Boring (#change11)

I was thinking about connectivism and classical pedagogy.  We’ve all suffered through the boring class with the boring topic with the boring teacher, boring us to death.  I’m an engineer and in my  youth, my experience with history classes was just that.  Boring.   As I get older and closer to the end, my fascination with history has become much greater and I find myself reading and studying all kinds of history.  What’s different?  I want to study history and as with any self-directed learner I choose topics that interest me.   The important comment is I study, sometimes intently and deeply, topics I want to learn about, but I’m not learning history in a complete sense.  In fact, my history interests are focused on what happened in the US and Europe from about 1890 to 1920.  That’s pretty narrow and I at times feel quite ignorant of the history of the rest of the world and the rest of time, but not guilty enough to do anything about it.  My little world of history is fun, engaging and important to me and that’s why I do it.

That’s great, but I wonder if the educator who selected what should be studied in history in my classes, the person who designed the text book that covered those topics, and the teacher who tried to get us to learn those topics had something up their sleeve.  I wish they had some skill in teaching the subject, but I do believe they were trying to get us to know enough to be dangerous about history so that at some time in the future we would at least remember why World War II started or why Constantinople is now called Istanbul (I’m currently in Turkey on holiday!).

My question is not that self-directed learning is bad or wrong or doesn’t lead to rounded well educated citizens.  My question is how do we ensure we have well educated students when they are creating their own paths of learning?  I don’t know the answer to that question.  I’m not even sure if it’s a valid question.

Wouldn’t we rather have engaged and excited learners even though their breadth of knowledge may not be as broad as classically has been expected?  Would those excited and engaged learners who have acquired a narrow but deep understanding of some topic or topic area be less educated than our classical students who slept through most of the history classes and were tested on the dates of events?


p.s., I’m not picking on history and I ask the reader to insert their favorite boring topic in high school or college.


Taking Tests in the World of Connectivism (#change11)

Assessment is a nightmare I have regarding any model of learning.  I’m sure many of you have had the dream that you were taking a course, never attended the classes, never bought the book, and discovered you are supposed to take the final tomorrow and you have no clue what was covered in the course.  I still have it to this day, although thank goodness less frequently.  I guess that’s one of the few benefits of old age.

In the world of connectivism a student constructs their own lesson plan, seeks the information to satisfy that plan, and of course continually modifies that plan as they acquire new understandings and see directions they had not considered.  A very dynamic mode of learning and probably a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom listening to boring lectures.  But how do we measure student learning?  Or do we need to measure student learning?  I’m using the term we quite broadly because it could possibly be invoked as self-directed assessment, although I’m not sure how that would work.

Teaching to the test is a frequent criticism of many of the education reforms that have been enacted in the K-12 education system in the US over the last few decades.  A set of standards are erected, the curriculum is modified, the standardized tests are produced to measure student learning, and off we go.  Another day I’ll talk about the constant changes in K-12 education that don’t allow us to measure anything since there is nothing to compare one cohort to another to figure out if the change had any effect.

In the higher ed world, although I haven’t heard the pejorative teaching to the test description, education in the professions leans in the direction of teaching to the test. To gain licensure in a profession requires a student to have graduated from an accredited program before they can sit for the exam (plus in some cases other requirements).  Engineering, accounting, medicine and others are all bound by an accreditation process (if the department or college or university chooses to become accredited), that is based upon licensure requirements even if the student chooses not to become professionally licensed.  For example, in engineering many engineers are not licensed.  My guess is you would not visit a doctor who did not have a license to practice medicine.

The accreditation process is a formal review of the materials offered to students, the assessment and evaluation processes employed, the qualifications of the faculty, etc.  Although most accreditation agencies do not prescribe courses, they do require that a certain set of material is learned by the students.   Even if a school employs quite liberal teaching methods, such as integrating humanities with STEM courses, or as in the case of Georgia Tech’s Threads undergraduate computer science curriculum, the materials required for accreditation must be demonstrably taught and learned.  The accreditation and licensure processes are in place to deal with issues of liability among other things.

I’m looking at the Connectivist and other self-directed learning processes as quite enlightening and exciting for faculty and students.  On the other hand I’m trying to sort through how we don’t give away the professional standards (in my world of being a computer scientist and engineer) that make me feel more comfortable when I visit my doctor, get on an airplane, or take an elevator to the 40th floor of a building.   A version of Problem Based Learning has been successfully employed in medical education for many years, and the graduates of those programs do in fact pass their professional exams and practice medicine.  Although PBL is not as wide open as Connectivist learning, it is a type of self-directed-learning. You can poke at PBL for medical education at our favorite, Wikipedia, or at the McMaster University web site where it started.

I’m going to keep on thinking and hope the Change community will think about it as well.

PS, I won’t even bring up the so-called accreditation organizations that deal with accreditation of universities that are a requirement placed on most universities that is onerous, bureaucratic and from what I can see, are self-serving agencies that waste the time of faculty and administrators without producing any improvements in the educational process at the universities.   OK, I brought them up.

Bricolage and Connectivism (#change11)

Connectivism says that learners construct knowledge and understandings by “connecting” into a network of other learners, information sources and experts and then constructing an understanding from that network.  The key element of connectivism is that the learners want to learn about a particular topic.  Bricolage is a similar explanation of learning in that a learner constructs a just-in-time focused learning process, from potentially multiple sources, so that they may be able to perform a particular task.

