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Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI)

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Post Doctoral Position at UTA

elearnspace (George Siemens) - February 20, 2015 - 14:48

I’m pleased to announce a new post doc position at LINK Research Lab at University of Texas Arlington (we will be announcing several additional positions in the next month in various topic areas).

The first position, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, is focused on assessing labour market data, specifically how the changing nature of work impact higher education institutions. For example, what type of work will we be doing in an age of increasing automation? How do universities identify important trends that require alteration of teaching practices from current models? What will the university look like in a global learning and knowledge economy? What will we teach? How will we teach? How will our students (and employees) learn?

We’ve taken a slightly different approach to this position, reflective of the networked and interconnected world of work and higher education. The successful candidate can work remotely from UTA for part of their time. Supervision will be done by Drs. Shane Dawson, Dragan Gasevic, & George Siemens. Additionally, the candidate will spend 2-3 weeks at University of Edinburgh and 2-3 weeks at University of South Australia (Adelaide). The international trip costs will be covered by participating universities, separate from the position salary.

The formal stuff:
The official position description is here:

The relationship between work and formal education is changing. A traditional view holds that formal education prepares individuals for a lifetime of employment. Education in this view is event based. Essentially, once the degree has been completed, the individual moves into the workforce. However, as a result of the complexities and challenges associated with the modern economy, this model is no longer the norm. The traditional full time student is now a minority in the USA, as part time learners and mid-career masters students and alternative programs (such as competency based and online learning) increase in numbers. The nature of work and employment is also changing, as routine labor is increasingly automated. Bill Gates recently stated that within a decade, 50% of today’s jobs will be automated. The repercussions that this has for the economy and the quality of life for people are significant. The impact on the future of universities and colleges, specifically in relation to how higher education prepares individuals for employment, is an important area of research. The skills/employment gap refers to the relationship between what learners know and can do when they graduate and what employers expect. A second gap, that of developing the whole person (such as in a liberal arts education) versus developing an individual for primary employment, also exists as work moves to a creative economy. The balance between formal education, learning, work, creativity, and knowledge advancement will be the primary focus of this post doc position.

This position will appeal to individuals with strong awareness of labor data, employment trends, and how automation is altering work and how this in turn influences the role of higher education institutions in society.

Experience of Applicants
Applicants will have a completed, or soon to be completed, PhD in areas related to this position such as: higher education reform, higher education policy and strategy, job and labor market statistics and trends, impact of automation on work, expanded and changing learning opportunities through digital learning and emerging assessment models (competency based learning), or history of labor and the role work plays in the health and well being of members in a society.

Position Details
The position will run for a duration of three years with annual renewals. This position contributes significantly to University of Texas Arlington’s new strategic plan (, notably regarding sustainable communities (and megacities), sustainability, global impact, health and the human condition, and data-driven discovery.

Specific activities include:
- conducting research (including grant writing and co-supervision of doctoral students)
- engagement with state and national agencies in assessing and evaluating prominent employment trends
- identification and assessment of effectiveness of new higher education and work-to-university-to-work models
- developing models of employment and higher education interaction (triple helix model)
- evaluation of the economic impact of higher education on regional economies as employees return to universities to re-skill/upgrade
- presenting at the main conferences in the knowledge domains relevant to this position
- publishing in the major journals in the field;
- interacting with some stakeholder (internal and external to the university) groups/partners;
- institutional collaboration and knowledge transfer/translation to Texas and national university systems
- analysis of international labour and education trends
- translation of research findings to practice

Position stipend: $50,000 USD annually

The candidate will report directly to the LINK Research Lab Executive Director (Dr. George Siemens) and with input and collaboration with Professor Dragan Gasevic (Research Scientist, UT Arlington and Chair in Learning Analytics, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) and Shane Dawson (Research Scientist, UT Arlington and Associate Professor at the Centre for Teaching Innovation and Digital Learning, University of South Australia, Australia) and will have the option of remote research at collaborating institutions up to 60% external to the University of Texas at Arlington post approval from the Link Research Lab Executive Director).

Applications materials should be submitted digitally to:

Laurel Mayo, Director, LINK Research Lab
email address:

Unitarian Chalice Wheel

Terry Anderson's blog - February 17, 2015 - 08:52
In this post I “show off” the carving I had commissioned from I Ketut Weda, a local woodcarver in Ubud, Bali.  Unitarians are proud to both recognize and acknowledge the many spiritual paths followed by other Unitarians and by other citizens of this planet. The carving has it’s centre a flaming chalice. The chalice is the most […]

The Logical Fallacy Collection: 30 Ways to Lose an Argument

Jon Dron's bookmarks - February 9, 2015 - 11:34

A nicely designed infographic presenting a few common fallacious approaches to argument, both informal and formal, in an easily digestible form. 

Address of the bookmark:

Is Blogging worth it for the aspiring academic?

Terry Anderson's blog - January 21, 2015 - 20:50
After spending most of yesterday catching up on blogs, Facebook posts, twitter and linked in, I began to wonder if it was worth it and how I would I would measure the value (in academic terms) of my day. First of all I should note that the day was a pleasant one, with a few […]

Why you should do design based research (DBR)

Terry Anderson's blog - January 20, 2015 - 18:03
In this post I’ll review and respond to two useful posts by Rebecca Hogue – Why you shouldn’t do Educational Design Research Part 1  and Part 2. First of all I think the title is quite misleading, in that my reading of it provides amble reasons for doing DBR, in line with the literature. Perhaps I […]

Challenge Propagation: Towards a theory of distributed intelligence and the global brain

Jon Dron's bookmarks - January 4, 2015 - 13:24

Fascinating paper from the always thought-provoking and often inspirational Francis Heylighen, in which he draws together various models of distributed intelligence, distributed cognition, evolution and complex adaptive systems, incorporating stigmergic and networked perspectives on ways that self-organizing systems can exhibit intelligent behaviour. This is very relevant to anyone interested in connectivism, collectives, learning, intelligence, complex systems or social software.

