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Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI)

TEKRI blogs

Assessing teachers’ digital competencies

Terry Anderson's blog - April 24, 2015 - 22:37
I had the pleasure to spend a couple of days with faculty and students at the Centre for Educational Technology at Tallinn University here in Estonia. My host Mart Laanpere, showed me a number of very interesting projects. Driven by similar motives to our work on the Athabasca Landing , they have developed LePress system […]

Nothing new here: Arizona State and edX partnership

elearnspace (George Siemens) - April 23, 2015 - 06:22

I’m learning that if you call something existing by a new name, or if you get some press, you can discover well defined concepts and claim them as your own. Today’s example: Arizona State and edX Will Offer an Online Freshman Year, Open to All

The project, called the Global Freshman Academy, will offer a set of eight courses designed to fulfill the general-education requirements of a freshman year at Arizona State at a fraction of the cost students typically pay, and students can begin taking courses without going through the traditional application process… Students who pass a final examination in a course will have the option of paying a fee of no more than $200 per credit hour to get college credit for it.

So, for $200 a credit hour ($600 for a 3-credit course), you may well pay more than you would at a small college. The fees charged then are not innovative or game changing. The idea of open access? Oh, well the OU started that in the 1960′s: Brief History of OU.

The only innovation here? Marketing & PR.

Once systems like ASU, who have launched some innovative ideas over the past decade, start looking at what has been done in education and what is known about learning, and then launch a legitimately new idea, rather than playing a PR game, we may have the prospect of substantial educational change.

Another attempt at Flexible Provision of courses

Terry Anderson's blog - March 31, 2015 - 08:58
Our friends from the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) have just had published a very interesting article that seems to be a first step towards helping education and training institutions re purpose their content for multiple audiences.  This is an important, yet very challenging task that requires that courses be created without a single […]

PISA and irony: The 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education

Jon Dron's bookmarks - March 27, 2015 - 08:51

It probably comes as no surprise that I have an extremely low opinion of PISA, the well-intentioned but operationally horrific international testing framework used to compare schooling (I use the word advisedly) in different countries. PISA matters to governments because it gives an apparently objective measure of the 'effectiveness' of education and it matters to the rest of us because governments' desire to score highly in PISA league tables has a massive (and catastophic) effect on systems of education. This is 'teaching to the test' at a gargantuan scale, with all the awful consequences that entails. The laudable desire to improve literacy and basic knowledge leads to the consequence that, internationally, education becomes primarily concerned with compliance, standardization and the ability to perform to someone else's criteria on command. I'd like to think that there is a bit more to it than that. The cost of literacy does not have to be dehumanization or an extrinsically driven populace, and I am quite sure that is not what OECD intends, but that is the systemic effect of these interventions. And so to this report...

This report is interesting on many levels but I would like to draw your attention to section 3, in which it is shown that there is quite a strong negative correlation between intrinsic motivation and the ability to perform well on PISA-oriented math tests, at an inter-country level. In other words, countries reporting the lower levels of intrinsic motivation tend to report higher levels of attainment (ie. test compliance).  Within a given country there is a very modest positive correlation - for instance, American kids who like math tend to do slightly better on the tests than those that do not, but it is not enough of a difference to make a difference.

The authors seem puzzled by this! I leave you to draw your own conclusions about standardized tests, grades, schools, education and government interventions. Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich would have had a field day.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/brown_ctr_2015_v2.pdf

Differences between students using PLE and LMS systems

Terry Anderson's blog - March 26, 2015 - 08:03
I don’t usually comment on articles in “closed” journals, but making an exception in this case. I hope you can find it in a library data base, or one of the authors uploads it to a public site or you can “rent ” it from Wiley for 48 hours for $6! The article: Casquero, O., Ovelar, R., Romo, […]

24 inches worth

Terry Anderson's blog - March 24, 2015 - 08:10
This week I am in the process of moving my office  from Athabasca University to home. It was a lot of work sorting, selecting and shifting.  Most of the books that I THINK I still want are now on the bookshelves here at home. However, I have doubts as to their usefulness, as the texts (of […]

Top 20 in Educational Technology to Connect with through Social Media - AACE

Jon Dron's bookmarks - March 23, 2015 - 11:59

Well this is nice - I (only just) made the top 20! Nice to be counted among the notably more luminous folk even if my feeble contributions are orders of magnitude smaller. Of course, this is just about people who write about educational technology using a particular subset of social media, who have some connection with AACE, whether as committee members or keynotes, and it is an informally garnered list so it is, at best, only partially representative of the broader field.  Even so, though they would knock me and a few others off the list, I think the following would mostly qualify too (and I avidly read most of what they write):

Donald Clark

Eric Duval 

David Wiley

Dave Cormier

Audrey Watters

Johannes Cronje

There are many others who have not yet done the AACE conference circuit or who have slipped off it, but who are well worth following on social media. I did start writing a list of some but realized early on that, even if I listed 100 or more, I would still miss people that really matter. You know who you are. The interesting thing though, I think, is that if you followed and interacted with just a few of these people on social media (not just what they write but what they curate and share) you would likely learn a great deal more about learning technologies, e-learning and education as a whole than you would by wading through a dozen courses or hand-curated textbooks. Crowds teach.

