IRRODL Special Issue: Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning

A special issue of IRRODL – The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning -has just been published.

Vol 12, No 7 (2011): Special Issue – Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning

This is a refereed open e-journal which you can access here: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/index

It is great to see recognised names amongst the contributing authors and particularly of Sui Fai John Mak – who I have worked with on research in the past – http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1041

Congratulations John, Rita and Helene. I’m looking forward to reading your paper and all the others; emergent learning is a topic that really interests me.

Information abundance and learning

Erik Duval’s topic for Change MOOC this week was Learning in a Time of Abundance , which he equates to changes in connectedness (we can be more connected to people and information than ever before), openness and transparency (access and resources) and ‘always on’ (e.g. students access their online connections 24/7). See also – http://erikduval.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/change-11-learning-in-times-of-abundance/. Here are some notes I made during his session.

Abundance will not go away (at least not in the foreseeable future) and has implications for what we learn and how we learn. Erik Duval models this understanding in the way in which he teaches:

  • He encourages his students to be connected during his classes, i.e. have their laptops and mobile phones on
  • His classes can run for 5 hours, which gives students the time to find their own lines of enquiry and navigate a path through the abundance of information
  • His students have to overcome analysis and paralysis by actively dispensing with discomfort
  • His classroom has no walls – anyone can ‘break in’.
  • Everything done in class is open to the outside world
  • Students are encouraged to track their own progress and set their own goals
  • Learning is about working with wicked problems as happens in the workplace.
  • Learning is messy – that’s how life is – and messiness is OK, but incoherence is not
  • Tasks are authentic and relevant
  • He recommends that we don’t ask for permission, but ask for forgiveness if things go wrong

His main advice was to ‘Let go’ – of fake control.

Then he set two challenges – to post:

1. Any examples you find inspiring about how teachers or students leverage abundance for learning

2. Any examples you can identify or think of where openness would be more of a problem than an opportunity?

  1. I think a learners’ ability to leverage abundance for learning depends on whether they have the knowledge, skills and strategies for pulling information in, rather than going out to go out and look for it – and this of course involves the ability to filter (beware the filter bubble –  http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk ) analyse and select. The pulling in also requires technical skills that are maybe taken for granted by those ‘in the know’ and knowledge of the softwares that will do this for us. It will also depend on a learners’ networks and connections.

The question does seem to assume that leveraging abundance is desirable and will lead to better learning. On what grounds can we take this stance? Could we argue that it will just lead to a huge muddle and confusion for the poor learner? I don’t believe this – just playing Devil’s Advocate.

As far as an inspiring example of where this happens – I don’t think we need to look much further than Stephen Downes, MOOCs and OLDaily.

2.Where would openness be more of a problem than an opportunity? I can see that the ‘filter bubble’ would be an example of this – but from a personal perspective I would say – any situation where the outcome would be harmful to society, the environment or the individual. Of course, determining what we mean by ‘harmful’ will be open to different interpretations and there’s the rub. How do we decide?

In discussing this with a close friend this morning, we thought of examples where this has cropped up in the past. One is a colleague who was a Principal of a Higher Education Institution, whose firm belief was that all information in his institution should be open – he didn’t believe that anything should be ‘hidden’. A second was a colleague who is working as a management adviser to a hospice, where the question of what information should be open and what should not has been a focus of recent discussions.

In having this discussion we realized that it depends on what you mean by ‘information’ – and whether there is a difference between information, data and knowledge.  And then of course there are ‘facts’ – or maybe not (ref. Dave Cormier who does not believe in facts). So I looked it up and came across this interesting site – http://www.infogineering.net/data-information-knowledge.htm but having listened to the Filter Bubble Ted Talk – I realize that Google might simply be feeding me what I want to hear 🙂

So I’m still thinking about all this – and looking forward to Erik’s next session, which I might not be able to attend at the time, but will listen to the recording.

Autonomy and accountability

Week 8 of the CCK11 course focussed on power and authority on online networks.

Overview
Networked technologies have changed power and authority. This, networked learning has a great deal in common with approaches to learning that focus on personal empowerment and freedom.

The speakers for this week were Frances Bell and Ailsa Haxell. Their session was recorded as was the follow up session by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Both are well worth viewing/listening to again.

There were many thought provoking ideas in these sessions – but the one that caught my attention was the idea proposed by Ailsa that if knowledge and agency are distributed across the network then accountability must also be distributed. She asked, ‘Am I responsible for the ways that others around me act’ and answered her own question with a ‘Yes’ – there is networked accountability.

