Posts Tagged ‘learning’

“…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 take a quick glance at another open course.

In spite of our best efforts at incorporating public transportation and, in the warmer months, serious commuter bike mileage, I spend an alarming amount of time ferrying offspring hither and yon. This precludes a lot of other activities, including any consistent writing for such things as open courses. But, depending on the traffic level and the weather, the drive time does foster opportunities to muse upon the events and information of the day.

So in musing about my brief, once-over-lightly, tip-of-the-iceberg foray into learning analytics descriptions and commentary, I found myself reflecting on my agreement with Viplav Baxi‘s response to George Siemens’ question about learning analytics critiques: the potential and actualization of learning and knowledge analytics will make our current systems of assessment and other learning processes look like a horse and buggy before the invention of the wheel.

OK, so I’ve rephrased this a bit, caught up as I am in the role of transportation jockey. But I’ve just spent the past week driving a most modern horseless carriage.  And it struck me as I inched along in a fresh three inches of chemically-converted slush that the vehicle comes equipped with a rudimentary form of “learning analytics,” especially in terms of feedback mechanisms. And here I’ve become acutely aware of the persistent discrepancies between the ideal and the reality from the learner/driver end of the equation as the technologies – and maybe even our psychological processes – undergo developmental and adaptive changes.

True, my car and I agree on the big picture. The point is to get from location A to location B in a safe manner while consuming as few fossil fuels as possible. It was ever thus. (Well, at least in this house, since we have never understood why one would drive vehicles insouciantly named after the landscapes they’re destroying… tundra, sequoia, etc.).

But now my car has taken on the role of data provider and driving analyst in ways that the venerable Small Outdoorsy Wagon has never done. It “responds” to my driving through various signals and signs. It’s a bit trying, at least in this initial phase.

For example, in the name of safety, the car is equipped with numerous bells and whistles, and yes, I mean this literally.  The one most perplexing to me is the Mack-truck-in-reverse beeping that occurs when I put this considerably less intimidating vehicle into reverse. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Every. Damn. Time…. I leave the garage. It’s not even outside the car. This I could see as a reasonable warning to others that the vehicle and a driver of indeterminate skill are on the move. But it’s inside the car. There’s no override. There’s no volume control. And I’m wondering what research has shown that such vast numbers of drivers are so confused about whether they are coming or going while piloting this car that all drivers need to be warned that they’re going backward.

Or how about the orange “slipping tires” warning light that blinks if there are…well, slipping tires? Which is about, oh, every quarter mile with our current road conditions. My peripheral vision is constantly caught by the flash of Threat Level Orange just off to the left, behind the steering wheel. What’s going to happen over time? I’m going to learn to ignore it, I suspect, which probably wasn’t the intent. And as an experienced driver, believe me, I know if I’m spinning my wheels and need to change tactics. Flashing lights at me just increases the number of things vying for my attention under already problematic circumstances.

I’m also feeling a bit ambiguous about the sheer volume of data that is suddenly available to me as a driver. True, dashboards (and I’ll point out my laptop has one, too) through the ages have provided drivers with all sorts of information. Speed being of most interest, I suppose, both when it was hard to come by and now, when it’s hard to keep down. Fuel gauge. Engine temperature. Oil level. Add some trip mileage. A clock. The radio controls.

What strikes me now, however, is that the degree of precision in this information has increased tremendously. True, it’s my choice (or is it?) to react to the data, but I’m finding a digital readout of 54, 55, 56, 57 (oops) to be a more exhaustive and rigid taskmaster than a needle quivering around the 55 mph mark on a dial. This is also true for the second set of feedback mechanisms that have suddenly appeared: the Hybrid System Indicator. All of a sudden, I know not only my exact trip mileage, but also have second-by-second information on battery power. And on how far I can travel on the remaining fuel at the current rate of speed (as if I could maintain that speed in rush hour traffic). And on exactly how many gallons are left in the tank. And on whether I’m pulling from the battery, from the gas, from both, or whether and how much I’m charging the battery (available as a scaled readout or as an animated illustration that reminds me of those movies of blood flowing through the heart chambers). And even more addictive: I can know the average number of miles I’m getting per gallon every single moment, to one place behind the decimal point. I’m not much of a gamer, but we’ve already developed a friendly household competition to see who comes back to the garage with the highest score.

