Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

I’m always a bit torn when I’m in a position where I’m designing a course and looking towards creating specific assignments that students must complete. There is a sense in which creating a fully delineated, constructed course denies much of the work I’ve done and my own experience. I think that

  • Learning and knowledge building are contextual
  • Different people come to their knowledge constructing differently
  • No two communities ever go at the same pace
  • No one assignment or list of assignments will ever produce the same results (except by accident)

So when I look at the assignments that we included in the Intro to emerging tech course at the UofM I’m always thinking ‘maybe we could have done more of this or that’ and… while the syllabus is in a wiki, I kinda think that we should probably keep the one we started with, as we stated that we would do that. The biggest reason that I can be comfortable with it, is the REASON why I assign assignments in my courses.

In the long history of education I think we’ve lost our initial reasons for doing some of the things we do. The assignment and the essay have reified themselves into ends in their own right and have lost many of the initial reasoning for them. An essay, for instance, has become a proving ground, a place where a professor/educator can ‘verify’ whether or not a given student has correctly understood the work that they are covering in a course. They are correcting the ‘works cited page’ and the ‘thesis’ in order to ensure that those are being done correctly, but often broken down too far and never united in a vision of academic motion. If we should be doing essay’s at all, it should be to prepare for the practical application of the essay to life. Whether that ‘practical’ explanation is the publication of papers in academic journals or the submission to a creative writing magazine… they can be practical… but I’ve yet to meet a first year university student that understands this. We teach things in pieces, without recognizing the whole. The other reason, of course, is to develop the literacies that are necessary for the writing of that essay.

When i assign any assignment, I’m hoping to do a couple of things. I’m offering, first and foremost, a practical application for the exploration that we are doing in any given course. I want students to explore literacies, for instance, by trying to do something they have never done before. The product of that exploration, the actual, say, podcast, is not nearly as important as the exploration of their own strengths and challenges that goes on during that assignment. In order to capture this, I like to offering challenging assignments and heartily encourage my students to work together to try and come up with solutions… and especially encourage them to post their challenges and learning to some kind of sharing space (forum, blog etc…) so that others can see their learning happening. If twenty different people expose their learning process, people get the sense of the variety of challenges that people run into, the variety of strategies and then, if like me you often teach teachers, have a better sense of the challenges that their own students will face.

I’m fortunate in the course, in having a ‘pass/fail’ system for grading. I can, hopefully, give students a sense of the responsibility they have for both their own learning and for exposing that learnign process to their peers without having to track each individual step and judge them against a rubric that I’ve made up. This is the heart of the kind of teaching that I try to do. The challenge, and the comming together that can happen at points of challenge, are on of the key strategies that I use to try to create a community of learning in my ‘courses’. The challenge, as one of my colleagues suggested to me a few months ago, is that doing this online with people who don’t feel the same transparency to the internet that I do, can be a bit challenging.

One of the great f2f examples of how I would love to be able to teach all the time came across my screen this week when I ran into Dean Wilcox and Bob King’s excellent generative art course at the University of North Carolina School or the Arts. I sent those folks and email and they sent me a link to their course website. I’m sure that teaching this kind of art presents it’s own struggles, but man, that course looks compelling. Their blog and their wiki show the same struggles that I was talking about in this post… and their solution is quite a nice one. This is what the next few weeks entail

Thursday, Feb 10: Discuss: Third Project.
Tuesday, Feb 12: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, Feb 17: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the forth project.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Present: Forth Project.
Thursday, Feb 24: Discuss: Forth Project.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, March 3: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the fifth project.
Tuesday March 5: Present: Fifth Project.
Thursday March 10: Present: Fifth Project.
Final Exam: Thursday, March 12 – 9:00 am-11:00 am.
Note: Syllabus subject to change.

I particularly like the ‘note’ at the bottom of the page. If you are looking at this thinking that ‘oh, they’re just doing art stuff’ I challenge you to do the reading that were ‘determined’ for the week of the blog post i read.

With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism)

They are trying to make the reading relevant to the groups of students they are working with, making a curriculum as contextual as they can, and working their way to actually responding to the needs of their students. I encourage you to wander over and watch the videos of the student projects. It is far more difficult to teach this way, but, i think, it is the future of really good teaching. You really do need to be what George Siemens would call an expert (a person who has had ’10 years’ of direct experience in a subject) in order to teach this way. It requires experience as an educator, and experience in the field. It may, actually, be the future of university learning as a whole.

