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Asynchronous course hour – systemic impacts of the digital on higher education

As some of you are probably aware, I spent the last 10 months working on an academic plan for my university. I tried to be the conduit for 1000’s of pages of feedback, multiple collaborative sessions and piles of surveys. I also tried to listen to hundreds of colleagues and students who had stories they wanted to tell about their time here at the university. It was a fascinating process, and the experience of developing a plan with a committee of 22 people was one I will not soon forget. The digital (meaning the difference between what is possible/likely/imposed in a pre-digital vs. digital society) was hiding around every corner. There was the obvious stuff like the ethical implications of learning analytics and conversations about what ‘quality’ might look like in online learning. There were also more subtle things like integrating student services through a ticket management approach and encouraging networked participatory scholarship. You can ignore it, but you can’t avoid it. We need to re-envision huge chunks of our institutions along new lines taking into account both the affordances and the tyranny of the digital. The systemic impacts of the digital on learning is a panel i’m chairing at the DLRN conference next week. (4 days left to register)

The digital gives us a new window through which to examine our first principles.

An article was posted in Inside Higher Ed yesterday touting the need to shift from the Carnegie Unit to outcomes based education. The author juxtaposes the industrial age approach to learning (thrown them in a room, block out class time) against the information age (let them advance at their own speed towards outcomes). The idea seems to be that we are currently trying to do both industrial, time based education AND outcomes based education at the same time and this leaves us with a commitment to neither. We need to cast off the timed class hour and rebuild our universities to train students for the information economy. Ok. Yup. We need to change because right now we’re trying to do ALL THE THINGS… but lets dig a little deeper.

The two parts of this argument we should ignore
Mastery learning – I have come to see the concept of ‘mastery learning’ as code for ‘and we only care about STEM subjects’. It is a rigid system whereby we create a set of standard blocks of ‘knowing’ that people do one after another, only moving to the next step when the previous one is completed. An assembly line of learning, as it were. An industrial model of learning. I am always a little confused by how people use ‘information age’ networked arguments to suggest we should do mastery learning. And, frankly, many STEM grads will go into companies where the daily work life will look like it did 20 years ago. Research labs or construction sites may have incrementally better technologies, but as many of them rigidly protect their intellectual property and have giant marketing budgets to buy TV ads, the ‘information superhighway’ doesn’t intersect with them very often.

Information Age and knowing information – the suggestion here is that we need to have ‘information havers’ who we can prove they ‘have information’ for the information age. This seems a little confusing to me. If we live with an abundance of information, then we need to teach people how to assemble solutions from various levels of knowing. If I’m building a new birdhouse I may be an expert in construction, kinda knowledgeable about birds and suck at the marketing part of selling my birdhouse. The great thing about the world we live in is that (given access – lots of people don’t have it) you can do all those things. That’s part of what’s changed. But it’s not about ‘having all that information’ but knowing how to bring together the information and/or the people to get what you need. We can do that today… we mostly don’t need to be ‘masters’ ahead of time.

But he’s also right – the asynchronous course hour
The asynchronous course hour often drives this conversation. The research that I’ve done on it (this article is representative) suggest that most people have thought about it, understand that it’s an issue, but aren’t really sure what to do about it. Here’s the problem. We have all decided, for convenience sake, that we’ll teach about 36 classroom hours to students and expect them to study about 80 hours outside the classroom for each ‘course’. We’ve adapted our curriculum to fit this convention and, ostensibly, try to balance the amount of knowing/work/information/learning (KWIT) to fit that time frame. Early in online learning, we took the amount of KWIT we did in a face2face classroom and used that as the basis for how much KWIT we would use in an online course. This works ok for as far as it goes… and then you start to ask questions

What if I record my lectures, is that equivalent to a classroom hour… am i teaching?
If I’m giving the same tests, can i let the students self-pace and finish whenever?
Is my responding in a discussion forum equal to me grading or me teaching?
What if i start my course from scratch, how do I imagine 36 hours of classroom teaching?
How can I do online testing without them ‘finding the answers’ on the internet?

We are living with a foot in both worlds, and we are being forced (at least i hope we are) to ask some profound questions about what it means to teach in ‘the information age’. We have weird monsters-hybrids like ‘a video camera that watches your eyes to make sure you are only staring at the screen when you’re doing an online test’ and faculty requesting f2f tests for online courses. That walled classroom has it’s own affordances that get blown up when you work online. The classroom hour structure is only the start of it.