So one question from a learning perspective is: has this information and analysis (provided partly by the car, and partly through my interpretations) somehow changed my behavior or knowledge as a driver? In this “getting to know you period,” I’d say yes. It’s easy, for example, to use the power monitoring to make minor adjustments to the acceleration rate when pulling away from a stop sign, especially if you’ve developed an aversion to seeing the little indicator zoom into the brown (cleverly equaling “yucky”) fossil fuels zone.

But the other thing that concerns me is how much time I spend looking at these gauges, drawn in by the hobgoblins of consistency and accuracy and constant feedback, and the mixed-motive enticements of low fuel consumption/less pollution/economic savings. The speedometer checks are actually more essential, as the quietness of the high tech engine makes it hard to recognize the speed at which I’m travelling; in other words, I have more potentially “useful” information and thus greater potential control over my “results,” but I am receiving fewer environmental cues. (And how much precision does one really need? Do I really need to know that the car’s interior is 67 degrees, and will my driving experience be all that much cozier if I set it to 69? And finding out that my life behind the wheel averages 23 miles per hour? I think I’d have rather not known.)

I’ve also become acutely aware that consistent monitoring and making use of all this information means… less time looking at the road. Paying less attention to the other cars. Pretty much ignoring the scenery. I might have more safety warnings, but my new, information-rich processes aren’t necessarily contributing to more safe or enjoyable procedures. And all of this information and the constant adjustments I make in response create, I can attest, a more mentally fatiguing driving experience. (Something I, three months into a snowy, x-hundred-rush-hour-miles-a-week winter, wouldn’t have thought possible).

So how much of this new wealth of information and responsive feedback will I simply begin to incorporate without this extra refelection over time? To what degree will I assert my autonomy as a driver and simply ignore what I see as bothersome analysis, fuel consumption results be damned?  How soon will all of this be old hat, whereby the constant exposure to the technology will gradually wear me down into unreflective compliance with those digital measuring sticks, and I’ll likely forget the initial dissonance of these changes? And what about the household’s driver-in-training, whose arcane, state-required  “driver’s education” tells new drivers to honk at bicyclists ahead of them as a warning (wtf?) and preaches about the dangers of cell phones behind the wheel, but doesn’t begin to recognize the new cognitive demands of driving such a technically advanced vehicle, with four screens worth of data accessible via a steering wheel control?

On the other side: does this discussion really capture the full potential of– or any reasonable hesitation about– the sophisticated complexity of learning analytics?  It’s more about an interim or introductory stage in driving analytics, to be sure. Already, there are cars that do far more than mine. Some remember, for example, the preferred interior settings of each individual driver. Some, like the Google car, even drive themselves. Ultimately, it’s clear that I’ll be adjusting to the vehicle, not the other way around, which seems indeed to be the most rudimentary of “responsive” systems.

I also recognize that this conversation is still all about driving, and that’s a paradigm problem. I can get pretty excited about 47.7 miles per gallon when I’d gotten used to a (mentally calculated) 28 mpg. But these new numbers, no matter how improved, aren’t a seriously effective response to the larger implications of fossil fuel consumption in a shifting climate. Better mileage is insufficient for the leap we need to make. So I’m hoping this, too, reflects an interim, rather than ultimate, solution. I’d say the very act of driving needs to be scrutinized as well, along with a whole host of other forms of consumption. (Teleportation, anyone?)

And finally, I’d note that the seductive power of the oversimplified analogy can create a misleading but unfortunately persistent picture. So I suspect I’d best spend more time surveying the route maps and take these musings for another drive… and thoughtfully prepare to cross some fancy new bridges as I come to them. 

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In which I follow up on the exhortation to “just connect” by noting an additional approach to connective learning.

“Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution, taking it even one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. It is activated from and organizes what I call “divinely superfluous neurons.” These are neural connections that don’t seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization…

"...don't seem to have an immediate function..."

In playing we foster the creation of those new circuits and test them by running signals through them. Because play is a nonessential activity, this testing is done safely, when survival is not at stake….

Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s counterpart. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it. As we grow older, we are taught that learning should be serious, that subjects are complicated. These serious subjects take serious study, we are told, and play only trivializes them… [But] sometimes the best way to get a feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it…

"... we are taught that learning must be serious..."

When play arises out of innate motivations it is also likely timed to occur when we are primed for the most synaptic neural growth. That is when we are embracing the issues that grab us most, the ones we may not even be able to voice logically…

Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties… Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play…

"... stepping out of a normal routine..."

