Not just being sympathetic to Dave who must have spent many a sleepless night pondering over the questions for each week, but I thought we would have a bit of fun and try to predict the challenge he will pose in Week 4.

How do we really learn online? How much of control and direction do we need? How much of control do we want when we teach? How do we expect others to learn in such environments? What do we expect of them as co-learners?

In CCK08, we had some occasions when George, Stephen and Dave cleared the way for us to take the lead for a session. Throughout the cMOOCs (and in the course Alec Courous ran), and especially in Change 11, guest speakers posed the questions, made a presentation and presented their unique perspectives. This shifted the locus of control around to everyone’s great benefit.

So the unofficial rhizo-challenge for this week: should we, can we or how do we replace the idea of “Dave”?

A rather belated post on #rhizo15 week 2! How do we count or measure learning in our networks or learning rhizomatically? How do we begin to “grade Dave”?

“Counting” evolution of our learning networks is very important. How does a network or community form? When does it acquire critical “mass” of conversation? How does it sustain? And when does it wither away and perhaps die, only to come alive again in the future, like a raw nerve left exposed?

The months before CCK08, then during CCK08, and Change11 and many of the early cMOOCs afforded great opportunities to discuss a multitude of ideas.

I think Stephen sparked it off by talking about Learning 2.0 in an early article. Then came a series of posts around how I viewed collaboration and evolution in networked learning (starting here). Essentially power laws were well in evidence when we looked at conversations – a small number of conversations were held together by many people and these threads were reasonably long (if I remember correctly, this was the pre-‘like’ era), while a majority of conversations were ad-hoc and short lived.

The pattern was not unlike what you would expect on the Internet prompting discussions on the long tail or that the world wasn’t flat, it was rather spiky. It also was scale-free in the sense that it could observed in small classrooms as well as the rather large learning networks of these cMOOCs.

This pattern also prompted me to think that the goal of such educational networks should be to flatten the power law, leading to a more participatory, equitable and democratic system rather than the ‘rich get richer’ bias that we have now (and Stephen writes eloquently about this, especially towards the end of that post) in his recent dialogues with George when he talks about the University system).

Which is why counting is really an important subject. We cannot continue to count the way we have been counting. But we cannot change unless we also redefine what we are counting and how we are counting it. In fact, for cMOOCs to be counted as a credible alternative (and not just a supplement like the xMOOCs), we have to devise a friendly and intuitive mechanism for counting learning in these networks.

This type of counting is necessary for people to be able to share a new common vocabulary for representing and differentiating levels of competence or progress. Unless this new vocabulary emerges, we will not have a way to transact within it, to generate economic and social choices of human capital using it and to create policy around it. It will also be difficult to get any adoption at scale.

This, in my opinion, has been the biggest block to making cMOOCs mainstream as well as the biggest reason that xMOOCs have been credible. xMOOCs have taken the same counting terms from the traditional system which is widely understood – institutional brand, expert professors, certificates and degrees, price, blended learning – which makes them intelligible to the world. cMOOCs don’t yet have a vocabulary to do that.

It is not just the vocabulary though. The vocabulary will only emerge through research and compelling evidence. It will need new tools and techniques for measurement. It will need to be able to fit in the modern world and the needs of the people. If we do not evolve such measures, cMOOCs will be marginalized as hype.

The need of the hour is for such learning networks to analyze what constitutes learning in the network and how to count it. It is easy to say that these learning networks are only suitable for certain domains or for certain types of people. But it is more difficult to believe they are a credible alternative to traditional education systems without the accompanying quantifying justifications that make the educational, economic and social value intelligible and visible to everyone.

There have been many ways of looking at content that have emerged from the discussions in #rhizo15 week three (and some prior cMOOCs). Some of them are:

  • Content as beacon
  • Content as authority
  • Content as conversation
  • Content as message
  • Content as goals
  • Content as object
  • Content as commerce
  • content as network
  • content as people
  • content as experience
  • content as stock
  • content as flow
  • content as influence

Content in these interpretations can be essentially classified or differentiated on the following dimensions.

