Archive for the ‘Learning Theory’ Category

I didn’t know it at that time, having been born just a few months later, that the revolutionary Open University, UK was born in January, 1971 with 25000 students. Of course, my parents didn’t know that either when they named me Viplav (my Sanskrit origin name literally means “revolution”). It’s just one of those weird coincidences.

The OU was born amidst great opposition as a “University of the Air”. The concept was being discussed from the early 1960s. Touted as “an experiment on radio and television: a ‘University of the Air’ for serious, planned, adult education”. It was revolutionary also because it did not ask for prior qualifications and placed a premium on students acquiring the skills to study in this medium.

Although the first correspondence (read Distance Education by local mail) based course was organized in India by Delhi University in 1962, Andhra Pradesh Open University (now Dr. B R Ambedkar Open University) was the first Open University in India when it opened in 1982, 3 years before the famous government-owned Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) that opened its doors in 1985. IGNOU has now about 4 million students and serves 20% of Indian Higher Education students.

There are many parallels to the growth of the two systems (UK and India), and the UK OU’s trajectory was a pivotal influence on what our policy makers envisioned. In fact, I have direct evidence that this is so.

Between 16-19 December 1970, there was a seminar organized by the Ministry of Education and Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the University Grants Commission (UGC). The Seminar’s focus was on an open university.  J C Aggarwal chronicles the event in his book, Landmarks in the History of Modern Indian Education, and states:

In the United Kingdom the proposal for the establishment of an open university, originally called the university of the Air, took 4 years to take definite shape. Profiting by what has been accomplished in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and also by the experience of the correspondence courses conducted by several Indian universities, it should be possible for shortening the time that will be needed for planning and preparation.

It was proposed that a study group be established to work out the details so that an open university be created “at an early date”.

This open university was envisioned to make higher education available to those with “the capacity for it to benefit from the existing facilities.” It was meant for highly motivated adults lacking formal qualifications or means to join universities full-time. In their conception, the Open University could be used for:

  1. providing education to capable, independent and mature learners
  2. providing education to the masses at a reduced per unit cost
  3. making higher education more effective by leveraging scarce resources
  4. as a means of employing new and unconventional methods of instruction and exploiting new technologies

Very interestingly, they placed focus on ‘open-ness” to new ideas as fundamental to the open university concept. Perhaps they were prescient about the current xMOOCs when they wanted the  best in curricula from Indian and foreign universities.

It is interesting that the dominant paradigm (as Prof. MM Pant pointed out to me yesterday) was the television, and thereby video. I was told recently that we have many tens of thousands of hours of taped educational videos (between CEC, IGNOU and others). Supporting technologies included the radio, postal communications and localized study centres.

Aggarwal also points to an interesting government committee on Audio-Visual Aids in Higher Education (1967-69) set up by the UGC. Video was preferred because it provided “sight” and sound to enrich the learning process. They acknowledged that:

Films, filmstrips and transparencies are being increasingly used in educationally advanced countries as visual materials which can be used in any teaching situation when it becomes necessary to demonstrate a point, a fact, an idea or a process.

It is perhaps being inspired by these ideas that even today the government is commissioning advanced direct to home channels for education and have created NPTEL (Engineering disciplines OER repository) and NMEICT e-Content (by CEC and others).

Together, India must absolutely have the largest collection of educational material in the entire world. And I would wager that a large percentage of it is really good quality material suitable for leverage by everyone, if only the government would make it really open and accessible.

Over time, the confluence of developments in affordable technology as well as developments in educational theory, has brought many inflections on our policies and curricula. Our educational systems have time and again, faced up to these developments in an incremental fashion to various degrees of success.

Globally as well, when elearning came in, it was more of a response to standardize learning “packages” so that they could be uniformly consumed by a large number of people. Driven by the emphasis on cost reduction by Western corporates, eLearning quickly took off as a time and money saver. Traditional education systems too realized the potential, but were limited by available funds and perhaps a greater aspiration to quality than the corporates.

Now there is a point to which an existing paradigm can stretch and contort to keep up with surrounding developments in technology and learning theory. We passed that point about 10 years ago when dramatic changes in networks and social media started surfacing.

The current thinking is all part of an evolution that is now about 60 years old (perhaps more!). New thinking cannot be built on top of something that ancient. We have to start from scratch, re-envision the educational process and systems from the very ground up so that they reflect our possible futures that are in all honesty going to be dominated by intelligence brought to us by networks and data.

That work has to begin in earnest now. Very soon, we will be seeing the rear end of the demographic dividend (which shall move to Africa). What are we doing to prepare ourselves for that future?

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The discussion on what is a MOOC or how do we classify MOOCs is gaining momentum. First we had George explaining the difference by saying that there are xMOOCs and cMOOCs. Now Lisa Lane has come with a different taxonomy (network/task/content based) with some interesting distinctions. Dominic came up his own understanding of the “features” of a MOOC. See also Gordon Lockhart’s Super-MOOCA MOOC by Another Name and a brilliant post by Doug Holton, where he makes many insightful remarks including what could be necessary and sufficient conditions for learning to occur or to be “caused” (don’t particularly like that last word).

Taking Doug’s cue, we should perhaps be talking of massive in the sense of the quantum of connected-ness or connection-richness, or in terms of the widespread nature of the learning need or motivation, rather than looking at it from the point of view of number of learner enrolments.

That said, I would reiterate that we are comparing apples with oranges, and despite the “mania”, there is no reason why we should be forced to compare these different initiatives in the first place. MOOCs (cMOOCs) will have a plethora of possible implementation strategies and techniques. For example, I love what the folks at the Mechanical MOOC are doing (Audrey covered them here).

In my opinion, it makes more sense to focus on the platform rather than the tool, the rubric rather than the assessment and the DNA rather than the you or me.

A video, by Prof. John Holland (University of Michigan) speaking on Modelling Complex Adaptive Systems, is a must view (rather long, but worth it) for a large number of reasons. I find this CAS video (and generally the complex systems area) appealing because it makes more sense to me than engineered closed systems like we have in education today.

I am intrigued by the emphasis in the talk of building blocks, signals, interactions and boundaries within an overall approach of risk taking innovation. I think that fundamentally describes the platform I am referring to. Let us look at that process.

When a learner first starts out, certain pre-conditions exist. These pre-conditions are what makes a person a learner – whether it be out of curiosity, awareness, context, a need and/or some other kind of motivation trigger. At this point, the learner understands little of the network of knowledge, and perhaps may also have a sense or purpose or general idea of outcomes from the forthcoming experience. The platform will have to recognize this initial state.

Next comes a series of interactions in and with the network. This is where the accessibility, quality and depth of the network (in terms of coverage, accuracy, engagement, open-ness) and the contained boundaries play a big role in facilitating or obstructing discovery, experimentation and conjecture – viz. sense-making.

The network really is two things – one, an explicitly curated or visible set of people, content and tools, and two, a vast hidden implicit network intimately connected with the first but not explicitly visible at first.

Interaction in the network will be governed by signals – actions by the learner, actions by others and changes in the network itself as it evolves and adapts. The learner will interact to implicitly or explicitly “produce” or “engineer” make visible or personal, a set of connected nodes in the network (which shall be her curation arising out of her discovery, experimentation and conjecture).

The visible and invisble impact of her sense-making and of others will generate fresh signals in a non-linear manner. Over time, some of the network constellations will get broken to form new bonds (or connections) as the process will be usually far from equilibrium. Visible parts will become a part of the network thus changing the network maps of sense-making of others and in turn generating new innovations and experimentation.