Heylighen's central thesis revolves around a definition of intelligence as not just problem solving but also opportunity seeking: it's about both overcoming obstacles and seeking new possibilities. This combination is encompassed by the term 'challenge', which Heylighen defines as 'a phenomenon that invites action from an agent'. Given competing positive (proactive) and negative (reactive) challenges, he sees challenge in evolutionary terms as 'a promise of fitness gain for action relative to inaction'. All of this is framed in a context of bounded rationality and different approaches to challenge resolution, from simple look-ups to complex heuristics, and a range of factors that may motivate or demotivate different actions. This is all good stuff but it gets really interesting when he reaches the 'challenge propagation' referred to in the title. In essence, this applies the logic of memetics to challenges. As he puts it:

"In contrast to the standard paradigm of individual problem solving, the challenge propagation paradigm investigates processes that involve a potentially unlimited number of agents. To deal with this, our initial focus must shift from the agent to the challenge itself: what interests us is how an individual challenge is processed by a collective of agents distributed across some abstract space or network. Instead of an agent traveling (searching) across a space of challenges (problem space), we will consider a challenge traveling (propagating) across a space of agents."

This is a brilliant idea. I love the change in perspective that this brings. There are, I think, some very large and unresolved questions about what a 'challenge' means in the context of a collective. This follows from the fact that it is hard to understand what fitness in such a collective might consist of, save in its utility to the agents of which it is composed, though it might shed some light on our eusociality (evolution not for the benefit of selfish genes but for the benefit of a large social collective). I find it particularly hard to map his earlier discussion of how things are valued (with 'valences') by an individual agent and how things might be valued by a collective. A challenge does not exist in isolation - it must have a subject. It's not entirely clear what that subject might be here. Such fuzziness aside, as a way of understanding an otherwise massively complex intelligent system like a brain, an ant colony or human culture, it has a lot going for it.

While the foundations are very strong, I have some reservations about some of the examples Heylighen uses and some conclusions that he draws. While I can readily accept that there are some stigmergic aspects to Wikipedia, I do not believe that the act of editing a page is in any meaningful way analogous to the way that stigmergy operates in (say) termite mound building or movements of currency markets. In the first place, unlike in a true stigmergic system, there is an infinite range of possible 'algorithms' that might influence agents making changes to a Wikipedia article. There are path dependencies, sure, but that doesn't make it stigmergic. Apart from some stylistic patterns that tend to replicate, there is none of the emergent self-organized behaviour that is characteristic of all stigmergic systems. A Wikipedia page is largely just the sum of its parts, not an emergent artefact. In the second place, unlike in stigmergic systems, individual agents make deliberate contributions with a clear design purpose and end-goal in mind when building a Wikipedia page: their interactions are not local but planned and focused on the whole. It is no more stigmergic than a house to which someone decides to add an extension or remodel its rooms. It's a good model for cooperative action, but not of collective intelligence.

I'm also not entirely happy with the notion of the Internet as being a gigantic collection of forums (generalized by Heylighen as 'meeting grounds') to exchange challenges, though the metaphor is appealing on many levels. The same could, of course, be said about any human artifacts or ways of 'meeting', from buildings to tools to doorknobs to forest footpaths to books to conversations to simply passing in a street. So far so good.  He describes the propagation of challenges as involving division of labour, workflow, and aggregation - this too makes sense. He then describes how such a system becomes self-organizing and uses as an example the growth of open source software. Here I have problems, for much the same reasons as I have problems seeing Wikipedia article development as stigmergic. In real life, many large open source developments are a million miles from self-organizing. The archetypal Linux, for instance, is extremely tightly controlled by a very small number of people using very rigid processes that are in many ways more traditionally organized from the top down than most proprietary systems. While the challenges are indeed solved by individual agents acting largely independently, albeit building on what others have already built, the workflow and aggregation are firmly in a traditional designed mould and tightly controlled by a clique. This is even true of more open approaches, such as those encouraged by Github although, in this case, workflow is managed by a 'blind' algorithmically driven system rather than by a clique. 

My concerns are minor and they are not with the basic ideas presented here, that I find very compelling. I think this is an important paper. While it certainly needs refinement, this feels like the beginnings of a new language for discussing and describing connectivist accounts of learning. It provides some much needed solid underpinning theory and a very useful perspective on some of connectivism's major tenets: that knowledge exists in the network, including non-human artefacts; that connections are learning; the significance of decision-making; the ways that more is different; and the value of diversity. Great stuff.

Address of the bookmark:

New report on Emotional Presence in online education

Terry Anderson's blog - December 16, 2014 - 07:29
I awoke to a new report this morning Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects. The report is the first paper from the Learning Analytics Community Exchange which is a 2.5 year  EU funded project focused on learning analytics and data mining for educational use. I must say I was delightfully surprised to see the […]

Defaults matter

Jon Dron's blog - December 15, 2014 - 12:20

I have often written about the subtle and not-so-subtle constraints of learning management systems (LMSs) that channel teaching down a limited number of paths, and so impose implicit pedagogies on us that may be highly counter productive and dissuade us from teaching well - this paper is an early expression of my thoughts on the matter. I came across another example today.

When a teacher enters comments on assignments in Moodle (and in most LMSs), it is a one-time, one-way publication event. The student gets a notification and that's it. While it is perfectly possible for a dialogue to continue via email or internal messaging, or to avoid having to use such a system altogether, or to overlay processes on top of it to soften the hard structure of the tool, the design of the software makes it quite clear this is not expected or normal. At best, it is treated as a separate process. The design of such an assignment submission system is entirely about delivering a final judgement. It is a tacit assertion of teacher power. The most we can do to subvert that in Moodle is to return an assignment for resubmission, but that carries its own meanings and, on resubmission, still returns us to the same single feedback box.

