Understanding self-similarity: An example

Self-similarity.  What a mind-bender. 🙂

A concept related to Complex adaptive systems, and a distinguishing property from that of multi-agent systems.

This very brief blog post relates to my study of CCK11 and my attempt to understand self-similarity through my own example.

So, here is my example of self-similarity based on the examples provided in the Wikipedia article.

If you consider at a large scale, we have systems such as solar systems where planetary bodies orbit a central star.  Many of these exist forming the universe.  At the chemical level, we have systems where electrons orbit a central atom/nucleus.  These chemicals too are the building blocks of the universe.  At a different scale, they are the same thing.

Have I understood self-similarity by this example?


Definition: Behaviourism

As part of my Certificate in Emerging Technologies for Learning, I am studying 4 popular learning theories. The first theory I am discovering is behaviourism.

I have read an article by Melissa Standridge hosted on the Department of Eduational Psychology and Instructional Technology wiki, from the University of Georgia.  The article begins with a definition of behaviourism, which was stated as:

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior, behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by the learner. Behavior is directed by stimuli. An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioning and psychological drives existing at the moment of the action (Parkay & Hass, 2000).

The article then proceeds with a summary of the work from behaviourism advocates. Much of this work was conducted through experiments on animals.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point.

Work conducted by Skinner involved an approach known as operant conditioning.  Melissa writes:

His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, while unsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approaches it. Skinner remarked that “the things we call pleasant have an energizing or strengthening effect on our behavior” (Skinner, 1972, p. 74). Through Skinner’s research on animals, he concluded that both animals and humans would repeat acts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses a bar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, and the food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease the likelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time it pressed the bar that behavior would cease.

While it seemed briefly amusing to think of students as experimental rats in a lab (classroom), the final sentence of this paragraph got me thinking:  “Skinner [B. F. (1904-1990)] believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer, 2000).”  I am currently reading Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University and so I am immersed in learning theories around constructivism.   Biggs’ (2007) states:  “All [forms of constructivism] emphasise that the learners construct knowledge with their own activities, building on what they already know.  Teaching is not a matter of transmitting but of engaging students in active learning, building their knowledge in terms of what they already understand.”  I wonder if these two learning theories compliment each other in some small way.  I’m not quite sure how to define or articulate the link at this point – its just getting too late.  Will need to give this further thought.

Reflecting on my own prior teaching activities, I have employed behaviourist tactics in my classes without even realising it. One of the key aspects of success with behavourism is to understand your learners desires and to select highly attractive and valuable reinforcers.  As Melissa puts it:  “They change behaviors to satisfy the desires they have learned to value.”

Some of the behaviourist designs I have employed include:

Chocolate bars

When I was teaching network security, there was a particular module of learning that students found difficult to remain engaged in.  Without the opportunity to make changes to the design of this learning module, instead I attempted to improve engagement in the material and the class activities through small rewards of the confectionery type.  The class activity was question and answer sessions where I would go around the room soliciting solutions from students.  Those who got the answers correct would receive a chocolate reward.

It was mildly effective.  In subsequent offerings, I redesigned the learning activity which proved more effective.

1Gb Memory sticks

Similar to the situation of the chocolate bars, I made a competition of the question and answer time and kept a tally of correct answers for students.  The top two students received a free 1Gb memory stick.  At the time, 1Gb was quite large, and being IT students, it was an attractive item.  This was more effective than the chocolates.  Seems it was a better reinforcer than the confectionery.

Access to a desirable learning activity

When I was teaching data communications, I included an activity that was popular with students.  The activity was for students to be hands-on with creating their own network cables using Cat 5e UTP cable, connectors and a cable crimper. I organised for network engineers and support staff from the university’s networking team to volunteer their time in my class, and assist with the learning activity.  I split students into groups, and then assigned them a mentor from the volunteers.  Each would then guide the students through the process of connectorising their computer cables. On completion, the students would then attach their cable to a tester and determine if the cable was connectorised correctly.

The first time I ran this activity, students were unable to recall the order in which the individual wires were to be connected, despite setting it as homework.  This delayed the activity and quite a few students resulted in faulty cables.

To improve on this situation, the next time I ran this activity, I set the homework to rote memorise the order of the wires.  They are colour coded.  The students were told that they would have to recite the order of the coloured wires from memory before they were permitted into the activity room.

On the day, I went around the room asking students the order – those who had it correct from memory were permitted into the adjacent room to commence the activity.  Those who couldn’t remember, would have time to revise, and after cycling through the class, I would return to them.  Three quarters of the group had it correct first time round.  The activity ran to schedule and there was only 1 faulty cable at the end.