Information control
One of the nice things about keeping people in a boxed off space when you’re trying to teach them is TOTAL POWER over the information space. If you can keep students quiet, you can totally control the information that is being presented. This makes testing super-easy to monitor. It also allows you to forward one perspective (or multiple ones if you so choose) and create the knowledge narrative that you subscribe to. The digital totally blows this up. Five minutes of clicking can get you a counter to almost any narrative. The ‘information hiding’ that is so critical to the way many still test is next to impossible (Big Brother watching you through your computer not-withstanding). The lessons that this teaches “hide your information” and “choose the RIGHT narrative” doesn’t really map up against the information age story that we are being told.

What is our relationship to information in learning in 2015?

Most faculty agreements are mapped up against the faculty member spending 36 hours in a classroom. That’s super easy to count. Were you there? Yeah? Ok… you were there. That’s pretty easy right? There are certainly many other things in place, student evaluations, faculty professionalism, etc… I’m not suggesting that faculty just put in time in their classrooms. I’m suggesting that the whole model of ‘doing your job’ STARTS at being in class. But what does that look like in an online space? What does ‘being in class’ mean when you and your students have access to a classroom space (if you’re using a VLE) 24 hours a day? What if you tried to answer all of your students questions when there is an unlimited amount of time for them to ask? I remember trying to find guidance when i taught my first hybrid class (18 hours in class, 18 hours online). I tried my best to make it work out… but how do I know that I’m doing my job? How much is the right amount?

What does it mean to ‘teach an hour’ in 2015?

Fix it with outcomes!!!
The solution to this is to use outcomes based education instead of hours based education. The theory here is that as long as we ensure that students ‘get it’ who cares how many hours it takes? But what is ‘IT’? How do we decide what a person needs to know in order to have a Bachelor’s degree in Arts with a major in Philosophy? What outcomes are you going to choose to make a Major in Biology? Can a student finish in 2 years? What about one year? What about 20 years? Is it time based at all? Well… we could model off of what we have now…

Mastery education advocates often cite professional standards bodies as an alternative way to go with this. They use the fields of engineering, or computer science as their example and say we’ll know when they reach those outcomes that they are prepared to go into those fields. The funny thing is that when i talk to engineers and computer scientists I keep hearing about the need for creativity, time management, grit and people skills as much as I hear about the need to know (insert engineering thing that’s easily measured). Those are wonderful things… but they aren’t mastery things. I am not going to get my first block of creativity learned until moving on to block two of grit. And don’t say i can… because… (angry face)

What outcome do we really want from our universities?
This is just another case where the digital has forced us to consider our first principles. What do we want the ‘outcome’ of a university education to be? As we consider how granular, how technical, how mastery-based we want our outcomes to be we are deciding what it means to be a knower in our society. Our schools have been both drivers for creating drones to work in our factories and an attempt to be places of free thought to allow us to change as a society. They are – always – normative. The way we build them and the ways in which we adjudicate success inside them will be reflections of the society we created… whether we’ve thought about it or not.

The digital isn’t an evolutionary change, it’s a new toolset that allows us to think about the human experience. The internet is full of humans and the residue of the human experience. Given this moment of reflection that we are forced to confront… what do we want ‘knowing’ to be in 2015?

Trying to support deeper conversation at an ed-conference? DLRN15 is trying Slack

DLRN15 is going to happen in nine days. The conference is exploring the impact of the digital on higher education. We’re hoping to have deep conversations on complex issues. We’ve got passionate people coming. How can we make it as useful to people as possible? How do we allow multiple voices to participate to allow that complexity to emerge? How do we encourage that conversation to continue?

Slack experiment
Following the XOXO festival’s lead this year we thought we might take a run at using Slack to support conference conversations. We’ve been using Slack to help organize the conference… and… well… it’s really helpful. If you haven’t used Slack, its like a more organized, slightly more functional twitter. It lets you create channels (really hashtags) to coordinate conversation topics. It allows basic googledoc integration.

It has one feature that I consider essential to battling signal/noise problems – it has a functional notification system. In all my work with open communities, I’ve found that notification is just about the most important part of the process… whether that comes through a newsletter or through facebook updates. Slack has a fairly good notification process, which might really help people zoom in on conversations that they want to pursue.

How we might use Slack
Conference logistics – At the very least, people will know where to go to ask a question. That alone is pretty useful. Will there be too much noise to make it a good place for that? Maybe. Conference announcements? Slack. Too much noise? Don’t know.
Conference socializing – It can be hard to find people to have lunch with, grab a drink with or have dinner with the night before a conference. I always feel just a little weird posting open dinner invitations to the conference twitter hashtag… like my kids are going to worry that I’m lonely. I’m hoping that at the very least people will know where to find other people at the conference. Looking for someone? Find them on Slack. Don’t want to be found? don’t login. easy peasy.
Conference themes – We have five conference themes that we’re hoping to explore. I’m hoping that we can get a bit of a discussion going before the conference starts on each theme. I’d like to have a place where those five conversations can evolve over the conference. I have this idea that people can keep going back to keep pushing the conversation a little further.
Special topic creation – The XOXO conference had 150 channels by the time their conference was over. I think it’d be great if people started their own channels as topics of special interest emerge.