Again over time, feedback from these interactions or signals will reinforce collections or patterns of these nodes of sense-making and new building blocks of comprehension and sense making will emerge. This is turn will affect boundaries of interaction and reduce impedance caused by them, so that new constellations are created.

The platform will have to recognize this elaborate dance of sense-making, the signals, interactions, boundaries and complex adaptation. It will have to provide for this complexity and it will need to allow for contextual influence to align towards certain constellations (and it will do so in many ways, giving us the agency). 

The platform will have to recognize and help resolve multiple trails that coalesce into a conception, parallelisms or multiple patterns of building blocks that converge into a model (a thought, an idea). And the system will have to recognize transition or inflection points, when existing models are questioned and new trains of thoughts emerge, just like in this post.

The platform has to provide for this emergence, chaos, self-organization and adaptation. Something that is spectacularly different from what Khan Academy or Coursera or other non-MOOCs are attempting to do. And in doing so, it will forge a new understanding of what an educational system ought to be.

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Speakers at the EDGEX Conference debated many tensions and challenges apparent in education today.

George Siemens evocatively questioned the use of the word “disruptive” and asserted that we should call for transformation instead. Given the broad societal transitions to a networked and complex ecology, he talked about how initiatives like Coursera, Udacity and the Khan Academy provided disruptions, but did not transform education.

Forces that are working to transform education have their drivers in economic change, changing perceptions of the university systems, changes in student expectations and needs, and demographic explosion in worldwide student population. In his opinion, there are some forces that may transform education – robots, new school models, cloud computing, new assessment models, new pedagogical models like the Massive Open Online Course and distributed research & discovery networks.

Putting the focus sharply on India, and its challenges of scale, equity and quality, he said that India has perhaps the chance to break from tradition and leapfrog over many of the milestones in the evolution of the traditional educational systems worldwide. That leverage of transformative educational research, was perhaps what excited many of the international and national speakers and delegates at EDGEX.

Bringing another tension to the fore, Stephen Downes talked about Education as a Platform. Instead of focusing on content, Stephen believes that the connections should be given primacy. Knowledge is something that is grown rather than acquired or ingested. Outlining some of the current challenges with MOOCs, such as the size vs. connectedness or the bootstrapping challenge, Stephen felt that their MOOCs were insufficiently focused on connectedness.

Education as a platform would encompass thinking on the personal learning environment and giving fresh meaning to assessments and learning analytics in a networked ecology. Dave Cormier brought a similar tension while talking on embracing uncertainty, using rhizomatic learning in formal education. Dave talked about the shift from content as curriculum to community as curriculum, and how the notion of rhizomatic networks could be brought to bear on the traditional learning mechanisms.

In the conference summary session, we wrestled with another important underlying tension – that of spaces between networks. Typically we build links between nodes in a network by the virtue of which spaces between the nodes get obliterated and become invisible. By argument then, the network should really be a continuum, rather than a set of discrete nodes.

Jay Cross had expounded on how we need to democratize learning. He talked about how the education behind the gates is finally starting to converge with real life in this network era. He bemoaned the state of training in corporate America, stating “training is dead”. He was tremendously excited about the prospects of informal learning to attack the problem of scale with quality in India. In fact, the same concept came up for debate in the conference summary session again – the fact that democratization, which is education by, for and of the people, was talked of more in terms of “for the people” rather than “by” and “of”.

Jay remarked that there is no one solution (and school is probably not the one, in fact schools can be at times non-democratic). Learning is seen as a key enabler for democratization. Stephen said that commercializing learning is antithetical to democracy. Les Foltos brought up affordability in both Indian and US contexts – are we as democracies making the commitment to make education affordable at high quality. The only recourse, then as Stephen remarked, is to rethink the concept of school.

An important tension was that between order and chaos. Do we want order from chaos or chaos from order? Stephen argued that the order exists in the eye of the perceiver and that order is not inherent in chaos itself. As Les Foltos put it, the tension is between the current traditional system that is extremely ordered and discourages risk taking and systems that encourage risk taking and are inherently chaotic. Clark Quinn argued that chaos could be imbued with values and purpose in terms of design and then one must expect movements to and from chaotic states. Dave Cormier highlighted the challenge of fostering creativity in students in chaotic systems and moving away from the tyranny of assessments. Rhizomatic networks are inherently both ordered and chaotic.

The next tension was around technology availability specifically around the requirements or conditions in which the theory of Connectivism could operate. The main challenge in a developing and less developed world context is the availability of technology – technology that allows networks to really exist on the digital scale. Both George and Stephen felt that technology was a sufficient condition, but in terms of theory, not a completely necessary condition.

There were tensions exposed in our thinking of design. Is design (as we know it) dead? The fundamental tension here was that design, as we know it, is focused on creating ordered and deterministic outcomes. Can there be design around complex, adaptive systems that can allow for environments that are emergent, self-organizing and adaptive? Grainne Conole discussed the conception of design, in particular leveraging the network construct, can design today prove useful in creation of open, participatory spaces for learning.

There was another tension in terms of design in the context of scalability. Inherent in traditional systems of design is standardization and bureaucratization of design processes. Dave Cormier raised the question of how we can distribute design expertise in a way that can scale. Grainne talked about more participative and innovative methods where teachers and experts are able to use design tools and processes based on networked collaboration techniques in a manner that is very different from business process like mechanisms that institutions typically follow.

Martin Weller, who had talked about digital scholarship in an open, networked and digital world, talked about his experiences in teacher education where he talked about yet another dimension – problems with using social media and innovative design. Les Foltos talked about physical challenges that teachers face in terms of the support they need to be innovative and risk taking. They also need to apply techniques and experience success in their contexts in order for them to believe the grand visions. Stephen brought in another tension – that of over design – and believed that design should be used as a syntax to be interpreted by individuals, in a minimally prescriptive manner.


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Over the next few weeks, as the countdown to the EDGEX Disruptive Educational Research conference to be held in New Delhi from March 12-14 begins, I hope to bring to you all news and updates about the conference and its themes.

The EDGEX 2012 Conference has been carefully and collaboratively constructed to bring cutting edge educational research to participants. There are two major themes – Learning X.O and Simulations & Serious Games. The Learning X.O theme essentially tries to synthesize the fairly amazing and disruptive research and experimentation around Connectivism, Informal Learning and Communities of Practice.

For something that I joined up in 2008 (with the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge [CCKO8] “course” led by George Siemens,Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier, featuring a unique open-ended format called the Massive Open Online Course – MOOC) to co-experiment with over 2000 people across the world, to have advanced so much and to have directly or indirectly inspired systems thinking on education (witness the Stanford AI “course” experiment and the recent announcement – MITx – by MIT) by traditional brick and mortar institutions, is no mean achievement over such a short period of time.

What makes Connectivism and all the associated themes so disruptive is just that – its potential to arm an entirely new generation of theorists, researchers and practitioners with the thought paradigm and tools to comprehend the impacts of disruptive technology, over abundant knowledge, demographic pressures and changing social relations among other important trends. Underlying it, in my own interpretation, is the tremendous principle of democratization – of education to be by, for and of the people. Though it is heavily steeped in technology, the essence of it is like “the principles behind the steam engine” as Stephen would say.