Still - thanks for the boost, AACE folk!

Address of the bookmark: http://blog.aace.org/2015/03/22/top-20-in-educational-technology-to-connect-with-through-social-media/

Beyond the group: how education is changing and why institutions need to catch up

Jon Dron's blog - March 21, 2015 - 21:51

Understanding the ways people interact in an online context matters if we are interested in deliberate learning, because learning is almost always with and/or from other people: people inform us, inspire us, challenge us, motivate us, organize us, help us, engage with us. In the process, we learn. Intentional learning is now, more than ever, whether informally, non-formally or formally, an activity that occurs outside a formal physical classroom. We are no longer limited to what our schools, universities, teachers and libraries in our immediate area provide for us, nor do we need to travel and pay the costs of getting to the experts in teaching and subject matter that we need. We are not limited to classes and courses any more. We don't even need books. Anyone and everyone can be our teachers. This matters.

Traditional university education

Traditional university education is all about groups, from classes to courses to committees to cohorts (Dron & Anderson, 2014). I use the word 'group' in a distinctive and specific way here, following a pattern set by Wellman, Downes and others before and since. Groups have names, owners, members, roles and hierarchies. Groups have purposes and deliberate boundaries. Groups have rules and structures. Groups embody a large set of highly evolved mechanisms that have developed over millenia to deal with the problems of coordinating large numbers of people in physical spaces and, in the context they have evolved, they are a pretty effective solution.

But there are two big problems with using groups in their current form in online learning. The first is that the online context changes group dynamics. In the past, professors were able to effectively trap students in a room for an hour or more, and to closely control their activities throughout that time. That is the context in which our most common pedagogies evolved. Even in the closest simulations of a face-to-face context (immersive worlds or webmeetings) this is no longer possible.

The second problem is more significant and follows from the first: group technologies, from committees to classrooms, were developed in response to the constraints and affordances of physical contexts that do not exist in an online and connected world. For example, it has been a long time since the ability to be in hearing range of a speaker has mattered if we wish to understand what he or she says. Teachers needed to control such groups because, apart from anything else, in a physical context, it would have been impossible to otherwise be heard without disruption. It was necessary to avoid such disruption and to coordinate behaviour because there was no other easy way to gain the efficiencies of one person teaching many (books notwithstanding). We also had to be disciplined enough to be in the same place at the same time - this involved a lot of technologies like timetables, courses, and classroom furniture. We needed to pay close attention because there was no persistence of content. The whole thing was shaped by the need to solve problems of access to rival resources in a physical space. 

We do not all have to be together in one place at one time any more. It is no longer necessary for the teacher to have to control a group because that group does not (always or in the same way) need to be controlled.

Classrooms used to be the only way to make efficient use of a single teacher with a lot of learners to cater for, but compromises had to be made: a need for discipline, a need to teach to the norm, a need to schedule and coordinate activities (not necessarily when learners needed or wanted to learn), a need to demand silence while the teacher spoke, a need to manage interactions, a perceived need to guide unwilling learners, brought on by the need to teach things guaranteed to be boring or confusing to a large segment of a class at any given time. We therefore had to invent ways to keep people engaged, either by force or intentional processes designed to artificially enthuse. This is more than a little odd when you think about it. Given that there is hardly anything more basically and intrinsically motivating than to learn something you actually want to learn when you want to learn it, the fact that we had to figure ways to motivate people to learn suggests something went very wrong with the process. It did not go wonderfully. A whole load of teaching had worse than no effect and little resulted in persistent and useful learning - at least, little of what was intentionally taught. It was a compromise that had to be made, though. The educational system was a technology designed to make best use of limited resources and the limitations imposed by physics, without which the spread of knowledge and skills would have been (and used to be and, in pockets where education is unavailable, still is) very limited.

Online learning

For those of us who are online (you and me) we don't need to make all of those compromises any more. There are millions of other ways to learn online with great efficiency and relevance that do not involve groups at all, from YouTube to Facebook to Reddit to StackExchange, to this post. These are under the control of the learners, each at the centre of his or her own network and in control of the flow, each able to choose which sets of people to engage with, and to what attention should be paid.

Networks have no boundaries, names, roles or rules - they are just people we know.

Sets have no ties, no rituals of joining, no allegiances or social connections - they are just collections of people temporarily occupying a virtual or physical space who share similar interests without even a social network to bind them.

Sets and networks are everywhere and they are the fundamental social forms from which anyone with online access learns and they are all driven by people or crowds of people, not by designed processes and formal patterns of interaction.