Social contract
As with any new space and any place where new connections are being made there’s a need for addressing the implicit social contract. We are very much trying to create a space where as many people as possible can have a voice… can be part of the conversation. This is DLRNs inclusion statement…

#dlRN15 is dedicated to trying to create an inclusive conversation for all participants, and to welcome voices across lines of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), technology choices, and academic status.

I don’t expect Slack to replace other methods of sending out content. I can still see people tweeting and sending out images on instagram. I still hope to see blog posts. We’re going to try and do some interesting things with Periscope. I’m hoping that Slack will encourage more discussion amongst the participants that will lead to even more stuff being sent out to the web. We’ll see. Have to try it to find out.

We certainly had some folks during the recent open courses I was facilitating concerned about the exclusion they felt when much of the conversation was being held in Facebook. I’m sensitive to this… but I think it’s still worth trying. We’ll keep track of how it goes and report back after the conference.

Sign up
Want to sign up? Here’s the form. Not coming to the conference and still interested in finding out how it works? Feel free to sign up. Will it be a positive experience? No idea. Please let us know.

Community learning – every ‘we’ makes a ‘them’

I have too many draft blog posts accumulating in this space so I’m committed to publishing whatever drivel comes out of my fingers tonight. I was seconded to lead Academic Planning and Retention/student engagement at UPEI, and with the plan finally out to campus, New Student Orientation ready to go and our analytics project coming together, I can turn my mind to other ideas.

After the open course I ran earlier this year (Rhizo15) we found ourselves tangled in a number of publication and presentation projects. We’ve setup a Slack instance to try and deal with the todos on the different projects. It’s been an interesting process trying to bring enough structure to a ridiculously unstructured concept (rhizomatic learning) to be able to talk to other people about it. We’ve been having a conversation over the last week or so about the viability of running a new rhizo (#rhizo16) next year. The focus of that conversation is about how we can include people in the community so that they feel real membership. The very fact that there’s a ‘we’ talking about this in the first place suggests that we might have a problem on our hands.

WEs creating THEMs
I tend to think that membership and belonging are things that humans seek in most things they do. You may be member of a very small, very pigheaded group, but you still have a place to belong… even if that belonging is only in opposition to the dominant group. In the learning stuff that I play with, I always try to be very sensitive to the idea that it can be difficult for new people to play. By this i don’t mean “do people know enough to join”, but rather “do people feel like they are members of the community”. Rhizo14 (the first Rhizomatic learning open course) spawned a set of tightly knit communities that, in some cases, continued working together after the course was over. In some of those cases I think the community may have formed in opposition to the course… but it still formed. We had created some very strong WE during the course of our work during and after the course. We had created a language. We had reifications that were part of shared experience.

At that point of WE the THEMs are created. Lots of us are interested in making these great communities of knowing, but in doing so we are, defacto, excluding all the folks who didn’t make it in, for whatever reason. Some people expect to be part of the WE – just because they showed up. Some people take great offence to starting out as a THEM. Some are very sensitive to these kinds of belonging and others, of course, could care less. As facilitators we have a double responsibility to both the WEs and the THEMs.

In planning for #rhizo15 my main concern was to create a space where new people could join and participate on a level playing field with folks from #rhizo14. Not possible, I know, I guess maybe it was a direction I was heading in. I took a number of approaches:

  1. I committed to running the course by myself, thereby not overtly creating an ‘in crowd’ (though, to be fair, lots of #rhizo14ers helped lots and lots in the background
  2. I changed the name (to 15), the focus and the location of the course… killing off a very successful facebook group in the process
  3. I attempted (and failed) to create a forkable course
  4. I vowed to do way more social intervention work to include people equally
  5. I equally attempted to avoided ‘right answers’ as these favour the initiated
  6. I was terribly mysterious about the content (and, frankly, the goal) of each week… putting everyone in the same position

For all the efforts I made, it was breathtaking how quickly the WE groups formed themselves. We’re still looking at the data from twitter, suffice it to say that people form up pretty quickly. That shared experience starts to create new language, it melds with the old language, and new WEs are created. And that’s good. People start to trust and like each other, and they start to learn together. They care about each other. Community forms. New thinking emerges. WEs happen. But anyone who did not participate in that experience, who did not, for whatever reason, feel included if they did participate… they are now a them. It’s not something I saw people do overtly… it just seems to happen. I’ve been working in online communities (mostly for learning) for a dozen years or so, as a community emerges, it tends to get more and more difficult to join fully. I’ve come to see this as normal, and to see my job as trying to create ways to allow people to belong over time.

