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Teaching Practices Inventory – Fast and easy!

Terry Anderson's blog - November 17, 2015 - 01:18
Thanks to Rick Reis’s Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter I bumped into an instrument that I think can be a very important addition to or replacement for teaching evaluations and/or student course evaluations. This Teaching Practices Inventory was developed by the Noble Prize winning Physicist Carl Wieman who was hired at the University of British Columbia to […]

Three ways to save distance universities

Jon Dron's blog - November 5, 2015 - 12:14

Today brings another bit of bad news for a distance education institution, with TELUQ's future looking uncertain, though it is good to see that its importance and contribution is also recognized, and it is a long way from dead yet. Though rumours of Athabasca University's own demise resulting mainly from our acting president's message that has widely been construed as a suicide note to the world are greatly exaggerated, and repudiated by the acting president himself, similar issues are reflected here and in the Open University, UK, that has lost a quarter of its students over the past five years.  I have heard informal whispers from Europe that the OUNl is in similarly dire straits, though have no references to support that and it might just be hearsay - I'd welcome any news on that.

We are all institutions that were established within a very few years of one another (AU and OU-UK within months of each other) at a time that there were no viable higher education alternatives for students without formal qualifications, who were stuck in a location without a university, who were in full-time employment, or for whatever reason could not or would not attend a physical institution.

Moving on 40-50 years, times have changed dramatically but, fundamentally, we have not. Sure, we have mostly dropped the archaic technologies that we used when we were founded, but paper course packs and associated processes and pedagogies lurk deep within our organizational DNA even if the objects themselves are mostly a memory. Sure, we have, collectively, been leaders and prime movers in establishing the research, the pedagogies and the technologies of distance education that are now widespread in most physical universities, but it is notable that most of our innovative practices have been taken up more widely elsewhere than in our own institutions. And there are lots of alternatives elsewhere nowadays, from MOOCs to the massive growth of distance courses on face-to-face campuses, and much else besides.

Competition is only one of many reasons for the peril distance institutions are now in. It is odd, at first glance, that we have reached this point because we were first past the post for decades and, thanks to our relative independence of physical infrastructure and our research leadership, should have been more agile in adapting to what, from the early 90s, has clearly been a rapidly changing educational and technological landscape to which we should have been perfectly adapted. But there are some critical structural flaws in our design that have held us back. All of the open universities of this era originally adopted an industrial design model, based heavily on the work of people like Otto Peters and Charles Wedermeyer, who talked of independent learning but actually meant anything but when it came to teaching. This was essential in pre-Internet times, because communication was too slow and cumbersome to do anything else, both pedagogically and in business processes. But it had systemic consequences.

We have been and to a large extent remain driven by process in all that we do. We were designed primarily as machines for higher education, not as communities of scholars. Just as we structured our teaching, so we structured our organizations and, as transactional distance theory suggests, the result was less dialogue, especially in places like AU that had a distributed workforce. We have inherited a culture of process and structure, and consequent sluggish change. This has been improving in places thanks to things like the Landing at AU and similar initiatives elsewhere, but not fast enough and, certainly at AU and I gather also in our sister institutions, there have been steps backwards as well as forwards. At AU we have, of late, made some very poor ICT choices and retrograde organizational restructuring that actually increases, rather than reduces the amount of structure and process, and that reduces the potential for the spread of knowledge and dialogue. Meanwhile, thanks to our traditional course model, with its lack of feedback loops, we have till now mainly designed our teaching around quality assurance, not quality control: courses can take years to prepare and tend to be pretty well written but, for the majority, their success is measured by meaningless proxies that tell us little or nothing about their true impact and effectiveness. Though there are plenty of exceptions, too few courses use pedagogies, processes and other technologies that allow us to know our students and gain deep understanding of their concerns and interests.

Three things that could save open and distance universities from irrelevance

Given the imminent peril that open and distance universities appear to be finding themselves in, the solution is not to tweak what we have or to seek even more efficiencies in processes that are no longer relevant. Now is the time for a little bit of reinvention: not much. All of what is needed already exists in pockets. We have learned a lot - far more than our physical counterparts - about the challenges of distance learning and many of us have discovered ways of doing it that work. And, for all the path dependencies that claw at us, we do have innate organizational agility, so change is not impossible. More to the point, it is worth doing: distance education has innate advantages that physically co-present education (there must be a better term!) cannot hope to match.

At least part of the solution lies firstly in capitalizing on and enhancing the natural benefits that distance learning brings, notably in terms of freedom. Secondly, it lies in reducing as many of its disadvantages as we can.

Distance learning is all about freedom, but we have inherited two things from our physical forebears that unnecessarily constrain that: fixed-length courses, and accreditation umbilically linked to teaching. We need to rid ourselves of fixed-length courses, and disaggregate learning from assessment, so that learners can choose to work on things that really matter to them and gain accreditation for what they know rather than what we choose to teach. Right now, a course is like one of those cable TV packages that contains one or two channels you actually want and a whole load that you do not. The tightly bound assessments force students to bow to our needs, not theirs, which is awful for motivation and retention. This means that those with prior knowledge are bored, those who find it difficult are over-pressured, and the point of learning becomes not skill acquisition but credit acquisition. This in turn reinforces an unhealthy power relationship that only ever had any point in the first place because of the constraints of teaching in physical classrooms, and that is ultimately demotivating (extrinsically motivating) for all concerned.

