Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can Universities Become Networked Publics?

Writing about youth and new media, Ito and colleagues use the term "networked publics" to
"describe participation in public culture that is supported by online networks" (Ito et al., Living and Learning with New Media, 2008, p. 10). The authors note,
Rather than conceptualize everyday media engagement as “consumption” by “audiences,” the term “networked publics” places the active participation of a distributed social network in producing and circulating culture and knowledge in the foreground. The growing salience of networked publics in young people’s everyday lives is an important change in what constitutes the social groups and publics that structure young people’s learning and identity" (p.10)
So I find myself asking, "are universities places in which young people (those not attending the university) can "participate in producing and circulating culture and knowledge?" There are some examples of individual faculty who are engaged with young people and with the public in culture and knowledge. Henry Jenkins immediately comes to mind with his work on fan culture and various media analyses. However, his scholarly interests coincide with popular culture so that seems too obvious. I am particularly interested in natural and social scientists. Are there chemists, biologists, psychologists, family scientists, adolescent developmental scientists who are developing ways to engage young people?

I haven't done an in-depth search, but I don't see this work. Am I missing this? Are we missing ways to engage young people in developing their thinking about math and science by not presenting this world in ways that allow their active participation?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brief Overview of Connectivism

A five-minute overview of the basic ideas of connectivism. An important part of this video is a description of the role of teachers and how they guide a student's exploration of blogs, websites, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stephen Downes on Modularity (or Learning Objects)

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years. (See my other comments on "learning communities" and the "learning marketplace.")

Downes also reviews the idea of "modularity" or what has been referred to as "learning objects." He is not quite ready to abandon this idea even though he acknowledges that this idea has been not been as promising as many thought. In general, he reminds us that the "lego" metaphor has not been useful. So far educational content has not been reduced to small chunks of material that can be easily assembled into larger learning units. He has a couple of ideas that seem to help move this conversation forward. First, he suggests that the reuse of learning objects may need to shift from the teacher's hands to the learner's hands. In other words, he suggests that rather than teachers assembling content and connecting it together, the student collects learning materials and assembles this material for themselves.

He also comments that the size of a given unit of learning is shrinking. Rather than thinking about learning coming in course-size units he writes, "a 20 or 40-hour course may be appropriate in an in-person learning environment, shorter courses are more appropriate online, as short as ten or fifteen minutes."

In the end, he acknowledges, "None of our metaphors, such as Legos or atoms, describe this version of modularity appropriately. I once used the metaphor of objects in an environment....the objects function autonomously, connected, interacting, but not joined." Here is acknowledges Wienberger's idea about "everything being miscellaneous." Although this is true, this does not mean that it is not useful to create particular types of miscellaneous units that can be assembled into largeer integrated structures.

This does not seem to help us move forward. I remain unconvinced that we have either the right metaphor or the right "unit" in which to construct learning. I remain convinced that the simplest learning unit is a "question and answer." This is the smallest learning transaction and could form the basis for constructing larger learning units.

Stephen Downes on the Learning Marketplace

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years.

In 62 pages, Downes covers a lot of topics and any reading and analysis requires a lot of attention. This is the second of my comments about his review. (See Downes on "learning communities.")

One of the central challenges of online learning is how educational enterprises will make money. Downes like many others has observed that making money on selling content. He writes, "What should be understood, however, is that the bulk of educational content online will be free to access and reuse."

His idea for how the educational market will work is as follows:
"Content providers will discover there are much larger markets to be had when they help people create their own content. This will be the basis for the educational marketplace of the future. In general, helping people provide for themselves – helping them, in other words, save time and money – will provide the best opportunities. Selling people cameras instead of pictures, for example. Course content creation kits instead of courses."
I have put the emphasis on the last sentence which is his main idea. This is an interesting idea that I am not sure is quite right. Too often Downes and others seem to forget that there are a range of learners from those who are just starting to learn and those who have advanced knowledge. Novice learners are not likely to be able to create structures of content and information into any reasonable structure. They need frameworks, scaffolding, and guidance which is what teachers provide. Teachers also provide feedback and direction-- "here, take a look at this. " or "have you thought about this?" or "here is the general way that people look at these types of problems" Although there are some types of learning (match, some language learning) that are more likely to be automated, there are many areas that we are a long way from automating (natural and social science, skill-based areas-- medicine, teaching, law).

There is still a marketplace for this type of learning. This is not to say that Downes is all together wrong in pointing us towards the idea of "course content creation kits." This is an interesting idea and worth trying to imagine both how to create the "kit" and what tools this needs, but also how to create content that will be easy to assemble into such a kit.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stephen Downes on Learning Communities

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years. For anyone new to this area, this would be a good analysis and foundation about the important issues to be considered.