Many years ago Chambers, then head of Cisco, was ridiculed for suggesting that e-learning would make email look like a rounding error. He was absolutely right, though, if not in quite the way he meant it: how many people reading this do not turn first to Google, Wikipedia or some other online, crowd-driven tool when needing or wanting to learn something? Who does not learn significant amounts from their friends, colleagues or people they follow through social networks or email? We are swimming in a sea of billions of teachers: those who inform, those with whom we disagree, those who act as role models, those who act as anti-models, those that inspire, those that affirm, those that support, those we doubt, those we trust. If there was ever a battle for supremacy between face-to-face and e-learning (an entirely artificial boundary) then e-learning has won hands down, many times over. Not so's you'd know it if you look at our universities. Very oddly, even an online university like Athabasca is largely trapped in the same constrained and contingent pattern of teaching that has its origins in the limitations of physical space as its physical counterparts. It is largely as though the fact of the Internet has had no significant impact beyond making things slightly more convenient. Odd.

Replicating the wrong things

Those of us who teach entirely online are still, on the whole, making use of the single social form of the group, with all of its inherent restrictions, hierarchies and limitations inherited from its physical ancestors. Athabasca is at least a little revolutionary in providing self-paced courses at undergraduate level (albeit rarely with much social engagement at all - its inspiration is as much the book as the classroom) , but it still typically keeps the rest of the trappings, and it uses groups like all the rest in most of its graduate level courses. Rather than maintaining discipline in classrooms through conventional means, we instead make extensive use of assessments which have become, in the absence of traditional disciplinary hierarchies that give us power in physical spaces, our primary form of control as well as the perceived primary purpose of at least higher education (the one follows from the other). It has become a transaction: if you do what I say and learn how I tell you to learn then, if you succeed, I will give you a credential that you can use as currency towards getting a job. If not, no deal. Learning and the entire process of education has become secondary to the credential, and focused upon it. We do this to replicate a need that was only there in the first place thanks to physics, not because it made sense for learning.

As alternative forms of accreditation become more commonplace and more reliable, it is hard to see us sustaining this for much longer. Badges, social recommendations, commercial credits, online portfolios, direct learning record storage, and much much more are gaining credence and value.

It is hard to see what useful role a university might play when it is not the best way to learn what you want to learn and it is not the best way to gain accreditation for your skills and knowledge.

Will universities become irrelevant? Maybe not. A university education has always been about a lot more than what is taught. It is about learning ways of thinking, habits of mind, ways of building knowledge with and learning from others. It is about being with others that are learning, talking with them, socializing with them, bumping serendipitously into new ideas and ways of being. All of this is possible when you throw a bunch of smart people together in a shared space, and universities are a good gravitational force of attraction for that. It is, and has always been, about networks and sets as much as if not more than groups. The people we meet and get to know are not just networks of friends but of knowledge. The sets of people around us, explicit and implicit, provide both knowledge and direction. And such sets and nets have to form somewhere - they are not mere abstractions. Universities are good catalysts. But that is only true as long as we actually do play this role. Universities like Athabasca focus on isolated individuals or groups in boundaried courses. Only in odd spaces like here, on the Landing, or in external social sites like Twitter, Facebook or RateMyProfessor, is there a semblance of those other roles a university plays, a chance to extend beyond the closed group and credential-focused course process.

Moving on

We can still work within the old constraints, if we think it worthwhile - I am not suggesting we should suddenly drop all the highly evolved methods that worked in the past at once. Like a horse and cart or a mechanical watch, education still does the job it always did, in ways that more evolved methods will never not replicate, any more than folios beat scrolls or cars beat horses. There will be both gains and losses as things shift. Like all technologies (Kelly, 2010), the old ways of teaching will never go away completely and will still have value for some.  Indeed, they might retain quite a large niche for many years to come. 

But now we can do a whole lot more as well and instead, and the new ways work better, on the whole. In a competitive ecosystem, alternatives that work better will normally come to dominate. All the pieces are in place for this to happen: it is just taking us a little while to collectively realize that we don't need the trainer-wheels any more. Last gasp attempts to revamp the model, like first-generation xMOOCs, merely serve to illustrate the flaws in the existing model, highlighting in sharp relief the absurdities of adopting group-based forms on an Internet-based scale. imposing structural forms designed to keep learners on track in physical classrooms have no sense or meaning when applied to a voluntary, uncredentiallled and interest-driven course. I think we can do better than that.

The key steps are to disaggregate learning and assessment, and to do away with uniform courses with fixed schedules and pre-determined processes and outcomes. Outsiders, from MOOC providers (they are adapting fast) to publishers are beginning to realize this, as are a few universities like WGU.