This is ridiculous when we do not have such constraints - lack of need for teacher control (unless students want it, of course - but that's the point, students can choose) is one of the key ways that distance learning is inherently better than classroom learning. Classroom teachers need control. Indeed, it is almost impossible to do it effectively without it, notwithstanding a lot of tricks and techniques that can somewhat limit the damage for those that hate sticks and carrots. At the very least they need to get people in one place at one time, and organize behaviour once everyone is there. We do not.

We need better tailored learning, and to support many different ways of doing it. Smaller chunks would help a lot - the equivalent of unbundling channels on a cable TV package - but, really, courses should be no bigger or smaller than they need to be for the purpose. Only rarely is that 15 weeks/100 hours, or whatever standard size universities choose to use. We do it for reasons that are solely related to organizational convenience and that emerged only because of the need to schedule students, teachers, and classrooms in physical spaces. Some students may need no tuition at all - all adult learners come with some knowledge, and some bring a lot. Some may need more than we currently give. We need to recognize and accommodate all that diversity. One of the most effective ways to handle our accreditation role under such circumstances is to have separate assessment of learning, unrelated to the course in any direct way. Our challenge and PLAR processes at AU are almost ready for that already, so it's not an impossible shift. The other effective way to handle accreditation when we no longer control the inputs and outputs is to negotiate learning outcomes with the students through personalized learning contracts. There are plenty of models for such competency-based, andragogic ways of doing things: we would not be the first, by any means, and already run quite a few courses and processes that allow for it.

The second part of the solution lies in reducing or even removing the relative disadvantages of distance education. The largest of these by far is social isolation and its side-effects, notably on motivation. We need to build a richer, more connected community, to employ pedagogies that take advantage of the fact that we actually have about 40,000 students passing through every year at AU (OU-UK has many more, despite its losses), and to better support our teachers and researchers in engaging with one another and/or learning from one another. In too many of our courses and programs, students may never even be aware of others, let alone benefit from learning with them. This does not imply that we should always force our students to collaborate (or force them to do anything) and it certainly doesn't mean we should do truly stupid things like give marks for discussion contributions, but it does mean creating ubiquitous opportunities to engage, and making others (and their learning) more visible in the process. This matters as much to staff as it does to students. The Landing is a partial technological solution (or support for a solution) to that problem but it does not go nearly far enough and is not deeply embedded as it should be. Such opportunities to engage and to be aware of others should be everywhere in our virtual space, not on a separate site that only about a quarter of staff and students visit. And, of course, it only really makes sense if we adapt the ways we support learning to match, not just in our deliberate teaching but in our attitudes to sharing, engaging and connecting.

There are lots of other things that could be done - whole books can be and have been written about that - but these three simple changes would be sufficient, I think, to bring about profound positive change throughout the entire system:

  1. valorizing and enabling the social,
  2. variable length courses and lessons, and
  3. disaggregating assessment from learning

Physical universities would equally benefit from all of these but, apart from in their social affordances (that are certainly great, if sometimes under-utilized), have far less innate ability to support them. I think that means that distance universities still have a place at the vanguard of change.

It has long annoyed me that distance education is seen by many as a poor cousin to face-to-face learning. In some cases and in some ways, sure, physical co-presence gives an edge. But, in others, especially in terms of freedom - pedagogical and personal freedom, not just in terms of space, pace and place - distance education can be notably superior. To achieve its potential, it just needs to throw off the final shackles it inherited from its ancestor.

Where are the Women?

Terry Anderson's blog - October 28, 2015 - 10:22
This week I am privileged to be a keynote speaker at the 21st International Congress of the Brazilian Association for Distance Education in Bento Goncalves, Brazil. The scholarly stimulation, hospitality, weather and fine Brazilian wine have been great – but something is wrong. Only 1 of the 12 keynote speakers and none of the 10 […]

On the value of awards

Jon Dron's blog - October 19, 2015 - 11:54

The week before last was a bit of a gold-star week for me. Firstly, I received Athabasca University's Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.  Secondly, Jisc named me one of the 50 top social media influencers in UK higher education (I was eligible because, though I don't live in the UK any more, I still maintain strong informal and formal ties). It's always nice to have one's ego stroked, and mine was purring like a satisfied kitten for some time:  the accompanying photo of one of my kittens gives a rough rendition of my state of mind. Also, I am very thankful to those that nominated and supported me: thank you all! None-the-less, I have somewhat mixed feelings about both of these. Partly, it's just because of embarrassment and a general sense of lack of worthiness. I know from intimate personal experience that I am at the very least as awful as I am great.  Equally, I am acutely aware that there are very many people who do things far better than me in many significant ways in both areas, and who did not receive an award for it. But there's more to my discomfort than that. In this post I am mostly going to focus on the teaching award, but some of these issues relate to being on the list of UK social media influencers too.

The teaching crowd vs the teaching star

The teaching award bothers me, mainly, because no teacher is or should be a stand-alone prima donna or primo uomo, least of all in a highly distributed teaching environment like that at Athabasca. At AU, and to an only slightly lesser extent elsewhere, teaching is always the work of a team, always the result of a much larger community than just that team, and never, ever, the sole domain of one individual. Students (especially), administrators, technicians, learning designers, editors, graphic artists, fellow academics, tutors, textbook authors, Wikipedia editors, Facebook friends and the collectively generated processes and culture that make the university what it is, are at the very least as significant as any one person. To give one person an award for what we all do together therefore just doesn't make much sense. It's particularly ironic that I should get a teaching award in the light of a great deal of my work, which for more than 15 years has been about just that - how crowds and systems teach. The individual we label as a 'teacher' is just a part of a much larger teaching gestalt and need not be its star. It is true that the charismatic inspirers and/or visible innovators and/or empathetic carers do tend to be the teachers we most remember and are the ones that we tend to nominate for awards. But they also tend to be, for much the same reasons,  the worst teachers for some people: love 'em or hate 'em, there's not much in between. Truly great teachers, including all those that make up the gestalt, often disappear into the background. My friend and mentor Richard Mitchell wanted a t-shirt slogan for education conferences that summed it up nicely: 'shut up and let them learn' (I don't know if he ever had it made). The point is that it should never be about teachers teaching: it's always about learners learning, and there are many ways to support that, most of the best of which are driven by the learners, not the teachers. Teachers that do that well are not always the ones that get the awards.

