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Reclaim the Front Page of Your Learning Experience for #IndieEdTech

One of the most contested areas in online learning is what I sometimes call the “front page” – usually the user interface or splash page or whatever main area learners first see when they start a course/learning experience/etc (usually also the main area they have to come back to every time). Schools want to control the “front page” learners see first in their class (usually always the learning management system they paid big money for). Ed-Tech companies want to control the “front page” learners see when they use their product. Other non-educational websites that get used in education like Twitter or Facebook want to control the “front page” of what users see. Of course, the average learner uses many of these services and has to navigate through many tools that are trying to control what you see while they learn, to control the “front page” of their learning experience.

The “front page” is how companies gather data for analytics so they can monetize users. Think back to the major changes between MySpace and Facebook. As horrible as MySpace could look at times, users could insert CSS and control all manner of aspects of their front page. That control was a good thing, despite the eye sores it created from time to time. How can a company monetize a MySpace user page when users can completely remove portions of the page? How can a company monetize interactions when users rarely have to leave their “space” to interact with others? The changes between MySpace and Twitter/Facebook resolve a lot of those issues, and hence created the battle for the “front page” of users’ internet experience.

This may not seem to be a big deal to many, but as we have been researching learner agency by giving learners modality choice in a customizable modality pathway design (aka “dual-layer”), the “front page” becomes a very, very important space that existentially affects learner choice in major ways. The tool that learners begins a learning experience in becomes the place they are comfortable with, and they resist venturing past the “front page” of that tool. You might have run into this problem with, say, introducing Twitter into a course taught in Blackboard. Many learners start to complain that the Bb forums would work just fine. There is a stickiness to the front page that keeps learners in there and away from other tools.

Shouldn’t the learner be in control of this “front page?” Shouldn’t this “front page” display their map of what they want to learn? Shouldn’t the tools and content and things they want to learn with/from support this map, linking from the learners “front page” rather than competing with it?

This is pretty much the big problem we run into with the customizable modality pathway design. The “front page” control battle segments the learning process, pulls learners away, makes them comfortable with giving up control of that space, and enforces the status quo of instructor-controlled learning. Up to this point, we have been working on design and structure – all of which is, for better or worse, coalescing into a design theory/method of some kind. However, the technology is simply in the way most of the time, mainly because very few tools actually work to give the learner control. They mostly all attempt to put their tool in control, and by extension, the person (instructor and school admins) behind the tool in control as well.

edugeek-journal-avatarIn many ways, I think this issue connects to the Indie Ed-Tech movement. I’ll be blogging more about that over the next few weeks/months. I’ll need to cover how the technology that allows learners to reclaim the “front page” of their learning experience could look – turning the idea of a “Neutral Zone” into a learning map that learners build (and then connect artifacts to create a “portfolio” map of what they did). This will allow learners to mix and match what tools, services, course, etc they learn from, leading to alternative ways to prove/certify that they have specific knowledge and skills, fueled by owning their own domain, APIs, cool stuff, etc. Of course, since any work in Indie Ed-Tech needs a music reference, I will be taking up Adam Croom’s challenge for someone to write about grunge rock (not my favorite style of music – Audrey Watters already used that one – but a good genre to represent the angle I am going for). So, yes, I have a good dozen blog posts in mind already, so time to get cracking.

(image credit: “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” by Nina Vital)

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Will The “Best” Best Practice Please Step Forward?

Whenever educational discussions turn towards student agency, learner-centered learning, and other less-utilized (non-instructivist) strategies, several common questions/concerns are raised about going this route. One of the more important ones is how do we put learners in control when there are so many learning mediums? How do we pick which one is best?

This is a great question. We should always strive towards what is best for our learners. The problem with this question comes not really with the question but the context that one or a few mediums are “best” and that we as educators can pick correctly for all learners at all times.

“Best practices” is a term commonly used in this context, and a problematic concept for many reasons. One of the bigger problems being that “best” is not really an objective line in the sand. What is “best” is constantly changing based on context, goals, preferences, and many other factors.

For example, different learning modalities each have their own set of best practices. Do you want a stereotypical instructor-focused course with lectures and quizzes? There are many ways to do that correctly, and many ways to do that incorrectly. Very incorrectly..

Do you want problem-based learning? Our field knows a lot on how to do that correctly, and a lot on how to do that incorrectly. There is also a lot we don’t know. And all of that changes drastically if you want, say, a well-defined contextually specific problem versus an ill-structured problem.

Other modalities (connectivist, cognitivst, social, independent, etc) have their own set of best practices, and each set of best practices changes within each modality depending on what flavor of that modality you are choosing. And even then there are still so many best practices that it really dilutes the term “best practice” down to “do the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff and be cautious with all of the stuff that we aren’t sure where it fits.”

