Finding and losing your voice in the collective

‘How do we find the knowledge that we need in the collective space?’

‘What are the binding forces that bring knowledge resources and people together?’

These two questions have been raised this week by Allison Littlejohn – in Change Mooc 11 –  and also discussed with Lou McGill .

Reference to ‘binding forces’ made my ears prick up, but I have been struggling to further resonate with the ideas that have been presented.  Allison and her team’s interests lie around identifying the social objects that help people to bind together in collective environments, and increasing our understanding of the tools, skills and processes that are needed to learn in complex connective environments/collectives.

But for me Lou McGill’s question –  about how to balance the needs of me as an individual with the needs of the broader collective is more interesting.

Whilst we do need to ask (and answer) questions about the social objects that will bring people together and the digital literacy skills that they will need to find each other, these are ‘what’ questions, rather than ‘how’ questions.

When Matthias Melcher and I wrote our paper on online resonance – we were interested in the ‘how’ of online connections. Although we were interested in one-to-one resonance as opposed to ‘binding forces’ in groups/collectives, I think the ideas we were struggling with were/are relevant to this discussion. We explored how people connect with each other online in some depth,  concluding that there definitely is something that sparks off connections, which we called ‘e-resonance’. We suggested that as well as recognizing the skills that learners need and the affordances of the web for this resonance to occur, we also need to try and unpick/understand the contributing elements of ‘beyond verbal’ communication. In relation to this discussion – would this also be ‘beyond social object’?

I think it was this deeper level of communication or binding that I was looking for in Allison’s work. Whilst we might be able to identify a task, assignment or learning goal as being the social object around which people appear to collect, I think the actual binding (particularly if that binding is going to be long-term) has to be at a deeper and more individual level. Whilst the collective may be made up of a whole array of resources, it is also made up of individuals, whose learning will be determined by their perceptions of their individual identities in relation to the collective.

I’m with Lou in her concerns about the individual getting lost in the collective.

Thanks to Allison for a very well prepared and thought provoking presentation for ChangeMOOC.

Hype and Rose Gardens

I wasn’t sure what title to give this post but I realise that occasionally I feel irritated by the hype and attitude that ‘everything in the garden is rosy’ – just be ‘connected’ and the world’s problems will be solved – we will all be autonomous, connected and open learners in diverse environments and everything will change for the better.

It’s not that I am against these aspirations. I am not. It would be great if all learners were autonomous – but the fact is that many learners do not even want to be autonomous even if they have the capability to be autonomous and that is another discussion to be had. Is it OK to ask for didactic teaching (tell me what to do!)? Perhaps sometimes that is just what learners need.  I suspect that this is heresy in the current climate of networked learning 🙂

It would also be great if all learners were widely and diversely connected – but the fact is that many a knowing or unknowing willing learner cannot access the web/net as we the privileged are accustomed to do, whether or not they wish to learn. I only have to holiday in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales here in the UK to experience slow internet connections and difficulties of access and I have worked with students in Africa who have to travel miles to an internet café to get access to their course. It is easy to forget from our ivory towers of easy access in most areas of the Western world that there are still many who do not have this opportunity and privilege.

Aspirations and dreams are great, but I would like to see more recognition of those who currently have no chance of accessing these dreams and aspirations and for us not to forget them and not to become subject to the group think that ‘everything in the garden is rosy for all’. Let’s keep our feet on the ground.

e-Portfolios and learner autonomy

I have just come across this discussion on Donald Clark’s blog – ‘7 reasons’ why I don’t want my life in a shoebox’. Like Sarah Stewart, I have some sympathy with this post. I have felt ambivalent about e-portfolios ever since becoming aware of them for the first time a number of years ago when the institution I was working in was thinking about introducing PebblePad.  At the time I was concerned about what would happen to all the work the students put into an e-portfolio that was owned by the institution, when they qualified and left. With respect to Pebblepad, the students need to buy the portfolio when they leave and continue to pay an annual subscription when they leave if they want to keep it up.  I suppose this is not a lot different to paying for a provider to host a website.

