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Archive for the ‘Connectivism’ Category

I wrote this in 2011 but it seems almost current in terms of relevance. Some links may not work.

Introduction

Education has morphed across centuries of foundational thought and practice on what is learning, teaching and knowledge. Whether they are ancient practices and beliefs like in the Vedas or are contemporary like Connectivism, the landscape has been shaped by and has shaped events of culture, technology and society. What has remained constant is the change itself, the constant evolution and revolution of thought applied to the domain of learning and teaching.

These progressions reach a strategic inflection point every once in a while resulting in a fundamental change of perception and belief. I believe we are at one such point now given the rapid advances in learning theory, technology, market characteristics and consumer preferences in turn fuelled by recessionary trends.

These strategic inflection points are marked by a change in the frame of reference. Traditional methods are overturned and new technologies and practices reshape the landscape creating new models for efficiency and investment in organizations. The theory and practice of Connectivism marks such a strategic inflection point.

A key dimension in this inflection is technology, with Web 2.0, the promise of ubiquitous networks, cloud computing and social networking. Personal Learning Environments are quickly emerging as de facto learning environments.

But a far greater change seems to be manifesting itself – the emergence of the millenials or Generation Y or the Net Generation by Don Tapscott in his recent book Grown Up Digital (p 16) – terms multifariously used to describe the fast evolving digital generation for whom networking, sharing, gaming and online collaboration are breaking down boundaries of thought and location.

Learners are changing from passive receptors of information and training to active participants in their own learning. This is a viral change, so it is really fast. Today’s digital learners are part of communities. They share their interests with members of their community. They twitter. They blog. They rake in RSS feeds and bookmark their favorities on de.li.ci.ou.s. They share photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. They share knowledge on Slideshare and Learnhub or Ning. They share ideas. They grow by meeting and engaging peers and gurus alike using the LinkedIn or Facebook. On their laptops and on their mobile phones.

https://learnos.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/xos-in-learning-and-technology/

Don characterizes the Net Generation, those born between January 1977 and December 1997, as having 8 distinct characteristics or norms (Grown Up Digital, p 74) – freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, entertainment, collaboration & relationship, need for speed and innovation.

A predominant contribution to social networking sites, life streams, instant messaging, blogs and media sharing tools, seems to be emanating from this younger generation. This in itself is a key dimension because this generation is getting access to media and practices that traditional learning mechanisms cannot provide. The Pew / Internet report Teens and Social Media reports that “The use of social media gains a greater foothold in teen life as they embrace the conversational nature of interactive online media.” The MacArthur report suggests that “New media forms have altered how youth socialize and learn, and this raises a new set of issues that educators, parents, and policymakers should consider.” Privacy concerns are raised by Don (Grown Up Digital, pp 65-70) and Pew Internet, among others; to highlight the issue that this generation is sharing too much of what is personal.

What we’re seeing right now is a cultural shift due to the introduction of a new medium and the emergence of greater restrictions on youth mobility and access. The long-term implications of this are unclear. Regardless of what will come, youth are doing what they’ve always done – repurposing new mediums in order to learn about social culture.

(http://www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html)

Another key dimension contributing immediately to this inflection, but will have enduring effects beyond it, is the immense pressure in the current marketplace on expenses. As Josh Bersin says:

And best of all, an informal learning strategy saves money.  By empowering people to publish their expertise and learn from each other, you can cut spending on content development, external content, and formal training – focusing your energies on the “upper right” training programs in your organization.

Suppliers and vendors are changing over to incorporating 2.0 technology and crafting new consulting services to meet the new challenges. LMS providers such as SABA have already incorporated social media technologies like blogs and wikis in their offering. Authoring and content development providers are fast incorporating social media strategies as part of both the design and deployment of content.

Substantial opinion has also been generated with Jay Cross’s Learnscapes, James Suroweicki’s Wisdom of Crowds, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Valdis Kreb’s Social Network Analysis and many books, articles, blog posts and publications reflecting the changing technology, culture and social landscapes and impacts on learning, organization and innovation.

Jay Cross suggests the inflection point is upon us.

Clearly we have reached an inflection point.   Where “e-learning” was the big craze in corporate training in the early 2000’s, and “blended learning” was the craze in 2003 and 2004, today, thanks to the slowing economy and the widespread availability of social networking and online wikis and portals, “informal learning” is the next big thing.

The underlying message is that there is a significant change happening that promises to change not only the way we do business but also the way we teach and learn.

Connectivism

The Theory

Connectivism is a new theory of learning for the digital age propounded by George Siemens with its epistemological roots in the theory of Connective Knowledge postulated by Stephen Downes. Connectivism stands contrasted to major existing theories of learning and knowledge by its emphasis on learning as the ability to make connections in a network of resources, both human and device and by the amalgamation of theories of self-organization, complexity and chaos as applied the process of learning.

Connectivism embraces and extends the following principles:

  • Learning is the process of making new connections
  • Connections are a primary point of focus and could be to people or devices
  • Connections expose patterns of information and knowledge that we use (recognize, adapt to) to further our learning
  • Networked learning occurs at neural, conceptual and social levels
  • Types of connections define certain types of learning
  • Strength and nature of connections define how we learn
  • Networks are differentiated from Groups (by factors such as openness, autonomy, diversity, leadership and nature of knowledge)
  • Knowledge is the network, learning is to be in a certain state of connectedness
  • All knowledge is associative in nature and resides across our connections
  • Chaos, complexity theory, theories of self-organization and developments in neurosciences are all extremely important contributors for us to understand how we learn in a volatile, constantly evolving landscape

Connectivism focuses on the distributed nature of learning and knowledge, the explicit focus on networks as the primary means of learning. As George Siemens states, connectivism, as a networked theory of learning, draws on and informs emerging pedagogical views such as informal, social, and community learning.

Other theories such as Jay Cross’s Informal Learning, Lave and Wenger’s Communities of Practice (CoP) and Brown and Duguid’s Network of Practice build upon the networked and distributed nature of learning.

For example, defined by knowledge rather than the task, CoPs are different from social networks or teams because they are not only about relationships or tasks. Rather they are about the shared learning and interest of its members.

Connectivism is very different from existing theories of Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism and is more readily and effectively applied to today’s learners and their needs. Learning 2.0 as a style or Connectivism as a theory are diametrically opposed to the traditional 1.0 styles of learning or the prior learning theories. Every aspect, whether it be setting goals for learning, providing content, organizing learning groups, measuring & tracking progress and managing schedule constraints, needs to be re-evaluated for it’s equivalent in the 2.0 connective world.

In Connectivism, learning becomes the process of making connections and knowledge is the network. As Stephen explains:

Just as the activation of the pixels on a television screen form an image of a person, so also the bits of information we create and we consume form patterns constituting the basis of our knowledge, and learning is consequently the training our own individualized neural networks – our brains – to recognize these patterns.

Connectivism as applied to contemporary challenges facing educators is nothing short of an inflection point. In an appeal to end course-o-centrism, Siemens writes:

What is really needed is a complete letting go of our organization schemes and open concepts up to the self/participatory/chaotic sensemaking processes that flourish in online environments.