It is time to surf the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 2000), to discover ways of learning with others that take advantage of the new horizons, that are not trapped like horseless carriages replicating the limitations of a bygone era. Furthermore, we need to learn to build new virtual environments and learning ecosystems in ways that do not just mimic patterns of the past, but that help people to learn in more flexible, richer ways that take advantage of the freedoms they enable - not personalized (with all the power assertion that implies) but both personal and social. If we build tools like learning management systems or the first generation xMOOC environments like edX, that are trapped into replicating traditional classroom-bound forms, we not only fail to take advantage of the wealth of the network, but we actually reinforce and ossify the very things we are reacting against rather than opening up new vistas of pedagogical opportunity. If we sustain power structures by linking learning and formal assessment, we hobble our capacity to teach. If we enclose learning in groups that are defined as much by who they exclude as who they encompass (Shirky, 2003) then we actively prevent the spread of knowledge. If we design outcome-based courses on fixed schedules, we limit the potential for individual control, and artificially constrain what need not be constrained.

Not revolution but recognition of what we already do

Any and all of this can change. There have long been methods for dealing with the issues of uniformity in course design and structure and/or tight integration of summative assessment to fixed norms, even within educational institutions. European-style PhDs (the ones without courses), portfolio-based accreditation (PLAR, APEL, etc), challenge exams, competency-based 'courses',  open courses with negotiable outcomes, assessments and processes (we have several at AU), whole degrees by negotiated learning outcomes, all provide different and accepted ways to do this and have been around for at least decades if not hundreds of years. Till recently these have mostly been hard to scale and expensive to maintain. Not any more. With the growth of technologies like OpenBadges, Caliper and xAPI, there are many ways to record and accredit learning that do not rely on fixed courses, pre-designed outcomes-based learning designs and restrictive groups. Toolsets like the Landing, Mahara or LPSS provide learner-controlled ways to aggregate and assemble both the process and evidence of learning, and to facilitate the social construction of knowledge - to allow the crowd to teach - without demanding the roles and embodied power structures of traditional learning environments. By either separating learning and accreditation or by aligning accreditation with individual learning and competences, it would be fairly easy to make this change and, whether we like it or not, it will happen: if universities don't do it, someone else will. 

All of traditional education is bound by historical constraint and path dependencies. It has led to a vast range of technologies to cope, such as terms and semesters, libraries, classrooms, courses, lessons, exams, grading, timetables, curricula, learning objectives, campuses, academic forms and norms in writing, disciplinary divisions and subdivisions, textbooks, rules and disciplinary procedures, avoidance of plagiarism, homework, degrees, award ceremonies and a massive range of other big and small inventions and technologies that have nothing whatsoever to do with learning.

Nothing at all.

All are contingent. They are simply a reaction to barriers and limitations that made good sense while those barriers existed. Every one of them is up for question. We need to imagine a world in which any or all of these constraints can be torn down. That is why we need to think about different social forms, that is why we continue to build the Landing, that is why we continue to explore the ways that learning is evolving outside the ivory tower, that is why we are trying to increase learner control in our courses (even if we cannot yet rid ourselves of all their constraints), that is why we are exploring alternative and open forms of accreditation. It is not just about doing what we have always done in slightly better, more efficient ways. Ultimately, it is about expanding the horizons of education itself. Education is not about courses, awards, classes and power hierarchies. Education is about learning. more accurately, it is about technologies of learning - methods, tools, processes, procedures and techniques. These are all inventions, and inventions can be superseded and improved. Outside formal institutions, this has already begun to happen. It is time we in universities caught up.

References

Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: social media and distance learning. Athabasca: AU Press. 

Kauffman, S. (2000). Investigations (Kindle ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 

Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants (Kindle ed.). New York: Viking. 

Shirky, C. (2003). A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. Retrieved from http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html

 

 

 

Time to change education again: let's not make the same mistakes this time round

Jon Dron's blog - March 21, 2015 - 20:56

We might as well start with exams

In case anyone missed it, one of countless examples of mass cheating in exams is being reported quite widely, such as at http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/hundreds-expelled-in-india-for-cheating-on-pressure-packed-exams-1.2289032.

The videos are stunning (Chrome and Firefox users - look for the little shield or similar icon somewhere in or near you browser's address field to unblock the video. IE users will probably have a bar appearing in the browser asking if you want to trust the site - you do. Opera, Konqueror and Safari users should be able to see the video right away), e.g.:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7iMgRPJYnQ&spfreload=10

As my regular readers will know, my opinions of traditional sit-down, invigilated, written exams could not be much lower. Sitting in a high-stress environment, unable to communicate with anyone else, unable to refer to books or the Internet, with enormous pressure to perform in a fixed period to do someone else's bidding, in an atmosphere of intense powerlessness, typically using a technology you rarely encounter anywhere else (pencil and paper), knowing your whole future depends on what you do in the next 3 hours, is a relatively unusual situation to find yourself in outside an exam hall. It is fair enough for some skills - journalism, for example, very occasionally leaves you in similar conditions. But, if it actually is an authentic skill needed for a particular field, then it should be explicitly taught and, if we are serious about it, it should probably be examined under truly authentic conditions (e.g. for a journalist, in a hotel room, cafe, press room, or trench). This is seldom done. It is not surprising, therefore, that exams are an extremely poor indicator of competence and an even worse indicator of teaching effectiveness. By and large, they assess things that we do not teach.

