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Archive for September, 2010

Is the PLE a connectivist construct or a constructivist construct? Or both? Or neither, just influenced by many theories? A statement by Wendy Drexler in her paper prompted this question. I quote:

Principles of connectivism equate to fundamentals of learning in a networked world. The design of the teacher-facilitated, student-created personal learning environment in this study adheres to constructivist and connectivist principles with the goal of developing a networked student who will take more responsibility for his or her learning while navigating an increasingly complex content base. (emphasis added)

It could be worthwhile to consider two interpretations (Wendy uses support from both theories in tandem in her networked student model to construct & analyze the teaching-learning experience she describes):

  1. PLEs are some combination of constructivist as well as connectivist ideas/principles, or
  2. There exist two unique types of PLEs – constructivist and connectivist.

The PLE and the MOOC are ideas in Connectivism discussions that are represented not only as direct innovative applications of the connectivist state of art (theory, process and technology), but also raise comparisons, as in this week’s discussion, to entrenched industry-wide systems such as LMSs, as cogent alternatives for the education system.

Learning theories, in the past, have spawned a set of practices unique to their strengths. These practices (techniques, processes and technologies) have made it easier for downstream adoption of theory into the classroom (online or offline) and the eLearning content development and delivery industry as a whole. Further downstream, it has enabled technology development, research and assessment leading to a level of analytics on which the current system is based, directly or indirectly.

The MOOC environments, such as those for the PLENK2010 discussion, and the PLE/PLN environments that participants have been contributing, are now as much centerstage as the concepts behind connectivism as a theory in this discussion.

A lot of insight will be generated by researchers in PLENK2010 on preferences, styles and behaviors with MOOCs and PLEs, which should feed into improvements in these environments for the future or perhaps even new innovations. Obviously, a whole lot of work is being done on the technology architecture to ensure that the state of the art is fully utilized to translate connectivist influences to the platform level.

According to Stephen and George, what sets apart Connectivism from Constructivism and other theories is importantly that knowledge is distributed, the set of connections formed by actions and experience, and learning is the constant negotiation of new nodes in the network being added or removed, gaining importance or losing it.

A new node is a new experience and the learning process dictates that we “dynamically update or rewrite our network of learning and belief”. We do that by continuously adapting, self-organizing and recognizing emergent patterns. Learning becomes a ““door opening” process that first permits the capacity to receive knowledge, followed by encoding the knowledge as a node within our personal learning network”.

In that context, the learning process/pedagogy used in MOOCs and PLEs, with its emphasis on network formation, reflection, open-ness, connected-ness and other ideas, reflect the principles of connectivism.

By definition, they are different from learning processes in other theories such as Constructivism, and therefore, in this sense, it is confusing to term MOOCs and PLEs as both constructivist as well as connectivist.

Let us address the technology aspect. Are there two technological alternatives for PLEs and MOOCs? If for a moment we were to ignore Connectivism as a theory, but recognize the MOOC and the PLE as technological platforms, could they be assumed as a logical manifestation of social constructivist practices in the digital age?

If Connectivism did not exist, would we still have moved to MOOCs and PLEs as they are visualized today (maybe under different names)? How would a Social Constructivist design an open course of the same broad characteristics as the MOOC (large number of people, distributed, no entry qualifications, no credits…) or an open process of guided discovery or problem solving or by defining a set of tools for personal learning in a community of practice environment.

Our current environment in PLENK2010 (or earlier in CCKOx) is built on Moodle (which is an LMS inspired by constructivism, constructionism, social constructivism and connected & separate motivation; also here is their view on the pedagogy that Moodle supports) and extended with tools such aggregators (Stephen’s gRSSHopper), Twitter, SL and Elluminate.

If the design of Moodle is an answer to the question, and due to the way we are using Moodle in MOOCs so far, I believe that MOOCs and PLEs would need to be seen then, technologically, as equally applicable to both theories, to be used in ways that each theory predicates in its belief of what the learning process should look like.