George and Stephen continue to raise the bar. Their continued work, and that of able partners and fellow researchers like Dave Cormier and Alec Couros, not only on the CCK MOOCs, but on various others, like the Critical Literacies MOOC, the EdFutures MOOC, Alec’s EC&I 831, the Change11 MOOC, the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference, Stephen’s technology development and many other initiatives, are inspiring thousands of educators worldwide.

Etienne Wenger, with his disruptive work on Communities of Practice, is one speaker who we shall miss terribly on this platform. We did not get his availability on the dates for the conference, and would have loved to have him, so as to, at least in my mind, complete the conversation. But I am fairly sure, his intellectual presence will be felt strongly through the themes of the conference.

Quick switch to Corporate Learning and the one name that immediately comes to mind is the person responsible for really starting it all – Jay Cross. In his work with the Internet Time Alliance, Jay, along with Clark Quinn (who we are honoured to host at the conference), Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings and Paul Simbeck-Hampson, are redefining the boundaries of what learning can be. Their work on Learnscapes as learning ecosystems that promote complexity instead of eradicating it, is path breaking because it offers another way for us to think about how workplace learning can be transformed.

Even as this disruptive research and experimentation impacts our conception of how learning will be and how learning systems will be, the work of three of the expert researchers at EDGEX2012 – Grainne Conole, Jon Dron and Martin Weller – is of crucial significance. Grainne is researching ways in which new pedagogies and approaches to design can harness the potential of social and participatory media. Martin is investigating the implications of scholarship in a digital world. Jon is looking at learning environment design and investigating the “shapes of online socially enhanced dwellings that are most likely to lead to enhanced knowledge and, in the process, uncover some of the nature of technologies and our intimately connected cyborg relationships with them”.

Meanwhile, the other theme, Simulations and Serious Games, is really a veiled approach to unravelling how rich digital media and delivery platforms can combine to produce rich digital learning experiences. The work of Clark Quinn and Alicia Sanchez, and other speakers such as Sid Bannerjee and Jatinder Singh will lay the foundation for rethinking digital media. Clark, of course, brings in a much wider perspective – he is rethinking our conception of learning and systems for learning and is investigating models such as spaced practice, social learning, meta-learning, and distributed cognition.

Les Foltos brings in focus to teacher education and how educator communities can use peer coaching as a technique to continuously learn and evolve. Shanath Kumar, Satish Sukumar, Rajeev Menon, Manish Upadhyay and Amruth B R bring in yet more perspectives on design, content, new age assessments, semantic web, mobility and technology, thus rounding off this theme.

And this is not limited to Higher Education alone. The principles and precepts are fairly universal, although the practice and implementation will definitely vary between contexts. K12 educators will find a plethora of disruptive opportunities in the conference.

The conference has one other dimension worth noting. We are inviting startups and entrepreneurs who believe that they are contributing disruptive innovation to education. You will see some of these entrepreneurs showcase their ideas at the conference.

I am hoping this conference acts as the melting pot for disruptive research and practice and marks the start of new level of collaboration between participants.

In my mind, all this research is connected by one common theme – we are looking the ways to change the dominant paradigm, because the dominant paradigm will fail (and indeed, is failing) to achieve a vision of a meaningful and capable system of education in the face of the challenges we face today.

Particularly for countries like India, the timing of these disruptions could not be more apt. And this is where we hope your vision and expertise at the conference and around it, will pave the way for open and concerted dialogue on how we can embrace change in our society.

The website for the conference is up at http://www.edgex.in. The website features speaker bios and a set of resources to get started on the many topics that will be covered in this conference. You can also connect with us  prior to the conference through email or the links below.

Please do feel free to drop me a line at edgex2012@edgex.in if you are interested and I will get right back to you! We look forward to hearing from you!

Let’s disrupt!!

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It gives me great pleasure to announce a unique conference on educational research and innovation called EDGEX, to be held at the Habitat Centre, New Delhi from March 12-14, 2012.

The two main themes of the conference are:

  1. Learning X.O – marking the significant and ongoing developments in learning and teaching, particularly in informal learning, connectivism & connective knowledge, the MOOC, Learning Analytics & BIG data, Digital Scholarship, Peer Coaching and Open Distributed Design.
  2. Simulations & Serious Games – A focus on scale and both the philosophy and practice behind simulations, virtual worlds and serious games, clearly one of the most articulate and cogent responses to skill development and joyful learning in the recent times.

What makes the conference unique is the sheer intellectual capital that will be leading the conference. These speakers certainly do not need an introduction:

  • Jay Cross, Internet Time Alliance
  • George Siemens, University of Athabasca, Canada
  • Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada
  • Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada
  • Alec Couros, University of Regina, Canada
  • Jon Dron, University of Athabasca, Canada
  • Grainne Conole, University of Leicester, UK
  • Martin Weller, Open University, UK
  • Clark Quinn, Quinnovation, USA
  • Alicia Sanchez, Defense Acquisition University, USA
  • Les Foltos, Peer-Ed, USA
It is perhaps rare to have these speakers under one roof and is a unique opportunity for the Indian audience, battling challenges of equity, excellence and expansion in the face of a huge and diverse scale. We are privileged to have them accept our invitation and we look forward to hosting them in India.

This conference is part of the EDGE Forum which is a group of leading educational institutions from public and private sector committed to promoting highest standards of education, value systems and governance in the field of higher education.

The EDGE conference, an anual event, addresses questions of improving the quality of education in several dimensions like education governance, human resource management, cutting-edge technologies, holistic approach to education infrastructure and above all adoption of best practices. It serves as an analytical and authoritative source for policy recommendations on higher education. The conference is well represented by reputed educationists, Higher Education administrators, teachers and high level policy makers, apart from representations from industry.

The EDGEX2012 conference site will shortly be live but if you are interested in attending, please do let me know through comments to this post.

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Right off the bat, if you have not seen it yet, check out Building a New Culture of Teaching and Learning by Dr. Tae.

The movement started with the Dandi March in March 1930. The British had a monopoly or complete control over the manufacture of salt. Indians were not allowed to collect salt from the sea. Instead they were forced to buy it from the British at high prices. Gandhiji decided to defy this law and he along with 78 followers marched the over 300 kilometre distance from Sabarmati to Dandi on the Gujarat Coast. On the coast he picked up a handful of salt breaking the Salt Law. This was an open defiance of the British.

This excerpt from an Oxford School Education Primary Social Studies book (Book 5), for children of Grade 5, authored by Vibha Roy and Reena Jain, provides an introduction to the Dandi March. Just like this excerpt, the book is made up of many others on many different phases of our History.  Typical questions asked of the reader are factual, concerned with date, place, names and events.

And just like the excerpt above, those paragraphs introduce many complicated terms – “monopoly”, “manufacture of salt”, “price”, “law” etc. – that if the reader does not understand, will make it difficult to fully understand the story being told.

The Instructional Designer would hopefully find faults – the mention of the Salt Law is left to the end while it is being described at the beginning; there are assumptions about prior knowledge not substantiated here or anywhere else in the curriculum in Grade 5, how does one pick up a handful of salt on a coast?; why is it important to know the number 78? and so on. The Visual Designer would want a map from Sabarmati to Dandi or an early photograph or clip (if it was a WBT) from Attenborough’s film on Gandhi, to help the reader visualize the context.

Children also learn how October 2, his birthday, is celebrated through a UN resolution, as the International Day of Non-violence. A quick search on the web does reveal that world leaders are inspired by Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence and civil disobedience.

Irrespective of whatever else, the excerpt would need to be backed by an array of explanations for an inquisitive child. Personally for me, these few lines took over 30 minutes to build context for and introduce. There was a lot of passion too that I have about how Gandhi did all this and that needed to be translated.