Given the activity on my blog for the past two weeks I have found this interesting to think about. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Attacks on Connectivism’ which to my surprise has attracted a lot of attention and comment. The interesting thing is that this attention and comment is not about me or what I have written, but about Stephen Downes, George Siemens, connectivism and those who have something to say about connectivism as a theory.

If we take the metaphor of blogs being a place where we can invite people to come and sit on our front porch, as opposed to forums which can be viewed more as a market place with lots of hustle and bustle*, then my blog has felt a little more like a market place recently – with a number of people visiting and holding their own discussions.

*(see Mak, Sui, Fai, J., Williams, R. & Mackness, J. (2010). Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg (pp. 275-284). Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Mak.html)

All this has been very interesting for me, but I have not felt the need to be involved in further  discussion about this – so to what extent am I accountable for the ideas expressed in the comments made on this particular blog post and does it matter?

I know some of the reasons for this post attracting such a lot of attention. First the ‘jury is still out’ on connectivism as a learning theory and there are plenty of people out there who are following associated discussions. More than this George and Stephen made reference to my blog post. That always results in increased readers on your blog. But mostly it was Twitter. For some reason there were lots of tweets about this post.  Am I accountable for all this? Am I responsible for the ways in which others have reacted to this? If I am, does this mean that the network has some sort of power over me and what I can post on my blog? How does this relate to autonomy, which is a key principle of connectivism?

Week 8 Readings

 

Learner Autonomy – First thoughts about Stephen Downes’ model

(Stephen Downes’ model in black font) Overall question which I shall come back to later is: How do the recent MOOC/open course designs foster learner autonomy and from the learner perspective, are they successful in this?

A – Factors affecting epistemic states

– empirical factors

– external

– past experience and memory

– current experience

– internal

– emotional state

– pain and suffering, etc

– fear

– psychological

– traumas

– phobias

– philias or needs

I interpret this to mean that any consideration of autonomy must recognise that learners bring with them prior experience on at least three levels. This has a ‘constructivist’ learning theory feel to it. The ways in which learners recognise, interpret and experience autonomy will be influenced by their prior experience. Learners can probably be helped with these by their ‘teachers’ because they are externally recognisable and ‘measurable’.

– cognitive factors

– world view or belief set

– frames or traces – recognition of ranges of alternatives

– metaphors or underlying models

– causation, spirit, or other mechanisms

– morality, sense of agency, responsibility

– reasoning mechanism (if any), including:

– logical capacities (including modal, probabilistic)

– mathematical capacities

– degree of certainty attained, required

– language – languages learned, vocabulary

I interpret this to mean that a learner’s experience of autonomy, or ability to act autonomously (bearing in mind that this is not a constant state) is influenced by their ‘internal’ mental state, frames of reference. This may not be visible to the teacher and therefore may be harder to influence, from a teacher’s perspective.

– external factors

– rewards and incentives

– financial

– intrinsic or non-financial

– punishments, sanctions and threats

– expectations

– professional standards

– organizational vision or strategy

From my initial and brief reading of related research, this is related to motivation. My personal perspective is that truly autonomous learning relies heavily on intrinsic motivation, in the absence of punishments, sanctions, threats and expectations. That’s not to say that these external factors do not exist, but that learners must be in a position to choose to reject the extrinsic in favour of the intrinsic or vice vers

B – Capacity to act on epistemic states

– physical factors

– mobility and location

– perceptual (can you see, is there light?)

– effective (can you project into the environment – do the buttons respond, do the pages turn, etc)

– physical support – housing, health, nutrition, etc

– time

This seems to relate to ‘independent’ learning – which has been raised in past research. Autonomy is interpreted in a variety of ways and independence is one of those. My husband is disabled and I know the importance of independence as a pre-requisite to autonomy. They are not the same thing. The conditions have to be right in order to be able to make decisions/choices. This is interesting and I am still thinking about it.

– social factors

– laws, rules and regulations, including flexibility of these

– peer pressure, mores, threat of sanctions

– mode of collaboration – authoritarian, democratic, consensus,         deliberative, etc

– leadership – capacities, temperament, inclinations, etc

– responsibility or authority

This relates to the social constraints of our personal circumstances – so for example my mother married an extremely Victorian man who believed that women should not go out to work – her role was to support her husband (which she did extremely effectively) – but her autonomy in terms of her choice over how she could express her talents was controlled by someone else. Whilst this particular example might not be so common today – autonomy can be restricted in these circumstances.

