Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

“…walk softly through life… I haven’t wanted to make a fuss about where I am going until I have arrived. I have avoided noisy confrontations whenever possible… making relatively little noise until I had arrived at my destination—and it was too late to stop me…”  — Carl Rogers

The learning choices in our household over the last ten years or so have been kind of hard to explain. The “results” to date have been the source of frequent questions (or questioning) and much bafflement. Many of the stories involved are not mine to tell. Thus, general principles such as those laid out here can ultimately seem too cryptic to be useful. Still, it seems that we have reached a reasonable point for a retrospective interlude. So here are few things that we — learners all– have gleaned.

1. Mix-and-match learning, or edges-of-multiple-systems learning, (or “knowmadic” learning, perhaps) is much more feasible than institutions and their personnel would like to admit, allow, or set a precedent for. Site- or time-bound learning programs can accommodate, at least in part, off-site and asynchronous learning, if someone dares to say “yes.” (Institutions will always say “no.” People within them can say “yes.”)

2. For many reasons, some fair, some not fair, and many that are grossly unfair, learning on the edges is not “do-able” or acceptable or perhaps even appropriate for every learner, for every family, or for every learning resource or institution. Edge learning is not a process of wholesale substitution. It is not a single “new and improved” system with more or fewer bells and whistles that can still meet all the tacit needs and expectations of an old system, whereby everyone then can go back to sleeping well at night. Different needs, different goals and different processes reflect a fundamentally different worldview. The cost of this is consistent and insightful attention and a futures orientation, often accompanied by a goodly quantity of time. This calls affordability into question, however one calculates that.

3. When it comes to acquaintances, teachers, administrators, parents or fellow learners, not everyone will like you, believe you, trust you, understand you, or treat you respectfully. It helps to recognize that what is expressed as judgement is often more about fear (not that this makes it any more pleasant). On the other side, those who are able and willing to trust the learner’s own sense of what is needed and to quietly say “yes” to this will often change a learner’s world forever.

4. The best learning process is the one of showing up wherever the desired learning is. Consistently. On time. Even if it is in an unusual place. Even if it is with unusual companions. In spite of odd looks or overt objections from the peanut gallery. Don’t be obnoxious. Don’t be out to prove something. Just listen, or do the work, or the practice, or whatever applies. Let time be the ally. Nothing– no genius insight, no dazzling performance, no social media coup– beats consistently “representing.” And staying. And going again. And again.

5. On a practical and concrete note: selectively use the damn standardized tests. No need to unduly advertise the action or the results. But having numbers in your back pocket saves a lot of unimaginative debate if a wall goes up. In crossing edgy territorial boundaries, nothing quells the naysaying and obstructionist eyebrow-raising faster than (yes, narrowly subjective) “data.” (A passing observation: some people seem to suffer less cognitive dissonance if unorthodox methods get orthodox results, while other experience more.)

6. Always, always have a backup plan or three in sight. Even when things are going well, changes and opportunities are always on the horizon. And it doesn’t hurt to have some of these optional paths be a 45 or 90 degree change of course from the current one. It’s not always going to make sense to replace something; sometimes paths need to be re-formed and re-routed.

7a. Take with a respectful grain of salt those who would like to claim (usually with a sorrowful little smile) that a change of course means someone (you) made a mistake. True, there are egregious mistakes that can be made. But these are often more an issue of framing: one person’s disaster is another’s call for course adjustments to meet emerging needs and circumstances. And while adaptability and resiliency are trendy concepts often bandied about in status quo environments, these lifelong skills can only be modeled and practiced in ill-defined and fluid circumstances.

7b.  Change and resiliency on learning journeys are much easier to practice when there is a consistent and mature core of emotional and personal support and guidance. The argument for change and adaptability in learning is not one that supports familial or parental or institutional or peer chaos, or even otherwise harmless flakiness. This is not about letting people run wild. (On the other end of the equation, using others’ learning journeys to fulfill personal ego needs –aka stage parent syndrome–also hurts everyone involved.) This element, too, becomes an “affordability” factor.

7c. In light of the two above points: All edge learners and facilitators are helped by being serious students of psychology and family and organizational systems. Because dysfunction…is. Some people struggling with personal issues have contact with and responsibility for learners and (conventional and non-conventional) learning situations. The unfamiliar (such as unusual learning processes or unusual learners) increases unresolved personal stress and pain, and even adults sometimes cannot stop themselves from directing this pain onto those around them, including children. It is important  (if sometimes difficult) to know when empathy is appropriate, and where healthy personal boundaries must be drawn.

8. The purpose of learning on the edges is not to ensure that learners are receiving the right learning “content” at the right level of challenge (although this may be a by-product). This conversation and process is not about “prepared for college” or “doing well in school” or “gifted” or “accelerated” or “early college” or “STEM“ or “arts schools” or “MOOCs” or “virtual schools.”  It is about defending the unique space required for and of authentic beings. It is about ensuring that each developing human being has the room and support to become whatever and whoever he or she is best at being.

9. Historically honored hallmarks of learning (graduations, degrees, awards) become uninteresting or pale in comparison to processes and goals defined and accomplished by individuals whose work cannot be slotted into standard expectations or measurements of success. That said, alternative forms of documentation, both for process and for product, abound and are increasingly significant.

10. A learning path or process is over (or only over) when the learner says it is. Often, there’s no end in sight.

“[This] work… has altered the thinking about power and control in… interfaces… which have been dramatically changed by persons who trust their own power, do not feel a need to have ‘power over,’ and who are willing to foster and facilitate the latent strength in the other person…. It is not that this approach gives power to the person; it never takes it away.” — Rogers


“…individuals whose work cannot be slotted into standard expectations or measurements of success…”

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In which an incident is deconstructed and the impressions received and left behind might be more important than what may or may not have actually happened.

So let me be clear from the start: No laws were broken. As far as I can tell, every single requirement and guideline for the ethical use of human subjects was met, at the very least on paper and maybe even, more or less, in person. The sense of unease stems not from deliberate actions (probably), but more due to a potential neglect of questionable benign-ness, or perhaps neatly convenient acts of omission.

