Predicting Education

Predictions for technology and education are always popular. Over the break, someone sent me a link to this post on the topic:

I’ve always felt uneasy about predictive lists in education, and about such topics like the future of education. They seem like half-thoughts: predictions for what will happen, but few conclusions for what that means for practice today.

With predictions, I’m always left wanting for more discussion about the here and now, and the immediate past, rather than the future. Let’s make the future.

The article above works when it does look at the now, with statements like this: “…more and more tablets are in teacher and student hands.”

And this line, which I couldn’t agree with more: “…it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip…”

Teachers are the bridge between learner and structure/content. In small classes and in mega-multi-user-environments. Tech in education is used so well when teachers use it simply to get to know their students better.

A Synchronous Definition

I’ve been writing something of late, and much of it hinges on the definition of the word synchronous, or better yet, how the word is used.

When we use technologies like skype, google hangouts, and even telephones, these are generally referred to as synchronous communication. They have synchronous abilities in them however they also have several asynchronous functions that can override the synchronous features. In skype, we can shut off video or audio and use chat that can even expand communication over a period of days or weeks. Ditto with Google Hangouts, except this is more integrated to all of google services, I guess. With telephones, we can hang-up on people, effectively ending our presence in a conversation. And, with all such asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-communication, there are elements of body language, delay, facial expression, and accepted norms that do not translate from face-to-face synchronous into digital synchronous.

Something about the asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-medium amplifies the spoken word – my language students have always commented about how much more challenging it is to use target language over a telephone than it is to use over a table.

This would appear to be a recent distinction, because individual access to real-time media has emerged only in the past few decades. Is it that the common vocabulary just hasn’t caught up with technology? Or, are there two kinds of variables at play here (a sync/asyn divide and an analog/digital divide)? Or, is it something else?

I tend to think that the asynchronous-enhanced-synchronous-communication isn’t actually synchronous communication, but rather approaching synchronous while still being asynchronous.

It may seem like a small matter, but such small things matter these days. Distinctions of kind are not distinctions of degree.

Effective Eyes to See

Without effective eyes to see, does a light cast light? Not for practical purposes. (p42)

I take a lot of inspiration from philosophy & other abstract thinking. What I try to be mindful of, when I apply such concepts to education, is that these are different realms in important ways. Some interpretations of innovative educational theories often get confused in the cross-over.

An educational endeavor will always be measured against the idea of success. Education always has a goal – whether that is a specific goal or a loose goal simply defined by topic – that will always permeate its activity. The universe does not.

An educational theory cannot be a metaphysical theory. It cannot be a theory of everything, because we cannot see a theory of everything from the outside…we wouldn’t know the purpose.

Assigned Readings and Privilege

The issue of course design and assigned readings has been occupying my deeper thoughts recently. At the start of my current course there was some talk about it, and this blog post by Kate Bowles from a few days ago has fueled some of my ideas. Kate suggests a great idea for students at the start of any given course to provide individually contextual resources in lieu of providing introductions. It’s an especially nice idea because the act of “introducing yourself” is kind of embedded in participants’ description of their context and in their contribution of resources that are meaningful to them. However, I don’t see the innovation of participant contributed resources as being mutually exclusive to instructor provided resources. It would be unwise to do away assigned readings.

Perhaps there’s not some great anti-course-readings movement out there that’s sweeping across education. But, like I said, the idea got me thinking, and I do think there’s a few important points to be made about why course readings are not evil, and how perhaps they can be salvaged while educators bring in much needed learner contribution. If assigned readings are better understood maybe it will lead to better use.

Kate describes course readings in terms of a habitual sign of expertise, and points out the risk of focusing “our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others”. These are valid points if we’re going to view the learner ↔ teacher relationship as human to human. I suggest, that with the presence of the term ‘expert’, the relationship here is primarily human to body-of-knowledge.

Now, keep in mind that non-human entities have agency and can learn. They are encapsulated processes in themselves. And, a body of knowledge is one such encapsulated process.

Bodies of Knowledge, or Topics, consist of experience (change in experience, actually, and thus I still prefer the term ‘value’, but…matters for another post), including expert decisions about how to represent that topic. Selected readings are one of the ways that learners access a body of knowledge. This may come off as habitual, as chances are assigned readings will reflect long-standing, basic information about that subject area – cores tend to be much less dynamic than fringes. To me, assigned readings are not like replicating one person’s expertise, or signing a contract (grading and measuring learning certainly are), it’s more like establishing a relationship with a body of knowledge. When an instructor decides some readings for a course they are executing that body of knowledge, representing it through the course readings for learners to initiate a relationship with.