Building on another fact, that Gandhi was born in 1869, I asked two uncomfortable questions which I had never asked before:

  1. What was Gandhi’s age when he embarked on the Dandi March?
  2. Why did he walk all the way when he was so old and alternative means of transportation were available for a man of his age and national importance?

If you do not know the answer, Gandhi was 61 and frail. And he walked all that way to do a few very strategic things:

  1. He started with 78 followers but many hundreds joined him from villages and towns on the way to Dandi when they understood what he was up to.
  2. These followers went through the hardship of walking with Gandhi (and he was a fast tireless walker), spent days and nights together, perhaps chanting national revolutionary songs and having heated debates on the British.
  3. Several leaders must have emerged who handled administrative and other tasks as well as showed resilience, courage and ability to manage other people
  4. Put a slow pressure on the British government. It was like a slow boiling kettle of water that threatened the defences of the British system and introduced uncertainty within their system of how to handle this.
  5. Gave Gandhi a chance to take multiple opinions on what exactly to do when they reached Dandi. If Attenborough’s film is to be believed, Gandhi’s people had it organized very well. The British had barricaded the entrance to that particular beach. The people organized themselves in rows of 5-6 people each and approached the entrance while the women went about frantically arranging makeshift beds and medical supplies. When they were ready to start, they simply disobeyed the waiting police phalanx and walked into blows on the head and body by heavy police lathis (sticks) which left them injured and bleeding. The injured were ferried to medical care and the next batch of 5-6 people stepped forward to receive their reward. This kept on happening minute after minute, hour after hour.
  6. He also achieved multiple objectives here, not the most unimportant of those was highlighting the hapless atrocity of the British colonial mindset.
  7. Very importantly, the March exemplified how a strategy can be supported implementationally by tactics. For example, look for a similar strain of thought in the Swadeshi (indigenous) movement, which exhorted people, in a non-violent manner, to stop buying British goods.

Most of these ideas can be connected to many other parts of the History book’s description of the Struggle for Independence in India. Those parts that explain why Gandhi was really a great leader.

However, for most children, these are a group of paragraphs and a set of factual questions waiting to be memorized for the Unit test around the corner.

What are we doing to our children?

The brilliant teacher can not spend too much time on these lines, bound by the pressure of introducing 5000 years of history books paragraphs in a single academic year. No amount of out of class activities and building posters on India’s Independence Movement can recreate the passion or understanding. The less brilliant teacher would perhaps not even know the meaning of “strategic”. 

Certainly, most of them would not have a degree in Instructional and Visual Design or even group collaborative methods. Perhaps one of the most painful things, by way of acknowledging the presence of the Internet, are a few long web links “printed” at the end of the chapter, which the student has to type in to a browser, if she ever has time left over.

I am treating this in agonizing detail because the Grade 5 student studies such books across language, maths, science and social studies as part of their ever expanding curriculum.

Frankly, I think I am missing the point here. Either we should be exposing to children the passions, experiences, concepts and people around us in a way that both informs and generates reflection, or we should stop this waste of precious time – maybe focus on core skills – communication, team work, critical thinking, problem solving etc. – building in them the capability to comprehend more advanced topics later in life.

Maybe the way to teach history is to take a few case studies or topics indicative of the phase or area and let children build the skills to explore and comprehend different aspects in an academic year. They will learn more and retain much more.

Same for curriculum design. If one area cannot build up on another in a mutually reinforcing manner, we are actually enforcing an unnatural specialization upon children. Why, at least in the initial formative years should there be so many different subjects – silos artificially created that compartmentalize and constrain knowledge and learning?

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PLE/N Tools

Really nice collection of links for this week’s #PLENK2010 discussions. I especially liked Patterns of personal learning environments, Wilson. Wilson looks at patterns of use of and activity in personal learning tools and learning networks, revising a previous approach which was very functional and tool-specific.

One of the ongoing challenges I have is with the constant comparison between LMS and PLE, which I happen to think, is an apples to oranges comparison. They serve different needs and are differently located on the spectrum between self-learning and managed-learning (if there is such a phrase). The MOOC and the LMS are comparable, as are NBTs (which I define as Network Based Training, the natural networked learning successors to WBTs) and PLEs.

Let us picture this. The LMS is used to launch a WBT course. The course pops up in a player which is really a navigation shell that acts as a data conduit between the WBT and the LMS. Suppose the LMS is learning network and personal learning tools aware (with blog, wiki, Flickr, connection hub-bing, discourse monitoring etc. affordances being provided by whatever mechanism – web services, XCRI…) and the WBT is just base reference material not quite unlike the Daily in this MOOC.

The player could then be technically programmed to act as a conduit between the WBT and the network or personal learning tool (people, resources, context, conversation, bookmarking service).  Sort of a SCORM for networked learning environments.

What would you call the WBT then? A NBT.

Would the PLE look similar to a NBT. Yes, it would resemble a slice of the PLE, a workspace which we organize around a theme that interests us. Similarly, the NBT could be conceived of as a combination of slices of many different PLEs, in fact as many as those learners enrolled in the NBT.

But the NBT would necessarily be a more constrained, parameterized environment, designed or seeded by a network weaver, an atelier – the new avatar of the teacher, and adapted and grown by the learners, present and past. The PLE would grow unfettered, the whole being greater than the sum of individual slices.

Most of the discussion, even in Wilson’s paper, focuses around the tools in the end. What can tools do to present the solution to a pattern? In fact, almost every solution is expressed in technological terms (notice how many times the word “tool” appears in the first line of the solution).

It is almost as if technology is the master problem solver for every pattern of learning, but that may just be me.

I would rather focus on Critical Literacies. On having reasons. Just like I would not count an NBT operating in an LMS environment to be a true NBT – as in truly architected as a networked learning aware solution from the ground up, rather than pasted on a WBT as a quickfix.

And that is perhaps why I would choose to take a radical stand – PLE/N tools do not yet exist. I would like to take you back to how PLEs were defined in Week 1:

A Personal Learning Environment is more of a concept than a particular toolset – it doesn’t require the use of any particular tool and is defined by general concepts like: distributed, personal, open, learner autonomy.

and for PLNs:

A PLN is a reflection of social and information networks (and analysis methods).

We are confusing our current lists of PLE/N tools with the concept or the method, like trying to measure the length of a moving snake by a tape measure or measuring the volume of a gust of air with a sudden clenching of our fist.

By far the most important attribute of the toolset, if you can call it that, for a PLE/N would be its complete invisibility. It would be implicit for learners in the way it has been designed. It is then that we will be able to project our personal aura on it and make it personal, as open as we are, as connectedly aware as we want to be (or can be) and as autonomous as we will allow it to be.

And that will also take a fundamental rearchitecture of the way we conceive of learning resources, away from resources as objects or networks, to living and dynamic forms that reflect our social and information networks.

More of a hard left than a gentle meandering this one, would you say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Open and extensible mash-up frameworks
  • Reliance on Open APIs to deliver mash-ups
  • Every object is made collaboration aware (X.0, technologically immune) irrespective of source
  • Spaces are multiple views around a cluster of object base types
  • Spaces are transferable as units and so are other dimensional views
  • All resources are associatively and progressively connected through metadata
  • Architecture builds in dynamic any-to-any connections while allowing any combination or view/perspective aggregation of X.0 objects
  • NBTs (Network Based Training) will make possible persistent learning and knowledge management environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The epiphany is that what I have been thinking around native collaboration and what Stephen and participants of the Critical Literacies open course (which I regret not being actively part of) have been discussing have a great deal of resonance. Like in CCK08, I was approaching the topic more from the tools and implementation perspective while the CritLit group focused on what builds the capacity of the learner to perform as a learner in a networked learning environment.