I have seen really interesting and stimulating work on e-portfolios, notably by Emma Purnell who shared her practice and enthusiasm for PebblePad in an ELESIG webinar and wrote this in the supporting discussion forum:

I would describe myself as an eportfolio learner, teacher and researcher. I am especially interested in eportfolios for reflection and Personal Development Planning and how the use of multimedia might be used effectively to support and evidence these areas. There is a wonderful opportunity for storytelling (through text and multimedia) in eportfolio and this is where my passion currently lies. I was introduced to eportfolio whist on a Post Graduate teaching course at the University of Wolverhampton in 2005/6. Eportfolio was used to support a reflective practitioner module I took.

Emma Purnell, 2008

Despite Emma’s enthusiasm, I remain hesitant. I wonder who the e-portfolio is really for. Do the students really have control over them or are they jumping through yet more institutional hoops? It would be interesting to know how many students do buy the portfolio and continue to maintain it after they have qualified.

Open courses in January 2011

The net seems awash with open courses at the moment. Three have captured my attention are:

Learning and Knowledge Analytics (LAK11)

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11)

Digital Storytelling (ds106)

Digital storytelling is already in its second week, but as Jim Groom (convenor) has pointed out it has been anticipated and discussed for many more weeks. It is fun just to look at the assignments that have already been submitted – a wonderful example of the talent and creativity that can be tapped into on the net and also a wonderful example of the four key activities of connectivist teaching and learning in action, i.e. aggregation,  remixing, repurposing and feed forward. There has been quite a lot of work on Digital Storytelling here in the UK and a few years ago I attended a Digital Storytelling course at the University of Gloucestershire here in the UK, where the focus at the time was on using digital storytelling to enhance students’ learning and reflection – a different focus to Jim Groom’s course where the learning objectives are:

  • Develop skills in using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression
  • Frame a digital identity wherein you become both a practitioner in and interrogator of various new modes of networking
  • Critically examine the digital landscape of communication technologies as emergent narrative forms and genres

Information about the work in the UK can be found at the following sites:

I will be interested to find out more about ‘why’ people have signed up for Jim Groom’s course and whether people will ‘stay’ the course.  I expect it will be a lot of hard work.

Learning and Knowledge Analytics has also been going a week and got off to a good start with a lot of participants signed up and plenty of discussion. The first week’s invited speaker – John Fritz – gave a really thought provoking talk. Over 90 people attended this.  John started his talk with a slide providing us with a vision of the future of academic analytics, which listed the possible stages of the use of analytics as:

  1. Extraction and reporting
  2. Analysis and monitoring
  3. ‘What if’ scenarios
  4. Predictive modelling and simulation
  5. Automatic triggers and alerts

He asked us what our institutions are already doing and most were at the 1-3 levels. This reminded me of a JISC programme that I worked on last year – Institutional Innovation – where one of the projects was collecting data to ensure e that they could monitor student progress, catch potential drop-outs early, intervene and thus ensure student progress and retention. This was the Mining Course Management Systems project at Thames Valley University. The question that was raised for me by John Fritz’s talk and by the projects that I have worked with in the JISC Institutional Innovation programme was who controls the data – so  – do the students get to analyse the data or see the results of the data analysis? What voice do they have over how the data is interpreted and what interventions will be made – given that they will be the recipients? Interesting!

Finally to Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11). Despite the fact that I have already attended CCK08 and been aware of CCK09, I think that this is the one that I will be following the most closely, although perhaps still from a distance.  As a learner, it suits me better to be on the edge. Stephen Downes and George Siemens have urged us to ‘share with others’.  I have thought about this. Do I do this or not?  Well – I have to say – not very publicly – although I do have a few people with whom I feel very connected and with whom I have some deep ‘back-channel’ conversations/discussions (which have now resulted in 4 research papers/projects). These have all resulted from CCK08.  I do blog from time to time which I regard as my ‘wider sharing’, but it is the closer connections that I really value. So I am looking forward to CCK11 once again – but I will be keeping an eye on Digital Storytelling and Learning Analytics – for interest and from the perspective of being interested in how people learn in open courses.

