Open Scholars and Divergence/Convergence, Groups/Networks

April 19, 2010, [MD]

Preparing for a course

My supervisor at OISE is co-teaching a course with two of his PhD students called "KMD: Knowledge Communities: Patterns and Practices", and he very graciously invited me to give a talk about "open education resources, P2PU, implications of new media for learning communities, etc". They would require a brief intro, a short "position statement", at least three resources for the students to read/view before class, and "any ideas for any pedagogical plan for your Thursday session.  Note:  most of the invited speakers will probably just give a talk and lead a discussion - to fill approximately 90 minutes. BUT WE ARE OPEN MINDED!".

So this is kind of scary. I am all for active learning, and this will be a seminar-size class with extremely intelligent and outspoken graduate students, from a number of different disciplines and backgrounds (it's a course open to students from many different faculties), all with laptops and phones in very wired room. However, it's a lot more easy, and "safe" to prepare a talk, and give it, and then open for questions. Which is what I usually do (also because I usually don't have a choice). It feels especially challenging because I won't know these students before I come in, they'll have been together for four weeks (eight sessions, it's a compressed schedule for summer courses) by the time I get there. It would feel quite differently if I was designing the whole course. So I haven't quite decided how I will structure it yet, but luckily I won't have to decide right now. I did have to give them the three readings though, which meant that I had to browse around a bit.

(Another neat aspect of the course design, is that all students are required to pose one question to me, ahead of class. I will apparently receive these, grouped by topic, the day before I meet them. Fun idea. I'm all for using online tools and prep work to make the limited time we have for physical encounters much more valuable.)

I started with watching a CIDER talk by Terry Anderson about Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy, which was a great introduction to the field. I really want to go back and read some of the foundational texts, and his talk gave a very useful and clear overview of the landscape, with a lot of references for people (like me) who would like to dig deeper, read the original texts, etc. I'll probably assign this as one of the resources for the students. I then ended up watching two TEDxNYED talks, while looking at different resources. The first was by Jeff Jarvis, and the second by George Siemens. Jeff's talk was fun, he talked about how schools should work as incubators, help students do projects and create stuff, rather than "stamp out" identical copies. But George's talk was amazing – really a perfect TED talk, with great story telling, and some very lucid ideas and thoughts.  Going through all this material (which also brought up many associations – it's not the first time I've looked at connectivist ideas) inspired two completely different lines of thought, and the only thing they have in common, is that I'll mention them in the same blog post (no thin-slicing here :)).

Open scholars and closed ones

What's interesting is that I am both a very active "self-learner", with my learning networks, Twitter, Google Reader, online (and offline) conferences etc. At the same time, I am a graduate student in what we like to think of as one of the world's best schools of education, OISE. I have access to world-class faculty, and fellow students with very impressive backgrounds and achievements. However, OISE, and indeed most schools in North America, do not offer "teaching and learning in higher education", which was what I wanted to study. So I was torn between the Higher Ed program in the Theory and Policy Studies department, which will teach you everything about higher ed, except for what happens in the classroom (literally), or the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning department, which deals with teaching and learning, but almost exclusively in K-12.

I ended up in Higher Ed for my MA, in addition to the comparative education program, and learnt about the history of universities, sociological theories of comparing different school systems, etc. However, on the side, I was attending conferences on OER, following debates on online learning, and even helped start a social learning experiment. Through all this, I picked up a lot of ideas, thoughts and questions about online and open learning, although I always felt that I was missing the "fundament". Which is why I will start my PhD in CTL (mentioned above) in the fall. In the meantime though, my informal learning network has played an important role. And even at OISE, although I haven't formally been enrolled in this department, I have spent a lot of time going to seminars, meeting with professors, doing projects and in other ways being involved.

That was setting the stage, now comes my realization. Scholars like George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, Terry Anderson – I follow their work, and I know about and understand their ideas. I watch their presentations on Slideshare, read their blog posts, sometimes read their articles in OA journals. I not only know what they are doing – I know them a lot better than I know most of the professors in my university! There are people doing great research on learning online, threaded discussion systems, blogging among students – but if you don't take their course, you have no access. And apart from the course being access restricted, and potentially costing money (although the latter is not a big issue for graduate students, since we pay a flat fee for time enrolled, not for credits taken), the bigger question is: Why do I need to study with you for 12 weeks, and write a 30 page essay, to be allowed to hear your ideas?