There’s a prediction for ya 😛

Community participation, responsibility and defending lurking – introduction to emerging tech week 5

Listening my way through a series of podcasts created by the students of the intro to emerging tech course being taught through the University of Manitoba. The two papers at issue this week are on Communities of Practice and Why Lurkers Lurk (.pdf) . They’re a nicely matched pair for introducing ideas around the contributions that people make in a community learning environment, and seemed to strike a chord with our students in both the live discussions and in the podcasts that the students created in response to this week’s reading as well.

Response no 1 – I’m bad because I lurk
By far the overwhelming response from the students who have posted their podcasts (hem hem to you who have not) is that they felt a little ashamed of their lurking in their learning. There is some feeling that the word ‘lurk’ presents too negative a feeling based on the meaning that the word caries over from other context… but this isn’t the meat of the response. There is almost a sense in which the podcaster/students seem to feel like they are cheating themselves by lurking… like they are somehow “doing it wrong.” There is another, more traditional interpretation, in which they feel like they aren’t contributing to a community and are parasites on the work of others… but I find this ‘doing it wrong’ idea a compelling one. Where is this ‘right’ that they are comparing against? Is this another example of our traditional learning models looming…?

The students are drawing a tight connection between their own offline propensity for sitting ‘on the outside’ and not directly participating and their preference for luking online. (which does seem confusing as they feel like their offline learning is not ‘wrong’) And, as they progress from the lurker article to the community of practice article they find the language that they need in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’… lurking with a purpose, as it were.

“‘the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation’.”

(quoted in community of practice article from original Lave/Wenger book)

This then, is the defence of learning… assuming that there is a further goal beyond that. It’s a great defence if your lurking will eventually lead to more direct participation as you move towards the middle and begin to be able ‘to talk’ better within that community. Not that lurking particularly even needs a defence… I mean… how many expert knitters do we really need. I go to a knitting website, and I get information. If you are actually engaged in a community and are not helping, if people have helped you reach a level of proficiency that you then do not pass on… then that’s bad. But, like so many things, I think it just comes down to being honest about where you are, why you’re there, and what people have done for you.

The Community Social Contract
This is not a comment on what you ‘should’ do when you are in a community, but rather, an idea of what’s going. In response to one of my students in the course, I mentioned that teh social contract that is inherent in a community is different then other locations for knowledge acquisition and co-creation. If you are in a library, for instance, searching through books, there is an entire infrastructure (government or school created) that is behind trying to engender a certain kind of learning in a populace, trying to enhance the status of an institution or a particular person. This is not to say that they don’t want people to learn, but rather that these institutions exist in our society for a reason. they are paid for with tax dollars or as part of a business.

A community, on the other hand, is often the result of shared passion, shared interest, or shared self-interest. The social contract that exists is often difficult to read… There are some communities that love lurkers (edtechtalk is certainly one of those, by far the vast majority of our listeners we never hear from) there are others that expect a certain amount of participation… that would rather people ‘contribute’.

For my own part, I like to think of it like my no doubt oversimplified understanding of the word Karma. I don’t expect that most of the communities that I learn from particularly need my contributions. I try to leave behind questions and answers to issues that I have run into in order to leave that information behind me. And, what i particularly try and do is make sure that I participate where and when i can… This is the responsibilty that I have to the overall communities that I work in.

The mantra that i’ve been repeating over and over again lately is this “The stuff that you are reading on the internet, the communities that you interact with are REAL. They are created by real people. Treat them with respect. That is your responsibility as a good citizen.”

bit high handed I suppose… oh well…

How PLEs make sense to me – Intro to emerging tech week 3

I was invited to talk in a very interesting conversation for the emerge folks last week and, while the reportage of said conversation was not exactly to my liking 🙂 it did help me get my mind around how I feel about PLEs.

The discussion was about where the future of the VLE lies. A VLE (virtual learning environment) is usually a school sponsored tool that allows for administrative organization and coordinated course delivery. Our current course, Intro to emerging tech is being partially taught inside of a VLE (moodle) and we are taking advantage of the fact that we can monitor people’s logins… that it’s possible to have threaded discussion forums and that the user interface is very easy to organize. These are good things. The part where things get complicated is where we start to talk about power and where we start to talk about ‘Personal learning environments’.