I am in general agreement with much of what Downes has to say and his article provides ideas and insights into issues that I don't understand, but there are some issues where I disagree. One of those issues is in his comments about learning communities. He writes,
"Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a ‘learning community’ – save, perhaps, the strained and artificial creations of educational institutions that try to cram classes into collectives, creating personal relationships where none naturally exist. Rather, people learn in communities, and what would make any given community a ‘learning’ community or otherwise is whether people in the community learn more or less well."
There are a couple of problems with this statement. First, Downes seems to be only thinking about online learning communities. Obviously, learning communities (see Wenger) have existed a long time before there were computers and the internet. In contrast to what he says, there are "strictly speaking" learning communities and in some cases these have been created explicitly for learning and they are not "strained and artificial creations of educational institutions." In this statement, Downes seems to have some particularly bad models of online learning communities in mind.

From these particular bad examples he comes to the conclusion that learning communities cannot be intentionally created stating,
"It is probably a truism today (though there still remain exceptions to be observed online) that communities are grown rather than constructed, and that (therefore) they are owned (and managed) by their members rather than by some external agency."
This is an unfortunate conclusion and wrong-headed. Again the problem here is that Downes has in mind particular types of learning communities, but he doesn't tell us exactly what these are.

Learning communities come in all types and have lots of different purposes. And they can be created or grown organically. It is not useful to think about learning communities in a very narrow way. We need to be thinking about these ideas broadly and begin to understand how to create effective learning communities for different purposes. In my mind it is perfectly reasonable for an instructor in a specific educational course to intentionally foster students getting to know each other and to communicate their ideas, get feedback, etc. in the confines of a a classroom on online forum. This experience may be time-limited and the depth of the interactions and exchanges may be limited, but this does not mean that the instructor has not created a learning community. (Elsewhere, I have described a range of roles in learning communities that provide a structure to creating communities.)

My concern about these comments is that educators will not create these limited, but valuable learning communities or will sit by waiting for communities to emerge without taking an active role in trying to create them. I don't think Downes intends this, but his focus seems wrong.

In some later paragraphs, he notes that "they [learners] will no longer need organizers to create communities." Here is focus seems to be on the fact that there are simple internet-based social networking software that is openly available. The challenge of creating and maintaining effective learning is communities is not a software problem, it is a social problem. Downes is overlooking the fact that successful learning communities are those in which members of the community engage in the social processes of engaging people in useful and interesting ways. See Butler and his colleagues discussion about who does the work in online groups and why some communities succeed and others fail. "Tools and technical infrastructure make online group communication possible and support the group’s interactions with the outside world. Social behavior sustains these groups over time" (Butler, et al., 2002, p. 4). (Also, see my summary of Butler.) Downes is naive to think that all learners at all times will create their own learning communities from scratch and that there will not have to be organizers and facilitators of learning communities. There is not one type of learning communities. There are multiple types that serve different purposes at different times.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

David Weinberger on Orders of Information

In this short video (9 minutes) David Weinberger explains a core idea that "everything is miscellaneous" or that information on the web is miscellaneous and that this gives us the ability to categorize and organize it in different ways for different purposes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Curt Bonk's View of Open Education

Curt Bonk continues to think about the important ways that education is opening up and how to participate in this work. Here is his keynote address at the University of Wisconsin that provides an overview of his forthcoming book, We All Learn. The talk is about 1 hour long. You can skip the Introduction by forwarding the slides to Slide #2.

Monday, November 10, 2008

OpenLearn: The Philosophy Behind UK's Open University

In this short, 4 minute video, you learn about the basic components of how the British Open University is designing a platform to share free educational resources.

The Future of Learning

Some good ideas about The Future of Learning. A video presentation at the 2007 HASTAC conference.

This is almost an hour-long video, but there are many important ideas presented.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Howard Rheingold continues to develop his ideas for building community through the creation of a social media classroom platform. This 8 minute video provides an overview of his ideas.

Online and F2F Community Collaboration

This past week my class on Program Development explored the problems and possibilities of creating community-based collaboration in F2F settings and online. In general, most of us were reluctant to give up the importance of some F2F interaction as a part of creating communities.

I think it is still hard for me to completely believe that I can create as deep and rich of relationships with only online communication. We pushed the idea with a discussion of whether the addition of audio and video would overcome the limits of not being in the same room with people. Most of us neither had the experience to make a firm judgement about this or were aware of research findings that helped us answer this question. We did read a chapter in a very interesting book called Leadership at a distance (2008), edited by Susan Weisband. The chapter we read was by Brian Butler and his colleagues, titled, "Community effort in online groups: Who does the work and why?" A key point that Butler and his colleagues make is that successful online groups are the result of social behavior, not technical infrastructure. They write,
"At least four kinds of social behavior are necessary. First, people must tend the tools
themselves by managing software versions, keeping address files up to date, and so on. People also must recruit members to replace those who leave. They must manage social dynamics. They must participate. Without these group maintenance activities, even sophisticated tools and infrastructure will not sustain viable online groups" (p. 4-5).
There is a lot of "stuff" buried inside these four social behaviors that they identify and these are complex interactions to maintain and sustain in online settings (and in F2F settings). There is still much we do not know about online collaboration and the kinds of efforts it will take to make these work.