Impacts

Connectivism impacts all aspects of education & training design, development and delivery – from the role of the educator , the role of the learner, the roles of the developers (instructional design, visual design, technical design) to the very structure of the learning organization and its vendors. This aspect is critical to understand while implementing designs based on this theory. As I have written before:

The enormity of what Connectivism asks us to do can be realized in this very context – re-evaluate the role of educators, think of the network or connectedness as the base architecture for learning and re-assess notions of identity, power, law, authority, expertise, assessment and control in the light of the new theory.

Wendy Drexler’s Networked Student brings this into sharp focus.  Nancy White reviews 14 characteristics of Network Weavers (a contemporary metaphor for educators)

Janet Clarey’s series of posts on the evolution of LMS systems also provides information on how LMS and Talent Management System vendors are fast incorporating social media and informal learning into their systems.

Connective Learning for the Enterprise

Organizations are fast aligning their learning and development ecosystems to this new way of learning. John Chambers, CISCO’s CEO had to say:

…”Without changing the structure of your organization,” Chambers told the analysts in September, “I would argue that [innovation] will not work.””

Cisco, Chambers argues, is the best possible model for how a large, global business can operate: as a distributed idea engine where leadership emerges organically, unfettered by a central command.

C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan, in their book The New Age of Innovation argue that there is a fundamental transformation in the way we do business and it is critical for companies to negotiate two fundamental pillars of this change – co-created experiences (N=1) and access (rather than ownership) to global resources (R=G). In their mind the social architecture of the organization (structure, performance measurement, training, skills and organizational values) is equally an important pillar as is the technology architecture.

According to Tim O’Reilly, the founder and chief executive of O’Reilly Media, creativity is no longer about which companies have the most visionary executives, but who has the most compelling “architecture of participation.” That is, which companies make it easy, interesting and rewarding for a wide range of contributors to offer ideas, solve problems and improve products?

Josh Bersin makes the clarion call:

It’s now official. After surveying our entire research membership and having more than 30 conversations with leading HR and learning leaders (including with Xerox, Accenture, British Telecom, Edward Jones, Department of Defense, and Network Appliance), I am now 100% convinced that “informal learning” has become “formal.”  That is, if you want to build a high-impact, cost-effective, modern training organization you must “formally adopt” informal learning.

78% of corporate managers believe that “rapid rate of information change” is one of their top learning challenges (800+ HR and L&D managers surveyed in 2008).

Need quantified

The fundamental enterprise need addressed by Connectivism is of creating an agile, innovation led workforce. If we view agility as the capability to make effective decisions in response to fast changing market conditions and the capability to learn new skills quickly and efficiently, we need a workforce that can learn informally, with minimal supervision, with greater involvement in and control of in their own learning, that can keep itself abreast with fast changing information, that can encourage diversity of opinion and thought which are at the core of effective decision making and that can self organize in order to bring a sense of orderliness in a mostly chaotic and competitive business scenario.

At the same time, since attempting to maintain large budgets and teams to structure formal training (and maintaining the associated infrastructure, processes and overheads), is fast becoming impossible given the pace and the nature of the inflection point upon us, there is a huge need for us  to rethink our approach and strategy for training.

What could the solutions be?

Ideally, connectivist solutions for the enterprise would at the very least require the following:

  1. Ability to connect
  2. Ability to self-organize
  3. Ability to engage in meaningful sharing and collaboration

The ability to connect involves focusing on the tools, processes and policies maintained by the organization. On the tools side, this would typically involve creating multidimensional visibility to people and resources – across dimensions such as roles, departments, learning context, domain, locations and perhaps even customer accounts. This transcends the thought of simply having an address book with contacts.

Also, since the connections are crucial, there must be a way to model and represent the building of these connections using group and network behaviour theory and by measuring/representing the strength of ties.

As one of the key success factors is the ability to build a core inner network of people and resources (the “right” filters) so that relevant information and learning becomes available when you need it, these representations could be multi-level, distributed and contextual.

The policies and processes for connection forming, by themselves constitute a large area of focus. Networks, truly autonomous and diverse ones, would have no barriers to information and connection making – and that is their strength. However, organizations would be wary of breaking silos unless there are clear and compelling reasons to do so. The answer lies somewhere in between – in a balance between the two – unique to every organization.

The second requirement – the ability to self manage – exists both at the level of the person and the group/network. Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), an ecology of tools and techniques to manage access to and interaction with knowledge and networks, assume special significance in this context. Existing knowledge management system architectures need to embrace this concept.

The ability to self-organize is critical for collaborative problem solving, for instance, where small focused groups get together to combat a learning challenge or solve a problem. At the personal level, it could refer to capacity to react in a structured and critical manner to a learning problem or challenge. This ability is also contingent, in group settings, on the ability of the group to engage in practice and reflection. As Stephen Downes puts it:

The PLE is not an application, but rather, a description of the process of learning in situ from a variety of courses and according to one’s personal, context-situated, needs. The process, simply, is that learners will be presented with learning resources according to their interests, aptitudes, educational levels, and other factors (including employer factor and social factors) while they are in the process of working at their job, engaging in a hobby, or playing a game.

The third requirement, the ability to collaborate and share meaningfully in a given context, and its corollary, the ability to record these conversations for access and retrieval by an audience in a similar context at a different point in time is also a key requirement.

Collaboration acquires a different complexity in Connectivism. Firstly, the media for collaboration itself is diverse (blogs, video, visualizations, mind maps, media mash-ups, slide-sharing, image sharing etc). Secondly, the collaboration types span a large range between synchronous, immediate & immersive to asynchronous, “slow” & virtually isolated collaborations. Thirdly, key skills for the learner are reflection and practice that really call for a higher level of engagement with the network.

To this end the current landscape offers little, if any, support for structured brainstorming or collaborative construction (imagine an application of Six Thinking Hats on SecondLife, for instance), although tools are emerging as we speak. Therefore, the need of the hour is to bring complex collaboration possibilities using a mix of new tools and formats to learning. For example, the Delphi technique as a means of bringing about consensus and predictability in a discussion area would be a powerful mechanism, as would be the capability to don various thinking hats in a discussion.

While researching structured collaboration techniques, I came across some interesting work people are doing. Mindquarry, for example, provides a model of collaboration patterns based on 4 elements – people, productivity software, collaborative software and methods. I had earlier referred to Mindtools, who provide a rich set of structured collaboration techniques, like for example starbusting, which is a form of brainstorming. Also, Value based management offers a host of techniques, models and theories.

Essentially, structured technology aided collaboration techniques are a medium through which learning efficiencies can be increased. These techniques:

  • are contextual to domain
  • are contextual to collaboration type (say, brainstorming vs voting)
  • are open or close ended (in terms of time, scope, boundaries etc)
  • could be ad-hoc or planned
  • are quantifiable (both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking)
  • are historically referenceable (audit trails for recorded collaborations)
  • have rules of engagement
  • can be structured to the desired level (sequence of activities, organization of inputs, permissions and access roles)
  • are sensitive to scale of audience, available knowledge and other physical parameters
  • result in trackable outputs/analytics

The logical next step, from a design perspective, is to attempt to model them.  Aldo de Moor’s paper on Community Memory Activation with Collaboration patterns yields some insights on what patterns could be modelled. The abstract for the paper is:

We present a model of collaboration patterns as reusable conceptual structures capturing essential collaboration requirements. These patterns include goal patterns (what is the collaboration about?), communication patterns (how does communication to accomplish goals take place?), information patterns (what content knowledge is essential to satisfy collaborative and communicative goals?), task patterns (what particular information patterns are needed for particular action or interaction goals?), and meta-patterns (what patterns are necessary to interpret, link and assess the quality of the other collaboration patterns?). We show how these patterns can be used to activate communities of practice by improving their collective, distributed memory of communicative interactions and information. We outline an approach that structures how collaboration patterns in communities of practice can be elicited, represented, analyzed, and applied. By presenting a realistic scenario, we illustrate how community memory could be activated in practice.