Competition vs caring

I was a bit disconcerted to learn on the day of the award ceremony that my faculty has been competitively pushing its staff for these awards over a period of years so, for some, this was less about celebrating excellence than winning. I don't think academia needs to be nor should it be gamified: it has far more than enough of that already. If these contests were simple games with clear rules that made winning and losing unequivocal and fair, I would be fine with it. But, outside such a clearly game-like context, competition is not good for motivation - whether you are a winner or a loser - and it is often destructive to communities. Like performance-related pay and grades (deeply flawed ideas), it can all too easily make the award into the goal, which takes away the love of the activity itself as well as shaping how we perform it. This can very easily turn into a bit of behaviourist nonsense that can drive action in the short term but weaken interest in the long term. It is fundamentally unfair, too, which can cause unnecessary tension and divisions in a community that, by its nature, needs to work together to a common goal that everyone plays an important part in reaching. Giving an award is also an expression of power: a bit of behavioural shaping done to us, not with us, the use of award committees and panels notwithstanding. At the AU awards ceremony our leaders told us how proud they were of us. They meant this very kindly, and were simply following a traditional pattern and doing the right thing for the ritual purposes of the event, but it's not a good idea. Sure, feel pride to be part of a great learning community, show interest in what we do, care about what we do together. Yes, by all means, celebrate the good things we have done, all of us, but not that we, as individuals, are therefore good. That's too much like patting a dog on the head for behaving the way we want him to behave.

A better way?

What really made my ego purr was not the award itself but reading the generous things kind colleagues and students wrote about me in support of the nomination. Those brought tears to my eyes, and that's what I am really grateful for.  So, rather than giving one person an award, which seems a bit arbitrary and divisive, I think it would make far more sense that we should all regularly nominate at least one other person for acclaim, but that we should scrap giving an actual award or, if we must, should give it to everyone or a large group. The really valuable part, from a personal perspective, is not the award as such but the kindness and affirmation from friends, students and colleagues. It's also really nice to give such acclaim. Everyone's a winner.

The value of awards

For all my misgivings, I think that awards do have real value, especially to those that are not in the competition themselves. Awards are good ways to make concrete the values that we (or, at least, the givers of the awards) deem to be significant. By giving an award for teaching, AU is signalling the importance of teaching to its employees and to the rest of the world, and that's a message worth sending. Similarly for Jisc, its influential position means that it got a lot of attention for not just the contest but, more significantly, the criteria for success in that contest.  That is really valuable. Social media activities are seldom given much weight when deciding on promotions or research excellence in academia, but they should be. By far the most significant measure of success in academia is whether our work increases the knowledge in the world, whether through research or teaching or dialogue, and social media are a great means of doing that. The most popular of my papers and books have been read by a few thousand people, and most have been read by far fewer than that. My biggest keynotes have addressed less than a thousand people, and some conference papers have reached no more than a few dozen readers and attendees. Some of my blog posts and shared bookmarks have had tens of thousands of readers, and most are read by thousands. There are different measures of quality for such things, for sure: most of my posts are far more like presentations intended to spark ideas than rigorous papers and books and I doubt that any have ever been cited in academic literature. But, though not rivaling peer-reviewed papers, that is still useful, I think, for exactly the reasons it is useful to attend conference presentations and, in the same way, each one is an opportunity to interact directly. Blog posts themselves may not always have much academic clout compared with peer reviewed papers but, sometimes, the dialogue that develops around them can become an incredibly significant artefact in itself, much like the glosses on mediaeval manuscripts, entering depths that can put most peer review to shame. Perhaps the Jisc list will catalyze further social media activity among those who feel that their time is better spent publishing work in journals with high impact factors and low readership. Perhaps it will encourage those outsiders to investigate what those of us who care about such things are sharing. Perhaps it will act as a pre-filter to help them to find stuff worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire innovative uses of the tools and spread good practices. Perhaps it is a good thing to simply assert that there is a community that we are part of. Awards can be catalysts for change, builders of community, and organizers of values. That's good.

There is, too, some value in recognizing the value of people and what they do for whatever reason. I find it odd that, as well as awards for specific activities, AU gives long service awards. That rather implies that staying here might have been an achievement in itself, which further implies that it might have been a chore to stick it out for so long. That's not a good message - I'm here because I want to be here, not because I feel I must - and it is made worse by adding a reward for it. To be fair it is, quite literally, a token reward, of a few dollars to spend in the AU store and a pin. But, as carrots go, that's likely worse than no carrot at all: it sends both a message that it is an extrinsic reward - akin to a payment - and that we are not worth very much. I reckon a bit of applause and a hand-shake is more than enough acknowledgement without muddying the waters with cold hard cash. As a ritual, though, celebrating the simple fact of our continuing community is very worthwhile. Not only is it an opportunity to meet and eat with colleagues in person - a rare thing at AU - it's an affirmation of the value of the community itself. We need such rituals and celebrations of togetherness.