Opening the door
This blog post is here because my excellent colleague asked the question “wonder why we speak of opening the door at all, instead of an open hallway?”. I think we create those doors by liking each other. There are certainly people who are more than willing to just ignore the doors and jump in anyway, but I think that the longer a group of people are together, the fewer people there are who are willing to do that. Unless, of course, people make an overt effort to create strategies that allow people to become members of a community, and, in our case, a community of knowing.

And we all know this really – from the rest of our lives. It takes effort to belong to any tight knit group of people, and I’m certainly not suggesting that all the effort should be on the part of the WE to allow for the THEM. Becoming part of the WE is an overt act of becoming on the part of the THEM. They have to want it. They have to be willing to try and understand the WE even as they come to belong and start to shape what the WE means. But the WE has to continually find new ways to open the door, to allow people to join on equal footing (whatever that means).

What this means for learning – Making people WEs
I’ve always seen Instructivism as a process by which you explain to people that there are things they are supposed to know, and they should just go on about believing those things. There are instances in which i agree with this. Road rules. The names of things (though this is tricky). The fire exits. Timestables. I think its very dangerous, however, when we start applying it to everything. While its probably a more effective way to get someone to pass a test, it’s not as effective a mechanism at encouraging creativity, independence and people’s ability to confront adversity/uncertainty.

That’s where, I believe, Constructivism comes in. From those terms, you are building your own understanding of the world around you. Not a great way to learn to use a stop sign, but a more effective mechanism for emancipation. My particular feelings about learning are, I think, a form of constructivism, where we remove the ‘right answer’ entirely, and try to move people from the THEM category of learning to the WE category. Where we are trying to bring them into the community of knowing rather than enforcing a belief upon them. Teaching is, i think, a constant effort of shoving that damn door open to try and let people in. Making WEs of the THEMs.

Networks and higher ed… so many questions

If you poke around long enough in large change projects in higher education right now, you’ll find a technology that someone is trying to deal with. Whether it’s the needs of a CRM (customer relations management) system, the feedback from a learning analytics project, a social media mental health campaign… whatever. While technology is often complicated to develop/configure and it often does not solve the problem it was acquired for, that’s only the start of it. These technologies are really proxies for human activity, wether they are connective tech or simply a way of story things people said or did, they are still ‘activities’ that we are doing with our students. They are ethical situations, they need to impact policy etc…

In the last few years, as I’ve started to work in student preparation, recruitment, engagement and retention, I’ve been seeing new challenges. How do we incorporate health and wellness into an online program? What are the ethical implications of opening up student’s work to the world? How much learning analytics is too much analytics? How do we encourage systemic change? How much change can we even encourage inside higher ed and still call it higher ed? How does it relate to the way that people work?

And so I got a call from George Siemens talking about the DLRN conference. And it seems that I’m not alone in wanting to ask and talk about these questions. I’m currently on a planning committee with some very interesting folks

Kate Bowles, University of Wollongong
Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island
Matt Crosslin, University of Texas at Arlington
Justin T. Dellinger, University of Texas at Arlington
Kristen Eshleman, Davidson College
George Siemens, University of Texas at Arlington
Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island
Candace Thille, Stanford University

Our conference is hoping to explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy through five lenses for submissions: The Ethics of collaboration, Individualized learning, Systemic impacts, Innovation and work and Sociocultural Implications.

If you’re wondering about these things too… here’s the call for proposals

A practical guide to Rhizo15

Welcome Aboard
Rhizomatic learning is one story for how we can think about learning and teaching in a complex world.

Think of this course as a camp you can visit for six weeks. The camp has a theme ‘a practical view’ of rhizomatic learning. That means that this year we’re hoping to talk about how Rhizomatic Learning can and does happen in a classroom, in a knitting circle or on the front stoop.

This is the second year of camp. We have some returnees from last year. Some of them have #rhizo14 Tshirts on (actually, that’s not a metaphor, some of them really do have #rhizo14 tshirts). They are not the boss of you. What we talk about at camp is really up to you. You get to choose what you think and work about. The community (you guys, hopefully) is the curriculum. This is a new year.

Why am I doing this?
I’ve been working with the idea of rhizomatic learning for close to 10 years. I get the feeling that learning is a very messy place, and the story of the rhizome is one that i have found super useful in explaining things i’ve seen happen in learning spaces. This is my research lab, in a sense, and ya’ll are researching along with me.

