Learning’s first principle – the most important thing i learned this year

I have spent most of my year straddled between different ideas of what it means to learn. I’ve worked with k-12 educators, with the province here in PEI, with science educators and crazy postmodern theorists. I want to talk about a thread that I’m seeing through all of my work at the moment. I see it in the (M)OOC work I’ve done for years, I’ve seen it in the ‘transition to university’ stuff I’ve been doing since 2007, and I hear it from educators chatting in bars, over christmas cakes, and at conferences. I’ve come to think of it as the ‘first principle’.

First inkling of the first principle
Credit where it’s due. As with every idea I ever write about here (and i think we’re like 200 blog posts in) it started with a conversation with smart people. In this case it was Anne Bartlett, someone who’s depth of understanding of the student experience I have learned from many times over the years. We were looking over a model of student engagement, and just kind of looked at each other and said “well… none of this matters if they don’t give a shit”.

and that’s my first principle, that i keep seeing all the time… “do they care?”.

Boring… we all know that dave
Sure. We all know that student engagement is important. It’s the connection to the framework that made all the difference for me. When you ask the ‘care->don’t care’ question first all the time, it seems to have some interesting impacts on a discussion. I was talking to a passionate educator over cake last night and she asked me how i felt about students being automatically promoted regardless of their academic success (sometimes known as social promotion). Her concern was that the students were starting to realize that grades didn’t matter anymore… that they were going to pass regardless. She cares about student success, and was concerned that without grades that had meaning, it would be difficult to get students to do their work. Then she made the mistake of asking me my opinion :). I applied my new first principle for learning

Student separate into two categories… those that care and those that don’t care.

Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.

So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold kids accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them? Even if you are the most cynical personal imaginable, wouldn’t you like people to be able to do things when you aren’t actually threatening them? Are we promoting a ‘creative/knowledge economy’ by doing this? Are we building democracy? Unless you are a fascist (and i really mean that, unless you want a world where a couple of people tell everyone exactly what to do) you can’t really want the world to be this way.

Why this matters to me
The first principle matters most to me because it speaks across different disciplines. I have yet to talk to anyone, instructivist or constructivist, parent, student or teacher who doesn’t prefer learners who care over those that don’t. It directly addresses the various threats, physical or otherwise, that we have built into the education system. It allows us a place to start to engage in a conversation about why we care about education. Why we educate. Once we jointly answer questions like “why would people care about this” and “how does this support people starting to care about this for the first time” and “will this stop people who care now from caring”, we have a place to work from.

I’m in this business because i think i might be able to help, here and there, with trying to build a culture of thinkers. If our education system is designed to have people take on ideas because they are forced to, this only further supports those people who want to force people to believe things that serve their own particular agenda. It builds a culture of power accepters. It supports passivity.

I don’t believe it’s possible to design an educational experience that works for both those that care and those that don’t. Do we want to cast aside those that refuse to care? Do we only work with those that want to learn? How do we encourage people to care? If our learning experiences aren’t about making people care… what is it about?

Rhizomatic Learning – A Big Forking Course

The notion of rhizomatic learning has been good to me. As Ryan Tracy has recently mentioned, my thoughts about it have moved over the last eight years, but i still find that the story isn’t finished for me… and it is this sense of not being finished, of never being whole, of the learning process being forever uncertain that i find fascinating. The notion of the rhizome is gathering interest, just today i saw links to medical education people interested in knowledge and a classroom teacher talking about freeing their work.

Rhizomatic Learning
A cross section of posts on the internet will do better work than i can in a few words to give you a sense of what I mean by this expression. It is, in a sense, about celebrating uncertainty in learning. It’s about making content people. it’s about seeing curriculum look more like membership. Here’s a short description for folks who haven’t seen it before. (subject to change)

Rhizo14
Earlier this year I scheduled a 6 week course that turned into a community. It was a course scheduled around 6 questions, four of which were changed during the course itself. It found its strife and its curriculum from the community of folks who took time to make those questions and the people who moved around it. Those six challenges will still circulate in the background of this year’s course.

Week 1 – Cheating as Learning (Jan 14-21)
Week 2 – Enforcing Independence (Jan 21-28)
Week 3 – Embracing Uncertainty (Jan 28-Feb 4)
Week 4 – Is Books Making Us Stupid? (Feb 4-Feb 11)
Week 5 – Community As Curriculum (Feb 11-Feb 18)
Week 6 – Planned Obsolescence (Feb 18-?)

But I, at least, am moving to the next conversation.

One of the challenges of rhizo14 was that with me being the originator of the course, people still needed permission from me to go ahead and control some of the spaces of discussion. It also means that in describing how rhizomatic learning can be cultivated, we’ve only got my model to work with. I don’t suggest that everyone does stuff my way. We need more and more interesting models.

