Interchangeable People

It is difficult to talk, think, or write about anything these past few days that isn’t directly involved with the disturbing events in the USA right now. It’s also difficult to know what to say, as a non-American. This is just one small thought I’ve had recently.

When people talk about other people in categorical terms, such as “the left” “the right” “SJWs” “Conservatives”, the individuals being referred to become interchangeable.

There are times when it’s necessary to do this, like when referring to someone as a “refugee”, however unless steps are taken to balance this categorization with a personal lens, the result is that people are belittled.

Some modern educational approaches have fallen into this trap. Online and massive teaching methods tend to treat students as interchangeable (even when delivered in blended and non-massive contexts – it’s just the mindset that some teachers teach with). These approaches, unbalanced with the power of intimacy and individualization that current technologies afford, have done damage to the field of education and those course participants.

The High Speed of EdTech

I can’t help but feel that the onus, at least right now, is on the field of educational technology to slow down and listen a bit more, if edtech hopes to enhance areas of study other than itself.


Having a finger in educational technology, in addition to other fields of practice (mainly language learning & cultural issues, in my case) creates an interesting view of the field of edtech itself. I often wonder, in fact, if it’s even a worthwhile field to refer to, separate from subject matter context. The thought of an exclusive edtech themed conference is kind of strange to me – when I was involved in the national language teacher’s association in Japan, edtech (in the form of CALL) was a special interest group of the organization, and this seemed about right. So many practical questions of technology (devices, platforms, methods…) use can only be answered by first asking: What subject are you communicating in?

MOOCs provide a good example of this. First came MOOCs. They emerged out of online learning affordances (basically what MOOCs are, online learning – but this is not a MOOC definition post). They were used initially in successful cases (it’s worth nothing and relevant that initial MOOC subject matter was almost solely educational technology related subjects). They generated interest. They became popular. They became even more popular. Influential people tried to use them is certain ways. MOOC became a buzzword. Educators mocked and shunned their popularity. Educators mocked and shunned their popular representations. People discussed and critiqued them, both in response to their essence and in response to the popular notion of them. They became tired, old cliches. They became memes. They needed to be rebranded. Now, they sit, hopefully, in familiar terms with educators, ready as another option, like other forms of instructional design.  And, all of this within a few years. You could even appropriately use months as a measurement. The progress has been nothing short of astounding, when looking at it from the outside. (It all reminds me of Homer progressing through the five stages of death anxiety.)

Like many fruits of edtech, when I bring up the subject of MOOCs with people in the language field, the strong majority are apprehensive of the concept. Either that or they’re still at the “Sooooo, what’s a MOOC?” stage. Or, they’re both. Based on the speed at which edtech ideas progress apart from context, it’s easy to understand why. From my experience, diving in to tech use for existing educational practice (institutionally and individually) is often intimidating and impractical. I’m guessing this is true for many other fields beside language learning.

Innovation won’t happen from hydroplaning across the surface of learning. Practitioners will need to take innovative ideas and mold them to suit content, and they’ll need the edtech specialists to bridge that gap with the same respect that Research and Practice needs bridging. But, what can we realistically expect when edtech pushes pedal to the metal, seemingly targeted to the high-volume user. This is my impression, looking at it from within and from without.

As a side note – an analogy that I started thinking about lately is how the field of linguistics relates to other such fields as language learning and literature. They both share the commonality of language, and you would think that linguistics would be a direct feed for either, but somehow this connections is not as strong one (or at least I) would think. Linguistic materials aren’t the easiest nor the most practice  oriented materials to engage with. Certainly linguistics is a distinct field, and maybe it’s just an undeveloped thought – but I feel there something there in the analogy between linguistics and edtech. It’s one I’ll be thinking about.

Los Angeles – the MOOC of Cities

Los Angeles is embarked on a strange experiment: trying to run not just projects, not just grey areas, but a whole metropolis, by dint of “togetherness” or nothing. I think this is an inevitable outcome for great cities whose people lack city public life in ordinary living and working. (p73)

Los Angeles, the MOOC of cities.

The underlying challenge of online distance education is how to balance autonomy and structure (or, learning and education). cMOOCs do too much of the former, xMOOCs do much of the latter. Surely there are more than just two ways of running Open Courses – and I think this is evident when you dig down deeper into what’s going on out there. I’ve taken several courses that have found a very nice mix of the two, allowed for flexibility of the learner, and instructionally designed based on topic.