Below is an excerpt of my written response to a blog post about an elluminate debate i was in 🙂 isn’t technology beautiful. Some important things to note here regarding that. In last week’s conversations about identity I suggested that we need to be careful that we don’t say things ‘on the record’ or ‘on the internet’ that are easily misinterpreted. One of the other important issues relates to digital identity. It can be very important to monitor what people claim you have said, and to address those issues in a professional manner. Our online identity is all most people will ever know about us, and while there are some people that ‘aren’t worth the trouble’, who cause confusion for the sake of it, this was a comment by a professional that I respect in a Community of Practice that I belong to so I felt the need to address his post in the comments of his blog.

“There is a sense in which the VLE debate does bridge into a larger discussion about the validity of top down knowledge distribution from the knowledge depot… a model that started to lose its validity 10 years ago and is now working its way to the margins. We are in a post-knowledge-scarcity society and the VLE as it is currently conceived is still designed for transimitting knowledge scarcity. It presumes that the ‘value’ is in the knowledge itself, in the content provided by the university ,and that the contribution of the students is transitory and disposable. This is the old model, the model, ACTUAL student centredness not the ‘students get to talk’ model we’ve been sold for years, involves the student s creating their own knowledge in their own space… a PLE or Eportfolio or whatever you want to call it is created as a manner of course. It is the natural result of learning.”

This idea of life long learning being connected to the platform is one that I continue to feel stronger about the more that I work on these topics. If people are continuously working in a walled garden like moodle, they are going to have to make separate copies of the work if they consider it worth keeping. They are not, for instance, using that work to build a network that will last beyond the point of the course. They are also not building a body of work that they can refer to.

Why, you might ask, are we doing this course in a closed fashion? Well, I also happen to think that forcing people to work in the open without a clear sense of the implication of that action is also unfair. If people choose to blog and refer us to that work by using the course tag, and, maybe, referring to it in the blog posts… then that’s great. If they choose, for any number of reasons, that they prefer to keep all their work to themselves, that is also their choice. I don’t think its a good choice, i think that work shared is more valuable and more likely to come back to you better than when you started… I think that the best knowledge is created in an interaction… a ‘public PLE’ but that is not for me to decide for someone else.

So, I guess, for me my PLE is my community. I work in public at edtechtalk (which gathers my links and the audio that I work on), I work on the blog where i record some of the stuff that I’m doing. I work on a variety of projects, where I hope I can contribute to other knowledge creation events. (we are media comes to mind as well as the openhabitat project). But even with these projects, I post my thoughts here on my blog and then find a way to aggregate them to where they need to be… much like I’m doing now with this post to my students.

Skills, Knowledge and Literacies –> intro to emerging tech 1

Well… the course is well under way and there are already lively discussions starting off in the forums over at the course moodle. The discussion, i’m afraid, is closed, and rightly so i think for an introductory course in emerging tech. I personally like people to get a sense of what they are getting into (although from the posts many of the learners already do) before the decision of whether they want their thoughts and ideas to be in the permanent google record. I realize that this is a controversial position among the open Ed crowd (a crowd, if it were numbered, might include me) but while i ‘believe’ that openness is key for learning, I’m not yet willing to force everyone else into that belief. There is a very specific power in being an instructor, and I think part of the openness and transparency that we hope to acheive in education should include informed choice.

(All the information about what we’re teaching is available at the course wiki)

The first week of the course focuses on the idea of ‘literacies’ and, specifically, those literacies that come into play in the online world. The term ‘literacies’ is a controversial one and the readings from this week were meant to draw out some of those complex and controversial ideas and to get people thinking about what they know and what they think they need to know about ‘things online.’ This of course, prompted one student to immediately object to the idea that we could talk about literacies online as distinct from other kinds of literacies… (we can’t, I agree, but we need to set a context to start the discussion, i chose the word ‘online’ among a host of others because of the nice contrast with ‘offline’ that was fortunately picked up in some other posts… in retrospect ’emerging technologies’ might have been better)