The other key component is to understand what the need to collaborate is and the forces impeding the required collaboration. This is key to understanding whether collaboration techniques shall be used, substituted by informal methods or not used at all. It is important to understand if they are “over sold and under used” or are “methods seeking an application” or are really cost-effective or intuitive. We have seen that in software engineering too and this may require change management to implement in enterprises.

In other words, the challenge is not quite really all about the technology or process, but is perhaps more about the individual mindset and the overall objectives with which structured collaboration techniques are to be implemented (basically saying that a great process or tool does not automatically ensure collaboration that follows the process or uses the tool or format).

It goes back to us, as individuals, and how we collaborate as subjects, alone or in teams or in networks. If the capability to collaborate in structured ways is learnt and becomes “native” so will adoption on a more widespread basis. On the other hand, organizations or learning delivery modalities can include, as mandatory components, such patterns, tools or processes as part of the workflow.

There also need to be mechanisms that are able to keep communities and ideas alive and receptive to new inputs past their lifecycle. As Harold Jarche says:

If learning is conversation, then online conversations are the essential component of online learning.

Or, as Nancy White puts it, learning is more than conversation:

…conversation is one of the three legs of my learning stool.

Conversation – making meaning, getting different perspectives, trying out and testing ideas, challenging assumptions.

  • Individual reflection – (because group reflection is a subset of conversation, no?) Stepping back, reviewing, observing, evaluating our own learning both in terms of process and content. Reflection provides us needed self awareness and the ideas we bring back into conversation.
  • Reification – borrowing from Communities of Practice theory, what we create that expresses what we are learning or have learned. With internet tools makeing self publishing so easy, this area has blossomed – videos, images, blogs — things that manifest both our conversations and our reflections and put them out for wider consideration.

These three are a vortex, always intersecting with each other, even competing for our attention

Obviously, while blogs and wikis provide a good starting point, these three requirements go beyond, perhaps, the sophistication of existing technology and practice, thus building the case for rapid innovations in educational technology and the establishment of best practices.

Benefits to the enterprise

Implementing Connectivist principles in learning and development will bring many benefits to the enterprise. Some of these are:

  • Agile, adaptable workforce
  • Knowledge base kept current by the learning community
  • Community decides using collective insight
  • Important challenges are immediately highlighted
  • Diversity brings creativity to the forefront
  • More space for innovation
  • Self organizing learning formations become responsible for managing change
  • Informal learning gets channelized/formalized
  • Connected enterprise can more efficiently meet needs – now and in future
  • Reductions in cost in many ways such as in content development and management of centralized systems and their supporting processes
  • Styles of learning more in line with the expectations of the Net Generation

Wenger states the following as a benefit of CoPs:

They are nodes for the exchange and interpretation of information. Because members have a shared understanding, they know what is relevant to communicate and how to present information in useful ways. As a consequence, a community of practice that spreads throughout an organization is an ideal channel for moving information, such as best practices, tips, or feedback, across organizational boundaries.

They can retain knowledge in “living” ways, unlike a database or a manual. Even when they routinize certain tasks and processes, they can do so in a manner that responds to local circumstances and thus is useful to practitioners. Communities of practice preserve the tacit aspects of knowledge that formal systems cannot capture. For this reason, they are ideal for initiating newcomers into a practice.

They provide homes for identities. They are not as temporary as teams, and unlike business units, they are organized around what matters to their members. Identity is important because, in a sea of information, it helps us sort out what we pay attention to, what we participate in, and what we stay away from. Having a sense of identity is a crucial aspect of learning in organizations.

They can steward competencies to keep the organization at the cutting edge. Members of these groups discuss novel ideas, work together on problems, and keep up with developments inside and outside a firm. When a community commits to being on the forefront of a field, members distribute responsibility for keeping up with or pushing new developments. This collaborative inquiry makes membership valuable, because people invest their professional identities in being part of a dynamic, forward-looking community.

Challenges

What are the challenges that organizations will face in this environment?

“Legacy” everything

The first challenge will be related to legacy content, infrastructure and training programs. An important thing to note is that the “legacy” qualifier applies not only to content but also to infrastructure and training processes in the Connectivist context. We need to ask what the migration or transformation path is for all three, not just content.

From the content perspective, a key factor shall be the generation of content by the participants in the learning process, not just by the traditional content developer. Therefore existing content shall be either referenced as-is or repurposed into new formats for easy consumption by the network (e.g. WBT to Wiki sections). Let us take the example of software training. Content that is traditionally found in user manuals or web based training could be used as-is or converted into a wiki. This wiki content could then be updated by the community itself when there is a new release or when they need to update or correct existing content. Obviously, the community will need a process and controls that it owns and is accountable for when making these changes.

For multiple reasons, as discussed above, we shall be challenged to introduce new technology that will render large components of existing technology incongruently positioned. How Learning and Development functions (and vendors of these systems) adapt the infrastructure shall be critical and will go beyond mere addition of (say) a blog component to an existing LMS product. For example, SCORM compliance is something that is a given for most organizations that need to standardize reporting and tracking of learning activity on online courses. With the new technologies, this will certainly no longer be a core requirement for informal learning.

Learning platforms are being “re-examined.”  Most of the companies we talk with are significantly rethinking their entire learning platform strategy (LMS) to understand how to evolve or add new systems which support collaboration.  And today’s LMS is not as successful as one would believe:  across all the organizations we studied (approximately 900 different organizations), on average only 51% of employees use the learning platform at all.

 I firmly believe that this new form of software-enabled collaboration is a revolution, not an evolution.  Like many of the software innovations that I have personally witnessed over my career (e.g. the first color graphics PC, the CD-ROM, the web-browser, Flash, SaaS architectures, and others), social networking is really going to shake things up.  The reason is that these systems are both complex, data-rich, and require a new type of software architecture.  A system which supports 200,000 employees and customers with in-depth employee and customer profiles, active communication and blogging, tagging, content management, custom branding, and tracking each and every communication is quite a complex software solution.  As we examine these vendors we are finding some very significant new areas of functionality which are going to change and upset the traditional HR software companies.

The training processes themselves will need to be rethought from a networked learning perspective. For example, in traditional systems, resource scheduling and management is an important activity for scheduling instructor-led training. This is usually a centralized activity. In a networked learning environment, this would in effect be a decentralized activity managed by the community itself. Similarly, collection of learner feedback from scheduled learning events shall again become a function of the community.

Return on Investment

Secondly, how will return on investment be measured? This is a question that needs to be answered for every initiative. To craft an effective response we must be able to understand what constitute metrics in an organization and what would substitute or complement these metrics at a community level.

