Friday, April 11, 2014

Connectivism, Neuroscience, and Education

English: Human brain.
I have never been comfortable with proclamations by educators or scientists (and yes, there is a difference) about how the brain works. The logical fallacy goes something like this: "we have isolated a mechanism in the brain, learning takes place in the brain; therefore, we now know how learning works." Whenever a psychologist says something smug like "the brain doesn't work that way" (around 1:21), I want to pull my hair out. The latest theories about how the brain supposedly works also include huge gaps in our understanding of how the brain supposedly works and plenty of lines of research that may one day soon give us a more complete picture of how the brain supposedly works. The idea is that if we know how the brain is supposed to work, then we will somehow know how we learn. There are so many layers here though that it seems to be an impossible task. First, it assumes a purely mechanistic view of the mind and learning. Not that we have to get metaphysical, but this could be something that is so complicated that thinking of the mind as a flow chart or a network may not even scratch the surface of what is really happening. When educators talk about what neuroscience has to say about learning, we have to remember that neuroscientists aren't even sure what neuroscience has to say about neuroscience. It is a difficult field because each year brings in a new raft of technologies that reveals more and more about the physical properties, chemical reactions, and neural connections in the brain. But I think there is some promising work in neuroscience that we should be keeping an eye on as educators. One of the more interesting lines of research includes the mathematical models around "deep learning." I think this is finally getting at the complexity necessary to account for the complexity of thinking, language, and learning.

Deutsch: Phrenologie
I think there are some promising avenues of discovery in the work of Gary Marcus that could one day help address how we learn. Gary Marcus describes deep learning this way: "Instead of linear logic, deep learning is based on theories of how the human brain works. The program is made of tangled layers of interconnected nodes. It learns by rearranging connections between nodes after each new experience." In other words, the brain is not seen as a series of connected flowcharts but as intersecting nets of connections that create patterns.

Additionally, Geoffrey Hinton describes the brain as a holograph. Daniela Hernandez writes about Hinton in Wired saying that "Hinton was fascinated by the idea that the brain stores memories in much the same way. Rather than keeping them in a single location, it spreads them across its enormous network of neurons."What I like about Hinton is that he says that his work involves creating computer models of intelligence and he seems to avoid the heavy handed proclamations of discovering how learning works. His work discusses "machine learning" which is an entirely different concept. I think it is very important to remember that we are talking about models and not "how the brain works." The networks involved in learning are even more complex than his model because our layers include language, behavior, culture, society, etc. Never mind the chemical and quantum connections in the brain. It is just possible that one day Hinton's work can speak to the complexity of the interplay of all of those networks and their seemingly infinite interrelations.

How does this shape my practice as an educator? I teach workshops on concept mapping and have used concept mapping in my classes, not because I feel that they somehow mimic the way the brain learns but because it is an engaging learning and teaching method that provides opportunities to utilize visual and kinesthetic learning modalities as well as using critical analysis. In other words, it is a method of teaching and learning that engages multiple ways of knowing. And it may also be a good metaphor for how learning may occour in networks, including neural networks. I have seen this discussion around the learning theory, Connectivism. I think we could go into any learning theory and use it, somewhat clumsily, as a way to discuss how learning arises out of the formation and interplay of network, but fortunately George Seimens and Stephen Downes have done a better job with their work around Connectivism.
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Friday, April 04, 2014