It’s just that contextually, based on perhaps singular perceptions and a long history of interest in personal privacy in the digital age, it all seems kind of… sneaky.

And while what follows isn’t really about learning analytics, I can’t help but think that it could be, someday. Full disclosure and voluntary participation are all well and good on paper. But do real-life contexts and circumstances really encourage or allow people to understand the nature and use of the personal data they are casting off as they travel through life… or through educational institutions?

Tensions on the fringe

One can dodge and weave and innovate in learning and education all one wants, but as no innovation or innovator is an island, there regularly appear those moments and phases when one bows, however temporarily, to convention. This includes, among other things, interactions with the Behemoths of Higher Education.

As our household is currently negotiating compromise phases in which, due mostly to issues of timing, some things which may be useful are still locked behind the gates and in the ivory towers, there are, in the concession to convention, ample opportunities to roll over and play dead on issues which otherwise and previously have elicited independent thought. The single, not-dead-yet issue to be addressed here, lover as I am of the revelation of small things, is a small portion of the small segment of higher education adventures known as first-year-student orientation.

Having been a witness/eavesdropper/story listener for two or three and half such events (lack of convention accounts for the odd numbering) over the past year or two (ditto), it is quite clear that these orientations are largely a) tiresomely mandatory and mass produced and b) much more for the convenience of the institution than the student. Everybody in one place (physically), given (verbally and in reams of print, whether it exists digitally elsewhere or not) the same information (relevant to the individual student or not) at the same time.

Quite a shock to more independent-minded learners, but one must, I have intoned parentally, persevere for the potentially greater good. So to the idea of being lead en masse through a university library tour (ignoring the detailed map at the entrance door) and pointed to such fascinations as “computers that contain databases,” I have said: March on. To the apparently ubiquitous indoctrinal lectures on Why Higher Education is Morally Superior to Other Forms of Existence (OK, I may have renamed that a bit), I have said: Mental and written critiques are appropriate (moral) responses. To the “Maintaining a Four Year Graduation Plan” with matrixed requirement charts, I have rolled my eyes.

And to the late-afternoon text from the depths of one such orientation that said “They’re asking me about my religion and your income and if I have ever consumed alcohol or believe in abortion. I’m pretty sure they can’t REALLY ask that… can they?” …. I said “Walruses Tell Fables!?” (or something similar).

Yes, They can: The Freshman Survey

As it turns out, They indeed can ask these things. They do ask these things. And, over the course of the next 15 minutes on the side of the bike trail with mobile device in hand and the guidance of the mobile device and descriptive narrative at the other end of the texts, we discovered that They’ve been doing so since 1966.

Somehow, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey had escaped my notice. I don’t remember taking it (which may be significant in and of itself), and the other Young College Person in the household has for some reason never seen one. But there it is. A massive trove of highly specific and personal data, gathered from eight and a half million students over 40-plus years.  Researched and cited six hundred ways from Sunday over the years (and processed at the current rate of a baseline fee of $775 per institution plus $3 per survey by the Higher Education Research Institute ). This is the Godzilla of youth surveys, a socio-demographic rainbows-and-ponies dream source, with 200,000 students surveyed in 2011 alone.

Even if one were inclined to tilt at windmills and dragons, to criticize this survey and its behemoth backers or its makers or responders or interpreters or yes, its beneficiaries (because one must stand in awe of the sheer massiveness of the data) would be the height of wasted effort. And to clarify: In the big-picture-well-after-the-fact of the actual “survey incident,” let me be clear that the Higher Education Research Institute’s website pertaining to this survey exhaustively addresses the processes and procedures and ethics statements in ways that fulfill all of the necessary categories of due diligence and non-coercion and sincere expressions of desire to gain valid data.

In other words, they have — in print and in public— clearly covered their hindquarters on all of the concerns that arose in that 15-minute window on an early June afternoon. They are untouchable in the world of academic and scientific freedom and responsibility. And no, students do not HAVE to answer the questions. All, some, or none—totally voluntary. Except…

It’s the context beyond the content

There remains this fascinating and disturbing gap, or chasm, or Grand Canyon of Disconnect, between what happens with the ideally ethical survey plan with its detailed CYA statements on a website, and the experience of the (or this particular) surveyed student on the other end of the texts with a folder containing a four-page bubble test and a single page of explanatory fine print. So context becomes critical. How to pick this apart…?

Well, let’s start with the setting and lead-up to the survey administration. At the University of Massiveness, students are corralled in some-hundred batches for 30-some hours and trotted through icebreakers, tours, course advisories, registration processes, and sessions in financial and personal responsibility, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat throughout the summer, guided over multiple weeks by Ernest Older Students/camp counselors.

If I recall the half-hour I spent as a parent in the Welcome speech correctly (and again, impression is greater than reality here), the idea of the survey was introduced or at least referred to in passing by an administrator at the very beginning of the day. How Official. And the Freshman Survey is listed on the day’s events, printed clearly and capitalized (how official) in the multi-colored, high-quality (official) orientation booklet, to take place in a rotation with Dinner and Dorm check-in, depending one’s subgroup. And so by the time the actual surveying occurs, new students have been receiving a day-long stream of authority-based messages about expectations for university students. And, as my texter noted, having been “talked at” for several hours, patience and attentiveness and the ability to absorb any more information was wearing very thin. So here’s where things get tricky.  The HERI website clearly states:

If your campus administers the survey in a proctored on-campus setting, the following text should be read aloud to students prior to distributing the instruments. While you are free to personalize or edit this text, the points in bold must be included:

“We ask that you complete this survey as part of a national study of college students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. One major goal of this research is to determine what happens to students when they attend college. This study is designed to help improve the quality of the college experience and thus may benefit future generations of students. Results of your participation also will be directly beneficial to students at [name of your campus], since we will receive complete tabulations of your responses to compare with the responses of students at other institutions. We ask for your name and address so that the researchers at UCLA can contact you at some later date for a follow-up study. We would also like your Student ID Number so we can merge your responses with other campus data to support our institutional research program. You also may complete this survey on the Internet—please refer to the attached instructions if you wish to do so. Your responses will be used only for research purposes and will be strictly confidential. Please read the ‘CIRP Freshman Survey Information Sheet’ for more information about your rights as a participant in this research. Your participation is voluntary and will not affect your standing at [name of your campus].” 