Currently metrics that are used are both quantitative and qualitative. In quantitative terms, metrics are based on tracking of attendance, satisfaction surveys, scores and completion in a hierarchical manner across the organizational structure (by division, department, location, portfolio etc). The collection of raw data for the performance metrics is from test and survey questions and their responses. The crucial point here to appreciate is that these metrics are already an ineffective measure of learning in the enterprise, something that leads enterprises to spend time and effort for validating from a variety of supporting sources.

Even a brief survey of the field of assessment design can inform us of the problems in classical test design and development. Due to these, recognized testing agencies like ETS (e.g. GRE and SAT) and psychometric assessment providers use rigorous techniques for item creation and validations (computer adaptive testing, item response theory and now perhaps simulations & virtual worlds led testing) long before these tests make it to the learner.

Secondly, SCORM as a standard or most LMSs do not provide any way to capture more complex performance data such as, for example, the path taken by a learner in a case study or role-play (although there are some current initiatives that may help, such as HLA for simulations, gaming and the convergence between SCORM, DITA and s1000d).

Thirdly, existing content developers may not have an appreciation (even if enterprises had the budgets) of the challenges involved in effective (reliable and valid) item creation and validation in the context of these classical testing theories. A similar challenge may perhaps arise in processes such as the identification of competencies for a specific role in the organization and aligning learning and development plans with existing competency models. Obviously, every effort is made by Learning and Development organizations to correlate and validate this data from a variety of sources.

But if these metrics are inefficient already, the question that needs to be asked is – are the RoI estimates generated on the basis of these metrics efficient? Or are these claims valid?

Over 30% of all corporate training programs (ie. classroom or other formal programs) are not delivering any measurable value (data provided through the same survey).

Qualitatively, the assessment mechanism also suffers significantly. Did the learners actually learn? We know that given already low organizational budgets for training and development, most corporations are unable to deploy more expensive, but qualitatively more efficient, learning materials and experiences to their learners.

As a direct result, a large component of learning (estimated to be as large as 80% by Bersin) is by way of conversations, not included in computing any RoI metric.

80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts, and managers (estimated data collected from over 1,100 L&D managers late in 2008).

Intuitively it seems to be a plausible assertion too. People reach out to their network of people and knowledge for help and mentorship quite regularly, even if it is to ask a question or clarify a procedure. A lot of that time spent goes undocumented, perhaps because the individual instances of learning there are in the form of compressed and short and short bursts, not track-able because of the medium of conversation (often verbal) and the frequency.

These learning events take place outside the formal learning event itself, and in some cases, are the equivalent of the formal learning event (where no formal learning exists). A lot of these conversations also result in serendipitous learning. As Polanyi believed, knowledge is personal and tacit, not directly expressible but “known” and demonstrable through action. Tacit knowledge is hard to measure and possibly a large component of informal learning (“the aim of a skilful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them”).

If it is a plausible assertion, then it is plausible as well to think that enterprises are spending 80% of their budgets on the 20% of formal learning.

Then there are questions, like the one below, on the effectiveness of RoI as a measure in it self.

“I don’t know how useful ROI is in determining the value of training,” Valenti says. “Most of the real ROI is wrapped up in the initiative that training is supposed to support, such as a new product launch or a process improvement. I’d rather see people think about return on expectations, such as whether employees actually are following the new process they’re supposed to be following. Being able to demonstrate ROI is great, but there’s lots of training that supports organizational objectives and goals even if the ROI can’t be shown.”

[Diane Valenti, Applied Learning Solutions]

Thus, the other key impact of Connectivism is on re-evaluating the metrics that have traditionally been employed to judge training effectiveness and RoI. Instead of traditional measures, the appropriate quantitative and qualitative metrics could be based on (Albert Bandura’s) self-efficacy (“relates to a person’s perception of their ability to reach a goal”) of the employee and the question “how connected am I?” or “how do I deal with fast changing and exploding information?”. Accordingly, metrics in this context could be based on the following factors:

  1. the degree of connectedness of an individual to the network
  2. the collaboration between any two networks
  3. the quality of interaction in the network, something that network domain managers could be held accountable for (in addition to the learners) and could be measured in a host of different ways – reviews, rating, external assessment, relevance ratings etc.
  4. the impact on the business (by measures that correlate things such as the quality of tasks performed by role and the degree or frequency of use of just-in-time materials or resources used in completing that task)
  5. tracing the dynamics of performance over a period of time as reflecting in the growth of and participation in individual networks for each individual learner
  6. reviews and ratings by peers, experts and managers – both for individual contribution and quality of resources

Charles Coy from Cornerstone makes an interesting comment:

Incorporating multiple modalities of learning is not the challenging part. We can build communities of practice into business workflows and develop social media environments. The challenges, in Cornerstone’s view, revolve around engagement and tracking. Getting people to contribute and then assessing the value of this 80% social learning element for the organization. (emphasis added)

Impact on Talent Management

Thirdly, what will be the impact on Talent Management? There are obvious applications for talent acquisition and retention that can effectively utilize Web 2.0 technologies, but what are the connotations when we deem job descriptions, roles and competencies as emergent in learning cultures – shaped by and shaping enterprises continuously in ways that are as influential as external market factors confronting a business. The organization decides what it needs to do at a point in time and decides to be evaluated in a particular way. In many ways, this mirrors what learners do today – build new competencies regularly to adapt and negotiate in a fast moving environment.

A key question is on how we should include “learning through connection-forming” or “sense-making” as an organization wide competency. Dave Pollard states it succinctly when he writes:

In a world with a billion people online, connected in multiple and unfathomably complex ways, how do you find, and then connect, with just the right people to do what you need to do?

IP Protection

Fourthly, it is important to consider protection of confidential information. In a recent study commissioned by AT&T and conducted by Dynamic Markets, a sample of 2510 adult employees were interviewed who used a computer at work. The top two challenges mentioned were distraction to employees and leaking of confidential company and employee information.

Networks and Evolution

Communities of Practice

Wenger’s approach to Communities of Practice (CoP) also provides specific implementation cues. As Wenger states, CoPs form around three dimensions – what it is about, how it functions and what capability does it (or needs to) produce. This is a useful way of identifying areas of implementation for connective learning.

This will require specialized processes and tools. Processes and workflow (roles, rules and routing) will need to be placed, in-context of the learning and business goals, and best practices created.

For example, Wenger provides a blueprint for some of the roles that can exist for the internal leadership of the CoP, which he believes are key to its development. The roles are:

# The inspirational leadership provided by thought leaders and recognized experts

# The day-to-day leadership provided by those who organize activities

# The classificatory leadership provided by those who collect and organize information in order to document practices

# The interpersonal leadership provided by those who weave the community’s social fabric

# The boundary leadership provided by those who connect the community to other communities

# The institutional leadership provided by those who maintain links with other organizational constituencies, in particular the official hierarchy

# The cutting-edge leadership provided by those who shepherd “out-of-the-box” initiatives.

Network of Practice

Building upon Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice, Brown and Duguid developed the concept of Network of Practice. Ranging from communities of practice to electronic or virtual communities, and differentiated from formal work teams, it focuses on how individuals come together to learn and collaborate in the context of their daily practice or tasks.

Defining networks as a set of individuals that are connected together in a social relationship (strong or weak ties) and practice representing the common area of focus or substrate that links the individuals together, the network of practice is differentiated from other types of networks such as photo sharing insofar as this kind of a network is based on a practice area where individuals engage in a conversation to ask and share in order to perform at their work.