The world needs play because it enables each person to live a good life…”

From: Brown, Stuart and Vaughn, Christopher (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

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In which I consider for myself, at a great length, an unwieldy mass of  raw, cooked, and half-baked idea relating to learning, invisibility and silence… ironically with lots of pictures and an alarming amount of purple-patched prose.

It is an hour past sunrise on this August morning, and I am enjoying the green-scented breeze, the full summer flush of the potted pink impatiens, and the neighborhood’s awakening cicadas. I have settled at the table on our do-it-yourself–to-save-construction-costs second-story deck. Eight years ago, in our most advanced and now-appreciated act of home improvement ever, we mounted the modest twelve by twelve cedar platform just below the outstretched branches of aging, rather unkempt maple and elm trees, framed and anchored on two sides by the ell of our periwinkle Cape Cod’s body and the house-garage breezeway link that extols its 1954 construction. (I hereby admit a reluctance to commit the recommended grown-up acts of pruning and trimming the long limbs nodding overhead, unwilling to let the dreamy tree-house atmosphere and welcome shade fall victim to such mundane maintenance.)

Limbs overhead

It is from this location that, weather and familial circumstances permitting, I commit what an anthropologically-or ethnographically-minded observer might call my first identifiable act of overt personal learning for the day. In the absence of such specifically trained observers (although several other observers, witnesses, participants and/or spectators appear and disappear during the day’s flux), I suppose I am uniquely situated to depict – several years of action research being the ongoing modus operandi –the nature and reverberations of these endeavors.

I do so somewhat cautiously and with great ambiguity, aware that a love-affair backlash seems to be brewing in the tiny, somewhat lonely and amorphous culture  (all highly interpretive words, to be sure) that has embraced the terms personal learning network and personal learning environment… terms now undergoing some scrutiny. I have always found myself uneasy with these phrases, or perhaps with the often techno-cultural-progressive rhetoric that frames them, and have rarely used them raw or straight out of the package, finding myself instead only able to employ in all sincerity the first two-thirds of these phrases, “personal” and “learning.”

These words, in currant parlance, resonate, whereas the implications and assumptions of the terms personal learning network (defined broadly as people connected through communication, and conceptually linked to connective learning) and personal learning environment (insofar as this has consistently been defined as a set of technologically-based tools and programs with which one surrounds oneself and uses to create and connect to the aforementioned network) have left me wary, and, on many days, weary. I also wonder if terms which were coined essentially as Bateson’s  “knots in a handkerchief,” a place marker or temporary terminology to talk about things which are still fuzzy in concept, have become rapidly cemented as absolute ideas with presumably clear definition (perhaps to the dismay of the very originators of the terms).

With these compound terms I have been instinctively inclined to hesitate, drawing meditative breaths, perhaps here and now fatally throwing myself off my quiet and tentative perch in the bandwagon in order to better examine the juxtaposition of apparent and entrenched tradition against prospective and prescriptive innovation from many perspectives. Here I draw on ethnographic, anthropologic and even historiographic perspectives:

“…the moment a professional historian picks up a page, he or she begins taking a sophisticated series of steps that are almost completely unknown to the novice learner. When presented with a document, [they] …began by looking at the bottom of the page in search of information about the author and the nature of the source that would help situate the text within some larger context. But this was only the most obvious of the steps that the experts went through, as they treated texts as complex “rhetorical acts” whose basic nature had to be reconstructed. The historians zigzagged from one text to another in order to make explicit the motivations of the authors, to relate the text to its historical context, to explore the connotations of the words used to describe events, and even to construct a “mock reader” who fell into the rhetorical traps set by the “mock author” who was posited as creator of the text…. the historians read the texts like prosecuting attorneys…”

A series of steps

The paradoxical quest for a significant narrative

As an outcome of this type of deep questioning, I view with particular concern a perceptible shift from descriptive approaches for personal and connective learning permutations to prescriptive ones. Current skirmishes aside, I am finding that the “texts” of personal learning networks and environments, often embedded within “social learning” and connective advocacy, have become their own gospel and cause for hallelujahs, rather than objects of judicious theological study.

It is also here that I wonder if  complaints about change (change is not happening fast enough, at great enough magnitude, at pervasive enough levels of acceptance) are related to a focus on overly large scales of “measurement” and observation. Is the eagerness to formulate grand narratives of change, to identify unifying broad themes and approaches and perhaps even to view one’s life work as a vanguard of a movement also a certain type of… assumptiveness? (Manifest destiny, anyone?) Does the current preoccupation with evaluating and praising “change leadership” perhaps fail to recognize quietly authentic action? (To create an omelet of change, one needs to break a few eggy rules. Advertising this becomes… counterproductive.) And to what degree are people still in the grip of the very learning they expect to change?