What will happen in this course?
Great question. I’m not sure yet. I know that I will post the first challenge on April 15th. I’ll post it in the newsletter, I’ll tweet it to #rhizo15, I’ll post it in the facebook group and I’ll post it on the course blog.

I should take this course if…?
You’re interested in participating in a discussion about learning. I can’t really say much more than that. We’re going to take a look at some of the practical implications of saying that learning is messy and uncertain. It can be confusing. It can, sometimes, be upsetting. It’s super fun though, and it’s a great way to push your thinking with the ideas of folks from around the world.

Tweet #rhizo15 right now. Say hi. See what happens.

Course blog is the closest thing we’ll have to a home base. You can go there and see what’s going on a given week, ask questions, or make comments on those posts. Frankly, you never need to actually go there, if you don’t like, but if you want an overview, that’s the closest you’re going to get. I’ll also post links to projects accompanying #rhizo15 that people have asked me to put up there.

Tracking Rhizo15 should be a good page too…

Twitter is my chat platform of preference. Put your stuff up there, put the #rhizo15 hashtag on it, and there’s a fair chance that someone else will get back to you. Be persistent, if you don’t hear the first time, post again. Try posting at a different time of day. Don’t give up. Respond to others. Make connections. This course is, maybe fundamentally, about making connections.

I have so many mixed feelings about Facebook… but i do know that it totally works for some people. The course group for #rhizo15 is at

One of the central narratives of rhizomatic learning is the idea that learning is at once a deeply personal, individual process and something that only happens in collaboration with others. We are all different, but we need each other.

By all means, push people’s ideas… please do not push people.

Connect with everyone. Try and understand what they are saying and why they are saying it. And, on the other side, understand that when people push your ideas, they aren’t pushing you. We do not need to agree with each other, to learn from each other.

NOTE: @sensor63 did a great job of challenging this post

Join the rhizo15 mailing list

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“Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” Bertrand Russell – History of Western Philosophy. retrieved from

Looking back at ‘postdigital’ 6 years later

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: “Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age”. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:

Two weeks ago I tried to convince Oscar (my eight year old son) that he wanted to learn to code. I explained to him that it would allow him to do really cool things, like design his own stuff on a website, or create a database for his coin collection. I didn’t get a ton of feedback from that discussion, I think the floor immediately TURNED TO LAVA. I’m not sure why that happens in my house on a pretty much daily basis. Anyway… a week or so later, in the midst of me trying to get some shovelling done, Oscar looks at me and says “I’m really looking forward to learning to code with you”. Cool right? I thought it was at first…

What I thought i was selling to my son was the ability to be able to do crazy things on the internet. Of course… he’s had a blog since he was four. We’ve done vines, instructional videos, and, a while ago, podcasts. He’s a performer my son… and he not only wants to post things, he wants to know that people have seen them. He wants to say “cool huh?” to everyone who’s seen what he’s posted. Coding was a con job to try and get me to stop shovelling snow out of the driveway and come play with him. This the brother of Posey (six) who has only just come to terms with the fact that the LED screen on the telephone does not contain a moving picture of her GrandMaman.

14 years ago, Prensky suggested that we may have a generation of digital natives. That these kids had a relationship to technology, a facility for it, that we digital immigrants couldn’t understand. He may have been right, i think, in a particular way. (EDIT for @donnalanclos: not the ‘facility’ part) When i look at my children and i see them look at what i think of as a ‘digital technology’ they don’t make a distinction. They don’t care if they are talking to GrandPapa on Skype or on the phone… they are talking to GrandPapa. My kids don’t care if they are performing on the stage or on video, they are performing. Sure… they are different, but they aren’t different for ‘digital’ reasons, they are different for human reasons. They can type to Grandpapa over Skype (actually, mostly by sending inappropriate emoticons) which they can’t do on the phone so the phone isn’t as funny. They feel the audience more directly when they are acting on the Confederation Centre stage, but not for as long as they do when they post a video.

Postdigital. That’s what my kids are. It’s a funny expression borrowed from the art world that six of us tried to use to describe how we saw the need to say ‘digital’ disappearing. It mirrors its philosophical mentor ‘postmodern’ in the sense that to be ‘post’ digital is also to deny that the digital should have ever been a foundation that we built on. The digital technologies that were once so complicated to use on the internet have become mostly transparent (though not, importantly, socio-economically transparent). There was an interim space where saying digital might have been necessary… as the weight of effort to do the simplest connecting online was huge. The computer, for better and for worse, if fading into invisibility next to the board marker and the tv screen.