And here’s what I know from the texts I received and the subsequent conversation upon arrival home: the texter has absolutely NO recall that that this statement was read. True, we can’t say that it was or it wasn’t. But after six or seven hours of information and the promise of dinner just around the corner, how many of the students were cognitively equipped to hear and understand the message and its implications even if it was read?

And yes, you read that right:

“We ask for your name and address … [and] your Student ID Number…” (CYA website disclosure says: “Before receiving any responses your school is required to certify in advance that the data will only be used for research purposes will not be used to investigate specific individuals.”  Um, so California can call you personally, but your local school promises not to? And what about that loaded word…”investigate”?)

Familiarity and disorientation

And what do we know about these named and numbered (but we’ll hide our eyes, really we will) first-year students, survey or not? Well, I’d surmise that most got there by playing the Educational Accomplishment game of tests and coursework well enough to be accepted as one of the eight applicants for every seat—that was an important point made during the Welcome speech. We also know that these students are the direct legacy of the No Child Left Behind era, where testing has been of huge importance, from yearly progress measurements to the absolutism of the AP testing sold as the pinnacle of success.

Most of them have not been away from home for very long (many, based on a show of hands, were looking at life in the “big city” for the first time and over half of them had never done their own laundry), and many of the parents were just across campus on their own “orientation” track, where they were, based on the schedule, being reassured about the university’s ability to act in loco parentis. One could also surmise that most students were about 18 years old and a week or two out of high school.

The reason I detail this is that while I have a strong belief in and first-hand knowledge of the potential of young people to think critically and innovatively when sincerely offered the necessary freedoms and opportunities to do so, I can’t help but think that none of the characteristics noted here really set up these young students to critically reflect on what they were being asked to do. After a steady cultural diet of “college is the ultimate goal,” with the “college selection process” fraught with extreme family and school anxiety and then focusing on new-found loyalty to mascots and colors and the commitment of great sums of money… well, certainly it is preferable to believe that anything your college feeds you is delicious and nutritious. Including the survey in its official time slot.

And let’s talk about the survey administration method “preferred” by HERI:

“The best results occur when the survey is administered in a proctored setting.”

Which means, like any “test,” in a formal setting. In a classroom. With someone “in charge” watching you. And other students lined up next to you in their desks. The texter later noted she “felt like” They said something about students not being able to leave until they had completed the survey, but then realized They could just as well have said, “You can leave when you are done,” in which “done” (in other words, a completed survey) could be inferred as a necessary requirement for departure.

And the survey itself? In this case, a fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice, just like every other Very Important and Official test given to students to measure their yearly progress beginning in kindergarten or to assess their college readiness. I think one can’t underestimate the Pavlovian response “high-achieving” students such as those accepted by the University of Massiveness might have to another multiple choice test.

It must feel very familiar. And mandatory. Which might explain an astonishing 90 percent-plus national completion rate, if I understand correctly.

And finally, there was the content of the survey itself… which is where the eyebrows began to rise in the first place.

Oversharing… or oversensitivity?

Here are some questions from the survey… (and some cantankerous interpretations):

What is your best estimate of your parents’ total income last year? (Report on your parents’ personal information without their knowledge.)

For the activities listed below, indicate which ones you did during the past year [by frequency]?

“drank beer/”wine or liquor” (Would you like to admit to doing something illegal?)

“was a guest in a teacher’s home” (Just… creepy)

”Failed to complete homework on time/“came late to class”/ “fell asleep during class” (How compliant are you and can we really expect much of you?)

Also included: political litmus ratings scales for issues such as:


Death penalty

Racial discrimination

Taxing the wealthy

Same-sex marriage

Free speech

And questions relating to mental health, with references to depression, emotional health, self-understanding, and counseling.

Not to mention questions that initially seem truly a shot in the dark:  personal opinions about future plans regarding degrees, life goals, philosophical views, the nature of success, etc. Why ask such nebulous, non-verifiable things? Because wait, there’s more. HERI has THREE MORE SURVEYS (not that those new, proctored students know this) that can be administered during a student’s college career. And all of a sudden the massiveness and cross-validation of the data on both the cohort and each individual takes on proportions the mind simply fails to grasp.

True, it might not be “worth it” to care all that much. Between Facebook and financial aid forms, a lot of the survey info could be obtained otherwise, although with much less ease.

Are the survey responses interesting and valuable as a picture of society in evolution, among other things? Yes, yes of course. Is there anything necessarily bad about sharing this kind of info? Maybe not. But is it really something people want to put out there with the assumption that it will forever and ever be treated benevolently by the universe? Would this data make great political fodder when the database is hacked or leaked and the responses from individual students are plumbed? Oh. My. And if cooperative students fill out surveys like this at regular intervals, are they fully equipped to grasp the implications of this first step going forward when they are at the end of a long day of potentially disorienting orientation, even if the “bigger picture” were highlighted for them?

Keeping the uncooperative ten percent at ten

It is the Great Trade-Off. As a researcher or an institution, data is gold, and everyone can sleep better by not scrutinizing too closely any issues of context if you’ve otherwise met all of the research ethics guidelines. It’s just easiest to deliver this survey, sanctioned by all sorts of Powers that Be over time as it is, without highlighting any of this messiness, isn’t it?  The extraction of personal data is made incidental and relegated to background noise—just another “thing” in the course of the day. And as the survey subject, well, just close your eyes, and it will soon be all over, and unless you think about it (or the Queen, perhaps), you’ll never know or recognize exactly what you’ve given away or revealed. Unless… well, the “unless” is up to your imagination.

And ultimately, why should I, personally, make a fuss of several hundred words? After all, my afternoon texter, who has an apparently unusually acute sense of personal privacy, refused to be seduced into complacency by the Dark Lords of Data (or, optimistically, the Well-Meaning Minions of Measurement). But in this stance, she also had:

1.) The reflective/critical capacity to consider the implications of what was being asked and wonder why.

2.) The curiosity to seek further information by locating and plowing through the  “Survey Information Sheet” (until then ignored in the mass of other paperwork) that revealed the optional-ness of participation.