Defaults are very powerful things that profoundly shape how we behave (e.g. see here, here and here). Imagine how different the process would be if the comment box were, by default, part of a dialogue, inviting response from the student. Imagine how different it would be if the student could respond by submitting a new version (not replacing the old) or by posting amendments in a further submission, to keep going until it is just right, not as a process of replacement but of evolution and augmentation. You might think of this as being something like a journal submission system, where revisions are made in response to reviewers until the article is acceptable. But we could go further. What if it were treated as a debugging process, using approaches like those in Bugzilla or Github to track down issues and refine solutions until they were as good as they could be, incorporating feedback and help from students and others on or beyond the course? It seems to me that, if we are serious about assignments as a formative means of helping someone to learn (and we should be), that's what we should be doing. There is really no excuse, ever, for a committed student to get less than 100% in the end. If students are committed and willing to persist until they have learned what they come here to learn, it is not ever the students' failure when they achieve less than the best: it is the teachers'.

This is, of course, one of the motivations behind the Landing. In part we built this site to enable pedagogies like this that do not fit the moulds that LMSs ever-so-subtly press us into. The Landing has its own set of constraints and assumptions, but it is an alternative and complementary set, albeit one that is designed to be soft and malleable in many more ways than a standard LMS. The point, though, is not that any one system is better than any other but that all of them embed pedagogical and process assumptions, some of which are inherently incompatible.

The solution is, I think, not to build a one-size-fits-all system. Yes, we could easily enough modify Moodle to behave the way I suggest and in myriad other ways (e.g. I'd love to see dialogue available in every component, to allow student-controlled spaces wherever we need them, to allow students to add to their own courses, etc) but that doesn't work either. The more we pack in, the softer the system becomes, and so the harder it is to operate it effectively. Greater flexibility always comes at a high price, in cognitive load, technical difficulty and combinatorial complexity. Moreover, the more we make it suit one group of people, the less well it suits others. This is the nature of monolithic systems.

There are a few existing ways to greatly reduce this problem, without massive reinvention and disruption. One is to disaggregate the pieces. We could build the LMS out of interoperable blocks so that we could, for instance, replace the standard submission system with a different one, without impacting other parts of the system. That was the goal of OKI and the now-defunct E-Framework although, in both cases, assembly was almost always a centralized IT management function and not available to those who most needed it - students and teachers. Neither have really made it to the mainstream. Sakai (an also-ran LMS that still persists) continues to use OKI technologies under the hood but the e-framework (a far better idea) seems dead in the water. These were both great ideas. There just wasn't the will or the money, and competition from incumbents like Moodle and Blackboard was too strong. Other widget-based methods (e.g. using Wookie) offer more hope, because they do not demand significant retooling of existing systems, but they are currently far from on the ascendent and the promising EU TENCompetence project that was a leader behind this seems moribund, its site offline.

Another approach is to use modules/plugins/building blocks within an existing system. However, this can be difficult or impossible to manage in a manner that delivers control to the end user without at the same time making it difficult for those that do not want or need such control, because LMSs are monoliths that have to address the needs of many people. Not everyone needs a big toolkit and, for many, it would actively make things worse if they had one. Judicious use of templates can help with that, but the real problem is that one size does not fit all. Also, it locks you in to a particular platform, making evolution dependent on designers whose goals may not align with how you want to teach.

Bearing that in mind, another way to cope with the problem is to use multiple independent systems bound by interoperability standards - LTI, OpenBadges or TinCan, for example. With such standards, different learning platforms can become part of the same federated environment, sharing data, processing, learning paths and so on, allowing records to be kept centrally while enabling incompatible pedagogies to run independently within each system. That seems to me to be the most sensible option right now. It's still more complex for all concerned than taking the easy path, and it increases management burden as well as replicating too much functionality for no particularly good reason. But sometimes the easy path is the wrong one, and diversity drives growth and improvement.

Great Firewall of China

Terry Anderson's blog - December 13, 2014 - 14:23
I’m on research and study leave (aka Sabbatical) this year and I see that I have been ignoring my blog as well as a number of other “normal responsibilities”. But I have been learning and enjoying. After a 6 week road trip through Eastern Canada and the USA, my wife Susan and I  are just […]

Chill-inducing music enhances altruism in humans

Jon Dron's bookmarks - December 2, 2014 - 01:39

A neat bit of research that apparently demonstrates people appear to become more altruistic after listening to music that affects them positively. Feeling good leads to doing good! Makes sense.

Address of the bookmark:

Nature (the journal) to be free to view

Jon Dron's bookmarks - December 2, 2014 - 00:38

There are lots of caveats and some rather serious and mostly pointless restrictions (publishers have not figured out how to let go yet) but, on balance, this is pretty darn good news.

Address of the bookmark:

I now have a Canadian Father

elearnspace (George Siemens) - November 25, 2014 - 14:58

Over two years ago, I complained about the cruel and frustrating rejection of my dad’s Canadian citizenship. It has been a long process. It is deeply discouraging to see your parent frightened and stressed that he will be sent back to a country that hasn’t been his home for over 40 years, leaving behind children and grandchildren. The recent immigration discussion in the USA takes on a new meaning in the light of this experience. In our case, my dad was a Canadian citizen. Had been one since 1978. Voted in municipal, provincial, and federal elections for decades. Was employed his entire time in Canada. And then suddenly he received a letter telling him that his citizenship was cancelled. He had to turn in his passport. He couldn’t enter the US as part of his work – a bit of a challenge as he is a truck driver and most of his routes were south.

