Ideas while travelling on the way….

Archive for November, 2011

Learning in a time of abundance

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Three live sessions were held this week; two with Elluminate and one video COOLCast.  For the first Elluminate session, I had no sound problems, but from what was said in the chat room, others did.  In the second Elluminate session, I did not have any either, but Duval had difficulty maintaining a connection.  He was frequently dropped, but then almost immediately reconnected.  This must have been very frustrating for him as the presenter.  The video in COOLCast worked well, consisting of about half a dozen people actively participating.  I ended up watching some and  listening to the mp3 audio for the rest.


Describing the content of Duval’s sessions is difficult because none of them had the typical collection of slides to guide the discussion.  It was more like David Wiley’s session in that regard.  All of the sessions were relatively informal Question and Answer.

The title of his topic comes from the exponential expansion of connectedness.  This connectedness makes it possible to be open in ways that earlier generations could not.  For example, digital copies cost virtually nothing, do not suffer from copier degeneration and can be accessed from anywhere.  Work can easily be shared.  Hashtags and blogs result in “classrooms without walls” where anyone can participate.  He advocates that students have access to all the information all of the time.

One of Duval’s favourite classes is a five-hour block.  These do not consist in doing one thing for five hours!  He describes the class with these verbs: Hear, think, do, debrief and interact. Blogging and tweeting are required for most courses, except some introductory ones.  His view goes like this: If you are not tweeting; you are not working on the course and if you are not working on the course; you are not passing the course.

When asked if he meets resistance to these requirements, Duval mentioned one student who expressed reluctance to post openly because she was being stalked by her ex.  On the other hand, most students who expressed reluctance did so because they were afraid of spending too much time with the course and not get other things done!  Recognizing this possibility in his own personal life, Duval regularly blocks out time when he is not accessible.  Maintaining a balance requires discipline.


I mentioned previously that this session was similar in format to David Wiley’s.  The major difference for me was that I was more familiar with the work of Wiley, but I was not at all acquainted with the work of Eric Duval.  His introductory page provided a very impressive resume of organizations he has been involved in.  One of the things I found fascinating was that he teaches computer programming—a field which, according to stereotype, is populated by talented, but socially inept loners.  Duval’s approach requires a huge amount of social interaction, especially using blogs and Twitter.

I am speaking just for myself, but I would have difficulty in this type of course.  Dave Cormier mentioned that it is not uncommon for him to have several people withdraw from his courses because of similar requirements.  I find posting to a blog a lot of work, but not impossible.  (This should be obvious to anyone reading this.)  But I have never understood the appeal of Twitter at all.  Again in a confession that may say more about my personal preferences, I use my smart phone for a lot of different tasks, but very little texting.  I do not like abbreviations and hate to leave out punctuation, so I find strict character limits too confining.


Rhizomatic Learning–why we teach

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Other commitments prevented me from attending Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic learning live session and the recording on the MOOC site was audio only.  Cormier recommended a Youtube video of a draft version of the session.  Since I wished to observe the slides, this is the version I viewed.  Given that the recording did not reveal the full screen, it was not clear what presentation software was used.  The chat window was barely readable, but it looked a lot like Elluminate.  There were no significant problems with sound.


In last week’s session Cormier expressed his admiration for Nancy White.  That influence was reflected in his encouragement to participants to feel free to write on slides.  Several slides with a leading question allowed attendees to post their thoughts.  He described his session not as a presentation, but dinner theatre.

After introducing himself and highlighting some of his activities, he launched the session with a question: Why do we educate students? For Cormier, the traditional reason over the last 150 years is normativity.  The problem is having the community decide what the proper norms are.

Following the work of some French philosophers, he describes three outcomes of an educational system:

1.   Workers: “The worker was the original goal of the public education system.  How can we create a workforce that will show up to work on time, accept tasks and complete them.”

2.   Soldiers: “Soldiers are the defenders of the status quo.  They are the ones who establish what things we currently know that the worker should remember.”

3.   Nomads: “The nomad is a creative thinker.  They are not restrained by the status quo and carve their own paths.  They learn things because they need them.”

