Last night Desire2Learn flew me up to Wellington to meet with a group of “eLearning thought leaders” from Australia and New Zealand. I didn’t know what to expect (and clearly D2L didn’t either!) and was more than a bit surprised to see myself giving a trade mark Leigh Blackall rant to a group of very experienced eLearning managers and directors from some big name Universities! I even saw one of the women who stabbed me in the back at a university I used to work at! That was a brief moment of horror.
I think it went well – I’m waiting on an audio recording to check that. Here’s the question I was asked to address and the notes I prepared on the plane up to Wellington (as a result it is very light on links and references). Thanks to James Neill for some help and feedback in the notes. Here’s the link to the wiki version.
The only thing I regret from the thing is that Desire2Learn perhaps didn’t get what they were looking for and I didn’t get a chance to shake that woman’s hand 🙂
Desire2Learn Roundtable Event 18 June 2008
Question: The use of easily accessible and, in many cases, free social software tools such as MSN, Skype, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and a wide range of blogs and wikis, has become almost ubiquitous among the so-called ‘Net Generation’. In the context of a growing emphasis on eLearning, most commonly facilitated by enterprise-scale Learning Management System and a range of institutionally managed and supported communication and collaboration software tools, and in an environment of increasing emphasis on intellectual property rights management and quality assurance, how do universities (and other educational institutions) respond to the use of free, open-access tools in common use by their students? What are the potential educational uses of such tools? What are the current practices of use of these tools within educational institutions? What are the issues, risks and hidden costs? What are the advantages and benefits?
Understanding the question
Such a long and complex question needs a little unpacking..
Is the use of “free social software” almost ubiquitous in New Zealand?
Statistics released in November 2007 revealed that 67% of New Zealand homes are not connected to the Internet. Precisely: 33% have no connection what so ever, 34% have connections of 25kbps or less, and 33% have connections of 200kbps or more. Considering that a connection of 25kbps or less can not satisfactorily work with the range of free social media we are talking about, and considering that type of media is increasingly defining the Internet today, and with an expectation that its development will continue to demand more bandwidth into and out of homes – New Zealand households with connections of 25kbps or less should probably be considered as not being connected at all. Therefore a vast majority of New Zealanders are not able to share in the rich social media scape we are considering as ubiquitous.
Non-the-less, what is being documented in more developed regions of the world 9including 1/3 of New Zealand homes), through some research and a seemingly over whelming quantity of cultural output, it is probably fare to say that a certain level of ubiquity is the case in those regions. If New Zealand does address its issues of social equity in terms of connectivity and access, it should follow that we too will share in the experience and social development that is being observed in developed regions.
Is eLearning really growing in New Zealand?
Considering the New Zealand Government believes that digital literacy and basic computing skills are needed by everyone in New Zealand, most people with experience in the field of eLearning would probably prefer that it was by now considered a normal and integrated practice of learning generally, and that a specialist understanding with specialist services be no longer needed to support its development. However, most people in New Zealand would probably agree that eLearning is not an integrated practice, and that the digital literacy and basic computing skills that go with it are far from integrated (surmised from the connection statistics for NZ, and my own personal experience introducing computing and social media to people in Otago).
Most educational institutions still house something like a specialist unit for eLearning related development, and continue to invest in their worker’s developing digital literacy and basic computing skills, and most of the institutions have invested heavily in hardware and software that is believed to facilitate the development of eLearning practice. The fact that these specialist services exist is evidence that eLearning is still considered something beyond ‘normal’ practice in education, and that integration of eLearning and digital literacy and computer skills (like the book, projector, or photocopier) has some way to go yet.
What is an appropriate response from our educational institutions, to a forecasted social media scape?
This question is the focus of our discussion and what follows is an attempt to address the problem through a breakdown of some of the key elements I believe are in play. I propose we start by reviewing the underpinning theories that constitute educational practices – namely the constructivist, behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories; and then follow with a brief critique of educational attempts at adopting social constructivism into behaviorist practices; and then to relate the idea that social media is a product of social constructivism and should be considered in those terms. I will finish with my own view that educational institutions consistently go about their business in predominantly behaviorist modes of practice which is ill suited to any attempt at adopting social constructivist practices, and that we should reconsider education’s relationship to society and learning both historically and in the foreseeable future.