Stephen Downes and George Siemens offers a course on connectivism... But imagine if they told you that this was the only way you could find out about their ideas? And that it was closed – only people willing to sign up and go through the whole program, would get access? I can find no online recordings of presentations the professors in my institution have done, I can very few blog posts, or slides. There are academic papers, but these only tell part of the story. What I want to know is your big ideas, your thoughts about online education. But for a scholarly journal, unless it's a conceptual idea piece, you have to only present your specific empirical research. So you might have written a detailed paper about investigating student blogging amount a sample n during time t after intervention x... but you did that study for a reason! And I'd like to understand. The kind of reason that you can explain in a blog post, and not in an academic journal.

So how is it that I have better "access" to scholars from far flung parts of the globe (like Teemu from Finland, or Leigh from Australia), than to the professors that work in my own school of education? Just like I felt closer connected to the students in David Wiley's Intro to open ed, than I felt with the 200 students sitting next to me in my undergraduate classrooms at UTSC? Now, don't get me wrong – the professors at OISE are wonderfully supportive, and I have had great conversations with me, and they have given me of their time in ways that it would be very hard to demand from someone from another institution. But I want to hear your big ideas. I want you to be open scholars.

Convergence and divergence, groups and networks, common and decentralized

This is a point that I will need to think about more, write about more, read about more. But I'll give it a start here. In 2008, as I started my studies at OISE, I was lucky enough to do a small seminar class with Marlene Scardamalia. Marlene is a legend, she and her husband Carl Bereiter together came up with the concept of Knowledge Building (KB), and founded Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology to promote it. Together with others, they developed Knowledge Forum, a software to facilitate KB learning – this is a good introduction to their ideas, and there are many more papers here. It's difficult to explain their ideas in a few sentences, but it's very much built on constructivism and inquiry.

Think of kids in a classroom acting as junior scientists, they want to know why leafs change color. They come up with some ideas, then use the scaffolding built into Knowledge Forum to probe deeper – "my theory is", "I need to know"... metacognitive prompts that aim to push the thought process further, rather than what usually happens in a threaded discussion board – everyone get's to say their opinion, and then the thread "dies out". In addition, the spatial organization of the KF database enables people to organize and reorganize the knowledge that the group has reached, so that the database is not just a chronological record of conversation, but represents the state of knowledge of the group at that time, and points the way forward to deeper thinking.

This model – and there is really much more to it than what I just mentioned, it's very much worth exploring further – is inherently a group process. The concept of shared cognition – "what the group knows". It has advantages and disadvantages. I think the model of organizing and reorganizing knowledge, knowing the "landscape of knowledge", and using the metacognitive prompts to keep probing deeper is very powerful. It reminds me of something that always struck me as powerful from the first Open Learn proposal (then called OPLRN net) where CMU and OU proposed to create a network for connecting research on open learning.

**A research portal.*

In more established fields such as cancer research, there is a consensus map of the structure of the field, the major research questions, and the different sub-communities and associated methodologies. It is possible to place oneself on the map, and to coordinate effort in a well understood way. In contrast OER research is a relatively young field, which has not yet being fully articulated and defined. The OLnet will help to facilitate researchers in the area to articulate the scope of the field and typical methodological stances. At various points the OLnet will trigger a series of questions and provide mechanisms to enable those in the field to progress answers to those questions. What is the OER research map? What is the OER design process? What does it mean to validate an OER? What are the central challenges that all agree on? The OPLRN seeks to create a structured 'place' where questions such as these can be debated, and hopefully, enabling more effective coordination of action around issues and OERs of common interest.*

I really found this metaphor compelling. And in a way, it is simply taking the KB model, and applying it to a much broader field. However, the KB model, at least as I experienced it, has many shortcomings. What if your individual interest doesn't align with the group? In our course, I was one of the only ones to be interested in how KB could integrate with blogging, thus I could make my nodes and write all I wanted, but I didn't get much participation from the community. And given that the database is limited to a specific group (both because of the pedagogy, and because of technical limitations with the software), I'm not able to easily pull in people from the outside who might be interested (and they won't be able to "find" me). It's the epitome of a walled garden, which might work fairly well for a small group of people over a limited amount of time (even then it has huge limitations), but not for a larger knowledge community over longer time. (Which might be why there isn't as far as I know, a vibrant discussion about knowledge building going on right now, between practitioners and researchers, inside a Knowledge Forum database... Or if there is, I don't know about it, can't find it, and am not invited.)