The ability to connect to more people faster certainly changes things, but the change has already happened.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs:
Richard Hall:
Lawrie Phipps:
David White:

Trying to solve for the problem of education in 2015

In the last two blog posts i’ve been talking about something I’ve alternately called ‘caring about learning’ and ‘student engagement’. I have said a variety of irritating things about the education system over the years – “i don’t believe in content” – being my favourite, but those conversations only progress when people already agree with me, or if i’m in a class where students believe they have to at least hear me out. I’m looking to take the next step in that process. I want to convince people that engagement is more important than content. Along the way you might say i’m trying to answer the question “what problem does Rhizomatic learning solve?”

a note: Education vs. Learning
For the purposes of reading this blog, the word ‘education’ should be seen in the sense of a set of social systems developed to encouraged learning at scale. ‘Learning’ is that mysterious thing that all living things seem to do in adapting to their environment.

The problem of education in 1798
In the late 18th century Johann Pestalozzi had one of the boldest ideas an educator ever had… he decided he wanted to teach an entire country to read. He was already a well known educator who, with various levels of success, had run some very compelling schools in Switzerland. What he noticed, however, was that his schools weren’t having much of an influence on the poor – his real concern. He started thinking about how one might go about creating an approach to education that would allow him to teach all of Switzerland at the same time. Given the limited number of trained teachers, he decided we needed a book that could do the teaching. Here’s what he had to say about it…

I believe it is not possible for common popular instruction to advance a step, so long as formulas of instruction are not found which make the teacher… merely the mechanical tool of a method
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi – “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children”, p. 41, 1801.

and further

I assert definitely, that a school-book is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one] ibid

So. In order to turn his really great learning experiences into ‘common popular instruction’ we need to make teachers ‘the mechanical tool of the method’.

The problem of education in 1870
As I’ve discussed in my previous post, the 1870 elementary education act in the UK is a great historical lens through which we can look at the foundations of ‘modern’ schooling. They had a different kind of problem than our friend Johann, they were hoping to better prepare the poor, yes, but specifically to help power the economy. They wanted more people to have the basic literacies necessary to work in the factories. With education reform we see the establishment of 1000s of schools all over England and, eventually, mandatory attendance.

In the system we have standards levels that are used to judge the level of ability of a given pupil – can they read? – can they write? – can they do math? Note that none of these require the student to ‘understand’ anything. That’s not really needed. There are basic literacies that are required and, once achieved, they needn’t learn anything further. The same learning situation, i might add, that they’ll find in the factory.

I should add, that only through achieving a certain standard could student be allowed to leave school (early) and enter the workforce. They were assessed according to a government mandated standard of ‘what they would need to function in the workforce.’ That’s a pretty strong incentive for getting the grade.

And so…
In our first two examples, we have first a standardized method, then standardized content as solutions to specific problems. The method allowed us to account for a shortage of trained teachers, the second allowed us to scale the specific abilities that government required students to have so they could work in a very specific environment. In both cases ‘the common people’ needed a basic set of literacies their parents did not have. They changed how a society looked at learning knowing why they needed to make this change. They wanted or needed large portions of the population to be able to perform basic tasks.

We simply cannot ignore the (social) class implications of these two steps. There were grave concerns in 1870 that the ‘lower classes’ would become too educated and expect to be treated better. There was a specific intent in Pestalozzi case to better the plight of the poorer people. The implications of the public school system being designed as a control mechanism for the ‘lower classes’ is important to remember when we think about how they are built and are run.

The problem of education in 2015
It is generally accepted that we need to be raising a generation of life-long learners who are able to adapt to change as it comes to them. The world is complex. I’ve been in dozens of different kinds of conversation where people will say things like “we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet”. I don’t entirely believe this, but things do seem to have a habit of changing alot lately. This is not a problem solved by the system we inherited. The system we inherited is designed to teach a finite number of skills to people who can prove they have learned those skills. One set of skills. The end. How, then, do we have to change our conception of ‘education’ in order to account for this?

Truth is we have any number of ‘learning theories’ that account for this. Constructivism (which i tend to think of as the umbrella term for ‘student first over teacher first’) has been preaching a variety of solutions to this for a 100 years. Heutagogy (one of the most recent), for instance, speaks to an approach “in which knowing how to learn will be a fundamental skill“. We need a new narrative for public education that we can talk about across the social spectrum… that makes sense to folks, and that addresses our actual purpose for education. A way to talk about constructivism is all it’s forms that speaks to what we are trying to do as a society, leaving room for everyone to play.

