What is uniquely human?

In this first week of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC, Stephen Downes has shared a video introduction to the course (see https://el30.mooc.ca/course_activity_centre.htm ) and also recorded a video of a conversation he had with George Siemens. This was really enjoyable to watch.

It has been ten years since Stephen and George offered the first ever MOOC on connectivism, which for me (without wanting to sound too dramatic) was a life-changing experience. On the back of that course I established myself as an independent education consultant and researcher, which ultimately led to a PhD by publication. More important than this was that it led to connections with people with whom I am still in contact and who are now personal friends. As George said, that first MOOC, CCK08, The Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Course came at a time of mass explosion of technology, extensive innovation and the emergence of shared intelligence. But, as George said, after this initial excitement, the last five years has felt a bit like a wilderness and many of the initial aspirations for a democratic open web have not been realised.

However, neither George nor Stephen has given up on their initial aspirations to democratise learning. Both think we are now entering an era of deepening understanding of learning. Each has approached this differently, although they both feel that connectivism continues to be relevant, if not even more relevant, to how we learn in a technological age, as technology becomes more prominent.

Stephen asked George to tell us what is his current work focus. What are the issues that concern him? This was where the discussion became fascinating. It centred around what it means to be human and what is human intelligence in a world where machines can learn just as we do. For Stephen there isn’t anything that is uniquely human. Anything organised in the right way can learn. If we can learn, machines can too; if we can come up with ethics so can computers. Computers can always learn more than we can. Unlike us, they don’t get tired and improve with more data. Machines are equally as smart as us. So, George asked, why are we teaching in a counter-intuitive way when systems/machines can do it so much more efficiently and in 50 years time we will all be working with robots?

Grappling with these questions, George is looking for what is uniquely human. He sees this as ‘being-ness’. I have heard him talk about this before to Neil Selwyn, and earlier this year wrote a blog post about their discussion  – Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age . Stephen thinks ‘being’ is too fuzzy a concept to be useful, although ‘being’ seems to have exercised the minds of many a past philosopher, not least Heidegger. Despite this, I think Stephen nailed it when he said, ‘the most consequential things can’t be measured’. Perhaps, as Stephen suggested, ‘being’ can be recognised (without being measured, defined or articulated) in such qualities as ‘goodness’. We can probably think of similar qualities that it is hard to imagine a machine learning. George suggested that to understand ‘being’ we might need to return to traditional contemplative practices.

My current thinking is that ‘being’ is one of those ideas that cannot be made explicit without losing its meaning. It is something that we ‘know’, intuitively and empathically, without having to articulate it, and this knowledge is unique to each and every one of us. It is this that makes us different from machines.

This was a great discussion to have at the start of the course.

E-Learning 3.0 : some initial thoughts

This is the topic of a 10-week MOOC being offered by Stephen Downes, which started this week. For the course outline see – https://el30.mooc.ca/course_outline.htm . Stephen said somewhere that he was trying to create an elegant site for the course. I think he has succeeded. I love this simple image and title.

On this site Stephen writes:

The premise of this course is that we are entering the third major phase of the world wide web, and that it will redefine online learning as it has previously. The first phase of the internet as it was originally developed in 1994, based on the client-server model, and focused on pages and files. The second phase, popularly called Web 2.0, created a web based on data and interoperability between platforms. In what is now being called web3, the central role played by platforms is diminished in favour of direct interactions between peers, that is, a distributed web.

I missed the beginning of the course (I’m not even sure which day it did begin), being away on holiday in the Trossachs, Scotland, where ironically it was very difficult to get an internet connection and was impossible to stream anything. Whilst we might assume that everyone everywhere is connected all the time, my experience this week suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, given the influence of Web 2.0 on what we understand by ‘truth’ and how to live ethically in this post-truth world, it seems important to me to ensure that we at least have an inkling of the developments which will lead to Web 3.0.

I am now back from the beautiful wilds of Scotland and connected again and have watched Stephen’s video introduction to the course, in which he provides an excellent overview of what the course will cover.

He told us that the course would be structured around the outline depicted in the figure below and then talked briefly about each element of the diagram.

The basic premise is that because we are moving from a world of documents to a world of distributed dynamic data, Web 3.0 will be based on a linked open data cloud. This means that the approach to learning will change. It will no long depend on remembering, but instead on pattern recognition. In this model, knowledge is pattern recognition.