Reports on the Death of the Book are Greatly Exaggerated

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
I was at a poetry reading at the library a while back and one of the poets had a poem about how lost in cyberspace everyone is and the implication was that he was seeing the end of print culture and the book. Never mind that there was not an empty seat in the house to hear a poetry reading on a Thursday night! But there we have it - technology is phasing out the book. But it is just changing media. We don't need hand copied books either. More and more books are being written electronically and read on electronic devices. This isn't news. What is funny is to watch people with one foot in the old paradigm trying to make sense of the new. This includes myself. I have always thought of books as something that I had to own. They are objects to be held and even if they are not held in my hand, they must be contained in something that I own!  I had a funny thing happen the other day. I was downloading an ebook onto my iPad and I got an error message that said my iPad was full. I was incredulous. How could this happen? I have 16 gigabytes of space! I went through Kindle and iBook to take a look at what happened. I downloaded a lot of books. My electronic book shelves had swelled to the autodidactic, polymathic, bibliomaniacal proportions that my home bookshelves used to have. I got onto a vintage, historic cookbook jag and that cost me some room. I have the Washington DC Cookbook from the turn of the century which allowed me to send my actual hard copy to my Best Man, Steve Boutchyard, who is currently in culinary school. But I also have a copy of Beeton's and numerous others. I had the complete works of Poe; a raft of Elizabethan playwrights that are not Shakespeare as well as the complete works of the Bard; numerous volumes of Balzac; a complete library of philosophical works; everything related to Art History that is free in iTunes and Google Books that is downloadable and the list goes on. And so here I am, just like I was in the 80s, before I had a computer, with book shelf issues. I have noticed an uptick in people talking about classic literature and I think it is because so much of it is freely available in accessible formats via places like I also have a couple of ebooks that I actually bought that I am reading with no small amount of irony: I am reading an electronic book about a physical archive where the author is able to convey in deeply poetic detail what it is like to work with the physical texts that go back hundreds of years in the Paris police archives.

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...I still own a lot of physical books, but not nearly as much as I used to since the dawn of the internet. I love a good physical copy of a book as much as anyone: there are some books that I have that are gorgeous old books with fine bindings, thick paper that has the wire ridges where the paper dried on a screen, and beautiful fonts that press deeply into the paper. They have a texture and presence that you can't get from an etext. That said, I was looking for a book on Ausonius on line today and I found what I was looking for on Amazon and the physical book was going for $540. And you can bet they are not being as thoughtful about design and fonts as they once were. Needless to day, the electronic version of an equivalent text from Google Books at no cost will suffice.

In the late 90s, I thought that there would be no limit to the amount of books I could put on a computer. So how I could eat up 16 gigs is just incredible; a bit is the smallest unit - a 1 or a 0, on or off, a byte is 8 bits which make a single character, 10 to 15 bytes go into a sentence, and a megabyte is 1,048,576 bytes, and a gigabyte is a 1000 megabytes. And I had 16 of those! If you are using an Apple or Android product, you probably already know about the iBook and Google Book apps, but there are other sources of free books. If you want to fill up your iPad or eReader quickly with free books I would suggest spending a rainy afternoon browsing:

  2. The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania
  3. The Internet Archive's Digital Books Collections
  4. Forgotten Books  
  5. The Sacred Text Archive
  6. World Digital Library
  8. Libravox - free audio books

On top of all of that, there are the numerous texbooks that are licensed with the "Creative Commons" license that you can download through various repositories like the Open Textbook Library and College Open Textbooks. There, I just exploded your iPad!
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When is a MOOC not a MOOC?

Statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard Uni...
Statue of John Harvard Wikipedia
The Comical of Higher Ed has a headline that says "Harvard U. Will Offer Exclusive MOOCs to Alumni." After reading the article, the reader learns that what they are doing is giving alumni access to segments of courses and course content. The alumni are not taking a class. If it is not "massive," if it is not "open," and it is not a "class," it is not a MOOC! It is just the "online" part - it is an "O" not a MOOC.

I need to put together a collection of articles that maps out how the CHE has gotten MOOCs completely wrong, and thereby polluting the discourse around MOOCs with misinformation, exaggerations and over-simplifications. It is a huge disservice to the academic community. They seem to have attempted to help by writing up an article about George Siemens.

There are a number of great discussions going on around universities, journals, and the web about what MOOCs are and their possibilities (especially cMOOCs). It is a shame that the CHE misses the boat so often. 
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Friday, January 31, 2014