He clearly favours the nomadic approach, although he admits that it may not work in all areas.  One reason why he favours the nomadic approach is that it is the only one of the three that produces new knowledge.  If educators want their students to extend knowledge beyond the current state, it is the only approach.  Neither the worker nor the soldier develop knowledge into new territory.

How does Cormier propose to encourage nomadic learning?  Rhizomatic learning.  A rhizome is plant known for its resilience and its aggressive propagation by sending out multiple roots.  They need a lot of attention in order to keep them under control.


By XIII from TOKYO  CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

How does this apply to learning?  He describes the process as follows:

The rhizome is a metaphor, like the nomad is a metaphor.  The Nomad learns rhizomatically – in directions unforeseen, and, maybe, to new creative spaces.  It’s a process of becoming, of coming to understand.  We are all different, and our new knowledge must become part of us.

In a linked article, he provides a different definition in order to differentiate his approach from other learning approaches:

In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises (Cormier, 2008, p. 1).

The outcomes of this approach are difficult to assess.  Usually connections will be made later when an individual finds themselves in a situation where they are reminded of earlier experience.


Given that Cormier says the outcomes of rhizomatic learning often do not appear until much later, I will have to get back to you on what I learned!

On a more serious note, when I first saw the title of this section, I had no idea how this botanical term might be connected to learning.  Last week, Nancy White introduced the idea of a social artist: someone who creates space for people to interact; helping them to be heard.  Cormier’s approach is similar.  He advocates providing a space for participants to explore, to push the boundaries, to go in various directions.

What are the limitations of this approach?  Cormier admits that it fits some areas better than others.  It is well suited when learners which to push beyond current limits.  However, much of education consists of finding out what is already within the boundaries.  To acquire all knowledge the rhizomatic way, seems inefficient, involving a lot of “reinventing the wheel.”  It is building on the knowledge of others that allow people to proceed quickly to the boundaries.  This is not to say that the approach should not be used until the boundaries are reached.  Providing a space for individuals to extend the limits of their knowledge can be very exciting and motivational.  It can also be very tiring, even tedious to be required to do all learning this way.  Rhizomatic learning is one approach, but not the only one.  Use it, but use it along with other approaches.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 4(5), 6.


Setup for the Live Presentation:

Elluminate now seems to have become the tool of choice for live web conferences for this MOOC.  For one of the first times, there were no significant sound issues.  Extensive use of the whiteboard feature of Elluminate was central to this conference.


The content of this web conference is extremely difficult to summarize.  One word that seems to fit is interactive.  Several pairs of questions were posed along with instructions for participants to draw their personal reaction.  Questions such as “How you feel when things change around you?” and “What about when people make you change?”  “What makes change, a pleasure; what makes it a pain?”  “Who makes change, a pleasure; who makes it a pain?”  While participants made their contributions on the whiteboard, by either drawing or typing, lively discussion took place in the chat window.

There was a strong emphasis on the idea of social artist.  In this session the definition presented was a person who makes people feel listened to and heard.  In the DTLT Today session another definition was presented: A social artist is someone who creates space for people to interact; helping them to be heard.


I knew I was in for something different when Dave Cormier introduced Nancy White as “not strictly an educator.”  This was confirmed when one of the first slides contained a circle of chairs and participants were asked to claim one by placing their names next to one.  This unconventional interaction continued to the final end game: to summarize the session in three words.  The first thing that came to my mind was “What just happened?”  It was an experience, but what were the lessons that I could take away?  What went beyond social ice-breakers?  The central idea seemed to be social artistry.  White intentionally provided a space and very actively encouraged interaction sometimes by simply maintaining a period of silence.  So she did model social artistry, especially by interacting with the numerous chat discussions.  Later in the week, the final live session provided the answer to most of my concerns.  White stated she viewed her primary role as encouraging others, a role that afterwards fades to invisibility, although it was vital in helping others to accomplish their goals.

OER for learning

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Collaborate (from Blackboard) was again the conferencing software.  One different element this time was that the program popped up an offer for participants to download the slides for the presentation.  There were some annoying sound issues from the presenter, probably because of his location which seemed to suffer from a low bandwidth connection.