Enter P2PU
I love those guys. Last year’s course was hosted on P2PU. This year when i went back to see what the course could look like, I found a new project being launched – course in a box. It’s a course replication engine. Follow the steps… and you’ve got your own copy of the course… like really got it. It’s yours. It’s automagically hosted with a company called github. No cost. Good licensing. And a few pretty funky technologies to do interactive stuff online. (i’ll leave tech stuff to a further post). You are now responsible for deciding who can do what in the course you have.

Fork the course
So, in extended discussion with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli (who had serious influence on the design of rhizo14) it occurred that this year’s course could use some of this technology to give people responsibility for their own work. Don’t like how the course is being fun FORK THE COURSE. Want to try a different way of talking about week three FORK THE COURSE. We could have any number of people who are running separate installations of the course. Everyone could move to a new one. I have this crazy dream that we could end the course with 5, 20 100 courses all running with different people, with different ideas of how to talk about rhizomatic learning.

What could be better?

So rhizo15
So rhizo14 already exists. The community that developed out of that course still works together and is one that I feel very privileged to be part of. We are starting over again. In late February/March of 2015 we’ll be starting a new discussion. I can’t say for sure how that will go, but i can say that the burning question that’s in my mind right now is ‘how can we talk about successes in rhizomatic learning?’ What happens when everyone else starts to play along? Who knows… Let the games begin.

Join the rhizo15 mailing list

* indicates required




You know what you need… you need a learning contract.

I’ve been away from my dearly beloved blog for the past few months working on twinning recruitment and transitions at my university… more on this another day. Suffice it to say that I opened my big mouth and someone said “oh yeah, that’s a good idea, why don’t you do that” and now i’m trying to do it.

In the midst of a discussion with a colleague here at the university about preparing first-year students for success the topic turned to teaching. She was describing her business class. She teaches a scenario based class where students are expected to learn from each other… both in the way they represent content but, more importantly, in the way that they react and interact. Her story epitomizes the challenges and opportunities of teaching openly – of embracing the uncertainty of learning.

The emptiness of content
– We talked about how it didn’t make sense to have a textbook for this course and how she couldn’t simply ‘tell them what to do’ because what she was teaching them was complex.

In an excellent conversation with Frances Bell a few weeks ago she reminded me that reifications are very useful. Our use of language is at least partially a process of taking things that are complex “a feeling of love for someone” and finding a single word that represents it ‘love’. What I might mean by that word in the context of a hammock that I want to nap in or related to my 5 year old daughter is entirely hidden in the context. This is true of most things. When we teach we are often tempted to reach a little further and ‘define’ those words as if they mean ‘one thing’. Think of the evil ‘blended learning’ as a useful example, and imagine how many separate and often contradictory definitions of it you’ve heard. Think of how we use the word ‘open’ or, worse, read my 3000 word blog post on the subject.

Sometimes it’s very, very useful to think of content in its reified sense. Imagine you are learning introductory anatomy… you simply need to know what some things are called in order to be able to participate in the broader discussion. The same is true for philosophy, if you can’t wrap your mind around ‘a posteriori’ or ‘epistemology’ you aren’t going to understand much of what’s going on. But that’s the tables and chairs of learning… the place settings. There’s no real food there. This is not, in any way i would support, knowing.

It’s a useful shorthand to get you started.

Cognitive dissonance
– We talked about how her course reflected her own experience as a professional

But this shorthand is often what faculty understand as learning. They want to introduce students to concepts from a given field and then have those students prove that they have acquired them. Knowing, then, is the ability to exhibit content the same way for each student.

And this approach is antithetical to what they have learned from their life experience. Any good manager knows that, outside of an assembly line, you want people working to their strengths. Coaches know this. Parents know this. Friends know this. If we’re going on a road trip together, I am not the person that you give the to do list to. No amount of teaching is going to make me the to do list guy.

We all come from different contexts, with different strengths and aspirations, and too often the sameness of the content we are expected to ‘exhibit’ in the classroom tries to turn learning into an assembly line. It’s possible that this was a necessary evil when we were tied to paper books, but that time (given digital access) has simply passed.

Myth of Assessment
– We talked about how assessment tends to control parts of the course, even where she tries to resist it.

A big chunk of the reason we are tied to this empty content is the need for formalized summative assessment. At its best, summative assessment represents desire to be fair to the students, to deal with them all equally, to make the system measurable. At its worst, it’s a cowardly system of control and coercion that stands instead of experience and a willingness to engage.

There are a ton of ways that assessment impedes an open approach to learning, but lets just consider it here in terms of content. In order to be able to fairly assess between two people, you would need to measure them on the same rubric. The more the content is similar, the more equitable the measurement, and the less representative of the learner.

And so we play. I’ll leave a little more room for judgement there and take on the extra 10 minutes a paper that it will cost me in the grading process. I’ll standardize that thing over there, or this will take too long… etc… etc…

By the time its all done, how much are we measuring the students willingness to comply with our demands and how much are we contributing to learning?