Open Textbooks and Student Success

Cable Green
Cable Green (Photo: Jeffrey Beall)
The tirelessly brilliant and ubiquitous Cable Green sent out today's announcement from Creative Commons about the U.S. PIRG Education Fund report called, “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives." This report reinforces what the research is already showing - open textbooks can be a significant contributing factor to student success. The results we saw with projects like the Kaleidoscope Project was that students were actually doing better in courses that were using openly licensed, free textbooks. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the reasons at College of the Redwoods was that the faculty created textbooks were written for a particular student population to solve particular problems. The books actually addressed the needs of the community. You can still find articles out there about the so-called suspect quality of open education resources, but they are being written by folks who have not looked at what is out there now.  Articles like “The cost and quality of open textbooks: Perceptions of community college faculty and students” by TJ Bliss, John Hilton, David Wiley, and Kim Thanos go a long way to dispel those myths as does "A Preliminary Examination of the Cost Savings and Learning Impacts of Using Open Textbooks in Middle and High School Science Classes," by David Wiley, John Levi Hilton III, Shelley Ellington, and Tiffany Hall.

Commercial textbooks have their own myths to deal with - like whether or not they are reliable!

This is a very dynamic time to be involved in open textbooks!
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Humboldt State's Moodle Office is Makes the News!

Humboldt State University
Humboldt State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Our own inimitable Bill Bateman's video tutorials for Moodle 2.5 are featured at the Moodle News Website as were four of his videos for 2.3.

Bill is the lead Moodle Support Specialist in Humboldt State University's Moodle Office located on the third floor of the library. Bill's team manages the day-to-day operations of the learning management system, one-on-one student support, one-on-one faculty support as well as going out to faculty offices and classrooms. The Moodle Office is a good place to drop in for help and a cup of coffee. And if all that wasn't enough, Bill still takes the time to produce the video tutorials. The instructional design team and I rely on the Moodle Office pretty much on a daily basis.

Moodle News is the international hub for all things Moodle. It is the brainchild of Joseph Thibault a Course Manager at, and Mel Benson, a writer who runs, a site to share and explore Moodle ideas. She is also Moodle tech support for a school district Minnesota. Moodle News is a valuable resource for all things Moodle: it "is a collaborative project bringing order to news and information pertaining to the open source project and learning management system called Moodle. We scour the web for the freshest, most interesting and valuable Moodle information and publish it here."
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Friday, January 17, 2014

#Rhizo14: "Cheating" as Learning Modality

Illustration for Cheating Français : Illustrat...
I have had to address "cheating" in education is a very real way here at Humboldt State. I have instructors who are new to online learning and that is one of the first things they asked - how do we know the students won't cheat? I usually direct faculty to resources for designing assignments and tests to minimize cheating and how to promote an environment of academic integrity. I wrote a blog posting on academic integrity and ways to minimize cheating last year.

I used to have some students in one of my English classes who would ask me what they had to do to get an "A." I would tell them to follow the steps in the assignment and turn their work in on time and they would get an "A" and they would say "no, really, what is the system here?" They assumed that there was a back door somewhere or some way to game the system. They thought I was a bad teacher because I wouldn't tell them. I wouldn't let them in on the secret. Many of my students saw the end of education, the assessment or final paper as "the product" of education. What I taught though was the process of learning. There were a lot of steps in my class and not really any short cuts. I think that there is a lot to the gamification of learning. I think that letting the students loose on the learning outcomes of a course and letting them discover what the relevant information might be that would address those learning outcomes would teach them a lot about learning. It would also teach teachers how to write precise learning outcomes!

The traditional fears about cheating baffle me. I always say that if the questions you are asking your students can be answered by Google, you are asking the wrong questions.

For every act of "cheating" there should be a corresponding action for "legitimate" learning:

              Cheating                   Rhizomatic
Copying sources without attribution Share sources (social bookmarking) - teach citation
Looking at someone else's work  Collaborate - Students can create collaborative knowledge via wikis
Buying or stealing the answers to tests Have students create the test questions, debate answers
Sneaking notes into class Open book, open internet tests
Downloading papers from the internet Assignments use the latest news and student experience
Recycling papers Have students create assignments that are relevant

There are some faculty who think that students who do not buy the textbook are cheating. Often, this comes from professors who do not know how much their textbooks cost. Jordan Epp and I discussed the idea of hacking the syllabus a while ago when he told me about a student who did Google searches on the weekly learning outcomes from the syllabus rather than buying the textbook.
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Using a Blog-Based Environment to Support a Community of Learners

Presentation notes for: "Using a Blog-Based Environment to Support a Community of Learners"
Institute for Student Success, Humboldt State University
Presenters: Daniel Fiore, Riley Quarles, Claire Knox, and Child Development Faculty

Riley introduced everyone by saying that the network of blogs (Wordpress) created with the Child Development department began with solving a problem: communication. Claire Knox pointed out that there was learning that they wanted visible to everyone, they wanted everyone participating in the conversations. They wanted the learning to not be locked down behind a learning management system. Resources for the presentation are at the Child Development site for the Institute.