“Howard Gardner…  suggested a few areas where such early patterns of social learning might create …[mental models] such as the expectation that history is organized according to narrative patterns that make a certain kind of moral sense, that events have a single cause, and that general stereotypes can be applied to entire classes of people.”

Some days, when early morning on the deck is already burdened with heavy, humid air and the sulk of coming storms, the combative question of whether there is a hegemonic flavor to the essentially progressive narrative that underlies educational technology and related learning roils on the horizon.

Metaphor made literal: clouds on the horizon

In observing and engaging in efforts to communicate about connective/personal/social learning networks and environments, I tap into an intuitive sense that such connective features might already exist in many places, invisible and undiscussed. I speculate whether it is not a lack of understanding by those not convinced, but rather an issue of approach, or perhaps one of insufficiently connective conceptual language, that might be getting in the way of understanding and encouraging learning in ways that are  (I say while wearing my activist’s hat) essential for survival. In understanding personal learning landscapes, I suspect there is much left uninvestigated, much that is invisible in the efforts to effect change. Ann Oakley notes:

Some issues on which research reports usually do not comment are: social/personal characteristics of those doing the interviewing; interviewees’ feelings about being interviewed and about the interview; interviewers’ feelings about interviewees; and quality of interviewer- interviewee interaction; hospitality offered by interviewees to interviewers; attempts to interviewees to use interviewers as sources of information; and the extension of interviewer-interviewee encounters into more broadly-based social relationships.”

This passage points out the many layers of understanding and, as I see it, learning potentials rendered invisible by standard practices of social sciences. Without understandings of the existing relationships (connections) and personal choices within each person’s complex context, I wonder if connective and personal learning, which are consistently framed within the social science practices of education, run the risk of becoming (ironically) yet another set of externally applied, generically defined learning expectations.

Local landscapes, domestic details, and sense of place

Fortunately, the antidote that prevents this from becoming a paralyzing concern is a daily life that inevitably reflects connective learning embedded in personal contexts, and it is here that I return to the dappled sunlight on the blue-and white checkered tablecloth, a second cup of coffee lapping at the rim of a slender porcelain cup. Personal learning does not appear here as an environment or network imposed or exposed, but rather as emergent activities and occasional performances, ones which I create and improvise. Yes, these are peripherally enabled through an environment in the sense of objects/tools surrounding me, but even more they are crafted and created through and by an environment of multi-sensate and multi-dimensional immersion.

The terms environment, landscape and geography occupy similar connotative space, with varied implications. While my initial preference is for the immersive term “environment,” it has been perhaps irretrievably usurped in relation to personal learning, and so landscape and geography remain more viable terms in attempting to communicate the descriptive essence of personal learning.

In the efforts to capture the apparently fundamental aspects of personal learning, we are often urged to build or reflect upon “our network,” or to construct a “mind map” of the digital tools we use the create a web or network of communicative/learning opportunities. This is helpful in a rudimentary fashion, but I suggest the significance of personal learning is not due to the collection of tools or a grouping of people which allows us to engage, but because it allows us to develop our “sense of self” within a developing “sense of place.” Sense of place, suggests geographer Kent Ryden, is “that complex of meaning that gives a landscape its significance in the eyes of the people who inhabit it, marking it off from the surrounding terra incognita… the sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative…”  (This idea of geography or location is reflected in the concept of online visitors and residents, whereby each group has different agendas, senses of place, and levels of habitation and habituation.)

And yes, there is certainly an awareness of narrative related to personal learning in the nascent personal learning culture. But it seems often to be an awareness imbued with an agenda, one intended to prove the rightness of the learning environment phenomena. Personal anecdotes are informative, but are not proof of rightness for all, and I worry that some efforts confuse the two. Behaviorist cheerleading also disturbs my ethnographic sensibilities, when narratives of shared place and experience are invited based on attitudinal agreement, whereby small but visible groups define the sense of space for others. Instead, I wonder if it would be equally productive to foster gradually accrued understandings (though not “definition”) through astute observation and listening by and to individuals and their own coalescing and competing (even interwoven) existing place narratives in spaces in which they feel most comfortable.