Still, Canada is a wonderful country. My dad calls it home. He loves it. He feels blessed. And today, he officially became a Canadian citizen. Version 2.0.

Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN)

elearnspace (George Siemens) - November 18, 2014 - 13:06

Higher education is digitizing. All aspects of it, including administration, teaching/learning, and research. The process of becoming digital has important implications for how learning occurs and how research happens and how it is shared. I’m happy to announce the formation of the digital Learning Research Network (dLRN), funded by a $1.6m grant from the Gates Foundation – more info here.

From a broad overview, the goal of the grant is to improve the depth and quality of research in digital learning. I’m defining digital learning as anything that has a technology component: online, blended, and in classroom with use of technology. Additionally, this learning may be formal, self-regulated, structured/unstructured, and “lifelong”. Much of this research is already ongoing – a quick skim of conferences such as LAK, ICLS, IEDMS and others confirms this. An important challenge exists, however, in that existing research stays in journals and conference proceedings and often doesn’t make it into practice as quickly or with as much impact as is needed. With dLRN, our goals are to:

  1. Increase the impact of existing research in solving complex organizational and systems-level learning challenges
  2. Work in cross-disciplinary and multi-lens research teams to ensure nuanced solutions are generated for real, intractable problems
  3. Connect and amplify existing research
  4. Promote research as practice and practice as research mindsets in college and university systems engaged in researching digital learning and teaching
  5. Model openness in research activity and data
  6. Increase the speed of the research cycle and adoption of effective practices with a particular emphasis on under-represented students
  7. Build on existing research in learning sciences, online, blended, and distance learning, as well as data mining and learning analytics
  8. Evaluate the broader organizational influences of digital learning, teaching, and research

More specifically, dLRN will do the following:

Foster Innovation, specifically in increasing the capacity of member universities to transition to the digital environment. The past several years of activity in MOOCs and online learning have pushed thinking about teaching and learning (and also hype and nonsense!). An important opportunity now exists to evaluate how existing universities are rethinking on-campus and in classroom learning based on MOOCs. Specifically, what are the lessons that campuses are learning based on MOOC experimentation? Additionally, how are universities position online and blended learning in relation to on-campus learning?

A second aspect of innovation for this grant will result in the development of a network of partner universities who are focused on increasing participation from sectors of society that currently are not entering higher education. These sectors include first-in-family degree completers, learners who have some university experience but discontinued, and individuals who are returning to education to re-skill to prepare for a new job market.

Internationalize the research network to include global partners to advance exploration of research topics and pursue research funding internationally. This work will not be funded by this grant as international universities will be responsible for developing resources required for their participation. However, the inclusion of international research systems will ensure that the work being conducted as part of this proposal reflects the diversity of international audiences. We expect these partners will amplify the value of this research and increase application and impact both nationally and internationally.

Develop Personal Knowledge Graphs. I’ve been whining about this for a while. The focus on higher education has to date been centered on course content and curriculum. Moving forward, in order to develop personalized and adaptive learning, universities will need to develop personal knowledge graphs (PKG) and profiles. PKG would involve collecting and mapping what an individual knows – based on formal learning, workplace learning, and informal learning – and using that graph as a base for providing focused learning materials to address knowledge gaps in order to achieve a qualification or degree. In a workforce defined by rapid changes, PKG will enable learners to more rapidly reskill and upgrade in order to participate in the knowledge economy.

Universities/organizations and people involved:

Carnegie Mellon University (Carolyn Rose)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Stephanie Teasley)
Stanford University (Candace Thille)
SRI (Barbara Means)
Teachers College, Columbia University (Ryan Baker)
University of Arkansas System (Michael Moore)
California Community Colleges (Pat James)
University System of Georgia (Myk Garn)
Smithsonian Institution (Chris Liedel/Jacquie Moen)

Getting involved:

An important aspect of this is involving international universities. I’ve had several conversations with universities in UK, Australia, and Canada. While we don’t have funds to support these systems, if your institution is interested and able to self-fund involvement, please let me know: gsiemens at gmail. At minimum, I expect that international partners will be able to translate their work into regional and national grants in their own jurisdiction.

We will also be looking to work with doctoral students who are interested in digital learning. For this, I’m looking more at students that are interested in this research area and are willing to devote time to participating in research and connecting with other researchers. (We will be announcing three post-doc positions at LINK Lab soon for those that want to get more deeply involved in research).

Finally, we expect to have a full slate of open online events including research discussions and case studies starting early 2015. As much as possible, we will be sharing research openly.

Constructivism versus objectivism: Implications for interaction, course design, and evaluation in distance education.

Jon Dron's bookmarks - November 18, 2014 - 12:52

I'd not come across this (2000) article from Vrasidas till now, more's the pity, because it is one of the clearest papers I have read on the distinction between objectivist (behaviourist/cognitivist)  and constructivist/social-constructivist approaches to teaching. It wasn't new by any means even 15 years ago, but it provides an excellent overview of the schism (both real and perceived) between objectivism and constructivism and, in many ways, presages a lot of the debate that has gone on since surrounding the strengths, weaknesses and novelty of connectivist approaches. Also contains some good practical hints about how to design learning activities.

Address of the bookmark:

Constructivism versus objectivism: Implications for interaction, course design, and evaluation in distance education.

Jon Dron's bookmarks - November 18, 2014 - 12:52

I'd not come across this (2000) article from Vrasidas till now, more's the pity, because it is one of the clearest papers I have read on the distinction between objectivist (behaviourist/cognitivist)  and constructivist/social-constructivist approaches to teaching. It wasn't new by any means even 15 years ago, but it provides an excellent overview of the schism (both real and perceived) between objectivism and constructivism and, in many ways, presages a lot of the debate that has gone on since surrounding the strengths, weaknesses and novelty of connectivist approaches. Also contains some good practical hints about how to design learning activities.