Need for a social contract
– We talked about how some hard working students were always confused by the lack of clear objectives… they felt the course was ‘disorganized’.

The most interesting part of open learning, for me, is the need for the establishment of a new social contract. In our traditional learning environment, students are in the business of divining the desires of the teacher. The teacher, in most traditions, is responsible for making those desires as explicit and as clear as possible. I teach. You learn. Learning is defined by what i wish to teach.

In many open learning environments, and certainly in what I like to call ‘rhizomatic learning’, that model goes out the window. We have a planned topic of conversation, and the goal is still learning, but learning is something that happens as an act of participation. I am, an your instructor, willing to take on the responsibility of judging whether you are ‘getting enough’ of something or not, but not necessarily what that something might be, nor by measuring it against a perfect something.

She wants her students to become professionals… but not necessarily the same kind of professional, and not necessarily like her. That requires a re-negotiation of the ground rules.

The Learning Contract
– So i said “what you need is a learning contract.”

The concept of a learning contract was presented to me by one of my students at the end of a course i was teaching. He said “you know, I really like the way you teach, but you need a learning contract to make this make sense. I had one in a class I took a few years ago… you should look into it”. And I did.

The upshot of it is… that you can create a ‘contract’ between you and each student that serves the place of a syllabus, a textbook, an assessment model and a social contract. This is the contract i taught from this year…

I’m fascinated by how so many folks seem to have the same response to it that I did the first time I started reading about it – “this is exactly what i need.” It’s a simple concept – come to an agreement with people about what they want to work on, how much they want to work, who’s responsible for what and what everyone expects from the time you’re going to spend together.

I’d love to see some more models from others… and hear how people arrived at them.

I think of them as a particularly human way of thinking about learning.

Community learning – the zombie resurrection

On January 14th of this year i started a 6 week course to help me explore something I’ve been working on for most of my professional career. The term ‘rhizomatic learning’ is an approach to teaching and learning that is based in the works of Deleuze and Guattari, and presents learning as uncertain, destabilized and both very individual (in the sense that everyone’s experience is different) and communal (in the sense that making sense is a collaborative journey). I’ve been trying to teach this way for many years and have been trying to find a place to talk to others about it so that I too can have that communal experience while I’m working on telling stories about the rhizome.

Well… the course started and about 500 people signed up in way way or another. Some registered to the P2PU site, others only to a facebook group or played around with the #rhizo14 hashtag on twitter. The course was designed around challenging questions (eg. how do we enforce independence?) that are meant to elicit conversations that focus on the messiness of learning… a messiness that is very much at the heart of why i think Rhizomatic Learning is useful to talk about.

The conversation started, and started to pick up steam. Lots of interesting discussions, often taking off in directions that I hadn’t anticipated, or, frankly, that weren’t about what I thought the question ‘should’ be about. In week 2 i realized that this ‘should’ was inappropriate and I just allowed myself to have more fun with the conversations and enjoy the communal atmosphere. The course was to ‘end’ in the middle of February… and then it didn’t.

Zombie MOOC
Always with the zombie trope you say? The zombie is mindless and reanimated (though recently this definition has expanded :) ) and this course came back to life without a ‘head’ as it were. After my last goodbye was sent out to the participants, a week 7 popped up on the website. The participants continued the course, but without any ‘teacher’ filling the role as guide or decision maker. They continued on like this for another 6 weeks, and while activity is now only active in the facebook/twitter/gplus realm (that i know of), the communal learning process continues. The course (now called #rhizo14 by all involved) has refused to die.

It has become that individual/community space that i was hoping for when the course started. People post ideas, challenges and thoughts and others bring their perspective to it… we learn, often in vastly different ways, from each interaction. And then this post shows up on the original P2PU course today –

Very cool/weird, don’t know if I’ve joined the course or not. Lots to learn as the whole rhizmatic learning thing is a new concept/term to me, but very interested none the less.

Invitation to a Zombie dinner party?
Zombie’s aren’t always the best hosts. Well… if you’re not a zombie already. I’m sure they’re fine for other zombies. But this person who has signed up is new to the idea (of RL), open to engaging, and willing to put themselves out there. I love to see a new person admitting their uncertainty from the outset, it often opens the door for lots of good things later on. But do we just invite them to join in the conversation with the zombies created by the #rhizo14 experience?

We decided during the course (before the zombies existed) to go ahead and run the course again next year. I had, at the time, considered it a way of onboarding folks to the rhizomatic learning experience and then leaning on the people from this year to form a layer of community organizers that could enrich the experience for those who were coming in for the first time. And while we do get new registrants to the old course… this is the first person that has actually commented in a month or so. It’s time to decide, how do we get to the next step of this course (if we even should)? More specifically

If we care about community learning, how do we integrate new people into an existing community learning ecosystem? How do we keep the zombies from eating them? :)

Resurrection
So we focus on a new course that will allow the wonderfulness to happen, or, to put it more succinctly from our facebook rhizo14 chat… “dave, what do u want”. And my answer, as it often is with regards to learning, is that it depends.