And that is, I think, the most profound value of awards in general. They are, arguably, counter-productive as ways to drive good practice or encourage better behaviour in those that compete for them. But the ceremonies associated with them and the shared values that they represent bind all of us. They symbolize what we endeavour to be, they signal the values that we cherish, they exclude those outside the community and thus contribute to the community's internal cohesion, albeit at a potential cost of competition. On balance, for all the complexities and risks, that's not a bad thing.

To truly end animal suffering, the most ethical choice is to kill wild predators (especially Cecil the lion) - Quartz

Jon Dron's bookmarks - September 11, 2015 - 14:16

Delightfully deadpan and believable philosophical investigation into the ethics of animal activism and some ethical justifications for vegetarianism. In fact, it is so believable that some people have taken it at face value and have been up in arms about it. Apparently, the editor supports their outrage by claiming it is a dead serious think piece. Indeed, I agree that it is, though I don't think that it is making quite the point that the title claims to be making. It is much more to do with the ethics of animal rights activists, of hunting, of vegetarianism, and of ecological interventionism. Perhaps, too, it is a meta-reflection on the nature of philosophical enquiry, that can certainly lead to some untenable conclusions via plausible (if incomplete) premises. There are many implicit and contradictory conclusions here, some lost in innocent-looking parentheses.

This is satire of the finest sort, intellectually challenging, perceptive, and subtle as can be. It is a worthy successor to Jonathan Swift's modest proposal.

Address of the bookmark:

Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else.

elearnspace (George Siemens) - September 9, 2015 - 17:18

I’ve been involved in educational technology since the late 1990′s when I was at Red River College and involved in deploying the first laptop program in Canada. Since that time, I’ve been involved in many technology deployments in learning and in researching those deployments. Some have been systems-level – like a learning management system. Others have been more decentralized and unstructured – like blogs, wikis, and social media.

But there is something different in the ed tech space today than what I have experienced in the past. Most of my career has involved using technology to help people get better access to learning resources and materials, to better connect with each other, to better access formal education, and to improve their teaching practices and pedagogies. I’ve been fortunate to journey with talented folks: Grainne Conole, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Martin Weller, Dragan Gasevic, Shane Dawson, Carolyn Rose, David Wiley, Ryan Baker, and many many others. At some level we all shared a goal that fairness, justice, and equity underpin the role of education in society and that by enabling access to learning and improving the the quality of learning, we were helping to improve the lives of learners and of society more broadly. Sometimes this meant helping people to develop digital skills to find new jobs or transition into new roles. Sometimes it meant connecting people eager to collaborate with others from around the world. Sometimes it was about righting a wrong or injustice. Regardless of whether the goal was finding a job or developing new mindsets, my focus was always on the learner, on the human.

Emerging technology today departs from my previous vision of improving the human condition. Through AI/Machine Learning, we are constantly hearing that technology is becoming more human and becoming more capable of judgements that we once thought were our domain. In education though, the opposite is happening: educational technology is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills.

Two articles this past week crystallized my thinking. First, Sebastian Thrun, in an Economist article, states: “BECAUSE of the increased efficiency of machines, it is getting harder and harder for a human to make a productive contribution to society”. If that is true, why is his startup trying to teach humans? Why not drop the human teaching thing altogether and just develop algorithms for making the stated productive contribution to society? He also details nanodegrees which are essentially what we in academia have to date called “certificates”. Perhaps we can call them nano-robo-certificates. Making up words is fun when media attention is petitioned. Most discouraging about this is that I’ve met Sebastian and he is a friendly, caring, deeply motivated person. The Thrun-of-media doesn’t align with the thoughtful Thrun-in-person.

The second article focused on Knewton. Jose Fereirra states “this robot tutor can essentially read your mind”. I’ve met Jose on numerous occasions. He’s bright, charismatic, and appears to genuinely care about improving learning. His rhetoric doesn’t align with the real challenges of education where cognitive capability alone is a small factor in learner success. Robot tutors will not make personalized learning easy. Learning is contextual, social, and involves whole person dynamics. In the past, I’ve stated that Knewton is the only edtech company with Google like potential. That is likely still the case, but I’m no longer convinced that this is a good thing.

Both Udacity and Knewton require the human, the learner, to become a technology, to become a component within their well-architected software system. Sit and click. Sit and click. So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.

My framework for technologies in the edtech space now, those that I find empowering for learners and reflective of a human and creative-oriented future, includes five elements:

  1. Does the technology foster creativity and personal expression?
  2. Does the technology develop the learner and contribute to her formation as a person?
  3. Is the technology fun and engaging?
  4. Does the technology have the human teacher and/or peer learners at the centre?
  5. Does the technology consider the whole learner?

I go through five year cycles. My early interest was in blogs and wikis in learning. Then my attention turned to connectivism and networked learning. Then to MOOCs. And then to learning analytics. These have all been terrific experiences and I’m proud to have been able to work with leading researchers and exceptional students. But it’s time for change. A curious disconnect has been emerging in my thinking, one that has been made clear with the hype-oriented buzzwords of today’s ed tech companies. I no longer want to be affiliated with the tool-fetish of edtech. It’s time to say adios to technosolutionism that recreates people as agents within a programmed infrastructure.