Networks of Practice (NoPs) include communities of practice (where ties are strong and face to face interaction is predominant) at one end of the spectrum, to electronic networks of practice (typically virtual/electronic communities brought together by weak ties) at the other end.

NoPs differ from formal work teams primarily in the way they are structured and by their control mechanisms. They also differ in terms of their size (they can get very large) and by restrictions on membership.

Existing Technology Vendor Approaches

Janet Clarey’s interviews with LMS providers reveal other implementation perspectives, perhaps not all as well informed by connectivist theory, but nonetheless cognizant of the power of networked learning and social media. For example, Jeff Whitney from Outstart states:

We developed our social media platform separate from our LMS as many informal learning initiatives do not require the formal reporting and tracking features of an LMS.

Generation21 believes that the network function is really a feature, an option to customers to exercise if they so require. And Mzinga is prepared to allow customers to balance emphasis between formal and informal learning modes with “deep direct links” to the former for “certifications, compliance, curriculum…”.

Just as CBTs (computer based training) evolved into WBTs (Web based training), we are seeing now the emergence of, what I call, NBTs (Network based Training) and blended training options that include blogs and wikis as one of the components of the blend. Whatever be the exact mode of bringing in networked learning, enterprises can now start assessing this new framework for their own specific uses.

In essence, then, there is the conflict between adopting networked learning as a standalone social platform, a “hybrid” blend of formal and informal learning and as part of a pure Connectivist model of learning.

The LMS providers are thinking of informal learning as either ancillary (supporting a formal learning program, like an additional component that is blended in), optional (that users can use if they want) or for pure collaboration purposes (the individual knowledge sharing community purpose).

However, a pure connectivist model would start from individuals discovering others through weak ties around an area of shared inquiry; a model where learning and knowledge evolves in parallel with the ability of learners to make connections. Too much structure and control upfront, as in the standalone or hybrid approaches, will inhibit the fundamental aim of a connectivist learning approach, which is to build key learning abilities such as wayfinding and sensemaking. It may also mute and morph the change and lull us into believing that Connectivism is yet another way to teach, learn and administer training using Web 2.0 technologies.

For organizations, Connectivist approaches may be applied to some areas, while there may be a mix of other approaches for other areas including the formal training approaches.

Learning Ecologies

As opposed to other theories, Connectivism provides a framework that is based on an explicit understanding of the role of networked, distributed learning. Of core importance to educators, the ecology for learning becomes a key for engendering connectivist learning.

As Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Clark Quinn, and Jay Cross state:

Most of us agree on where we’re headed: to ecologies where work and learning are one and the same, where people help one another build competency and master new crafts, where members of self-sustaining communities of professionals participate because they take pride in maintaining their standards and doing a great job, and where everyone strives to be all she can be. Open, participative, bottom-up, networked, flexible, responsive: that’s what we’re after.

A Connectivist learning ecology inherently:

  • Enables us to recognize and interpret patterns that exist (way finding, sense making); indeed, generate our own new patterns
  • Helps us build adaptively on and capture existing patterns given a rapid changing core and diverse knowledge sources
  • Provides a distributed environment (both for knowledge and people)
  • Provides avenues for social collaboration
  • Is technologically enhanced to deal with diverse processes/circumstances such as negotiating information overload, self organization, determining order within chaos etc.
  • Enables us to leverage and expand on a network that is diverse
  • Helps us build ties at varying strengths that in turn may determine the efficacy/effectiveness of our learning
  • Enables us to negotiate complex learning needs

These ecologies force us to reconsider the roles of the educator, the instructional designer, the visual designer and the learning technologist even as it impacts how managers and vendors contribute to the learning organization.

Learning Formations

In this context, it is important to consider two dimensions – how do groups form and how do they evolve in an enterprise context. Stephen Downes clearly demarcates networks from groups.

A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness – like an ingot of metal 

A network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem

Stages of Evolution

This distinction is an important one because it spans different types of learning collaborations possible. In a learning network, we may expect different types of such collaborations – that I term Learning Formations. Three possible types are:

  1. Instant, ad-hoc, workflow based, just-in-time learning formations – these are characterized by short bursts of interactions and great diversity, typically simple collaboration types with no structure that needs to be defined, such as in Twitter, IM and simple media sharing
  2. Short term learning formations characterized by heavy bursts of interaction and purposeful collaboration – typically what we would find in training contexts today or blogs
  3. Long term learning formations – formations that are cohesively built around a reasonably long term commitment, focussed goals and complex domains. These would be highly structured environments such as in CoPs.

If we tried to map models of group development, such as Bruce Tuckman’s Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing-Adjourning model, or George Charrier’s Cog’s Ladder Polite-Why we are here-Power-Cooperation-Esprit stage model, we can perhaps look at instant learning formations occupying the early stages, the short term learning formations placed somewhere in the middle and the long term learning formation at the end of the spectrum.

It is important to emphasise how network formations could possibly evolve. If we look at George Charrier’s Cog’s Ladder model, there are five stages to forming efficient groups. These are:

  • the Polite stage – where members get acquainted with each other, engage in dialogue and verbal spars to really assess each other and what they bring to the group
  • the Why we are here stage – where members rally around a common context, whatever their individual motivation is, facilitated by a moderator or leader
  • the Power stage – where opinions, dissensions or simple abstentions dominate the interaction
  • the Cooperation stage – where members realize that to meet the common goal they need to accept diversity of thought and opinion
  • the Esprit stage – where mutual acceptance, team spirit and learning efficiency is the highest

If we look at Bruce Tuckman’s five stage model, it has:

  • Forming – similar to the polite stage in terms of making acquaintances and assessing the other members and their abilities, but includes context setting and motivation with a lot of direction being provided by the team leadership
  • Storming – where different perspectives compete for attention and conflict may undermine progress towards achieving goals
  • Norming – where trust, motivation, agreement on rules of the game and participation become enhanced and team members get more acquanted with the how of achieving shared objectives
  • Performing – where team members are highly motivated, become really knowledgeable, manage conflicts amicably and participate at a deep level
  • Adjourning – where when the goal has been achieved, teams disband to pursue new tasks or learning goals.

Wenger also depicts about the 5 stages of development for a Community of Practice. These are:

  • Potential – people face similar situations without the benefit of a shared practice
  • Coalescing – Members come together and recognize their potential
  • Active – Members engage in developing a practice
  • Dispersed – Members no longer engage very intensively, but still the community is alive as a force and a center of knowledge
  • Memorable – The community is no longer central, but people still remember it as a significant part of their identities

In all models, there may be iterative cycles as new members are inducted or issues arise that force the group back to a prior stage.

Whether they are called groups, networks, connectives, collectives or communities, these are learning formations that are characterized by factors such as:

  • life cycle – duration and phases (length of the interactions, the progression from one stage to the other)
  • interaction frequency (index of user participation in the interactions)
  • interaction depth (index of user participation in terms of the quality and inter-relationships in the interactions)
  • complexity of domain (quality and amount of knowledge and its complexity)
  • extent of formal structures and processes (roles, workflow, leadership, accountability, open-ness)
  • formation size (the number of people involved)

If we attempt to connect learning to Tuckman’s stages in development for learning formations and to Web 2.0 technologies that are available today, we can perhaps group them into three segments as depicted above.