Researcher Dave is fascinated by the problem of integrating people into learning communities. Anything that tests out the possibilities of or develops new practices for this tricky little problem is something that is pretty much at the top of my interest list. The challenge of seeing community as a learning approach is that communities tend to harden a little bit, with shared language and practices, and slowly become more difficult (but by no means impossible) to join. As everyone’s content is mostly their own, i should be able to burn last year’s course and simply start again… from scratch. Researcher dave is not invested in the success of the course, necessarily, but in learning from the process. Bye bye rhizo14 hello rhizo15!

Teacher Dave has slightly different feelings about things. I want the 2015 version of the course to go as well or better than 2014. This includes being fair to both the returning participants and the new participants. How do we integrate the two groups in the most seamless manner possible? How do we ask challenging questions that respect the community knowledge carried over and still allows for there to be new material for people to negotiate knowledge with? Maybe keep the old one on P2PU and then create a second, connect the two…? Simply reopen the P2PU site and keep going? #rhizoforever?

Community Dave thinks that we need to open that question much more broadly and see what the disparate but still engaged #rhizoers think about the subject. The crowd, in this case, could have a fair amount of wisdom to share, and the experience of going through that question could be very valuable in and of itself. I’m not sure what they’d say… but that the whole reason for asking them :) #rhizo?

Leadership in community
So, I guess, this is my attempt at number 3 on that list. I’d be interested to hear what people think about continuing with an existing community and integrating new people. Send along some links to other people chatting about it if you can find it…

One way or the other I will ‘decide’ whether it be by weight of a community opinion, or a last minute shot in the dark. In the end balancing community opinions and the need to actually make yes/no decisions might be one of the critical literacies in a rhizomatic learning approach. Many things can live in complexity and should stay there… but… well, we’ll see how the buts work out. I care about keeping the #rhizo14 community, I like those people, i enjoy the way they interact. How to keep it going…?

Explaining Rhizo14 to Oscar

(this is a draft for a narrative submission, I’m still not a hundred percent happy with the tone, but bear with me – feedback might help :) )

Oscar is my almost-eight year old son. He’s been blogging since he was four, has played around a little on twitter and has generally grown up in a house where his parents have made a fair chunk of their career out of blogging and working online. It is with this as a backdrop that he walks into the room yesterday and asks

Are you in charge of ALL of rhizo14, i mean, all around the world?

You see I received a box in the mail yesterday that had a card, 4 t-shirts and a magnet that said #rhizo14 on it. The artwork, the hashtag and the tagline “A communal network of knowmads” come from a Open Course that I started in January of 2014 now called #rhizo14. The package oscar was looking over had a stamp from Brazil on it which I explained came from Clarissa, an educator who participated in Rhizo14. She sent everyone in the family a t-shirt with the rhizo14 logo on it.

Rhizo14

So… are you in charge of it? My son not being accustomed to me being lost for words, was confused by my lack of response. In that simple question lies much of what I have struggled to explain about the event that is/was #rhizo14. What does it mean to be ‘in charge’ of a MOOC? What was my role in something that was very much a participant driven process?

What was the course now called Rhizo14
I say “now called” because the original title of the course was “Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum” but the people who are still participating refer to it by the hashtag. It was a six week open course hosted on the P2PU platform from January 14 to February 25th. The topic of the course was to be about my years long blabbing about rhizomatic learning. I wanted to invite a bunch of people to a conversation about my work to see if they could help me make it better. Somewhere in the vicinity of 500 people either signed up or joined one of the community groups.

What I was hoping for
Fundamentally i was hoping that 40 or 50 people would show up to the course and that by the end there would still be a handful of people interested in the discussion. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to gather the work that I had done and make it better than it was before. I find the pressure of having an audience is very helpful in convincing me to get things together. I was not precisely hoping that we would get enough people for the course to have MOOC like characteristics, and I certainly didn’t put the time into advertising it in a way that was likely to lead to that. I was hoping that after 6 weeks I would have a better grasp on my own work, and that a few participants would have had a positive experience.

In the more macro sense, I’m always hoping that a course that I’m working on leads to some sort of community. My work since 2005 has focused on ways to encourage people to see ‘the community as the curriculum’. I’m always hoping to organize an ecosystem where people form affinity connections in such a way that when the course ends, and I walk away, the conversations and the learning continues.

How the course was designed

I made three different attempts at designing rhizo14.