What the learner would actually use was where I proposed newer collaboration techniques leveraging the networked learning environment, but the term “native” meant a certain capacity on the part of the learner to be able to operate in a networked learning environment. What the CritLit discussion has done, therefore, is lay out a framework and taxonomy through which tools and techniques for collaboration can be imagined and created, much more rigorous than the regular 21st century skills discussions we have been reading about.

Stephen lays out a framework for Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning and Steve has an excellent post and a compilation on his wiki of a Critical Literacies Taxonomy.

The Critical Literacies discussion contributes a lot more. It builds on Stephen’s framework for literacies deemed to be “critical” in a networked learning environment. Steve puts a taxonomy together for Critical Literacies and more – he connects the understanding of these literacies to George’s original attempt to put together a taxonomy for Connectivism.

If I may articulate the impact this can have, I think it will significantly impact a whole set of design and development techniques and directly address, in ways other existing theories have in their own beliefs addressed, problems of personalization, assessments and collaborative learning. I think it will pave the way for a structured understanding of how to meaningfully use or engage with digital networks for the purpose of learning.

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Ulises Mejias writes a very thought-provoking post Disassembled Spaces. He makes the point that if we are not able to ensure that a substantial part of our social and cultural production over the Internet is controlled openly rather than by a handful of private corporations, should we begin “unthinking the network”? He explores many dimensions of the concept in his post The tyranny of nodes.

He calls upon us to think of “open space as an un-thinking of the digital network”. According to him, the digital network creates inequality. It “(network) undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node”. He states “to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot” .

By reinforcing a “stay-in network”, the network “(becomes) an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.” To the extent that, quoting Vandenberghe, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy”.

I am inclined to believe this is true with my experiences while learning Economics at the post-graduate level. My professor applied game theoretic techniques to try and solve a village-level problem of contracts between a moneylender, a landlord and a tenant. To my then, and still, ignorant mind, it was ludicrous to reduce the problem to strict assumptions of rationality that economists need to make. They ignored the spaces in the network – the politics of fear and repression that exists at the village level in India. Perhaps it contributed to my disenchantment with the subject.

But it is also true of any theory or opinion that seeks to abstract meaning from an otherwise complex world. Perhaps thinking about a “continuum” between nodes is necessary but may not imply that any thinking that doesn’t incorporate these notions is infructuous. In fact, one could argue that since the “continuum” is infinite, it is not amenable to analysis at all.

Ulises agrees when he states “Surely, we cannot pay attention to everything, and as a result we have developed self-interested strategies (predating networks) for making some things more relevant than others” and concludes with the following:

My point is that although self-interest might be a functional principle to organize networks, even at a local level, it might not be sustainable as the basis for a social ethics, which requires a degree of selfless engagement. If we are going to go with the network metaphor, we need a praxis and an ethics, for engaging with the world beyond our interests, which means accounting for the space between nodes, becoming invested in the non-nodal.

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I have started research on alternative education systems. Right off the bat I found a website that summarizes some of these initiatives in the Indian context – Alternative Education in India. Two really interesting categories were Alternative Schools and Learning Cooperatives. I like the fact that the latter prefer not to be called “schools” at all.

Among the Alternative schools is the Atma Vidya Educational Foundation in southern India. If  you look at the KPM approach (they started in Kerala and now have an extension in Austin, Texas), the focus is heavily on guidance, teacher involvement, learning freedom and experiential learning. I am impressed by the examples – but still need to research on how they really accomplish their goals. I next looked at a cooperative, Bhavya, which also looks like an interesting approach, particularly as it attempts to merge with the mainstream systems at a particular age.  Mirambika is an example of a K8 school with an alternative approach too. I particularly liked the idea that there is a community out there that encourages and provides support for home education. Wonder how that works!

In the US, the trend in public education around Charter Schools is also encouraging. These schools are set up to innovate within the public school system as this report shows.

More on these systems as I move ahead. Would love to hear from you if you know an educational system or movement that is an alternate.

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For my hundredth post, I would like to focus on a few key questions that attack various aspects of what I have experienced and learnt in the past two years. These questions are extremely important for me to attempt to answer and I hopefully will, atleast in part, as I go on. The questions may seem disjointed, but perhaps have a common set of answers.

The first, and overarching, question is:

Are there (or what could be) education systems that have (or would) worked outside the box (in contrast to what exists today) and have proved their reliability and validity in the context of today’s and future needs?

This is important to me because I need to understand if we can really envisage an alternate system of education – one more geared towards achieving a vision of a just, inclusive and humane society – than the one we have now. Not that an educational system is solely responsible for all that is wrong today, but in the sense that the educational system is an important enough component of achieving that vision.

There are many strands of thought that connect to this question, not the least being whether this disruptive change is at all required, but it is a question worthy of building an informed belief around. I would further acknowledge that perhaps this change could happen in a way that replaces a portion of the existing system.

The second question relates to the qualifications of a teacher in higher education in India. 

Do undergraduate and post-graduate teachers need a qualifying degree/diploma in educational theory, instructional design/methods and learning technology with a model of internship before they start teaching?

As I have noted before, this question puzzles me no end. I can’t understand why this is not a pre-requisite already (rather than a possible refresher down the line). School teachers require certification, but others do not? It is a different matter that existing certifications in India may perhaps need to be effectively revamped to meet today’s and future requirements.

But I think the answer to this question may have huge implications for achieving the overall vision of any educational system. In particular, it may help bring disruptive change that partially replaces the dominant paradigm.

The third question relates to the role of assessments in an increasingly collaborative world.

How does one assess learning based on principles of collaboration, free thinking and reflection?

What happens when we remove the boundaries of formal curricula, competency models and organizational metrics? This is an important gap, I believe, in connectivist thinking. I am particularly interested in this because the traditional model has an answer that can be tied directly to economic models, social aspirations, development and growth paradigms.

To build an alternative, intelligible and acceptable bridge to other parts/components of our world, we will need to answer this question. Lots of these other systems depend upon the ability of an educational system to provide these assessments to be efficient and effective.

And finally, the question:

What will it take for the change to happen?

I believe that a change is needed and that it should be disruptive change. The change has to be wrenched out and has to stand tall. What will  the drivers be? I think we need to look outside the educational system in order to assess these drivers. 

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what the political system needs, what the justice system needs, what the economic system needs, as inputs that will help reshape their own destinies in the quest for a just, inclusive and humane society.

These are all overall questions that impact my thinking at this point. As is the fact with questions, I am sure many would share them with me. If anyone has what they think could be answers, I would greatly appreciate your stopping by!

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Am reading Neil Postman’s The End of Education. Was particularly struck by his separation of the engineering of learning from the metaphysics of learning. While the engineering of learning involves the how (the methods, techniques), the metaphysics of learning involves becoming a “different person because of something you have learned” (p. 3). The metaphysics of learning then acquires a narrative of its own.

