Archive for October, 2011

Steve Jobs, S.J. and Jagjit Singh J.S. SJ and JS. Full Circle. Closed Loop. Rest in peace.

While SJ epitomised creativity and innovation in technology, JS did the same with Music. While SJ brought personal computing on its own, JS brought life to the dying art of the ghazal. Two people who were never formal teachers. Nonetheless, what we learnt from them is priceless and will continue to inspire us and future generations to come. And they were connected too. The ghazals that JS sang adorn many an iPhone or iPAD.

Since I am irreversibly Connectivist, I can’t help thinking that they were informal educators, teachers who taught without teaching, motivated with their words and actions, who could not be formal educators because perhaps the world was too big to fit in their class, and from who generations will continue to learn.

And there are many like them. Some resting in peace, some visibly our guides and some hidden somewhere off our networks. The skill we must imbibe is how to connect with them, learn from them, despite them not teaching us in an explicit classroom. The world then becomes our classroom, substituting formal teaching with guided collaboration and self-service. That learning is different from time bound, formally assessed mechanisms in ways that are fundamentally incomparable. It is chaotic, non-deterministic and complex and led by our own desires and skills.

The puzzle is in figuring if this is a new kind of education system. Not system, in the traditional closed loop sense, but a complex, distributed one with many cores – many distributed and disaggregated centres of learning and assessment. The puzzle is in the emergence not the making, because it can’t really be “made”. The puzzle is whether it will result in superior outcomes – better citizens, more informed decision makers, more democratic nations and more competent professionals.

It is a puzzle I love and hate to think and talk about. Hate because it involves letting go of structure, intermediation and control. Love because it is free and open, and perhaps has the best chance of helping our children emerge from the abyss of learning they are in today. It needs more people to experiment, play in local contexts, stay globally connected to an ever-expanding network of practice. It is a movement rather than a policy decision, a personal decision to play ball, rather than an imposed directive, an urge to change rather than a push to reform.

SJ and JS. Full circle. Rest in peace.

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Clark Quinn pointed me to the work of David Williamson Shaffer and the work around Epistemic Games, the site provocatively taglined Building the Future of Education. Defined:

Epistemic games are computer games that can help players learn to think like engineers, urban planners, journalists, lawyers, and other innovative professionals, giving them the tools they need for a changing world. In epistemic games, players see what it is like to live in the world of adults. They learn ways of thinking that matter in the digital age, and have a chance to imagine the kind of person they might someday become.

David has an interesting presentation from the Design Education Seminar in Paris, France (June 2011) [slides, video, interview]. The first point he makes is about the Epistemic Frame. The Epistemic Frame comprises of:

  • Identity (the who)
  • Skills (the how)
  • Knowledge (the what)
  • Values (the why)

(italics added)

He also illustrates an important aspect of games – games as cultures and as environments for growth of innovation cultures. He also connects two “theories” – learning by knowing and learning by connecting.

It is an interesting level of detail for the commonly used word immersion. There is an epistemological and ontological base that designers can use to inform the design of the games they invent. Against the backdrop of the two theories and the epistemic frame, game design becomes a tool for mapping inter-relationships within the epistemic frame – literally describing a state of competence through conversation, game-play and learning. The epistemic frame poses the Values dimension, to me a critical aspect of immersion. In doing so, it focuses on a culture of thinking and innovation that is overwhelmingly important today.

In Use of a professional practice simulation in a first year Introduction to Engineering course, the authors state:

Importantly, engineering knowledge and skills are not required to complete the two design-build-test cycles in the simulation; instead the emphasis is on managing conflicting client requirements, making trade-offs in selecting a final design and justifying design choices….Prior work has also shown that epistemic games—learning environments where students gameplay to develop the epistemic frame of a profession—increase students’ understanding of and interest in the profession.

They explain the methodology behind the game, called Nephrotex, and include a blend of virtual with physical mentoring – something that they believe is critical to the simulation process. It also is a practitioner experience, giving what students will face in real life. In Collaborating in a Virtual Engineering Internship, the authors state that:

epistemic games are designed based on the epistemic frame hypothesis, a theory of learning that analyzes thinking in terms of connections among frame elements: skills, knowledge, values, and justification or decision-making (otherwise known as epistemology) of a STEM profession.