My summary of the contents of this presentation will be done a little differently this time.  The first seven slides summarize McGreal’s presentation, while the remaining slides provide some examples of OER and also some challenges to the movement.


This presentation was not quite what I was expecting.  I was expecting a presentation on Open Educational Resources (OER) and there was a section that did treat the importance of using material licensed for open use.  However the thrust of the presentation concerned OERu, that is Open Educational Resources University.  Essentially this is the granting of credentials from consortium of accredited institutions without a person being required to take specific classes.  This movement can certainly be understood as a possibly disruptive threat and some reaction will be negative as the role of faculty will undergo great change.  But innovative approaches like this will be required to meet the growing demand for post-secondary education throughout the world.

Managing technology to transform teaching

Setup for the Live Presentation:

This live session was done with Blackboard’s Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).  It seems like most of the earlier problems have been resolved.  There were some initial sound difficulties, but these were quickly ironed out.


Bates sees his current work dominated by two major issues:

1.   Can universities or colleges change from within, or do we need new institutions for 21st century learning?

2.   What would reformed or new universities/colleges look like?

Current practice uses technology to enhance, not transform learning.  In other words, most implementations do not try to do something different, rather ask “how can we do better what we are already doing?”  It is important to understand that Bates is primarily addressing institutions, not individual instructors.  Does the institution have a strategic and academic plan for the use of technology and at what level is that planning done?

Successful integration requires both an administrative plan on how to integrate technology, as well as the willingness of faculty to buy into this vision and actually use the proposed technology.  According to Bates’ research, the best planning starts at the program level.  However, this must not develop into a silo approach, with each program operating independently.  Best practices include a high-level technology committee with various sub-committees.  Clear mandates for these committees, as well as the constituent schools, learning technology centers and instructors are necessary.  The following chart is meant to show how the interaction between the various levels of the institution should work:

Model of Goverance

The diagram is not meant as an hierarchical approach, but more like a view from above

The last area addressed was financial.  Bates asserted that many institutions do not have clear idea of the difference in cost between an online and a traditional course.  Online course cost can be controlled through the use of different types of activities, making use of online educational resources and by downloading work to the students themselves.  In order to succeed, administration must include not only pre-service training for faculty, but continuing support.


In my Master program at Athabasca, there is no author who has more textbooks as required reading than Tony Bates.  Live presentations with individuals who wrote the textbooks you use are one of the outstanding benefits of a MOOC.

On the face of it, planning for innovation seems rather odd.  How can one make a plan to integrate tools that have not been developed?  But that is not what Bates proposes.  His assumption is that new tools will arise.  Once they have been developed, what is the best way to exploit their benefits for learning?  While it was not a focus of this presentation, his previous development of a SECTION analysis for evaluating new technologies.

The major take away point for me was the importance of an integrated plan which involves all members of the institutional community.  It is also vital that faculty have support before the development of new material which utilizes new technologies.  The old adage, “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.”

Practical Impact of Open Learning

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Previous commitments did not allow me to take part in the live event, but the recordings were available.  Distracting background sounds frequently marred the recording, possibly because the recording was from sounds from speakers rather than directly from the digital stream.


This session with David Wiley was more Question & Answer than a formal presentation.  Given his vast and varied experience, it seemed more like George Siemens and Stephen Downes were picking his brain.  As such, the content was wide ranging and hard to summarize.  It was also quite different from Wiley’s initial blog post which highlighted the various phases of his career.  On the Friday chat between the three facilitators, they commented how unusual it was for Wiley to speak of himself and his many accomplishments.  Back to the Q & A….

The discussion had six main parts: The opening question dealt with was publishing.  Wiley asserted that the current model with static and very expensive textbooks is not sustainable.  As an alternative, he is involved in Flatworld Knowledge publishing which allows free downloading of open license textbooks.  The business model is built on making money if a person wants a paper or audio copy or access supplementary material like flash cards.  Those would not be free, but purchased using pricing similar to downloads from iTunes.