Janet Clarey did a host of interesting interviews early last year on how leading LMS providers are looking at incorporating (or have now already incorporated) informal learning and social learning environments as an extension of the standard LMS offerings.

In my understanding, PLEs/PLNs are not comparable to LMSs, rather it is the MOOC environment that should be generally comparable to LMSs. Comparing PLEs/PLNs to LMSs are an apples to oranges comparison.

In MOOCs (read MOOCs environment), the management part is facilitative of connection forming and collaboration, not dictatorial as in an LMS augmented by social learning. In a MOOC, learning is the “door-opening” process whereas in an LMS it has rigidly expected outcomes inline with traditional models of training and assessment. In a MOOC, connections are openly negotiated with no need for structure, while an LMS must obey structure and authority.

Likewise, LMSs (or more generally Human Capital Management Systems [HCMS]) today have features that allow users to perform many other functions that MOOCs have not addressed – assessment and performance management, talent & succession management etc. – and although these may not be addressed by MOOCs by design and we may want other downstream solutions there. We need to definitely think how needs that HCSMs respond to as also needs for content management (authoring through to publishing and standards therein), are to be addressed.

That said, if the PLE grows to include management features (say additional “environments” for teaching or mentoring or assessing or tracking can be added) in a way that decentralizes the teaching-learning process, it may be worth comparing it with enterprise or institutional LMSs.

My belief was, and is, that thinking that the standard LMSes (including to a lesser extent Moodle itself) can be extended to include connectivist learning is a contradictory approach. It seems to be responding more to a paranoid “need” to go social, on both sides – customer and LMS vendor. 

Which then takes me to the next question: Can we conceive a truly connectivist technological architecture that makes it technologically distinct from an implementation that could lend itself ambiguously to both constructivist as well as connectivist interpretations?

Connectivist systems need to address an important aspect – that of sense-making and wayfinding.  These systems ways should, in some way, allow us to design environments, generate learning analytics and assess performance at the level of the person, while at the same time allow us to loosely manage, provision and plan the connective learning experience at different levels in the organization.

We would not only have to think of learning but also of connectivist assessment and performance, topics that we have not made substantial progress on (there is an interesting conference coming up in early 2011 on Learning Analytics, please check out the Google Groups site for some discussions).

Among other things, these systems should find ways of integrating with the rest of the ecosystem in the organization in consonance with connectivist principles. These systems should be responsive to the needs for privacy, should be technologically open with well-defined interfaces and should store content metadata in ways that can support the learning process.

Above all, there will be many tensions – personal vs. organizational preferences/knowledge/data, diversity and autonomy vs. structure and control etc. – and connectivist systems must provide for ways to adjust that balance for each organization.

I believe, at the heart of these systems, will be the following design principles:

  • Open and extensible mash-up frameworks
  • Reliance on Open APIs to deliver mash-ups
  • Every object is made collaboration aware (X.0, technologically immune) irrespective of source
  • Spaces are multiple views around a cluster of object base types
  • Spaces are transferable as units and so are other dimensional views
  • All resources are associatively and progressively connected through metadata
  • Architecture builds in dynamic any-to-any connections while allowing any combination or view/perspective aggregation of X.0 objects
  • NBTs (Network Based Training) will make possible persistent learning and knowledge management environments
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Yesterday’s session seemed to be interesting. I missed it but was catching up on the recording. One part of it, around Curation (at least where it initially started), was especially interesting, not only from the point of view of what was being discussed, but also as an interesting example of the anatomy of the “narrative discussion” happening over the microphone and chat.
Disclaimer: I have tried to piece together, part-transcription, part my own interpretation, the discussion and debate. Please do correct me if I have misrepresented, misheard, ignored or inadequately/inaccurately represented a point of view.