If that were all, I might not be so upset with the idea - it would just be weird and ineffective. However, exams are not just inefficient in a system designed to teach, they are positively antagonistic to learning. This is an incredibly wasteful tragedy of the highest order. Among the most notable of the many ways that they oppose teaching are that:

  • they shift the locus of control from the learner to the examiner
  • they shift the focus of attention from the activity to the accreditation
  • they typically punish cooperation and collaboration
  • they typically focus on content rather than performance
  • they typically reward conformity and punish creativity
  • they make punishments or rewards the reasons for performing, rather than the love of the subject
  • they are unfair - they reward exam skills more than subject skills.

In short, the vast majority of unseen written exams are deeply demotivating (naysayers, see footnote), distract attention away from learning, and fail to discriminate effectively or fairly. They make the whole process of learning inefficient, not just in the wasted time and energy involved surrounding the examination itself, but in (at the very least) doubling the teaching effort needed just to overcome their ill effects. Moreover, especially in the sciences and technologies, they have a strong tendency to reinforce and encourage ridiculous content-oriented ways of teaching that map some abstract notion of what a subject is concerned with to exercises that relate to that abstract model, rather than to applied practices, problem solving and creative synthesis - i.e. the things that really matter.  The shortest path for an exam-oriented course is usually bad teaching and it takes real creativity and a strong act of will to do otherwise. Professional bodies are at least partly culpable for such atrocities.

There is one and only one justification for 99% of unseen written exams that makes any sense at all, which is that it allows us to relatively easily and with some degree of assurance (if very expensively, especially given the harmful effects on learning) determine that the learner receiving accreditation is the one that has learned. It's not the only way, but it is one of them. That sounds reasonable enough. However, as examples like this show in very sharp relief, exams are not particularly good at that either. If you create a technology that has a single purpose of preventing cheating, then cheats (bearing in mind that the only thing we have deliberately and single-mindedly taught them from start to finish is that the single purpose of everything they do is to pass an exam) will simply find better ways to cheat - and they do so, in spades. There is a whole industry dedicated to helping people to cheat in exams, and it evolves at least as fast as the technologies that we use to prevent it. At least twenty percent of students in North America admit to having at some point in the last year cheated in exams. Some studies show much higher rates overall - 58% of high school students in Canada, for example.  It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of a broken system than this. The problem is likely even worse in other regions of the world. For instance, Davis et al (2009) reckon a whopping 83% of Chinese and 70% of Russian schoolkids cheat on exams. Let me repeat that: only 17% of Chinese people claim never to have cheated in an exam. See a previous post of mine for some intriguing examples of how that happens. When something that most people believe to be wrong is so deeply endemic, it is time to rethink the whole thing. No amount of patching over and tweaking at the edges is going to fix this.

But it's not just exams

This is part of a much broader problem, and it is a really simple and obvious one: if you teach people that accreditation rather than learning is the purpose of education, especially if such accreditation makes a massive difference to what kind and quality of life they might have as a result of having or not having it, then it is perfectly reasonable that they should find better ways of achieving accreditation, rather than better ways of learning. Even most of our 'best' students, the ones that put in some of the hardest work, tend to be focused on the grades first and foremost, because that is our implicit and/or explicit subtext. To my shame, I'm as guilty as anyone of having used grades to coerce: I have been known to annoy my students with a little song that includes the lines 'If a good mark is what you seek, blog, blog, blog, every week'.  Even if we assume that student will not cheat (and, on the whole, mature students like those that predominate at Athabasca U do not cheat, putting the lie to the nonsense some have tried to promote about distance education leading to more cheating) it challenges teachers to come up with ways of constructively aligning assessment and learning, so that assessment actually contributes to rather than detracts from learning. With skill and ingenuity, it can be done, but it is hard work and an uphill struggle. We really shouldn't have to be doing that in the first place because learning is something that all humans do naturally and extremely willingly when not pressured to do so. We don't need to be forced to do what we love to do. We love the challenge, the social value, the control it brings. In fact, forcing us to do things that we love always takes away some or all of the love we feel for them. That's really sad. Educational systems make the rods that beat themselves.

Moving forwards a little

We can start with the simple things first. I think that there are ways to make exams much less harmful. My friend and colleague Richard Huntrods, for example, simply asks students to reflect about what they have done on his (open, flexible and learner-centred) course. The students know exactly what they will be asked to do in advance, so there is no fear of the unknown, and there is no need for frantic revising because, if they have done the work, they can be quite assured of knowing everything they need to know already. It is a bit odd not to be able to talk with others or refer to notes or the Web, but that's about all that is inauthentic. This is a low-stress approach that demands nothing more than coming to an exam centre and writing about what they have done, which is an activity that actually contributes substantially to effective learning rather than detracting from it. It is constructively aligned in a quite exemplary way and would be part of any effective learning process anyway, albeit not at an exam centre.  It is still expensive, it still creates a bit more stress for students who have learned to fear exams, but it makes sense if we feel we don't know our students well enough or we do not trust them enough to credit them for the work they have done. Of course, it demands a problem- or enquiry-based, student-centred pedagogy in the first place. This would not be effective for a textbook wraparound or other content-centric course. But then, we should not be writing those anyway as little is more certain to discourage a love of learning, a love of the subject, or a satisfying learning experience. 