So far, so good. Stephen then went on to discuss the significance of the Cloud and Graph elements of his diagram. Here he lost me. He told us that anyone could learn this if we put the effort in and that through this we would learn how to create new types of distributed and connected learning resources. I found myself thinking that I have always like driving; I know how to change a wheel, and when opening the bonnet where to top up the screen wash and oil. I can even jump start another car if necessary, but beyond this I am not interested. I take the car to the garage and let someone else with years of experience sort it out. Similarly with technology. I am simply not sufficiently interested to get into the nitty gritty. I am not interested in learning how to programme or learning different computer languages. I think there will probably be more people like me than technical experts (although maybe not on this course!), so I wonder what the implications of this are for a distributed model. Further, I like the fact that I can come to this course and know that Stephen has the experience, has done all the work and is willing to share this. I am grateful to him for this and his generous openness, but it does not make me want to learn programming 🙂

To return to his presentation, I was more interested in what he had to say about identity and community. I agreed of course that in social networks we are the product and that we are being exploited by large corporations such as Facebook and Twitter, who are selling and making a profit from our data, and I was encouraged by Stephen’s suggestion that in Web 3.0 the quantified self will give way to the qualified connected self, not measured by numbers but by our properties, affinities and things we have created. Our identity will be the thread that runs through an otherwise distributed, disconnected set of data.  This made sense to me and I was intrigued by the idea that we will each have a private key to access the web. No more passwords!

I also appreciated his discussion about community, which he suggested will no longer be based on sameness, but on consensus and being able to make decisions together. This seems such an important point for education and for this to be able to function, as informed citizens, we will need some fundamental critical literacies, which he suggests are:

  • Syntax – the ability to recognise patterns
  • Semantics – the ability to assign the meaning, importance and value of something
  • Context – being able to identify something in relation to its environment
  • Use
  • Cognition – inference, deduction, induction, for the best explanation
  • Change – processes of change, regressions, cyclic change etc.

There was more about each point in his diagram, and there will be even more as the course progresses, but the key point is that a decentralised system is needed – a system which focusses on consensus and being able to make decisions together.

Having first heard Stephen’s and George Siemen’s ideas on the need for a decentralised, distributed, connected web ten years ago, when they ran the very first MOOC on connectivism in 2008, it is great to see how these ideas might be developing ten years on.

Harmony and hope as pedagogies for 2018

This week’s OLDaily, the online newsletter published by Stephen Downes, includes a discussion about ‘a pedagogy of harmony’. In his commentary on Matthias Melcher’s post, Stephen Downes writes:

Maybe nothing will come out of the idea of the ‘pedagogy of harmony’, or maybe I have at last found a worthy response to the idea of the pedagogy of the oppressed and even the pedagogy of hope. In any case, Matthias Melcher has teased out one fascinating strand, the idea that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of dissonance. It comes from an example offered by Laura Ritchie. Here’s what she says:  “The relationships of the notes, the ratios and intervals found within the natural harmonic series have not changed over the years, but the capabilities of reproducing the notes on manmade instruments has… What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony.” As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations.  (Stephen Downes, Dec 21, 2017)

 

Stephen Downes’ idea of the pedagogy of harmony, Laura Ritchie’s explanation of the relationship of musical notes, the ratio and intervals found within the natural harmonic series, and Matthias’s/Stephen’s response that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of difference, have all caught my attention for different reasons.

I’m not sure whether I fully understand Stephen’s idea of a ‘pedagogy of harmony’. The idea stems from Stephen’s experience of Mastodon, a calmer, slower, quieter alternative to Twitter as a social media platform. There he has written: ‘What is a ‘pedagogy of harmony’? I’m not exactly sure, but it combines a feeling of well-being and comfort and inclusion’ , which is how he experiences Mastodon.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines harmony as:

  • The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect.
  • The quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
  • The state of being in agreement or concord.

But, if we agree with this definition, would we want this all the time? My immediate thought was, ‘Don’t we need dissonance to be able to recognise harmony?’ and in terms of pedagogy  ‘Don’t we need dissonance to maintain interest and attention?’

Kevin Hodgson in his response to Laura Ritchie’s post has created a video in which he has written:

Some of us revel in the juxtaposition of dissonances. We are disturbances on the surfaces of one another’s waters.