The discussion was essentially between Dave Cormier, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, although there were many contributions from other people like Rita, Al, Alan, Asif, Bruce, jpaz, Dawn, Graham and others. Here goes.

Dave Cormier: happy about the curatorial activities like using ManyEyes etc.

George Siemens: creating is a sense making activity – blog post, mindmap, curation activity – what degree in a course should the facilitators lead – student’s role as a creator of resources vs. educators role of a curator. Perhaps facilitators, since they are more connected, can be relied upon to present curated artifacts for further discussion.

Stephen Downes:  problem with the curator-facilitator role? Can only Facilitators curate?

George Siemens: No, everybody should curate and demonstrate their own viewpoints and perspectives, but for the reason of being better connected with the topic under discussion, in reality (not potential), facilitators can lead. Impact of the facilitator curation would be more consequential. This is because, right or wrong, the facilitator is expected to have a broad grasp of the topic and participants may not have the same grasp.

Dave Cormier: That’s a lot of expectation and presumption. Why (asks George)? George has more social power (status, reputation) in the community. Isn’t that what this boils down to?

George Siemens: Dave has shifted the discussion a bit, importantly to the distinction between status and power/influence/pull. There are certain things that status may afford to you and raise expectations of you – assessing, leading students – but influence is something that goes beyond that traditional role. The curatorial role would become more influential if you are more connected. And that happens if participation is not equal by all participants in a course. In a network, in theory, there would be greater equality.

George Siemens: In this course, look at the talk time by the moderators. By virtue of the amount of time, moderators would likely have a more important role in shaping the conversation (someone mentioned back channels as an influence that can change this too)

Stephen Downes: Since other moderators talked more, does it mean they are more influential?

George Siemens: Given the time we have had with the microphone, I would say that we have hashed out the topic and shaped the discussion. That may not mean that we have had greater influence on the course as a whole. Also, now that Stephen is asking questions, it gives an opportunity to further enhance the discussion. “The curatorial dimension is that the voices that are being heard are the ones that are shaping the discussion.”

Stephen Downes: A lot of work around network theory has been done. Let us look at Power Laws – influence concentrated on the spike while the long tail contains the regular types of people with low interactions. People at the top have viewpoints and influence that stands out. This is an example of an unstable network. In a stable network, you would see a straight line with more equality. Stability is where the network is resistant to cascade phenomena – phenomena where a small effect gets replicated and amplified in a cascading fashion.

Chat: George Siemens: How can you design a network? You are addressing small worlds, Stephen 

Stephen Downes: Design of a stable network should provide for open-ness, diversity etc. unlike the current (Elluminate) environment

George Siemens (and others): In reality, all have access to the microphone, active back channel exists and there is a cross-referencing of content such as blog posts; why do we want a network to be stable as a virtue; the majority of networks are unstable

Chat: Alan Cooper: Why is network “stability” a virtue? Stephen Downes: Network stability is a virtue because only stable networks can be dynamic – unstable networks, that experience cascade phenomena, revert to a configuration in which every node has the same state – and then becomes inert, and dead.

Chat: Al Pedrazzoli: But the majority of the networks are unstable. Stephen Downes In living networks – eg., humans, trees, etc. – there are physical constraints that limit the size if the big spike.  In artificial – ‘scale free’ – networks (like financial systems) there are no such limitations.

Stephen Downes: But it is a question of perception that we are up against – we bring our histories in with the perception that there ought to be a loudest voice and this is what we must address in the design for a connectivist course. So bringing it back, curation leads to structures for authority, for the loudest voice. Journalism is close to what I am thinking about, where one does make value judgements but one is more interested in the analysis and assessments that follow.

George Siemens: Lets talk about the PLE/PLN ideas. Stephen sits on the spike in the power law. That is a deserved role given his work across a decade. A new blogger will be at the low-end of the tail. It would be unfair to compare the two. Now Stephen compares education with social justice and social reform, which I don’t disagree with. In reality though, we would encounter power laws more naturally than stable networks. As an example, Stephen may be at the long tail when it comes to frogs (Stephen disagrees), so you really play different roles. Depending upon the context, the role and position (and thus the influence) will vary. We don’t give media, newspapers or teachers the same position/status for everything, but choose among them.