The second area discussed was Wiley’s encouragement for academics to “Do the right thing” by releasing their work using a open license.  Does he think this is the only way things should be done?  While he recognises that there are others models, he insisted that his approach must be understood as one right way to do things.

Downes asked if the FlatWord model was sustainable if paper purchases disappeared.  Wiley responded by saying that if and when that happened, alternative models would need to be developed.

The fourth area highlighted Wiley’s “pragmatism over zeal” approach.  Wiley argued that his textbook publishing approach was analogous to the open source versus free software debate.  He came down on the side of the open source model which requires openness, but does not try to remove all commercial enterprises from participating in the field.

The fifth area dealt with the phenomenon of self-organization in the midst of chaos.  He used Slashdot as an example of a site that was able to develop self-regulation which arose from within the users of the site in the face of a huge proportional of off topic posts to news stories.

The last area discussed was the use of analytics in the education process.  Preliminary steps of analyzing the participation of individuals can highlight when a student needs help in an specific area.  Wiley stressed that this is not the time place for some pre-programed response to kick in, but rather human intervention: Human involvement at exactly the point where help is needed.  Thus analytics will make a more human approach to education possible.  After all, it is human beings who are doing the learning, and human beings who need support.  The goal of analytics is to figure areas that need help.


Certainly much more could be said than what is contained in the above summary because Wiley is involved in so many different initiatives.  His passion to make educational materials more accessible is admirable and he does much more than simply theorize about it.  I found the discussion of learning analytics the most fascinating.  This is not an area in which I have specific expertise, but I appreciated his stress that the approach should not be seen or used as a replacement for human assistance, but as a method to more efficiently focus on areas of need.  Obviously there is a lot of potential for such tools, but the training in how to use them will need to be developed so that needs can be met in a timely fashion.  The data must be accessible and easily understandable if it is to be useful.  But the potential to enhance learning is huge.

Collective Learning

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Some of the earlier technical glitches seem to be diminishing.  For this session, I was not able to attend the live version, so my subsequent comments are based on the recording.  Unfortunately the recordings listed are only the audio version.  At least there did not seem to be major connection problems.


Two questions immediately come to mind when the term “collective learning” is mentioned: What is it? and Why use it?  Littlejohn answers the “why use it” question first.  The answer is simple: for the betterment of society.  Complex problems can only be addressed by using specialized expertise which can only reside in many individuals.  No one individual has all the tools necessary to address such problems on their own.

The “what is it” question was addressed in a more roundabout way.  Instead of strictly defining collective learning, she showed what the process looked like.  It begins with connecting.  Through connecting with other people, individuals can consume each other’s knowledge, from that added knowledge they create new insights and then contribute the new knowledge to the community.  As others join this process, called CHARTING, it continues as more and more connections and contributions are made.  She cites Paavola and Hakkarainen description: “A kind of individual and collective learning that goes beyond information given and advances knowledge and understanding: there is collaborative systematic development of common objects of activity.”

This type of learning needs certain background conditions if it is going to succeed.  People need to be willing to participate and what they produce must be open so that others can use it.  Learning resources will be more open when individuals and institutions see the benefits of making them.


My first reaction to this was that it seems too optimistically idealistic.  But then it may not be necessary for every member of society to buy into the model for it to work.  I am also put off by the term “collective, ” but that may just say something about me.  When I hear the term, I think of are the Borg from Star Trek, Next Generation.  All individuality is lost for the sake of the overall goal.  But this is not what Littlejohn is advocating.  If I understood correctly, it is only individuals (or perhaps individual institutions) who can connect and eventually make contributions.  They do this to address situations that they as individuals see.  The entire process, however, is a delicate one.  Individuals must see the advantage and be willing to take the risk.  If the result is positive, the cycle may grow, but if someone takes contributions and treats those contributions as personal property the entire process may stop.  To think that this will not happen is the optimistic idealism I mentioned earlier.  One does not have to look far in the world of open source software to see both the benefits and great accomplishments, as well as the perils and resulting disillusionment that can and do happen.

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