Posts Tagged ‘personal learning’

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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Terms of engagement

I’ve been doing more listening, and seeing some familiar patterns. Here are some related comments from the last few weeks (rephrased for speaker privacy):

Kids just want to know what’s on the test.

Students don’t want to think critically; they just want the answers.

When I give kids a chance to choose their projects, a lot of them cop out.

Even my “A” students need me to tell them what to do.

I just can’t seem to get them motivated.

(Similar concerns were expressed in a Ustream conversation with Will Richardson and Howard Rheingold last week.)

Does anyone else suspect that these comments aren’t really all about the students? To me, these concerns say much more about the adults in their lives. Who are we trying to kid, anyway? Students are walking, talking agenda detectors. They know that the assignments and the lessons and the educational structures aren’t really about their personally significant needs, interests or dreams. They’re about what adults (teachers, parents, school boards, politicians) want them to do, at adult convenience, and in an adult timeframe. No one asked them about any of it. Is it any wonder that motivation and engagement are conspicuously absent?

Motivation and engagement through inquiry?

Genuine options or pre-determined paths?

Genuine options or pre-determined paths?

The magic pill for student motivation and engagement right now seems to be inquiry-based learning processes. But I will confess that the more exposure I get to some inquiry-based learning designs, the more skeptical I become. While intended to be student-centered and responsive, what is really the result of  “starting with the end in mind” and pre-defined “essential questions?” Do we really think that students aren’t aware that in much of this learning there’s a Great Oz behind the curtain, jury-rigging events and processes so that their “discoveries” meet adult expectations and goals? Is it really that different than a top-down curriculum?

Contrarian that I am at the moment, I often find something ironic about wanting kids to think deeply and critically, but then telling them – requiring them – to think deeply about specific things defined by someone else. (Maybe this relates to the postmodern idea that worldviews/understandings based earlier on overarching narratives or themes are becoming fragmented.) Can we blame students if they don’t want to wander down the garden path of  “discovery” if they know they still have to go through the teacher’s gate?  If the learning isn’t a process of honest choices with honest results, it seems pretty easy to breed distrust and apathy.  (How about one pre-teen’s reaction to a teacher’s inquiry-related Socratic questioning: “Does he really think I’m going to learn something if he pretends he’s dumb?”) 

In mucking about in literature about motivation and inquiry, I recently stumbled across the idea that researchers recognize that learning and assessments deemed “authentic” actually have varying definitions, and that this concept may require closer investigation. (Schaffer and Resnick, 1999). I also encountered an observation by R. Keith Sawyer (“Schools of the Future” in Sawyer, 2006) that studies of authentic/inquiry learning are based on math and science education, and they have not yet been proven to apply to other processes or disciplines. This has been an important piece of information for me, since, as a cultural and historical field researcher and as an independent learner, I am aware of mismatches between my processes and those suggested by inquiry learning designs.

Are we engaged?

True, I don’t think many students articulate – or can articulate – a sense of being steered or mismatched. Instead, whether in inquiry-based environments or more traditional settings, many students are disengaged and apparently unmotivated … and looking for the most direct route to fulfilling adult expectations so they can go off and do the things they find important. I’d say the attitude is the message. Yeah, maybe some students really do have an “attitude problem.” And yeah, maybe some of these “important” things seem superficial and a waste of brainpower. (From the student perspective, the same claims about superficiality and a waste of brainpower can be said about a lot of required education.) But unless and until we understand personal contexts and are willing to engage respectfully and individually with learners, talking with them instead of planning for them, I think that we, as adults, need to be more cautious about shame and blame when it comes to motivation and engagement.

After all, by refusing to engage and learn or by being dismissive (sound familiar?), the adult world has often abdicated its facilitative/educational role as young (and not so young) people adopt(ed) the major game changers of social media and technology. What we may see as great leeway and an impressive range of learning choices looks a lot like the same old, same old to a lot of learners. We’ve got at least a generation of social media latchkey kids who, having figured out how to unlock their Pandora’s boxes and make their own tech-based sandwiches, certainly aren’t going to relinquish the keys…or let us take away or ration the very tasty peanut butter.

Sure, students who have good relationships with their teachers and are interested in pleasing them can do well in most learning situations. Many students accept the tacit social contract of  the educational process. And acknowledging the role and value of situational interest  in “structuring inquiry” seems a good meeting ground between developing students’ respect for adult requests and the adult desire to instill certain concepts and values. These experiences can indeed be motivating and engaging for students. I get it, it’s often the best current option, there’s the ocean of research and practice by great minds to back it up, etc. No need for hate mail.

I do, however, see a potential difference for motivation and engagement between some inquiry processes as they are packaged and parsed for the relatively static, contained, standards-based and batched processes of the American classroom, and the complex, messy, and personalized inquiry processes that are possible in an individualized and connective environment.