  • as constituted (form, format, mode of authoring, instructional design, reviewed, curated, open, emergent, distributed) – books, blogs, videos, people
  • as communicated (medium, packaging) – web, TV, teacher, community/network, retweeted, liked
  • as intended (purpose/objective, outcomes, commerce)
  • as consumed (learning, entertainment)
  • as extended (repurposed, reused, recombined, contextualized, value added, interpreted)

What most people are concerned with is its quality – the net impact of content on the receiver (which could be a network). Other assessments include factors such as its development or delivery cost, coverage and ease of use. It also predicates a level of competency of the receiver(s) to be able to “effectively” consume that content.

The fact is that content is really some of all these things, not just any one. Nor are people the only way “stories” are created or transmitted (or there would be no history or even lived experience). Nor are they the only starting point. The fact is that we learn also from nature, interactions with machines and man-made processes & objects.

In sharing openly what we have learned, we personify that content or our interpretation of it. Others may then consume this personified content to (as Dave said) function in the field.

Perhaps if we think of content as people, we may also be susceptible to the mind as machine metaphors. Would we rather think of content as network as a more appropriate metaphor?

Another edition of the fabulous “mostly run by” Dave Cormier, Rhizomatic Learning conversation Rhizo15 begins! The question of the week, with the usual deep subversive intent is:

Build learning subjectives: How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

Are we thinking inside the box? Does changing around “objectives” to “subjectives” free us from tradition – the tradition that says that learning must be designed?

Simon Worren (Worried Teacher) points out a way of looking at it – emergent outcomes.

Intended learning outcomes (ILOs) are essential in module planning to indicate the direction of teaching, however, it must be recognised that ILOs represent the lecturer’s intentions for study, not the student’s.

Carl Gombrich makes the point that design based learning (in the instructional design sense) is often at odds with traditional university based education that is more “emergent” in nature – the former more equipped to deal with “skills” and the latter with “concepts”. While most of the university education we have seen (atleast in India) is hardly emergent, it is also true that much of design based learning is hardly “aesthetic” either, at least at scale. He makes the case for a merger – “design for concepts” rather than “design for skills”. By that he suggests that either we move to a higher level of abstraction in design (say, through more loosely defined learning outcomes) or that we recognize that certain areas of study are more suited to one versus the other approach.

Sarah Honeychurch challenges the notion that rhizomatic learning is at once personal and collaborative in nature. Perhaps that learning may be greatly enhanced if it was collaborative, and perhaps we are all missing out learning from her attempts. I think the point to be made is that you may not necessarily want your learning to be public or brought about by shared experiences, but the more we learn and share collaboratively, the more we help learning as a whole.

Simon makes the point that people and ideas (and beliefs) cannot really be separated and that the learner has her own agency in deciding how, when, why, whether and where to interact with others. Collaboration cannot really be mandated to be an essential condition for learning. Also he makes the point that embracing messiness and uncertainty in learning does not necessarily mean that education systems as such should embrace messiness and uncertainty or that knowledge is only  fuzzy and uncertain.

My sense is that we are not talking about the same thing here. I think the focus is not on defining a single way in which we learn. The focus is on one possible way to learn – a way that is intensely collaborative, yet personal – which some people may find to be extremely fulfilling, so much so that they would exercise their agency and choose it to be the way they would like to learn in the world. Many people would not find this way “super-fun” and they may simply not be comfortable negotiating the messiness, but that does not mean that way of learning is unreal or useless.

Rebecca asks the million dollar question – what feeds/constrains online collaborations? This is something that we need much more work on. There is much to learn from the cMOOCs since 2008 and many other experiments across the world. Perhaps we are hitting the problem with the same old approach – trying to “design it” – trying to change the way we learn and teach by employing new ideas.

My own belief is that when we engage with new forms of online, social collaboration, the only real outcome we should be concerned with how well learners and teachers are able to negotiate this medium with each instance of such emergent learning. It is a longer term process of realigning to or establishing a new way of learning, more than a way to establish a better design paradigm that generates better traditional outputs such as grades. Maha Bali makes the case for making the subjective obvious (critical pedagogy) and makes the case that the goal is “…not to filter better performance from worse; it’s to help students learn.”

Thinking of objectives and subjectives seems very much #insidethebox (in all its variants – as the starting point for learning subjectives on a continuum, as elements that can be designed, or as inversions). We need to perhaps focus ourselves more on asking what if there was no design, no objectives and subjectives that we could identify – what then would learning really look like?