There are plenty of exam-like things that can make sense, in the right kind of context, when approached with care: laboratory exercises, driving tests, and other experiences that closely resemble those of the practice being examined, for example, are quite sensible approaches to accreditation that are aligned with and can even be supportive of the learning process. There are also ways of doing exams that can markedly reduce the problems associated with them, such as allowing conversation and the use of the Internet, open-book papers that allow students to come and go as needed, questions that challenge students to creatively solve problems, exams that use questions created by the students themselves, oral exams that allow examiners to have a useful learning dialogue with examinees, and so on. There are different shades of grey and not all are as awful as the worst, by any means. There are other ways that tend to work better - for instance, badges, portfolios, and many other approaches that allow us to demonstrate competence rather than compliance, that rely on us coming to know our students, and that allow multiple approaches and different skills to be celebrated - but not all exam-like things are as bad as the worst of them.

And, of course, if we avoid exams altogether then we can do much more useful things, like involving students in creating the assignments; giving feedback instead of grades for work done; making the work relevant to student needs, allowing multiple paths, different evidence; giving badges for achievement, not to goad it, etc, etc. There's a book or two in what we can do to limit the problems though, ultimately, this can only take us so far because, looming at the end of every learning path at an institution, is the accreditation. And therein lies the rub.

Moving forwards a lot

The central problem that we have to solve is not so much the exam itself as the unbreakable linkage of teaching and accreditation. Exams are just a symptom of a flawed system taken to its obvious and most absurd conclusion. But all forms of accreditation that become the purpose of learning are carts driving horses. I recognize and celebrate the value of authentic and meaningful accreditation, but there is no reason whatsoever that learning and accreditation should be two parts of the same system, let alone of the same process.  It it were entirely clear that the purpose of taking a course (or any other learning activity - courses are another demon we need to think carefully about) were to learn, rather than to succeed in a test, then education would work a great deal better. We would actually be able to do things that support learning, rather than that support credit scores; to give feedback that leads to improvement, rather than as a form of punishment or reward; to allow students to expand and explore pathways that diverge rather than converge; to get away from our needs and to concentrate on those of our students; to support people's growth rather than to stunt it by setting false goals; to valorize creativity and ingenuity; to allow people to gain the skills they actually need rather than those we choose to teach; to empower them, rather than to become petty despots ourselves. And, in an entirely separate process of assessment that teachers may have little or anything to do with at all, we could enable multiple ways to demonstrate learning that are entirely dissociated from the process. Students might use evidence from learning activities we help them with as something to prove their competence, but our teaching would not be focused on that proof. It's a crucial distinction that makes all the difference in the world.  This is not a revolutionary idea about credentialling - it's exactly what many of the more successful and enlightened companies already do when hiring or promoting people: they look at the whole picture presented, take evidence from multiple sources, look at the things that matter in the context of application, and treat each individual as a human being with unique strengths, skills and weaknesses, given the evidence available. Credentials from institutions may be part of that right now, but there is no reason for that idea to persist and plenty of alternative ways of showing skills and knowledge that are becoming increasingly popular and significant, from social network recommendations to open badges to portfolios. In fact, we even have pockets of such processes well entrenched within universities. Traditional British PhDs, for example, while they are examined through the thesis and an oral exam (a challenging but flexible process), are examined on evidence that is completely unique to the individual student. Students may target the final assessment a bit, but the teaching itself is not much focused on that. Instead, it is on helping them to do what they want to do. And, of course, there are no grades involved at all - only feedback.

Conclusion

It's going to be a long slow struggle to change the whole of the educational system across most of the world, especially as there's a good portion of the world that would be delighted to have these kinds of problems in the first place. We need education before we can have cheating. But we do need to change this, and exams are a good place to start. It changed once before, with far less research to support the change, and far weaker technologies and communication to enable it. And it changed recently. In the grand scheme of things, the first ever university exam of the kind we now recognize as almost universal was the blink of an eye ago. The first ever written exam of the kind we use now (not counting a separate branch for the Chinese Civil Service that began a millenium before) was at the end of the 18th Century (the Cambridge Tripos) and it was only near the end of the 19th Century that written exams began to gain a serious foothold. This was within the lifetime of my grandparents. This is not a tradition steeped in history - it's an invention that appeared long after the steam engine and only became significant as the internal combustion engine was born.  I just hope institutions like ours are not heading back down the tunnel or standing still, because those heading into the light are going to succeed while those that stay in the shadows will at best become the laughing stock of the world. 

