PLEs: for the connectives or collectives?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

The concept of the personal learning environment is founded on the idea of learning control and autonomy.  It is a personal environment for the learner – learner centric.

Yet practically, formal education is a controlled environment.  We live in a world with tighter and tighter controls on learning.  The Australian Government for example has been pushing in recent years for a national curriculum for K-12, replacing the disparate state-based curriculum currently in place in our 6 states and 2 territories.  Tertiary education too in many disciplines requires accreditation with professional bodies, again requiring adherence to standardised requirements for students.  Students must develop specific skills and attitudes as a part of a program’s curriculum for the curriculum to be certified and for students to be acknowledged in the field in which they have studied.

I’m not suggesting this is all bad, but it is at odds (at least on some levels) with the ideals of personal learning environments – the learner having control of their own learning.  In fact, I have wrestled with a similar dilemma previously in my assessment of ePortfolios for higher education where there are competing goals.

This dichotomy of autonomy vs. control relates to week 5 discussions around networks and groups.  In particular, the idea of connectives, and collectives.  You could argue that collectives (accreditation/prof bodies & governments) have specific goals for students.  They want to ensure consistent outcomes for graduates.  This can be at odds with connectives – students who have their own goals for their learning.  Where is the happy medium on the spectrum?  If Europe can adopt a common currency, then perhaps education can too? 🙂

PLEs and PLNs

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

What are the downsides? (http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7049.pdf)

As a learning platform that is by definition always evolving, a PLE requires students to engage in ongoing decision making to maintain, organise, and grow their learning environments.  The process of self-directed learning requires a degree of self-awareness, and it must be given time to mature.  Some students, however, may have never taken the time to think about their own metacognition or to reflect on how they learn best.  These less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE.

Interesting, and a serious downside indeed.  Managing one’s own learning is not a trivial task – it’s a big responsibility.  Is it reasonable to expect that everyone be able to manage their own learning to this level of detail?  A noble vision, but is it practical or reasonably attainable, or simply a fairy-tale view of education?  Let me explain my context, and why I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

I’m from Australia.  Higher education in Australia is partly funded by the Australian Government.  Students pay a portion of the tuition fees, and can defer their payments until after they obtain a job.  In the meantime, the tuition debt only grows inline with the CPI.  In other words, Australian tertiary students do not pay interest on their loans, and only pay a proportion of the overall costs which are subsidised by the Government.  Tertiary education in Australia is very accessible. Given this accessibility, and the diminished cost to the individual, there is greater diversity in the motivations of students in Australian higher-ed.  The fall-out from failure isn’t as significant as other countries where the individual bears the burden of the full costs of their education.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we have an outstanding system in place, that provides equitable access to higher education.  You don’t have to be wealthy to have a go in Australia.

I’m getting to the point… promise. 🙂  Take the following quote from a blog post I wrote some time ago, where I was reflecting on the book Teaching for Quality Learning at University, written by John Biggs.

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.  These two characters form the cornerstone of his theories into the effectiveness of active versus passive learning.

Not all students are motivated in the same way when it comes to managing their learning.  Robert is not so interested in managing his learning – its about hoops to jump through to get his piece of paper (qualification).  Constructive Alignment, a theory by John Biggs suggests amongst other things that learning must be active – it is all about what the students do.  This in my opinion has merit, but like all theories, is contextual.  That aside, Biggs believes that you can create learning situations that force students such as Robert to be more active learners. As John puts it in an epilogue to the Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding Video (Part 3):

Thus we see that alignment throughout the system is based on the relevant constructive student activity.  In our “apply” example, the intended learning outcome, the teaching/learning activities, and the assessment task are all focused on that single verb “apply”:  we have woven a constructive web from which students would find difficulty in escaping without learning.

However, this method of making it difficult for students to escape in my view can often lead to task corruption.  It astounds me what lengths students will go to to avoid doing something if their heart just isn’t in it.

