver closer to social constructivism. I am largely aware of personal knowledge gaps – many of which have been filled since the original article on connectivism, and many more yet to be addressed.
    I don’t agree, however, with your assessment that my ideas have shifted significantly at their core. In the article, I expressed the need for connectivism largely in reaction to the changed climate of learning and knowledge today. Knowledge is growing exponentially, people are using new tools of technology, our information is digital vs. physical, etc. Essentially, we exist in a different space today than we did 30 years ago. The manner in which we encounter information is dramatically different than it was even a decade ago. Or for that matter, with the development of blogs, 5 years ago. With connectivism, I am attempting to address a particular type of knowledge and a type of knowledge need.
    I’ve had many individuals (and bloggers) express they find connectivism to be “intuitive”. I don’t think this is because their is any great insight in the theory itself, but rather that it mirrors what they are already doing with information and knowledge. Individuals who still spend time reading newspapers, paper journals, listening to regular radio, etc. won’t find a need for a different theory of learning (forget for a moment that we are talking about connectivism – it could be any other conceptualization – i.e Tom Brown’s navigationism). However, if an individual blogs, furls, uses del.icio.us, flickr, technorati, blah, blah, blah, they will sense (almost intuitively) that they are using information in a different manner than they have in the past. I think about information differently than I used to (and knowledge is built on, or from information…and learning is the act or state of acquiring or possessing actionable knowledge…just to set a bit more context to my thoughts :) ).
    I appreciate your comments on theory and practice. In practice, as I stated in the above paragraph, we have many tools that we can use to explain what we are doing differently. Blogs, wikis, social networks – i.e. connection-based approaches and systems. But how is it that that is learning? I stated in KK that neural networks happen on two levels: the micro (the actual wiring in our heads, and the macro (the actual learning networks we create in accessing other people or sources of information). To a degree, if I see things from the original epistemological stance in the connectivism article, the work Stephen Downes has down with connective knowledge provides the knowledge-based construct of connectivism (i.e. objectivism, pragmativism, interpretivism – where knowledge resides and how we come to acquire it). However, I don’t imagine too many theories today gain value based on philosophical grounding. Our world today asks for proof…evidence…history…or in the term you use, “practice”. I don’t imagine too many people will be satisfied with me saying “well, connectivism has merit because it’s what bloggers and social networkers are doing all the time”. Intuition doesn’t sell well as a theory :) . On this front in particular, more formal research and publication is needed. I have been in dialogue with several masters and phd students with regard to their work…an I hope to have more grounded research to link to in the near future (as well as personal research work). At this stage, I know I’m providing an unsatisfactory answer to an important question.

  6. Bill Kerr says:

    Thanks George, that was a very helpful clarification of your views. I’m having a close look at the section in your book about context games before resuming dialogue.
    The philosophical grounding that you mention is an important point for me as well as the theory / practice spiral. I’ll have another closer look at Stephen’s paper as well.
    ps. what do you think are the weaknesses of connectivism? :-)
    pps. I think you will be interested in Andy Clark :
    According to Clark, we have to give up the prejudice “that whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull.” He presents cognitive technologies as “deep and integral parts of the problem-solving systems that constitute human intelligence. They are best seen as proper parts of the computational apparatus that constitutes our minds.”

  7. Juliana Gense says:

    Hi again George! By following your discussion about dialogue I could get it…what dialogue is or what dialogue can be…
    It seems that the questions you´ve raised in the previous post (December 8th)about the suvivability of knowledge are really related to the issue of dialogue, since most of the educational process resides in dialogue.
    Educators should recognize that now there is no more relevant and important knowledge as we assumed in the past, when someone or some institution decided what was important or relevant…nowadays each individual constructs a network and includes in it what is relevant for him (isn’t it Connectivism?) and does not accept that others make choices for them. So, trying to help you answer your questions, I can say that within my small educator experience (I am an English teacher in Brazil) I have noticed that what works best is respecting the individuals autonomy and so, create an ecology that lets them create their own networks, that is you show them what are the things they can learn and make they think why; then they choose; that means you teach them to start a connection and keep making connections by the time they can make the connections by themselves and you just “manage” the connections. Of course, I have also been thinking what should be considered essential, let’ say, to “start” this network, and thus be intentionally guided by the teacher…I imagine it depends on knowing who your students are and what they want from you…the more you know them the more you offer what they need and teach them to get what they want…I mean, you teach them how to access information and aggregate them to their networks transforming them into knowledge.
    Of course, this process is has some difficulties, once I still have to respect the institutions I work for and, let’s say, teach something even if it is not relevant (because some book brings it, for example)…but I do my best in order that students learn what they really want and, more important, analysing why they want to know something.
    Hope I was clear enough; maybe I was too obvious or naive; maybe I wrote too much and meant nothing related to the matter. So I’d appreciate if you commented in order that by trying to help you to get to your answers I get to my answers. Thanks!