On the subject of which, do watch the video. It is kind-of funny in a way, but the humour is very dark and deeply tragic. The absurdity makes me want to laugh but the reality of how this crazy system is wrecking people's lives makes me want to cry. On balance, I am much more saddened and angered by it than amused. These are not bad people: this is a bad system. 

ReferenceDavis, S., Drinan, P., and Gallant, T. (2009). Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Footnote

I know some people will want to respond that the threat or reward of assessment is somehow motivating. If you are one of those, this postscript is for you. 

I understand what you are saying. That is what many of us were taught to believe and it is one way we justify persisting despite the evidence that it doesn't work very well. I agree that it is motivating, after a fashion, very much like paying someone to do something you want them to do, or hitting them if they don't. Very much indeed. You can create an association between a reward/punishment and some other activity that you want your subject to perform and, as long as that association persists, you might actually make them do it. Personally speaking, I find that quite offensive, not to mention only mildly effective at achieving its own limited ends, but each to their own. But notice how you have replaced the interest in the activity with an interest in the reward and/or the desire to avoid punishment. Countless research studies from several fields have pretty conclusively shown that both reward and punishment are strongly antagonistic to intrinsic motivation and, in many cases, actually destroy it altogether. So, you can make someone do something by destroying their love of doing it - good job. But that doesn't make a lot of sense to me, especially as what they have learned is presumably meant to be of ongoing value and interest, to help them in their lives. It is my belief that, if you want to teach effectively, you should never make people learn anything - you should support them in doing so if that is what they want to do. It is good to encourage and enthuse them so that they want to do it and can see the value - that's a useful teacher role - but it's a whole different ballgame altogether to coerce them. Alas, it is very hard to avoid it altogether until we change education, and that's one good reason (I hope you agree) we need to do that.

For further information, you could do worse that to read pretty much anything by Alfie Kohn. If you are seeking a broader range of in-depth academic work, try the Self Determination Theory site.

Interview with Terry Anderson in The Voice Magazine - a Publication of the Athabasca University Students Union

Jon Dron's bookmarks - March 21, 2015 - 10:01

The second part of an interview with Terry Anderson (with a link to the first part) talking about his approach to teaching, a bit about his research, a bit about some of his many contributions to AU, and a fair bit about the Landing and its value. Great stuff!

Terry voices his impatience with the slow uptake of the Landing, which is understandable. It is a bit frustrating to know that it can (and, for some, already does) radically improve the learning and working experience for staff and students alike, providing social presence, control, and a massive range of learning opportunities and activities that go far beyond anything possible in closed course containers or generic tools like mailing lists and project sites, but that we only see a 'mere' 7000+ users, 400+ groups, dozens of courses, as well as scores of posts and thousands of external visitors every day!  I have always taken the view that critical passion trumps critical mass every time. That is what keeps the Landing going and that is what will sustain it for the long haul. It's a slow but steady burner that keeps getting better and more useful with every single post and comment, and the word is spreading: deeper, more sophisticated use is notably rising, diversity is increasing, and people are visiting longer and more frequently. For a system developed on a shoe-string, with very little central funding or support, it has done pretty well for itself for well over 5 years and I hope and expect it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And it does continue to evolve - you can expect to see ongoing improvements, not just tweaks but major gains in functionality, over the coming months, and we are working on a major upgrade to the underlying software framework at the same time that should enable even more improvements. With any luck we might even eventually get a bit more support from central pockets that might really let it fly but, even without much of that, the site grows in importance and value all the time.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.voicemagazine.org/articles/featuredisplay.php?ART=10321

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: http://www.uta.edu/hr/eos/faculty-search/posting/DDTL02122015PDF

Overview:
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 (http://www.uta.edu/strategicplan/), 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: lsmayo@uta.edu

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: http://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/2014/12/29/the-logical-fallacy-collection-30-ways-to-lose-an-argument/

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 […]

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!

Change MOOC: Sensemaking and Analytics

Connectivism blog (George Siemens) - April 24, 2012 - 03:50

The Change MOOC has been running since September of 2011. We’ve had the pleasure, in the past 30+ weeks, of many outstanding discussions. The archives of activity/readings/weeks are available on the main MOOc site.

Each week, different facilitators share readings and resources that they deem to be most reflective of their work and their passion.

My week is on sensmaking and analytics.

At first glance, sensemaking and analytics seem antagonistic. Sensemaking involves social processes…whereas analytics are algorithmically-driven. MOOCs are distributed systems of interaction and content. The traditional approach to courses – pre-packaged before learners arrive – is upended in a MOOC. The hyper-fragmentation of content and interaction presents problems for educators and learners: How do we make sense of what’s happening? How do we develop a coherent view of the many, many topics that comprise a MOOC? How do we re-create a centre that shares the bounding elements of a course, but is based on the networked centre-less structure of the internet?