Postman talks about gods we serve, not in the religious sense, but in the sense of images or figures that signify narratives. For example, the god of Economic Utility signifies a particular narrative – that “if you pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded by a well-paying job when you are done” (p. 27). Or the god of Consumership (‘Whoever dies with the most toys, wins” (p. 33)) with the advertising on the television (and now also the social culture of the internet) becoming the biggest impact on young minds (italics: my addition). Or the god of Technology (p. 38) which we know takes on an almost all-pervasive function of a filter through which we view society and learning.

We have such gods emerging and fading out all the time. We now have the Facebook god and the Google god and the Microsoft god and the Web 2.0 /social networked learning god and the SCORM god and the WBT god and the Blended Learning god…

Postman contends that “the narratives that underlie our present conception of school do not serve us well” (p. 61) and goes only not only to present his gods but also ways to use them to provide a purpose (“end” (p. 63)) to schooling. I would generalize school to cover adult learning too in variety of contexts.

It’s wonderful reading so far. I was particularly struck by his point that “all gods are imperfect, even dangerous…a belief too strongly held, one that excludes the possibility of a tolerance for other gods, may result in psychopathic fanaticism.” (p. 11). He quotes Niels Bohr who said that “the opposite of a correct statement is an incorrect statement. But the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth”. We must have tolerance to accept sometimes contradictory narratives.

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Reading Marshall mcLuhan’s the medium is the MASSAGE. Deep. The impact of media – the wheel as an extension of the leg, clothes as an extension of the body, electronic circuitry as an extension of the brain – has powerful impacts on the way we are.

He makes the point about “electric technology” presenting a unifying force, “recreating in us the multidimensional space orientation of the ‘primitive'” unconstrained by the dictates of the primarily visual and pushing us to become aware of the integration of time and space – “an acoustic, horizonless, boundless, olfactory space”.

“Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible.”  This is crucial to us when we think about creation of learning environments. To be able to use “multiple models for exploration – the technique of suspended judgment” is key to these environments.

We cannot approach now by looking into the rearview mirror or use new media to do old things or things the old way. We need to understand how that impacts the way we “do learning”.

Writing in 1967, mcLuhan exhorts us – “it is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word”.

The book, and the wonderful visualization by Quentin Fiore, is a call to action. And action it should provoke among us!

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Mark Elliot talks about Stigmergic collaboration. Stigmergy, a term coined by Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s with his research on termite behavior, describes self organization of complex tasks by collective inputs of a large number who are responding to changes in their local environment through small simple actions.

The concept of stigmergy therefore provides an intuitive and easy-to-grasp theory for helping understand how disparate, distributed, ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen.

There are four findings of Mark’s Ph.D. research that he provides:

  1. Collaboration is dependent upon communication, and communication is a network phenomenon.
  2. Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative output.
  3. Collaboration in small groups (roughly 2-25) relies upon social negotiation to evolve and guide its process and creative output.
  4. Collaboration in large groups (roughly 25-n) is enabled by stigmergy.

I think this is an important way of looking at stages of evolution of learning formations insofar as it describes scale as a dimension for differentiation for those stages.

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CCK08 Week 2

End of week two of the “course” and I think I have come some way. While Week 1 was about Connectivism and the changing face of the web at an introductory level exposing me to some interesting ideas and getting me acclimatised to a massively online course, Week 2 has been the process of getting my hands dirty on some of the basic ideas. You can read my meanderings at the links below on http://learnoscck08.wordpress.com, a blog I specially created for this course, but which I expect shall go far beyond that.

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When I think of the term under siege, it reminds me of Steven Seagal, a master chef, on board a US Navy battleship taken over by terrorists in the 1992 movie by the same name. Of course, he fights back and defeats the terrorists. Doubtless somewhat of a stretch of imagination here and completely unrelated, but I think that Instructional Design as we know of it traditionally, is under siege.

I wrote a post on eCube on Indian Education, contrasting the challenges in developing countries such as India with the remarkable developments in social learning worldwide. In that I refer to George Siemens’ article where he refers to the changing role of the instructional designer in the new milieu. From being an expert in applying design techniques on a body of content for a specific kind of learning experience and target audience, the designer is seen more as a guide and facilitator in bring animate (human) and inanimate (computer, device) networked knowledge closer to the learner and fostering learning through active reflection and search, more so than just (and in addition to) relying on traditional design activities such as content sequencing.

What becomes of the carefully and painstakingly created user learning experiences with emphasis on language, defined control imposed by corporate styles & standards, exclusion of irrelevant content, step-by-step elaboration, elaborate understanding of the target audience, pilot evaluations, focused group feedback et al?

How does the social learning experience address these aspects of design? By its very definition, the network is autonomously constituted, with no formal controls, with little or no accountability to ensure adequate coverage (or quality at this point) of any piece of the curriculum, but one where potentially the benefits of active reflection, learning engagement, expediency of learning and scale of community participation may far outweigh the traditional system. A designer who can simply point or piece together these resources, may be compelled to discard entirely useful contributions to knowledge just because the form is not conducive for presentation or there is too much redundancy between two critical but related articles. Obviously, without these interventions, research and reflection may take on too much time to prove useful in situations of learning immediacy (read workflow learning). One of the things that may work, perhaps, and that is that the designer provides the tools and frameworks to allow for an ever growing landscape of content in ways that she can make intelligible for her learners in a participative manner.

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Discussion Thread: This post << Part 3 << Part 2 << Part 1

Before we go on to start detailing formal methodologies, we must make concrete the business case, context and critical success factors for these methodologies.

As organizations struggle to understand how they can leverage Learning 2.0 and vendors bring in their own interpretations of what Learning 2.0 really is. I think we need to start defining how and why this new style should be implemented at the workplace.

Because that is what Learning 2.0 really is – an emergent learning style with a strong basis in social constructivist learning theories that holds out the promise of making the learning curve steeper, creating a learning & sharing culture within the organization (and beyond), lowering costs and increasing effectiveness.

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.

Traditional instructors are now moving from being trainers to being facilitators, guides and coaches in a collaborative teaching-learning space. The instructors need not treat their learners as passive receptors, rather they can actively shape, by dialogue and discovery, the nature of their learning.

Learning Managers, though, have perhaps the biggest challenge. Undisputedly, an organization that has both the vision and a demonstrable culture of continuous learning, collaboration and improvement, will benefit natively from the formalization of this style and the adoption of the available tools. This kind of an organization worries about functional excellence and the ability to transform the domain in which they operate through leveraging individual and collective insight.

Organizations that have not reached that stage (perhaps the majority worldwide), will need Learning Managers to step up and leverage these new developments to foster that culture. They are the ones who are responsible for implementation of formal methodologies for Learning 2.0 at the workplace.

Inevitably, their role must transform. They must orchestrate learning rather than just be responsible for the creation of the learning content itself. They must be able to bring out functional excellence and the culture of sharing and continuous learning. Their goals and measures must be community led and guided by the organization needs. This will directly result in performance improvements because the community can be made responsible for those improvements.

The role of the vendors or internal team they manage must also change and evolve. For example, vendors or internal development teams or instructors need to play a more active role in building that culture. These teams have a great understanding of the content and organizations have literally paid millions to train and induct them. They have interfaced with engineering/domain experts, instructional design and styles guidelines and perhaps directly even the learners. They are a logical, key component of this new space and equal partners in fostering that culture and some could take on the responsibility for goals in functional excellence.

All this will reduce costs. First of all, the onus of learning and teaching through sharing will start getting distributed across the organization. Secondly, the steeper learning curves that can be fostered through community interaction will make “training” more cost efficient. Thirdly, informal interaction through these spaces will reduce the remediation training requirements. Fourthly, the need and scope for physical instructor led learning will reduce. Fifthly, user generated peer reviewed content will start replacing large parts of content creation teams, whether internal or vendor.