Of course, sometimes when we say “best”, we are referring to choosing the “best” overall modality for a course, or even better, a given module inside a course. Anyone that has taught will know that once you choose a modality, half your learners will like it, and the other half will complain: “Why do we have to do group work? Why can’t you just tell us what to do?” “Why do we have to listen to you tell us what to do? Why can’t we just go do it on our own?” “Why can’t I have a group to help me?” and so on (even if you don’t hear them, you know they are happening in your learners’ heads.)

The truth is that different learners need different modalities for different topics at different times, some times even changing from one day to the next based on a whole range of internal and external reasons.

This means that the best device for choosing the best modality for any given learner at any given time is the learner themselves.

This whole post was inspired by a few tweets today that I think sum up nicely what I am really getting at:

The general idea is that our education needs to shift towards teaching learners how to learn, how to adapt, how to choose their own modality as they learn. We need to focus more on how to be learners and not just what facts and skills to learn. You, teach a person to fish and all that. This is the basis of heutagogy – the process of learning how to learn, how to adapt, how to self-regulate towards self-determined learning.

In other words, how do we get back to putting the human at the center of the educational process instead of our favorite tools and modalities?

edugeek-journal-avatarOne practical way some are working on this idea is the custmozable modality pathway learning design (my term de jour for what we used to call dual-layer). Shameless plug warning! Last week I was able to successfully defend my dissertation on this idea (and there was much rejoicing!). So hopefully after a few months of revisions and edits I will soon be able to start publishing the results on how diverse and personalized learners’ pathways are once they are given the choice. The educational field in general so rarely gives much true learner choice or agency that the outcome of enabling that choice is pretty eye-opening.

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Can the Students Speak for Themselves?

The answer is, yes, of course students can speak for themselves. The real question is will we listen to them, and even start including them in the conversation about their own educational experiences? This is not just a question for the established educational power systems that we typically associate with ignoring the student voice, but also for the educational reformers that seek to change those entrenched structures.

Recently I have been digging more into the work of the Indian-born philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Possibly one of her best known works is “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, an eye-opening critique of the post-colonial movement. For those that haven’t read Spivak, I would recommend Benjamin Graves one extended paragraph review of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” as a quick introduction.

The basic concern is that those who wish to help the subaltern (the economically dispossessed) gain their voice are still forcing them to adopt one voice for the entire group, ignoring the differences that exist within that group. In other words, the post-colonialists are becoming a different type of colonialist. This leads to two problems: “1) a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people, and 2) a dependence upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.” Sound familiar?

What if you replace “subaltern” with “student”? How about replacing “cultural solidarity” with “connectivism”? What about the recent claims that scaffolding is colonialist in nature? Pretty much insert any modern educational reformer’s idea that there are absolute good and bad solutions for all learners: “if we can just convince all learners that connectivism is good and that scaffolding is oppressive, we can improve education!”

But what if we are forcing learners to take on epidemiological solidarity when the are actually a very heterogeneous group? What would they say about that if we listened to them when they speak for themselves?

We would find out that some learners want to follow the instructor. We would find out that some want to follow their own path. We would find out that many want both, just at the time of their own choosing. We would find that some love connectivism, while others find it inefficient and pointless. We would find that some hate scaffolding, while others think it is necessary. While scaffolding might be oppressive to some, it could be supporting or liberating to others. Or it could be both at different times to the same learner. Contexts shift. People change their minds.

These are not speculations. This is based on what learners have stated in the research for my dissertation. Learners are all over the map once you give them true choice, true personalization.

Which takes me to my problem with what many call personalized learning. Those of a certain age will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. The basic idea of this book series was that the stories were not presented as a singular, linear path. Readers would read a few pages and then be presented with options. They would choose an option and turn to that corresponding page for that option, and so on until the adventure ended. Usually it ended poorly or kind of neutrally, but the goal was to keep trying until you arrived at one of the “good” endings. There were generally about 12-40 full story lines in each book to mix and match.

Most people that read these books developed a strategy of gaming the story lines, usually by bookmarking the last few choices with various fingers. If one choice led to death, just back up a step or two and try again.

The reality was that these were less “Choose Your OWN Adventure,” as much as “Choose One of 40 or so Pre-Determined Pathways to Entertain You With the Illusion of Choice.” This is also the premise of many (but not all) personalized learning systems. The programmers create a pre-determined set of options, and the learner has the illusion of “choice” and “personalization” as they choose various pre-programmed scenarios.

To me, true personalized learning would allow learners to speak for themselves, while not forcing them to follow one person’s view of the “correct” way to learn. True personalized learning would treat learners as an epistemologically heterogeneous group, giving them the ability to speak for their own personal epistemology.

Because the bigger problem is that when the experts come in and say “connectivism is good, scaffolding is bad, here are the ways you are going to connect with others”, they are really just creating a form of neo-instructvism that still forces learners to follow what the expert at the front says to do (even though it may be pre-prescribed connected learning).

These neo-instructivist connected learning activities are not theoretically – they currently exist in online courses. Learners are told to go to write their own blog and then comment on three other blogs in order to pass. Or compose a tweet and then respond to three other tweets. Or post a picture on Instagram and then comment on three other pictures on Instagram.