The first segment (Ad hoc) is characterized by a high level of diversity of opinion, open-ness, ad-hoc relationship creation and a very utilitarian workflow or just-in-time type of interaction. Examples include a twitter network, IM or Facebook, simple sharing of photos or videos or presentations and quick queries through services such as Yahoo! Answers.

The second segment is where I would place traditional learning and some part of the learning 2.0 style. Formations that occur here are typically those who will get to some extent to the performing phase (and thereon to organizational or institutional excellence). A degree of formal structure starts becoming visible here, whether it is an LMS controlling enrolments or an instructor leading a class.

The third segment is where things start getting complex. These formations are tightly focussed and driven by commonly accepted goals. Examples include CoPs (Communities of Practice) and massively multi-player on-line role playing games (MMORPGs) and where gaming, simulation, e-portfolios and immersive learning environments would fit naturally and play a great role. These formations would be highly structured, deal with higher complexity, have higher frequency of interaction, higher indices of user participation and would move all the way up into the performing stage relatively quickly.

However, as George Siemens cautions when he quotes Uzzi Shapiro in Connectives and Collectives: Learning Alone, together,

“Intense connectivity can homogenize the pool…high cohesiveness can lead to the sharing of common rather than novel information” Uzzi, Spiro (2005)

The thought is that as ties become stronger and individuals aggregate into groups and collectives, the discourse becomes normed (in fact there is a veritable coercion to the norm) that leads to a drying up of new ideas that are novel and diverse.

Barry Wellman describes how communities have evolved from being in “Little Boxes” (densely-knit, linking people door-to-door) to “Glocalized ” networks (sparsely-knit but with clusters, linking households both locally and globally) to “Networked Individualism ” (sparsely-knit, linking individuals with little regard to space).

The basic thesis is that since learning formations may be manifested and may evolve in many ways, an understanding of these types is important to build effective learning ecologies at the enterprise level.

Enterprise Implementation

This brings us to an important question. If there is a strong case for Connectivism in the Enterprise, is there also an implementation methodology that is established and can be immediately used?

One perspective, that was heavily process oriented & steeped in real life experiences, argues that unless processes and workflows (and related metrics) are established, implementing these tools in the enterprise would be exhausting and with little return for the amount of effort it would take to manage and the money it would cost.

Then there are formal approaches for CoPs such as the one laid down in the Defence Acquisition University (DAU)  Community of Practice Implementation Guide, which provides a 14-step, 3 phase process for setting up practices that could contain CoPs, Shared Interest Areas (SIA) and collaborative workspaces. This document is very elaborate and covers processes, roles, permissions, workflow, engagement rules and metrics for setting up CoPs and community knowledge bases.

With true process orientation, this document provides a fairly detailed best practice for the DAU in its community development initiatives. What is important is the fact that it leverages the same principles that we would use to create and manage an enterprise unit.

Another perspective revolves around how useful or participated in really are blogs and wikis. Talk CoPs or networked learning, and all that people think of is Web 2.0 technology and tools, the hype not really difficult to understand, given that major technology vendors are pushing for implementation of these tools in their recent launches.

Endgame. The perception that the process and/or the technology are responsible for making networked learning happen is problematic. This is especially true given the power laws we have experienced in terms of community participation and effectiveness or the constant refrain that elearning is not, perhaps, living upto its potential.

Stephen explains in his post, Connectivist Dynamics in Communities, that connectivist networks produce connective knowledge. Four elements distinguish a knowledge-generating network from a mere set of connected elements. These are autonomy, diversity, open-ness and interactivity & connectedness. There are compelling arguments that Stephen makes, as in the past, that we need to respect these elements if we want to increase the probability of generating new knowledge (and make sense of the current base of knowledge). These elements can also be the basis of metrics and tracking.

George laments the inadequacy of tools for sense-making. He also declares “…But any view of society that does not start with the individual is disconcerting.“

All these views, taken together, suggest that there is something more to networked learning than just processes and technology. It is a connectivist approach, a model that focuses on how we learn, that provides us a different lens through which to regard fundamental questions such as how do we learn to perform in a fast changing environment or how do we get incited to participate in a network to create new knowledge.

The Connectivism Development Cycle

In his book Knowing Knowledge, George Siemens painstakingly describes a possible implementation model (pp124-141) for organizations to adopt. He states (p 128):

Connectivism implementation begins with the creation of new organizational structures. New organizational structures then direct or allow for new affordances. The combination of new spaces and structures and affordances permit the implementation of Connectivist approaches to learning and knowledge flow in learning, communicating, collaborating, marketing and other organizational activities.

Giving us a sense of how deep the change is, Siemens writes (p 128):

Tinkering around the edges, in constant conflict with the balance of the organization, is a taxiing and frustrating process. For these reasons, I have chosen to present a wide scale implementation of Connectivism, instead of smaller scale views.

The Connectivism Development Cycle (CDC), according to Siemens, includes the following domains:

  • Analysis and Validation – analyzing and validating the existing knowledge processes (how does knowledge flow?), the social network, structure of the organization, learning mission and culture
  • Ecology and Network Design and fostering – the external design of nodes of information, tools and techniques along with the processes for fostering and guiding internal (knowledge) networks.
  • Adaptive Learning and knowledge cycle – where digital, network and network formation (connection-making) skills are a new competency to be developed by organizations in their employees. In this domain, organizations can play a crucial role in establishing the purpose of the learning ecology, defining individual and ecology identity, establishing the relevance to daily work, making it easy to use and accessible, allowing network formation through social relationships, encouraging diversity and monitoring change & contribution.
  • System review and evaluation – how the organization evaluates the effectiveness of the ecology (metrics such as those for innovation, quality of learning, better customer service) and RoI (metrics such as those for reduced expenses, increased revenue, increased personal effectiveness, capacity to meet new challenges and organizational ability to adapt & transform
  • Impacting factors – factors such as the time available for development, budgets for development and change, learning intent, availability of technology and competence to use the new technology.

An alternative approach to Implementation

To this end, I propose a phased approach.

A starting point, in my opinion, would be to create an environment wherein employees could get engaged with the new medium inside the workplace and learn the skills required to operate in this ecology – making connections, navigating information, sharing and collaborating through weak and strong ties. The primary movers in this phase would be community coordinators and subject matter experts who would be responsible for setting up most of the content in a way that can be disseminated to the rest of the community. This would be akin to a Norming stage.

The second step would be to allow the members of the learning enterprise to practice these skills to access information and organize it in a way that is aligned to their work. For example, they could view and comment on what the experts have put together. And this could be among other special initiatives designed by the coordinators to engage members and help them build expertise and interest in participating. At this point, we should see many more ideas from all over the network on how they should be organized into sub-networks or communities of practice and some amount of self organization will begin to emerge. This would be similar to a Storming stage.

Once this has been accomplished, these skills need to be placed inside a work context – a specific domain area, a problem to be solved or an innovation to be pioneered. As individuals and departments experience the power of this framework, and the learning implicit within it, connective learning should be formalized within the context of a business goal – e.g. launching a new product and making sure all employees learn how to market and support the product. The first RoI will and should emerge from demonstrable business results from engaging this framework. This is where networks in the enterprise shall have started performing in response to business needs.

