Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes Towards a Connectivist Instructional Design

Illustration of spacetime curvature.Image via Wikipedia

Connectivism is a new theory of knowledge that reflects the new ways that people are currently communicating and learning in a networked world. As George Siemens puts it in his ground-breaking essay, "Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes, should be reflective of underlying social environments." It is contrasted with Constructivism, which says that people construct meaning from relating knowledge to past experience and new information. I am still unclear why those two projects must necessarily be opposed or contrasted with one another, and I mean that sincerely. Often, Connectivism actually sounds like a means to construct meaning. Constructivism says that in order to teach, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models. Why can't one of those "mental models" be a networked model? I like to think of the contrast between Connectivism and Constructivism like the one between the Theory of Relativity and the Copernican model. The theory of relativity is more accurate and complete, but engineers are still using the Copernican model to put satellites in orbit and to land spacecraft on the moon. Connectivism is able to account for the more complex relationships in the networked world

As an instructional designer, I see so many intersections between what a Connectivist classroom would look like and a Constructivist one. Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. A Constructivist curriculum is customized to the students’ prior knowledge and provides opportunities for students to discuss new knowledge and frame it to their own experiences.

In the same way, I envision a Connectivist learning theory (actual content may vary from illustration on the box and contents may have settled during shipping), in Constructivist classrooms, instructors facilitate connections between information and ideas and foster new understanding in students. This is a student-centered environment where instructors shape their teaching strategies to student responses. Constructivist teaching encourages students to critically analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely on open-ended questions, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, and promote student-student interaction. This is exactly what happens in the Connectivist classroom as I understand it.

Constructivism has little room for grades and "standardized" tests. In Constructivism, the learning process is the assessment. Students play a significant role in assessing their learning through reflective assignments, peer review, and self-evaluation. This is often through projects and portfolios which measure a student's progress over time. Projects can also measure, interestingly enough, a student's ability to build a smart network. Portfolios are seen as a greater measure of a student's skill and abilities than a single examination because portfolios tell us where a student has come from and where they are going. How long do students retain information from a test? (That is another post.)

So Connectivism does a little bit of all of this but the real jumping off point is in collaborative work. Students take control not only of their own learning but of the curriculum as well. As an instructional designer, I have to build assignments that encourage, facilitate, enable and empower students to work together and build connections. The students need the critical thinking skills not only to evaluate what they are seeing online, but to know what connections are worth making - they need critical network evaluation skills. Not all networks are created equal. Siemens and Downes are right when they say that there is learning in networks. There is a lot of stupidity too because the networks are made up of people. There is nothing inherently clever about a network. The students need new skills that ask:

  • who should I be connecting to?
  • what makes an "intelligent network"?
  • how do I make useful connections?
  • is this connection worth making?
  • is this network worth keeping?
  • how do I know when my networks are working for me?

This is different from Constructivism in that even more power is put into the hands of the learner, not by the teacher, but by the networks themselves. Students who are connected in the right way will often solve problems for teachers such as, learning how to broadcast a workshop into Second Life and pull in more people, or those moments when a student is able to introduce a source or expert in the field that the instructor has not met before. Connectivism takes the faith in the students' ability to learn to a whole new level and moves it to the networks' ability to teach as well. As an instructional designer, this is very exciting - curriculum becomes a handbook for cells and learning nodes - like Maoists or AA meetings.

An ironic note to all of this is that Constructivism is still seen in many places as a revolutionary act. Taking the sage off the stage and turning him/her into the guide on the side (as cliche as that is) has not happened in most classrooms. Student-centered learning is seen as a great threat to certain kinds of teachers. It is a shame because never before have we had a greater array of tools available to us to take advantage of the network-building skills that students are already using.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Open Source Music Textbook

The missal of the Dominican covent of Lausanne...Image via Wikipedia

Musopen is a free source of public domain music, both recordings and sheet music. They are also creating an open source music theory textbook. I would love to see an open source music appreciation course using these materials. This site combined with other free resources like the Wikipedia Sound List would provide a lot of material for such a course

"Musopen is an online music library of copyright free (public domain) music. We want to give the world access to music without the legal hassles so common today. There is a great deal of music that has expired copyrights, but almost no recordings of this music is in the public domain. We aim to record or obtain recordings that have no copyrights so that our visitors may listen, re-use, or in any way enjoy music. Put simply, our mission is to set music free."