When I reflect on my early teens as an undergraduate student, my level of maturity and my motivations at the time were not conducive to learning management.  I was more interested in drinking, girls, and having fun.  I’m not suggesting that all teenagers are this way, but I don’t believe I was unique either.  Only when I commenced my Master degree, in my mid-20s did I become mature enough to take on the responsibility of managing my own learning.  This is evident through my improved GPA. 🙂  At the time, the web 2.0 revolution had not yet hit mainstream and many of these ideas had not yet been conceived (Oh I’m getting old).

Some may be able to manage their learning using a PLE/PLN, and I see PLE/PLNs as but one way of student learning.  We must remember the crucial point that whatever we do, it must fit the context.  Forcing students to create their own PLE/PLN and be able to manage their learning through this personalised environment is thwart with danger.  Even if you spend the time developing students’ abilities to manage their own learning, doesn’t mean that they will actually do it.

Groups and Networks

This blog post relates to my study of CCK.

In the week 5 material for the course, I have watched a presentation by George Siemens relating to groups and networks.  I really enjoyed watching this presentation, as much of the content resonated with me and my context.  I am blogging some of the more fascinating concepts that George highlights in the presentation.

Connectives: autonomy of self (mosaic)

George talks about human nature.  While we like to be social and be part of things larger than ourselves, such as groups, networks and so on, we also have a desire to retain in part, our own sense of self.  To have some level of autonomy, and individualism, and recognition or ownership of our own contributions to the network.  When engaging with networks largely this way, George describes these people as connectives. George has used the analogy of a mosaic, which I like.  What comes to my mind is a patchwork quilt – connectives contributions aren’t always the same (different colours & textures), and don’t always neatly fit together (jaggered edges), yet you still have a whole (patchwork quilt – network).

In networks comprising of mostly connectives, there is greater diversity of views and ideas and greater autonomy.  The network is less integrated and co-ordinated.

Connectives retain a sense of sovereignty within the larger group.

Collectives: subsumption of self (melting pot)

As connectedness grows stronger, the diversity of views and ideas normalise into collective views and ideas, with a loss of autonomy, but become more co-ordinated and integrated.  Co-ordinated in the sense that there is common understanding, common goals and common views.

When engaging in networks in this way, you are known as collectives.

So following on from the patchwork quilt analogy of connectives, a collective is a quilt that is uniform in colour and texture.  Focusing on the colour, it is derived from the colours of each individual contributor, but unlike connective quilts (patchwork), collective quilts converge to the one shade.

Achievement of the complex

George talks about coercion to the norm in group environments.  Connectives who express different views or ideas from the norm of the group are pressured to assimilate to the group views.

This presents challenges in the achievement of complex tasks that require groups to work together.  There needs to be a level of trust, and some level of common understanding and agreed goals amongst the group.  But at the same time, it is important to fulfill the needs of human nature and retain some levels of autonomy and individualism.

I think an excellent example of this balance between connective and collective group engagement is the continent of Europe.  Europe is comprised of many different countries, all with their own cultures and attitudes and yet, Europe can also function as a whole through the European Union.  Take for example, the adoption of the Euro as a continental currency.  There was great benefit to the individual countries of Europe to have a common currency (global strength compared to $US and GBP).  However, if you take a look at the physical currency (ie coins and notes), they share the same size and shape, but the imprints are different – individual.

Innovation is deviation

This would be my favourite idea presented by George.  In a collective, where there are agreed views or ways of doing things, the suggestion of doing something different is often seen as a threat.  To innovate deviates from the norms of the group.  Yet innovation is a crucial part of any group – it is what keeps minds open, and possibilities possible. It also distinguishes individuals and groups from one another.

I see this in my workplace all the time.  My workplace I’m sure is not unique in this regard.  Those who deviate from commonly held beliefs or ways of doing things are shunned, or marginalised.  I have seen this happen to a former colleague.  Yet their contributions (as connectives) are incredibly valuable to the group or network.

Freedom vs. Control

Again, its about context.  The types of connections required to achieve certain outcomes are defined by the context in which they are to occur.  If you need to distinguish yourself from your competition for example, then a certain level of freedom is necessary to operate outside of convention to discover new innovations.  However, if working to a specific goal that must be shared amongst a collective, then a level of control is necessary to ensure the goal is met.