When entities undergo relationship, it is never fully nor exhaustive. We have to encounter other entities in some way. And, to be sure, if course readings are the only way learners relate to a topic, then it’s probably a limited way to experience a topic. They’ll only experience the basics, being out of touch with the current environment. This holds true for the opposite, though – the absence of expert input will leave participants only exposed to novice contributions. They’ll experience only the contextual side, developing a mere surface appreciation for the topic. The better questions in this case are how to use various types of readings and how learners are prepared to encounter these readings (ie: how secondary schools prepare students to handle information). In including the potential for both sides, the problem of assigned readings can thus be addressed depending on what best suits the specific course.

There are some implications of eliminating assigned readings as a policy:

  • Something about it just seems illogical – I want to hear what the expert has to say, especially if I’m paying for some course and, presumably, paying for access to such a person’s time. In my experience, more often than not in a class where instructor presence is particularity low (which also seems to be more often than not these days) one or two students will begin to dominate forums with resources, notes and discussion topics. Expert dominance is traded for a limited number of participant dominance.
  • To strictly get rid of assigned readings enforces a Human Privileged view of learning. This may not be so bad in itself, but it does raise some concerns. Non-human entities can lean – Can they, should they be ‘educated’? That is to say, do they have intentions? Is this the same as having agency? If topics are merely at the controls of human learners, suppressing and allowing how the different sides of them that are allowed to relate, it can call into question the very idea of non-human entities being able to learn. The definition of ‘learn’ would become wide enough to simply use the word ‘change’.
  • Bodies of Knowledge don’t only serve educational purposes. They serve practice. Often instructors’ lives overlap between educators of the field and participants in the field. To expect that the instructor should participate in the field from an educational perspective will shape the view of that body of knowledge in an Educational Privileged way. With practice less represented, the change in experience at the core of any topic will be more difficult to observe. It means distorting a topic because we want novices to learn in a specified way. At the very least, we have to be aware of this and be sure that this is how we want to collect and gather information for future generations.
  • The structure of relation doesn’t seem to fit other emerging theories. As learners, do we want to change our environment or change ourselves? To fight our environment, or to live within it? Both are useful in different situations, but maybe this is the point…when we declare something off-limits it removes the ability to use it situationally, or to connect in such a way. We start to see and expect other objects, entities and resources as having to adapt to us, the human, rather than us existing ecologically within our environment. I realize that this is all quite theoretical, and I don’t mean to present it so dramatically, but I do think it matters.
  • This issue is an example of a common occurrence in the way educational change is proceeding recently – too often rejecting the past, rather than realizing that traditional education wasn’t bad in itself, it was just limited. It couldn’t adapt to the need of so many new situations and new technological affordances. Education doesn’t need to throw away past practice, it needs to and has been adding to it greatly. We’re capable of a liberation of education here & now, not a shift. Don’t throw away stuff, we may need it. It’s all about Education from Situation.

Constitutional Debates and Educational Structure

Recently I’ve been learning about the Federalist debates that took place in the USA in the late 1700s. This was the quite passionate and deeply detailed discussion that lead the USA to ratify the Constitution in such a way that shifted the balance of power away from the individual states and more to the collective country. Incredible thinkers on both sides of the issue stated their cases for and against more centralized government structure in a series of papers that eventually convinced the population, who seemingly were majorly non-federalist, to go the route of collective. There’s a sense in this debate that these statesmen were practically applying their ideas in a situation they knew was bigtime. They were constructing a country with incredible potential, and basing it on centuries of example and precedent, not something that happens every lifetime. These were lucky people, and they rose to the challenge. It’s absolutely fascinating.

What is striking to me in this debate is how much it has in common with current innovation and emerging issues about education. There seemed to be continual points that made the connection for me. The wide-angle view of the federalist issue, to me, was a debate about the individual vs the collective. Or, even simpler, about moving between two levels of distinction. The issue at hand was where most of the power in government would lie: at the collection of states, or at the state level itself. In education we see this commonly now in balancing things like autonomous learning, individual goals and even cultural ideas between the more collective concepts of blanket course design, subject matter, and best practices. It’s Education vs Learning. Structure vs Individual.

A great stand-out quote I came across is when Hamilton states (in an argument for pro-federalism, even) that necessities will grow to resources. It’s a brilliant example of the way the federalists seem to ride their criticisms and just go with what exists rather than fight it. However, it also made me think of academia, and the growing monster of citations, certifications, awards, references, badges, prestige and red-tape that kind of clutter the industry. Are they needed, or have they just grown simply because educated people are becoming more numerous and knowledge is piling up? Because they can? I dunno, I tend to like these big scale metaphors and tend to find a lot of insight from pulling back to compare what cross-subjects share in common.