– structural factors

– predictability of the environment

– complexity of the environment

– barriers, locks, detours, traps, loops – eg. http://tihane.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/motivationalbarriers_seci.jpg

I interpret this as relating to organisational constraints. The organisation in which a learner works may not be able/capable of coping with autonomous learners. An example of this is when University staff are not permitted to use certain softwares within their courses. There might be good institutional reasons for this but it stifles innovation and learner autonomy.

– resources

– range and depth of resources available

– medium of resources – staff, money, equipment

– language and complexity of resources

– quantity of resources (eg., finances)

– mode of presentation of those resources

– sequence of presentation

– duration of presentation

This is similar to the above point in relation to organisations. My son who is doing music technology and cannot do the modules he wants to because of lack of University resources (staffing) is an example of constraints on learner autonomy. But there will also be other constraints on a personal level. In CCK08 and other open courses we have seen how participants whose first language is not English experience constraints on their autonomy. I’m assuming that mode of presentation might be related to ‘learning styles’ although I know that some people don’t believe that there are such things as learning styles. Shall we call them learning preferences instead?

C – Scope and Range of Autonomous Behaviour

– expression

– medium of expression

– language of expression, word use

– association and assembly

– definition of size, scope of social network

– directionality of communications

– selection

– of associates – can you choose your friends? Family?

– communication options – do channels exist? Can they be open?

– of tools, eg., of software, hardware

– resource allocation – spending, delegating, assigning, etc

– method

– operating principle, methodology, pedagogy

– background – influence over environmental factors generally, including:

– noise or music

– colour scheme or visual appearance

– lighting, air supply, mobility

– range

– tolerance – allowed range of results or effects

– quantity of choices available

– quality of choices available (cf. Hobson’s choice)

This section seems to me about the choices that learners can make and the extent of those choices. CCK11 has probably offered more choice than any prior open course. My brief reading of research however indicates that designing for autonomy does not mean that teachers abdicate responsibility for their learners and I will be interested to see how the CCK11 course design balances learner autonomy with ‘teacher’ facilitation and whether even minimum teacher facilitation will be perceived as a constraint.

D – Effects of Autonomous Behaviour

– impact (ie., the degree or scope of the effect)

– audience – range of persons affected by behavior

– efficacy – amount of change potentially caused by behaviour

– improvement (ie., the nature of the effect)

– internal

– psychological – satisfaction, lessening of pain,lessening of fear, etc

– cognitive – beliefs formed, knowledge acquired

– external

– material condition, employment, etc

– capacities, rights, autonomy, etc

– associative – improvements ascribed to others

– social – improvements to society generally

This section feels to me a bit of a departure – it is not about what autonomy might mean to the learner or how autonomy is experienced, but how we might ‘measure’ its effects. How will we know when we are autonomous learners? How will teachers know that their course designs which attempt to promote autonomous learning are successful?

This is my first response to Stephen’s model. I am aware that I have probably not done it justice.  I now want to see how CCK11 and other open courses have been designed with these ideas in mind and also how this model compares with the other models that Stephen posted on his blog.

Information overload and connectivity

On one side we are urged to increase our connectivity – we are told that all learning starts with a connection, to learn we need to be well connected, to keep up in a fast moving digital age we need to know how to filter, select, aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward. We are urged to be open and connected, and to become involved in global networks.  It is not enough to simply join these networks and observe – this is regarded as ‘taking’ – we must share, create for the benefit of others and reciprocate.

On the other side, when people stop to think about it, such as over the Christmas break, there is a realisation that all this connectivity can very easily get out of control and become an unbearable burden.  Blog posts by Will Richardson and Beth Kanter both discuss this from different perspectives. There has been a discussion on Quora to which George Siemens contributed and we have been reminded in some posts of Clay Shirky’s suggestion that information overload is a consequence of filter failure.

Of course, as soon as people have a break – such as we have just had with Christmas and New Year – it suddenly hits us that there must be more to life than …… whatever it is that puts our life out of balance – such as has been perceived in recent online discussions and posts as an imbalance between connectivity and information overload.

But I’m wondering whether it is information overload that is the problem. Isn’t it more a lack of understanding about what we mean by connectivity and what role connectivity should play in our lives and learning? It seems that it is often interpreted that more connectivity is better – more connectivity means more learning, more connectivity means being able to keep up. But is this true? Would an answer to this question sort out the information overload problem?

Connection is why we’re here

I want to thank Heli for posting this video link to a talk by Dr Brene Brown. Brene Brown is certainly a gifted speaker and as Heli discusses with John Mak on his blog – vulnerability is inside everyone. I think this would be hard to deny – especially in relation to online connectivity.