The music is very well organized and down-loadable. Also you can embed the music in a web page so if one was to create a music history textbook in a wiki, one could easily use this. I love the example I chose below. "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla" was the processional at my wedding and the Marine Band does some interesting things with it that really allow you to hear the textures and layers in this piece:

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't Just Sit There; Learn Something!

Participatory learning has always been one of my top learning modalities. I love this video. It speaks to the frustration I think a lot of students and instructors have with education as a one way channel. To go from a culture where sitting up straight and being quiet is a core foundational skill to one where learning to create, connect, and share are the skills is really exciting. There is so much sense in what George has to say about how teaching and learning works. Connectivism has informed a lot of what I do as an instructional designer. Research has shown that the more interactive an online course is, the higher the retention rate. When I look at curricula, I like to ask a few questions:

  • Why is the student here?
  • What is this student doing?
  • How is what the teacher is asking the student to going to help the student connect with other ideas in the course and from his or her fellow students?
Here is the video from Robin Good's YouTube channel:

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Time for New Model for Online Learning

Courtyard of the Collège de France.Image via Wikipedia

I have been taking a closer look at Straighterline today. The Washington Monthly ran an article on the company called "College for $99 a Month." Their model is that students sign up to take classes for 99 dollars a month. The courses are accepted for credit at four colleges including Fort Hays State University. The courses are supported by a team of teachers, course ad visors, and 24/7 online tutoring. The courses use McGraw-Hill content (like many community colleges) and the courses are further vetted by the faculty and administrators of their partner colleges. The brilliant thing about this arrangement is that it allows students to take the courses at their own pace. One student discussed in the article was able to finish four classes in two months. For colleges with holes in the online schedule, it seems like a perfect fit. If you read the comments at the Washington Monthly you will see a lot of reasons not to do this - and they all basically center around the idea that either a) the purpose of the college is to provide jobs for teachers or b) a new model of education is wrong because education can only be defined by the old model. All of the reasons to not do this pale in comparison with the real issues facing students today.

According to a Michael Mandel in Sept. 12th's Business Week, since 2000, college costs are up by 23% since 2000 and pay for young college grads is down 11% over the same period. How can colleges and universities justify this? We have to come to grips with the fact that costs for the students are out of control - we need to look at alternative cost models like Straighterline; we need to adopt open source textbooks and technology. Straighterline is delivering the same outcomes and content at a significantly lower cost. In my experience, the same McGraw-Hill modules are being taught at many colleges with less interaction and support. Students should not be satisfied with courses with little interaction, little support, and where faculty do not provide timely feedback. What Straighterline can't do, and the colleges can, is adopt open education resources. Straighterline needs the quality assurance and expertise at McGraw-Hill. We should be taking the lead. We should be applying our expertise to free, open source texts and lowering costs for students.

I know that there are going to be a lot of people who are mistrustful or even upset at Straighterline's model. I like the fact that they will bring people to the table talking about things like cost, authentic assessment, and online course quality. It is long overdue.
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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Overly Connected?

That question came up recently in conversation and I really resent it because after I tweeted the question, which automatically sent it to Facebook, that had my Blackberry buzzing away from friends who had forwarded the question to Friendfeed and Plurk; I realized that I really didn't have enough time to answer the question adequately. Some responses went into my Google Reader which upped my unread items by another dozen.
Other responses were from friends who made films or podcasts of their take on the question. I did some research through Wikipedia and some of my contacts in Delicious Bookmarks which led to a long conference call via Skype with researchers in India and Scandinavia. Our conclusion after running a survey in Google Docs and conferring with some friends in LiveJournal was that we are probably not overly connected but we are holding off a final judgment until the images of our jointly edited concept map of the question are shared on Flickr, Twitpic, and Picasa.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Clarence Fisher

These were recorded by Alec Courosa via UStream. Clarence Fisher is an inspirational teacher who is really on top of 21st century literacy. He says that his role is not to be the smartest man in the room but to help students learn to make connections to people and information.