The interesting thing that happened was that in response to several questions about ‘literacies’ people responded with posts about ‘skills’ using the words as synonyms. My own use of the word literacies (heavily influenced by the authors of the major reading for this week) goes past the ‘how to’ that I see as the major question with the word skill towards understanding and the ability to create meaning from a given situation or event. There is a sense in which there is an interplay of the words skill, knowledge, experience, culture, context and a bunch more in the word literacy and it’s not necessarily useful to ‘define’ it as such as it just tends to create ‘sides’ in an argument rather than forwarding a discussion of a word that will, necessarily, having slightly different meanings to all of us.
(for anyone who thinks it’s silly that I can’t define a word that I’m using… see Wittgenstein on Meaning)

Example – person 1 – Where is the police station. person 2 – over there.
I could read this conversation in Korean. I could (or could have), possibly, understood most of it had I heard it spoken…

I happen to be able to read, write and pronounce Korean Characters. My vocabulary, in Korean, however is limited to about 500 words so I miss most of what i’m reading unless I happen to be in a restaurant, at which point, I’m about 90% useful (which explains my post 25 year old horizontal growth). I currently have many of the skills required to interact in Korean but very few of the literacies. I have friends, also, who are native english speakers and are much more diligent than I am who have a vast Korean vocabulary but still miss much of the context of discussions for lack of the proper historical or cultural understanding of the language. An experience, for instance, that i had in reverse with my very advanced students who could not grasp what was going on in the simpsons… they lacked the required literacies to understand things like sarcasm and irony. Yes, in some cases it is simply a ‘knowledge’ gap but in others these are literacies that are tied to socio-economic and cultural contructs.

So… two people meet on the street and one enquires of the other where they might find the nearest police office. (an unlikely conversation in South Korea… but never mind) In the question there will be several indicators of class, status, education etc… Each area of South Korea has a specific dialect, and, purpotedly, a given personality that accompanies that dialect. Each South Korean verb (appearing at the end of the sentence) is finished with one of seven possible endings. (in reality 6, as one is reserved for speaking to the King… which they don’t have, but could, presumably (though I don’t know this for sure) be used as a joke) There is a great deal happening in the exchange of two sentences…

But there is more… one of the reasons that I suggested that the above conversation was unlikely, is that there is a certain resistance in South Korea to speak to other South Korean ‘strangers’ (this is not true of most foreigners). The reason for this, as it has been explained to me, is that without a clear idea of how old the other person is, or what their existing status is, it’s very difficult to find the correct, polite verb ending… and therefor to act ‘appropriately’. This doesn’t even begin to touch the different levels of volume, degree of hand gestures and other body language that make up a culture.

And, if that weren’t enough, in the 5 years I spent in South Korea i never saw a single street sign or number. They do exist, but they are only really used by the post office and pizza delivery folks… This means that in order to be able to follow the ‘over there’ description, they are going to need to have an idea of the landmarks that will be used and know ‘how landmarks are used’ by people there in order to be able to find the police station.

There is a great deal involved in using a language… some are skills, like knowing the sounds and knowing the characters… some are knowledge pieces… the combination of all these things and the ability to ‘make meaning’ from the encounter or, to be more irritating, the degree to which you were able to make meanign from the encounter… that where the literacies lie.

example 2
The first written piece that we covered this week concerned oral traditions as a form of literacy. It didn’t (as I’d hoped) spur much discussion seemingly because people found the conclusions of the article quite acceptable. What I find interesting about talking about oral traditions is how many people seem to feel like they have oral literacies. There is more, clearly, to the literacies around ‘oral traditions’ than simply being able to speak and to be able to hear someone else speak.

Back to emerging tech
When we look at the skills that are necessary for using emerging technology, search clauses, screen scanning, ‘multi’-tasking (more on the scare quotes here in a future post) many of which (though not all) could be acquired by repetitive effort. (no… i don’t mean this as a definition of skills) There is a great deal of information and knowledge that is needed to be able to be effective. If any of these skills are opened up and we look inside, we can find any number of literacies lurking.

If we unpack (or, if you’re feeling french, use the dreaded word ‘deconstruct’) any of our internet ‘skills’ or ‘literacies’ we will surely find any number of literacies hiding. Things related to socio-economic class (not to start this argument here, but any number of authors have written about access to the ‘dominant language’ changes the way that people see what you are doing) for instance. It might make for an interesting multilayered mind map… or even a massive literacy wiki that would allow for optional interpretations for each given skill/literacy.

We do need some way to talk about the things that are hidden in the things that we accept as ransparent.

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