Tag Archives: Stephen Downes

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.

At the Beginning of the Personal Learning MOOC

Image: Personal Learning - title slideI have registered for Stephen Downes Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) even though I am juggling a few balls already. Since I am beginning an accredited course with some colleagues, as well, it may all be a bit much, but I really like Downes’ and company’s work and try to pay enough attention to remain aware, at the least.

Having tried some edX courses in the past, the open version of the environment was pretty familiar. Navigating the environment is not really a problem. I am not sure how much I actually like it. However, I am not sure how much I like any course management system.

What is a bit more tricky is that at the moment the edX course site is not mature enough as the course hub. By that, I mean that it has not been preloaded with a lot of content, that I can tell. It seems to be evolving in real-time. Downes is getting used to the system at the same time as the participants.

Of course, the course site will never include every resource available for the class. That is not really the problem, but there are a handful of streams already where the main content is made available. There is the course site, daily email newsletter, Downes’ blog and YouTube channel, as well as any additional tools employed, like Diigo.

It would be nice if that was all clearly collected within the edX course site. I suspect that will improve over time. It seems as though I am not the only one that is contemplating this either.

Here are some of my thoughts. I know it is all the start of an experiment, which is fine. Being a cMOOC always carries a bit of an experimental quality, I think. It is one of the appeals. I know through experience that there is no way to keep up with everything that happens in a MOOC, although that has always made me uneasy. There is never enough time to keep up with all the fascinating things that cMOOCs are so great at creating and aggregating.

Yet, I already feel a bit like I am bound to miss something important or forget to look in multiple places for some of the basic information related tot he course. Given that I am also starting a paid course for work that will undoubtedly take a bit more precedence, I worry about how much I will be able to stay connected.

I have liked all the cMOOCs I have ever followed, despite feeling like I struggle to stick with them. In the beginning, I would get overwhelmed very quickly and it took a few attempts before getting a better feel for how to manage my own involvement. Of course, so many things can interfere, like a traditional paid-for-course through a university, which has always frustrated me a bit. Still, those are the credits that have more currency in my current environment.

More than anything, I am hoping to pick up some methods and tools for better collecting, managing, and sharing my personal learning. It is something I have struggled with and never been completely satisfied with for awhile. I am particularly hoping to find out more about gRSShopper and how to possibly employ that as a possible tool.

Similar to Jenny Mackness, I suppose I am not sure how completely active I will be just yet, but as always I begin with the highest of hopes.

More Experimenting with Flipboard Magazines and Other Tools

Since I began playing around with Flipboard‘s magazine features, I have grown curious to see how the development takes shape. It is clear that it is missing features that would be advantageous. As cool as it can be, it is definitely limited in functionality and a little bit more closed than I would like. Based on how quickly the browser based, web version of magazines appeared after their rollout, I am guessing that new features should be added before too long. At least I am hopeful.

One issue that for me has to do with the commenting feature. When flipping an item while reading on the iPad, a space for comments appears when determining which magazine will receive the additional content. However, it is unclear to me where the comments actually go. It seems more likely to appear if the item is flipped using a web browser, but that didn’t seem to work consistently. I had a difficult time trying to replicate comment visibility. At one point, I had an added item to the magazine, which appeared as a block with a portion of the comment quoted in a large font that served as a link to opening the article’s original URL in a new tab. It was not terribly attractive and kind of defeated the part of the reason for using the magazine, its slick interface.

So I suddenly had the beginnings of a mildly interesting problem. How can I add some short bits of commentary to the articles that I continue to add to Flipboard magazine, with its new, slick interface, adding content to my blog in the process.

Considering, how much online reading I do, I thought I would try to leverage some of it in a more creative and productive way. This was in part what compelled me to begin curating content using Flipboard’s magazine. I have always curated content but not necessarily in the most public way nor with the smoothest workflow. Nevertheless, as the new school year starts, I wanted to try and make more of an effort to share some thoughts and practice, as well as look for ways to leverage what I already do in a more efficient way.

Plus, I have always liked what Stephen Downes has done using his gRSShopper system for generating his daily and weekly newsletters. I have long subscribed to his newsletters. However, I have never quite harnessed enough effort or time to actually try installing and using gRSShopper on my own.

As a result, I dusted off my ancient and unused Tumblr site.

Honestly, I have always struggled with how best to use some of the micro-blog sites, like the late Posterous and Tumblr, that fill the space in-between status updates and conventional blogging. I have had accounts for experimenting and such but don’t always make great use of them. Also, I have also struggled to write regularly enough for any blog, despite the desire to keep this one fresh.

Tumblr has grown more flexible in making it relatively easy to share snippets of the web, a quote, and image, a link, with a greater flexibility and space than Twitter, which I also use but not as regularly.  Thus, it seemed natural to marry it with the content I started collecting in Flipboard. They also iterate with one another, although not perhaps as smoothly as I would like. Still, Tumblr could easily store comments about the articles I flipped.

The trouble is that there are only so many places people will follow. It can get exhausting tracking individuals across the ever widening web landscape. So I wanted to use this blog as a kind of hub.

Enter IFTTT, a site that lets anyone automate certain connections between web services. Of course, it would have been a lot easier if Flipboard worked with IFTTT, but this is where using Tumblr, which plays nice with Flipboard, really became the crossover tool of choice. Now, I had a functional use for my long dormant Tumblr account. It now feeds this blog with a stream of readings and reactions, that more or less mirrors my Flipboard magazine Teaching Today, making that curated content available in a slightly different manner, complete with commentary.

I suspect what is added here on the blog may even extend beyond the magazine, which I am trying to keep more focused on social and political issues impacting teaching in public schools. Regardless, It is another small experiment that I thought worth trying and sharing. Considering Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr, this could all be irrelevant in a few months, should they doom Tumblr to the Internet graveyard, but it works for now.