Tag Archives: DS106

Reflections on Unit 2: Project Based Learning and Derivatives

flickr photo shared by Brande Jackson under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Looking Back

The project based learning unit only affirms my idea that projects offer many of ideal learning opportunities that teachers hope students create. Through projects, there is an economy of learning that goes on that is hard to match in a more discrete, linear unit-based approach. When constructed well, projects afford students a broad array of knowledge and learning. They are deep into doing something. When that something matters to them those affordances only grow.

Projects amplify the notion that learning is complex, messy, and often does not follow a sequential pattern.

Consequently, this complex messiness does not easily fit in an environment obsessed with standardization and test metrics. It can work but by no means is hand-in-glove. Of course, being messy, complex, and not sequential in nature is also what makes them so problematic. They violate traditional norms of schooling that continue to generate a lot of inertia.

Of course, it is not at all that black and white.Clever teachers have been devising creative projects as a context for deep, dynamic learning for years. So projects have been around nearly forever and, in this way, project based learning has a rich tradition all its own, existing long before the trendy label.

However, pairing student agency with project based learning in this unit cleverly connected two elements that go a long way toward creating an environment where genuine learning can happen. Yet, the very nature of that environment belies efforts toward standardization and the like.

For the student to truly possess freedom, they must have the opportunity to explore, experiment, fail, and repeat.

Too often that opportunity is cut short in an environment that values test scores and easy accountability over other indicators of learning. Outcomes that can be gleaned from projects tends to be more qualitative and often considered, sadly, too soft in comparison to the normed, standardization of International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement efforts. Again, the two are not premade for a good fit.

Yet, if teachers are to create environments for students to be faced with exercising their own agency, there are few opportunities that can deliver so fully as project based learning or one of its many derivatives.

Looking Ahead

I hope that in a year’s time student agency grows considerably. Everyone learns by doing and it is in the doing that student agency can be released and exercised. By creating environments that encourage choice, narration of the work, and reflection, student agency can be strengthened considerably.

In line with this thinking, I especially like the idea of providing a loose collection of options that can demonstrate learning and allow students to choose which ones would best suit them, even opening the possibility for something altogether original. This would provide some structural supports without limiting outlying possibilities.

The options might be a collection of learning tasks connected to a broader concept that might involve a project or larger product. Or maybe they are just a series of tasks that students can demonstrate their learning in a portfolio-like way. These tasks would be best if they were preparatory and included a spectrum of difficulty. In this way, they could build or lead to a project or larger product if the student desired. I also really like the idea of ranking learning tasks in terms of difficulty, especially with students crowdsourcing the rankings.

A lot of my thinking on these topics has been deeply informed by DS106. To me, it remains a shining example of how to construct a framework that does many of these things so well. From using things like the methodology to The Daily Create, Assignment Bank, and star difficulty rankings for individual assignments they have managed to build something where choice and agency is baked into the nature of the course.

I would love to implement a system that worked in a similar fashion, especially the star system, with the possibility of it facilitating a better, more organic self-directed project design. There are so many smaller tasks that are critical to research, project management, or engaging in deeper learning that give students a genuine reason to feel pride in what they have achieved. This goes for the work that I do with both students and teachers.

It is ambitious stuff.

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.

Contemplating the Early #ETMOOC Experience

With ETMOOC now two weeks old and almost half way through Topic 1: Connected Learning (Tools, Processes & Pedagogy), things are truly starting to take-off. It will be fascinating to see how long the legs last. I am hoping that it remains strong.

What is so great about what Alec Couros and crew are creating is the sheer range of participants. Of course this could be said of all MOOCs. Yet, this particular one seems to have a magical mix of educators, a number of seasoned, tech savvy established types and a whole lot of fresh, eager to experiment types, cutting across all grades from elementary to university. It is an impressive movement to track and participate.

I must admit that my MOOC experiences have been more of a gradual escalation. A few years ago, when this thing really got going, I was so fascinated and eager, but so quickly overwhelmed. It took a number of experiences for me to really feel like I had better set of bearings and could negotiate between my lurking and my participation.

When it comes to MOOCs, my desire often has outpaced my will. Plus, I have been involved in a for-credit graduate course more months than I haven’t over the past three years, if not more. Combined with my teaching load, I kept getting to a point where I just got too bogged down to continue. Despite the best of intentions, once I lost my momentum I always felt like I was in a insurmountable hole and already missed too much to get back into the mix. Yet with each experience, I started getting better and better, like tracking things with better filters, managing the amount of time I could engage more effectively, and catching my breath when I needed without completely disengaging.

By the time I jumped into #DS106‘s Camp Magic Macguffin, I started feeling like I was more successful MOOCing it. I had l already “finished” a MOOC at that point, although I have never been the most regular or consistent of bloggers. Even though I did have to stop participating in DS106 towards the end of the run, as a host of responsibilities needed more immediate attention, I felt really good about what I had accomplished. However, that was definitely the first experience where I truly felt that I was in a course that was more of a community. Those University Mary Washington peeps have really built something awesome with A Domain of One’s Own.

The coolest thing I can say about ETMOOC is that it already has the same kind of feel, more community than course. Sure it is loosely distributed and might not have all the trappings of the DS106 machine, like the Daily Create or Assignment Bank, but it has so much potential and the same kind of vibe. After all, ETMOOC is a really the evolution of the EC&I 831 open course experiment Couros conducted at University of Regina a few years ago. Given that short but significant legacy it doesn’t seem like a great leap to see DS106-style components developed and potentially built off ETMOOC as a platform. That too would be pretty awesome.

So despite all of the competing claims on my attention, I can’t help but want to stay connected to this thing that is happening. One of the beauties of ETMOOC is that each topic runs two weeks, almost ensuring that anyone can catch their breath along the way. That two week window is probably the one thing that has me feeling the best about staying involved and might be the master stroke for me in the planning and execution of this MOOC.