Similar results were repeated in the following offering of the course. This proved to be an effective design.  Also on reflection, with the inclusion of the volunteer mentors, it was a form of cognitive apprenticeship. 🙂

Desire to win

It had been suggested to me that nothing will bring out the inner fire of a geek more than a little healthy competition.  This was in response to queries about how to improve engagement from the students.

When I was teaching System Administration, I was looking for a way for students to develop problem solving skills, and at the same time, gain a deeper understanding of how the UNIX shell parses and executes commands.  So I set a challenge and divided the class into two groups.  As teams, they were required to write a UNIX shell command that would perform a specified set of actions with the greatest efficiency, and the minimum exec system calls.  My apologies for the non-geek reader. 🙂

There was no prize but the glory of being the winner.  Boy were they right.  The students engaged with gusto, searching through documentation, man pages, howtos (even espionage) to come up with the ideal solution.  The winners had bragging rights for weeks to come.  It was also encouraging to see that the score difference between the two groups was by only 1 point, and the winning team’s score was only 1 point short of my own model solution.

It seems to me that behaviourism is not the trendy learning theory of the day, yet in certain circumstances, I believe they can be quite effective.  It is not something however I would use to underpin an entire course design.

Biggs: Ch2 – Constructivism and Phenomenography

Constructivism as a concept is something that I am slowly coming to understand.  Then along comes phenomenography to upset the party.  Biggs provides a very brief discussion of the two and highlights their differences.  Let’s see if I have got it.

Before I get started, I’ll add that my conceptualisation of constructive alignment is ever evolving.  I’ll be keen to revisit this page some time in the future to see how my understanding of this concept has deepened.  In fact, I’ll probably update my conceptualisation of constructivism and constructive alignment as I progress through Biggs.

Everytime I hear the term constructivism, the following picture is what appears in my mind (well not exactly this picture, but you get the picture :).

Metaphor for constructivism
Metaphor for constructivism

Each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it builds upon the cards below it.  It is this scaffolding that underpins constructivism – you construct new knowledge on the basis of what you already know.  Furthermore, hearing about it (transmission – level 1 teacher) is not going to build another row of cards (new knowledge).  Neither is watching someone else demonstrate it (teacher centric – level 2 teacher) – the demonstrator will have constructed a new row of cards (knowledge), but not the learner.  So the other underpinning concept of constructivism is that you construct knowledge through activities that are likely to result in achieving the desired outcomes. It is all about what the learner does (student centric – level 3 teacher). It must be an active learning environment, not passive.

Back to the analogy, each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it fits or aligns with the cards below it.  If we are learning something new and it doesn’t neatly fit with what we have done before (the existing rows of cards), then we reject it, and attempt it another way. Now enter phenomenography.  The learner’s perspective or view of the world influences what they learn.  If a new concept challenges their current understanding (their existing stack of cards), then they will reject it in favour of something that does fit.  Biggs makes the comment that through teaching, it is possible to change (broaden) a learner’s stack of cards (perspective), or to in fact build a new stack of cards to assist learners in constructing knowledge.

Definition: Action Research

Having come across this term in the past, I felt it time to get my head around it once and for all.  What is action research?

I recall in the past, I have described action research as analogous to that of the Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC).  In my case, an example of relating new knowledge back to existing knowledge and as I understand, an underlying theme of the constructivist model.  I hope to be discussing that further in the near future.

Getting back to action research,the fountain of knowledge provides some key words around action research. Its major attributes appear to be that of reflection, iteration and problem solving.  It also seems that it is commonly done in groups or teams.  So it seems to be a process of:

  1. identify a problem
  2. implement a solution
  3. reflect on the appropriateness/effectiveness of solution
  4. revise
  5. go to number 2

in a team setting.

There is a parallel here with the definition of a reflective teacher give or take the team aspect. In particular, teachers of levels 2 and 3 of the 3P model (Biggs, 2003).  In fact, Bob Dick has drawn this comparison already.  He contrasts action research and action learning (another popular eduspeak label – for another post) and suggests that:  “Action learning was more often used in organisational settings.  Action research [is] more common in community and educational settings. This distinction, too, is beginning to blur.” (Dick, 1997)  So while action research is a general research methodology, it does overlap well with the education discipline.


Biggs, J., (2003), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd Edn, Open University Press, Berkshire.

Dick, B. (1997) Action learning and action research [Online].

Definition: Didactics

Came across a new word for my vocabulary:  didactics.

According to wikipedia, didactics describes theories surrounding learning and teaching in an education context.  The article goes on to say that a didactic method is a teaching method that focuses on student engagement and is underpinned by a science based approach. Constructivism is given as an example didactic method.

However, didactics is not to be confused with didactism. Based on the description from wikipedia, it would describe the usual way that I write.  Factual, to convey information with little fan-fare and attention to reader enjoyment.

