Thursday, September 23, 2010

Connectivism and the Evolution of Pedagogy

Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev (from left to righ...Image via WikipediaIn some recent postings on connectivism and constructivism (see links below), educators and researchers write as if these models are oppositions; as if constructivism is early Bolshevist and connectivism is free market socialism. Pedagogy does not come from research and theorizing but from practice. The learning landscape changes over time and as the technology changes, we need new models to describe how people are learning. Connectivism is the next step in understanding how people learn in the digital age. Behaviorist and constructivist pedagogies describe a certain kind of learning that takes place in a particular milieu. Networks have changed a lot about the learning landscape, but on the other hand, much of how humans communicate and engage with one another has not. It happens faster, more often and over a wider population. I am talking to educators in India, China, and South America. I would not be talking to as many people around the world without the internet. There is a synergistic aspect to networks - we are smarter together than we are individually. There are network behaviors that are very different than purely social behaviors. Constructivist teaching is also occurring in networks. Connectivist learning is also happening. Will constructivist teaching fade away like feudal economies of old Europe?
An important point that should be made is that the social dimension of learning in constructivism isn't negated by connectivism. There is much that is complementary. To over-simplify, Connectivism accounts for the networks and learning in networks; constructivism accounts for what happens in them. Networks are only a means. Communication, interaction, and engagement all have to take place before anyone learns anything. Information itself is not knowledge. Forming a connection does not mean that any kind of engagement must or will take place.

In some of the online classes I have experienced with George Siemens (which I highly recommend), I see much of the constructivist pedagogies at work:
  • students are actively involved, rather than passively absorbing information;
  • the learning environment is democratic,the teacher is not seen as an authority figure as much as a learning guide;
  • the activities are interactive and student-centered instead of being lesson-centered;
  • a teacher facilitates activities in which students are responsible for their own learning and are autonomous from one another.
All of these are classic characteristics of the constructivist classroom (as opposed to the "sage on the stage" students-as-empty-vessel model). But I also learned as much or more from the connectivist aspects of his classes - the networks. My teaching, learning, and professional life have been immeasurably enriched by the people, communities, and networks I discovered through his classes.
All of the conversations about tools and personal learning networks presuppose an individual with some technical skills, facility with managing information and networks, the critical thinking skills to interpret that information, and a fairly high degree of motivation. All of these seem to be taken for granted - in the community college system (at least here in Humboldt Co.) and in less developed countries, one cannot make the assumption that networks in themselves will lead to learning. I am going to have to use all of the techniques of constructivist learning to show the value and purpose of these networks. I need to bring in the students prior knowledge and experience and guide them in applying that to new information and skills.
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Danah Boyd& Internet Myths

danah boyd at the Writers on Writing about Tec...Image via WikipediaI was just reading about how Harrisburg University was going to block social media from campus as an experiment. The premise of the experiment seems to be that students connected to one another, other researchers around the world, their friends and family is a a bad thing. I was just going to skip it because I realize that I use this space to report a lot of bad news and ignorance and I thought just for today I would not engage in my usual curmudgeonry and report on something positive, something I am excited about that answers the questions I think Harrisburg is trying to address, and that is Danah Boyd's work. I can't recommend her blog enough. I don't always agree with what she says but she is asking questions that no one else is and her research and writing are well worth following. A good education blog is not just about writing but engagement. One of her latest postings is a great example of that.

Danah Boyd is a researcher at Microsoft Research New England (yes, something good can come from Nazareth) and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. I don't trot out people's credentials here very often. They don't mean very much to me, but I do so here because her approach is not what I would have expected from someone from MS or Harvard. There are a lot of researchers, CEOs, and administrators who are very concerned about controlling social media. What we can't control, we fear; and we make myths about what we fear. We try to contain our fears with our imagination. We attempt to reduce our understanding of what we fear into terms that we can control whether or not there is any justification or truth to that reduction (e.g. gay marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage; comic books, beat poetry, or dancing will lead to communism, etc.).

