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.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.