The first was around my own collection of blog posts about rhizomatic learning. This was, essentially, the content of 7 years of thinking about the rhizome in education, broken into six week. In retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that I was considering so instructivist an approach, but it is very much following previous models of open courses I have been involved with. I think that this course design was prompted by my concern that people would be unfamiliar with the use of the rhizome in education and would need structure to support their journey with the idea. It was also easy to just use the stuff I already had :).

Two days later, I had almost completely discarded this model for a new one that was more focused on the process of learning and connecting in an open course. The idea in model two was to ‘unravel’ the course from a fairly structured beginning to a more open and project based conclusion. This design was meant address my concerns about new participants to open/online courses. Over the years we’ve seen many complaints about the shock of a distributed course and, I’ve always thought, we didn’t see the vast majority of the complaints of participants who just couldn’t get their feet under them.

Two days before the course started, I threw that out the window as well. In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. The topic I chose for week 1 mirrored the opening content i was going to suggest but with no readings offered. I gave the participants “Cheating as Learning” as a topic, a challenge to see the concept of cheating as a way of deconstructing learning, and a five minute introductory video. This is the format that I kept for the rest of the course, choosing the weekly topics based on what I thought would forward the conversation.

  • Week 1 – Cheating as Learning (Jan 14-21)

  • Week 2 – Enforcing Independence (Jan 21-28)
  • Week 3 – Embracing Uncertainty (Jan 28-Feb 4)
  • Week 4 – Is Books Making Us Stupid? (Feb 4-Feb 11)
  • Week 5 – Community As Curriculum (Feb 11-Feb 18)
  • Week 6 – Planned Obsolescence (Feb 18-?)

What happened during the course
Saying that I lost control of the discussion creates the false premise that I ever had control of it. From the get go, participants took my vague ‘cheating’ prompt and interpreted it in a dozen different ways. There were several strands of ethical debates regarding cheating. There were folks who decided to discuss testing. Others focused on how learning could be defined in a world of abundance. Still more took issue with the design of the question and focused on this.

My response was to (as i had promised) write a blog post explaining my intention with the question and surveying what people had written. This was the only week that I did this. As the course developed, and new challenges emerged, it became clear that these review posts were being created without my help. They were, in essence, me trying to hold on to my position as the instructor of the course. A position I had not really had from day 1. By the end, I only formally participated as instructor in posting the weekly challenges with a short video and by hosting a weekly live discussion on unhangout.

What happened after the course
My ‘planned’ course finished on the 25th of February. On the 26th of February, week 7 of the course showed up on the Facebook group and the P2PU course page. This week entitled “The lunatics are taking over the asylum” was the first of many weeks created by the former ‘participants’ in the course. This new thing, which it is now safe to call #rhizo14, is currently in week 11 of its existence. In week eight, the community chose a blog post that I wrote several years ago as a topic of discussion. Week 11 is addressing the concern of allowing all voices to be acknowledge (a discussion that was very much present during the first six weeks) in an open environment.

As they began so they continued. The vast majority of the people who participated are now only distantly connected to the course if at all. A core of 50 or so people remain in the discussions, however, and are now identify themselves as ‘part of rhizo14′. For now, at least, there is a community of people who I am happy to number myself a member of.

So Oscar… am I in charge of Rhizo14
Uh… no. I don’t think I ever was. An amazing group of people from around the world decided to spend some of their time learning with me for six weeks. A fair number of those seem to be forming into a community of learners that are planning new work and sharing important parts of their lives with each other. We are creating together.

My son, by this point of the conversation, would doubtlessly already be asleep :)

Giving project feedback in open communities

I have wandered around the internet looking for resources that speak to effective ways to give feedback. I have, in my journeys, once again realized what people mean by the word ‘abundance’ as well as what they mean by the difference between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. I don’t think that there is ‘one way’ to give good feedback. I think we are all different people, with different skills as communicators, and different ways of relating to each other. That’s cool. That’s life. But I try to leave alot of feedback. I’m going to detail some of the things that I try to do when I give feedback and hope that you will share some of yours.

Golden Rule – Everyone is working hard. Respect people’s work. Approach them from this position.

Obvious feedback
I’ll start with the easy one. Anything that has to do with spelling, obvious grammar (and no, i’m not talking about oxford commas) and clear errors – I commented on. Always. I try to backchannel if i can (send an email etc) or i’ll comment on the work in public with a ‘feel free to delete this comment’ message on my comment. I would far rather know that i had inadvertently added an ‘h’ to the word sit than have people read it over and over again. I’m always nice about it. Some of us have a harder time seeing these mistakes than others. :)

Help out with the obvious stuff… just be nice about it :)

General feedback
I think of general feedback as being the sense that someone gets from an idea. I like general feedback to be specific. I try to never say “i didn’t really understand your blog post” when that blog post is 1000 words long. I try to stick to things like “the second paragraph of your blog post was where i started to get confused about who the audience was.” Sometimes when I’m in a rush or really excited about an idea, i don’t necessarily say things as clearly as i might. That’s true for others as well.