It will increase effectiveness because there is no one-size-fits-all approach in the new 2.0 style. As learners start sharing their knowledge with the overall purpose of bringing others up to speed, they will also translate their own learning styles when they teach. All of a sudden, it will be easier to find content that is taught/shared in a way that resonates with a specific learner’s style of learning. It will also increase effectiveness because it will start manifesting in the organization culture and appetite for learning. It will make learning more fun if you have special methodologies for motivating entire communities. It will engage the communities even more because they will feel aligned and geared for the organizational goals and be seen as active participants in achieving those goals. And finally, it will be real because you are learning with practitioners as well as theoretical experts.

So what would be the critical success factors for implementing Learning 2.0 led approaches. First, organizational initiative is key – without the mission of transforming your organization into a learning and performing organization, these initiatives will meet with limited success. Second, roles must be redefined to accommodate the new solutions. Third, group dynamics must be researched and customized for your organization. This is key because each group or community will need a formal process of norming and mentoring by the organization functional or business leaders. Fourth, formal 2.0 methodologies and tools must be instituted and a process created around some of the transition, maintenance and integration areas. Fifthly, we would need to identify technology systems, measures and other supporting infrastructure to manage these implementations.

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Discussion Thread: This post << Part 2 << Part 1

I think the discussion regarding the dimensions of analysis of learning is useful, because (unlike the author) I think these are precisely where old-style (1.0) learning and new-style (2.0) are different. Take, for example, the whole idea of goals and measurements. To measure the ‘effectiveness’ of learning, we need to be able to measure how far we moved toward our goal. But what about this item, from a few days ago. I worked through the examples without knowing where they would lead me. The author created the examples without knowing how much I already knew. The learning, in this case, was the result of an intersection between the author and myself, more like a conversation than a journey, more like a dance than a destination.

Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies – More Thoughts ~ Stephen’s Web ~ by Stephen Downes

Thanks for your comments, Stephen. There is a cacophony of thoughts here as I try and take this discussion further. Let me try and organize them.

To summarize my understanding, the new style (2.0) is different from the old-style (1.0) because the basic components of learning – how goals are created, measured, improved upon within constraints of time could differ fundamentally between these two styles.

In your example, maybe I am being presumptuous, but a goal did exist. That goal was to substantiate your claim that JSON could be used to potentially replace XML? You did not know if the content you were reading would help you reach this goal, but it aroused an interest and motivation in you to explore, learn and possibly apply the learning towards meeting your goal. Perhaps you actually did a web search for JSON, found this article, it resonated with your style of learning and the content was appropriate enough to help you meet your goal.

The author did not know your pre-existing knowledge (nor your intended application perhaps), but through conversation or intersection between what the author wanted to distill and what you were learning, you achieved your goal.

The goal was not explicitly or defined in a detailed manner by the author when you first started. The author did not say “…at the end of this tutorial, you will be able to demonstrate that JSON could be used as a substitute for XML…”. Neither did you know that it could really help you meet your goal. The dance could have led nowhere, could have helped you fully or partially meet your goals, or spurred on a totally new perspective on the problem leading you to perhaps choose a new goal or alter the existing one or simply abandon it.

You took this knowledge and decided to apply it in a way that could potentially help you achieve your goal. Maybe at the end of the learning period, you said, “great! I got somewhere here, and yes, doesn’t this support what I was saying earlier?”

During the learning process, post the initial evaluation, you would also have been continuously evaluating whether you were moving in the right direction. If you had seen a limitation in the technique or coding that the author suggested that posed a risk to your goal, you could have potentially aborted your learning attempt. This was part of the measurement you consciously or unconsciously were doing. Not only that, when your code sample worked it was a measure of your success with the examples that you were learning; so was the application of the example to your specific context.

There was another risk to your goal. If you could not set up the environment or not have the pre-requisite knowledge to comprehend the article, then even if it was the way to achieve your goal, you would have simply abandoned it and moved on another resource which may not be what you really needed! Maybe the dance would uncover this gap and the author would be able to help you, and maybe it would not.

So in this case, and this has been the way I have learnt ever since I can remember, the learning process is inherently chaotic and I can remember as many learning failures as I can remember successes. The failures have arisen from the inability to find an appropriate learning resource that suits the way I learn, the constraint of time, the unavailability of peers, technical problems or other related issues. The successes have been when these factors/constraints have been least.

I have taught many courses too in a formal manner. Now I teach/guide every day in an informal manner at my colleagues at the workplace and with my customers. I learn continuously from them and with even my two wonderful children and my family.

All this is a different style. I would say that it is more effective as well since it is I who take the initiative to learn and grow and I am continuously motivated to learn, perform and contribute to other people’s growth.

For some people or contexts, the formal setting (1.0) could be most appropriate. For some people, the 2.0 style could be unnatural/foreign in formal settings where they are learning, for example, how to create a purchase order in SAP; while for them when they are learning about the latest car from GM to hit the streets, the 2.0 style could be the natural one adopted.

Cut to business. The goal for Learning and Development (L&D) departments within organizations is to make sure employees have the right attitudes, skills and knowledge and are able to perform as per the needs of the business. The needs of the business are articulated keep in mind vision, strategy, products/services, competencies and market conditions. L&D takes in these requirements and plans and implements training strategies that will help the corporation meet these needs in the most effective manner as possible and in the time frame the business wants. Business always asks them “are these teams trained? Has the training resulted in the performance we wanted?”. Scale and standardization are important dimensions of the problem and perhaps often the reason why we see a drop in effectiveness in 1.0 methodologies.

I believe that the 2.0 style can really help. But we need to evolve strategies of how these styles can be engendered at the workplace (not simply by using Web 2.0 or this technology or that) in such a way that business needs and professional growth objectives are met. That is why this discussion around Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies.

>> Sequel: Part 4

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I thought that this was an interesting attempt, even if I would not subscribe to it wholeheartedly. The author takes the formal dimensions of traditional learning – objectives, time, measurement, improvement and content or knowledge – and maps them to Learning 2.0, defined loosely as a combination of social networks, collaboration, and the rest. I think that the main problem is that there isn’t going to be a simply mapping like that. It’s like when people ask, “how do i use blogs to teach English?” Blogs aren’t a teaching tool, and you shouldn’t just expect to use Web 2.0 tools to do Learning 1.0 tasks.

Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies? ~ Stephen’s Web ~ by Stephen Downes

Thanks, Stephen for your review. It has spurred on a few more thoughts.

So what happens if we step away from the technology itself for a bit (blogs, wikis etc) and look at the five basic components of learning – goals, time, measurement, improvement and content/knowledge.

My main assumption was these are generic to learning – whether traditional learning or learning 2.0 – and I want to test that assumption.

To start off, Goals. Are there learning activities that do not have a goal? Certainly in the mind of the teacher, the goal is well-defined. If I want to teach someone how to install a particular software application, I would sequence a set of activities for the learner that I think would enable her to meet that learning goal. If the learner was to try and think what those activities would be at the outset, these activities may not be apparent. Rather these activities would be “discovered” as the learner collaborates and gains more knowledge.