The existing large and pervasive structure for teaching and learning in our schools and colleges is well-known and documented. By structure I mean things like learning progression through defined years of schooling, periodic assessments, organization of a large population of students into more “manage-able” units called the classroom, fixed physical spaces for learning, assignment of class and subject teachers to these classrooms, lesson plans and curricula and so on. There are variations across countries in these parameters, and they may vary in terms of gross indicators like the student to teacher ratio, PCs to students and other indicators.

Schools may also innovate on methodology, extent of blending technology, assessment techniques and other processes and techniques. Some schools may also be single-teacher or multi-classroom, or may have multiple teachers co-teach or peer teach, or may even have student led teaching. There is also discussion around the question – Is ‘Multi-Classroom’ Teaching in Your Future?

But in essence or systemically speaking, they follow a structure with the variations born out necessity or by explicit design. It is this system that we incessantly tweak in order to achieve certain outcomes based on difficulties or challenges we face ranging from challenges around achievement of educational & holistic objectives to employability or societal concerns.

There are many claims to Alternate Education systems. The Sri Atmananda Memorial School provides one such approach.

When visitors walk through the gates of the kindergarten (‘KG’ – children of four and one-half years of age) and the Lower Primary (‘LP’ – children from five to eight years of age) sections of the school, they see a world of chaotic activity: running, laughing children being chased, children digging furiously in the sand, water splashing, swings flying, a small knot of children bending over a picture book, a house built of bits of colored cloth, a lively cricket game, a group of easels with brightly painted pictures, a table of children busily cutting and pasting and so on. There is no apparent organization.The pace is swift, the mood, lively and energetic. Yet this enthusiastic learning environment is carefully orchestrated and planned, given the proper number of teachers with the proper training.

Some of this has found echoes in the Indian movie called 3 Idiots. The trailing scenes of the movie show precisely the extent to which the traditional system can be re-imagined. Doubtless, there are many more people thinking this way.

As Knutson comments:

A number of years ago futurists Toffler (1970, 1980) and Naisbitt (1982) predicted the break-up of the standardized, bureaucratized, factory model school system. They indicated that if the changes did not come from within the school systems, they would surely come from out side of them. They also said that the information and technological age in which we live would require of its citizens creativity and diversity, not the sameness underlying the operation of the standard school system.

An interesting framework is provided in Towards an Alternate Typology of Alternate Education Systems (Aron, 2003) who references Raywid’s typology (Appalachia Educational Laboratory 1998) as well.

Such typologies document the effort to move away from factory-age conceptions of the education system to “systems” that disaggregate parts of the traditional school structure and aim to personalize them to specific who, what, how and funding factors. Included thereby, are many systems that appear substantially different.

Models range from schools-within-schools to magnet schools, charter schools, schools without walls, experiential schools, career-focused and job-based schools, dropout recovery programs, after-hours schools, and schools in atypical settings like shopping malls and museums.

What is important to analyze is whether these “alternate systems” are variations within an existing traditional system or whether they are truly alternate. The point is, that mere disaggregation and recombination within an overall formal structure of traditional education, although can definitely be called innovation, but it does not point to a truly alternate system of education.

Consider the term “at-risk”. What are students “at-risk” of? They are at risk of not being able to complete goals set by the traditional school system. Consider the term “home-schooling” or “open-schooling”. There is a traditional system at work which immediately evokes the standard parameters of the traditional system. Consider “school without walls”. Again it plays on one parameter (the boundaries) of traditional school systems.

A real approach at inventing a new system of education must necessarily avoid taking the existing traditional system into consideration, both in terms of vocabulary or parameters. This is not inside the box vs. outside the box innovation thinking – it is invention. Illich was remarkable in that sense, because he presented an “institutional inverse” conception of education, and this may surely be one approach. But perhaps we must also consider approaches that don’t make a play on “opposites”, but rather on being different, like apples and oranges.