Sure, that is connected learning and research tells us that learners will retain more because they applied it while connecting to others. But where is the student voice in forcing them to all have a blog and then forcing them to comment and interact (or else don’t pass the course you took out a big loan for)?

Or what of the instructor that doesn’t provide any guidance and just dives into student-centered learning… whether the learners want it or not? Where is the student voice in that pre-determined student-centered design?

edugeek-journal-avatarSure, these instructors will win awards and be praise all over the Twitter-sphere for innovative, connectivist learning. For fighting instructivist colonialism. And so on. But what if these post-instructivist crusaders are causing the same damages to learning that the post-colonialist crusaders were causing that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak noted? What if we are mistaking a statistically significant research result for the lone “voice” of what works for all learners at all times?

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People are Not Generalizable Cogs in a Wheel

One of the issues that we are trying to get at with dual-layer/customizable pathways design is that human beings are individuals with different needs and ever-changing preferences.

That seems to be an obvious statement to many, but a problematic one when looking at educational research. Or more correctly, how we use and discuss research in practical scenarios.

For example, when ever I mention how instructivism and connectivism can also be looked at as personal choices that individual learners prefer at different times, the response from educators is usually to quote research generalizations as if they are facts for all learners at all times:

More advanced learners prefer connectivism.
People that lack technical skills are afraid to try social learning.
Learners with higher levels of self-regulation hate instructivism
Students that are new to a topic need instructor guidance.
Student-centered learning makes learners think more in depth.

While many of these statements are true for many people, the thing we often skip over in education is that these concepts are actually generalized from research. It is not the case that these concepts are true for all learners, but that they have been generalized from a statistically significant correlation. That distinction is important (and often ignored) – because studies rarely find that these concepts are 100% true for 100% of the learners 100% of the time.

But practitioners typically read these generalizations and then standardize them for all learners. We lose sight of the individual outliers that are not included in those numbers (and even of the fact that in the data there is variations that get smoothed over in the quest for “generalization”).

Then, of course, we repeat those experiments with different groups and rarely check to see if those outliers in the new experiment are different types of people or the same.

We also rarely research courses where learners have true choice in the modality that they engage the course content, so do we ever truly know of we are finding the best options for learning in general, or if we are just finding out what learners will do to make the best out of being forced to do something they would rather not?

Are we losing sight of the individual, the unique person at the center of educational efforts?

My research is finding that, when the given freedom to choose their learning modality (instructivism or connectivism), learners stop falling into such neat categories that often comes out of research. For example, those that are advanced learners with high self-regulation and well-developed tech skills will sometimes prefer to follow an instructivist path for a variety of reasons. Or, for another example, sometimes learners have already thought through an issue pretty well, and therefore forcing them to go through student-centered learning with that topic is a boring chore because they don’t need to be forced to think about it again. Or. for even another example, some learners with low self-regulation and low tech skills will jump head first into connectivism because they want to interact with others (even though the research says they should have been too afraid to jump in).

edugeek-journal-avatarWhen you actually dig into the pathways that individuals would choose to take if one is not forced on them, those individuals tend to defy generalization more often than expected. But when you point this out, the establishment of education tends to argue against those findings all kinds of ways. We like the comfort of large sample sizes, generalizable statistics, and cut and dry boxes to put everyone in. I’m not saying to abandon this kind of research – just put it in a more realistic context in order to make sure we aren’t losing the individual human behind those generalizations.

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Instructivism vs Connectivism vs Social Learning

One of the things that I mentioned in the wrap-up hang out for HumanMOOC is getting at how people understand educational theories and their own preferences for learning. This is connected to how many educators will typically choose a theory of learning that they like best, and then assume it is best for all learners at all times. Until, of course, they are forced into learning in another theory that they don’t like by someone else that has decided that that theory is the best for all learners at all times, which is when they realize that maybe we are all different and maybe we should find ways to let people make their own path through learning.

This is, of course, one of the goals with dual-layer/customizable pathways design. We don’t force instructivism or connectivism on learners (or even a single pathway of our own design that is a mix of both). Nor do we treat one modality (like connectivism) like its an external thing that we embrace as a “backchannel” to the course if it happens. We create two valid modalities for learners to mix and change (or ignore) as they choose. And then we say that “every choice is awesome!” even if the learners don’t choose the options we would have.

Now, I do have to note that saying that “every choice is awesome!” is not the same as saying “every tool is awesome” and that we should not give feedback to the companies that offer the tools we use. I have given hundreds of points of feedback to all kinds of companies (as you can see in the archives of this blog). In my experience, the companies that ignore you are the ones that are most likely to turn around and use your idea (Blackboard is infamous for this). Those that listen to your ideas typically are just trying to look good on public blogs – they talk like they are listening and then change nothing more often than not. Just a bit of free advice from someone that has (and continues to) give out a lot of critique to ed tech companies.