Motivation and engagement through personalized learning?

Personalized learning, individualized learning, self-directed learning,  personal learning environments, and motivation and engagement have somehow become conflated concepts in my mind as I attempt to understand the options for and potential of new learning opportunities. These will require further sorting out, and I’ve been hung up here for days. But I’ll make a huge, intuitive, and unsubstantiated leap for the sake of the rest of this discussion, and say that I believe that personalization and self-directed learning (enabled by connectivist practices in personal learning environments) are potential keys to student motivation and engagement.

Unfortunately, the transitional period for this vision looks like a pretty rough ride. Lack of engagement and motivation is a vicious cycle. And the isolated opportunities that genuinely support motivation and engagement through personalized learning right now are often a case of “too little, too late.”  So it’s also true that even when given the opportunities to pursue personal interests, students often want to be told what to do. And while supporting personal learning, unless everyone is on – and committed to – the same page, there’s room for, shall we say, weaseling by all players.

The development of personal motivation requires lots of breathing room

The development of personal motivation requires lots of breathing room

On the student side, if you’ve never had the chance to know yourself and understand your interests and motivations, you don’t know where to start. (A phrase like “engage me or enrage me” doesn’t help, since it suggests that it’s the teacher’s  job to ensure engagement, rather than a intrinsic issue.) In such cases, begging someone tell you what to do is easier than figuring it out yourself. On the teacher side, providing more direction keeps things streamlined, and there are usually just too many kids to persist otherwise. On the parent side… my kid is confused and isn’t doing anything and clearly, my son, you should have textbook, what can your teacher be thinking? (Another observation: where adults aren’t aligned and communicating, some kids are especially good at manipulating these dynamics.)

Interestingly, a report about a school in Minnesota with personalized learning notes that even students who have spent several years in the program will opt for their senior year in a traditional setting, rather than tackle a time-consuming capstone project. This phenomenon raises a lot of ethnographic-type curiosity in me; the dearth of detail here frees me to speculate based on my own observations of other personal learning. (I can’t speak for what happens in this school.) I have some general suspicions, and they come back to adults again.

If you are a student who is going to invest 300 hours in a final project, you are likely to have a lot of needs that can’t be met in a school setting, even a progressive one. The support and encouragement of trusted and trustworthy adults in terms of time, conversation, space, transportation and maybe even financing are factors in personalized project work. It has been my experience that there’s often no clear understanding of how these things are going to be accessible. Everyone does what they can, sure, but it takes a village, and social systems are not currently responsive to this. Beyond school walls, the popular community understanding is that “kids belong in school,” and that any possible learning needs will be met there. A new world of connective learning and individualized projects, whether in a physical environment or a more abstract “personal learning environment,” requires currently unfamiliar kinds of commitments and understandings from potential student supporters, whether “teacher” or “facilitator,” online “mentor,” or the larger community  –  including parents. Some students have this support, but many don’t. (Thus the specter of “personal learning inequality” is raised…) And so while small individualized projects seem “doable,” personal learning on a larger scale is often intimidating for learners… maybe even for learners of all ages.

I’m aware of the apparent contradiction here: am I saying, as above, that adults should back off, or, as suggested here, be more involved? I guess I’d call for a different kind of involvement, one that reflects a new understanding of how learning can be defined and supported for individual students, and a focus on shared nurture, rather than external goals and outcomes. A tall order, indeed.

Additionally, as a parent, I’d say it’s especially important to recognize in a transitional educational period that kids can’t do it all. They can’t regularly fulfill a slate of others’ “rigorous” and deadline-laden expectations, while at the same time understanding, shaping, and meeting their own, intrinsically-motivated learning needs. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. And self-learning, in both senses of the word, takes time. A report on the Visible  Knowledge Project  notes:

In fact, a key outcome of linking difficulty with a robust definition of expertise (and expert processes) is to call into question traditional notions of rigor, to privilege time and space for activity that initially looks decidedly non-expert.

Will personalized learning (or perhaps “personalized inquiry”) solve motivation and engagement problems across the board? Of course not. The consequences of poverty, physical and mental health issues and personal, family, and community dysfunctions are all ongoing issues in any vision of learning. And personalized learning takes practice and yes, the support of experts, albeit in sizes, shapes and colors rarely seen.

Additionally, in order for this kind of learning to be truly successful, we have to be willing to put a lot of assumptions and “musts” and personal ideologies (including the concept that we “allow” students to do things) on the bargaining table.  If motivation and engagement are what we want from and for our kids, we are going to have to be open to lots of role changes and a whole lot more personalized discussion and negotiation – among mentors/educators, parents, community members, and especially  students… the younger (and sooner) the better.

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