Maybe the most interesting insight I had, though, was in considering how this debate and Education differ, and in the nature of structure. For a government to succeed, the constitutional structure needs to be quite solid, sturdy. There are issues of money, policy making and justice that can’t really serve the people unless they are set in a uniform way. There’s an aspect of fairness. In education, learning isn’t as dependent on fair or level structure. I would argue that structure is needed, and is inherently a part of the word education, just not uniformly like in running a country of collected independent states. There’s no issue of fairness or diving up up collected funds. Maybe there’s no issue of estate or property to contend with, either. Structure can evolve differently for each learner under identical subject matters. The idea of Non-Essential Structure, or Non-Uniform Structure is one of the amazing developments in this era of education. It’s a powerful idea, I think, but perhaps a difficult one to balance. The United States needed a golden age of thinkers to grapple with this balance. And, in many cases now, learners have the ability to test their own balance between themselves and their involvement with a larger structure. 

As an aside, here’s a nice catalog I just found of some pro-federalist papers in audio format.

Using Vygotsky to Understand Connectivism: Proximity and Duration

Vygotsky divides the idea of development into two developmental levels: a potential developmental level and a completed developmental level. Starting at the potential developmental level a learner can begin to complete a task with assistance; then at the completed developmental level the learner can complete the task autonomously. Between these two barriers is created a Zone where the task is completed with decreasingly less assistance. Since Vygotsky’s time, his works and the ZPD itself has sparked grander theories and applications. The model goes something like this: Information in the form of a skill, concept, idea, etc. is initiated, passes through the ZPD propelled by autonomy, and eventually leads to internalization, causing development.

Using this model as a backdrop, in Connectivism what is developed?

The term ‘development’ includes an encapsulated process that has the ability to grow and change over time, compared to what it once was. In ZPD for child developmental (Vygotsky’s initial application), the human child is the one that grows – and there are similar answers for other types of learning as seen through the ensuing constructivist theories: the human learner develops some skill or part of them self. This is problematic for Connectivism because of the idea of Internalization. A learner is said to have internalized information from the environment when they are able to complete a task without assistance or, autonomously. In Connectivism, internalization of information itself is not always the goal…it is beside the point.

For this reason, in Connectivism the ideas of initiating and passing through the zone don’t make very much sense. A better image is to say that connections are established and exist. A connection sets up information access between the two barriers of the zone, yet really includes no strict implication of directional movement or even point of exchange. They set up the ways of learning, for example internalizing, then from the point of establishment connections develop over time, becoming an encapsulated processes in themselves. The potentials of learning are constantly being set, adapting to environments, interacting with other connections, being neglected or overused; they learn and develop, not directly related to content between potential and completed development levels, but according to their own intentions. They are at an incidental level compared to the system of representation which uses the connections.

In Vygotsky’s version of the ZPD, the process of passing through is the change that is considered learning, and this ‘awakens’ development. However, there is a another, non-socially based change that he touches on, and this is the selection of what will begin to pass through the ZPD towards internalization. As potentials are set, the selection is determined by what has already been internalized, a process originating in that completed developmental level of the individual. What a person can already do dictates what is selected into doing with assistance. And, generally, this makes sense – if I can ride a bike then a skill like poping-a-wheelie might be next on the agenda because the wheelie trick now gives me a bigger thrill, or now makes me stand out as cooler among the other bike riders, or something. Out of all the things that I can possible initiate, popping-a-wheelie increases in value once I learn to ride a bike. For Connectivism, it is the same. What is valued in establishing and maintaining connections depends on information that has already been valued.

The process of valuing information doesn’t change when the model moves from ZPD theory to Connectivism theory, only the focus of internalization dries up. Vygotsky was concerned mainly with the internalizing and not with the selecting, in part, because of his context. In considering foundational Child Development it isn’t really worthwhile to put too much focus on learning that isn’t internalized, because much of what happens in that realm is kind of necessarily internalized simply to function as individuals. Connectivism, on the other hand, can put a highly weighted focus on the selection of information because distributed content has reached levels that would now make distributed content in Vygotsky’s day seem negligible by comparison. Potential development levels are now filled with abundant amounts of information, creating ecologies unique to each individual, placing individual existence among a unity of the senses not comparable to anything since numerous generations prior to the electronic age. One implication of this awareness shift is the ability to grow much more refined, personalized and successful educational networks than ever before. A further implication is the increasing importance of learner autonomy concepts. Rather than having authorities, or blanket design decide our means of information intake, learners themselves can and need to grow and develop or consciously delegate command of their own connections that set the potentials of what they want to learn.

McLuhan often wrote of this shift from the fragmented senses of print-culture past to the resonant ‘unified field’ psyche that electric technology has brought. The digital age has accelerated this shift, or as he often calls it, a recreation of the mental processes of primitive man. Imagine how the introduction of print changed the frequency and location of information access: first there is instantaneous, face-to-face spoken word, then print comes along to initially allow a much slower access. From that point, each new innovation in distributed content (better paper, written language, telegraph, radio, etc) improved information access bit by bit, not by replacing the old but by adding to the available modes of frequencies and placements. With regards to communication technology, a spectrum of time and place has been filling in since that initial fragmentation. Nowadays, the finer points on the spectrum are being filled in, with innovations as distinct in frequencies as the difference between Twitter and Instant Chat.

I’m not sure the human psyche is destined to return to that mental process of primitive man, though, at least not in educational matters. By recognizing our connections and trying to make them grow into more successful networks based on what we want to learn and based on the affordances of various potential connections, Connectivism can be an answer to the consistent warnings of McLuhan. Making connections, valuing information, and pedagogy may indeed have always been a part of intentional learning, but to dismiss a theory simply because of this is a failure to ask the right questions. Why do these things seem more important now? Why are they overflowing into learner autonomy? What environmental affordances have changed? As we start to leave behind this transition era of education, into where the spectrum of communication surrounds us with a field of potential options, it would be a shame to lose the gifts of deliberation and thought that print-based communication has awoken in humans. Learners can use skills like reflection and the thinking through of thoughts, long-term discourse, and waiting……considering, fragmenting. These skills were a necessity before, but in post-literacy days they are powerful options as learners are less at the mercy of their availability.

What does a Connection do?

I just read a post at elearnspace that poses the question “What do Connections do?” answering it with “Connections are individual units of control – networks are the larger patterns that those connections create.” This got me wondering what is the difference between the question “What do Connections do?” and “What does a Connection do?” I guess the first question (with the ‘s’) is almost like asking “What is the result of a series of connections”, to which the answer is stated that they are the control points that create a network or a pattern. Something like “they control”, isn’t a sufficient answer to the second question (without the ‘s’)…just as if I’m introduced to some fantastic futuristic apparatus somewhere and I ask what to do with it, and get the reply that I should control it.

How? In what way?

So, this led me to wonder what would be the difference between saying “Connections are individual units of control” vs “Connections are individual units of choice”. I haven’t gotten far with this one direclty, but I have a feeling that it may be related to that distinction between learning and education that I always come back to in my thinking – the idea of intention. (intention vs incidental, if you like).

I don’t really know much about the example given in the post, Pearson and Udacity. But can infer some of the meaning from what is written. Looking at it from the opinion of the post, I can understand where the word ‘control’ would come in; from what I gather it is based on assumptions about what Udacity is and should continue or not continue to be, what they have had to give up, and who is making those decisions. Looking at it from a point farther removed, that either doesn’t or can’t make such assumptions, makes the idea of ‘control’ better stated as ‘choice’. From this more distant point, a way to answer what a connection does is to say that it eliminates a duality.

In the example given, Udacity, because of a connection, has the opportunity to take aspects that were not a part of itself before the connection, and use these aspects to branch forward with them. Now, to say they should or they shouldn’t, or that it’s a good or a bad thing, I really have no idea; that seems to be a major point of the post at elearnspace. That’s not my concern here, though. I’m looking at the question(s) about a connection. And, this is a valid viewpoint that can exist at this scope of objectiveness; at the point of connection, even.

The terms ‘control’ and ‘choice’ are a bit touchy here, but if we believe that learning is not just a human privilege then maybe the word ‘choice’ does have a place from this perspective. Control is a judgment call, choice suggests available options. Thus, choice here might be best understood not as a verb, but as a noun – more like ability. Once that connection creates the ability, whether it is acted on and to what degree or quality isn’t a description of what a connection does. As I’ve written in another place “Connections themselves relate to learning in a binary way: with connections a learner can learn, without connections they cannot.” I also just finished a paper about the influence of Media on Learning, which uses this same idea:

If we consider the pro-influence stance of Kozma for a moment (Kozma, 1994), where media and method are not separate, it is understandable why a 70 year history has produced no compelling evidence: media influence is binary. It either happens along with method or it does not. From this perspective, Clark’s hypothesis is problematic because it is untestable – it is impossible to test a Method via a Media which cannot conduct said Method.

A Connection does many things, eliminating a duality is perhaps the most fascinating, even comprehensive, of them. At the point of connection, the duality is eliminated not in a dialectic way. Rather, a dynamic relationship between two distinctions is created while they remain perfectly opposed and at the connectors’ disposal. From this point of connective ambiguity, many things many happen, involving a dialectic, elimination, unification, control, choosing, or even just indifference. A porch connects the inside of a house with the outside world, and when it drizzles I enjoy the shelter, and when it’s hot and humid I enjoy the slight breeze. It brings together options, ways to experience, that did not have place before that porch was constructed.