One of the common problems with designing a course is that you have to use words to communicate what you want people to do. But people already have attached meaning to those words, which may or may not line up with commonly accepted norms. “Social Learning” is a term that I find causes the most confusion with customizable pathways design. Many, many people think that instructivism is not social at all, and that all social learning is connectivism (and connectivism has to be social in order to be connectivist).

The problem is – neither concept is true. Instructivism can be social, and connectivism does not have to be social.

In the literature, instructivism is sometimes connected to closed lectures and multiple choices tests, but for the most part it is connected with instructor-led content and activities. This can be anything from discussion forums (which can be social) to group assignments to Twitter activities. Yes, a Twitter activity in a course can be instructivist. If an instructor tells learners to go out and create a Twitter account, and then gives them a list of things to Tweet and respond to in order to fulfill an assignment, that is instructivism… and it is social. Social presence is a large field of research that is basically dedicated to figuring out how to improve an instructivist paradigm with social learning designs.

On the other hand, while connectivism is often very social, it doesn’t have to be social to still be connectivist. For example, go back to one of the foundational papers on connectivism (and probably one of the most quoted) and look at what connectivism is. Did you notice the part in there about off-loading learning to non-human agents? What this means is this: a learner can do a Google search on a topic and end up reading a Wikipedia article about the topic and that is still connectivism. They were not social at all, but they connected to the knowledge of others to learn about a topic. The connection occurred with a non-human agent.

Or think of it this way. Connectivism also involves the nurturing of connections for learning. You can follow hundreds of people on Twitter or in a RSS Reader and learn all kinds of things from them without ever commenting or responding. You are being connectivist, but not social. Or, you could even be social with people by tweeting “good luck!” when, say, someone tweets about getting a new job. This action is social, and it is building your connections (and therefore part of connectivism), but it is not social learning.

Of course, any connectivist worth their salt in WordPress will tell you that social learning is much, much more robust than independent learning. My point is just that not all connectivist learning is social in nature all the time.

Another part of connectivism is making sense of chaos and complex networks. So of course, being social helps. But at times, you have to wrestle with these things yourself as well. I can tell you for a fact that one of the founders of connectivism does not share all of his sense making socially. He does some, but not all. He wrestles with some of it in his head or while thinking about various things he reads online. Because that is also a part of connectivism – working on your own from time to time. Maybe even connecting with some instructivist content and being guided.

The problem is, we are all at different places at different times when going through the same topics. Forcing (or even encouraging) all students to get out of the LMS and into social learning is ignoring sociocultural differences and contextual needs of the individual students. It is also enforcing an instructor led pathway on all students. So yes, in many ways, forcing all learners to go and do connectivist activities (or even trying to trick them into doing so) is really an instructivist methodology behind the scenes. Which is not bad for the learners that want that, but horrible for those that do not.

In education, we tend to create false dichotomies between two sides that we think are diametrically opposed to each other. In the open learning world, there are many that label connectivism as “always good” and instructivism as “always bad.” Unfortunately, the world is not that simple, that black and white. The data that I have collected after two dual-layer MOOCs reaching tens of thousands of students would indicate learners are not that simplistic. Many learners find extreme value in instructivism… as long as it happens at a point that they choose, not one that is forced on them.

edugeek-journal-avatarAlso to note, this post is talking about course design. We have found that many learners prefer a mix of both modalities. The line between instructivism and connectivism is often a bit mixed, or permeable, or whatever you want to call it, to them – and that is just fine. While we are figuring out this customizable pathways design thing, we have to talk about the design a lot more in order to figure out what works. So understandably, that begins to conflate design considerations with learning experience in many learners minds. Someday we can hopefully get through all of that and let the design fade into the background.

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Every Choice is Awesome. Every Path is Cool When You’re in #HumanMOOC

It is hard to believe we are already in the last week of HumanMOOC and I have failed to blog any thoughts or reflections on the whole process. Keeping a customizable pathways course running is quite the undertaking, so I unfortunately had to spend more time on the design and technical sides than the interactive and reflective sides. The feedback and interaction I have been able to partake in has been incredible, and I wanted to reflect on that a bit.

HumanMOOC, like DALMOOC before it, was designed according to what has been called the dual-layer model, the customizable modalitities model, and the pathways model. This evolving-name model is basically designed to deal with one huge issue in education:

This issue being that the biggest problem with education is people.

You see, if we were all computerized robots, educators could just figure out a solution for upgrading us all and it would work for everyone. But we are human, and we all have different preferences, different experiences, different likes, different dislikes, different needs, and so on. Because of these differences, some of us become seen as experts in certain areas by others, creating a scenario where some people have knowledge about some things that others want to gain.

These differences create informational power imbalances that manifest themselves as courses, schools, and universities. Those that control the information, grades, and courses that anyone needs to obtain that knowledge typically create a singular path to obtaining that knowledge and set themselves up as the regulator of that pathway. Of course, this pathway may take many forms like a stream – branching off and coming back, looping around, joining several other streams together, etc. But ultimately, those in control of the stream determine what it does no matter what course it takes. Some people refer to this stream as instructivism, with some estimates placing it as the dominant mindset behind 70-90% of all college education.