There are 3 pillars to education that can be found in learning theory:
These 3 theories are generally believed to be the guiding lights to professional teaching. They are the primary learning objectives in teacher training, and knowing them is proof of your socialisation into the education profession.
In short, the application of these theories might be explained as such:
Social conditions help an individual to construct self awareness and learning through any number of experiences and interactions. Some of those experiences and interactions are designed (such as school) to condition specific behavioral changes that can be measured as learning. An understanding of how minds process information (cognitivism) is what informs the design of those experiences and interactions.
Social constructivism in education – the round shape in the square hole
It might be fare to say that social experiences and interactions are always helping an individual to construct self awareness and learning in just about all aspects of their life. The experience of school, or formalised learning is but one in many social interactions and experiences that form people’s learning. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the political significance we place in formalised learning and education, we focus a majority of our resources there, and do so with seemingly no understanding of informal learning throughout the rest of our lives. Naturally, the educator’s perspective and world view is all about their role in that small part of people’s lives, but in becoming aware of the importance of socially constructed learning they try remodel their behaviorist practices to encompass constructivist approaches.
Typically the approach involves a set number of people we quite rightly call a class. That class is brought into an environment that temporarily separates them from their normal social spheres of family, friends, public, familiar environments, community and society at large. They are expected to attend sessions and are rewarded or punished, either subtly or explicitly for behavior that reflects engagement and ability to express what the teacher has intended them to learn – an inescapable behaviorist reality, and in many cases quite appropriate, perhaps though, not at the scale we currently have it at.
However, along comes a well meaning teacher, perplexed by our understanding of socially constructed learning, who will attempt to design into their behaviorist reality – a sense of social learning! Typically it involves the design of activities such as “group work”, “discussion”, and “role play”. Some go as far as to reward this artificial social behavior with statements of it as learning objectives. This confusing effort to draw out learning within behaviorist realities with artificially social interaction must be causing stress for all involved. It is a crude attempt to develop a sense of social connection inside what is ultimately an anti social environment.
To my mind, the attempts so far – to break down traditional behaviorist approaches with ill conceived social constructivism has so far been crude and confusing. Formal learning is a small part of our socially constructed world, our socially constructed learning can not be squeezed into small, short term behaviorist experiences. It is much like trying to fit a very large round shape into a very small square hole. It is behaviorism over stepping its bounds in an attempt to be everything to everyone.
Web2 is socially constructed media and communications
It is a mistake to adopt the term Web2. It only serves a meaning to those already in the know, and for those who are not, it always needs further explanation. And because its meaning remains a mystery to those not in the know, we rely on inquisitive minds to ask for further explanation. More likely, the term simply turns people away and gives an easy ride for shallow critics, software merchants, and those threatened by what it actually entails. Web2 might more usefully and accurately be termed, socially constructed media and communications or social media for short. Social media as a term captures more meaning than Web2 and is more likely to be relevant to people interested in socially constructed learning.
Now that a connection should be evident between social constructivism and the media scape we have on hand today, it should be interesting to consider how objectionable it may actually be for education to be adopting social media inside its seemingly inescapable behaviorist contexts. If you can accept my argument that social constructivism can not be used in behaviorist methodologies, then with it I would argue that social media cannot be used inside behaviorist media – such as the prescribed media presently used (LMS, system email, content repositories etc).
Social media in education – more of the same
The effort to push large round shapes into small square holes has been a consistent feature in educational adoption of social trends. Most recently in the context of the Internet, Institutions have necessarily de-socialised the experience in an era known as dot com, by setting up its own systems of email, centralised websites, file servers, content management systems, and learning management systems – all reinforced by draconian firewalling, content censorship and ill conceived policy to restrict access and bandwidth. Arguably the initial motivations of this effort were needed, given the deep seeded behaviorist practices of education, and the very costly hardware and software being invested in. That said, the resulting monolithic and parochial services that have been set up at almost every institution were always going to be superseded by utility Internet services – once a suitably large enough market demand was established. That time is now, and many people are finding it more productive and rewarding to be using software and Internet services outside the Institutions.
But with the establishment of a large workforce employed to maintain the local and parochial services, the adoption of so called “Web2” or “Social Tools” – to quote the question, into education is yet more forcing of even larger round shapes into even smaller square holes. The agents who continue this retro-fitting have not spotted the oxymoronic aspect of the idea, nor stopped to consider the wider problem of social constructivism inside institutions of behaviorism. Perhaps even more concerning is that the IT professionals did not factor in the inevitability utility scale provision of services once a market had been established, and did not design exit strategies for their now legacy systems.