Authentically Centralized

Recently, in writing about ePortfolios, I used the phrase Authentically Centralized to describe an educational system where learners have high learner control over their own structure or design. The concept underlying Authentically Centralized comes from the fact that neither of the terms centralized or decentralized adequately conveys the perspective of the learner in open, complex education.

When someone engages in a learning process though an ePortfolio, blog or though some other capsule that affords high control over their environment, they become the center of their own unique learning environment that is construed around them. Other participants in the same course do the same, they remain at the center of their environment which they have high control over. There are many ‘centers’ and even a shared ‘center’ (given the fact that there’s a ‘course’ or event of some type in which all learners are a part of). There’s no removal or negation of ‘centers’ as the term decentrailzation suggests, and likely there is no one dominant structure that umbrellas all activity, as would be the case with a high degree of centralization. Learners undergo neither extreme of centralization or decentralization – what happens is somewhere in between.

Why Authentic?  The importance here in on emphasizing that centralization does happen, it does exist in autonomous, self-directed learning – and it’s personal, under individual control. It is embedded in individual perspective. Unlike Decentralized, Authentically Centralized retains a focus on the need to be and to develop skills to be purposeful in arranging the personal environment…and that this arrangement itself carries meaning.

We can’t neglect all centers simply because we don’t like dominant centers.

I prefer the term Authentic because there’s more to education now than formal, transmissive lecturing and/or informal everyday learning by one’s self – there’s everything in between, and I imagine some type of balance between the two is what instructional designers and teachers strive for, depending on the situation. Authentic reflects actual existence. And indeed, a great analogy of this is Time. Time is not central, there’s no big clock somewhere on Jupiter that dictates what the correct Time is throughout existence. On the other hand, Time does exist. It exists different for each human…for each perspective.

Whether it is more accurate to use Decentralized or to use Authentically Centralized depends on your focus – if you’re looking at community learning then Decentralized is more accurate; if you’re concerned about individuals, then Authentically Centralized might be better.

Watering Holes and Holy Water

In maintaining city street civilization, the White Horse bar and the church-sponsored youth center, different as they undoubtedly are, perform much the same public street civilizing service. (p41)

In a complex system, there is always consideration for scale – a quality at one scale isn’t necessarily a quality at another scale. And ditto for the like of intention. How a community sees, uses, interprets an act isn’t the same as how we see it individually, face-to-face. Different meanings are unveiled depending on the scale, depending on the perspective. Yet, when a part of the same system, some of these qualities or intentions will coincide.

This quote nicely hints at this point: Different people with widely different objectives and outlooks on life can have shared purpose when seen from a macro scale. Such is the same with educators and facilitators – not all need to be experts in the topic at hand.

A collection of facilitators may have different local interests. However, being a collection, they may share a purpose in bringing learners together, creating more opportunities for feedback, and thus more intentional learning.

Institutions often house many faculty members. Why shouldn’t institutions use the collective ability of the faculty to monitor all courses? You don’t need to be an expert in any given field to know how to ask questions that encourage learners. The fact that they’re educators means that they coincide at some (important) level.

Institutions would need to restructure things like expected teacher roles, office hours, and other structural limitations, to make something like this happen though. The amount of feedback for each student would skyrocket, too.

However, as humans, we are always involved in countless complex systems, not only educational ones. This is where many of the problems would lie. Educators often aren’t educators first and foremost, I would guess.

A related question: Can massive courses (or MOOCs) really full-fill their potential with only a handful (at best) of facilitators involved?

Screams, Choice and Starting Points

There’s a great pair of blog posts up last week about MOOCs and Connectivism. In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice (Brennan) articulates possible gaps in connectivist thinking. Connectivism and the Primal Scream (Downes) points out some of what the initial article missed. Here are some thoughts on what I see as the pivotal points:

The distinction between Everyday Learning and Intentional Learning is important

There are different senses of learning, as Downes brings up, but I think he goes back and forth between these different types of learning too freely. Everyday Learning is constant – as I walk I learn how far away the floor is from my foot at any given instance. There’s an automaticity involved with everyday learning that isn’t necessarily present in intentional learning. Connectivism seems to focus on this type of everyday learning, and tries to view intentional learning through this lens…not mostly, but fully.