They created a network of blogs to support their program. The network of blogs arose from the users - the needs of the faculty. All of the course blogs reflect the interest and needs of the individual classes. The blogs serve as eportfolios.

The department blog provides calendars, advising, and a link to all of the other classes. The site supports online and hybrid courses. It allows students to feel and be connected throughout the program.

They also wanted to engage alumni in an open site. They are expanding the community to include former students. Students create their own blogs that feed into course and department sites. They are using RSS feeds and categories in Wordpress.

Blog posts help students get to know one another before they work together in the class or in other classes. This has increased the sense of connectedness and community.

The students sign up for a blog at, send the address to the instructor, the instructor puts them into a plug-in that gathers the students postings that are labeled or catagorized according to the class instructions. The pulg-in automatically pulls in all of the materials that the students tag to the class blog. Instructors and students then comment on the postings.

The blogs allow students to explore topics further. The instructor was using the blog to post more articles and resources and the students began to do the same on their blogs.

Carole said that she is not a technological person but found that Wordpress was easy to use and the program allows the faculty to go at their own pace in using these tools. The blogs assignments were good tools to discuss web presence, communicating online, and our web history. They had conversations about how the blog can represent the student to prospective employers and how what you put online represents you.

They want the students to carry their experiences in the program and their relationships after they leave the program. Learning management systems do not allow that. They want the learning community to continue.

All of the course content from the courses stays visible. Students can look at other classes and see how course materials are related to other courses. They begin to link what they are learning to their other classes. Students can go and look at any courses that they are going to take in the future. They can see how all the courses fit together. Faculty can also visit the sites and find new ways to make connections to other classes in the program. Typically, faculty in purely face-to-face courses might not have that opportunity. The blogs also serve as a community orientation site.

They have also had a lot of discussions about privacy - there are some materials that they put into Moodle (the learning management system). Observations of children or copy written materials,  for instance, need to be kept private.

Even though the environment looks structured, the community created by the students and their comments represents another network within the network - this is like the idea of rhizomatic learning posited by Dave Cormier. There are opportunities here for collaborative learning and team-based projects. Blogs allow students to communicate their processes, to reflect on how they learn. Peer instruction and support can begin in this network and follow them throughout the program (also much like Eric Mazur's ideas on peer instruction). This is also a good example of students learning through their connections with one another (connectivism).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#Rhizome14: Community as Curriculum

English: Bamboo with rhizome Français : Pousse...
This is my introductory post. I am participating in a MOOC facilitated by Dave Cormier called "Rhizomatic Learning - The Community is the Curriculum." Dave's 2008 article "Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum" has informed many of my education projects since including courses, student orientations, professional development, as well as my own teaching which has included English and Health Information Management. Back in 2008, I participated in an early MOOC, Connectivism and Connective Knowlege '08, and Dave's article was an essential node. You will notice that on the side-bar of this blog (if you scroll down) you will find the resources for my presentations on the "Connectivist Classroom" and that article is always there. It is also on my reading lists for new instructional designers. I am participating in this MOOC for a number of reasons but one of them is that I am in the middle of developing an online orientation to online learning called "eLearning 101" that I want to run as a MOOC.

I think it is important to practice what you preach and to give back to your community. I have been to too many workshops on "active learning" that were one-way dumps of information. We need to model and practice. I feel as an educator, I want to help shape this new knowledge landscape. That is the difficulty of this kind of education. I can't get a certification and then shift into neutral! Degrees or past accomplishments don't mean anything in this environment - you have to participate.

Another reason to participate is that the tools, methods, and people in online collaborative education are always changing. It is important to stay connected!

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