Address of the bookmark:

Brilliant folks that need to be read.

elearnspace (George Siemens) - November 18, 2014 - 10:41

Folks like Mike Caulfield, Bonnie Stewart, and Kate Bowles, deserve far more attention for their thinking and writing than what they are currently getting. It’s really not fair to lump them together, but they represent for me an intersection of humanity, tangible change, and deep thinking in education. Build your next conference around these three and I’m there. Just send me the registration link.

A recent sampling of their thinking:

From Kate:

I really think the measure of our capacity to call ourselves a community relates to our responses in a whole range of situations for which there can’t be laws or even social demands, but only instinct….and that’s where I think we are with our transactions, our struggling social communities, our networks, the places and persons that we care for. At some level we have to accept that every side is circumscribed, every speaking position is taken, and every single thing that now can be said will trigger someone else’s despairing fury that this is the same old, same old, mounting up to what’s most wrong in the world.

From Bonnie:

Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously…Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

From Mike:

But what I *know* I’m right about is that these problems exist, and they are serious.
Minority voices are squelched, flame wars abound. We spend hours at a time as rats hitting the Skinner-esque levers of Twitter and Tumblr, hoping for new treats — and this might be OK if we actually then built off these things, but we don’t.
We’re stuck in an attention economy feedback loop that doesn’t allow us silent spaces to reflect on issues without news pegs, and in which many of our areas of collaboration have become toxic, or worse, a toxic bureaucracy.
We’re stuck in an attention economy feedback loop where we react to the reactions of reactions (while fearing further reactions), and then we wonder why we’re stuck with groupthink and ideological gridlock.

Moving from openness advocacy to research

elearnspace (George Siemens) - November 18, 2014 - 10:26

Openness in education – including content, teaching, pedagogy, analytics, or any other flavours – is a 15+ year trend that is starting to cross over into the main stream. I’ve been involved in numerous faculty/leadership meetings with different universities and colleges over the past year and openness has become one of those concepts that everyone agrees with, supports, and promotes. In a way, it’s like “diversity”, given lip service, recognition in planning documents and policy statements, but often not reflected adequately in practice.

A few weeks ago, David Wiley posted a statement on his site about a recent OER report:

The Babson OER Survey is incredible. If you care at all about OER, you absolutely need to read it…Many people think my prediction that “80% of all US general education courses will be using OER instead of publisher materials by 2018″ is crazy talk. But it isn’t. It’s not crazy at all. OER align better with faculty’s top adoption priorities than traditional materials do, and the majority of current non-users will try OER between now and 2017.

I’ve been thinking about this report and, if David is right about the scope of adoption, we have a serious issue. Openness in education is more advocacy than research. Sure, we’ve had the odd Yochai Benkler paper and a few publications from advocates of openness and a few researcher/philosopher/advocates (like Peter Suber and John Willinksky). But, overall, advocacy has driven adoption of openness (OER, MOOCs, open pedagogy, etc). This is rather odd. I can’t think of a trend in education that is as substantive as openness that has less of a peer reviewed research base. Top conferences are practitioner and policy/advocacy based. Where are the research conferences? Where are the proceedings? When they exist, they are often small clusters embedded in other conferences and publications. IF, as David argues, adoption rates of OERs in courses will approach 80%, the lack of a research community in this space seems like a significant limitation.

McDonald's as a learning technology

Jon Dron's Landing blog - August 2, 2012 - 14:49

Whenever I visit a new country, region or city I visit McDonald's as soon as I can to have a Bic Mac and an orange juice. Actually, in Delhi that turns into a Big Raj (no beef on the menu) and in some places I substitute a wine or a beer for the orange juice, but the food is not really important. There are local differences but it's pretty much as horrible wherever you go.

I inflict this on myself because The McDonald's Experience should, on the whole, be a pretty consistent thing the world over: that's how it is designed. Except that it isn't the same. The differences, however, compared with the differences between one whole country or city and another, are relatively slight and that's precisely the point. The small differences make it much easier to spot them, and to focus on them, to understand their context and meaning. Differences in attitudes to cleaning, attitudes to serving, washroom etiquette, behaviour of customers, decor, menu, ambiance, care taken preparing or keeping the food etc are much easier to absorb and reflect upon than out on the street or in more culturally diverse cafes because they are more firmly anchored in what I already know. Tatty decor in McDonald's restaurants in otherwise shiny cities speak worlds about expectations and attitudes, open smiles or polite nods help to clarify social expectations and communication norms. Whether people clear their own tables, whether the dominant clientele are fat, or families, or writers, whether it's a proletarian crowd or full of intelligentsia or a place that youth hang out.  Whether people smoke, whether they drink. How loud the music (if any) is playing. The layout of the seating. How people greet their friends, how customers are greeted, how staff interact. How parents treat their children. There's a wide range of different more or less subtle clues that tell me more about the culture in 20 minutes than days spent engaging more directly with the culture of a new place. Like the use of  the Big Mac Index to compare economies,  the research McDonald's puts into making sure it fits in also provides a useful barometer to compare cultures.

McDonald's thus serves as a tool to make it easier to learn. This is about distributed cognition. McDonald's channels my learning, organises an otherwise disorganised world for me. It provides me with learning that is within my zone of proximal development. It helps me to make connections and comparisons that would otherwise be far more complex. It provides an abstract, simplified model of a complex subject.

It's a learning technology. 