Perhaps it is more than ‘revel’, more a need for cognitive dissonance to enable learning.

Another question that occurred to me is ‘Can one person’s harmony be another person’s dissonance?’ This question is sparked off by my participation in Dr Matthew Nicholl’s Ancient Rome MOOC. In Week 3 of this course we are introduced to the music of Ancient Rome, in particular the music created by aulos players.

It is clear from the discussion forum posts that this music is not to everyone’s taste. For some it creates a sense of ‘well-being’, for others it does not. Laura’s comment that “What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony” makes sense to me, but it must also mean that our understanding of harmony as an idea is a moving feast.

But I like this comment from Stephen: ‘As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations’, which was sparked by Matthias’ idea ‘that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world of whether things sound a note of dissonance.’ These ideas fit with those I have been learning about in a wonderfully enjoyable face-to-face course I have just completed – An Introduction to Philosophical Literature, run by Darren Harper. Over the past couple of months we have read and discussed:

  • Week 1: Introduction and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  • Week 2: The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • Week 3: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Week 4: The Outsider by Albert Camus
  • Week 5: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Week 6: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

All these books are essentially about searching for meaning in life. Can we find meaning and if so what is the meaning of life, or is life essentially meaningless? This week, the last week of the course, when discussing Kundera’s wonderful book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we were asked:  if we knew that our life would repeat itself over and over again, without the possibility of correcting or changing anything, what would we do/change from this moment on to ensure that the repeated life would be bearable. This may not make sense to anyone else, but for me it speaks to both Stephen and Matthias’ ideas and suggests that I must revisit Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, a pedagogy that believes in the possibility that things can change. Perhaps harmony alone is not enough as a pedagogy.

Both harmony and hope seem like fitting topics for reflection at the end of 2017.

Here’s wishing anyone who visits this post, Season’s Greeting and Best Wishes for 2018.

#FLvirtualrome : An exciting MOOC about Ancient Rome

Last week I stumbled across a fantastic MOOC – FutureLearn’s course on the history and architecture of Rome.

I wasn’t looking for this course, but Rome is a city that I have recently thought I would like to visit and then FutureLearn’s newsletter listing this course landed in my inbox. I signed up, thinking this would be an opportunity to find out whether I really do want to visit Rome. I have completed Week 1 of the course and now know that I do.

It’s been a while since I have felt excited by a MOOC. I am surprised by my response. I am not a historian and have never had more than a passing interest in history. At school I had to choose between history and geography for my ‘O’ levels (that dates me!) and I chose geography. In my school days history was memorising dates and facts and I have always had a terrible memory! Of course geography and history are closely aligned so over the years when I have visited sites such as Machu Picchu, whilst the geography is spectacular, it has been impossible to ignore the history, but I have never tried to commit this to memory. Whatever sticks, sticks and I have learned that whatever sticks usually sticks because of some sort of emotional reaction.

Dr Matthew Nicholls, from the University of Reading, who is the tutor for this 5-week MOOC, is succeeding in eliciting an emotional response from me, i.e. I feel motivated. After the first week I already know that I will probably not engage in social interaction in this course. At the moment I do not want to do a history project or take this further. I just want to know enough to know what I am looking at when I visit Rome.

Why, after just one week, do I think the course is so good?

Matthew Nicholls is clearly very knowledgeable, passionate about his subject and an excellent communicator. He makes the subject come alive and is not at all patronising despite obvious considerable expertise, not only with Ancient Rome but also with technology.

The course content is colourful and lively. The text is easily accessible and there are lots of references provided to follow up on for those who want to extend their study. There are also lots of photos and the videos are very good. We see Dr Nicholls in Rome, and also in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I never realised before that so much historical information about buildings, aqueducts, roads, sewers and people could be gleaned from coins.

But best and so impressive has to be the 3D digital model of ancient Rome built by Matthew Nicholls using SketchUp. This is used extensively to explain how Rome was built and the significance of different buildings and roads. To see how amazing this model is you would have to join this free course, or there is also a very interesting video on YouTube by Matthew Nicholls in which he explains how he built the model and how he uses it with his students at Reading University.