What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

This was a question asked by George Siemens on his blog and discussed by George, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom in an open Elluminate session (around 45 attendees in all) on 20th Dec.

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course. Why? Because a course implies assessment. As soon assessment enters the equation, then autonomy – the key principle of connectivism – is lost.

That’s not to say that within traditionally assessed courses we cannot – as course designers – consider more deeply the implications of designing our courses to increase the possibility of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectedness. But within the traditional system of accreditation and validation there are considerable constraints on what we can achieve. Anyone who is paying for a course – open or not – is going to have expectations of what they get for their money and that usually means, in my experience,  of the level of tutoring/facilitation they receive.

So the question of  ‘What is wrong with MOOCs?’  has to be considered in terms of whether the course is accredited or not. The answer to the question for each is different. For the accredited course there has already been much research on what makes for a good online course and what makes for good online facilitation. Of course – the ‘massive’ part of MOOC means that the facilitators’ role has to be reconsidered. Alec Couros realised this when he asked for volunteer mentors.

But for an unaccredited course – and I much prefer Jim Groom’s idea that we should be thinking in terms of online learning ‘events’ rather than courses  – then , in my view, the responsibility lies with the learner and the whole ethos and ethics of the ‘event’ changes. As an aside – a question that has occurred to me is how is an ‘event’ different from a conference? There have been many successful online conferences, but I do not see an event based on MOOC principles as being the same thing as a conference. If the ‘event’ is ‘not for credit’, I cannot see much wrong with the way in which they have been designed to date. Whilst there are things we might not like and also contradictions in the way in which the basic principles of open courses can be interpreted (see Mackness, et al – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC), the responsibility for learning is ultimately down to the learner.

What I am currently finding interesting is how difficult it is to apply, in practice, the principles of connectivism  – which I see to be the principles of open courses (autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness) in the traditional settings in which most of us educators probably find ourselves.  I strongly believe in these principles, but find when I try to apply them to course design that they are subject to many constraints, not only externally but also internally, i.e. constraints from my own thinking. If I am honest, it is more difficult to truly change my own practice than I would have thought, whatever my changing beliefs. One of the constraints I encounter – which I think has been raised by Lisa Lane in her blog  – is in the teaching of skills. In the MOOCs I have attended (CCK08, Critical Literacies, PLENK) , the course content, i.e. what we are expected to learn has been loose and within the remit of own ideas and thinking. We have been encouraged to navigate our own way through these ideas and follow our own interests and paths of learning. If we learn skills along the way that is a bonus – but they have not been explicitly taught and they have not been a focus of the course content.

But what if the learning of a skill is the focus of the course – in my case  – the courses I tutor on are for participants who want to learn the skills of e-moderation/facilitation.  Then – whichever way I look at it – however much choice is designed into the course – ultimately the success of the course relies on whether the participants can demonstrate the skills of e-moderation/e-facilitation. And for this they need to be pointed to some activities in which they can demonstrate this. As I write this, I wonder if this is true, but my experience to date is – that it is.

So – to come back to the question of what is wrong with MOOCs – my summary answer would be – not a lot so long as they stick to the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness outlined by Stephen Downes.  It is sticking to and interpreting these principles for different contexts that is the difficult bit.

Is lurking ever indefensible?

I have been thinking about this question since my last post. I notice that discussion on George’s blog has ceased and he has moved on, but the PLENK2010 NRC research team are continuing to pursue the question through two online surveys – one for active participants and one for self-confessed lurkers. The problem is that I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’ issue. More I see ‘active’ and ‘lurking’ as being on either end of a continuum, along which we will move in either direction, depending on the circumstances.

Another difficulty I have with the surveys is that the researchers have already defined what they mean by ‘lurker’ and ‘active participant’, whereas I feel that the discussions that have been taking place have shown that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these terms mean. For example they state that ….