Over the last several years, my grants and research interests have turned to something…else. I’m not sure what the unifying thread is a this stage. Partly it’s a focus on the whole person. On empowered states of learning. On mindfulness, complexity, integrative learning, contemplative practices, formative learning, creativity, making. The dLRN grant focuses on connecting researchers with state systems to improve learning opportunities for under represented learners. (btw, you really should join us at our conference at Stanford in October). Our grant with Smart Sparrow focuses on multiple dimensions of learning success where the teacher remains central in the learning experience. Our project with Intel involves several post docs exploring how personalization can be improved in the learning process by developing a graph model of the learner that considers contextual, cognitive, social, and metacognitive factors. Two of our NSF grants are focused on language and discourse analysis and using big data to explore roles that learners adopt in variously configured knowledge spaces (Wikipedia, Stack Overflow, and MOOCs). Our MRI grant produced a report on digital learning – an evaluation of how technologies foster learning, rather than foster routine clicking. These are promising narratives to the de-humanizing edtech narratives. Others, such as Lumen Learning, Domain of One’s Own, and Candace Thille’s research on adaptive learning are similarly advancing humanizing technologies.

These transitions in research are part of a broader agenda that will help, at least in LINK lab, to create tools, technologies, and pedagogies that enable creation, personal formation, engagement, fun, and joy. I’m still fleshing out exactly what this will look like over the next several years. Obviously technology will be central in this process, but it will be one where mindful and appropriate learning practices are promoted. Where technology humanizes rather than reduces people to algorithmic and mechanical practices. Whatever this research agenda becomes, I’m more excited for the future of technology enabled learning than I have been in many years.

First Week at Riverdale Little Free Library

Terry Anderson's blog - September 6, 2015 - 07:26
The Little Free Library has survived its first week- no vandalism, lots of borrowers and depositors, collection growing and 12 new DVDs videos (thanks to Rocky and Eric). The back birdhouse suite is still vacant (I hope I won’t have to remove the No Magpies Need Apply sign) and the building survived its first rain. […]

When You're Calling Culture Content, You're Reinforcing The Idea Of A Container

Jon Dron's bookmarks - September 1, 2015 - 08:07

I like this idea, from Rick Falvinge. This is about the insidious effects of choosing to call the stuff that people create 'content', which implies a container, from which it is an easy step to assert ownership, control and property rights, leading to very tricky and dangerously exploitable notions like 'intellectual property' and all the rest of the ugly mess that sustains lawyers and patent trolls. As Falvinge puts it:

"Do you need a container for a bedtime story? Do you need a container for a campfire song? Do you need a container for a train of thought? Do you need a container for cool cosplay ideas?"

Address of the bookmark:

A waste of time

Jon Dron's blog - August 31, 2015 - 21:47


A while back I wrote a blog post about the apparent waste of time involved in things like reading email, loading web pages, etc. At the end of the post I suggested that the simplistic measure of time as money that I was using should be viewed with great suspicion, though it is precisely the kind of measure that we routinely use. This post is mostly about why we should be suspicious.

But first, my basic initial argument, restated and stripped to its bones, is simple. According to the vacation request form that I have to fill in (and, after taking vacation, repeat the process) an Athabasca University working day is 7 hours, or 25,200 seconds, long. There are about 1,200 employees at Athabasca University so, if each employee could save 21 seconds in a day (25,200/1200 = 21), it would be like getting another employee. Equally, every time we do something that loses everyone 21 seconds a day for no good reason, the overall effect is the same as firing someone. I observed then that we have lately adopted a lot of ICT systems that waste a great deal more than that. Since then, things have been getting worse. We are about to move to an Office 365 system, for instance, that I am guessing will cost us the time of at least 5 people, maybe more, compared with our current aged Zimbra suite. It's not rocket science: a minute of everyone's day easily accounted for in loading time alone, which I have  checked seems to be roughly 20 seconds longer than the old system, and most people will load it many times a day. At the start, it will take way more than that, what with training, migration, confusion and all and, if my experience of Microsoft's Exchange system is anything to go by, it is going to carry on sapping minutes out of everyone's day for the foreseeable future thanks to poor design and buggy implementation. So far, so depressing.

But what have we actually lost?

The simplistic assumption that time is money has a little merit when tasks are routine and mechanical. If you are producing widgets then time spent not producing widgets equates directly to widgets lost, so money is lost for every second spent doing something else. Even that notion is a bit suspect, though, inasmuch as there are normally diminishing returns on working more. Even if a task requires only the slightest hint of skill or judgement, the correlation between time and money is a long, long way from linear. Far more often than not, productivity is lower if you insist on uninterrupted working or longer hours than it would be if you insisted on regular breaks and shorter hours.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is also true, even in the most creative and open occupations, that it is possible to spend so much time doing something else that you never get round to the thing that you claim to be doing, though it is very hard to pin down the actual break-even point. For instance, a poet might spend 23.5 out of every 24 hours not actually writing poetry and that might be absolutely fine. On the other hand, if a professor spends a similar amount of time not marking student work there will probably be words. For most occupations, there's a happy balance.

But what about those enforced breaks caused by waiting for computers to do something, or playing a mechanical role in a bureaucratic system, or reading an 'irrelevant' all-staff email? These are the ones that relate most directly to my original point, and all are quite different cases, so I will take each in turn, as each is illustrative of some of the different ways time and value are strangely connected.