I have watched the video a couple of times and have thought about it a lot. I have also heard an alternative perspective from a valued friend and have come to the conclusion that the problem with these talks is that they play on our emotions to the extent that it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Brene Brown starts her talk by saying:

Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

She then goes on to say:

… the ability to feel connected ….. is neurobiolically how we are wired – it’s why we are here.

And then she goes on to talk about the vulnerability of those who feel disconnected and the reasons for this. She is a very entertaining speaker, so it is easy to be swept along on the emotive wave of her talk.

But the thing is that her talk was based on the massive assumption that everyone wants connection. I can see that those who want it and feel disconnected might have the problems of vulnerability that she describes – but what if you don’t want it?

Or alternatively – what if your personal interpretation of connection is connection to concepts rather than to people. Brene Brown talks about us being neurologically wired for connection – but that does not mean that these connections have to be social.

To me it seems that the emphasis in connectivism is often on social learning and social connections. My friend and colleague Matthias, has discussed this on this blog (see for example this blog post – http://x28newblog.blog.uni-heidelberg.de/2008/11/23/cck08-conceptual-and-social-layer/ . Personally I very much enjoy discussions with close friends/colleagues about mutual interests, so I am not anti-social – but I am aware that the extent of my social connection is very small compared to others on the web. I have no need for a wide circle of friends or connections and I respect those who prefer to be connected to concepts rather than people.

So it seems to me, that if we are talking about connectivity, we need to first surface some assumptions about what it means.

In defense of lurking

A couple of days ago George Siemens made a post to his Elearnspace blog in which he strongly criticised lurkers as follows:

Creation, collaboration, and sharing are the true value points of a PLN. It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/12/01/my-personal-learning-network-is-the-most-awesomest-thing-ever/

What George has written seems to me to be a complete contradiction of what I perceive open learning networks or courses to be all about. Stephen Downes has outlined the principles of learning in networks as being openness, connectivity, diversity and autonomy. For me, autonomy lies at the heart of how this works, and has been central to the success of the open courses I have so far attended (PLENK, CCKO8 and CritLit). In other words, a key principle is that we have the choice of how connected, open, interactive or participative we want to be. We can therefore choose to lurk. Actually, I dislike that derogatory term ‘lurking’ and prefer to recognise that in any course, online or f2f, we will have active participants, but also those whose learning preference is to ‘read’ or ‘observe’.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state.

My question here would be what is wrong with that? PLN (personal learning network) is by its very name just that – personal. It is not for George Siemens or anyone else to tell me what being connected means in relation to my personal learning.

Lurking=taking.

Not so, or no more so than in collaborative creation and contribution. And just to remember here that Stephen Downes famously said at the ALT conference in 2005 that ‘Collaboration is the joining together of things that do not naturally want to be joined’. So there are two points here. First is that George’s rant against ‘lurking’ is an example of the ‘Tyranny of Participation’, written about by Ferreday and Hodgson and cited by me in a number of posts. Second is that there is no evidence that ‘lurking=taking’. By its very nature we do not know what ‘lurkers’ are doing. They are not present and therefore we have no evidence with which to judge them in this way. The responses to George’s post list many reasons why people might be perceived as ‘lurkers’. From my own experience of working as a tutor on international online courses, I know that participants may not be present for a whole host of reasons including access difficulties, technology difficulties, illness, significant family or work disruptions/distractions and so on. The best they can do in these circumstances is to read or observe. I also know that whilst these people may not be connected and contributing to my course, they are often heavily engaged elsewhere. It is not for me to make judgments about where their priorities lie. They have the autonomy to decide that for themselves.

The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative.

To throw out a comment like this about a well established theory of learning, without any further explanation is not helpful. My interpretation from reading Wenger’s work is that legitimate peripheral participation is about the development of competency and identity within a learning community and the learning trajectories that people follow to achieve this within a social learning situation. It acknowledges that when people join a community (or, I would suggest, even a network), they join at the edge and gradually develop their identity within it. In addition Etienne Wenger’s more recent work has a lot to say about learning on the boundaries of communities. At a recent conference he suggested that this is where there can be the most powerful learning experiences, where people at the edge straddle the boundaries between different communities and can feed information/learning back and forth across these boundaries. This relates also to Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak ties and suggests that far from being negative, legitimate peripheral participation can have positive consequences.

Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. (my bold)

Finally, although I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I do not think ‘should’ is a helpful word in relation to learning. Learning in any environment, network, community, course, classroom, is ideally about negotiation and learner empowerment. This also means allowing people to choose whether and when to interact with other learners, whether to read and observe (lurk) rather than be actively interactive and to decide for themselves what connectivity means to them personally.