Motivation can work in two directions

It is possible for educators and course design to be demotivating. I’ve experienced this in all types of courses: traditional, MOOCs, connectivist designed courses and even self-directed learning. If a cMOOC has a characteristic that is demotivating for novices, then this is a problem. Or, at the least, it is worth making explicit. It goes beyond a themselves/us tension.

Connectivist approaches focus on multi-literacy

You can probably substitute all sorts of terms here: digital literacies, critical literacies, connectivist literacies, transactional distance, learning skills, whatever – a consideration for how different mediums translate messages will widen a learner’s potential learning. This is the aspect of connectivism I find the most useful and engaging. It’s why I use my time to think and write about connectivism. It’s why I believe connectivism matters.

The Development and Assumption of Learner Autonomy

Brennan makes the case that connectivism assumes a certain set of literacies/learner skills present in the learners to begin with. Downes states that connectivist approaches are able to develop these skills as literacies. Conversely, what I think Downes argues (I could be wrong) is a bit different. He uses the phrase “at some point” a few times in talking about the development of learner autonomy skills, and I get the feeling that this “some point” is supposed to have taken place in a learner prior to starting any connectivist designed course or cMOOC.

With talk of networks and/or communities there will often be a tension between the community perspective and the perspective of the individual components that make up that community. In case you haven’t read much about connectivism before, it has a strong bias towards community perspectives. In practice, connectivism doesn’t design for individual needs, individual prior learning, or individual learner skills. It designs from the community perspectives of these things.

Take the “google” and “cites” examples, for example. With respect to being a city, what matters is the more generalized activity such as proximity, zoning, maybe size, how it impacts traffic, property taxes, etc. To the individual, the use of the building is not primarily to recognize a city – shopping for a the perfect present for your aunt at various high end stores, mailing it at the post office on the, and buying gas on the way home is a process with different intentions. The buildings at the community perspective are much more interchangeable than at the individual perspective. This is the same with google. Although both purposes are present, the google community matters much more to google than it does to me when I use my gmail as part of a series of steps to set up a meeting with someone.

Literacies and Values

With the concept of literacy, a comparison to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) course design is worthwhile – both EFL and connectivism focus on a type of literacy for adult learners. EFL instructional design devotes a major chunk of course time to the use and practice of language. This is consistent with a connectivist approach that privileges experience. In EFL, though, there also includes a wide variety of well researched methods to support such language practice – as all language teachers can tell you: it’s possible to practice harmful language habits, habits that will reduce language skills and meaning transmission.

Language teachers will also tell you, I’m sure, that if you employ use and practice with a beginner level learner in the same way as with an Intermediate or Advanced learner, you’ll lose that learner quickly. A beginner level student simply doesn’t have the fluency skills to keep up with intermediate or advanced language use.

Krashen_on_YoutubeTo be sure, there are some approaches to language learning (ESL, in this case) that guide language acquisition with no or minimal structure (see Krashen). And, it is widely accepted that immersion in a language is one of the best ways to learn that language. Not everyone can afford to move to the country of their target language, however, and not everyone wants to. And those who do so starting from a beginner level, will more than likely go through an extremely difficult initial period of several months immersed in their target language. This is in large part to the difference in automaticity or speed between their level and the level of their environment. Immersion a great way to learn language, but be sure that the people who do stick with it through the rough entry will usually have a great deal of emotional, motivational and situational support.

For digital literacies, not everyone who wants to become multi-literate can afford time to be immersed in digital environments for large amounts of the day, becoming highly networked people. Not everyone wants to. In the same way that language literacies, print or oral, aren’t fully and completely obvious to those who grew up with them as dominant communications, neither might digital literacies be obvious to those who use them simply by immersing themselves in connections.

One of the few lingering pieces of structure in connectivist course design, perhaps left over from traditional education, might be the most needless and yet the most harmful in bringing novices into a beneficial connectivist style of learning: the weekly schedule. Without support, content novices or digital literacy novices might not be able to keep the pace in the same way that beginner language learners are lost in authentic target language use.