A friend recently told me that he didn’t think it was possible to have an emotional response to an online course in the same way as you can in a face-to-face course and implied that this diminishes the online experience. I have had lots of social experiences online over the years which have elicited an emotional response. I am intrigued that this course is able to do this through its content alone, without the need for social interaction, although there are plenty of opportunities for adding comments to the discussion forums and making social connections if you wish. Maybe I will change my mind about participating in the discussion forums as I work through the course. I think Phil Tubman’s Comment Discovery Tool, that I wrote about in a previous post, would make a great addition to this course.

Promoting discussion in FutureLearn MOOCs

                

MOOCs: Back to the Future. This was the title of a lunchtime seminar I attended last week in the Educational Research Department of Lancaster University, UK.

In this seminar Phil Tubman  (PhD student with Educational Research and School of Computing and Communications, and also Senior Learning Technologist in the ISS eLearning team at Lancaster), shared the progress he has been making on his PhD into whether MOOCs are living up to their promises. The title of his talk was chosen to suggest that with respect to MOOCs we currently have our backs to the future. As such we need to turn round and look for ways forward.

Given that he works for Lancaster University Phil is well placed to explore social learning in FutureLearn MOOCs. Lancaster University is a FutureLearn Partner.  Phil is interested in the problems of sustaining discussion in online forums and the role of the FutureLearn platform in this; FutureLearn claims to be a social learning platform.

Phil and his colleagues have looked at discussion threads in forums and found that they don’t include many members and that conversations often do not extend beyond a first reply. These findings are supported by other researchers. Phil and his colleagues have therefore designed an intervention which they hope will increase and improve interaction and social learning in these  forums. This is an interactive word cloud which they have called a Comment Discovery Tool (CDT). This tool displays the top 200 words from a forum thread as a word cloud. MOOC participants can then click on a given word to display all the comments which include that word. The example shown in the seminar was from FutureLearn’s MOOC on Wordsworth. Phil clicked on the word ‘daffodils’ in the word cloud which took us to all the relevant forum posts. Having done this, it would then be possible for the MOOC participant to follow the discussion from there without having to wade through potentially hundreds of forum comments and threads. Phil is continuing to develop this tool for his PhD and is interested in whether and how the comment discovery tool will affect interaction in the FutureLearn forums.

I look forward to seeing how this develops.  Phil and his colleagues, Phil Benachour and Murat Oztok have submitted a paper on this to the Learning Sciences Conference 2018, and a recording of Phil’s seminar will ultimately be posted here – http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/educational-research/news-and-events/seminar-series/

#OpenEdMOOC – Final thoughts

(Source of Image – https://youtu.be/iHmHWVHmyfQ –  0.56)

Like Rebecca Heiser, I have been reflecting on the EdX Introduction to Open Education MOOC.

The title of the MOOC led me to expect a broad discussion about Open Education and in my first post about the MOOC, I wrote:

My hope is that it will offer a fresh perspective and rekindle the enthusiasm I had for open education in the early days of the first MOOC in 2008, but which I have found increasingly difficult to sustain in the last couple of years.

It turned out that my hope was not realised. The MOOC focused on Open Education Resources, which I think is just one aspect of open education, and I have to say the aspect that is of least interest to me since I work independently of an institution and no longer teach, so although I come up against some of the issues presented in the course materials, they do not have the impact on me that they might have on others. This was the syllabus for the course.

Week 1: Why Open Matters
Week 2: Copyright, The Public Domain, and The Commons
Week 3: The 5R Activities and the Creative Commons Licenses
Week 4: Creating, Finding, and Using OER
Week 5: Research on the Impact of OER Adoption
Week 6: The Next Battles for Openness: Data, Algorithms, and Competency Mapping

Disappointingly for me there was little discussion of open pedagogy or open teaching. But I did stick with the MOOC. I found the videos of discussions between George Siemens and David Wiley interesting, as were the videos by Norman Bier and other resources provided, and I was particularly grateful for the alternative thought-provoking perspective of Stephen Downes. Did I learn a lot? I don’t think so. I think this was because OER isn’t of huge interest to me, but also because there was minimal discussion between participants. But I don’t feel negative about the MOOC, just that it didn’t rekindle my early enthusiasm for open education.

Rebecca Heiser  has thrown down the gauntlet twice during the course and been largely ignored. First, at the end of the course she tweeted:

So will we get to see Open Analytics in #OpenEdMOOC? What were we clicking? What were our activity-levels? Hashtags generated? Most importantly what were our most discussed topics, was knowledge transferred? #OpenPL Did we form our own network? Will we continue the conversation?