Give general feedback, yes, but be as specific as you can be. Take the time to describe your reaction

Technical feedback
This is where debates can often begin and also where more starts to be required of the person providing the feedback. If I’m going to disagree with how a given concept is explained, how a word is used or how an algebraic problem is… uh… problematized, I try to explain myself as best i can. I explain what part of the field I come from, explain why my point is important to me. If i manage to handle this properly, it’s not usually an issue. Where I get into trouble, as always, is if i make the issue bigger than it is. If i feel like saying something like “this is a common mistake” or other silly things, I put my computer away and comment later.

If you are disagreeing on technical grounds, explain yourself. Offer a new solution.

Conceptual feedback
This is the most difficult kind of feedback and often the most important. We, many of us, come from very different schools of thought. The death of many projects, particularly interdisciplinary ones, in a lack of a common language. This can make it difficult to disagree on conceptual grounds in an efficient manner. While I can leave a comment on someone’s work attempting to explain a conceptual clash, it will involve a significant amount of work if I want that person to be able to hear me.

That’s not to say that I don’t do it, just that you are taking on a significant responsibility if your goal is to actually represent your opinion in a way that will help. Often what I prefer to do in these situations is write something about the issue, in a more generalized way, on my own blog. This will allow a new conceptual conversation to happen on my own turf and allow the old conversation to continue. Both conversations are valuable… i don’t like to get them confused.

Conceptual disagreement require serious thinking. Do it, if you have the time to commit. These are important conversations.

Anyone else?

Open project practices – participating in makerphysics

For those of you not aware, I’ve been working with Piotr Mitros on this idea of encouraging a community of physics educators (and other educators) to co-create a MOOC that can help people prepare for university level physics. We are one week in at this point, and as this is a pilot, it seemed like a good time to reflect on some of the practices that might encourage people to participate as effectively as they can… both for the health of the project and the value of the participant.

Give yourself permission
I’m increasingly starting to realize that one of the biggest impediment to any project is that people don’t believe they have permission to do things. Questions like ‘what am i allowed to do” and “what does success look like” are good indicators that people are comfortable participating openly. If you are participating in an open project there is a subtle balance between the organizers and the participants in this regard. We need to make an effort to give people the structure and the room to participate, but, in the end, the participants need to take on the authority themselves.

To be successful in an open project you need to give yourself permission to be a contributing member

Blind sharing
In our course, we have hard core physics educator/programmers who’ve made excellent physics thingies in the past. We have other people who are pure educators without a scrap of physics understanding… and lots in between. Everyone has a role that is valuable. Some people can code, and don’t have new ideas to share. Some people have lots of ideas, but too many of the same ones. Some people just like to work with other people. The trick is, we never know what piece is going to be important. So you need share ideas/thoughts/code as you have them. It is next to impossible for you to know before you’ve shared whether it’s going to be useful to someone else.

Ideas are the lifeblood of open projects. Share them as you have them. Even if your idea doesn’t go forward, it often leads others to new ideas


Engage with ideas

There are two sides to this sharing business. If you see a good idea, say so. If you see an idea that you don’t agree with, disagree with it (professionally :) ). It is much more rewarding to share ideas when someone else is commenting on them. The platform we are working in has both comments and ‘+1′ functions available. Use them as you can. The more interaction we have, the better the ideas tend to get.

Engage with other people’s ideas, it makes them better. It also makes things more fun for everyone

Feedback to the organizers
The reason for running an open project is to get to work with lots of people. If something about the course is bothering you, or stopping you from participating… let us know. You are the reason we’re here. We don’t always know when something is broken, and are more than willing to engage with suggestions for improvement

Let the organizers know how you’re doing, both for what’s working and what isn’t working for you

Building an introductory physics course – cMOOC meets xMOOC

Problem: How do we create a free, online introductory physics course for students transitioning into AP (advanced placement) or first year introductory physics?

Solution: Lets get all the physics teachers we can together and build it as a team.

Yeah but…: lots of those folks may be good physics teachers but they haven’t all taught online before.

Better solution: Lets build a four week ‘maker course’ for physics teachers where we talk about the best ways to build online resources and build those together at the same time!

Lets start that on the 4th of March. (Course opens on the 28th of February)
UPDATE: Dave Pritchard has agreed to come onboard to serve as one of the facilitators for the course!!!

The project – Making introductory physics prep together
Our goal is to gather as many physics educators as we can find and make resources. Specifically, we want to make resources that can be turned into a free course for students transitioning into AP or university level physics. Our hope is to end up with more resources than we need and that all participants (and other folks) can find resources and ideas that can help them in their teaching and learning. Want to find other people working on physics? Want to learn to build new things online and/or share the things that you know about building things? read on.

Who should join this course?
We’re hoping for two types of folks in the course.