I envision personal learning as growing from the local, the small things forgotten, the minutia of daily life. These things are, I would posit, the very essence of personal learning, much as history is comprised of the amassed flow of uncounted, unidentified and yet undiscovered individuals, in spite of work which frames it in terms of leadership, power and those people, places and things easily and widely documented.

Maps with meaning

And so, for example, fighting a bit with the gentle breeze and finding the coffee suitably cooled, I spread before me an oddly obsolete personal learning device, the daily print edition of the local newspaper. There would be those witnessing this act who would, I suspect, jump to conclusions about absent RSS feeds, about my technological know-how, about hardware have and have-nots. A curious ethnographer would soon elicit the information that even with laptop and iphone immediately at hand, and ready recognition that the very same articles are available without cost on those devices, and sophisticated information abundance coping and flow mechanisms, I still continue to subscribe, with admitted environmental qualms, to dead tree deliveries. I posit that the “whys” in this scenario offer one set of examples about the complex and often ambiguous processes that support personal learning on the personal level. But first my coffee needs cream, and the sun is penetrating the leafy branches, which means I need a hat.

In documenting geography and landscapes, much as we have been asked to document our personal learning networks and environments, one turns to graphic representations, largely maps and charts and neatly packaged videos. In a world just coming to terms with the renewed idea that learning is not just a matter of manipulating text and language, the less-verbal pictorial representations are indeed a welcome expansion.  But, as Ryden notes…

“While the modern map is a marvel of efficient geographical communication… in other important ways it does not tell us very much as all…. I spent nine years of my childhood among these hills, houses, rivers, and lanes. The map tells me where certain hills are, but I retain in my legs the physical memory of what it feels like for a child to climb them. It tells me where certain buildings are, but I know what they look like inside and out—and not just as a photograph freezes an image, but what they look like at different times of the day and year. I … remember what I did in those buildings… [maps convert] a complex geographical reality into a purified objet of aesthetic contemplation. The map pays no heed to the ambiguities of that shifting, amorphous zone where land meets sea; it states firm conclusions in sharply etched lines and bright cartographic blues and greens… it compresses that landscape’s ambiguities into an arbitrary and simple flatness- it is all surface, lacking depth… The map has nothing to so with the quality and character of human existence as it is lived and felt on the surfaces that it describes…”

"A feeling in the legs"

It strikes me that descriptions of personal learning networks and environments are often as similarly sterile as the modern map, or obedient recitations of latitude and longitude. I wonder if descriptions and instruction intended to support personal learning to this point are absent the acknowledgement or discussion of precisely this “feeling in the legs.” Yes, “you have to do it to get it” is a popular phrase. But while encouraging participation, it also implies that unless the learner is engaged in the “it”  (blogging, podcasting, writing a wiki, joining a Ning group) identified by the speaker,  “it” is not right. This phrase further tangles with chicken-and-egg learning dilemmas, suggesting the act of doing will inspire the feeling the speaker wishes the other to achieve, rather than working toward a feeling of emerging or connected rightness to inspire a selected act.

I would posit that many people already have a feeling in the legs regarding their own learning, but that we have not supported a culture that allows this to become a legitimate and valued part of a map, or learning landscape. While maps in the pre-satellite image world were created by individuals, and for centuries were idiosyncratic and artistic representations of and by their creators, they have long since been consistently stripped of personal and lived reflections.  How many of our current learning maps, whether curriculum guides or and mind maps of personal learning environments, are reflections that, as Ryden says, “inspire imagination, emotion and words,” or any type of “poetic creativity?”

Folklorists, ethnographers and the like value maps, but learn to see them not as an end in themselves, but largely as one of many potential scaffolds for understanding lived experience; experience they seek themselves in attempting to comprehend to map, and also experience they seek to understand by listening to others inhabiting the map space.

Experiencing the map

Complexities of tradition, change, and reading the comics

In the summer, the two teenagers of the house are relatively late risers, but still, I have found that it is best to peruse the newspaper first thing. Otherwise, I find myself negotiating for the front page, a time-consuming endeavor, and can’t track down the features section until much later in the day, usually finding it crumpled, scrambled and half-hidden under the dark blue couch cushions. Worse yet, householders persist in wanting to read amusing cartoon captions and punchlines to me, whereas I prefer to enjoy words and visuals as a single entity as intended by the creator (or at least the Creators Syndicate). The rhythm of my personal newspaper reading is best capped off (and the direness of the previous news sections mitigated) by the unspoiled Reading of the Cartoons.

All these facets of experience are, one could argue, available elsewhere, with technological ease. And while I conceded the inevitability of online newspaper perusal into the future, my current assessment is:

  • The navigation of the online version is cumbersome and oddly linear.
  • Learning serendipity, particularly related to local oddities and grim curiosities often not addressed in even the best of my feeds, is greatly reduced online due to layout constraints.

    Serendipitous print amusements

  • Coffee and keyboards are a dangerous combination, especially on dark, bleary-eyed winter mornings in the depths of Minnesota winter.
  • The printed newspaper serves as an insidious and highly effective gateway drug for accumulating awareness of the surrounding world for younger household members. At the youngest ages, the two pages of comics easily endured banana-mash fingers (pages only improved by the liberal application of crayon). Later, cartoon-peripheral, ambient news awareness emerged since the paper was an item of high portability and great physical endurance, and because it was visually more obvious, tactilely more satisfying and acoustically more intriguing than a Macbook screen.
  • And yes, even though everyone in the house now has methods for tailoring and expanding their news and information processing, the pull of tradition, of messy newspapers first thing in the morning and the “could someone finally put the paper in the recycling” call to prayer in late afternoon are a part of the household routine creating “home.”

I cite this example not in attempt to defend a Luddite approach to the news, or to facilely defend the simple superiority of the old ways, or to deny the wonders of technology. Instead, it is simply to point out that this is but one small and yet extremely complex example of the kinds of preferences and contexts which contribute to the choices, processes and tools for personal learning– learning which is, I would add, never just my own, but is innately connective in facilitating or modeling these things (or serving as a cautionary tale, for that matter) for others.

Newspaper comics as gateway drug to ambient news awareness

Multiply these observations and choices by the almost limitless contextual elements related to the rationales for the construction of my idiosyncratic blogroll, my Google alerts, my Twitter followings, my library browsing, my love-hate relationship with my scanner pen (the very ownership of which reveals my constant negotiation among the printed and digital world), my need to change or eliminate chairs, my selection of conversational (dare one say social learning) partners based on, for a start, quickness of wit and their ability to recognize the difference between useful conversation and what one acerbic sociologist of my acquaintance called “online and offline grooming behaviors masquerading as friendship.” Add to this my weakness for fine-tipped colored Sharpies and the sly use of iMovie 09 sound effects, and the fact that I have an admittedly promiscuous attitude toward novel or high-quality expression, whether “open” and digital or not. In this context, my personal learning and expressions thereof, while meeting some obvious hallmarks of social and connective learning in networks, and while using diverse tools which comprise an “environment,” are best seen as complex tapestries that are not well represented by a map or a network diagram.

Is this complexity and humanness communicated to others in current discussions and descriptions of personal learning environments and networks?

Go left at the fiberglass beaver

To speculate a bit further: if we regard personal learning as a form of geographic exploration within a personally situated and interpreted landscape, I wonder if current efforts to create maps or to identify the large landscape features as guidance systems for others suggest a misleading simplicity.

Instead, I am inclined to map whatever personal learning processes and features (routes/routines; likes and dislikes; fearsome, edge-dwelling dragons) are already part of a personal landscape, but still perhaps invisible because formal (and even personal?) learning cartographers have been taught or inclined to ignore or neutralize these features and interpretations. It would seem more reflective of human experience to ask about existing conceptual maps, which potentially offer views of personal learning already deeply rooted in common behaviors, activities and worldviews. It does not necessarily mean these processes will be polished, ideal, or immediately effective for learning going forward. But they provide a much different framework and/or language in considering if, how or whether learning might occur.

An example aside: our household recently required the services of a lawyer. In subsequent conversation, it turned out that while one member of the household viewed this as hiring someone to review and amend a document, another saw this as hiring someone to protect the interests of the potential document signer. Both things were true and occurred, but the frames of understanding were quite different. It is this expansion of available frames for understanding, rather than rejection of any particular frame, that I am attempting to address here.  A further, landscape-oriented example: When I need directions, I need to hear “slow down when you see the Git-n-Gun and swing a left by the giant fiberglass beaver,” not “go east on Highway 18.” Both pieces of information lead to the same location, but one type of information “works” better for me.

In a similar vein, philosopher Gary Comstock (cited by Ryden) points out there is a difference between “places of little sense” and “places of big sense.”

Places of little sense

“Places of little sense, says Comstock, ‘have very much sense; it is just of a modest, local, sort: farmers in orange feed caps discussing whether the girls’ basketball team hadn’t oughta switched to five-player rules, doughnutmakers showing sixteen-year-olds how to boil potatoes to make broth for Paget’s Bakery cinnamon rolls, children encouraged by their parents on Saturday night to layout their Sunday clothes. Such people have a good deal of practical wisdom, knowledge located in bones and bellies.’ The sense of such little, unpretentious places derives from the everyday round of localized experience. It emerges, piecemeal and humble, of custom and conversation. Places of big sense, on the other hand, are characterized by the University of Chicago, where Comstock went to graduate school, where daily conversation is devoted to big ideas and grand abstract theories, a place populated by ‘philosophers spending their lives searching for the key to all moralities, dinner guests telling intimate details about the lives of G. E. Moore and Paul Tillich. There is plenty of knowledge here, of a cerebral sort. Often, the bones are brittle.'”

Tacit and emergent maps

Would inquiries into existing (rather than projected or prescriptive) frames– “little” frames, perhaps– simply uncover what is already known as a personal learning network or environment? If not, what does this suggest about the nature of such networks? Or will they operate as is currently the understanding of “big frames” among network scholars? Will one person’s belief in or understanding of the networked environment be borne out in another’s personal landscape? What would this mean for efforts to deliberately alter learning landscapes on a large scale? And what about the idea that changes on our personal maps (towns damaged by storms or floods, neighbors who move away, road construction that tangles up the fastest route) invoke frustration and even grief?

The point is not to “refudiate” the concepts of networks, or personal learning environments, learning technology, or social learning. It is instead an attempt to expand the focus of conversation and investigation to reflect the intimate, the personal, the domestic aspects of learning that seem invisible in the big thinking language which expresses the desire to propagate change through mechanics, strategy and construction. (Social network “building,” for example.)

Perhaps there would be some benefits in an effort to create a process that recognizes the existing landscapes of personal learning that speak to and with others, including those who are often resistantly overwhelmed by the language of social media, high technology, and information abundance learning.  The idea that today’s personal learning options are new and improved—or even just improved—is not, I suspect, a sufficiently convincing reason for most people to move from the suburbs to a condo with a view of the skyline. Rather than colonizing others’ maps with prebuilt homes, it makes more sense to me to explore any territories that individuals already tacitly, shyly, or even defiantly have mapped and occupied, in order to understand how, or even if, they may link to other places with other senses and sensibilities.

A personal and connective learning landscape offers complex mapping challenges

While I have no patience for the pervasive, impersonal and standardized mapping that is a hallmark of much current formal learning, I worry that viewing an alternative landscape of personal learning as a currently underutilized or unoccupied space, waiting for just the right people and tools to bring forth fertile growth, is equally presumptive. Equally troublesome in these considerations are claims that lack of openness and obvious (publicly visible and “audible”) expression and exchange — public mapping, if you will– correlates with lack of learning. Poet Adrianne Rich wrote:

The technology of silence

The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms

silence not absence

of words or music or even

raw sounds

Silence can be a plan

Rigorously executed

The blueprint to a life

It is a presence

It has a history a form

Do not confuse it

With any kind of absence.

At the end of the day, I often return to my perch on the deck to watch swaths of pink and purpled clouds slip silently over the last glowing efforts of the sun. And here I am led to speculate: what could become of concepts and paradigms related to personal and connective learning if instead of first framing these in terms of power shifts and trying to re-sculpt the landscape with blogs and wikis and the deliberate construction of networks, we began by  recognizing and mapping the personal learning landscapes that we already inhabit, however silently and invisibly?

Works considered

Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an ecology of mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” The American Historical Review October 2004 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/109.4/pace.html&gt; (3 Aug. 2010).

Glenn, Cheryl, Unspoken: a rhetoric of silence. (SIU Press, 2004).

Oakley, Ann, “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms,” in Lincoln, Yvonne and Denzin, Norman K. Turning points in qualitative research: tying knots in a handkerchief. (Rowman Altamira, 2003).

Ryden, Kent C. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing and the Sense of Place (University of Iowa Press, 1993)

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The ether is recently re-focusing on teachers and teaching, what with George Seimen’s Teaching in Social and Technological Networks and Will Richardson’s Teachers as Master Learners.

The conversations are nuanced and respectful and full of expertise.

