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November 13, 2008

Paper #3: Resistance, Reassessment, & Retooling

Filed under: papers,Uncategorized — lisahistory @ 11:09 am
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There are numerous opportunities for changing teaching and learning through the application of connectivist ideas. The most important is the possibility of creating new designs for instruction, designs which create an exploratory environment or “ecology” where networked learning can emerge. As Stephen Downes has implied throughout the class, there is a need to do away with “sameness” or universality in terms of educational goals, assessments, and learning itself. Doing so would take the formality out of “formal” education, transforming it toward an institutionalized version of Jay Cross‘ “informal learning”. These new approaches would naturally reflect many of the global changes taking place in the production and distribution of information and ideas. Such a transformation is currently demonstrated in the decentralizing forces evident in internet sharing, blogging, and artistic creation. It threatens traditional patterns of authority, making it possible even for learners subject to the control of our educational institutions to create their own learning paths.

It is difficult to institute such change in practice for several reasons. One is that a shift to learner-controlled education would require institutions to have a commitment to quality that extends beyond the life-span of the people currently running the institution. People in today’s society are notoriously short-sighted in their goals. Unlike the townfolk who planned the Gothic cathedrals of the 12th and 13th century, current leaders do not view their creations in the longer term — they want results right now. This impatience makes experimentation less likely to receive intellectual or financial support. In addition, the structures controlling education employ people who have a vested interest in using their current skill set, authorized in the form of Ed.D. and Instructional Design degrees. Last, there is the usual resistance to change found in all human societies, from ancient Greek Sophists who hated Socrates, to medieval peasants resisting three-field rotation despite obvious benefits, to Americans persisting in a stultifying two-party political system. Such resistance is completely natural, and the concerns raised by cynics, Luddites and skeptics should be considered as part of the process by which change is created in a thoughtful way.

Such perspectives provide balance to the hype, offsetting the over-enthusiasm which can undermine the creation of a solid foundation for educational transformation.

Cow Power in India

Cow Power in India

One concern is computer dependency. Heylighen (2002, 7) notes problems of “inefficiency” in dealing with large amounts of information, but his solutions rely on systems which are at present utterly dependent on fossil-fueled electricity. His claims of the eradication of physical constraints and the “disappearance of distance”, his “ubiquitous electricity network”, are reliant on non-sustainable energy (in the parts of the world where they are even available). Like many other “hype-sters”, Heylighen sidesteps or refuses to deal with the moral implications of changes in society and resource allocation wrought by computerized communication, particularly the internet. Many are doubtful that “networked individualism” (Wellman 2001), although popular at the moment, is an appropriate or desirable substitute for local community ties or face-to-face communications.

Other objections which warrant our attention include:

  • the belief that “distributed learning” cannot be assessed, that such learning creates networks but not necessarily knowledge;
  • the fear that individual skills will decline, institutionalizing specialization of tasks to the point where few people will know how to chop wood, weave fabric, or cook wholesome meals;
  • the concern that individual learners will be motivated only by immediate need, that intellectualism will no longer be an end in itself, that being “educated” will be so personalized as to mean nothing;
  • the fact that the current education system is doing what it was designed to do, keeping little learners separate and controlled so that the adults can pursue their money-earning activities, while ensuring a standard of achievement that can guarantee competitive advantage (through degrees and social connections) and enable the next generation to achieve greater status and more possessions than the last.

These voices of resistance should cause innovators to reassess, to develop a value system based on more than freedom, openness and individualism. There should be considerations of social morality, dedication to family, service to society, intellectualism, broad knowledge, and historical foundations.

George Siemens asks, “Can our current world of weak ties and easy connections produce the depth of learning required to meet the complex challenges facing our future?” But does “depth of learning” mean in one small area, or as needed to become a thinking person? And which is necessary for the future? The idea that no one person can build an airplane or master a discipline (Siemen’s Complexity, Chaos and Emergence 2008, p. 2) implies that depth of learning need only include one specific skill (such as the knowledge of how to weld parts of the fuselage) but not depth in overall intellectual habits of mind. If knowledge is fragmented into such small sections, such specific divisions of labor, that assumes a future in which such specialization is needed. This may be a response to the perception that our world is becoming more complex, and that each of us practicing one speciality will combine in an unintentional collective (Dron and Anderson 2007) to get everything done. Certainly there is a perception of such increasing complexity, and increasing “speed”, but it may well be faulty, since most generations note the same thing. As Virgil wrote, “fugit inreparabile tempus”.