  1. People who are interested in teaching physics, whether you’ve been doing it for two years or twenty years.
  2. People with lots of experience building stuff online.

Bringing together people’s experience and collaborating on our ideas will make the work better.

What’s the fine print?
First of all… the maker course is free. All and any materials created in the course (by everyone, including the course facilitators) will be licenced Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons_license so that we can all benefit from the work we are doing together. You are free to participate to whatever extent you wish, but if you join a ‘maker team’ you are committing yourself to doing the work for that team. The central part of the course will use the EdX platform, but we will also have facebook, twitter and google + groups. No need to join them all but different people like to work in different places.

It’s a four week commitment. The ‘maker teams’ will each be responsible for one area of introductory physics and will focus on those. Other participants are welcome to help, contribute, and collaborate as they see fit. This is our first time trying this, so the more help we get the better.

Classroom scholarships
At the end of the course we will award a number of scholarships to teachers working in the course. Prizes will be awarded in a number of categories, but only to participants who ‘finish’ the course. We are hoping to encourage completion, on one hand, but also to provide people with the tools and resources in the classrooms to create new and interesting resources to support physics teaching.

Project Background
This project is the brainchild of Piotr Mitros (Chief Scientist at EdX) and I (dave). We spent 12 hours driving around on a bus together in June arguing about how we could integrate the work that I’ve been doing with cMOOCs with the work that he’s been doing with xMOOCs. This project is our first run at it. Imagine a community of educators coming together once a year for four weeks to work on the curriculum for a transitions course for physics students from all over the world. How cool would that be? Well… if it works, we’ll see :)

SIGN UP HERE

Grant information
The University of Prince Edward Island is a successful applicant of a competitive grant competition run by Athabasca University (Principal Investigator: George Siemens). This project, the MOOC Research Initiative, will advance understanding of the role of MOOCs in the education sector and how emerging models of learning will influence traditional education. The MOOC Research Initiative is a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Books making us stupid – too soon?

A bridge too far
I keep saying this to myself. For those of you not familiar with mega-cast war films from the seventies, the protagonists in the film referenced in the title try to get the whole war they are in ended in one attack by capturing three bridges. The last bridge, though bravely captured and defended, is lost and the venture is left unfinished. The war continues on. This… is how I feel about week 4. The book thing has not gone as planned – people seemed to think i want to get rid of all books. I do not. I wanted to juxtapose the Nicolas Carr lambasting of google against his enlightenment attachments to books. Google makes us think shallowly. How do books make us think? Is it actually great, or are we just used to it?

Why the book week is important
This course is meant to be a process of unbundling and bricolage. Of challenging the assumptions that underly what we call learning and then, as we come to the closing weeks, finding new assemblages that we can use to help us move further down the road. I see the book as a symbol of the bundled. Of the pre-fabricated. Of centralized, expert driven content. I also see a house of my own entirely clogged with books of all sorts. I challenge ‘book as construct,’ not by wanting to burn them or throw them out or turn away from them, but to take apart the ways in which we see them to see what they are doing to us.

I challenge the book the same way i challenge consumerism – not by wanting to stop being a consumer, I like things, but by thinking deeply about it to understand where it impacts what I am doing.

Book as curriculum
The book in all of its bound paper glory, is a powerful instrument. There are books written by all kinds of people saying all kinds of things. Some good, some bad, and yes, we should be critical about what we read. My critique is about something other than this. Those books were all written by people. Real people. The book is an artifice (often necessary, particularly when those people are dead) a cultural artifact that separates us from the person who’s idea were reading. It is a one to many artifact – no matter how many book clubs deconstruct it. It is broadcast. It is lecture.

I love an awesome lecture. But it is not what i want from education… it should be rare rather than omnipresent because a lecture is very different than an interactive session. A keynote different from a breakout room.

The book is a DEEPLY embedded artifact in the minds of almost all ‘educated’ people.

A book different from a community.

(more on this in week 5)

A dave gone too far – Apologies again to Jenny
I have not done well by the excellent Jenny Mackness’s blog (or by Jenny). I have posted two comments there that have not reflected how i see myself as a participant in the community of learning. I was frustrated with myself for not getting my point across and, I think, that leaked over there. My apologies Jenny.

Is books making us stupid? behind the curtain of #rhizo14

The rhizomatic learning course #rhizo14 is the first open course I’ve ever taught without affiliation. (though certainly being employed by my university and having an invested and interested partner allows me to have the ‘free time’ to pursue it) I have no partner that I’m working with or no school supporting it. This is the educational exploration I’ve been doing for the last 8-9 years, and I invited whoever may want to join to come along with me for the ride. It is, in many ways, the vision of MOOCs that I have had since we first starting talking about them in 2008. The course participation has been fascinating… and enlightening. Don’t take my word for it, check out some of the highlights for yourself on Cathleen Nardi’s curation page. The course is being ‘designed’, if you can call it that, to expose the concepts of rhizomatic learning through a succession of challenges. The challenges have been developed on the fly based on my sense of what might help push the conversation to a new and interesting place. They are structured to challenge the cultural assumptions that are prevalent around learning and to have people share their responses to it.

