Sunday, September 28, 2008

Learning Networks: Theory into Practice

For readers of this blog who are not in the Connectivism class, I highly recommend this short but brilliant presentation. I listened to the audio and followed along with his slides.

I was going to wait until I had finished more of the readings before I wrote about this but I am pretty excited about this presentation and need to write about this and get some things out of my notes and into my network. Stephen Downes presented on Learning Networks: Theory and Practiceon March 8, 2005 to the International Conference on Methods and Technologies for Learning, in Palermo, Italy. Maybe I am so excited by this because it is more about practice than it is theory. This is a clear explication of how Connectivism works. There are still seeds of Constructivism in this presentation. In the beginning, he talks about how Connectivism gives people the "capacities" and allows them to create their own learning which is one of the central tenets of Constructivism. But Downes emphasis is on how technology shifts the view of learning from a controlled and managed deliverable to people creating their own learning. Learning is not something you get from the library "and put in people's heads." He says that "Learning is a conversation." And this has been missing from the discussions of Connectivism in the first couple weeks of our class, the social dimension of Connectivism. According to this presentation, meaning is not inherent in the signal - it must be "received and interpreted" by an entity. (This is why I think knowledge is more than a network.) From this perspective, there is a small but significant overlap in the Venn diagram between these learning theories. His description of a network is useful. It actually shows that some entity has to be in there somewhere for learning to occur.

Okay, here is the really useful part, this is brilliant - his Network Design Principles. As a teacher and instructional designer, I am always looking at the why behind how something works. If something works, we want to be able to reproduce it or to facilitate the conditions that allow learning to happen in that particular way for others. At Tacoma Community College, we are in the middle of teaching what we boldly call a "Connectivist class." Downes eight principles will allow us to build a Connectivist rubric that we will be able to apply to our assignments and materials just as we would apply a rubric that measures interactivity in our course development process in the eLearning Department. His principles are:

  1. Decentralize
  2. Distribute
  3. Disintermediation
  4. Disaggregating
  5. Dis-integrating
  6. Democratize
  7. Dynamize
  8. Desegregate

One of my goals for this class will be to take this list and put it into some kind of rubric that will allow us to ask of each assignment "to what degree does this assignment allow us to implement X principle?" I think I may rework some of the language: what is the positive action behind "disaggregating"?

His talk ends with the observation that there is no one person that knows how to build an aircraft - that it is a network of people with diverse skills that are all working within a network that creates the aircraft. This is one of my problems about traditional English classes (I also teach English): what are we teaching the students when we look at the ten page paper as an end to itself? What context do this papers exist in? I have never been asked in my entire working life to write a ten page paper. I have been asked to contribute to the learning of a group and that has sometimes involved writing but there was some connection to the collective intelligence of others.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Technology Lesson

In our class, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, we were subjected to Barry Wellman's powerpoint presentation as if it were an actual paper. What is wrong with that? Well, it is 116 slides long, has migrane inducing color combinations and will use more than 30 bullet points on one slide. It is enough to make one retire to a monastery in the Alps and dedicate ones life to recopying the works of Tufte on vellum. Without his notes, voice, or narrative it reads like a brief outline of network theory that also trots out some pretty hateful made up words like "glocalization." Must we do this to the language? It opens portentiously enough with the slide that says that there are three ways of looking at reality (yes, Michio Kaku, only three) and they are "categories," "groups," and "networks" with no explanation why any of those three would need to be exclusive of one another. Some views and theories actually feed and replenish one another. Jung himself would admit that he would be no where without Freud and would say that Freud's theories best explained human development. And Freud's later theories are certainly informed by Jung's exploration of mythology.

Wellman needs to ready read Tufte!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wake Up Mr. Chips its the 20th Century!

Mark Edmundson, English teacher at the University of Virginia, has written an anti-educational technology essay in the New York Times called "Geek Lessons." His major claim against technology is that it is merely an attempt for teachers to become popular: they are just pandering to the students. He has a lot to say about what good teaching is - predictably, it is all about the professor. It is clear from the article that he has no experience with technology in the classroom or what teaching with technology is about. He says that "good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives." Why can't someone do that using technology?

We use technology not because it is new, cool, or fun (although it can be all three), but because it is an opportunity to teach multi-modally (visual and audio learning), extend the community of the classroom beyond the walls of the brick and mortar classroom, to democratize education by making it available to those in remote areas or who must work and raise families.

One of the reasons why there are so many grants around for technology and fewer to send professors off to Europe for a semester is that technology can, for instance, solve real problems like making education accessible to those with disabilities. Other reasons that administrators may like technology is that the research shows that the higher the interactivity of a class, the higher the retention rates; technology can be a tool for making courses interactive.

I find teachers like Edmundson a bit sad - if their teaching style is such that it would not survive a laptop in their classrooms, what does that say about what is being taught and most importantly, how it is being taught. Edmundson gets that the culture is changing and the students expectations are changing. They are no longer satisfied with the "sage on the stage" style of teaching. They are no longer satisfied having to learn using three hundred year old methodologies. Does Edmundson accept handwritten papers? I doubt it. He does himself, tech-friendly faculty, and his students a great disservice by dismissing these cultural changes as merely selfishness on the part of the students.