Summary

In summary, enterprises today can greatly benefit from a Connectivist approach to learning and development. Not only that, it is fast becoming imperative for Enterprises to embrace networked learning, leverage social media, recognize changing learner preferences and reduce training costs to survive and grow in an intensely challenging marketplace. Connectivism provides a framework for learning in the digital age that allows us to do exactly that.

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Most of our education system is geared towards a particular conception of a student and her specific way of learning. Let’s face it. We give our children the same amount of time to learn every day. It is the same time in the day for learning. It is mostly the same cohort with which you learn. The same methods applied to each student. The same subjects to learn. The same textbooks to read. The same boundaries of what you can or cannot do. The same metrics to judge performance. The same number of years to study. The same choices each year until they leave, and then precious little choice of what to learn afterwards. Day after day. Year after year.

On the other hand, we struggle with this sameness. No two students are the same, we say. Learning should occur outside too, through real life applications and experience. It should probably also be flipped. We should use digital content and technology to give students more choice and exposure. We strive to be different each day, try to negotiate their individual complexity within these constraints.

It is almost as if these are two different things – schooling and learning. The end results are fairly predictable. Our children learn to cope with the system. Some manage to master it. And some give up.

Does each student take away enough to be all that we desire them to? Are they really equipped to be responsible citizens and family?

The sameness of our system is a dramatic simplification of teaching and learning. Our struggle against it, a Sisyphean challenge. Our success, partial at best. Thousands learn , but millions don’t quite get there. A scorecard we would not and should not find acceptable.

Do we know any better? Perhaps we do know a bit more than we did. We know it is far more important to push and extend the limits of what our childen can do, like athletes preparing for long hard days on tracks they aspire to reach. We know of more ways to reform or beat the system.

But the system stays, inertial and unyielding,  perhaps we collectively do not believe in our own hearts that the any struggle against it can possibly succeed. Perhaps we believe that it is our fault that the system does not work. Perhaps there is a hope that it can still overcome the contradiction between the simple and the complex, the sameness and the diversity.

We can change it if we really want to, if we really care. We can start by making a commitment to all our children that we will help them learn – that we will not have them bear what we had to.

How can we change?

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A brief introduction

Rhizomatic Learning is an important way to think about learning and teaching. It describes a learning experience where learning itself is organic and emergent, deeply driven by personal context, flexible boundaries and multiple pathways. It describes a teaching experience that sets the context, facilitates the inter-connections of ideas through conversations, and empowers the community to engineer their own curriculum.

Rhizomatic Learning builds up the core capability to learn in a distributed learning environment. It leverages all the attendant benefits of network-led and community-based learning, but distinguishes itself by describing a personal “self-reproducing” capability to learn.

The agency to learn rests with the learner and the learning community she is part of. The agency to teach is distributed among all the learners, who really establish the curriculum. The resultant is messy and complex, with individual outcomes possibly far in deviation to any expected outcomes from the community.

In Rhizomatic Learning, the definition of a “course” veers away from the traditional. It is a sense of time-bound evented-ness, a shared context which aggregates a community. It’s curriculum is formed by the community, that evolves and extends it continuously through prior knowledge and emergent opinions. It may engender several artistic and creative forms of expression, not necessarily formal artifacts associated with traditional courses.

Rhizomatic Learning is characterized by learning freedom. It draws heavily upon open-ness, lack of centralized control, autonomy, diversity and interaction. Freedom in learning drives most of the interactions, liberating the learning experience.

In contrast, Connectivist models uphold “connection-making”  as the primary source of learning and knowledge. There is connection-making in Rhizomatic learning, but that is merely a medium. The focus is on free, unrestricted sharing and unpredictable pathways in learning. In that sense, the afterthought focus on Critical Literacies in the cMOOCs, becomes the starting point for Rhizomatic Learning. What is “tidy” in  the network model, becomes messy in the rhizomatic one. The replication of learning capability in distributed environments is key – “more of how you can learn, is learning” of rhizomatic learning overwhelms the “those that have, get” rules of networks. In  that sense, rhizomatic learning is deliberately empowering personalized learning.

The Practical Guide

So what would a practical guide to Rhizomatic Learning contain for the learner? Having gone through so many years of learning in all modes – traditional, online, MOOC, rhizomatic – here is a summary of how I learn best. Perhaps there are learners like me who will resonate with my approach.

Liberate yourself

The first important thing to realize is that you are in control. You control what you write, how you perform, who you choose to interact with, the level of effort you put in, how you handle critique – in short, your behavior, goals, motivations, discipline and ethics play an important role in Rhizomatic Learning.

Express yourself regularly

If the community is the curriculum, each one has the capability to contribute, in whatever form of expression. In fact, try out new forms of expression, artistic or otherwise, to experiment with ways to put your point forward. You don’t know which part or form of your expression may inspire several others or motivate them to contribute. The point is to verbalize or demonstrate your participation in some way or the other. It is really important to be regular. Make it a point to express yourself at least once a topic or theme.

Keep Track

We will continuously get better at handling conversation technologies, but it is important to keep up with what others are expressing. Understand that other people will also use a variety of channels and techniques to communicate, and that conversation will sometimes get too unwieldy to keep track of. Navigating and coalescing your spaces into some form of organization convenient for you is important.

Small is better

Pick out threads that pique your interest, focus on a small idea at a time and track its development. These small ideas will eventually bubble up into larger perspectives. Interact in smaller groups, one idea at a time. Don’t “spray and pray” and always watch your stats (such as how many views, likes), because the act of expressing an opinion is itself a work of art – your art – which contributes to your own rhizomic development immeasurably. It helps to get and give concise feedback on small focused ideas. It also helps to give some time for the idea to develop, in your mind and through the interactions. So perhaps it is better to culminate a theme/week with your informed perspective.

Be responsive

It is incredibly important to be responsive to people and events, both in instances where you are explicitly part of the conversation and where you are not. Being responsive helps other people with feedback and a motivation to continue their rhizomatic learning. Respond to comments, like posts and comments where you agree, drop a line or two in response to a new contribution – there are many ways to be a proactive part of the community learning experience. I would include empathy and humor as two very important tools in rhizomatic learning.

Be rhizomatic

Above all, reflect on how you are learning. Use each interaction as an opportunity to build your capability to learn. Find what helped, explore a new direction of thought, make a friend, challenge an argument.

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Dave Cormier asks many interesting questions in his challenge for Week 5 of Rhizomatic Learning. He asks:

This week take a critical look at the rhizomatic approach. Are we just replacing one authority structure with another? Trading tradition for community? What does this mean in our classroom? How can this get us into trouble? What are the ethical implications of creating a ‘community’ for learning? Community as conformity?

In general, communities tend to homogenize around shared beliefs and practice, agenda/goals, structure and authority. Communities may be open & tolerant by choice, and forever expansive by design.

Within communities, there are similar patterns as groups of people start self-organizing and gaining power. It is to be expected that (as the SNA by Aras shows) as we evolve, we start self-organizing in sub-community clusters or groups. Each cluster (centered around a hub) will feature its own level of density of connectedness and its own sub-community rules of engagement within and with the outside world. If the charter of the community includes outreach, the community will keep on expanding and so will the clusters as new people make themselves felt. Some communities will become extinct for lack of strong leadership or sharing, and some may flourish. That is just how it is with communities, I think.