Challenge 1 – Cheating as learning
This was a blind opener. I had to have a topic to get conversation started in the first week and this is the place i usually start in my first week of my face2face classes. I started out purposefully vague with this topic with the hope that it would allow for a greater number of perspectives around the power structures that support cheating. That seemed to work. We got power and ethics and lots of fun stuff. More than anything, I was hoping to break down the teacher/student divide and trouble who was responsible for deciding who was learning and how they should be doing that. It might, also, start conversations around collaboration.

Here’s the intro video.

Challenge 2 – Enforcing Independence
This was intended as a counterpoint to week 1. Yes, the student is responsible for learning. Yes, our traditional system is a command and control structure better built for enforcement of norms than for the nurturing of creativity. Sure. We need independent learners. But how do we get there. We’re not starting from a blank slate. We can’t just reset the last 150 years of schooling and start over. We need to create classroom and non-classroom learning structures that slowly move people towards independence. We need to live inside the paradox of telling people to do what they need to do and to judge themselves by their own goals and objectives.

Here’s the intro video

Challenge 3 – Embracing Uncertainty
Encouraging people towards independence is one thing, creating an ecosystem where multiple answers are possible is something else entirely. Uncertainty is a part of most of our real lives, it is very much part of the learning process that we live outside of ‘schooling’. It takes a long time for my students to get over the sense that there is a hidden series of things i want them to believe, and that my attempts to have them create their own objectives is just reflective of sadistic tendencies. I have to embrace my own uncertainty around things, and the uncertainty around the things that I know about, in order to demonstrate that as a goal for learning. Those goals aren’t about knowing right/wrong but rather being able to make reasonable decisions when confronted by uncertainty. If this is the new goal of learning, it fundamentally changes the way you go about it.

Intro video

Challenge 4 – Is books making us stupid?
I got really strong support for independence and for uncertainty… to strong I thought. I expected a little more pushback. I decided to ask the question in a different way, one that maybe went more to the core of our beliefs about knowledge. Many of us (me included) have been brought up to adore the idea of the book, to revere the smell of one. We have found solace in books, escape, the voices of the past… all kinds of things. But the book is a technology and it has it’s own logic to it. It’s own set of affordances. It is very easy, for instance, to see a book linearly. It starts at the beginning and moves on to the end. Sure… you can jump into the middle and read it backwards if you want, but that is you disrupting the technology.

My hope for this week was to trouble the relationship between printed, unmodifiable text and learning. The responses have been pretty divergent… I’m in no way suggesting that books haven’t had a very valuable historical place. I’m not suggesting that I don’t want to read them. I do, however, think that we have lost a fair amount of value in our cultural move towards the book-type text. Are books ‘more right’? Do they encourage the tendency to look for a ‘correct’ answer? Was socrates right when he suggested that writing would mean people wouldn’t think for themselves that they’d just ‘read it’?

I also think, and I get into this more in the ramble below about Nicholas Carr, that the book heavily privileges people of a certain ‘tradition’.

The question of the book and of its primacy is fundamental to community curriculum… hence it’s placement here in the course.

Intro video

Note on the title and darker critique and rambling
Nicholas Carr wrote an article called “Is google making us stupid”, in which he critiques our ‘get answers at your fingertips’ google fuelled world. In response to Socrates’ warnings about writing, he suggests “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).” And I agree with him, those things did happen. But at what cost? We moved from ideas moving towards fluidity to them becoming more truth based. And now I’m suggesting that we can have both worlds, if we leave behind the trapping of the technology of paper. A return to orality need neither be us turning over our culture to mindless interaction nor a complete divestiture of books… just of a primacy of complexity over simplicity. Of conversation over printed-text.

He continues…

“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”

And herein lies the rub. The book promotes independence of thought, our ‘own’ ideas and our ‘own’ inferences. It promotes possession. It reifies the things we are reading and makes them a thing that can belong to a person. There is value in this. But there is also a fundamental difference between an idea that I HAVE that I DEFEND against someone else and an ongoing conversation that develops BETWEEN people.

He quotes Richard Foreman saying the following –

“I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.””

If we look to the life lived by Foreman and Carr’s Dartmouth/Harvard education, it doesn’t take a huge stretch for us to see that the ‘tradition’ that they are talking about doesn’t necessarily include all of us. Much like similar critiques from Sherry Turkle, the ‘we’ might not extend to the rest of ‘us’.

Who does the ‘tradition’ of the book serve?

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” For you… I quote a book that tells of a conversation where meaning is up for negotiation.