An interesting quote from wikipedia:  “The opposite of ‘didactic’ is ‘non-didactic.’ If a writer is more concerned with artistic qualities and techniques than with conveying a message, then that piece of work is considered to be non-didactic, even if it is instructive/educational.”

I wonder whether there is a relationship between didacticism, and kiersey’s theories around personality types, and more specifically his comparison of concrete versus abstract communicators.

I can see that these two words (didactics and didacticism) are related in meaning.  Wikipedia goes on to say: “Didacticism is an artistic philosophy that emphasizes instructional and informative qualities in literature and other types of art. Didactic art should not primarily ‘entertain‘ or pursue the subjective goals of the artist.”

This statement could easily describe traditional education in my view.  Of course, this is not to say that education cannot be entertaining.  I have often read (although I can’t cite anyone just now) that learning should be fun.  Entertainment and fun are synonymous, so while entertainment is not the primary objective of didactics, it need not be mutually exclusive of it either.

Out of time as usual.

Definition: Blended Learning

So I google Blended Learning and wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge appears at the top of the list.  May as well start there.

It would appear that the term “blended” is used in the context of mixing different approaches together when designing. Approaches can range from modes of delivery, to learning styles or even learning models.  Addressing diversity seems to be well aligned with blended learning.  Respecting diversity (“Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning”) is one of the 7 principles of good practice in undergraduate education by Chickering and Gamson.  I can see that blended learning is a key approach to supporting this principle.

When I first asked someone the meaning of blended learning, it was a bit of an anti-climax.  It was described to me in terms of diverse modes of delivery, or at least that was my interpretation.  So why was this an anti-climax? It has become the hallmark of my education institution for many years.  CQUniversity has a variety of delivery modes for students.  We have traditional face-to-face classes, pseudo face-to-face in the form of live video-conferenced classes, and distance education.

So one definition for blended learning is the provision of multi-modal delivery to students.  Our institution does this based on enrolment mode, however blended learning can be applied to all students of a class in such a way that more face-to-face instruction is provided in the early stages only to be slowly phased out in favour of online e-learning facilities as students competency levels increase.

Other definitions such as this and this from two groups of the New South Wales Government of Australia seem to define the blending as a hybrid of traditional face-to-face and online e-learning approaches used in combination.  The face-to-face classes are supplemented by online activities to facilitate ongoing learning beyond the classroom.  In fact, I have found many other descriptions that follow this line.

Well time is up.  It is clear to see that blended learning is somewhat contextual and not a clearly defined term.  Something definately worth another look to go deeper into this approach to design.

Curriulum Designers – The Eduspeak translators

I am inspired to expand further on a question I have posed in a previous post.  I asked the question:

Based on the assumption that I am not too much different to the average joe-academic, am I not alone in this perpetual state of confusion and bewilderment around eduspeak?  How exposed are academics to this language by curriculum designers (now known as edunerds – pronounced ed-u-nerds)?  Do they soften the language as many (but not all) technonerds do?  Do they soften it better than technonerds?  Fellow Curriculum Designers, please share your experiences.

The inspiration comes from my colleague Nona and her blog post titled “Education buzzwords or legitimate language of discipline?” I appreciate you taking the time to reflect on my comments Nona.  🙂

Nona makes many interesting points on which I have reflected and make the following observations from my perspective.  In Nona’s post, she says:

Upon reading Damien’s blog, I too couldn’t help but reflect on the difficulties I faced almost daily with the language of other disciplines, more recently the technical language in auditing, accounting, economics and finance as I engage in curriculum design work in business education. But the fact remains that I am very comfortable with the language of my discipline, as the academics I have been working with are comfortable with their respective discipline language.

I agree wholeheartedly that there is great comfort in using your “first language” versus a “second language” in the literal sense of general communication and of a disciplinary context.  This would explain my initial disassociation with Jocene’s comments about “nerd speak”.  That would be my first disciplinary language.

A curriculum designer discussing curriculum with an academic can be a threatening situation.  The academic naturally will retreat to their comfort blanket through their disciplinary language as part of the conversation.  I can see this from both sides.  Stepping back into the past in my days as an academic, I would too – especially if the discussion was not invited.  They (academic) too could simply be inept at breaking this language down for a layperson.  More on this later.

In my initial post, I made reference to another colleagues frustration with discipline specific dialogue from the IT field.  I am reminded of a comment by VR Bones in relation to this post by my colleague where he states:

Concerning acronyms, I think it’s just language specialization. I’m positive if I walk into a mechanic shop or a top chef kitchen or a banking back room I would have a hard time listening in on the conversation because the terminologies are so specialized. The terminologies are specialized because it’s more efficient communication; you know the other person will know what you mean when you say “LME”.