Which is not a bad thing to those that like instructivism (and there are many people that do). But the fact that all learners are forced to follow one path ignores the main problem with education (that people are different and prefer different paths).

Many educational theories have arisen to create an alternate learner-centered version of education. Some of these are really just illusionary at best – with students having choices that are still tightly controlled by the instructor or utilizing social media tools under strict specifications. Theories like connectivism are the most learner-centered, but implementing connectivism in a course also often takes away the choice to just follow the instructor that some learners (especially those that are new to the topic at hand) might want.

And so we have this problem in education that most research is trying to solve: how to deal with us being human and all wanting different things. Maybe we create ways to trick people into all wanting the same thing? Or maybe we can standardized everything for the most learners possible? Or maybe we can create personalized systems to serve up one of 50 pre-defined paths and create the illusion of customization? Or maybe scale instructivism or connectivism to the most people and ignore those that don’t fit the one we chose?

So all of this leads to the pathways course design of DALMOOC and HumanMOOC that basically creates parallel modalities, one that is instructivist and one that is connectivist. Course participants can choose one or the other (or both) at any point and change as they like. Those that want to create their own path through the topic (much in the same way one would wander through a garden and take in the sights and sounds and smells as you like when you like) can do so when they like, and those that want to follow a structured path through the topic can find the stream inside the garden and follow it. And switch at any time.

Of course, this kind of choice is a different paradigm for most, and typically brings about some confusion and panic from participants:

I don’t want to miss anything, but there is too much to take in.
I don’t like the LMS, but I still go in there because I don’t want to miss anything.

I don’t like Twitter, but I still go there because I don’t want to miss anything.
I don’t like discussion forums, they are not social.
I don’t like Twitter because discussion forums are more social.
Can we add Twitter to the LMS? The LMS is not social enough.
Can we add a blog hub to the LMS? (or insert Facebook page widget, Google+ integration, etc).
Can you stop pushing Twitter? Its a confusing non-linear mess.
I find blogging boring, can you just publish course content to the blog nub?

And so on. All of these are valid questions and valid points. They have all been said to me at some time between both courses so far. But as you might have noticed, many of these statements are directly contradictory to each other. So which ones are right and which aren’t?

The answer is: “Every choice is awesome! Every path is cool when you’re in #HumanMOOC (or any pathways course)”.

The first thing that many people tend to worry about is “missing anything.” That is a legitimate concern in a course – we are taught to pay attention to everything and to finish everything in order to pass. We are used to being able to do everything because we are required to do everything. But the truth of the matter is, we end up forgetting a lot of what we don’t miss, and also end up missing a lot more than we know. Have you gotten to read every paper turned in to every course you have been a part of? Were you able to hear every class discussion, or every word of the lecture? At some point, we all miss some part of any class and still end up “completing” the course (whatever that may mean).

Unfortunately, a byproduct of being a part of everything is that most people aren’t really a part of everything. Even in a class of 15 students, only a few of them will participate in course discussions while the rest sit in the background. You can only have a few people active in any group type of activity before some start fading to the background. That fading into the background is missing something, even though you might be present.

On the other hand, one of the byproducts of creating so many avenues to participate in for HumanMOOC is that more people can be an active part of something, rather than a few people being active in the one option and the rest just being passive observers. Of course, that means that no one person can do everything. Its just something that has to be accepted as okay, a shift in thinking that says “I will be active in my corner of the course and let the other ones go.” The trade off is that more people can become active in more corners because there are more corners in the first place (an unlimited amount, really).

The other trade-off is that we have to become okay with not liking something that others do like. Not everyone will like any one tool, buy most people are surprised to find out that people actually like the tool they don’t. Those that like to work in the garden of connectivism will usually be shocked to find out that some people like the controlled nature of the stream… or that they even may make that choice knowing that the garden exists.

From what I have generally seen, those that are in the stream of instructivism like that pathway, are aware of the garden of connectivism, typically do not like it’s chaos, and are annoyed by any attempt to trick them out into the garden. Either that, or there are others that are just afraid to try out the garden. Those that are mostly roaming free in the garden are oblivious to the idea that people actually like the stream, and are shocked to find people that choose to be there. Of course, most people tend to mix both but not get why they need the choice, even when faced with the idea that others choose a different mix of the two modalities that differs from theirs at different times, and it is actually the presence of choice that allows that mixture to happened on an individualized basis for all learners in the first place.

So, when asked why we don’t add a Twitter feed into the LMS, or post the LMS content on the Google Plus page, or use a Facebook page for content, or embed the blog hub into the LMS, or require blogging of all learners, or any other combination of the two modalities, the answer is simple: choice. We can’t just pick and choose which tool to bring into the other (that would force an instructor decision on all learners) – we would have to bring them all together into one spot. But this would have the effect of dampening (if not destroying) the option of choice. If we embed a Twitter feed into the LMS, then learners in the LMS stream can no longer choose to not participate in the garden. It is being forced on them front and center. They can ignore it, but even that is a barrier that they have to go around. As much as I love Twitter and connectivism in general, to place a Twitter widget into the LMS would be a way to put my epistemology into every part of the course. Learners can ignore it, but the chances of that are pretty small.