Retooling is required for implementing change. Understanding of complex systems, which have always existed, is the umbrella for the skills that are most needed as external control and authority decline. Contemporary examples, such as the unexpectedly quick spread of hoof-and-mouth disease (Seth Bullock 2006) and the lack of coordinated information preceding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Surowiecki 77-78) point toward the weaknesses of decentralized learning in ordinary environments. In education, therefore, certain aspects of learning need to be emphasized in order to change the environment:

  1. interpretation: the ability to place events, people and objects in a useful context
  2. metacognition: awareness of ones own intellectual processes and bias
  3. awareness of the “access trust”: appreciation that channels of information may be controlled by the few
  4. aggregation: crucial to creating understanding, this aggregation should be intentional (diversity within decision-making groups a la James Surowiecki 2004) as well as emergent (Dron and Anderson 2007)
  5. ability to operate appropriately in an open environment: a new adaptation of social skills, including:
    a. identity construction
    b. communication skills
    c. wayfinding (Siemens, Instructional Design and Connectivism 2008)
    d. recognition and appreciation of diversity

Of these, interpretation has been basic to intellectual endeavor since Peter Abelard (however much he paid for that). Metacognition is becoming more popular, and every revolutionary in history is familiar with the “access trust”. The other two skills (aggregation and the ability to operate appropriately in an open environment) have increased in significance. Understanding and applying these skills, which themselves need to be learned, would provide the necessary underpinnings for successful educational change in the direction suggested by connectivism. Without these skills, and consideration of the well-founded moral and practical concerns of skeptics, new approaches will prove impossible to adopt.

Unlinked Source:

James Suroweiki, The Wisdom of Crowds (New York: Doubleday, 2004)

November 6, 2008

Paper #2: Insurgence for Emergence

Filed under: papers,Week 9 — lisahistory @ 4:58 am
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As social needs change, so do educational methods and the desired “role” of the educator. At present, there appear to be two roles for educators in western societies, each reflecting society’s conceptions of teachers. The Lecturer is the font of all knowledge, and relays information through didactic methods, telling the students what they should know and thus writing on their Lockean tabula rasa. The other role is Facilitator, mediation using Socratic techniques to help students discover the same knowledge, but through a different discussion-based method. The recent popularity of (and fears about) this latter method has led to a societal demand for a further role for teachers, Accountant. Teachers are held responsible for demonstrating that particular outcomes are achieved through assessments. This role was created by authorities, legislators responding to social critics calling for “accountability”, as if education were a measurable social investment instead of a public good.

Since the roles are viewed as oppositional, they are usually presented as the only two methods. At the college level, where the Accountant role is only just slipping in, the lesson in recent years is that we must be less a Lecturer and more a Facilitator. The instructors using more “active learning” methods are seen as the classroom innovators. The division between Lecturer and Facilitator may be an introduction to the problem, but it misses the larger issue of creating learning environments. As George Siemens’ writes, “I’m rather sick of ‘sage on stage’ and ‘guide on the side’ comparisons. The clear dichotomy chafes” (2007). Active learning and facilitation creates a more participatory learning environment, but its basis is still in the learning of the individual via the method controlled by the instructor. It is “learner-centered” but not “learner-directed”. What if instructor control were substantially less, and the learner far more independent than even the facilitation model allows?

Connectivist learning theory presents the possibility that the neural networks of the brain, and the natural tendencies of social networks, could be used as models for formal learning. The emphasis is on the instructor creating an appropriate learning environment and providing access to resources rather than controlling learning through either lecturing or facilitation. Connectivist roles thus look different, although each deals with the balance between control and freedom.

The Curator role, presented By George Siemens on his Connectivism Blog, is part museum curator and part Clarence Fisher‘s “network administrator”. This viewpoint provides enough control to allow the continued role of educator as facilitator and guide:

An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map.

Curators, however, control not only which items are on display, but what the tags say. Freedom is built in because the “path” through material need not be indicated, allowing for greater exploration and individual interpretation.

The Master Artist role emphasizes modeling for students. I currently use a Master Craftsman model myself, which emphasizes constructionism more than just observing the artist at work. These models use metacognition about the learning process as a tool, as in Phelps’ ideas about making learning more explicit in non-linear complexity-based learning. The Craftsman also emphasizes the development of skills that can be used and adapted to many fields. In my discipline, History, I teach that the pattern of facts -> interpretation -> analysis can be used not only to construct arguments in history, but to understand any discipline. Elements of patterning, wayfinding, and sensemaking (as Siemen’s Instructional Design and Connectivism week 7 introduction indicated), can be taught through any discipline.