Now, at the same time as I was taking this course, using Knowledge Forum for our discussions (and it worked remarkably well for that context!), I was following along on Stephen Downes and George Siemens' initial massive online open course on Connectivism. They don't believe in groups, but promote networks. Networks work very differently, they are fluid, with weak and strong links, and don't have a defined beginning or end. Actors have different motivations – selfishness (in a good way, they are curious about something, and want to discuss it with people they can learn from), but also altruism, and a desire to boost their "community cred" (which can lead people to do good things, but which can also result in perverse incentives). We use a number of tools to connect with each other, both semantic (let me see all the people tagging their posts a certain way) and personal (I want to subscribe to Siemens' writings).

Lot's of benefits here. It's all out in the open (it has to be, otherwise nobody will connect with you). There is a huge amount of diversity in the network, which leads to much more creativity and new ideas being introduced. There is a complete freedom to explore different paths and ideas. Yet, I am sometimes nostalgic for some of the features of groups and knowledge building. We seem to loose that map of the landscape that is mentioned in the quote above, and we don't seem to have any desire to create one. It will be interesting to what extent we as a community can move to a deeper understanding on a number of issues during the current EdFutures course.

In discussing threaded conversations, Scardamalia and Bereiter writes

The distinctive characteristics of Knowledge Forum are perhaps most easily grasped by comparing it to the familiar technology of threaded discussion, which is to be found everywhere on the Worldwide Web and also as a part of instructional management systems like Blackboard and WebCT. Threaded discussion is a one-to-many form of e- mail. Instead of sending a message privately to people the sender selects, the sender “posts” it to a discussion site, where all posted messages appear in chronological order, with one exception: a response to a message is shown indented under the original message, rather than in chronological order. Responses to that response are further indented, and so on, forming a “thread” that started with the very first posting. Like e- mail messages generally, a discussion forum message, once “posted,” cannot be modified.

“Threading” produces a downward-branching tree structure, which is the only structuring of information (besides chronological) that the technology allows. There is no way to create higher-level organizations of information, to comment simultaneously on a number of messages, or to make a connection between a message in one thread and a message in another. Thus the possibilities for knowledge building discourse are extremely limited. In fact, our experience is that threaded discussion militates against deepening inquiry; instead, it is much more suited to rapid question-answer and assertion- response exchanges. Although communities based on shared interests do develop in some threaded discussion forums, this technology provides little means for a group to organize its efforts around a common goal. As the number of postings increases, what appears on the screen becomes an increasingly incoherent stream of messages, leading discussion monitors to impose arbitrary limits on thread length and to erase threads of a certain age. Thus a cumulative advance in the state of knowledge is hardly conceivable. (Knowledge Building: Theory, Pedagogy and Technology - rtf)

This is about threaded discussions, but what about when everyone is posting on their own blog, using aggregators to "suck it all in", so we can "drink from the firehose"? I have no doubt that deep thinking is happening; much of my thinking is informed by what I have read and thought about, throughout the last three years, and I constantly see that the "great thinkers" are improving upon their thinking, playing off each other. But how efficient is this process with 10-20 learners, in intense engagement? Or 200, as for the EdFutures course? To what extent will we be able to, as a group/community/network keep pushing for a higher level of understanding? Or is that even realistic, or desirable, given that everyone enters the course with different expectations and wishes?

In some ways, this dance between convergence and divergence reminds me of some of the workshops I attended with CARE Indonesia when I worked there. We'd have great facilitators who got us to write down all our ideas on yellow notes, that we put up on the board. Then we'd group them into categories, and give names to the categories, and collapse all the individual notes into the categories. Then we'd use the titles we'd come up with, and start generating new ideas around them. Which would be grouped again, etc. It's a powerful method, but done without enough leadership, you feel like you are caught in an eternal dance between narrowing down and broadening out.

I'm going to keep thinking about these things, and I'd love to hear people's ideas (if anybody got to the end of this piece).

Stian Håklev April 19, 2010 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus