Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

November 7, 2008

Environmental Engineering and Course Critique

Filed under: Week 9 — Lisa M Lane @ 7:21 pm

The Waiting Room

Yesterday morning I sat in a waiting room for a routine blood test as part of my check-up. The room was crowded, warm, staffed by unsympathetic people who treated the patients like things they had to do, refusing to move clipboards (used to distinguish those with appointments from those without) from one window to another, instead forcing the patients to go to the other window. There were no plants or life in the room, just bad paintings of flowers at their peak. Amid the occasional thumping hum of some machine behind the wall, people sat silently, all hiding in books, knitting, or their electronic devices. The only smile was a woman in a poster hanging on the wall, smugly inviting you to make an appointment next time. The display with the comments cards (“Your Opinion Matters to Us”) didn’t have any cards. Every time someone left, which they did with alacrity, the door automatically slammed behind them.

That place didn’t have to be so horrible. The control was held by the women behind the desk. They determined the tone in an already oppressive setting, and everyone else just shut down in response. Since I’m not the kind of person who could add my sunny disposition to this setting (I wanted to either scream or say “god, isn’t this awful?” to everyone), I shut down too.

The Classroom

Now, I admit, the waiting room of a phlebotomy lab is not supposed to be a learning environment, but I couldn’t help wondering, “wow, do students see my classroom like that? a sterile, unwelcoming environment with dragons in control?” We were all utterly dependent on a system over which we had little control, and we knew it. So then I come home and see these pictures posted by Bob Bell in the Moodle forum this week, with the photo of students in a 19th century classroom juxtaposed with one of students facing the presenter in today’s classroom.

That’s when it occurred to me: it’s ALL environment, the environment created by the setting and the people within it. Teaching is environmental engineering. I joke with my students when we move the chairs, that after class we have to put them back in the “standard” position, all facing the front. It chafes that my “presentation screen” is stuck at the front of the room; only students with laptops have internet access, and they are facing me so I can’t see what they see. Everything about the way our classrooms are structured encourages presentation and passivity. Wonder what would happen if we all came in one day and the desks were gone, replaced with pillows and decorative rugs on the carpet, colorful cloth walls and a plate of couscous for sharing? We’d do different things, I bet.


When I enrolled in this class, I was seeking that kind of unusual learning space. Self-directed learning? engineer your own environment? learn from such cool dudes whose work I respect so very much? I’m in.

We come to this class, where I just know things will be different. And they have been. But a couple of environmental elements have reasserted themselves anyway.

One is in the synchronous meetings. I hoped the live sessions would be highly interactive, and I’m sure our instructors did too. But the focus is always on some sort of presentation, the lecture mode, but with backchannel chat and questions. Our instructors and their guests present, with slides they control. We listen, and are invited to comment with open microphones, but we students do not set the subjects for discussion and it’s hard to take the lead.

Another aspect of the traditional environment is text depedence. An image (as we see above) can show a lot, but I have seen them used only rarely on the blogs and in the forums. In presentations, most of the slides are text based. The videos we have in the “readings” are all presentations, watching people stand and talk, or talk with slides with text. Even the CMaps (visuals!) are have been text, connected with arrows that have text in the middle. (This is in the interest of the explanatory text inside the arrows, and the alternative would be a mindmap, where we could have images. But a mind map, we learned, isn’t a concept map, so it would be very difficult to create a concept map based on multimedia instead of text.) When we join synchronously, the Elluminate whiteboard or Ustream window is too often blank, and only the moderators can access them. By the time a multi-window environment seemed accessible in the October 31 Ustream session, no one outside the moderators were accustomed to the possibility of entering the conversation as full video and audio participants. After awhile, I just wanna say “show me!”:

Some of this, of course, is technological. We can’t really have everyone together, on video, on one screen, promoting a sense of group equality. Or get Elluminate to truly allow more than one microphone open without echoing (I know it says up to 10, but it just ain’t so). I can bring my comfy pillows, but there’s nowhere to put them. The multimedia experiences happen outside the class (Second Life, creative slideshows or videos) and must be brought into the “room” somehow, so it’s awkward, especially since there isn’t really a central room, in the interest of decentralization, although The Daily had to be manufactured anyway to help fill that gap.

Next time around, maybe the technology will have moved forward, and be used in such a way as to create a playground inside a classroom. Maybe RSS feeds will somehow be visual as well as textual. Maybe there will be more equal participation, not just in the freedom to post and say what you want, but in encouragement of interactivity via more than blogs and forums (post/respond). Open class meetings where everyone attending is expected to bring something for show and tell. Central course pages that can be created by the students, with us adding feeds and media ourselves to the “main” classroom (I never got the feeling we were supposed to touch the wiki). And for the grading, way more emphasis on the participation/community aspect (now worth 10%), and less on formal papers and concept maps (now worth 50%).

As you’ve seen, I’m not very good at knitting silently, nor do I wish to complain — I’ve learned amazing things in this class so far! And I hope our instructors will take my critique in the spirit it is intended. If not, I’ll go to the other window to sign the clipboard. 😉


November 6, 2008

Paper #2: Insurgence for Emergence

Filed under: papers,Week 9 — Lisa M Lane @ 4:58 am

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.

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