Tag Archives: MOOCs

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.

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A Revolution Revision

A colleague of mine shared this editorial from the Boston Globe with me last week. It is interesting to see how the president of a university like Harvard is out front and contributing to their own marketing efforts in such a public way. The “revolution” is now officially upon us, right?

Once upon a time university and college presidents were more vocal participants in the public discourse. Then that seemed to fade as they all become more CEOs than presidents, more sensitive to endowments then education. In a way it is refreshing to see Drew Faust throw herself out there. My fear is that so strong is Harvard’s gravitational pull that what they do tends to set the standard and tempo for so many other institutions. Plus, she just has it all wrong on the participatory level.

The interesting thing to me here is just how oversold this EdX and MITx concepts. I am far from the first one to suggest that they are , in fact, not all that revolutionary. What might be revolutionary is that these venerable institutions are giving something away for free, in the form of course content. Although, rest assured they are well on the path of figuring out how they can leverage this freebie into some mechanism to separate participants from their money.

However, all of these xMOOC efforts are still the ultimate in an old world model of teaching and learning, “We have scarce knowledge that we will benevolently bequeath to you, the student, pouring it into your wee head so that you may grow.” Better still, you can say that you got it from [insert brand name university here], eventually for a fee.

Video lectures are still lectures, which we know is only one model of teaching that achieves mixed results. There certainly is a time and place for lecture as an educational tool, and it can be effective too. Yet, a lecture model is still rooted in the notion of scarce, stored knowledge, which is increasingly unraveling. What’s more, as free as some of it might be, it is certainly not open – at least in the truest sense of the term. Were they truly open and distributed across a range of platforms, not hiding behind clunky course management systems, xMOOCs might be more revolutionary but even then only slightly. Instead, these courses are tightly bound behind a secured digital wall, and they are not necessarily available forever either.

In contrast to the connectivist MOOCs, which are open, dynamic, and challenging the very notion of what a course might actually be, the brand name efforts significantly pale on the scale of revolutions, which doesn’t exist but should.

Somewhere in a Latin American Internet cafe the next would-be, digitally savvy Che should be building a matrix of educational revolutions on a laptop that establishes a spectrum, or at least top ten list, to be shared with the world wide web! That would be almost as entertaining as President Faust’s ironic invocation of the blackboard.

I am not sure who Harvard uses for their course management system. Perhaps the Blackboard revolution has returned and she has made her own devil’s bargain.

Diving into the DS106 Pool and Camping Magic Macguffin Style – Part 1

Image: DS106 Jolly Roger Logo Image: Camp Magic Macguffin Logo

Already having my own domain and website, as well as nearly all of the requisite social media accounts, completing Week 1 of DS106 Camp Magic Macguffin was a pretty easy thing to start. The bulk of the first week is all about situating oneself to the Web 2.0 environment in preparation for an exploration of both digital storytelling but also the new media reality in which most of us find ourselves.

Despite all of this, I am already running a little behind the pace, but I didn’t really start in earnest until Thursday, May 24. So I won’t be too hard on myself.

I learned about DS106 during its initial open run. In fact, the last few years I have become endlessly fascinated by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in general. I have been following the work of some of the pioneers like Alec Couros, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier for years. In fact, I am almost positive I discovered the original iteration DS106 through Stephen Downes’ Online Learning Daily.

The main reason why I teach is because I am a confessed learning junkie. I have become a bit of a MOOC junkie too, tracking many different ones, participating in some, floundering often, and slowly but surely getting a stronger sense of how better to self-direct and manage my own path through one. They are definitely not for the faint of heart. Then again maybe they are.

For me, the problem is always the surplus. I desperately want to drink from the firehouse, all the while knowing that is not really a viable possibility. Still, it hasn’t stopped me from trying. With each dive into the stream, however, I have taken a little something from the experience that has helped me the next time.

Another problem has always been the fact that I am perpetually enrolled in at least one professional development course for the credit chase needed to advance my salary where I work. Regardless, I have been getting much better in how I partake in the grand online educational smorgasbord, in spite of the additional course and work loads.

Truth is I love the idea MOOCs and have grown to be even stronger fans of the people that are building them.

So I finally felt it time to jump into the DS106 mix when Magic Camp Macguffin was ready to launch its maiden voyage. Plus, I am working to construct an online digital storytelling course of my own designed for high school students specifically, inspired by the likes of Jim Groom, Alan Levine, and the rest. Thus, there was never a better time for me to start playing too.

More to come…