For example, when I started out trying to understand learning 2.0, my starting point was Stephen’s article. As I moved through the article, clicked through on links, researched terms on Google, saw related presentations on Slideshare, videos on YouTube and joined blogs relevant to the domain, I began to piece together an understanding of the space that is continuously validated and critiqued by the community that views my posts. Along the way, I learnt many things incidentally which are now “filed away” in my repository and may come in use in another context for another learning goal. Were blogs a source of learning for me? Certainly. Would I use blogs or voicethread to teach? In certain types of activities, why not?

What is interesting is that I am limited by what I can access and experience. Even with all the tools, such as being able to ask the community for an answer, social bookmarking and those around folksonomies, there are limits to what I can access (what I find) and experience (what all do I really get my community to respond and mentor me on). Kind of reminds me of when I created a content management system for egurucool, tags were a window or a view of a cross-section of the huge content repository that we had.

In the entire process, the learner may achieve “discovered” goals, but not till the end of this achievement be potentially able to really demonstrate how the learning goals should have been met.

This also takes me to Time. Any learning activity, depending upon context, will either be or not be constrained by time. These constraints may be internal or external to the learner, such as the need to learn something so as to solve an immediate problem or the need to demonstrate proficiency in a given learning context. The ability of the learner to meet a learning goal in a constrained period of time is a function of the path that she has to take to meet those goals and how easy or difficult it is to achieve that. Lots of learners would perhaps say, “just tell me how it is done”.

Measurement.  There is a measure attached to everything we learn, whether by ourselves (self-assessment), by our community (peer reviews) or by our performance (external assessments, certifications and scores) stakeholders. The measure could be satisfaction levels (I got that argument right!) or could be a high SAT score (I topped the rankings!) or any other measure. How we measure it in the workplace or at school has been the subject of many discussions? How we measure it effectively has been the subject of countless others. However, there is a measure.

Improvement. Is this a generic factor too? I believe that it is fundamental. I can’t think of a learning situation that does not have scope for improvements in learning. In fact, we continuously improve all the time. Here is where I feel 2.0 has a distinct edge though.

Content/Knowledge. Can any learning context not be associated with a structured base of knowledge. Yes, it can. Can any learning context not have an informal base of knowledge? Yes, it can. Can both be true? No.

I feel fairly comfortable that my assumptions hold and as I wrote, are applicable in different ways to both 1.0 and 2.0 modes. So lets get the technology into the picture.

Why cannot we use a 2.0 technology in a 1.0 world to accomplish “1.0 tasks”? Is there something about 2.0 technology that restricts it’s use there? Or is it simply that it is inappropriate to use for a 1.0 task? For example, would I use SAP to store kitchen recipes (perhaps it would be inappropriate :), and SAP may not be able to do it anyways).

Certainly some types of technology are better suited for a specific context than others. But the goal should be to harness the right technology for the right learning context as far as possible. Technology is an enabler and not the end point.

If a teacher were to use a blog to teach English and asked an expert for that, the expert may find the right way to construct such a blog. However, it may not be the best way to teach English and the teacher should be encouraged to understand why and when to use a particular technology (or not at all).

I completely agree that the “keeping up with the Joneses” is detrimental. Just because a technology or tool is gaining hype and currency does not mean that it is the best use in your scenario and Stephen does well to remind us of that!

More to follow in my next post. I am particularly intrigued by a presentation that George made and believe it ties in to this discussion very well too. Thanks for your interest!

Sequel: Part 3: Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies

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Jane Hart, in response to my comment on Manish’s blog post, was wondering what I meant by structured construction and tracking models for teaching-learning in a Learning 2.0 world. I guess this is as good a time as any to start throwing some ideas around for discussion. Thanks Jane, for forcing me to think harder!


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Part of the Work at Learning/Learning at Work blog carnival hosted by Manish Mohan.

A few months back, I started two collaborative multi-author blogs for my company (one for my software development team and one for my e-learning development team) and helped a couple of other individuals at work to start their own. I also started a group at Ning and am an active member of LearnHub. My own blog at WordPress is my own anthological meandering. I have used or am aware of most of the collaboration tools available that use Web 2.0 technology or learning 2.0 frameworks.

So all that was great. However, I found that, passion/skill/capability or not, it is probably only people with a high level of self-motivation, the humility to learn, the need to be part of the community and share,  and having an incessant need to improve themselves, that would really be able to leverage learning through this new medium. The other blogs never really took off despite organizational incentives (an elaborate point system that encouraged posts, comments and community participation linked to actual incentives) that I set up.

I find myself asking the question – how many of those would we find in our organization, or in any other for that matter? Are there barriers to entry that we can identify and lower for this kind of a mindset/behaviour? Is this behaviour something that would have existed in physical or other forms even if Web 2.0 wasn’t around? Maybe people who earlier (than 2.0) exhibited the same mindset in an offline/non 2.0 space are the ones who are most geared for the new medium? Maybe the vast majority are resistant to learning per se? Maybe the amount of content is so vast and endless that they give up quickly trying to find the right stuff? Maybe there are personal and cultural inhibitions to being able to articulate their thoughts? Maybe the very concept of being in a community requires them to identify themselves and this interferes with the preferred anonymity of a classroom or prior online space? Are we over-hyping the Web 2.0 phenomenon? Is a PLE going to really help in the mind boggling explosion of content? Is the ability to clearly demonstrate a metrics based assessment and certification system in the traditional approach going to exist in the new approach so that organizations can really track progress and award certifications?

Don’t get me wrong. I love and believe in what is going on. I appreciate the fantastic work people are doing and the exemplary discussions we are having between traditional and new social constructivist schools. My team is a fantastic collection of extremely skilled people. However the questions and experiences so far that I have are a trifle unsettling and demand answers. 

What was great in Learning at Work was that I learnt a whole load of new things using the new tools and gained access to a lot of extremely intelligent and articulate people. Even more interesting was that I could find a way to get relevant information to my teams even if they were not actively blogging or participating in the community through simple emails to various groups. I am now starting focus groups around specific posts or articles I found for each interest group within my organization and creating a collaborative culture in small localized steps. It’s hard work to merge what they need to learn with what interests them, but I am hoping this approach may act to lower their barriers to entry.

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A lot of good thinking has been provoked by Tony Karrer’s provocative questions. Manish and Geetha have also been responding to these thoughts. Here are my 2 cents.


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I just finished watching this amazing story and I have to insist anyone who has anything to do with education must watch it too! Kudos to Aamir Khan and his entire team for doing a fantastic job. Aamir must accept the mantle of being the Indian Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, a story about a schoolteacher and his inspirational values set against a backdrop of racism and social iniquity in a school in London’s East End!

The story revolves around a dyslexic 8 year old who is misunderstood by everyone until Aamir, a drawing teacher, who like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Tom Cruise, John Lennon, Robin Williams and Richard Branson (to name a few), fought dyslexia, arrives on the scene. Sensitively made, Aamir recognizes the challenge, identifies the pure artistic talent of the child and turns around not only the child’s perception of himself but also those of his parents, teachers, friends and society at large.

Each of us need to appreciate and internalize the challenge. Each of us is different. Through our efforts at building training, how can we be inclusive of these differences and how can we be more responsible to our children and our co-workers?

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Only the paranoid survive. Andrew Grove’s 2003 book by the same name reflects on the strategic inflection point when something in the environment changes in a fundamental way that is not so apparent in our daily chaos of survival.


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Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist (1896-1934), also known as the founder of cultural historical psychology, believed that our learning depends heavily on the social and cultural context within which we exist and the role of interpersonal communication. Theories such as cognitive apprenticeship, activity theory, situated learning and distributed cognition have been reportedly influenced by Vygotsky’s thinking.


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