Dave Cormier: We may want to move from unstable to stable configurations. Talking about this discussion is not necessarily indicative. The format of a narrative discussion does not allow for a hundred separate voices to be talking at the same time (GoogleDocs is a different format, an example of how technology controls things) – it is just not technology but also human nature that we can’t have 50 people talking at the same time and have a useful discussion. I give a lot of weight to what people in my network comment. It is important to consider taking on more than a single role to start moving towards stable networks.

George Siemens: This discussion is bigger than what we can handle in this session, also given the amount of work done by people like Watts and Strogatz. Let’s move on.


…and so it went. For me, an important piece of the conversation was the reinforcement that the stable vs. unstable networks tension is not just about technology or collaboration but also about more broadly about ideas of equality and justice, however close or far we could be in relation to “designing” or wanting to design a stable network.

Another important takeaway, from the learning standpoint, is that the challenge is to build systems and practices that can allow a hundred different voices to speak all at once and not have a useless cacaphony in the end.

But I think this discussion was especially interesting because we are also debating how future PLEs/PLNs should look – what affordances they should have, as a collective research practice that is PLENK2010, and curation may be an important part of the deal.

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This is my first post for PLENK2010 and I am glad to be involved in this discussion. Thanks to the MOOC organizers for setting this up.

I think of PLEs as Operating Systems just like regular operating systems are for computer users. In fact, I call the PLE a LearnOS.

Thinking of a PLE as a LearnOS helps me also get by the initial comprehension of what it can contain, such as tools, resources and connections, as also how it is deployed – PC, mobile and cloud. I can then move on to think about how learning will occur in this LearnOS by asking not only how the LearnOS can be organized to support my learning (feed aggregation, twitter tags and the like) in a given context, or how my LearnOS is connected to other LearnOS-es out there (PLNs), but also to thinking how my LearnOS can adapt to my learning contexts and my learning needs.

That is basically asking questions such as those relating to personalization (both the how can I personalize question and the how can the system know who I am question), learning environment configuration (how can I configure the environment to learn and perform in the best possible manner) and assessment (how can I assess my learning within a distributed environment of LearnOS-es).

Stephen’s take on it is to put together some fundamental dimensions of the PLE – resource profiles (profiling multiple data attributes), personal identify (linked to resource profiles), communities (that together create a combined description of an object), resource aggregators (which combine resources based on configuration of parameters to present to the user), repositories (moving beyond DOI registries and repositories to contain just educational objects) and resource production (authoring tools which may be multi-user and collaborative to create new content). These would come together in a PLE environment where rights, syndication (and things like authorization?) need to be common service level affordances. To achieve these, Stephen has identified six components – profiler, aggregator, editor, scaffolds (ways to design new forms of content potentially from existing sources – maybe go beyond just mashing content to create complex content such as games and simulations), services and recommender – each performing a distinct role in the PLE architecture.

Of these, scaffolds are a structured representation of content, a sort of database architecture of data constituting the content in such a way as to yield one or more representations of content (visually or otherwise). It is like saying if I had the sequence number,  title, predecessor sequence number fields in a database (table), I could easily generate a process workflow in many different visual formats. If I was to add a start date and an end date field to the same table, I could get a Gantt Chart from the “data”. This is “data” but about content and you are putting together content in new forms, not directly but through views to the fields constituting a form of content.

By Services, he means the relationships between PLEs, which when built over the scaffolds, can give rise to multiple types of collaboration. This part interests me significantly because at least a part of it implies that structured collaboration techniques could perhaps be accommodated in this layer. For example, what happens when your content table/database (definition of content elements) starts interacting with mine – it’s a new shared vocabulary necessary for collaboration (the promise of the semantic web).