I”ve been testing out the first principle of ‘caring about learning’ being more important to ‘content’ and it seems to resonate. The idea that it’s more important that a student is ‘engaged’ in the learning process than if they can ‘recall’ the learning outcomes. But what are the objectives that attach to that goal? How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

The story of the rhizome
The rhizome has been the story i have used, frankly without thinking about it, to address this issue. There are lots of other ways to talk about it – a complex problem does not get solved by one solution. In a rhizomatic approach (super short version) each participant is responsible for creating their own map within a particular learning context. The journey never ‘starts’ and hopefully never ends. There is no beginning, no first step. Who you are will prescribe where you start and then you grow and reach out given your needs, happenstance, and the people in your context. That context, in my view, is a collection of people. Those people may be paying participants in a course, they may be people who wrote things, it could be people known to the facilitator. The curriculum of the course is the community of people pulled together by the facilitator and all those others that join, are contacted or interacted with. The interwebs… you know.

I have gotten as far as writing a syllabus for a face 2 face, institutional course that I think of as rhizomatic. I’ve designed a first version of an open online course that i think of as rhizomatic. We generally start out very confused, I ask questions like “well… how am i supposed to know what you want to learn, i don’t even know you yet” a lot. The ‘contract’ for learning is very different for some, particularly when i teach teachers, who like for me to have clear objectives for them to achieve. I don’t have them. I do have broad goals… that sets the context. Success, however, is individual.

The point here is that i attempt to replace the ‘certainty of the prepared classroom’ with the ‘uncertainty of knowing’. In doing so I’m hoping to encourage students to engage in the learning process in their own right. I want them to make connections that make sense to them, so that when the course is over, they will simply keep making connections with the communities of knowing they have met during the class. The community is both the place where they learn from other people, but, more importantly, learning how to be in the community is a big part of the curriculum. Customs, mores, common perspectives, taboos… that sort of thing.

The teacher, in the approach, is part jester, part resource, part cheerleader and part community organizer. You know… a teacher :). Neither a mechanical tool of a method nor an enforcer of content. More importantly, the teacher IS the rigour. It’s not some arbitrary memory check.

How does this help address the problem?

That’s really what i’m wondering about. I have had a not insignificant number of people I’ve talked to in the last 6 or 7 years say things like “this is exactly the way i think about education…” and they do it this way or can’t or are afraid to or are doing it better. I want to be able to do a better job of explaining how rhizomatic education is possible. How would it roll out to a university? A school district? Does it need to be wholesale? Can it work in pieces? Are models like Genius Hour examples of this…? I have alot of questions.

My other questions for this year

  1. Does a rhizomatic approach encourage engagement?
  2. Can it do so without a focus on content?
  3. Does it encourage lifelong learning?
  4. More other things i will think about, this blog post is already too long


If “school is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is” (Illich) what society are we selling?

Two example of ways we need to change the discussion if we’re going to change education along with learning
Example 1 – Wellbeing
One move would be to ask if we want education to lead to wellbeing.
The excellent response to this discussion from Michael Feldstein. Some fun data from a Gallop Poll ” asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?”

What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were

1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

Example 2 – What did you learn at school today?
TV has taught me that good parents ask this question to their kids everyday when they come home. It’s an interesting one to think about it. It’s possible, i suppose, that my child could look at me and say

“i learned that when i imagine there’s only one answer to a question, i tend to get trapped into seeing solutions as simple rather than complex and start fitting evidence into my conclusion without challenging it”.

And that’d be great. But it’s not the first sense in which I, at least, have have generally used that question. I’m expecting a piece of content, a historical fact or something else easily traded as an answer to the question. For this to work we’d need to be asking our kids new questions…

There’s something wrong in education – a response to Stephen Downes

Last week I wrote a post called “learning’s first principle“. In it I tried to explain a thread that I’ve been seeing as the fundamental issue facing my colleagues and I (and by extension, probably some other people) in education. If you are like me and too lazy to click links to read context pieces :) the excellent David Wiley posted a comment in the comments summing up one of the main issues

“Why bother learning how to use all these ‘effective instructional strategies’ when people aren’t even going to engage with them?” – David Wiley from 1998


Or, put another way, if students don’t care about learning… nothing else matters. Stephen Downes responded on OLDAILY

My take is different. I see education less as an enterprise in making people do what they don’t want to do, and more as one of helping people do what they want to do. And there’s something wrong with the selection mechanism when a student can pay and spend four years at a university and still not be engaged in learning.

It sort of sets things up nicely to be between Wiley the ‘Iterating towards openness’ guy (read: pragmatic approach to reform) and Mr. burn the schools down himself, Stephen Downes. I vacillate between these two positions… i find myself choosing many pragmatic options in my efforts to understand the administration of education at the same time that i work on what is seen by many as a fairly radical approach to learning. This time, I’m on Wiley’s side – Let’s breakdown Stephen’s comment.

note: Stephen has written 5-6 of these responses about education on the internet each day for the past 137 years, it’s a tad unfair for me to pick apart his sentences like this… but i’m going to do it anyway.