Of course, if it were the only technology I used then there would be huge risks of drawing biased conclusions based on an outlier, or of misconstruing something as a cultural feature when it is simply the result of a policy that is misguidedly handed down from a different culture. However, it's a good start, a bit of scaffolding that lets me begin to make sense of confusion, that makes it easier to approach the maelstrom outside more easily, with a framework to understand it.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this when we turn our attention to intentionally designed learning technologies like schools, classrooms, playgrounds,  university websites, learning management systems, or this site, the Landing. Viewed as a learning technology about foreign culture, McDonald's is extraordinarily fit for purpose. It naturally simplifies and abstracts salient features of a culture, letting me connect my own conceptions and beliefs with something new, allowing me to concentrate on the unfamiliar in the context of the familiar. Something similar happens when we move from one familiar learning setting to the next. When we create a course space in, say, Moodle or Blackboard, we are using the same building blocks (in Blackboard's case, quite literally) as others using the same system, but we are infusing it with our own differences, our own beliefs, our own expectations. Done right, these can channel learners to think and behave differently, providing cues, expectations, implied beliefs, implied norms, to ease them from one familiar way of thinking into another. It can encourage ways of thinking that are useful, metacognitive strategies that are embedded in the space. Unfortunately, like McDonald's, the cognitive embodiment of the designed space is seldom what learning designers think about. Their focus tends to be on content and activities or, for more enlightened designers, on bending the tools to fit a predetermined pedagogy. Like McDonald's, the end result can be rather different from the intended message. I don't think that McDonald's is trying to teach me the wealth of lessons that I gain from visiting their outlets and, likewise, I don't think most learning designers are trying to tell me:

  • that learning discussions should be done in private places between consenting adults;
  • that it is such a social norm to cheat that it's worth highlighting on the first page of the study guide;
  • that teachers are not important enough to warrant an image or even an email link on the front page;
  • that students are expected to have so little control that, instead of informative links to study guide sections, they are simply provided with a unit number to guide their progress;
  • that the prescribed learning outcomes are more important than how they will be learned, the growth, and the change in understanding that will occur along the way.

And yet, too many times, that's what the environment is saying: in fact, it is often a result of the implied pedagogies of the technology itself that many such messages are sent and reinforced. The segregation of discussion into a separate space from content is among the worst offenders in this respect as that blocks one of the few escape routes for careful designers. Unless multi-way communication is embedded deeply into everything, as it is here on the Landing, then there is not even the saving grace of being able to see emergent cultural behaviours to soften and refine the hegemonies of a teacher-dominated system.

Like McDonald's, all of this makes it far more likely that you'll get a bland salty burger than haute cuisine or healthy food.

Collective values

Jon Dron's Landing blog - May 25, 2012 - 16:45

Terry Anderson and I have written a fair bit about the different social forms that apply in (at least) an educational context. We reckon that they fall fairly neatly into physically overlapping but conceptually distinct categories of groups, nets and sets. In the past, we used the term 'collectives' instead of 'sets' but we have come to realise that collectives are something else entirely.This post starts with an overview of the distinctions and then drifts into vaguer territory in an attempt to uncover what it might be like for something to have meaning for a social entity. That's a rather bizarre concept at first glance: is there any sense at all in which a collection of people, not the people within that collection but the collection itself, can feel or think anything and, if not, how can anything be said to have meaning to it? And yet, oddly, we do ascribe human attributes to collections of people all the time in our everyday speech - 'Apple is a creative company', 'Canada got another gold medal', 'We came top of the league', 'the crowd is angry', 'this is the most enthusiastic class I've ever taught', 'Google beat Oracle in the court case', 'Athabasca University is committed to open learning' and so on. While this is often just a shorthand notation for something else or a poetic metaphor, the ubiquity of such language makes it worth examining further.

Groups, nets, sets and collectives 

Groups are the stuff of conventional teaching and learning: they are distinct and intentional entities that people join and know that they are members. You are in a group or out of it: you might be more or less engaged, but there is no real in-between state. Groups are generally characterised by things like purposes, collaboration, hierarchies, roles, exclusion. We know a lot about groups and their effects on learning, and the whole field of social constructivist models of teaching and learning is based on them.

Networks are more tenuous entities. To join a network you connect with one or more of its nodes. You might intentionally wish to make connections with particular people or kinds of people, but a network has no formal constitution, no innate roles and hierarchies, no innate exclusion: it's about individuals and their connections with one another. It is composed of nothing but connections and ties and has no formal boundaries. Networks are traversable and offer ways of linking and connecting to others and their knowledge. Learning in networks tends to be informal, connected and undirected by any individual. Networks are great for on-demand and serendipitous learning, combining social ties with unbounded knowledge.

Sets are about categories and topics. Set-based learning is about finding people and knowledge based on shared characteristics, typically a topic about one wishes to learn. Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google Search epitomise the nature and value of sets in learning, with ascending social interest sites like Pinterest or Quora beginning to enter the fray. However, libraries and bookshops are also primarily set-oriented, so this is nothing new. Unlike networks, there may be no direct connection with others and certainly no expectation of sustained interaction (though it may occur and develop into other social forms). Unlike groups, there is no formal constitution of a collection of individuals. It is just a bunch of people joined (in a set-theory sense) by a shared interest.

When social forms act together as a single entity, they become collectives - not a social form, as such, but the result of social forms and the interactions of individuals within them. A collective may be the result of direct or indirect interactions of individual autonomous agents, such as may be found in natural social forms like ant or termite nests, herds, flocks or shoals or, in human systems, in the operations of money markets, mobs, stock exchanges, group-think and forest path formation. The 'invisible hand' is a collective in action, the result of myriad local interactions rather than a deliberate global plan. The environment plays a strong role in this: things like the availability of resources, sight-lines, weather patterns, topology and more play a role in determining how such dynamics play out.