I agree with Edmundson when he says that "Good teachers...can induce to struggle to affirm intelligently what you've previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways." This includes an uncritical relationship to technology. By leveraging new technologies in our teaching, in thoughtful ways, we show the students that technology can be used thoughtfully. Edmundson's essay assumes that technology is a tool of passive consumption. He does not have that thoughtful, critical relationship to technology so he assumes that others don't either.

I hope that the editors of the Times will seek to balance this perspective by talking to other professors out there who have this critical engagement with educational technology like David Silver at the University of San Francisco or George Seimens at the University of Manitoba.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning Modality vs Learning Theory

I have used learning theory, Constructivism, to create course materials and assignments. I have used the theory to produce particular results. As quoted in Mergal's paper:

What is a theory?
* A theory provides a general explanation for observations made over time.
* A theory explains and predicts behavior.
* A theory can never be established beyond all doubt.
* A theory may be modified.
* Theories seldom have to be thrown out completely if thoroughly tested but sometimes a theory may be widely accepted for a long time and later disproved.
(Dorin, Demmin & Gabel, 1990)

I have seen all of this at work in one way or another with Constructivism and I haven't yet with Connectivism. This class is one experiment and what Char Gore and I are doing in HIM101 is another. It is to new of a theory to say it has been adequately tested - one can't reject an untested theory, one has to test it!

This is not a defense of Constructivism or a Constructivism vs. Connectivism aaproach. I just think it is important to talk about what people do as teachers and instructional designers and put Connectivism into that framework. In a simple form, Constructivist teaching is teaching that provides students the opportunity to put the information being taught in their own words and apply it to their lives. How is that not "connecting"?

I think the same thing is happening in a way with Connectivism, but it does not help that the vocabulary around it all has not really been nailed down. What do George and Stephen mean by "knowledge"? Berkeley? Hume? Kant? Buddha? Never mind how knowledge can exist in inanimate objects; how can you have knowledge without a knower? How can inanimate objects contain "learning"? There are some phenomenal changes happening in technology and culture and those changes are changing how I teach in some dramatic ways, but it is not clear yet if we are looking at technology, a new learning modality, or a theory. If students have visual resources available to them in an unprecedented way (movies, overhead projectors, photography) do we need a new learning theory to account for that learning modality (visual learning vs, traditional read/write) or do we adapt theories for the new media?

Any "scientific" picture of the mind has wound up not being how the mind actually works but being a model or metaphor that accounts for our current understanding of how we think it works. Connectivism will have to be able to account for the changes in that metaphor if it is going to keep the claim that it is a learning theory that reflects how the mind actually works.

A book doesn't even contain learning. Learning is what someone can do with information. Someone can read a book and not learn anything. There are no people in my telephone either, I have to actually call them.

Mergel, Brenda.(1998) Instructional Design & Learning Theory. University of Saskatchewan.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Critiques of Connectivism

Constructivism represented a revolution in online learning. It changed the online classroom model from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" or course facilitator. What happened to online education was that the focus went from point and click online textbooks to people focusing on creating community (e.g. Paloff and Pratt). Despite that, there are people out there who call themselves "Constructivist" teachers who still use punishment and reward based learning. I think there will be a period like that with Connectivism. I do think that Connectivism will be better defined in the future and supported by research, an historical perspective, and a fully-realized pedagogy. You don't go from a single essay to fully realized idea overnight - Connectivism will have its version of "Being and Time." I think we are seeing the birth of a system of thought that will account for our new relationship to technology. Connectivism will have its different schools of thought just as Constructivism does.

The claim that Constructivism is some how vague is a little simplistic - that is like saying Existentialism is vague. There are a handful of principles one may take from Connectivism and transform a department or school -- people have.

Bill Kerr makes some good points about what Connectivism means to learning theory: There are other theories that account for Connectivism. Distributed cognition theories are over ten years old. There is a lot of re-inventing the philosophical wheel in Connectivism. Connectivism does not adequately account for social/psychological dimensions of learning (or YET account for). I think our HIM 101 class is an opportunity to create a Connectivist laboratory for working out for Constructivist curriculum and pedagogy.

There is a more philosophical account of Connectivism in one of Downes essays. The link to the version of the essay with citations is actually working so I will give a review of that article here later.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Health Information Management 101

I am very excited about this syllabus I wrote with Charlene Gore for a class that we co-teach, Health Information Management 101. This course is a credit/no credit, two unit, student success course where we teach the students all of the technology they will need to be successful in the HIM program: their learning management system, web 2.0 tools, and Second Life (it is used on campus). The idea is to get all of the technology, formation of learning networks, and information access all in one class. This lets the teachers leverage the technology without having to teach it. We hope that this is rolled out campus-wide one day. The bump in the road is that it takes teachers willing to embrace web 2.0 technologies, a leaderless model ala "The Starfish and the Spider" (learning is lead by students in small groups facilitated by teachers), and portfolio assessment. The course is still in refinement and we would love feedback from others who share a similar vision.

Read this document on Scribd: HIM101 Syllabus

Saturday, September 06, 2008

SLED CC '08 Presentation

View the presentation at Slideshare to get my notes. This was my small contribution to "Training for Medical Professionals in Virtual Worlds" with John Miller et alia.