It might be that the difference between connectivism and bricolage is that bricolage has its objective as the performance of a particular task and connectivism has an objective of building deep conceptual understandings without necessarily being used in the immediate performance of a task.   I will carefully state that connectivism does not preclude learning to perform a task, even though the examples produced by the MOOC instantiation of connectivism have not focused on task performance but on knowledge that may be useful to the learner in a future application or to construct an understanding that allows the learner to build a deeper conceptual understanding of a particular topic that may be applied some day.

Ignoring the often pejorative explanations and associations of bricolage, it might be what differentiates bricolage from connectivism is the desire for learning to apply knowledge in a practical sense (bricolage) to gaining knowledge that may or may not be applicable in the near future.  Both approaches have their merits and usefulness.

There is nothing wrong with trying to learn about concepts and understand them deeply.  That, at least to me, is what a lot of learning is about.   Trying to learn something so that I may solve an immediate problem is but another type of learning but it is useful for only that one problem.  I’ll ignore the debates of transfer, etc., for another day.

What I am trying to say is that connectivism in its manifestation as a MOOC is but one of the many ways of facilitating learning based upon the objectives of the learner.  We must look at all learning as a microcosm that results from a set of objectives or goals and the student needs to be able to activate the particular mechanisms of learning that are applicable to the (what I will refer to as) the “learning space”.   Historically, we have relied on the experts to prescribe what is to be learned and how it is to be learned.  Connectivism and bricolage both leave those decisions to the learner based upon their personal learning objectives.  In other words, they are examples of self-directed learning.  I will return to this topic in a later posting.

I chose bricolage and connectivism as both representing self-directed learning but characterized them as polar opposites in the sense of gaining a deep conceptual understanding, as in the case of connectivism or as a focused practical focus on solving a discrete problem, as in the case of bricolage.  We might look at this as the common differentiation between training and education.  A learner may want to understand why, an advantage of connectivist learning, or merely how, an advantage of bricolage.

My opinion is that a true learner wants to know both how and why and that is why I say that connectivism although a powerful new view of learning is but one of the many ways we can learn and we need to figure out when it is useful and when it is not.

We obviously know that the scripted, pre-ordained learning process employed in most schools is not the right approach, or at least it is not the right approach for all learners and all topics.  Our job is to figure out when a particular pedagogical technique is useful or is not useful and try to understand how to create an environment where they all can exist with the intention of supporting the learning by all students.

Rich DeMillo’s new book on higher education, “Abelard to Apple”, makes this clear.  Figure out what it takes to support learning for the population of students you are serving, do it in the best possible way and it is likely one size will never fit all.  Your job is to be the best at what you are good at, not the imitator of others.

Pushing the button and Managing complexity (#change11)

I’m still mullling over the issues of complexity and how learners deal with it in the context of a MOOC.  Stephen, George and Dave have spent a lot of time and effort in making the process easy for newcomers.  But, I’ll push a bit and say that to open the MOOC experience to a broader set of learners (esp. those technically challenged) we need to make it simpler.

A recent article on Human Computer Interaction that Thad Starner, one of my colleagues at Georgia Tech, told me about, distilled the issues of humans interacting with machines.  A trivial change to a web shopping system resulted in a company increasing its sales on the web by $300,000,000 per year.  The point of the article was that the developers who originally made the web page thought they were making it easier for the user to shop but in fact they were discouraging the users to the point of their taking their business elsewhere.

I’m beating on something that is being worked on by many people.  Human Computer Interaction issues with tools for learning is a more complex problem than tools for shopping or reading.  Why?  Learning is not easy and is a more complicated problem for the learner engaged in self-directed learning. It requires dedication, perseverance, desire and initiative among other things.  We do not want to discourage the learner. We want to encourage the learner by making it as easy as possible for them to acquire the knowledge they desire.

The article is at:

A few thoughts on complexity (#change11)

I watched Allison Littlejohn’s narrated slides today and was interested in her comments about the tool they are developing that supports collective learning.  It reminded me of the comments I made yesterday about the need for the MOOC button.

I’m a slow learner but I realized that what I said yesterday and what Allison was saying about her tool were both comments on managing complexity.

A collective learning environment as we see it in the form of a MOOC or as Allison described it, is a very complex set of information, actors and interactions and unlike many learning environments collective learning is highly dynamic.  Tools that help learners organize this constantly changing environment appear to be critical for successful learning.  They also have to be trivial to use so that the organizing, collecting, re-organizing etc process is what occurs and not wrestling with cumbersome technologies.  Trying to use something designed for other intentions is probably not going to be successful.

To shoot myself in the foot, I agree with Allison that we don’t quite yet know how collective learning works, so that makes it hard to design technologies to support it.


Technology and MOOC’s (#change11)

I have sat in a few of the MOOC talks over the last few weeks.  The proliferation of technologies used by the MOOC facilitators and the numerous methods participants have for interacting with other participants.

I’m a simple kind of guy and it seems to me that we as technologists ought to make the process easier for the less technically involved people.  That could expand the reach of the whole MOOC concept to many more people.

Rather than limit participant’s choices of how to interact or to restrict the creativity of the participants, we (speaking as a Georgia Tech facilitator) ought to design the MOOC “button” or MOOC App for all participants. When you first register for the course you get a button.  Push the button and it allows you to set up all the interactivity you wish to engage in relative to the MOOC and the user can change that over time. It would be like setting preferences in an application.  It also sets up for you the mechanisms to watch the weekly presentations so that when you push your button it brings up the audio and video of the presentation for you with no other effort.  If you missed the scheduled time for the presentation it replays the video for you.

I could go on, but it would appear this would be a relatively simple project that would benefit the MOOC participants.

I like one stop shopping.