I think it will be worthwhile to think of PLE servers, which as part of their job of bringing together communities among other things, reconcile these folksonomies as well.

Recommenders are going to be extremely important, both in terms of what they recommend and what they do not! And I think it makes sense to try to incorporate changing personal profile or resource profiles as an input to this system, not just look outward to the network, in the interests of personalization.

Wilson et al, make a reference to existing ADL standards like SCORM. I think it is important to think about whether there can be standards (like DITA or S1000D or SKOS) that can be evolved for complex content in this framework. Connection coordination, symmetric relationships, individualized contexts, open standards, lightweight integration, open content, repurposing/re-use, and the personal & global scope characteristics are all important when thinking of an alternate design. I would think the PLE is improperly or inappropriately compared with VLEs  (its like comparing apples to oranges, a better comparison would be a PLE or LearnOS server with a VLE).

I read Alec Couros’s distinction between PLE and PLN. To me it is rather like the difference between the Internet and the Web, inter-related and inter-dependent concepts. For Dave, it is rather the reverse, with PLEs being the holding environment for PLNs.

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After listening and reading a lot about the Hole in the Wall over the past 10 years or so and other such experiments and viewing Dr. Sugata Mitra’s latest TED Talk, I am inspired to ask the question – what makes the cat curious?

What if I did not put a high-speed PC with Internet access in the hole in the wall? Can I think of other machines or experiences that could create a similar effect?

Let us take the example of a karaoke machine put in the hole or in a room of a school. Will kids be able to master it without intervention in a few days? Will some of them teach other children? Will one or two of them, with natural talent, end up getting inspired to an opera singer after being inundated with all the reality singing shows on their TV every night? Is it possible that a particular genre of music will emerge that is terribly unique and innovative?

I would say, yes to all of the above. The reasons – kids are a curious lot, they love play and perhaps even love showing off their skills. Can I say the machine helped them learn how to sing? I am not so sure. Perhaps someone discovered that one note sounded different from the other in the tune being played.

In his 1999 article, Curiosity and Exploration, Jason Piccone states:

How does one become curious? Saxe and Stollak (1971) found support for their social learning theory that both parental reinforcement and modeling foster children’s curiosity and exploration. Endsley, Hutcherson, Garner and Martin (1979) observed mothers and their children in a play situation. They found first of all that boys and girls explored novel materials equally often; however girls asked about twice as many questions. Girls’ mothers interacted more with their daughters than their boys. Most importantly, the frequencies with which the mothers showed exploratory behavior, curiosity orienting behavior, and question answering were all correlated with children’s exploration and questions about the stimuli.

Sugata invokes the example of a group of 12-year-old speaking Tamil (a language of South India) in a village (Kalikuppam) in southern India who he wanted to teach a course in biotechnology written in English. He thought if the experiment failed, he would be able to conclude “Yes, we would need teachers for certain things!”.

The experiment ran over two months and when he returned to the group, he asked them what they learnt. They said they learnt nothing. Till a girl piped up to say dismissively, they learnt nothing except “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we have understood nothing else”.

Now I don’t know if that was an inference from the actual courseware or a repetition of a statement that they had been staring at for two months or something they picked up from the web or whether it was the visual design of the course that communicated the concept. But they memorized/arrived at a conclusion with the general feeling of having learnt nothing. Learnt nothing could mean that they sincerely did not understand what was being told, or did not relate to it, or were confused about what they were expected to learn. And perhaps at that level a few pieces of paper with elegant drawings and a Tamil-English dictionary would have served the purpose equally.

Sugata also concludes that educational technology must play first its greatest role at the bottom of the pyramid because Arthur Clarke said to him: “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should”. In his experience, perhaps that is the case at the bottom of the pyramid.

Perhaps the use of educational technology at the bottom of the pyramid would be to train the teachers rather than eliminate personal touch and various other affordances to small children.