A more open role would be that of Organic Gardener, where learners are like plants. Gardeners allow a great deal of freedom, but encourage desirable patterns (Kurtz and Snowden 466). They are prepared for chaos and are aware that the uncoordinated actions of the lower orders can result in higher levels of action, as in Bullock’s emergent learning in chaotic systems. The edges of the garden metaphor emerged in this course in Carlos González Casares discussion of Node Gardens, and more specifically in Eyal Silvan’s comment in the chat room during the October 21 Elluminate session: “metaphor alert: it sounds less like building a house, more like growing a garden… all you can do is steer the students, but you can’t really “plan” anything…“. Inez Whipples’ blog post used this to remark that the process of learning “looks less like building a house and more like planting a garden”, and Stephen Downes’ referred to instructional design as “seeding” the environment in the session on October 24, 2008. An organic gardener creates only the conditions in which plants can thrive, and while control is evident in the choice of what to plant, unexpected life is taken as a boon so long as it does not destroy what was planted.

The impediments to implementing such connective classroom learning are many. The accounting super-environment of schools encourages the reduction of natural complexity in learning, as population and financial pressure creates groups of students too small to be diverse, too large to be taught individually, and too trapped into an annual ‘course’ system to encourage free opportunities for learning. These can be seen as the “initial conditions” (Siemens 2008) in the ecology of classroom instruction as it exists. While the ideal may be overthrowing the old system, bureaucracies do not change this way.

What we face is a lack of magic. Aware of increasing access to information and resources via the web, we envision a world of self-motivated learners, unhampered by bureaucratic straight-jackets and obedience training. We want to use new technologies to bring them the world, controlling their learning only so they don’t hurt themselves or others. We want them to learn like we learn, through connections and discovery. We want assessment of learning to be based on personal empowerment of knowledge rather than passing tests and earning degrees. Ultimately, then, we want the role of Wizard. The ultimate power, not to control people, but to change the system.

The solution is subversive application of connectivist and other useful learning ideas within the current structure, an insurgence for the purpose of fostering emergence. In addition to being an appropriate response to the hyper-controlling accounting being demanded by authorities, this sneakier approach is necessary because of another impediment: the difficulty students have becoming self-directed learners, having been trained all their lives to be reliant on the instructor. As noted in the session with Alec Couros, the main problem with too much openness is people’s inability to handle it in an appropriate manner. This problem is the same whether we’re talking about politeness in Moodle forums, the stupidity of crowds, or the difficulty of requiring students to “think for themselves”. As Ruth Duggan noted in the Moodle forum of October 30, “Rather than the teacher having the ‘power’ it is about empowering students to learn.” Having not been given this power, it’s necessary to take it. Our new role is Insurgent, creating a better way by undermining the system.

October 3, 2008

Paper #1: My Position on [C]onnectivism

Filed under: papers,Week 4 — lisahistory @ 4:00 pm
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Connectivism Paper #1
Lisa M. Lane
October 2008

Connectivism is a learning theory based on the premise of knowledge distributed across networks of connections. During the first several weeks of this class, I have dealt intensively with the issues of connectivism in numerous blog posts, but for this short paper I will delineate connectivism with a little “c” (the practice of learning through connections) and Connectivism with a big “C” (the theory). My position on connectivism is that such a mode of learning has been popular for centuries, among people living together and those communicating at a distance. The sources of knowledge for this kind of connectivism can be people, letters, or books, artifacts of lives past or present. My position on Connectivism is that it is a contemporary learning theory that seems dependent on particular conceptions of knowledge and a perspective focused on contemporary computer-based internet technology. I have no problem with seeing it as a theory. The whole field of studying learning is so new that I find the argument over whether it is or is not a “real theory” not only distracting but somewhat absurd. If behaviorism and constructivism are learning theories, so is Connectivism.