Recently, and not so recently, Downes has commented on the use of the word value. I think this sheds light on connectivism in practice and its structure-phobic overcompensation. Because one side of the word is associated with money, numbers and information measurements, the entire sense of the word is rejected. And with good intention, I would say. It’s unfortunate that the world is obsessed with money and standardized measures, and unfortunate that more people don’t see this as the social disease that it is.

values as perspective

But, there is a more neutral sense of the word value that conveys position, point, form and representation. Value can be a snapshot or a pause at position and time, not to judge good or bad, but to reflect and make decisions based on where we’ve been and how we want to develop from that position on. It is the ability to inflict change in experience. Change in experience, not simply experience, is what differentiates individuals and is what learners can aspire to have control over. Contextually literate people will be able to attempt control at a speed that won’t disrupt ongoing experience significantly, for many instances. For beginners or novices, this will be less and it will be a skill they need help internalizing. The gap is emergent, it’s a distinction not a degree.

I want to bring value into the world. To me, this has to include thinking, choosing, trying different things, and becoming a more refined individual. This happens through attempted control over our experiences. How people judge or rate that experience is often beside the point.

The gap in connectivist logic, to state what Brennan says in a different way, is that structure is experience gathered, and when we shun structure all-together we make it difficult for individuals to learn how to use a community’s experience.  

At some point educators have to trust learners. They have to let themselves be resources, having faith that students will see their course design, their opinions, that students will see them as suggestion and not obligation. If the Learner Autonomy “some point” is assumed before a course starts, shouldn’t this one be as well?

English Online and In Canada

The past few weeks have been exciting for me – I changed jobs, relocating to the opposite side of the globe in the process. I did the same thing over 7 years ago, and the move wasn’t nearly as disruptive now as it was then. For most people I relate with it wasn’t so much of a good-bye as it was a change of mode. For many people I interact with, there was no change. For me, the transition was smooth.

And it continues to be exciting – this week my new workplace announced the Canadian National Online Conference for ESL Professionals to take place next January.  One of our first steps is to recruit an Advisory Committee. It will consist of 13-16 language professionals from across the country, hopefully from a wide range of expertise, and including one international member. Details are posted here. But, this isn’t the exciting part yet (unless you’re really into committee proceedings).

I was hired in part to help produce this conference, and the reasons why I feel excitement are the same reasons I decided to accept the position in the first place: the learning structure here embraces emergent learning and promotes learner autonomy. It’s a course design that facilitates, not instructs.

English Online is an NPO in Winnipeg, Manitoba that focuses on helping newcomers to Canada improve their language abilities, and on helping ESL teachers become better at guiding their own professional development. I’m more on the teacher side of things, so I’m concerned about things like PLNs, curating resources, and building networks. But for both sides, we’re trying to adapt complexity, and a decentralized (or, as I like to think: Authentically Centralized) mindset into structured learning for the ESL profession. It’s not an easy task, for one because ESL people are not EdTech people.

You can only go as far as your learners are motivated to go, in terms of digital literacy and autonomy.

The affordances of modern communication technology potentially give access and control over learning structure to the learner. When approached in this way, teacher roles shift to focus on learner autonomy skills and self-guided skills. However, as an organization we have to ensure that learning is taking place – we even have to somehow measure and show it.

It’s an exciting context to be in because it shares a lot of the same qualities of MOOCs…which didn’t instigate these qualities into the educational scene, but brought them into the spotlight. And the MOOCs under that light aren’t the only ways that MOOCs can exist. MOOCs have potential to come in many different forms far beyond what works best for the major American Universities. People like Stephen Downes continually remind us of the potential MOOCs hold and the reasons why they were developed in the first place: MOOCs were not developed for teachers, they were developed for learners.

For example, we have to take into consideration the language learning context of our learners (language is both means and content) and this changes what we can and cannot do in our learning approach. One result of this context is that we can produce an outer ‘ongoing’ structure, challenging how educators define the C for Course in the MOOC acronym. And this is the real exciting part, I feel, that it does try to build on the development of MOOCs (or better yet, the underlying principles) in an innovative way.

To me, English Online isn’t altogether different from my LMOOC outline I posted a few months ago. It attempts to embed education into a learner’s life, with minimal unintended disruption. Moving around the globe doesn’t have to disrupt a lifestyle very much these days, why should self-improvement?