This was a fascinating presentation, and it resonnated with my life experiences considerably.

Damien Clark.

My position on Connectivism

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11, and is my submission for assignment 1 – my position on Connectivism.  As the word-limit is quite low, I’ve linked to previous blog posts which provide greater depth of discussion and links supporting my assertions.

Clarify and state your position on connectivism

I was very excited to be doing this course. I was introduced to Connectivism in my instructional design course as part of my program with UManitoba back in 2009.  At that time, I was unsure about Connectivism and wanted to learn more before forming an opinion on its validity as a learning theory.

My current role with my employer is an instructional designer.  My current value system for learning theories centres mostly on usefulness.  At this stage, I’m not convinced of its usefulness in terms of underpinning a learning design.  This isn’t to say that its not useful, I just haven’t enough experience with it to say that it is.  So I’m saddened to say that after 5 weeks studying Connectivism, I’m still largely a fence-sitter.  Hope this is okay George. 🙂

For me, I don’t think of learning theories in absolutes.  My view is that each learning theory is valid and useful, for given contexts.  I have blogged extensively on this view over the past couple of years, increasingly so in the past weeks.  I found a real nugget in a video by Ian Robertson that provided concrete examples to illustrate my view about context and learning theories. In this blog post, I reflected on what I thought were the right (and wrong) contexts for Connectivism where a primary factor (at this point) is technological accessibility where making connections is not so easy.  This is based on the importance George has placed on technological advancement as a primary driver for considering a new theory for learning.  Another significant factor is the discipline or focus of the learning, which I consider a weakness of the theory and discuss in greater detail later in this article.

Is it a new theory of learning?

For me at this stage, the stand-out elements of Connectivism that are novel are:

  1. Learning may reside in non-human appliances
  2. How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?
  3. Currency is the intent of all connectivist learning activities
  4. Decision-making is itself a learning process
  5. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  6. How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

These aspects are the ones that resonate most with my life experiences as a learner.  However, these experiences have been very natural and organic.  This course as a MOOC is pseudo-organic.  Everybody has assembled to learn about Connectivism, but the learning is driven by a daily email digest, not purely by one’s own curiosity or need to solve a problem.  My reflections on this MOOC are detailed in a separate blog post.

Returning to the stand-out principles for me, I’d like to unpack these a little more…

Learning may reside in non-human appliances

For most of my adult life, I have been using computers to organise my learning.  It has become an integral part of how I learn.  Whether it be storing information, finding information, reflecting on ideas, sharing ideas, feedback and so on.  For many years, I rarely bother to commit to memory knowledge – I have honed my skills in being able to find it when and where I need it.  If I need to remember the switches to a UNIX command, I access the online manual (using the man command).  If I want to recall my previous thoughts on a topic, I refer to my blog.  If I need to follow a policy for a task at work, I search the policy portal.  The technology becomes an extension of my learning.  It’s more about learning to learn and self-sufficiency.  I recall George commenting that he would be lost if he were to lose the information on his computers, because it has become a fundamental element of how he learns.  I hope I have paraphrased that correctly George. 🙂  I feel exactly the same way.

How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?

I have been working in the IT and education industries for 15 years.  Both are very evolutionary and constantly changing.  From the beginning of my working career, I have had to develop strategies for this challenge.

Currency is the intent of all connectivist learning activities

This links to the previous paragraph – it’s all about remaining current in an evolutionary environment.  How can I systemically remain current in a rapidly changing environment.

Decision-making is itself a learning process

Again, this links to the previous paragraph.  Deciding what to learn and how deep to learn it is a critical factor in an age of information abundance.  Is what I learn today going to be applicable in the near future?  You need to constantly reflect upon what you believe to know – challenge previously held assumptions in the light of perpetual change.  This too has linkages with Dave Snowden’s view that we are pattern-matching intelligences, rather than information processing intelligences.