Education vs. learning
Stephen is referring to ‘education’ and not to ‘learning’. That word usually indicates that we are talking about the institutions that support learning inside of our culture rather than the broader ‘learning’ that happens as part of being alive. Our education system is always a victim of the need for bureaucratization. It’s terrible… but it’s a necessary evil. Getting everyone on board, getting something funded, getting training rolled out and getting a program started inevitably falls pray to ‘standardization’. Education is much harder than learning. Learning reform is something you can do in your basement… it’s something I explore with my colleagues in projects like #rhizo15. Education reform involves getting governments, teachers and parents to change what they all think learning is for. Oof.

There’s something wrong
I totally agree with Stephen here. There’s definitely something wrong if people are leaving their first degree and are not engaged in learning. We certainly need to address it. We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. And i don’t mean “hey this child has shown up with a random project they are totally passionate about and are asking me a question” I mean “stop them at a random time, say 8:25am, and just start helping them.” You will get blank stares. You’ll get resistance. You’ll get students who will say anything you want if it means you will go away/give them a grade. You will not enjoy this process. They will also not enjoy it.

There is something wrong. The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum. The need to guarantee knowing.

Selection mechanism
It’s not clear from Stephen’s response whether he’s talking about the selection mechanism in the sense of ‘picking people to teach’ or ‘students picking things to study’ but both are minefields of complexity. I’m going to assume he’s talking about the students picking… because the other has not been my day job for the last little while. I spent the last 18 months working on our recruitment/transitions/orientation/first year with colleagues at UPEI, and, by extension, looking at approaches from around the world. The vast majority of students coming to most universities are not prepared to be engaged in learning. It’s that simple. It crosses socio-economic barriers. It crosses cultural differences. We are not bringing up a generation of children who are ENGAGED in learning by default. That engagement is an exception. I must admit… i don’t think we ever have… but then, i don’t think we’ve ever tried.

The ‘purpose’ of education
The Elementary Education Act (1870 UK) is a fascinating window on what our education system is for. With it’s standards system gripped in our hand we can look right into the jaws of the lion and say the purpose of education is “to make sure these kids can work in factories”. Here is Standard IV swiped from wikipedia and, apparently, enough to qualify as educated in Birmingham in the late 19th century:

Reading – A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing – A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic – Compound rules (common weights and measures).

This, my friends, is our polluted inheritance. The schools were built so that we could give people the precise skills they needed in order to be able to be effective engines in our economies. You might go a little further and suggest that the ‘at the whim of the inspector’ business suggested a more subtle ‘brainwash the citizens into believing that random inspectors know what’s good for them’ but i refuse to give anyone that much credit.

You’ll note the lack of a line in there that speaks to ‘student engagement’ in anything. Measurement of the type the inspector wants, where someone can show up on a specific day and judge someone, cannot be used to measure engagement.

A new purpose for education – keep caring/start caring
What I was looking for in that post was a shared premise that i could use in any education reform (or entrenchment… not all current ideas are bad ones) conversation. I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything. We simply don’t need all that content, and even if we do need it, we don’t have it anyway. I’m suggesting that we need to replace that awful STANDARD IV, quite consciously, with a first principal that asks ‘will this help people care or keep them caring’. These don’t need to be easy tasks… sometimes very hard, annoying work is the best way to support caring, it just has to connect to a meaningful goal.

We currently have ‘this student has once proved they knew tons of stuff’ as our baseline for ‘having an education’. That’s dumb.

My response to Stephen
Sorry for putting so much meaning into something you wrote in 30 seconds while providing the best educational service on the internet. What I’m trying to do is address the serious problem of people not being engaged in the education system. I, like you, think that radical reform is necessary. The vast majority of people in our culture have been trained to be passive learners. (in over 10000 hours of class time, they are ‘expert’ passive learners) In order to support an engaged student we need to change our core assumptions about what education is for. I agree with you when you said in yesterdays newsletter that “the contents are not intended to be memorized by students, they are intended to be used by students as ‘words’ in a ‘conversation'” The ‘content’ is just other people talking, it just expands the conversation. The community is the curriculum.

I’m not sure your take is different. We’re working on the same thing. The ‘first principle’ is a conversation opener that has been successful, for me, at creating a starting point, of establishing common ground, to help foster change from that passive system that measures content in people’s heads (and not terribly effectively) to one that takes a fundamental interest in engagement. People are going to need to care about learning if any of the cool stuff is going to happen.

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)

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.

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