Dr. Boyd is writing a book about internet myths. She posted a question to her blog:

"What are your favorite news articles that reinforce these widespread beliefs?
  • Myth #1: The digital is separate from the “real” world.
  • Myth #2: Social media makes kids deceptive.
  • Myth #3: Social media is addictive.
  • Myth #4: Kids don’t care about privacy.
  • Myth #5: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place.
  • Myth #6: There’s nothing educational about social media.
  • Myth #7: Kids are digital natives.
  • Myth #8: The Internet is the great equalizer."
And she is getting answers back from those who read her blog. I think this is a great way to research a book - use the medium and networks you are writing about to crowd-source the research. I love her list of myths. There is far too much fear mongering from the media, academics and administrators about social networking and the internet. I am looking forward to reading this book.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Utah State's Open Courseware

Utah State UniversityImage via WikipediaUtah State University has an excellent collection of open courseware. This is a really exciting time to be involved in education because more and more institutions and instructors are making their teaching materials available to a wider audience. I was particularly interested in their instructional design course (I am a director of instructional design). I am working with staff who are new to the instructional design world and have been looking for materials to introduce them to the arcane and mysterious world of ID. Dr. Joanne Bently is the instructor and author of this course. It is from 2005 and based on the ADDIE model of instructional design. Though there is criticism out there of the ADDIE model as sometimes to rigid and formulaic, I think it is a good foundation to help new instructional designers to think about design as a process and teaching and learning as a collaborative project. The course is open for anyone to use, explore, or download.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Resources for New Adjuncts

computer teacher for adultsImage via WikipediaA new instructor came into my office yesterday. She has been asked to teach online with no teaching experience. This is not unusual. It happens in grad school all the time. It is a bit more harrowing at the community colleges because a new adjunct may or may not have any support. When I first started teaching, I had the benefit of a couple of years as a lab teaching assistant in writing centers, developmental English classes, and ESL labs. I also met Laura Perkins, a great adjunct English teacher who believes in the principles of collegiality and openness. That meant that she shared her syllabi and assignments with her peers. She believed that her value as a teacher was in what she did, not in the documents and assignments.

I asked on twitter today "What would you like to have known before you began teaching?" and got some great responses from Jason B. Jones of the Chronicle's blog ProfHacker, which he says is essential reading for adjuncts especially the posts on applying for jobs and the six ways to make adjuncting more effective and fulfilling.

Stephanie Cheney responded generously with a link to her delicious book marks tag for an education class she is teaching. So I of course, immediately clicked on "Add to network" and will be following her work in delicious bookmarks.

Some websites & resources that I have found invaluable for online teachers include:
I found that searching for the assigned textbook title in quotes and then adding the word "syllabus" gave me a good idea about how teachers were using a particular textbook.

Lady of the Lake added: Geoff, you might like to know about a 6-week Online Instructor Certification course offered by Educational Teleconsortium of Michigan. S

Do you have articles or resources that you would give to new teachers? Post them in the comments below. Thanks!

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Pardon my Metaphor

Photograph of Women Working at a Bell System T...Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr"Because we do not understand the brain very well we are constantly tempted to use the latest technology as a model for trying to understand it. In my childhood we were always assured that the brain was a telephone switchboard. ('What else could it be?') I was amused to see that Sherrington, the great British neuroscientist, thought that the brain worked like a telegraph system. Freud often compared the brain to hydraulic and electro-magnetic systems. Leibniz compared it to a mill, and I am told some of the ancient Greeks thought the brain functions like a catapult. At present, obviously, the metaphor is the digital computer." — John R. Searls.

I don't think there is anything particularly wrong with this. Humans connect with the world using language, and language is not about facts. Language really isn't information. Language describes. We understand the world through metaphors. Our metaphors are about as accurate as poetry, not geometry. Although as far as language goes, poetry is often a more complete description of a thing than the measurements of it.

I think we are moving on in our metaphors to networks. This metaphor suits me fine - it is as good as any of the other metaphors. A metaphor becomes a tool that allows us to talk about phenomena that we really have little understanding of. We know a lot more about the mechanics of the brain - we have gotten better at measuring parts of it. We see networks in the brain because that is how we understand modern communication and language.

We see the world through a complex of metaphors - through a shifting lens of definition. MRIs of brain events show that memories, sensation, and learning are all non-local events. Various sections of the brain light up and pulse like the shifting colors of a cuttlefish. I am always amazed that there are researchers that feel that they can take a limited model of how the brain supposedly works and then leap out to how we should therefore learn. I am thinking here of "Brain-Based Learning" theories where the fundamental principle is that the brain is a "parallel processor." Social cognitive theories and psychology are a little more useful because they examine interactions between people which, ideally, is something that happens in education.
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