Mary Cullinane, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s first Chief Content Officer, writes on Why Free Is Not the Future of Digital Content in Education. She makes the case that technology advances will not make digital content eventually free, just like in the music industry. This is because technology is adding value, not just reducing the cost of delivery or production. She writes:

As students engage with the content, the content learns more about the students and it also becomes “smarter”. A digital engine compares students’ responses to those of all other users. Equipped with that data, this adaptive learning system doesn’t just show that a student answered incorrectly. It knows why she did, and uses those insights to create a customized learning path.

In doing so, technology helps solves a big problem that has always confronted teachers: students learn at different paces. Advanced students can get bored and struggling students can give up. Now, as a teacher, I can put content in front of each learner that is personalized to his or her needs. It’s something teachers have been doing through the ages, but technology brings it to the next level of adaptivity.

However, this is not an argument that precludes “free”. Technology has added tremendous value for many services (take, for example, instant messaging) and kept the price at zero. Adaptive learning is just simply not the domain of publishers who have large repositories, author networks and organized funding. It can be done in a free, open manner too (just take a look at Khan’s work, for example). What is true, though, is that content development for adaptive learning can become expensive very quickly. We have come a long way since Ms. Lindquist : The Tutor. Now paths through content leading to mastery can be uncovered through collective intelligence, rather than having to be enumerated as before. However, adaptive content still has design requirements that are in addition to regular content development and learning design.

The other thing I would watch against is taking this as a magic wand that “solves a big problem” for teachers and personalizes learning for students. Personalized learning is a very difficult thing to crack, and it is not the same as recommendation systems such as the ones we see today that crowdsource learning patterns. Ultimately, these systems seek to harmonize existing goals (like solving an algebraic equation or learning a grammar construct) where the ontology is precise and the domain exhibits structured rules. Much of learning, however, is not that. Nor is it always goal-seeking.

I believe we have to seriously think about what open-ness means for Indian education.

There are many dimensions to being open that extend beyond merely making data available for public accountability and transparency. For example, if we do not provide appropriate redressal of grievances that emerge from an analysis of the data, we are not truly open.

The thing about being open is that it threatens to disrupt tightly closed systems. In our schools, for example, the dominant mindset seems to be to stifle and restrict the voice of students and parents; and in most cases even teachers. Free unrestricted communication aided by technology threatens the image of the school, it seems. This is because the school no longer has control over opinions being aired publicly or even within closed school networks. This is for fears that are sound (for example, obscenity), but even more deeply because it unites parents in opinion making and acts of dissent. However schools do not appreciate (or simply ignore) the virtual back channel of conversation and collaboration that open social tools have enabled. It is almost as if what they cannot see or control, does not exist. For schools to allow open communications is almost taboo. And this is not about Facebook pages either.

The other dimension is teacher-student interaction. So long as the school maintains secrecy about what transpires between a student and her teacher, it protects itself from scrutiny and accountability. For example, the open text-book assessments, which is a graded case study based approach for grades 9 and 11, mandates that there be proper reflection and discussion on the case study prior to the assessment – something that I have not witnessed happening. Perhaps schools may not like to expose shortcomings in their teaching learning processes or the abilities of their teachers to communicate effectively in open online environments. The latter is a particularly sad testament because what are teachers without effective communication skills whether online or offline.

Another dimension is the responsibility that students and parents have in an open environment. Each school may collaboratively build a culture and community that adopts its own model code of conduct. This is not easy so long as there is mistrust or irresponsible behaviour on the part of any stakeholder. Being a cultural shift, this is not going to be a one time activity, but there are responsible parents, teachers and administrators who can lead this on an ongoing basis – they just need empowerment. There are also issues that are specific to online networks that need attention in order to protect the interests of the community itself. Essentially, the community has to self-govern if it also wants to be open.

Yet another dimension transcends the individual institution to reflect in practices of school chains, consortia, unions and even organized governmental policy making. Is CABE or mygov.in truly open? Or is the CBSE, UGC or AICTE? Practices behind closed doors often mask incompetence and intention. In most part, attempts at open-ness are really half-hearted (at least at scale, in online collaborative environments). Perhaps it is policy that leads the way. But then perhaps it is better it does not – that the change happens in a more organically emergent manner, from local to global.

Will these challenges to open-ness (not merely restricted to India, not merely to schools and colleges) stifle the growth of social collaborative learning? Will they ultimately stifle India’s equity and growth aspirations?

I believe they absolutely will.


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