So that is why the pathways design has a Neutral Zone, not because this zone can actually be a neutral space free of power dynamics and instructor bias, but it can expose the power dynamics behind the tools and designs so that learners can make a choice between tools by fully understanding what those choices mean. Its a choice made from a neutralized playing field. But after that choice is made, we have to avoid bringing choices they didn’t make into the pathway of the choice they did make.

edugeek-journal-avatarUltimately, we (education in general) need to get a to place where, no matter what epistemology/ontology/etc the instructor subscribes to, they at least design a course that says “Every choice is awesome! Every path is cool when you are part of my class!” – even if that choice means going down an instructivist path when they want them to go connectivist, or vice versa.

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Words That Don’t Work: Courses as Neutral Zones

Sometimes the words we choose to describe something just don’t quite work as well as we would like. Its not that they don’t work at all, its just that they fall short – and academics love to pick apart where words fall short. Or even more so where we have differing definitions of various concepts.

At the LINK lab, we have been working on some ideas that are… innovative? Maybe. Different? Kind of, but not quite. Hard to categorize? Probably so. Things like dual-layer courses, customizable modalities, and neutral zones, that take existing ideas and put a spin on them in ways that are hard to classify at times. Its pretty easy to write these off as very limited ideas – MOOC innovations that will probably disappear when MOOCs die (for the third time…. or was it the fourth? I’ve lost count).

But for us, many of these are ideas that will transfer to education in a broader sense, to possibly even become theories in their own right.

For example, the idea of a dual-layer neutral zone would transfer to a bigger concept of courses as neutral zones. But let’s be honest – courses are not neutral. The technology used is not neutral. Any form of content (textbooks, videos, lectures, webpages, etc) is not neutral. The learners are not neutral, and neither are the instructors. Yes, yes – I know that we all feel that we are fair and unbiased and equality-minded. But even the most equality-minded person is still not neutral. People claim all the time to be “agnostic” in terms of certain tools or pedagogies or frameworks, but come on. Those that say that are either lying to themselves or are just not informed enough to know what the positions are.

But the goal of creating neutral zones is to bring those biases, opinions, and perspectives out into the open. To stop pretending that they aren’t there and to deal with them head on. When a learner can look at two pathways, one that is controlled by the instructor and one that is controlled by themselves, they have to make a conscious choice between two different power dynamics. They may not be able to understand the nuances of instructivism and connectivism, but they can understand enough to choose between following the instructor’s prescribed pathway and creating their own pathway. We all need both at different times in our education. The problem is that most pedagogical models contain the assumption that all learners in each class need to follow one pedagogical modality for that content: All learners need to listen to this lecture. Then all learners need to form groups and do a student-centered lesson. Then all learners need to come together to discuss this topic. Learning isn’t that simplistic, and the dual-layer, customizable modality, neutral-zone driven design paradigm is about designing for complexity. It re-focuses the design on the human being at the center of the design and technology, instead of putting pedagogy and tools at the center.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo, choosing a term like “neutral zone” is problematic because there is no way to create a neutral zone. But on the other hand, the hope is that by exposing the biases and epistemologies and ontologies behind the modalities, learners will be able to understand the importance of choosing one modality over another based on their specific needs at that moment at any given time in the course. This zone, whether in MOOCs or traditional brick and mortar classrooms, become neutral because all biases are open on the table, not because they don’t exist.

But someday, someone will need to come up with a better, more accurate term.

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Humanize Them All, and Let Them Sort Themselves Out: #dLRN15 Reflections

So now that the #dLRN15 conference is over, its time for the post-conference reflections to begin. As one of the organizers, I wanted to say a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone that presented, spoke, moderated, slacked, tweeted, blogged, organized, commented, questioned, thought, and attended. I was legitimately concerned over whether or not this conference would “click” with those that attended. But it seems from the tweets, slacks and blog posts that many things did click at some very deep levels.

One thing (out of many) that really stuck out to me was how the word “disruption” seemed almost completely absent from any conversation. While the concept of disruption has been incredibly popular recently, many have rejected the idea from the beginning. Education can’t really be disrupted because it has always been changing (even if too slowly for many). Even if education could be disrupted, would we really want it to be? Disruption can’t be predicted or really even controlled, while typically producing inferior products. For example, mp3s are compressed audio files that produce lesser quality audio experiences when compared to CDs – and you usually don’t even get liner notes. Had there been any ability to control the mp3 disruption, we could have at least utilized lossless technology (like FLAC) and kept the liner notes. Society has mostly accepted an inferior technology audio because of disruption.