3.) The ability to use a mobile device to obtain information and consultation outside the immediate context to further validate her questioning and understanding, and

4.) The self-assuredness to walk out of a full room of peers under authoritative supervision without handing in her survey. (At which time her earnest seat neighbor noted she was texting her mother to find out which family income category she should mark.)

I would think higher education researchers in particular would be more interested in understanding the development of these skills and attitudes than in homework and partying habits. But chances are, this particular subject probably would react the same way to a survey about that as well.

One other small point: This intended survey subject/texter happened to be several solstices short of legal age. We generally note that if you’re invited to and intend to hold your own in unorthodox ways, you do it without playing the age card. Age is, however, an issue which is addressed on the HERI website (nothing if not thorough), where it is noted that parental permission may be necessary for minors to participate in the survey. But again, this was not addressed in the immediate context of taking the survey at the University of Massiveness. So the written information (for those who chose to read it) that states “Your participation and return of the questionnaire indicate your consent to participate in the study” seems a bit disingenuous. Especially since there are bubbles to mark on the survey which acknowledge under-18 students. And what about those tired,  18-plus but perhaps cognitively overloaded students who have just been thoroughly oriented/socialized into compliance with university norms? It seems there is no room for second thoughts once that survey leaves their hands…

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In which I leave it to others to consider the rhizomes

The connection between connective learning (connectivism, if you will) and complexity was, I think, obvious from the start. I seem to recall encountering the Cynefin framework very early on in connectivism explorations– perhaps even as a session in CCK08?

And it became equally obvious that, as one begins to try to explain the whole connective learning thing to others, complexity has to be part of the conversation. So as I catch up on some reading and see that Dave Cormier has mashed up rhizomes, connective learning, and the Cynefin framework, it makes perfect sense to me.

Cynefin framework

Except, I discovered a while back, apparently it doesn’t make total sense to others. In fact, I used the very same illustration Dave did in a presentation about implications of connectivism shortly after the conclusion of CCK08. And I wound up with the impression that it left the wrong impression. Not because the framework was wrong. Or that the presenter—then or now:-)– was wrong (although perhaps my powers of explanation or lack thereof may have played a role), but simply because the graphic didn’t lend itself as well to a conversation about learning as well as it did to a conversation about problem-solving.

Don’t get me wrong—“real” learning in my mind is ALL about problems and trying to solve them. And as I understand it, considerations of rhizomatic learning are related to but not the same as connectivism, so perhaps relevance is in question. But I offer my experience as an alternative perspective with the thought that maybe it’s a shortcut for anyone who wants to go this direction. The deal with the Cynefin graphic in this permutation is that it seems to get interpreted as bins for sorting things into, kind of like when you go to Ikea in hopes of solving your household storage problems. And the result seemed to be that people walked out with the idea that complex learning concerns are best (or could be) isolated in one corner and addressed with the best practice of not using best practices.

Which, you know, seemed kinda wrong.

Fortunately, by time another presentation opportunity rolled around, I had run into an alternative view, graphically speaking. And I hereby apologize about the sourcing of this, because I think it came from several directions, none for which I can now find appropriate links. The graphic was a nifty chart I saw in a presentation deck from Michael Quinn Patton, whereby I later saw a (subsequentally mentally filed) note somewhere that suggested that it somehow stemmed from Ralph D. Tracey’s conceptualization of complex responsive processes. (The differences and relationships between complex responsive processes and complex adaptive systems are worth consideration, but are well beyond today’s scope, and in part beyond what is essentially very basic knowledge on my part regarding this whole ball of wax. Yes, I’m probably in over my head here.)

In any case, in the interest of throwing out an alternative illustration about learning complexity, here’s the “original” chart as I encountered it:

Michael Quinn Patton, 2009

And here’s my interpretation of learning imposed upon it:

Michael Quinn Patton, 2009 - Modified: C. Tschofen, 10/2010

And, finally, here’s the reason why I think this has done a better job for me in communicating how complexity creates changes in learning and challenges for people:

Michael Quinn Patton, 2009 – Modified: C. Tschofen 2011

I admit to some trepidation about the somewhat implicitly progressive implications of such a graphic, which, worse case scenario, gets interpreted as a kind of “how wild and crazy are you” challenge. But I have found it works well in exploring people’s comfort zones and even worldviews. Do you sincerely believe that most things can be planned and the future reasonably accounted for? Then here’s a zone of understanding where perhaps only the outside edges are fuzzy. But maybe other folks don’t think that way. So here’s an idea of where they might reside and perhaps a few words describing how they think, and maybe there are some blurry lines you could share. It has been useful for seeing learning as not just about outcomes, categories and choices, but about processes, options, and opportunities.

I think this illustration has helped people understand that learning is not so much about sorting as it is about various continuums. In one example I cite, very specific disciplinary learning that is machine delivered lives down in the lower left hand corner. Much of the rest of life occupies space farther afield. And developing an understanding that, while problems might be usefully categorized, learning can be shifted within and between the simple, complicated, complex, and yes, the chaotic, with some level of personal agency, has been useful. (To be clear, I am not saying that Cynefin understanding doesn’t address this in some form– just that the above graphic seems to work better for me.)

In a recent and connectively related post, George Siemens notes: “It is important to realize that MOOCs are not (yet) an answer to any particular problem. They are an open and ongoing experiment.” This view of MOOCs might explain why there is tension about expectations, responsibilities and assessment in MOOCs, and perhaps this tension can be addressed by understanding that burgeoning MOOCs reside in various locations on the agreement/certainty graphic based on the nature of the learning they offer. (Whether MOOCs are ultimately the right unit of analysis for examining complexity and change in learning is a completely different question that has me somewhat distracted.)


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In which connections occur.

Following a quick note and blog posts from the unbelievably productive Jenny Mackness, I listened to my first (and to date only) ChangeMOOC recording in which Geetha Narayanan presented “dangerous ideas”—or “inconvenient truths”—about learning and education.

As I understood it, Geetha’s presentation offered a glimpse of experiential learning based in a local community, with an explicit recognition of the “expansion of the inner self” as a purpose of learning; the development of learning as tied to craft on a local and hands-on level; and an understated nod to curriculum content and measurement.