  8. Bill Kerr says:

    Hi George.
    I’m continuing the dialogue with a parallel blog post, there is no unified learning theory

  9. Hi Juliana – yes, I would agree with you…most of the educational process rests in dialogue. Even where we rely on content, the process of making the content meaningful (translating it into knowledge) is often dialogue-based.
    Based on my experience as an individual trying to keep up with technology, society, and learner’s needs, I strongly feel that our ability to cope rests in the formation of networks (much like you describe). We are not able to filter all of the information ourselves. We rely on a network to both filter and to know. When I require information of a certain type, I go to the source where I believe it will reside (this is basically what we do with Google or Wikipedia). Knowing where (or from whom) to find information/knowledge is more important than what it is that we possess. The skills needed in this model require the ability to form networks and connections with others…and secondary skills are then important: filtering, forming relationships, evaluating information, knowing how to handle different types of information (i.e. which tools to use), where to go for help, etc.
    An educator plays the role of guiding learners to information sources (blogs, wikis, journals, databases) and encouraging learners to validate, reflect, dialogue with, or contribute to the sources. An educator also assists learners in weeding out unneeded connections, to ensure that the networks the learner creates are diverse and adaptive. For example, a learner in a history course would want a network of sources that reflect beyond traditional views of history. Alternative views should be considered…and understanding reached in light of diversity (or what I stated as dialogue of awareness). We can still believe what we believe…but we do so in a larger network of knowing.

  10. Bill Bruck says:

    George -
    I do not believe that parallel conversations are the same as dialog – at least not the type of deep dialog that explores the sources of differences of opinion and can result in new, shared understandings. Such differences are often rooted in the beliefs, values, and assumptions each person holds. These are held at an emotional as well as cognitive level. The exploration of such differences requires emergent self disclosure and trust, which are built in relationship. While I believe this can happen in a community of strong ties and can be mediated through technology, I do not believe that the weak links of the blogosphere and the “hyde park” like parallel pronouncements (plus comments) can foster deep dialog.
    I’d be interested in your thoughts on my draft “dialog manifesto” I’ve posted in http://blog.collabhost.com.

  11. Juliana Gense says:

    Thanks for answering George. You have confirmed some views I had, that one can access and generate knowledge and most important being aware that it is not a stated truth, that means that we are in the knwoledge network.
    I have also read the Bill Bruck manifesto and noticed that he sees emotions playing a great part in dialogue, and I agree with it. I suppose then, that we should change points of view – nowadays we tend to see disagreeing as being against something, and that is not it. Disagreeing is just filtering and handling different types of information in the different contexts…and the role of an educator is to help in dealing with differences, alternative points of view while constructing yours.
    What is your position concerning the influence of emotions in dialogue and network of knowing building?

  12. Durff says:

    Connected Learning
    Will Richardson raises an interesting point at the Connectivism Conference this week. His thoughts make me wonder whether I am truly connecting my students with learning? He gives the example of a teacher IMing with a student. While I was listening to this, I was IMing a student. I wonder how meaningful our conversations really are, however. Most students ask surface questions, like what’s the homework, or what did I miss yesterday? How can I foster more meaningful dialog with my students? This student was sharing that he had been to a relative’s funeral, what he thought about it, and his stance on abortion. How can I foster more significant dialogue, form more connections to students?