To me, a more effective discussion focuses on the change agents that have affected education in small and large ways. Technology is an educational change agent; online education is a change agent; political agendas are change agents. Change agents – while possibly moving at a slower pace – have a greater potential to be influenced and directed for good or bad (or both) than disruption does.

One change agent that we can and should push and influence is the humanization of education, more specifically the designs and technologies we utilize to educate people. This was one of the major themes at #dlrn15: how do we rediscover the people at the center of everything we do in education? My firm belief is that all of our work, policies, discussions, and technology needs to be re-framed with people at the center.

Take my presentations, for example. On the surface, many call the dual-layer model a “MOOC innovation.” Before the conference, I looked at it more as an “instructional design innovation.” And I still do, but I need to start highlighting more that it was not an innovation for innovation sake. The goal of the dual-layer model is to humanize education by creating a practical design for individualized learning. The dual-layer model is an attempt to teach learners how to learn, so that they will realize the epistemological, ontological, even political ideals inherent in all tools (and therefore choose which one to use at any given time accordingly). This power shift is one of many ways to place people at the center of education rather than technology.

Or take larger issues, for another example. We are beginning to understand that where you are born will determine whether you even get to go to college more than any other factor. We tend to look at this as problem to be solved just because it sounds bad. But we need to reframe this as a human problem, by realizing the de-humanizing affect that these statistics have on the people most affected by them. Our tendency is to focus on solving the problem for the sake of solving the problem: those that are least likely to attend college hear that they probably won’t make it into college just because they were born into a lower socio-economic level and won’t even try. However, our focus should not be on solving a problem, because our tendency will be to come up with a one-size-fits all solution based heavily on our own context. Complex problems often involve multiple solutions from many different contexts. We need to re-frame these issues to focus on the people at the center of them, so that we can find solutions that work in their actual, human, real-world context. As Maha Bali put it in our ontology panel, standing on the shoulders of giants doesn’t work for her because those giants were not in her context.

Humanize all people, all issues, all change agents, all technology. All of it. All of them.

The other #dLRN15 theme that resonated most with me is listening to students. Education tends to de-humanize our students by classifying them based on how we think they should be classified. As the “experts,” we sort them out based on our classifications and then tell them what they need the most from us. There is value in that to some degree. But why not let the learners sort themselves out, and then offer our services as guides, mentors, fellow pilgrims on the path to “education”? Where are we creating spaces for them to ask hard questions, fail, get back up, learn outside the curriculum, pick apart a tangent, speak for themselves… in other words, be academics rather than our projects?

edugeek-journal-avatarOh yeah – we don’t really let many academics be academics any more. Maybe we should look at this from all levels. Admins: humanize all of your faculty and staff, and let them sort themselves out. Admin, instructors, and instructional designers: humanize all of your learners, and let them sort themselves out. And you could also say: students: humanize all of your instructors, and let them sort themselves out.

Digging Into What “Choice” is in Customizable Modality/Dual-Layer

After digging more into the idea of “neutral zone” in dual-layer / customizable modality learning design in the last post, I wanted to touch a bit on what “choice” means in this design. “Choice” has several really different levels of meaning in learning, and if you try to create the wrong kind of choices in dual-layer design, you are really just defeating the purpose (not necessarily in a bad way, but just in unnecessary ways).

All learning requires some type of choice, usually situated in the lesson itself. When you create an assignment, there is usually some level of choice to what specific topic the learner chooses to complete the assignment. Some instructors even give choice over the format of the final artifact. A few even give learners the choice of social assignments vs. individual assignments. These are all really great choices to give learners. However, these are not the choices that a Neutral Zone are designed to foster.

Basically, all of these types of situated choices are still occurring in one modality (layer). The epistemological foundation of this modality is instructivism – the instructor is still guiding the overall path of the course, with specific places for divergent side paths. This is a great way to design courses for certain learners at certain times.

However, when considering sociocultural theory, we know that different learners have different needs at different times (and those change for learners on any given day). Some learners on some weeks may not need to be guided by instructors at all. Or the options that are given by the instructor do not match their sociocultural learning needs that week. And so on.

The goal of the customizable modality design is to give learners a more meta level choice of epistemological learning design. They can be guided by the instructor when needed, and create their own experience when needed. Or both.

Therefore, the goal of the Neutral Zone is not to replace one or both of the modalities, but to form a thin guide post to point to the layers that are possible. In general, a basic diagram of this process might look like this:

dual-layer-choice-1

However, the two options that are represented here are not quite that simplistic in actual design. The instructor-led layer could itself be designed using situated choices, double-loop learning, etc. And the connectivist layer would not look that organized. A more accurate representation of the possibilities would be like this:

dual-layer-choice-2

Learners that choose either self-regulated or instructor led pathways would then have all of the choices built into either design by the instructor and/or the tools they use. The instructor-led path could still have choices (simple or complex) situated along the pathway . The self-regulated design would have many pathways (many that are intentionally in there, and many even outside of that).