In this context, active participation includes contributions to discussion forums in the course Moodle, blogs, twitter, social networking sites, and in the production of artifacts …

I myself did not contribute to the Moodle discussion forums, Twitter, social networking site or the production of artefacts in PLENK2010, but I did blog – so does that make me an active participant? Lurking is defined by the NRC researchers in this context as

‘passive attention, silent participation, and/or self-directed learning.’

To some extent I did all of these – so does that make me a lurker?

For me it might have been more interesting to learn whether people consider themselves to be ‘lurkers’ and the reasons for their self-judgement and whether or not they can justify their online behaviour, which brings me back to the title of this post – Is lurking ever indefensible?

After much thought since my last post, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question has to be ‘No’ – i.e. lurking can always be defended. Why do I think this? Because I believe that learning should be in the control of the learner, which includes a choice of whether to lurk or not – although as a teacher of young children and adults I would always want to point out to lurkers the possible consequences of their choices and actions.

However, as we have seen from George Siemens’ blog post, active participants can find lurkers very irritating, particularly if assessment is involved. In response to my last post ‘In defense of lurking’ , Eduardo asked how we should assess lurkers’ participation. The bigger question for me is – should we assess participation? This has always been difficult, particularly where collaborative assessed group work is concerned – but if we believe that learners should have control over their own learning, why should we force them to work in groups for an assessment when they might prefer to work alone? Why can’t we give them the choice? So my answer would be that we don’t have to assess participation. Assessment should focus on the outcome which meets the learning objective. How learners want to arrive at that outcome should be up to them. As Heli points out in her comment on my last blog post, there are many reasons why people choose to participate in the way in which do and they must be allowed to find their own way.

I think this whole issue of whether or not we should tolerate ‘lurking’ comes very much down to issues of control. This is so ingrained as a teaching behaviour that it is very difficult for teachers to let go of or even fully recognise. Ultimately, lurkers may threaten a teacher’s authority and control. Is this the real issue rather than the lurking per se?

Openness and intellectual property

This is just going to be a quick post – just to mark something that happened today and which seems highly significant to me to the whole notion of open learning in open networks – if those networks are related to learning in Higher Education.

Today I attended a meeting in which a PhD student asked a question about the meaning of intellectual property. She was concerned that the data that she was gathering and her decisions about what data to collect for her PhD were based on conversations with her work colleagues – so what could she claim as her own ideas and what should she attribute to others – could she claim anything from a dialogue/discussion as her own?

Evidently it is very important in a PhD viva to be able to substantiate work as original and as your own work.

The student was advised at this point to be extremely careful about attributing work carefully, extremely cautious about openly sharing work in progress or ideas, and to be selfish. This should help to ensure that the PhD is accepted as an original piece of work and in addition this approach would help to ensure that anyone then intending working in Higher Education could build up their reputation in high ranking journals, maintain tenure at the university at which s/he works and not risk having their work and ideas ‘stolen’ by others.

This approach to learning is the antithesis of what I am interested in and how I want to learn – but then I am past retirement age, do not need to secure a career and have nothing to lose in believing that we should openly share.  I must say I found I was able to listen sympathetically to the discussion today, whilst at the same time being ‘sad’ that this non-sharing approach is still being promoted in some areas of Higher Education. It occurred to me that this approach is based on ‘fear’. Fear of not being recognised, fear of having your ideas stolen, fear of not ‘making it’, fear of not ‘fitting in’ etc.

Despite all this, I think it is worth thinking about exactly what we mean by ‘open’ in relation to intellectual property and more broadly – a question that has been concerning me for a while. I can see that for a student/new lecturer who is trying to establish a reputation, they have to make their mark somehow – and how do you do this at the beginning of your career and before you become established, if you give all your work away, and/or allow anyone to use it in any way they wish, especially if, as I was told today, high ranking journals, on which tenure is based, require you to substantiate that your ideas are original.

So where does openness fit into this scenario? Is there a continuum from less open to more open along which we need to appropriately position ourselves according to our specific personal context at any given time?