The presentation was packed with concepts that are clearly highly developed and detailed in their own right, and so I focused on ideas that resonated or dovetailed with my own experience while recognizing our different individual situations and responsibilities in our different parts of the world.

In particular, Geetha’s work focuses not just on adult learners, as does much of the conversation in the connectivist MOOC spaces (which, by the way, I see as different from MOOCs offered for content delivery/coverage purposes), but on young people. While still in the process of formulating questions that allow me to express tacit learning in this area, I think a critical point is my understanding that sustainable learning may be brought into being not by intentionally creating and trumpeting change (“before/after”) for those bridging two or more systems (adults), but in trying leapfrog to where that which might be “new” in a historically comparative perspective is quite normal and business as usual. Perhaps this needs to be a consideration for connectivism or networked learning where, when attempting to draw these ideas into “conventional” learning climates, there is a tremendous amount of energy expended on addressing skepticism and the need to prove its worth in comparison to “traditional” learning (in whatever sense that is understood).

Instead of asking “How can we change what we have and make people do something different?” my question is more along the lines of: “What happens when we are (largely) embedded in a different worldview of the purposes and processes of learning from the start?” This difference may seem impossibly subtle, but I think it’s important.

I was also struck by the somewhat wistful comments of the session participants–“ I wish I had a school like that.”  I do often wonder, having heard similar comments quite often, whether this expresses a desire for a different school, or is more an expression of a desire for the opportunity to experience/facilitate different learning. I think these are ultimately two very different questions or wishes. The assumption of school structures as essential may on one hand be viewed as obviously practical or economically necessary in terms of scale, but on the other hand seems to be a “legacy future,” in which the way things are and have been have so colonized our minds that we have lost the ability to image anything else. Additionally, such comments raise a question of agency. Perception of personal agency is exactly that– personal, as well as complex– meaning agency is not something to be judged by others. I would note  that deviating from a status quo in any context, including learning endeavors, requires serious decision-making with a slate of both clear and completely unknown long-term consequences for all involved, and the strategies available are regarded by many as “high risk.” (An understanding of emergence, complexity and resilience goes far in mitigating the perceived risks and addressing the actual ones, and, in a neat circle, I would suggest that learners who have learned to navigate uncertainty early on are much better at doing so.)

Uncertain waters

This recognition of the difference between school and learning also relates to the issue of scale brought up in the presentation. Geetha referred to the idea of Clayton Christenson’s “disruptive innovation” as a bottom-up effort that would spread and scale. And indeed, scaling the school model she is working with – with the paradox of the small and local as a focus within individual schools—was identified as an explicit goal.

While I do not know the circumstances and parameters involved in Geetha’s work, I do feel that some generic assumptions about scale might need to be examined, both in the idea that scale, meaning large numbers, must absolutely occur as an indicator of success, and in how scale might be confused with sweep, meaning that when people look for scaled results, they expect to see many instantiations of the same thing in one place—district-wide, state-wide, nationwide in “schoolish” terms.

Scale in terms of increasing numbers seems a bit of a throwback to an industrial, production-based perspective, whereas sustainability and the development of the self rests much more in quality and enduring presence than on more, more, more.  And as an example, if MOOCs have been evidence of anything, it may be the idea of what I seem to want to call disaggregated scale, where “sweep” is not in evidence. By this I mean the presence of individuals or small clusters scattered across wide distances (however we wish to define “distance,” whether geographic, temporal, or cultural). Indeed, I was struck by the fact that among the participants in Geetha’s session were names familiar to me from previous connectivist MOOCs, many from CCK08. Each one of those participants, I would hazard, represents a “node” that facilitates or expresses ideas gained in and through the connectivist environment—creating a form of networked “scale” over four years (!) that is not evidenced by the participant numbers, or perhaps even network mapping, and is certainly not that solid blanket or sweep of sheer numbers in contiguous space.

By the same token, I wonder if youth learning represented through experiential self development is a “movement” (the “newness” of which probably depends on personal and cultural history, as Jenny indicates) best viewed and “scaled” not as a program to be implemented on a school-by-school basis, but through an understanding of such endeavors as the outgrowth and potential of a more disaggregated, self-identified/identifying and flexibly sustainable network or connective activity.

Finally, I would note that Geetha follows another principle of disruptive innovation, in focusing her efforts on populations (in this case of young people) that might otherwise evoke reactions of indifference, helplessness, or even desperation among school officials or the culture at large. Where populations are already underserved or when “best practices” are clearly inadequate or irrelevant, there is room for new visions. But the often subsequent idea that any program, or any new vision of learning, is going to be appropriate for or desired by all young learners—and/or their parents or others—over time may be another “legacy future” stumbling block. While new ideas are often implemented with the assumption that, once proven, it will be the responsibility of authorities or even community members to “get people on board” and convince others of the need for change, this effort to “scale up” may well be a draining effort that takes energy away from the actual act or emerging result of leapfrogging that is critical for those who are most prepared for and need the “new and different” to be their own, sustainable “normal.” (The issues of voluntary participation and resulting questions about equality in learning are too large to address here, but fresh perspectives may be needed here as well.)

Perhaps one of the best ways to rephrase my understanding of experiential learning which allows growth of the inner self is to return to the concept of “craft,” which, while a minor point in Geetha’s presentation, is one very worthy of consideration and embedded in my reflections on learning. As Geetha noted, there must be an understanding of the hand and not just the mind. I have found that viewing learning as a form and expression of craft, both in its connection to physical presence and activity, and in the idea of “crafting” or creating on that broad and fuzzy cusp merging tradition, improvisation and innovation, seems to remove many of the inappropriate burdens that are currently placed upon education.

Crochet in the tent

If  “awakening, discovery, recovery and revitalization” of the self, rather than the acquisition of testable knowledge (and the idea of this as a dichotomy is a simplification and shortcut here) should be the outcome or emerging vision for learning, then the processes that lead to it seem to demand different visions as well.