This I totally agree with and it makes sense.  It doesn’t just apply to professional communication.  It is also why Australians for example have such a rich vernacular around shortening of words such as telly for television or brekky for breakfast, or if your daughter is named Elizabeth, why her friends call her Liz.  Education draws greatly from theories around cognition (oh yes my favourite word at the moment) for obvious reasons.  If you look at the field of psychology and sociology for example, there too is a sea of freaky terms and acronyms that describe sometimes complex ideas.  “The child with ADD” is easier to say than “the child with the behavioural problems associated with a deficit in attention”.  So I can see there are many many reasons why these languages form.  This is why I made the point:  “In any case, if I am going to be able to walk the walk, I need to be able to talk the talk.”  To be effective and efficient in my field, I need the eduspeak.  But I also believe I need more than that.

VR Bones goes on to say:

I don’t see tech speak as intentionally elitist, but ignorance of someone else’s ability to be a part of the conversation is.

This last passage is more specifically what I was referring to in my post when I said:

How exposed are academics to this language by curriculum designers (now known as edunerds – pronounced ed-u-nerds)?  Do they soften the language as many (but not all) technonerds do?  Do they soften it better than technonerds?  Fellow Curriculum Designers, please share your experiences.

Softening the language such that the layperson can be part of the conversation. Especially when the layperson’s learning design is the conversation. Not just verbal, but written communication too.  Don’t get me wrong; this is not an accusation against curriculum designers, but a question. How well do curriculum designers do this? What strategies do they employ to allow academics to see the picture without feeling intimidated? Bare in mind that academics understanding of eduspeak would also vary depending on their experience and engagement in formal learning design. While it is probably okay to allow academics to indulge somewhat in their security blanket of their discipline language, for curriculum designers, perhaps not so. I see it that we are a service provider to academics and indirectly to the students. It’s all about getting the job done, and so if the language we use with academics is inappropriate, then we are not being effective communicators – a recipe for disaster in any circumstances.  So for me, it’s not just about learning eduspeak, but also being able to translate it into a comprehensible form for digestion by academics for instance.  Curriculum design does not occur in a vacuum.

My tongue in cheek vent around my frustrations with eduspeak was not to say that it is illegitimate.  Only that it is indeed very frustrating to grapple with and to convey relief that thankfully it is not just me who feels this way.  I guess the issue of legitimacy is only questionable when it’s used inappropriately such as when the intended audience is not part of the discipline as described by illinoisloop.org.  This applies to all disciplinary languages.

I am inspired by Nona’s following comments:

On that note, I would like to share an interesting observation about the transformation of an academic who was totally “non-edunerd” when our curriculum renewal project began a year or so ago. She now finds herself proposing a PhD research on education-related topic. The language spoken in her PhD proposal was not one coming from a Finance expert but one who has developed an interest in educational practice. Sure, it is her second language, and she is finding it a challenge, but her decision to acculturate no doubt will alleviate many of her initial difficulties.

I believe congratulations are in order for the transformative academic.  It is inspiring to see that eduspeak is by no means unconquerable.  They have obviously caught the fever that draws us into the big questions about learning and teaching, and was motivated by this.  No doubt, they have benefited from Nona’s expertise and mentorship throughout the curriculum renewal project and ensuing research.  I only hope that they remain mindful of their intended audience for their PhD.  Are their examiners finance people or education people?  This should inform what language is appropriate for the thesis.  Perhaps I am reading this wrong and their proposal is not related to finance but only to education?

I am coming to realise that many of these buzzwords that I am encountering sound scary and complicated, but in reality aren’t that way at all.  In fact many I had adopted previously in my own teaching practices without actually knowing it had a label.  Things that seem to make sense from a pragmatic perspective, and at the time it was good enough for me.  Sometimes its actually fun now to make these connections.  “So that’s what I was doing!”

I provided an initial list of eduspeak buzzwords in my post, to which Nona had the following comment:

Damien then provides “an initial list of eduspeak buzzwords”, some of which are technical language within the education domain, others are newly coined educational terms arising from the trends of information age and influences of new technology.

I think Nona makes a good point here in that some of the initial buzzwords I have highlighted are derived and motivated by technology trends in the education landscape.  Or perhaps educational trends in the technology landscape depending on your perspective. 🙂  This is a result of the recent buzzword activity going on around me at the time I was crafting this list – perhaps not a true representation of the hardcore eduspeak linguist.  Have to ease into these things.  🙂  The list is a start for me and I’ll be adding to it as I am baffled and bemused with further pearlers of this language.  Perhaps as a craftsman of eduspeak, you might like to contribute to my list Nona? 🙂