In the Italian example, he wondered about how a group of kids could use Google translate to Italian his questions in English and then do the reverse to answer him. In doing so, in my opinion across his experiments, he neglects the role of the environment and life experiences contributing to the learning processes in much the same way the show organizers did in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Several skills are also translatable skills – from one environment to another. I don’t know if there is a study about how skills learnt in one environment can actually be translated into a new application – for example, I know military officers are the ones mostly in charge of large logistics operations in the corporate sector because of their training. Do these skills play a role in addition to curiosity aiding the discovery process?

Sugata takes the help of Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky to explain the phenomenon and ties in a liberal dose of self-organization and complexity, two influences that I have been introduced to in  the context of Connectivism as well. “Education is a self organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon”, Will reports of Sugata’s new TED Talk in his post. These concepts came after a large amount of thinking was placed at re-envisioning the nature of agents in a network and how they operate, large contradicting the standard vision of the rational agent.

For example, Waldrop, talking about Brian Arthur, in the book Complexity (p. 48), says:

If small chance events can lock you in to any of several possible outcomes, then the outcome that’s actually selected may not be the best. And that means that maximizing individual freedom – and the free market – might not produce the best of all possible worlds.

Constructivism and the work of theorists like Bruner (Discovery Learning) talks how a “learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned. Students interact with the world by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments.” Dr. Mark Federman makes the connect between complexity and constructivism in an interesting article.

By the way, I thought that Granny cloud concept rocked. I think that will work across borders (that was particularly innovative) as demonstrated by Dr. Mitra.

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Free Learning

I came across an interesting statement from Chris Anderson in his book “Free” (which incidentally seems to be available for free online viewing on Scribd for folks in the United States only). The context is his analysis around how computer processing power, digital storage and bandwidth are getting “too cheap to meter”. He states:

And the more products are made of ideas, rather than stuff, the faster they can get cheap. This is the root of the abundance that leads to Free in the digital world, which we today shorthand as Moore’s Law.

He also makes the point that it may not be limited to digital products but also in areas such as medicine and nanotechnology. Malcolm Gladwell does a scathing review here (interesting coverage of YouTube and paid content) saying “…plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free”.

Anderson talks about Alan Kay and states:

What Kay realized was that a technologist’s job is not to figure out what technology is good for. Instead it is to make technology so cheap, easy to use, and ubiquitous that anybody can use it, so that it propagates around the world and into every possible niche.

On another note, David Wiley, writing about Openness as Catalyst for an Educational Reformation states:

In short, higher education finds itself using radical new technology in backward ways, reinforcing outdated ways of thinking with law and institutional policy, and remaining unable to satisfy rapidly increasing popular demand. Sound familiar? Higher education appears to be pitched on the edge of its own Reformation.

Sounds familiar, David!

In context of what we see now with OERs and free software in the educational space, I can see multiple ways in which these thoughts really intersect. We desperately need free, open and participatory technology, processes and practices that propagate around the world and satisfy popular demand.

Is there a business model that embraces the fact that it will cost but can be made both equitable and sustainable?…perhaps. Will it be based on Free?…don’t know, the track record doesn’t seem to be all that great for a business to get into. One investor I know referred to “it” as the holy grail – “it” being how to monetize social media/networks.

Well, if not free, can we generate efficiencies? For example, we have heard of institutions being degree granting bodies – that is an important part of what they do and who they are. Would it be efficient if we were to give directly to teachers the right to award a PhD (or any other degree), thereby making the institution redundant in that respect, but directly reducing costs. Would that work?

I know I would love to do an Open PhD if any expert would want to directly mentor me! It may even be a first, having a network of practitioners mentor in a virtual mode? Maybe I could help them out with associated online teaching, development and/or research tasks in return – like the old age guru-shishya tradition (traditional teacher-student “gurukul” systems from India)?

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