Richard Sennett notes that the act of craft and resulting crafted products serve entirely different purposes than those of machine production and products. Craft is embedded in culture, tradition, and connection—creative unity, perhaps, as Geetha phrased it– rather than some idealized goal of perfection. So too, it seems, would education focused on the growth of the inner self contain the paradox of the both local and individual within a connective context, and the inherent understanding of experience and engagement as the point of learning, rather than learning as a means to an externalized and idealized “perfect” end.

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In which I avoid the phrase “running aMOOC,” address the personal, and serve hotdish.

How do you approach a party where you know few people, if any? Chat with anyone? Loiter near the potted plants? Maybe the hosts can offer some initial introductions, circulate, and foster conversational ease, but they can’t be everywhere at once. They’re not really there to entertain you; instead, the event is simply an end in itself. And there’s almost always food. Maybe the hosts kindly provide snacks, but in Minnesota, it’s often the guests who bring hotdishes.


A variety of party preferences


Inevitably, some people leave the party earlier than others. Some people hang around for the “after party.” Some people gather to play strange instruments in the den. Me? If I have a good conversation somewhere along the line with two or three people, it’s been a successful evening—usually for all three or four of us. Hosts or other guests may choose to drink merrily, play strip poker, or sing with the karaoke machine; if these excitations become expectations, people might be disappointed in me. I understand if they don’t invite me again… but it probably isn’t an event I’d attend again, anyway.

This party-oriented digression is really a follow-up to what I wrote two years ago about my thoughts on participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). While find my thinking at this point is roughly the same, I would offer one newer observation: that a MOOC designation might cause unnecessary concern among new participants and lead to an expectation of differentness or magnitude that distracts from the small, cumulative learning moments that such opportunities create.

I have begun to wonder if a MOOC creates AIA, or Acronym Induced Anxiety. With the MOOC known as PLENK (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) steeped in examination of PLEs and PLNs, maybe the desire to capture complex concepts by catchphrase and abbreviation—the desire to create an identifiable banner around which people might rally– might interfere with the very concepts being promoted. Might these terms be OBN (OverBurdened Nomenclature)? Learning in a massive open online course sounds…big and scary. How about learning as an open, online salon, or an open, online party… with an abundant buffet (on)line? Might take some pressure off of everyone.

In a similar vein of trying to communicate a vision of the MOOC concept, Stephen Downes recently sounded a call that those with experience in these courses/parties/buffests should take responsibility for assisting newer learners, rather than leaving this to the “teachers.” In other words, perhaps, he’d like guests to share more hotdishes.

“…my thinking was that more experienced people should be creating introductory content to help people new to the material… traditional learning … leads to a selfishness in learning, as you are encouraged to focus only on your own learning (even when you are working in groups) and not on helping other people (that’s “teacher’s job”)…”

One thing I know after years of hotdish exposure: they’re not always to everyone’s taste, and nothing distracts from an elegant buffet more than tater-tot topping framed in Corningware. And while I agree that unique understandings contribute to the overall whole, given the bountiful smorgasboard available to everyone in PLENK, I’m not inclined to presume I have any recipe of helpfulness in this environment that others cannot– or perhaps would better– arrive at on their own, following paths that are more meaningful to them and their own circumstances. In understanding various communication styles, it has been helpful for me to recognize that an expression of concern or frustration or confusion or annoyance is not (necessarily) the same as a request for help. And often as not, one person’s “helpfulness” can be another’s “interference.”


Choosing a personally meaningful path to learning


Along the lines of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before assisting others, I’m pretty sure that an emphasis on one’s own learning is not really an obstruction to helping others’ learning. Far from the idea that “personal learning” or a personal focus embodies a selfish approach to learning (since this seems to be the underlying concern), the “personal” in learning for me recognizes, among other things, the imperative of taking personal responsibility for learning, as opposed to externalizing the responsibility for learning (or the blame for not learning) to a course, an institution, a delivery style, a system, another person, or even a network.

I agree that this should not result in focused development of “my” learning, and my learning only, forever and ever. I would, however, gently observe that just because learners’ outreach and artifacts are not visible in one community or network at a given time does not mean they do not exist in another. Quid pro quo is a problematic calculation in a temporally and geographically dispersed and diverse world (and in recognizing the diverse agendas brought to a MOOC), and technology is not always the answer. Additionally, I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (True,”ROI” or “assessment” folks aren’t going to find enough nourishment here.)

In this potluck environment, I do think a note of caution is needed here. I have been concerned when ideas about support and connection and openness and separateness and independence and learning that is personal (in any context) are placed into boxes of mutual exclusiveness or opposition. While the approaches of mapped, quantitative, “show me the openness” social connections are considered to be social visions based in positive community development and generosity, I could also see the elevation of these values as an effort to address fears about loneliness or isolation. In a related vein, I am concerned that too great an emphasis on the communal and a rejection of the personal and the idea of the independent self in connective learning may not respect developmental processes, including those related to adult learning. While it is not necessary to swallow such concepts wholesale, I would be reluctant to ignore theories related to individuation and psychological differentiation, and am led to wonder if the insistently communal prevents us or allows us to avoid peeking into the conceptual existential abyss of aloneness – a process which has been posited as a necessity for adult maturation. I continue to consider whether or how connective learning theory might need to recognize quieter and qualitative connective intimacy (or resonance) and self-efficacy.


Like all learners, adults have developmental and affective–dare one say "personal"– learning needs


(As a side note: George Siemens observed in an Elluminate session last week that advances in neuroscience are providing groundbreaking new understandings about learning psychology. Much of this work addresses so-called “abnormal” mental functions in learning and decision-making, but this work, Rifkin notwithstanding, is relatively new – and is controversial–  in its approach to empathy, mindfulness, and other tenets of the humanistic psychology referenced here.)

Ultimately, I believe the concepts of support, connection, independence and the personal are not so much ends of spectrums or dichotomies as they are ingredients in the worldview stew of complexity and ambiguity we are attempting to pin down (perhaps too narrowly?) through the alphabet soup of learning referenced above.

By the same token, since we all have different seats around the living room, I can see where a host might see the benefit of more or different fare to expand the party buffet and atmosphere. So I will share here three recipes I have used in my learning– MOOC or no MOOC– that have provided some nourishment.