…Nephrotex is grounded in the epistemic frame hypothesis, which suggests that any professional community has a culture (Rohde & Shaffer, 2004; Shaffer, 2004a, 2005, 2006) and that culture has a grammar: a structure composed of skills (the things that members of the community do), knowledge (the understandings that members of the community share), values (the beliefs that members of the community hold), identity (the way that members of the community see themselves), and epistemology (the warrants that justify actions or claims as legitimate within the community). This collection of skills, knowledge, values, identity, and epistemology forms the epistemic frame of the community. The epistemic frame hypothesis suggests that (a) an epistemic frame binds together the skills, knowledge, values, identity, and epistemology that an individual takes on as a member of a community of practice; (b) such a frame is internalized through the training and induction processes by which an individual becomes a member of the community; and (c) once internalized, the epistemic frame of a community is used when an individual approaches a situation from the point of view (or in the role) of a member of the community (Shaffer, 2004a, 2005).

…Put in more concrete terms, engineers act like engineers, identify themselves as engineers, are interested in engineering, and know about physics, electricity, mechanics, chemistry, and other technical fields. These skills, affiliations, habits, and understandings are made possible by looking at the world in a particular way: by thinking like an engineer. The same is true for biologists but for different ways of thinking—and for mathematicians, computer scientists, science journalists, and so on, each with a different epistemic frame.

In David Hatfield’s dissertation, The right kind of telling: an analysis of feedback and learning in a journalism epistemic game, he states:

Epistemic frame theory (Shaffer, 2006, 2007) argues that expertise, such as the kind involved in complex thinking and problem solving, fundamentally involves diverse and dynamic connections between different forms of knowing (Broudy, 1977) and acting, guided by the norms and principles of a particular community….More than simply a collection of different elements, though, epistemic frame theory focuses on the ways in which specific frame elements are used together during complex thinking and problem solving (Shaffer, 2010).

The Critical Literacies MOOC focussed on just this kind of research a year ago from the point of analysis of thinking. Where it starts getting really interesting is here:

Epistemic frame theory thus argues that expertise can be modeled as a network of connections between specific understandings, techniques, values, identities and epistemologies, all of which are articulated through discourse. Assessing the development of such expertise, however, is a significant challenge.

I would add that fidelity of the simulation environment (level of immersion) becomes a significant challenge because it is itself a dynamic network of object and non-object states. In a lot of situations, as in regular eLearning, the struggle is between fidelity and scale (time to develop, cost, effort, complexity). At low scales, all experiences can have a high level of fidelity designed (witness the physical blend in Nephrotex). This can invert very quickly as we add additional variables and behaviors in the mix.

Be that as it may, this work is very useful because it leads us to the next question – how can these elements and their relationships be modeled to increase fidelity while at the same time lessen the impact of the scale of the challenge. Treating the elements of the epistemic frame as categories or clusters of child elements and then building networked relationships and “knowledge” out of these connections, is one part; modeling the dynamism is the much larger other.

In part (see Connectivist Simulations), I have always likened this to the challenge of sense-making and wayfinding in learning and knowledge (networks)  in Connectivism.

But what really got me excited is the possibility that all these ideas could probably merge if we started looking at simulations on a wider scale – connective simulations that could provide a way to abstract from the richness and complexity of our learning  process in a meaningful manner – allowing us to not only gain better insight about learning, but also to be able to guide our efforts to architect/enable observation based assessments.

The challenge, in my opinion, is also to prove that the new forms of assessment are scalable and accurate. That is, a large number of people can reliably be observed (or can demonstrate) “being” or “doing” in a manner that is reliable, accurate and consistent. The accuracy problem is important because simulations can only do so much in abstracting from a complex real-world.

If we had that method, and it was proved superior to traditional methods, then we would have buy-in. After all, the problem confronting us at this moment really is that we still end up trying to observe and assess people’s performance afresh whenever they start on a job, despite qualifications and proof from reliable assessments.

I just came across a load of search links to Connectionist Simulations, which is where all this is ultimately headed and should, at some point, capture my undivided attention. But this is wonderful work and I will follow it closely.

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