In computer-based systems, the combination that leads to a collective is not just a result of the emergent results of individual agents but may be effected and consequently notably affected by a machine: Amazon recommendations, Google Search, PayPal reputations and so on are all combining intelligent and independent actions of humans using algorithms in a machine in order to affect human action. The computer system extends what is possible through direct/indirect interaction alone, but it is still powered by individual intelligent beings making intelligent choices. It leads to a cyborg entity where collective emergence is part-human, part-machine. This makes such systems very powerful and flexible as a means to create collective intelligence that is directed to some end, rather than being simply an emergent feature of a complex system that happens to have value. Not only does the environment itself play a role in shaping behaviour, as in 'natural' systems, but it actually creates some of the rules of interaction. In effect, it bends and sometimes creates the rules of social physics.

Values in collections of people

In some sense, groups, sets, nets are all identifiable entities in the world that achieve some kind of action or purpose that is distinct from the individual actions or purposes of the people of which they are comprised. Clay Shirky talked of them as first class objects - things in themselves. But are these entities, these first class objects, anything like people? Are there values we can ascribe to them? Do they have intentions and purposes that are analogous to those of individuals? Do they have attitudes that are separable or different from the attitudes of those that comprise them? This is a problem that my student Eric Von Stackelberg has been exploring in his masters thesis and he has made some very interesting progress on this by using categories, that are used in psychology to describe individual values, as a means of describing group values ('group' used here in the generic sense of a collection of people of some identifiable sort). I've been challenging him to clarify what it would mean for that to be true. Can a bunch of people (not the individuals, the bunch itself) be kind, or hedonistic, or happy, or avaricious, or whatever in a manner that is meaningfully different from saying that the individuals themselves, or even a majority of them, have those attitudes? It seems that a corollary of that implies we might ascribe to them something akin to emotion. Could a bunch of people (the bunch, not the people in the bunch) feel happiness, amusement, tiredness, anger, pain, hate or love? I find this a difficult concept to get my head around. And yet...

It seems intuitively obvious that there is something organism-like in a social cluster. It is certainly normal to speak of organizational values, national values, group beliefs, group norms and so on. Athabasca University, for example treats itself as a unified entity in its mission statement that talks of values, purposes and intentions as though it were (almost) a human being. Corporations are treated in the law of some countries almost exactly like people (albeit odd ones, given that all would be diagnosed as having, on analysis, serious psychopathic disorders). Nations are very similar - we can talk of America invading Afghanistan without batting an eyelid, even though it is very clearly not something that is literally or physically the case in the way it would be were, say, a bully to pick on someone in a playground. A similar but far more worrisome phrase like 'the French have always despised the English' sounds like it plays on a similar notion but suggests something rather different. When we say that a country has invaded another we are talking about a group activity, something organized and intentional, whereas when we suggest that a whole population of people thinks in a certain way we are talking about a set: people with the shared attribute of nationality (the same applies to race, or gender, or physical attribute, etc - that way bigotry lies). There are interesting hybrids: it is normal to say 'we won' when a hockey team wins even though 'we' had negligible input or nothing to do with it at all. We identify at a set level (we, the supporters of the team) in a manner that encompasses the team (a distinct group). It is harder to find examples of networks being treated in quite the same way, though the flow of memes that is so easily facilitated through social networking sites may be an example of values of a sort being a feature of networks. However, the innately diffuse nature of a network means it is significantly less likely to have values of its own. It may be predicated on individuals' values (e.g a network of religious believers) but a network itself does not seem to have any, at least at first glance. Networks are primarily about individuals and their connections to other individuals, each seeing their part of the network from their own unique perspective. This is not promising territory to find anything apart from emergent patterns of value.

There are natural parallels though, that suggest an alternative view. It makes no sense to think of an ant colony as just a load of autonomous ants - the colony itself is undoubtedly a super-organism and an ant from such a colony is, on its own, not a meaningful entity: it is constituted only in its relation to others, as part of a single network. We can use telological language about the colony, and even ascribe to it wants, desires and intentions. It is also absolutely reasonable to think of an organism like a human being as a group/network/set of tightly coupled cells that are behaving, together, as a single unified entity that is not dissimilar to an ant colony in its complexity and interdependence. An individual cell may live on its own, but its meaning only becomes apparent in the presence of others. Even at a cellular level, our cells are a community of different symbiotic organisms. The vast majority of the cells in our bodies don't even have human DNA (that still staggers me - what are we?) but we still cannot think of ourselves as anything other than individuals that have values, intentions, meaning and - well - an autonomous life of their own. Are social forms so very different? It seems that at least one contained network that constitutes an entity may well have values because, well, we have values and we can be viewed as networks. In fact, we can also be thought of as sets and, in some senses, as groups.

While chatting about this kind of thing, a friend recently remarked that perhaps the most crucial value that we can ascribe to an individual is the value of survival: the will to survive. An arbitrary collection of entities does not have this. If we are thinking in terms of organisms, then I guess we might more properly think of it in evolutionary terms as a bunch of genes seeking to survive, but that's a layer of abstraction higher than needed here.

At the individual organism level it is the organism that tries to survive. This is one obvious reason that it is logical to think of an ant, termite or bee colony as a single organism: individuals will readily sacrifice themselves for the colony exactly as the cells in our own bodies continuously sacrifice themselves in order to protect and sustain the entity that we recognise as a person. We can easily see this survival imperative in intentionally created groups, from small departments to sewing circles, from gangs and teams to companies to countries (groups). If a group exists, it will typically try to preserve itself, and individual members may often be seen as expendable in meeting that need: thing of countries at war, political parties, hockey teams and so on. We can also see it in less rigidly defined entities such as cultures (sets/nets) and institutions (sets/groups). Even though individuals may have no formal connections with one another with, at most, tenuous networks and no unifying constitution, the simple fact of observable similarities and shared features leads to a self-reinforcing crowd effect that leads to survival. Often, intentional groups will be formed to support these but the interesting thing is that they are not groups defending their own 'lives' but a kind of collective antibody formed to protect the broader, sometimes barely tangible, set. People who form organizations to defend society against some challenge to what they see as being its central cultural, aesthetic, ethical or social values are doing just that. The set of which they feel a part is somehow greater than the group that they form to protect it.