A playful mindset has been a pretty important element not only for its own sake and for enhancing learning in unconventional ways, but also as a way of leavening some of the deeper and darker considerations that learning about learning brings forth.

What’s your problem?

I find myself inclined to look at new ideas not as a totally separate land, as a topic to be mastered, or as a simple disciplinary expansion, but as a set of concepts and approaches to be sorted through, applied, adapted and/or discarded in order to solve a problem. Indeed, without the existence of a problem, conundrum, issue, or puzzlement to apply new learning to, I’m not sure I’d see the point in pursuing a MOOC—or any course, for that matter.

This might sound like a slippery slope to anti-intellectualism—bypassing learning for learning’s sake, and all that—but as far as I’m concerned, life’s busy and I’ve got important things to do—including nurturing others in learning. In this context, I’m willing to entertain all ideas, no matter how initially bizarre, as long as I can ultimately subject them to a rather ruthless evaluation of what works at this moment in time for a given set of particular circumstances. That I am also filing away ideas that don’t work for future reference, knowing that time and circumstances change, is both a bonus and an essential part of any creative process, contributing to the incubation of further ideas.


Incubation doesn't create a lot of "artifacts"


And, should it be helpful to other learners, I will defend the quiet and slow process of incubation as a known and legitimate stage of learning, intuition and creativity. (I suspect that creativity and wisdom are potentially states that both result from and go beyond connective learning, but that’s a different conversation.) While I cannot guarantee that the bigger and less easily captured/more complex/ill-defined/wicked any given problem is, the more incubation it takes, I do know that producing artifacts for the short term can take away time from the longer-term processes related to creative development. (See also: “one good thought a week.”)

And to the immediate objections that a “problem” not discussed in an open environment is cutting off its nose to spite its face, let me counter that complex, creative and even social problem solving draws on elements well beyond the metrics of sharing and connecting. I don’t think that sophisticated thinkers in this area are claiming otherwise, but I do think we have a gap in how this is being communicated to broader publics. I’d suggest that any complex problem includes the qualitative, the affective and even the psychological within a community, and that process evaluations based on openness/not open or connected/insufficiently connected are overly-simplistic measures when working with human beings.

Working in translation

A third approach I take to learning is related to the first in instigating a problem scenario, and is an oldie-but-goodie: make a commitment to communicate or “teach” what I’m learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean hashing out my developing view of the fine points among the like-minded or similarly curious within the MOOC. Rather, testing and translating new concepts among more diverse and less familiar communities and contexts offers a different set of emergent challenges. Yes, few of us are “experts” in the acronymic concepts here. But I’ve found no better reality check than taking even the basics to the local street corner.

While I appreciate the idea of learning from the modeling of masters and in conversation with similar peers, I also find much of my learning occurs in trying to understand others’ not-understanding, and in trying articulate my understandings in the face of reasonable skepticism (but preferably stopping well short of evangelism). Relocating to another’s viewpoint, adopting the beginner’s mind, and working to understand how and why people think about, believe, and react affectively to new ideas helps me understand what essential elements or worldviews might inhibit or incapacitate shifting conceptions of learning, and perhaps to discover some unexpected conceptual compatibility.

That said, discussing my learning in relation to others’ learning efforts and conversations in any detail offers an ongoing ethical conundrum, inherent in the ambiguous dance of qualitative, participant-observer situations. So ultimately, I do more listening at parties than talking. As noted in a previous post, this “silence” is not necessarily demonstrating a lack of participation or support.

And to return to the OBN of the MOOC: as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t really mattered if the party is massive or not. If the party is small, I may have more conversations as those fewer people maneuver around the room, but might find less resonance as the array of ideas and expression is usually quantitatively smaller. Among bigger events, it’s always entertaining to hear the range of conversation, and the statistical chances of finding resonance are often higher, but it takes time and persistence to filter through the ambient noise… or to adequately sample the buffet.

So, whether PLE, PLN or OBN, here’s my hotdish buffet approach to a MOOC like PLENK:


Work a puzzle…


…and party on.

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In which I craft a table with wobbly legs.

As connectivism and connective learning gain a wider audience, or at least acknowledgment, I’ve been plagued by the suspicion that, upon first exposure, connectivism is sounding an awful lot like a shaken, not stirred, version of constructivism to a lot of people.

Complicating matters is the recognition that theories have various instantiations in practice. This is undoubtedly true for constructivism and its formal classroom companion, inquiry learning, especially as this is implemented in its spectrum of shadings (guided inquiry, open inquiry, “Understanding by Design,” project learning, active learning, etc.).

(Is this also true for connectivism? Hard to say, since the idea of connectivism as a “practice,” especially classroom practice, seems to create some cognitive dissonance for me.  But I’ve used the term “connective learning” below as an expression of  the “practice” of connectivism.)

Connectivism, constructivism, behaviorism, humanism and cognitivism have been laid out in a variety of comparative tables.  It is also important to point to Stephen Downes’ assessment that constructivism and connectivism are not the same thing.

[Connectivism] shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Hence people see a relation between connectivism and constructivism or active learning (to name a couple). Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic. Connectivism is, by contrast, ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. It may consist in part of linguistic structures, but it is not essentially based in linguistic structures, and the properties and constraints of linguistic structures are not the properties and constraints of connectivism. In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action. And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks. Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.

That said, constructivism and connectivism are, if certainly not the same, allied in a few significant ways.  One is in their common respect for the learner, and another is in the concept of learner empowerment. Both theories also require, at least to some degree, reconsideration of the traditional conceptions of teaching, of the goals of learning, and of the idea of schools.

So while both theories are a difficult sell in traditional and formal educational settings, I’d posit that constructivism’s relatively long history and basic inroads in education to date offer a credible scaffold for discussing connectivism, and that those who have been able to at least initially incorporate ideas and practice related to constructivism may be best in the position to approach—and personally engage with—connective learning.

A perhaps minor roadblock I’m seeing, however, is that connectivism discussions to date haven’t necessarily used language that is familiar to “on the ground” practitioners, facilitators, teachers, or whatever one may wish to call them. (One exception, perhaps, is Wendy Drexler’s The Networked Student, which offers a contained classroom orientation to connectivism.)