Nor has anyone stopped to consider (in these terms) what the result may be in bringing social media into such environments, and how effective it will be or not. Making such a large and chaotic thing fit inside a restricted and limited operation is certain to fail more so than attempts to change the direction of the fitting and to bring education more appropriately out into socially constructed learning contexts and the social change it could entail. What I mean to say is, instead of retro fitting our systems and trying to add features of social media, education should occupy the social media scape. Store videos on Youtube, photos on Flick, and texts on Wikibooks; have teachers and lecturers editing Wikipedia, starting a blog, responding to questions, and generally participating in society’s media. Don’t try to squeeze society and social media into our limited way of going about learning.
That is not to say we should stop offering traditional behaviorist based services, We should! its a good way to learn, but its not the only way, its not even a significant way. If we are truly interested in learning, then we should be looking at ways to engage with the bigger picture.
“…We don’t need no education…”
Obviously a thinking person would not make such a statement without wondering what would become of training doctors, pilots, engineers, trades, researchers, and services; or how to ensure that as many members of society as possible are literate and numerate and have the skills to discover and make the most of learning pathways. Those words are more a challenge to the simple ways in which we in education go about our business – a challenge to behaviorism within industrial scale education systems, that tries to encompass social learning. An appeal to stop and think what is actually happening. Perhaps we don’t need education!
What then might a future look like? A society empowered through social media to more fully develop their own learning along the lines of Ivan Illich’s visions? Workers in tune to informal learning and how to leverage such learning for professional gains? Children permitted to follow their interests and develop at their own pace, under the guidance of trusted and respected adults and peers?
Once again, well meaning teachers will attempt to push these large round shapes into their small square holes because in the absence of a tangible alternative, this is all they can do! Perhaps opportunities should be explored more between the different approaches. How can mainstream schools relate more to homeschooling and the various extra curricula that children do outside of school? Again, this is not to say school should take on those activities – quite the opposite, it is a suggestion that schools (as gate keepers) should look at ways they can recognise and enhance the learning that goes on everywhere else. Perhaps as Jay Cross says, workplaces should invest 80% of its training budgets in supporting informal learning? And what if teachers (of all types) started to occupied space outside their institutions more, and into the social media scape, they would benefit from a fresh perspective of the world – one from within instead of without.
This roundtable event will provide an opportunity for eLearning leaders in Australia and New Zealand to discuss these issues. Date: June 18th, the evening before the ACODE conference at Victoria University of Wellington Place: TBD, but will be located centrally to where conference guests are staying Agenda: 5:30 – 6:00pm Welcome 6:00 – 6:45pm Dinner 6:45 – 7:15pm Speaker 7:15 – 8:15pm Facilitated group discussion 8:15 – 8:45pm Large group sharing/Wrap-up Speaker and Facilitators are TBD. Outcomes: A foundational discussion on the current advantages and pitfalls of free social software tools as well as an understanding of how peers are taking advantage of these tools. There will be an opportunity to continue the dialogue through co-authored whitepapers. More details to follow. For questions please contact Kristin Greene
The Dawn of Epimethean Man by Ivan Illich
From the ancient Greeks to a modern New York City child, Illich in 1970 critiques modern society and the drivers of progress as replacing Hope with Expectation. http://www.scribd.com/doc/12437/The-Dawn-of-Epimethean-Man-by-Ivan-Illich
PBS Frontline Special: “Growing Up Online”
A new series from PBS where viewers get an inside look into the worlds kids enter and create online, focusing on the important ways the Internet is transforming childhood and development. The documentary also notes a profound generational disconnect, perhaps the greatest American generation gap since rock ‘n’ roll. Another interesting aspect of the use of technology is the way educators respond to it. The documentary is informative, available for viewing online and provides teaching guides and a discussion forum. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/
The Idea of the University
Australian universities are among the least well-funded in the developed world, and behind the decline in federal funding there can be detected a confusion of purpose – what exactly is the university for in today’s world? Are they primarily about training workers to enter the modern skills economy, or is there another kind of role that the university plays in a democracy?
Downloadable audio from ABC’s Late Night Live with Phillip Adams for the next week or so: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2008/2272988.htm
skype – leigh_blackall
SL – Leroy Goalpost