Contemplating Stephen Downes’ “Learning Networks”

Image: Stephen Downes Revisting Presentation Learning Networks

Stephen Downes revisits his 2004 presentation Learning Networks.

First, I do not work at a university but at a secondary school. In fact, my time as a full-time educator began in 2004 around the time of Stephen Downes’ presented this originally. The challenges are admittedly different, but not entirely. Here are some thoughts in reaction mixed with my experiences.

In reviewing Stephen Downes’ text and re-presentation of the Buntine Oration: Learning Networks, delivered in 2004, I was fascinated by not only how prescient it seemed but how much I agree with him on just how little has changed.

It was strange to simultaneously hear and read the words, “I wasn’t so much speaking as listening, not so much showing as searching. I am a student of learning technology, but learning technology is for me becoming increasingly empty,” because they contain so much resonance. I must admit to pangs of eerily similar feelings at various times since first becoming involved in the field.

While I generally resist that feeling as much as possible, the strength to do so is primarily rooted in the kind of thinking that Downes and others like him share and champion. It is possible to reject the prevailing attitudes and efforts in favor of more organic options, like the ethos of connectivist MOOCs and the similarly inclined. Fortunately, I believe there will always be an impulse to “rage against the dying of the light.” That keeps me hopeful that there is room for positive change.

Interestingly, the landscape that characterized the demise of “learning objects” in 2004 seems to be perpetually replayed. One could easily substitute “learning objects” with open education resources, which might not be a complete like for like, but remain more alike than not. OERs had almost fallen a bit out of fashion in the last couple of years but they are experiencing a resurgence with multiple entities vying to be the Google of OERs, from non-profits to the latest news about Amazon.

Meanwhile, learning management systems (LMS) have become even more entrenched in the education landscape. This is becoming increasingly true at the secondary level too. I have written it before but it bears repeating. An LMS is not so much about learning or even content as it is about management.

If there is any doubt about this claim, one need only look at the recent emphasis on their improved analytics capability. That is the latest competitive advantage being marketed as yet another reason why they are superior and must be used.

Yet the consequences of the notion that an LMS is a requirement for online learning has had even more obsequious consequences. Downes alluded to this when he discusses learning design. An LMS, by nature, privileges certain kinds of pedagogical approaches, in some ways heavily influencing how a course is meant to work. What’s more, as the concept of blended learning has grown so too has the influence of the pedagogical shift conditioned by the LMS. Certain procedural ways of operating are baked into many an LMS.

Often the results are more structure, more pre-made curriculum, or more prescriptive efforts, depending on the context. Yet these results extend beyond only content packaging, as well. Again, the LMS benefits administrative and management tasks over learning ones.

In order for Learning Design, the specification, to work as advertised, it must control the selection and display of learning objects. But in order to do this, you have to know what objects you are going to select and display. A script has to have lines; it’s not improv. So someone must select the set of learning objects to use in a given learning design, and to put this list in the learning design itself. (Downes)

The nature of how a teacher must interact with most LMS options imposes its own baked-in structures, not to mention the most easily available forms of assessment. It can easily begin to dictate terms to an instructor and begin transforming a class before it may be completely obvious. I would also submit that very little of this transformation benefits the student but rather advances administrative controls. Downes highlighted this fact when he revealed the administrative dashboard of the Open EdX platform and referenced it again in this presentation.

I agree with Downes’ assessment of learning design but think that it might even be conservative given how things have evolved.

Learning Design is, in my opinion, very much a dead end. A dead end not because it results in e-learning that is linear, predictable and boring, though it is that. A dead end not because it reduces interaction to a state of semi-literate yes-no, true-false multiple choice questions, though it is that. It is a dead end because it is no advantage over the old system – it doesn’t take advantage of the online environment at all; it just becomes an electronic way to standardize traditional class planning. (Downes)

Learning design is not only a dead end, it also imposes its own kind of hegemony. It plays the single solution fantasy that if there was just one place where everything could be presented and controlled it would be easier for the student. Yet, when has there ever been a single source for learning? Even under the traditional model of a single teacher guide in a course, a student’s learning has never been contained within a physical classroom. Why should an online course seek that kind of solution?

However, it is the sentiments in the Coda section of Downes piece where I find myself the most aligned. I would argue that the rise of the LMS has cast a long pall across the education landscape.It may have begun at the university level but it certainly is growing at the secondary level. Since they all are essentially walled gardens or silos, they inhibit the growth and development of online learning as a new and different environment, as well as practice. There may be specific times where this is warranted, but I question just how often. Plus, it need not be the default.

Teachers that find a way to succeed in spite of the limitations are locked away from public view. Exemplar models of online teaching practice or individual teachers remain simply unavailable to outsiders. This is part of what makes cMOOCs so fascinating. The gears are so often exposed for anyone to see.

One of my favorite examples of the open and transparent approach is DS106. It is truly the MOOC that became a community. It continues to run as a face-to-face offering on the campus of University of Mary Washington and elsewhere and commands a significant following long after each individual iteration.

DS106 is a model of how to leverage blogs, RSS, and more while creating a learning environment that is open, inviting, and freely available. DS106’s ethos of “narrating the work” is deeply embedded in nearly every task. Plus, people are doing things all over the place. What’s more, the community that has grown up around DS106 embraces that ethos and the leaders have been exceptional about drawing back the curtain to show how it all works.

It is a course but need not be approached as one with a variety of tasks that can be sampled a la cart. Learning tasks are crowdsourced, with students able to both contribute assignments and rank them in terms of difficulty. And all of this and more is accomplished completely without an LMS.


So what do you think?

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