The following rudimentary table makes a run at the language barrier. While there’s going to be some disagreement on how inquiry and connective learning are depicted, it seems to me that the table does reveal just how far connectivism moves the cheese for those working with or toward inquiry. Connectivist thinking, to a greater degree than even “progressive” inquiry approaches, shakes up some deeply entrenched assumptions about education, knowledge, learning, and teaching.

The table is admittedly a stream-of-consciousness mash-up of both theoretical understandings and a sense of how these theories play out on the ground, which is where things get pretty messy and lines get pretty blurry in a hurry. (When working with the infinite variables of learning, purism seems self-defeating…)  A table like this is also only a snapshot in time, as the concepts under consideration are clearly moving targets. (Example: the inclusion of the terms communities and construction/bricolage on the connectivist side of things. These are more a reflection of trends I’m seeing in conversations than any formally definitive element. And trying to use the term “knowledge” correctly?  Yipes.)

Even with these disclaimers, I suspect that the table can also serve as four-way cannon fodder, as both proponents and opponents of both theories will have some objections kind thoughts about how I have chosen to articulate these theories. But still, it seems like an item worth “throwing out there” for further consideration.

Italicized words and concepts are recognized as potentially contentious. Other words and concepts are also undoubtedly contentious, but a fully italicized table seems like overkill.

Inquiry learning Connective learning
Understanding big ideas Understanding fragmented ideas
Depth of understanding Depth/diversity of connections
Question, investigate Converse, immerse, connect
Collaboration (team with shared goals) Cooperation (individuals with aligned interests)
Teacher as facilitator Learner and network as facilitators
Guide on the side/meddler in the middle Modeling, demonstration
Anticipated processes, goals Emergent processes, goals
Understanding, reflection Increasing/improving connections, construction/bricolage
Interdisciplinary Transdisciplinary
Focus on developing “whole” learner (values orientation, socialization) Come as you are/ “knowing to be”
Active/continuous participation Option of legitimate peripheral participation
The practice of experts Distributed expertise, state of expertness
Learner-focused Learner as node, hub, link
Authenticity: Actual and simulated/designed Space: “Real” and “virtual”
Groups and communities Networks, communities
Use of resources beyond classroom Classroom/coursework as one potential resource
Assessment by more knowledgeable other Ongoing assessment through network interaction (via self and others)
Consciously uses “technology” “Technology” is assumed/invisible/ubiquitous
Exploration, discovery, experience “Foraging,” way-finding, pattern recognition, surfing, sensing, experiencing
Encourages relevance, motivation Requires relevance, motivation
Resulting knowledge is new to learner Resulting knowledge is new to all (to network)
Considers content (existing knowledge) in addition to process New knowing emerges from process of network activity
Learning results in knowledge Learning results in/is “being”

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CCK08: Complexity 101

In which I catch some air and put boots on the ground.

Parachuting through and into complexity

Student and "guide," paragliding through complexity


Every once in a while, I’m invited to work with groups or classes on history projects as a “real live historian.” (Insert your own joke here.) Several years ago, I parachuted into a group of students who were putting together a self-selected, relatively “open” history project for the first time.

This is a typical story for anyone in education, but here it is anyway: As the students launched into their research, one showed me an email she was about to send to the head of a national repository, asking for information… information that I knew was provided in resources readily available on that institution’s website… where she’d gone to find the address in the first place. In addition, the email note was (in my view) casual past the point of rudeness. And it reflected an ideological stance that was likely to be offensive to the recipient. Yet this was clearly a topic in which she had a personal interest.

I have this otherworldly vision of that moment in the classroom, the student and I, standing in a foggy space. Visible and invisible variables whoosh around us like asteroids: narrow misses, changing trajectories, inevitable collisions, shock waves reverberating beyond our fields of vision.

Did the student have a disability that prevented her from reading the online information well? Was the website designed in a way that a novice learner would miss significant information? Was my role to address the content of the letter, or the style, or the biases reflected there? Was the learner intentional or unaware in her word choices? How much of this was a clash of generational communication styles? How big was my assigned silo as a “history research expert?” Was this about accepting diversity in personal values and learning styles or an important “teachable moment?” If I approached this wrongly, would it discourage her from pursuing this interest? What about the other learners in the room with questions, and the ten minutes remaining in my visit? Did the age of the student make a difference? And what if she did send the cringe-worthy email? There’d be learning in that, too.

Many variables impacting on each other, many potential outcomes, both immediate and long-term.

If connective knowledge is fostered through open learning environments, and/or if open learning is fostered through connective knowledge (and assuming these states are deemed desirable), I suspect there will be more encounters like this.

Experts/leaders/facilitators/curators, learners, and maybe even other learner advocates (parents, mentors) connect in relation to a concept or project or performance (or maybe something like a boundary object). Many will have limited understandings of each other’s backgrounds or contexts. Approaches previously used to reduce or eliminate complexity will no longer apply. For example, just-in-time learning skills are assumed, rather than calling for prerequisite content knowledge. Assessments and accreditation are optional or not necessarily used as “power tools” to evaluate or require explicit understandings of expert views.

Sounds like a class I know.

My experience with the history project was nothing “new.” It simply confirms that efforts at open and connected learning create complex interactions between and among many things, including academic and less formal understandings (i.e. of terminology); personal initiative and the desire to and for support; perceived “rightness” and “wrongness;” and any number of worldviews. In these cases (and even in more “regulated” learning environments), a rigid insistence on standardized outcomes seems like an act of hubris.

Then again, there’s a lot of that going around lately.

Denouement: In the end, I settled my “expertness” hat more firmly on my head and showed the student where information could be found on several websites. I also noted for her that historians address each other differently, and offered some alternative language suggestions for her email… knowing full well that neither the student, the classroom teacher, nor the system in which they were operating were really positioned to address the just-in-time learning options here.

It might be possible to view this encounter as a referendum on the student, the teacher, or open or project learning. Instead, however, I read it as a sign of the fundamental changes in the learning conversations and conceptualization of learning that are needed in an era when knowledge can (and should) no longer be defined by a textbook.

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