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known

Again, a symptom of evolving contexts and related to decision-making.  What has worked in the past may no longer work due to changing context.

How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

This I can identify with again and again.  There are very few tasks or projects that I have worked on where I have known all that I need to produce a satisfactory output.  In my work history, there is very little repetitiveness – almost every day is a new challenge requiring me to develop new skills, ideas, ways of seeing the world.  I can only see this trend continuing.

What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?

Like all existing learning theories, their application is contextual.  I don’t think George considers Connectivism to be the silver-bullet of learning theories, and really its not.  Its just a theory that incorporates the information era of the 21st century and responds to the challenges of learning in this era, plus leverages the affordances of the technology of the time – global interconnectedness.

At times I wonder whether the discipline or topic area suits this style of learning design more so than another. Suifaijohnmak has written an article where he says:

… under a networked learning approach, where diversity of opinions are welcome in a MOOC, then tensions amongst different “voices” seem to be a natural emergence from the networks … This seems to be a natural opposite from the traditional “group” or “team”, or even the Community’s views where consensus and agreed goals are the norms rather than exception.

How do we know if diversity of opinions is the best way to learn under a networked learning ecology (or with internet)?

How do we know if diversity of opinions is the best way to learn full-stop?  Does learning and knowledge [always] rest in diversity of opinions?  Especially when you consider the traditional working environment is more about groups and teams working towards agreed goals.  Again, it depends on context.  Are we discussing facts or ideas, for instance.

What are your outstanding questions?

Continuing from the previous section, I’m curious as to what a connectivist learning design would look like for a course teaching a more hardened science, such as physics, chemistry or computer science.  I have asked George this question in an Elluminate session, but his response at least for me did not solve my dilemma – how do I apply this theory to more diverse contexts?  Learning isn’t always about sharing opinions.  Many of these disciplines are objective – a solution is either right or wrong.  The value of opinion (in my opinion) is significantly lower than in topical areas that are more culturally influenced, such as education – softer sciences if I may, just as an example.

My reflection on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

Having a technologist background, I love the ideals to which Connectivism holds such as (open, shared, and social, and adaptive to perpetual change).

However, my experience of studying this course as a MOOC, which I consider an application of the Connectivist Learning Theory has not been so idealistic. It would seem my concerns are not uncommon – George himself has admitted that in each offering of the course as a MOOC, there has been complaints relating to the volume of information and the difficulty in managing this.  A 21st century challenge no doubt, and one modern society needs to develop skills for,  but magnified considerably in this implementation.  I’m a technologist and if I am really struggling to manage this information, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for someone not so confident with technology.

Of course, this may be an issue relating to application, than the underlying theory. George suggested in the next offering that instead of one large group of near 1000 participants, have multiple groups of 100.  I think this is a fabulous idea.  Scalability seems to be one of the biggest issues with a MOOC.  Can the network, can the number of connections be too high?

I am also frustrated with the randomness. Let me explain. I would be interested to see the statistics of comments/discussions comparing postings listed towards the top of the dailies, to those towards the end of the dailies. What I am wondering is whether those articles shown towards the top of the daily email receive more comments and feedback than those towards the bottom. Do people read through all the articles before selecting which they wish to respond to? Or do they go through the first 6 or so and then move on to other things? The comments/feedback that I have received so far has been a bit up and down in terms of frequency and depth. Of course I am always grateful to those who take the time to comment on my writing. 🙂 It is hard to know if the lack of feedback is because I’m talking crap, or whether its because the exposure of my article is lower because it is lower in the daily listing (it’s probably because its crap :)).

In its current form, I don’t think I would do a MOOC like this again.  This saddens me as ideologically, I like the concept.  Although if it were implemented in a more compartmentalised way such as the groups of 100, I’d be tempted to give it another go.  I’m grateful for George and Stephen doing this research and actually trying implementations to see how they run.  Theorising is all good and fine, but application, real-world application is what is important to me.

I have further thoughts and ideas on MOOCs, but alas time is short, so another day. 🙂

Damien.