Communities are very useful entities in many ways – they indoctrinate, foster and grow in specific ways and directions, and come to represent social, political and economic forces. Over time, they may become increasingly cohesive, sometimes acquiring cult status of their own. In  that sense, communities feed on and edify more and more of their own shared beliefs and practices (“more of the same”). To the extent that they believe their beliefs and practices are universal, they also acquire invasive and exclusive dimensions, particularly as their elite start focusing on goals of mutual benefit.

Communities are also able to then interact with other communities in ways dictated by power relationships and mutual value. Their interactions with each other may not be very open because they represent differing shared beliefs and other characteristics. That is just the way they behave, I think.

I believe it is not possible to pose community as an alternative to traditional structures.

I do not mean this in an operational sense (learning is different in a community as compared to learning in a formal educational equivalent), but in a structural way. Of course, it is very reasonable to talk of it as an alternative in the operational sense – at least so long as we are unable to do the “counting” in pure, un-blended community environments. But structurally, the evidence is that it is “more of the same” and will promote “those who have, get” types of structures.

So Dave asks:

How do we make sure there is always room for new and contrarian voices? Do we need to create a them to have a we? How do we cultivate a community learning ecosystem so that it continues to grow outward rather than inward? What does that mean for learning?

There is a natural asymmetry in the terms “ensure”, “make room for”, new and contrarian”, “them and we”, and “outward and inward” symptomatic of the community itself. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have let that homogenizing force compel us to differentiate between these. In that sense, communities are invasive. Not a bad thing at all in a lot of cases, but just how a community structures and evolves over time, I think.

But communities aren’t the only form that needs to become operational. Nor are “courses” the only evented-ness in learning. My own sense is that networks will be far more important in supporting and driving learning processes of the future than communities (or “courses”).

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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.

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The Open Text-based Assessment or OTBA was also notified on May 31, 2013 by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Applicable to select subjects in Class IX and XI, this was made a mandatory component of the Summative exams at the end of the year. Experts hired by CBSE have now made essays/case studies etc. based around the key concepts covered through the second term in that subject and told teachers to hold group discussions, facilitate exploration and to engage students in “discussion, analysis, self-reflection and critical thinking”. They want to discourage “mugging” and encourage active learning. As the circular states:

The main objective of introducing this element is to provide opportunities to students to apply theoretical concepts to a real life scenario by encouraging active and group learning in the Class.

In a later circular, it is reiterated that:

the main objective of introducing OTBA is to relieve the students from the burden of mugging up of content and provide opportunities in effective use of memory and acquiring skills of information processing.

And the board has actually supplied the content for the OTBA complete with sample questions and assessment “rubrics” (which are nothing but itemized phrases or key points, that if they appear in the answer to the question, may be considered worthy of being awarded the right score). The teacher is expected then to create questions based on a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, assign a marking scheme and keep an “open mind” setting aside own biases while grading an answer.

While the concept is laudable – in fact, this is greatly desirable as a technique – the implementation is and will continue to be a great challenge. It assumes and implies several things.

It assumes that teachers will be able to execute if oriented and trained. While this is a good “upward” aspiration, it is unlikely to be true on a significant scale as pointed out by the NCFTE 2009 report itself. The report bemoans that:

Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences…There is no opportunity for teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and reflect on their own experiences as part of classroom discourse and enquiry.

Teachers who have not experienced or practiced lateral and critical thinking themselves are not going to be able to do so basis an orientation program or workshop conducted by the CBSE per se. For them to be able to do this, they will need extensive on-going coaching and mentoring.

The other thing is the format itself. The beauty of an open assessment like this is that it needs time in the classroom and beyond it to appreciate the text and its interdisciplinary nature. But if the text itself becomes a chapter-like construct, because the same text that is given in advance becomes the one upon which assessment is conducted, it has already negated the technique. In the end, publishers are incentivized to come up with yet another textbook around the passages and the child ends up resorting to cramming it, defeating the very purpose of the assessment.

Not just that, there is no evidence gathering mechanism to demonstrate what the in-class and beyond-class exploration and thinking around the text has really resulted in. This means that teachers have no compulsion to treat this as any different from what they normally do. Even if they  were able and willing, they have little prior experience in negotiating loosely structured learning processes.

Then again, the beauty of any such technique lies in the open interpretation of the text in the context of all the learning that the child goes through. However text based assessments are divided subject wise, automatically constraining the extent of interpretation and analysis to the chapter of the subject being taught. So it is not even a true case based approach. If it were, it would place even a greater load on teachers who would be expected to have that holistic approach and knowledge.

The other important thing is the naming of the assessment itself. The use of “open” as a qualifier to “text based” is contradictory in terms because it restricts the learning context to the text itself (and some supplied references, many of which are dead-ends for discovery and exploration of the theme). The text could be one starting point, but not the only one. And it must be clear of political overtones (like the preoccupation with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan).

In fact, if it was called open learning assessment, it would be much more appropriate. For these type of assessments, we cannot apply the same context as that for closed learning assessments. The concept is not new and even a cursory examination of the research on the web reveals practices, techniques and critical opinions (see also Can students also learn…) about open “authentic” assessments vs. traditional closed assessments. Of course, one cannot ignore other “get-around-it” methods such as plagiarization and cheating, which must be combated in these kind of assessments if they are truly open, but there are methods to handle these anomalies as well.

The question is how deeply are we thinking about these assessments and learning processes? Are we playing lip service or do we really think this can be a silver bullet? We need to think deeply about the ecosystem we want to foster for deep authentic learning – are our designs going to further learning or are they going to serve entrenched interests?

If we do really intend OTBA type assessments to result in something significant for our students and teachers, we need to address some deeper issues.

  1. How can we first engage our teachers (and teacher educators) in ways through which they truly begin to understand and appreciate “open-ness”? How do they start practicing open-ness? What practices and tools are they most comfortable with? How do we ensure that they are given a conducive environment to fill their own learning gaps?
  2. How can we start encouraging our students to learn new practices, especially the social and digital ones, to aid authentic learning?
  3. How can we plan this in a way that we have the ecosystem in place before we scale it to students and their parents? It is tiring to see students being guinea pigs of every new brainwave.
  4. What should the ecosystem contain? This should involve skills development in various areas (student, teacher, parent, school administration), community development for learning and practice, social online literacies, tools and platforms, audit and measurement leading to analytics and actionable insights, and other elements such as linkages with real-life scenarios, experts and data.
  5. Perhaps the greatest contribution in these can be made through cMOOCs, because they are truly fit for authentic learning. If platforms such as SWAYAM could be adapted to become the cornerstone of this approach, especially for technology enabled communities, this could really be the platform that would make this kind of learning and assessment possible. Why can’t every OTBA be a MOOC? For those who do not have access to technology or the Internet in a reliable fashion, what are the other ways of dissemination and collaboration (inter/intra-school debates, mock discussions, paper-writing and many other activities could be conducted)?

Is this plain lip service to open-ness and authentic learning? Or is it being thought of as this incredible silver bullet that at some point will transform Indian education. Either way, we need to think deeper urgently.

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My presentation at the Technology in Higher Education at the edTechNext conference today.

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