Waiting for the machine

As I wait for machines to do something I have from time to time tried to calculate the time I 'lose' to them. As well as time waiting for them to boot up, open a web page, open an application, convert a video or save a document, this includes various kinds of futzing, such as organizing emails or files, backing up a machine, updating the operating system, fixing things that are broken, installing tools, shuffling widgets, plugging and unplugging peripherals, and so on. On average, given that almost my entire working life is mediated through a computer, I reckon that an hour or more of every day is taken up with such things. Some days are better than others, but some are much worse. I sometimes lose whole days to this. Fixing servers can take much more. Because I work in computing and find the mental exercise valuable, futzing is not exactly 'lost' time for me, especially as (done well) it can save time later on. Nor, for that matter, is time spent waiting for things to happen. I don't stop thinking simply because the machine is busy. In fact, it can often have exactly the opposite effect. I actually make very deliberate point of setting aside time to daydream throughout my working day because that's a crucial part of the creative, analytic and synthetic process. Enforced moments of inactivity thus do a useful job for me, like little inverted alarm clocks reminding me when to dream. Slow machines (up to a point) do not waste time - they simply create time for other actitivies but, as ever, there is a happy balance.


Bacn is a bit like spam except that it consists of emails that you have chosen or are obliged to receive. Like spam, though, it is impersonal, often irrelevant, and usually annoying. Those things from mailing lists you sometimes pay attention to, calls for conference papers that might be interesting, notifications from social media systems (like the Landing) that have the odd gem, offers from stores you have shopped at, or messages to all-staff mailing lists that are occasionally very important but that are mostly not -  I get a big lot of bacn. Those 'irrelevant' allstaff emails are particularly interesting examples. They are actually very far from irrelevant even though they may have no direct value to the work that I am doing, because they are part of the structure of the organization. They are signals passing around the synapses of the organizational brain that help give its members a sense of belonging to something bigger, even if the particular signals themselves might rarely fire their particular synapses. Every one is an invitation to being a potential contributor to that bigger thing. They are the cloth that is woven of the interactions of an organization that helps to define the boundaries of that organization and reflect back its patterns and values. The same is true of social media notifications: I only glance at the vast majority but, just now and then, I pick up something very useful and, maybe once every day or two, I may contribute to the flow myself. The flow is part of my extended brain, like an extra sense that keeps me informed about the zeitgeist of my communities and social networks and that makes me a part of them. Time spent dealing with such things is time spent situating myself in the sets, networks and groups that I belong to. Organizations, especially those that are largely online, that are seeking to reduce bacn had better beware that they don't lose all that salty goodness because bacn is a thin web that binds us. Especially in a distributed organization, if you lose bacn, you lose the limbic system of the organization, or even, in some cases, its nervous system. Organizations are not made of processes; they are made of people, and those people have to connect, have to belong. Bacn supports belonging and connection. But, of course, it can go too far. It is always worth remembering that 21 seconds of bacn is another person's time gone (for a large company, it might be a second or less) and that person might have been doing something really productive with all of that lost time. But to get rid of bacn makes no more sense than to get rid of brain cells because they don't address your current needs. An organization, not just its members, has to think and feel, and bacn is part of that thinking and feeling. As ever, though, there is a happy balance.

Being a cog

I've saved this one till last because it is not like the others. Being a cog is about the kind of thing that requires individuals to do the work of a machine. For instance, leave-reporting systems that require you to calculate how much leave you have left, how many hours there are in a day, or which days are public holidays (yes, we have one of those). Or systems for reclaiming expenses that require you to know the accounting codes, tax rates, accounting regulations, and approvers for expenses (yes, we have one of those too). Or customer relationship management systems that bombard you with demands that actually have nothing to do with you or that you have already dealt with (yes - we have one of those as well). Or that demand that you record the number of minutes spent using a machine that is perfectly capable of recording those minutes itself (yup). This is real work that demands concentration and attention, but it does nothing to help with thinking or social cohesion and does nothing to help the organization grow or adapt. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is a highly demotivating drain on time and energy that saps the life out of an organization, a minute or two at a time. No one benefits from having to do work that machines can do faster, more accurately and more reliably (we used to have one of those). It is plain common sense that investing in someone who can build build and maintain better cogs is a lot more efficient and effective than trying (and failing) to train everyone to act exactly like a cog. This is one of those tragedies of hierarchically managed systems. Our ICT department has been set the task of saving money and its managers only control their own staff and systems, so the only place they can make 'savings' is in getting rid of the support burden of making and managing cogs. I bet that looks great on paper - they can probably claim to have saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars although, actually, they have not only wasted tens of millions of dollars, but they have probably set the organization on a suicide run. But they could as easily have gone the other way and it might have been just as bad. Over-zealous cog-making is harmful, both because ICT departments have a worrisome tendency to over-do it (I cannot have assignments with no marks, for example, if I wish to enter them into our records system, which I have to do because otherwise the cog that pays tutors will not turn) and because systems change, which means many of the cogs inside them have to change too, and it is not just the devil's work but an accounting nightmare to get them all to change at the right time. Well-designed ICT systems make it easy to take out a cog or some other sub-assembly and replace it, and they use tools that make cog production fast and simple. Poorly designed systems without such flexibility enslave their users, just as much as those that have to submit to cog-retraining are enslaved when their systems change. As ever, there is a happy balance.

Wasting time?