Still, I wonder if we’re missing a piece. Because while it makes sense to talk about how teachers need to learn to do things differently, and need to teach differently, and need to use different tools, this all seems to revolve around a focus on function.

Whereas I tend to see any potential changes in education – in our conception of learning– as first requiring a focus on belief.

There is a poetic and sincere symmetry in seeing the solution to education and learning as more and/or different education and learning. And I do not refute the potential for education to create change, and for people to change through their learning.

But I worry that asking  or requiring teachers to be learners, or to be shapers of networks, can be superficially interpreted as a basic shifting of job tasks—a mechanistic replacement of “doing x” with “doing y.” I know most folks engaged in the conversations understand it isn’t this simple. But to put a more pointed spin on this, I wonder how much this conversation is about as effective as telling Catholic priests that they will need to conduct Wiccan services from now on because, after all, it’s all religion in the end.

I wonder to what degree the acknowledged resistance to educational change has to do with a tension in which those asking for change are essentially, inadvertently, and tacitly perceived as being disrespectful of the beliefs of those invested in traditional conceptions of teaching.

Understanding the job of education as transmission or socialization or whatever other roles we wish to attribute it with is one level of analysis. But how and why we do this says something about what we believe about people, about “learners,” about children, and about ourselves.

All of the potential of the “new” world of learning really forces an age-old question. Do we believe that people are innately capable of personal development, of choosing learning, of goodness, of acting in the best interests of themselves and society? Or do we believe that people inherently need to be watched, guided from above (or from the side) and kept within structures and parameters with ideals set by “wiser” others because it’s “helpful”? (Nel Noddings writes of the difficulties of insisting on providing care not desired by the cared-for, perhaps out of a desire to feel significant.)

I suspect the vision of what a “teacher” is gets set very early in life. And folks who want to be “teachers” by title and job definition do so with that early image of a teacher in mind, with all the cultural and social accoutrements and assumptions that vision holds. Teaching as a named profession in our current environment requires a set beliefs that are subsequently expressed in structures and rituals. Folks who are less willing to engage with these structures and rituals, who find them, perhaps, hypocritical to their beliefs, are, I would suggest, not seeking to be “teachers.” (OK, maybe a few Lutherans have wandered into the sunrise rites, hoping for an interesting post-service potluck….)

So what is all this talk of change really asking of current teachers? Is it to change their work? Or is it something that’s really more fundamental… requiring a conversion, if you will? It’s an uncomfortable notion. Lots of questions here– about the effectiveness and rightness of evangelism. And about the lines between evangelism and education.

Maybe there is some common ground in all of this educational, cultural and societal change. But I think it will take some teasing out, because, quite frankly, when it comes to bedrock beliefs about people, skepticism and distrust are deeply embedded in the structures and rituals of teaching in its current form. And that belief is running smack up against the potential for more, shall we say, heretical forms of learning in a changing environment.

So how can this tension be addressed?

For those who might be inclined to take the “human potential” view of learning, I’d start by offering the early (1970’s) observations of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, who wrote [quotes condensed from various essays]:

“…there is no doubt that… insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds culture together….Today we face a different situation…

… It appears to me that the way of the future must be to base our lives and our education on the assumption that there are as many realities as there are persons, and that our highest priority is to accept that hypothesis and proceed from there … Here lies the challenge to educators–probably the most insecure and frightened among any of the professions–battered by public pressures, limited by legislative restrictions, essentially conservative in their reactions. Can they possibly espouse… a view of multiple realities…? Can they begin to bring into being the changes in attitudes, behaviors, and values that such a world view would demand?…

… It seems obvious to me that we need a change, amounting almost to a revolution, in the training of our teachers. …Suppose only a very small percentage volunteered? That would not concern me.… I happen to believe that such turbulence would be constructive. Traditionalists would be angry at these new innovators, and vice versa. Sacred cows would be questioned….”

Rogers goes on the envision a “free university,” where learners set their own curricula, facilitate their own learning and evaluate with tools other than grades.

“The persons who emerged from such a training program could be channeled into one of a limited number of schools that would welcome them….”

I think the potential of learning today goes well beyond the assumptions of structures and programs Rogers envisioned. But in terms of choice and change and rationale and “learner-centeredness,” Rogers seems quite prescient.

Believe it… or not.

Noddings, Nel. Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. University of California Press (2002),

Rogers, Carl. R.  A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin (1980).

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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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