I have many areas of agreement with connectivism (the practice). It is an excellent explanation of a way that people can learn. Its pedagogical approach can be pragmatic and useful, particularly in Downes’ Educational Theory of the student’s job being to practice and reflect, and the teacher’s job being to model and demonstrate. In one extension of connectivism, Cormier’s rhizomatic model, I see great usefulness for understanding the connections among educational technologists, if not other disciplines. I also appreciate the cognitive acknowledgement that informal learning (a la Jay Cross) is important, as are contacts we may have with others who are experts in their fields, or who are learning similar things as ourselves. I agree strongly with the contention that pre-literate, story-telling cultures are just as connectivist, if not more so, than ours (Om Design notes the Maori in his Moodle forum comment of October 1). Connections to ideas and people are everywhere, and are infinitely useful to us.

I have three main areas of disagreement or concern with the concepts inherent in Connectivism (the theory). The first concerns the definition and validity of knowledge. I appreciate Downes’ idea that true knowledge means you can’t not know something (2005); it is engrained. I see knowledge and wisdom as higher forms of cognition, and thus I have concerns about the idea that “knowledge” achieved through weak connections is automatically as “valid” as more traditionally developed knowledge. It is a small step toward disregarding the quality of information (whoever may determine that); I agree with Mike Bogle that it may be necessary to modify open learning with something that ensures some “well-informed ‘nodes'”. For this reason, I am thus far unable to go along with the idea of the “pipe” being “more important than the content” (Siemens 2004). My second area of criticism concerns presentism, the tendency to disregard the past or apply contemporary standards to people living in the past. Regardless of the bizarre, sometime séance-like reaction induced by my Networks of Dead People post, the elements of Connectivism that disregard the past I see as faulty, despite the assurances that “our focus needs to be on the big changes of history, not the current instantiation of those trends” (Siemens’ Moodle post Sept 28, 2008).

While attempting to explain the diversity of learning, Connectivism nevertheless establishes its applicable base in contemporary technology and today’s sense of being overwhelmed by information. To say that the “half-life of knowledge is declining” (or, as Viplav Baxi put it, “terribly fluid”), is to see knowledge as transient, to view the past dismissively, and to put far too much worth on the present and its glittery toys. Thus my last objection to Connectivism is the moral implication, which I’ve written about particularly in response to Barry Wellman’s articles (Little Boxes and response, Networks for Newbies and response). What I am seeing is a tacit belief that the move toward an intenet-connected world, a world of “networked individualism”, is a good thing. There is an implication throughout the course that not only do people learn this way, they should learn this way. The social disconnection and selfish individualism exemplified by voluntary, self-formed learning networks is not necessarily a good thing. It may be a reflection of the very worst in human nature: greed, self-centeredness, presentism, knee-jerk cynicism, cocksuredness.

There are a number of areas which I need to explore further. I would like to see modern networks compared more directly to those of the past, to place today’s networks in a historical tradition, a major determinant of validity for me. I cannot accept a novelty as being very significant. Paradoxically, I also have trouble accepting as an innovation something that may just be a scaled-up version of the historic networks I understand, as when Kerr notes that simply more people and more connections does not make for a new theory. I also need to examine the problem of assessment, brought out in Jason Green’s questions about “copious assessment” with learners who are not like those of use taking the class. My own definition of knowledge means that not all learners will attain it, so how does one assess “learnedness”? Cognitive networks, although being sidelined in this class, are of great interest to me because I suspect (like Ken Anderson) that it is there, more than in the social pipe, where the learning occurs. Cognitive connectivism would resonate much more with my own learning style. Additionally, I need to read a lot more about the idea of knowledge being “distributed”, a concept I am having difficulty grasping intuitively. Last, I need to better understand why the internet seems to be so central to Connectivism. According to founder George Siemens “[c]onnectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge” (2008). What is meant here is web technology, not printwork. Perhaps, as I suggested on a concept map, that is the main difference between Connectivism and connectivism.

Selected Resources

Cormier, Dave. (2008) “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.” Innovate 4 (5).. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.innovateonline.info/?view=article&id=550

Downes, Stephen (2005). “An Introduction to Connective Knowledge”. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.downes.ca/files/connective_knowledge.doc

Downes, Stephen (2006). “Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge”. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper92/paper92.html

Kerr, Bill. “A Challenge to Connectivism”. Connectivism Conference Presentation notes at learningEvolves wiki. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/kerr

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

George Siemens (2008). “What is the unique idea of connectivism?” Connectivism Blog . Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://connectivism.ca/blog/2008/08/what_is_the_unique_idea_in_con.html

Wellman, Barry. Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism. 2002. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/littleboxes/littlebox.PDF .

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