It is harder to see this in human networks. Although there do appear to be emergent and dynamically stable features in many networks, that's just it: they are emergent features like a solonic wave in a river, the rhythmic dripping of a tap, or a whorl of clouds in a storm. It makes far less sense to talk of a cloud formation as trying to survive than it does of an ant colony. We do, however, see moods and trends spread through networks - if you know people who are getting fatter then you are far more likely to become fat yourself, for instance, and depression is contagious. It is reasonable to surmise that values spread in much the same way: indeed, if we look at extremes such as the spread of Naziism or the growth of fundamental religions, there is a very strong sense in which networks act as conduits for value. But I think that's it: they are conduits, not containers of value. Whatever has values may consist of networks that facilitate the spread or even the formation of those values, but it is the thing, not the network, that is what we care about here.

All of this leads me to suspect that the social forms that Terry and I identified as different in their pedagogical uses and affordances have some fundamental characteristics that go quite a way beyond that and relate to and intersect with one another in quite distinctively different ways. When we picture them as a Venn diagram it homogenizes these differences and makes it seem as though there are simply overlaps between vaguely similar entities, but there is more to it. Networks provide conduits for the spread of value between and within sets and groups. They are not the only conduits by any means: for example, if the human race were attacked by an alien civilization then I think it unlikely that a network would be needed to spread a range of values that would surface fairly ubiquitously (as a set characteristic), though it might help spread attitudes to how we should respond to such a threat. The same is true of many things in the more mundane realms of broadcast media, city planning and publication, not to mention the effects of natural features of the environment. Part of the reason for the distinctive culture and values in Canada, for example, is surely related to its dangerously cold climate that makes assistance to and from others a very strong necessity, plus a million other things like the opportunities afforded by its abundant natural resources and its proximity to other places. Prairie people are not quite the same as mountain people for reasons that go beyond historical happenstance and path dependencies. This is all about sets: shared characteristics and features. Sets can help to generate values: the fact that shorter-than-average people have to interact differently with the environment than taller-than-average people in many different ways leads to (at least) greater tendencies to share some values. The fact that people are collocated in a region, quite apart from network and group facets that emerge, means they are likely to share some attitudes and tendencies. It's simple evolutionary theory. It's why the finches in the Galapagos Islands have evolved differently: they have to interact with their different environments, and those environments have varied constraints and affordances. Other factors like path dependencies play an enormous role. Networks have a crucial part here too as co-evolution occurs not only in response to the environment but in response to the interconnections between agents in the system. In human systems, groups are both containers of networks and are themselves nodes in networks, so there are layers of scale that make this quite a complex thing.

The complexity becomes much more manageable if, instead of focusing on the social forms of aggregation, we think of values as being attached not to the aggregations themselves but to the collectives that emerge from them. Collectives are, by definition, behaviours that emerge from multiple interactions and are different from those interactions. A human can be viewed as a net, a set or even a group (there are hierarchies of organisation in which the brain might be seen as a controller) but it is the collective, the emergent entity that arises out of sets, nets and groups that is recognisably an individual, that has values. In the development of nationalist or religious values, it is the operation of algorithms that makes the set, net or group of which it is comprised into something distinct and potentially able to embody values, typically resulting from a mix of interactions combined with intentional categorisation by individuals - a collective.

I don't see any of this as suggesting even a glimmer of consciousness but it does seem at least possible that collectives can, at least sometimes, be described as having tropisms and to talk, perhaps loosely, in terms of intentionality. Whether this is enough to ascribe values to them is another matter, but it is not entirely absurd. We sometimes talk of plants as 'liking the sun' or 'liking the shade' in ways that probably have more to do with metaphor than beliefs about plant feelings, but there is a sense that it is true. It is even more obviously true in animals: even single-celled organisms are slightly more than just billiard balls bouncing round in reaction to their surroundings. They have purposes, aversions, likes and dislikes. Some exhibit fascinatingly complex behaviours - slime moulds, for example. It is not a great stretch from there to talking about human collectives in similar terms. Financial markets, for instance, are archetypal examples of human collectives that in principle need little or no machine mediation, yet move in complex ways that are not simply the sum of their parts. And, interestingly, we talk blithely of bull and bear markets as though they were in some way alive and, in some sense, imbued with feelings and even emotions. And maybe, in some sense, they are. 

Downes on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge

Connectivism blog (George Siemens) - May 21, 2012 - 09:08

Stephen Downes is a prolific writer. If you follow his work at OLDaily or on Half an Hour, you’re well aware of this. He covers an extremely broad territory: technology, learning, society, politics (sometimes a bit veiled, but generally not far below the surface), and philosophy.

Late last week, he posted an ebook on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks (.pdf). It weighs in at an impressive 600+ pages. The work is basically a curation of his writings and presentations over the past decade. From the introduction:

Learning is the creation and removal of connections between the entities, or the adjustment of the strengths of those connections. A learning theory is, literally, a theory describing how these connections are created or adjusted. In this book I describe four major mechanisms: similarity, contiguity, feedback, and harmony. There may be other mechanisms, these and others may work together, and the precise mechanism for any given person may be irreducibly complex.

Stephen doesn’t make any apologies for the length of the ebook in stating that a formally structured book “would be sterile, however, and it [the ebook he has posted] feels more true to the actual enquiry to stay true to the original blog posts, essays and presentations that constitute this work”

I personally would like to see Stephen produce a succinct text. Until he does so, students (and others) have a valuable resource in tracking and citing his work in networks, MOOCs, meaning, groups & networks, semantics, and more. Simply being able to point to and cite a particular page will be helpful for students…Thanks Stephen!