I'm not sure that time is ever lost - it is just spent doing other things. It can certainly be wasted, though, if those other things do not make a positive difference. But it is complicated. Here are just a few of the things I have done today - not a typical day, but few of them are:

  • reading/responding to emails from staff, students and others: roughly 2.5 hours
  • writing a forward for a book: roughly 2 hours
  • writing this post: roughly 1 hour
  • walking: roughly 45 minutes
  • making/consuming food and drink: about 30 minutes
  • reading/ making notes on books and papers: roughly 1 hour
  • replying to interview questions: approximately 45 minutes
  • checking my boat didn't die in the rainstorm: roughly half an hour
  • cleaning and tidying: maybe half an hour
  • writing a book: about 20-30 minutes
  • replying to student posts: roughly 1 hour
  • marking: roughly 1 hour
  • waiting for computers: perhaps half an hour
  • grooming/washing/etc: maybe half an hour
  • checking/listening to the news and weather: roughly 45 minutes
  • taking an afternoon nap: about half an hour
  • Skyping: roughly 15 minutes
  • Deleting spam from the Elgg community site: about 10 minutes
  • Drying a wet dog: about 5 minutes
  • serious thinking: roughly 12 hours

There are still a couple of hours left of my day before I read a book and eventually go to sleep. Maybe I'll catch a movie while reading some news after preparing some more food. Maybe I'll play some guitar or try to get the hang of the sansula one more time. With a bit of luck I might get to chat with my wife (who has been out all day but would normally figure in the list quite a bit). But I hope you get the drift. I don't think it makes much sense to measure anyone's life in minutes spent on activities, except for the worst things they do. Time may be worth measuring and accounting for when it is spent doing the things that make us less than human, but it would be better to not do such things in the first place. I have put off responding to the CRM system today and only spent a few minutes checking admin systems in general because, hell, it's Monday and I have had other things to do. It is all about achieving a happy balance.

Little Free Library Opens in Riverdale (Edmonton)

Terry Anderson's blog - August 31, 2015 - 08:55
This weekend I opened the Little Free Library I have been building for the past few weeks.  It is a great hit and already I’ve had a couple of nice volumes appear (librarian gets 1st pick!). I managed to use scraps and pieces from the old house we demolished 20 years on this site to […]

Wiping out species may boost evolution – study — RT News

Jon Dron's bookmarks - August 19, 2015 - 08:53

Brief report on some interesting research that demonstrates that mass extinctions speed up the evolution of those species that are left. What is particularly nice about it is its support for the principle that evolvability is itself selected by evolution. As Kevin Kelly once memorably put it, 'change changes itself'. In other words, the rules of change are themselves as much subject to evolution as anything else, and this is one of the central ratchets that leads to divergence and complexity. A crucial if fiendishly hard to implement principle for those of us seeking to seed practical self-organizing systems such as, say, the Landing, or who are looking for a better and more resilient way to run courses and universities.

Address of the bookmark:

A response to Fact vs. Fiction: 7 Truths about College Course Materials on TM News August 12, 2015

Rory McGreal's blog - August 12, 2015 - 15:28


 Below is my response to the article published in TMNews on August 15, 2015.

Here is the URL for the original article.

Here is my response. 

  1. Fiction:The cost of college textbooks and course materials is a major contributor to student debt.

    The 4% of total cost assumes that the students are not getting any student aid. As the level of aid increases, the proportion of debt taken on by texts rises. It also assumes that the students are only paying university level tuition rather than community college levels, which are much lower. In any case, textbook costs are very high the increases are hardly justifiable.

  2. Fiction:The cost of course materials is climbing.

    Student spending on course materials is dropping because they are simply NOT BUYING the expensive texts as much as they used to. And, there are a growing number of free resources now available that they can use to bypass the need for a textbook in many cases, including OER or accessible Internet content.

  3. Fact: Students can save money on textbooks in a variety of ways.

    They sure can, and that is why student spending on texts is dropping. The publishers charge up to 60% less for online when their savings are in the realm of 95% when they have no distribution costs and much less marketing costs. That is why they can still profit from their reduced quality editions (b&w, restricted, etc.). OER provide even greater savings to students.

  4. Fiction: The reason that new editions of course materials are released so often is to increase publisher profits.

    So, releasing new editions regularly is not for publishers' profit? Then why are they in business? Of course it is for profit. Are instructors really insisting on new editions? Especially when the content doesn't change much as is the case in many subject areas? Besides, profs can use the Web to point out developments in their field. It is no longer necessary to repeatedly update the text, even in rapidly changing fields. And why should students have to pay the full cost when only a portion of the text is updated?

  5. Fiction: Since Open Educational Resources (OER) are free, they will eventually replace purchased textbooks.

    Here is a “straw dog” argument. NO ONE is saying that it is free to create OER. Of course it costs. Yes, someone has to pay for OER and someone has to pay for commercial content. The fact is that OER are considerably less costly to taxpayers and to students. OER may not replace commercial content if the publishers can learn to live with more reasonable profit margins. OER will replace published content if they keep charging the same amount or more for the same content every year.

  6. Fiction: Students with print-related disabilities -- including blindness and dyslexia -- don’t have access to the course materials they need.

    OER are best for students with disabilities. You can use them without permission on any device and mix, mash the material however you want. Commercial content using digital locks (digital rights management;technological protection measures) and legal restrictions control how the content can be used and limit its usefulness to disabled students. They are letting up on some of these restrictions and they call that “improving”. OER don't need improving.

  7. Fiction: Students don’t really need the course materials to pass the class.

    Fact: Course materials are a key component of academic success.Academic improvement from using digital course materials and traditional textbooks is as high as 79 percent.

    I agree with this. Students need their textbooks. That is why it is so important that every student has access to a textbook. OER provide that access to ALL students not just those that can pay the high cost of commercial texts. When OER are available, student achievement levels rise and attrition drops.