I saw that Stephen Downes picked this up (I think in OLDaily), but otherwise no-one responded to these good and legitimate questions.

And then Rebecca tried again with a post reflecting on her experience of this MOOC.

I can’t help but be critical of the #OpenEdMOOC, Introduction to Open Education, hosted by edX. With as much excitement that was generated by the Open Community prior to the start of the MOOC, I feel that we were let down by Week 3 of the course. Here’s a recap of my critique by week…

This time she received a response (notably not from George or David) and a few comments.

Geoff Cain commented:

This was pretty ironic for me. MOOCs are the only educational space where instructors and institutions are comfortable with the “Set It and Forget It” model of teaching. Despite everything that we have learned about what makes for a successful online class, all the rules change when it comes to MOOCs. As an instructor who has worked in developmental education and education support my whole life, that model seems like a huge step backwards.

This, and Rebecca and Lena Patterson’s comments, seems to me what we should have been discussing, i.e. some of the more difficult consequences of open education and the questions that remain unanswered.

Having participated in and completed a number of MOOCs, I was not surprised by the “Set It and Forget It” model of teaching that Geoff mentions. From the very first MOOC (CCK08) the idea has been that participants teach each other and take responsibility for doing this, because in a massive networked environment it is impossible for one person (the tutor) to interact with everything that is going on. But the complexity of this as a model for teaching and learning, and whether it is an effective model, has yet to be adequately researched.

Thank you to Rebecca for bravely raising these questions in an environment which is known to reward consensus and punish dissent!

#openedMOOC Week 1: The value of ‘open’

Link to source of image

Why Does Open Matter? This is the key question for Week 1 of the Introduction to Open Education MOOC, being offered on edX by David Wiley and George Siemens.

This question has been asked of participants, but since David Wiley and George Siemens have both fully answered the question in a two-part video, I suppose the question for participants should really be, Why does open matter to you?  And the assumption seems to be that we are talking about openness online as opposed to offline.

David Wiley believes open to be a value, like diversity and that openness is imperative for increasing access to, affordability and effectiveness of, engagement and vibrancy in education. He writes that “To be true to the deeper ethic of open we must be generous and open-hearted, feeling a sense of love, care, and responsibility for all humanity.”

George Siemens talks of the benefits of quick, frenzied, open knowledge generation.

Neither of these responses work particularly well for me. I have personally experienced the opposite of ‘love, care and responsibility for all humanity’ in the open environment. Openness online can encourage an ‘anything can be said’ attitude, presumably because the recipient of the comments cannot be seen. As Lisa Lane has written “…. we now have an appalling acceptance of unacceptable behavior and uncivil conduct, which in my country has now reached the highest levels of power.”

And quick, frenzied knowledge generation doesn’t work for me in terms of learning. I can understand the excitement generated which I acknowledge can be motivating, but for learning and knowledge production I personally need slow, quieter interaction, where everyone has an opportunity to be heard, not just the loudest voices.

But like Lisa, I am an advocate of open education and I am grateful to all those like David, George and Stephen Downes, who have done so much to promote it. As David said in one of the videos, open is beyond free. Even in countries, such as Germany, where education is free, open can unlock new pedagogies. David also said open matters because if we learn by ‘doing’ then anything that constrains that ‘doing’, e.g. copyright restrictions, prevents learning. For me that is a powerful argument in support of open education, but I would add, as mentioned above, that some online behaviours can be equally restrictive. This is the aspect of open education in which I am most interested, i.e. I am interested in both the rhetoric and the reality for individual learners, although I suspect, as Andy Lane (2016) has argued, that currently the reality does not measure up to the rhetoric.

However, in the meantime, I continue to benefit from open education; in fact my work as an independent researcher depends on it. In return, as I have written about before,  I try to be an open practitioner, within the constraints of my own capabilities and personality!

Reference

Lane, A. (2016). Emancipation through Open Education: Rhetoric or Reality? In T. eds. Blessinger, Patrick and Bliss (Ed.), Open Education: International perspectives in higher education (pp. 31–50). Open Book Publishers ,. http://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0103.02 Retrieved from: https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/531/open-education–international-perspectives-in-higher-education