However, while many learners could choose choose either modality, some might go beyond that in a way that mixes both pathways. It may even be the case that design of one layer/modailty will lead learners to the other layer/modailty. Some learners may create a custom path that could become one of thousands that may look something like this:

dual-layer-choice-3

On top of this, some learners may not even take a linear path, but decide to pick and choose parts of the course as they see fit:

dual-layer-choice-4

These charts also highlight why we sometimes refer to this overall design process as customizable modality.

The basic way to design for this is to create a compentency for the week. Then you 1) provide a platform (like ProSolo) that facilitates the social learning layer/modality; and 2) have the instructor design a lesson that will guide learners to complete the competency and place it in a platform like EdX. Ideally, you would also have tools (including a neutral zone and others) that will connect the platforms in ways so that learners can turn in work for either tool and it is posted in both.

Theoretically, you can also focus in on any number of epistemologies in place of instructivism and connectivism. You could have cognitivism and social constructivism be the two modalities. You could have more than two – creating entire pathways for behaviorism, cognitivism, and connectivism for example (if you really want to take the time to design and align those three).

edugeek-journal-avatarThe importance of this design is that it taps into the research into heutagogy – teaching your learners how to learn. Giving learners choices over what assignments to do doesn’t really reach a level of truly knowing how to learn. Making choices (hopefully someday guided by recommendation systems for scaffolding) on which epistemology to use digs deeper into learning how to learn.

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Designing a Neutral Zone in Dual-Layer (Customizable Modality) MOOCs

One of the design aspects we ran out of time for in the first offering of DALMOOC was the “glue” to pull the two layers together (and the scaffolding and support that would have accompanied that). The original idea was to utilize a daily email that would display various work from course participants as well as being a constant reminder that learners had a choice in how they engaged the course content.

However, this idea has evolved more into a centralized course website that just displays the competencies for that week, the modality choices that can be made, links to the platforms that support those modalities, and some suggested artifacts from other learners to dig into (and maybe connect with those learners). This website would serve as the “Neutral Zone” to provide scaffolding and other support for learners to navigate the dual-layer design.

Whatever form it takes, this “Neutral Zone” space is very important for various reasons:

  1. Learners would be encouraged to realize that there is a choice of how they engage the course content and/or activities. This Neutral Zone would encourage learners to think and learn about how they learn, a process that is important to heutagogy (learning how to learn). If we hide too much of the design process, learners lose the opportunity to expand their skills in this area. Of course, you never want the design of the course to be too clunky or complicated, but smoothing it all out to where there are no conscious choices by the learner is basically just another form of instructor control.
  2. The intent of dual-layer is not to encourage learners to pick the best of two pathways based on instructor’s epistemology, but to realize their own preferences. The term “dual-layer” does imply that one layer might be better or higher than the other. And to many people, one usually is. But those opinions vary widely based on a complex, ever-changing set of sociocultural implications that is different for different learners on different days. This is why some of us that are working on this idea have started using terms like “customizable modalities” more often. Modalities is a better descriptor than layers because it does not imply hierarchy. Cusomizable is probably better that dual because a) there could theoretically be more than two “layers,” and b) it better implies that learners are building an individualized pathway that can change over the duration of the course. Coming back to a Neutral Zone often during the course could encourage the learner (and especially the instructor) to realize that all modalities are valid pathways, and that they can be changed as needed (by the learner) during the course.
  3. Using a specific learning platform usually keeps learners in that platform and encourages preference for that platform. DALMOOC used EdX for the instructivist layer/modality and ProSolo for the connectivist layer/modality. While it would be easy to build the Neutral Zone out of either EdX or ProSolo, the ideal space would be outside of both. Learners often stay within the platform they start in, so it would be a constant effort to pull learners into the other modality. This constant effort to trick them into the other modality could be seen as a enforcing the instructor’s epistemology on the learner, something the customizable modality paradigm tries to avoid. Additionally, many platforms (like EdX) are designed to be sticky, to find ways to keep learners in that space as much as possible. This is not what you want in a customizable modality design. Of course, too many tools can make for a confusing process, so ultimately this Neutral Zone website would need to support single sign on for all other services utilized.
  4. Using a Neutral Zone could lead to the next step of learners owning their data for the course. Of course, the term “Neutral Zone” is misleading in that no technology is ever truly neutral. But when an instructor uses a platform like EdX as abase for their course, they lose control over the data they generate in that course. When learners work in that area, they also lose control over the data they submit. Moving to a Neutral Zone could set the ground work for learners to own their own domain. In other words, they could sign on the the class with their website and then choose what data and artifacts they share with the course, rather than being forced into a contained system.

edugeek-journal-avatarA lot of this is pie in the sky thinking, and I realize that. But there is always a tendency with education that those in charge of the class like to pull learners into their preferred epistemology regardless of if that is what the learner needs or not. Additionally, we also face the tendency of pulling learners into platforms that only support one modality over another, even if that modality is not best for the learner. The overarching aim of having customizable modalities is to resist these tendencies by encouraging true individualized educational pathways for learners as much as possible.

(image credit: dis nfo, obtained from freeimages.com)