White House: Innovation in Higher Education

elearnspace (George Siemens) - August 3, 2015 - 07:12

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to the White House. The invitation was somewhat cryptic, but basically stated that the focus on the meeting was on quality and innovation. This invite was then followed a week later with a link to a post by Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary of Education, on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education, to help prepare for the conversation.

The event organizers made it clear that no media or social media was allowed during the event in order to have an open brainstorming session. My thoughts below are suitably vague so as to not identify who else was there and the specifics of the meeting. Instead, my comments are more about my personal reactions to the conversation without going into details about who said what specifically. (I was worried that the trip would have to be cancelled as I managed to get food poisoning a few days prior to the event, but fortunately, things worked out).

1. The White House is secure. As a “foreign national” it took me over two hours to clear three layers of security, was provided a special pink badge to identify me as a foreign national and was required to navigate only with an escort (including restroom visits and ultimately WH departure). I’m baffled how people manage to jump the White House fence. I felt watched over with lovingkindness.

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole. The change pressures that exist now are not ones that the existing higher education model can ignore. The trends – competency-based learning, unbundling, startups & capital inflow, new pedagogical models, technology, etc – will change higher education dramatically.

3. No one knows what HE is becoming. Forget the think tanks and the consultants and the keynote speakers. No one knows how these trends will track or what the university will look like in the future. This unknowability stems from HE being a complex systems with many interacting elements. We can’t yet see how these will connect and inter-relate going forward. The best strategy in a time of uncertainty is not to seek or force the way forward, but to enter a cycle of experimentation. The Cynefin Framework provides the best guidance that I’ve seen on how to function in our current context.

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education. I sat in one session where a startup spent much of the time expressing intense dislike for higher education in today’s form “my tax dollars are going to bad actors”, ironically to be followed up with “I loved my time in university. It shaped me and made me”. It reminds me of Peter Thiel’s drop out of school and start a company. But what does Thiel expect when his money and his life is at stake? He expects, for his hedge fund: “High GPA from top-tier university; preferably in computer science, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, physics, engineering or other highly quantitative”. I’m worried that the future will have an education system where the wealthy continue to receive high quality education on campuses, but the poor receive some second-tier alternative system that prepares them mainly to work but not to be change agents in the world. This gets at the heart of a challenge in higher education. HE is a system that is deeply embedded in societal realities, including equity and justice. It’s not an ROI equation. It’s a quality of life equation. A startup or corporate entity has a primary purpose of doing what makes sense economically. It’s their job. But it conflicts with the most dominant needs of our society today: how to educate individuals from low socio-economic status. The bottom income quartile of society has seen zero increase in degree completion over the past 50 years. Any meaningful redesign of higher education, for the benefit of individuals and society broadly, has to be primarily focused on helping to move this population toward success.

5. Title IV is the kingmaker. This is the alpha agent in change. Title IV drives federal student aid in the US. Systems that are included have access to students aid funding. Those that are not included (say a bootcamp startup) do not have access. As Title IV funding changes, so will US education. I heard several pushes for voucher systems (i.e. fund the student directly and they decide what to do with the dollars). This is the main space to watch in identifying which innovations will have legs and which ones will fail to get traction.

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people. A future of broadening scope regionally and of greater engagement in the lives of individuals. I addressed this toward the end of this presentation, starting slide 28. Higher Education is moving from a 4 year relationship to students to a 40 year relationship

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE. VC funds are flowing aggressively and these funders are also targeting policy change at local, state, and national levels. We aren’t used to this level of lobbying and faculty is unprepared to respond to this. Expect it. Your next faculty meeting will involve a new student success system, a personalized learning system, an analytics system, a new integrated bootcamp model, new competency software, new cloud-based computing systems, and so on. Expect it. It’s coming.

8. Expect M & A activities in higher education. I fully anticipate some combination of partnering with companies like General Assembly, creation of in-house bootcamps, or outright acquisitions by innovative universities.

9. The scope of change is starting to settle somewhat in HE. It’s a more comprehensible landscape than it was a few years ago. We’ve had our MOOC hype moment. The system of universities globally withstood the assault (remember when this was a legitimate conference topic??). Not only that, it was discovered that MOOCs are exceptional for those on campus. Similarly, some solidification of innovative teaching and learning practices is happening and it’s making it a bit easier for leaders to respond. As stated previously, this doesn’t mean that we know what HE will look like in the future, but it does provide a firmer foundation for planning for leaders. Any university that doesn’t yet have some department or committee focused on “responding systemically to innovations and change pressures” is missing an important opportunity.

10. Higher education is a great integrator and subsumer. I fully expect a future of more, not less universities globally. They play too significant a regional and local economic and identity role for regions to not expect a university in their backyard. Look how hard it has been to kill Sweet Briar. The clock is ticking on the nonsense of Drucker and Christensen’s statements about 50% campus closures. We are entering the golden age of learning. Why would we kill our universities?

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric. We don’t understand the higher education market analytically – i.e. scope, fund flows, student flows, policy directives, long term impact, – well nationally and internationally. I want to hold both universities and corporate sectors to accountability in their claims of impact. We can’t do that without a far better data infrastructure and greater analytics focus.

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed. This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the “disrupt and transform” learning crowd. Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing. Explore any campus today. It’s a new world on most campuses, never mind the online, competency, and related systems. And if your slide deck includes an image of desks and argues that nothing has changed, you’re being dishonest and disingenuous. Repent. Healing is possible for you, but first you must see the falseness of your words.

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 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.


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


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