Sensemaking

Sensemaking is an activity that individuals engage in daily in response to uncertainty, complex topics, or in changing settings. Much like with the earlier discussion of the term “information”, sensemaking is a term in common use but with limited agreement on what it precisely means. Researchers argue that “[n]o single, unambiguous answer can be given…for sense-making theory has several meanings depending on the disciplinary or paradigmatic position of the speaker” (Kari 1998: 1).

In contrast to decision-making models in crisis situations, Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005: 415) promote a narrative model of sensemaking. They argue that sensemaking is “not about truth and getting it right. Instead it is about continued redrafting of an emerging story so that it becomes comprehensible.” Weick’s sensemaking model emphasizes non-linearity, and pattern recognition. The importance of pattern recognition is consequential in that it integrates the expertise of individuals with narratives of coherence. Sensemaking is an effort “to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs” (Weick 1993: 635).

Nowhere is the emphasis on dialogue more precise than in the work of Brenda Dervin (2003). The Dervin Sense-Making Methodology, dating back to the early 1970s, “is proposed as an alternative to approaches based on traditional transmission models of communication” (Dervin 2003: 6). Dervin (2003: 238) uses the metaphors of “situation” “outcomes”, and “gaps”, “moving across time and space, facing a gap, building a bridge across the gap, and then constructing and evaluating the uses of the bridge.”

Sensemaking and the process of learning are related, but each has distinct constructs (Schwandt 2005). Learning emphasizes time for consideration, reflection, and integration, whereas sensemaking is “swift and hasty as opposed to reflective” (Schwandt 2005: 189). In sensemaking, individuals understand a problem that “they face only after they have faced it and only after their actions have become inextricably wound into it” (Weick 1988: 306). In contrast, formal learning often occurs within a construct of increasing the capacity of an individual to act, instead of situation-specific sensemaking activities.

With the breadth of the topic of sensemaking, and its intuitive feel and common use, it is unsurprising that numerous definitions exist. A sampling of definitions include:

- “Sensemaking is finding a representation that organizes information to reduce the cost of an operation in an information task” (Russell et al. 1993: 272).
- “[S]ensemaking is a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections . . . in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” (Klein et al. 2006: 71).
- “Sensemaking is about labeling and categorizing to stabilize the streaming of experience” (Weick et al. 2005: 411) and differs from decision making in its focus on “contextual rationality” (Weick 1993: 636).
- Sensemaking involves individual’s attempting to “negotiate strangeness” (Weick 1993: 645). Failures in these settings occurs when “[f]rameworks and meanings [destroy] rather than [construct] one another” (Weick 1993: 645).

Sensemaking, then, is essentially the creation of an architecture of concept relatedness, such as placing “items into frameworks” (Weick 1995:6) and continually seeking “to understand connections” (Klein et al. 2006: 71). Sensemaking occurs in many facets of personal and organizational life, including crisis situations, routine information seeking, research, and learning. Individuals engage in nebulous problem solving without a clear path daily: a parent raising a child, an employee starting a new job, a doctor without a clear diagnosis for a patient, a master’s research student, and so on.

Analytics

My interest in analytics is driven by my views on learning as a connection-making process. Through analytics we are able to trace connections, understand how they are formed, the nature of exchanges between people, and the impact of those connections. The data-trails that are created in our daily interactions online and with others form the basis of analytics in learning. The field, however, is still developing and new approaches to analysis, algorithms, and tools are quickly emerging.

Readings for the week:

- Howard Rheingold Interview w/ (me)
- Learning analytics as a research and practitioner domain

Slideshare presentation:

Eli 2012 Sensemaking Analytics

Sources:

Dervin, B. (2003) ed. by Foreman-Wernet, L., & Lauterbach, E. Sense-making methodology reader: selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New York: Hampton Press

Kari, J. (1998) Making sense of sense-making: from metatheory to substantive theory in the context of paranormal information seeking. Paper presented at Nordis-Net workshop (Meta)theoretical stands in studying library and information institutions: individual, organizational and societal aspects, November 12-15 1998, Oslo, Norway

Klein, G., Moon, B., and Hoffman, R. R. (2006) ‘Making sense of sensemaking 1: Alternative perspectives.’ IEEE Intelligent Systems 21, (4) 70–73. doi:10.1109/MIS.2006.75

Russell, D. M., Stefik, M. J., Pirolli, P., and Card, S. K. (1993) ‘The cost structure of sensemaking.’ In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: Association for Computer Machinery: 269−276. doi:10.1145/169059.169209

Schwandt, D. R. (2005) ‘When managers become philosophers: Integrating learning with sensemaking.’ Academy of Management Learning & Education [online] 4, (2) 176–192. Available from

Weick, K. E. (1988) ‘Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations.’ Journal of Management Studies [online] 25, (4) 305-317. Available from

Weick, K. E. (1993) ‘The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster.’ Administrative Science Quarterly 38, (4) 628-652

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., and Obstfeld, D. (2005) ‘Organizing and the process of sensemaking.’ Organization Science 16, (4) 409-421

December 31, 1969 - 16:00