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I met Tony Hirst on Facebook. He had made a nice little RSS reader FB application for Open University courses and helped me make one for Otago Polytech. Luckily I grabbed his blog before I ditched FB and all the contacts I had made in it. But I’ve been so slow in keeping up with my reader that I haven’t been watching Tony’s work.. until tonight! Man!! Talk about some tricky mashup! Check out his Yahoo Pipe that effectively turns Yale’s Open Courseware pages that have no RSS, into an RSS feed! I have a new found interest in Pipes. But if you struggle to see the importance of that how-to, check out his How-do-I video search tool! Nice work Tony

As I teach and facilitate various online courses this year, a lot of the theories and concepts I subscribe to are getting some hard testing. The biggest challenge I am finding is the expectation for a teacher or instructor while everyone talks about a facilitator. I don’t think someone can be both, primarily because a teacher inherits a significant amount of power and traditional roles that counter act the more neutral and passive presence of a facilitator. This post will be a series of thoughts about this tension, and some ideas on how I can better manage my attempts at online learning community facilitation.

There’s a teacher at the party

I find it is all too easy to assume the role of a teacher if you are an expert in your field, but very difficult to adopt and maintain the role of facilitator to a group studying your field. Many things stack up against efforts to maintain a neutral and passive position of facilitation:

There is this blog and other artifacts that help to establish me as some sort of “expert” or someone with a few years of experience researching and testing the topic of online learning etc, and so a teacherly presence is hard to avoid, and there is an expectation that my experience and expertise should be used to help people find the answers more quickly and efficiently.Β Added to that are the student or participant expectations. People engaging in the courses I attempt to facilitate are typically vocational teachers and trainers by profession and people who have enrolled in a formal course, through traditional administration lines, via a professional development cycle and with very little background knowledge of me or the topic I am asked to facilitate, and that they intend to learn … about. And so, through this set up process they are encouraged to expect the familiar presence of a teacher or trainer, a formal learning venue and everything else that is familiar to a person who has been successful in the schooling experience. Ultimately they are unprepared for the facilitated and individually responsible and self motivated learning environment I try to encourage.

I can understand the expectation for a teacher in a course. Naturally a student who has enrolled in a formal course, following traditional administration channels, paying fees etc and who is of an age and professional experience that is very used to the idea of taught and instructed learning, would expect a similarly efficient, industrial strength, structured learning pathway within the course. But this is at odds with my understanding of facilitation and my principals around individual responsibility, networked learning, and a belief in the importance of deschooling.

So I have a problem.

Either I yield to the tradition of schooled learning and assume the role of teacher, instructor and assessor and forgo the role of facilitator, or I invest a lot more time with these courses and develop my skills as a communicator and become more sophisticated in ways of moving expectations towards a facilitated and individualised learning environment. At the moment, I can’t say I have been very successful at that, there are some things I can see I can do better, other things I have no control over, and then there are things that allude me all together. I am myself caught in a twilight zone between teacher and facilitator. I have years of experience being taught and then some teaching. I’m actually quite comfortable being the know it all teacher, instructing people on what to do with their time πŸ˜‰ I even know a bit about controlling people’s behaviour so as to reflect something I can assess as learning.. but facilitation, that continues to allude me.

When I act as a facilitator I generally ignore all the lead up that the people who engage in these courses go through before they meet me. Mystake number 1. Then I assume an equal role with and between the participants and expect individual responsibility for motivated and expert learning. Mystake number 2. I actively fend off teacherly roles, keeping the structure and prescribed content to a bare minimum. Mystake number 3. Inevitably the frustrations from the people engaging in the courses are expressed, calling for more structure and direction and a more efficient pathway to a learning fix. It is not sufficient to simply establish and maintain communication channels, arrange and negotiate content like guest lectures etc, and assist individuals and groups with their research. The move from teacherly/taught to facilitated learning is complex and time consuming. So much so that I doubt these courses have much of a chance at succeeding at developing a individualised and facilitated learning experience.

Needless to say, teaching and instruction is the much easier path for all involved. Teaching and instruction are well established practices with numerous resources in place to support all involved in the exercise, including implicit and culturally embedded practices like narrative, closure, authority, partitioned knowledge, economy of scale, industrial strength admin processes etc). And almost everyone who is involved has experienced this type of schooled learning so we’re all on the same page in more ways than one. It is very difficult to socially learn in any other way, especially in a formal, traditional, schooled environment. The teach and instruct methods are a safe bet.

But I have been asked to facilitate a learning community. And although I know the word facilitate is being used more than a little loosely by institutions these days, and that the majority of the participants are encouraged to bring with them expectations AND needs of being taught and instructed, I have this idealist expectation to build and facilitate a learning community. All this relates specifically to a course I am attempting to co facilitate at the moment. It is called funnily enough, Facilitating Online Learning Communities. I share the facilitation role with Bronwyn Hegarty and we both struggle with each other and each internally with this tension between facilitation and instruction, cognitive and behaviorist practices and socially constructed ideals… We each have 4 hours per week to do this job, and only a small number of people engaged.

For the most part I think we have been successful given all the challenges. We have managed to move the course out from the limits of the Learning Management System so as to demonstrate the existence of learning communities in online contexts other than managed learning. So far we have looked at discussion forums, email lists, blogs and RSS, wikis and web conferencing. We are beginning to consider social networking sites, virtual worlds and gaming communities… all the participants have a blog, but only 1/2 – 2/3 are active with it, we have curated a series of what we call “10 minute lectures” that include about an hour of discussion, and we have attempted to down play our own presence as experts or specialists.

Unfortunately frustrations are expressed from time to time that relate to the seeming lack of structure and direction in the facilitation of the course, and the apparent over whelming amount of information and technical skills needed to participate. I can’t help but think that a lot of this frustration can be attributed to the confusion between teacher and facilitator, and the expectation of instructed learning that the course admin has encouraged. However, in the apparent absence of a structured course I think it is far to say significant learning is occurring in this online course. Most of the participants had not heard of a blog or RSS before this course, and did not know of the distinctions between social networking sites and blogs and wikis.. etc, none had used a web conferencing facility like Elluminate or Skype, and very few had heard of the world class people we have in for the 10 minute lectures, and we have successfully embraced a number of others late drop ins from around the world who have participated with us along the way. So the learning curve must indeed be steep for many of the participants. There are totally new technologies, new and immature methods, far from mainstream ideals, and very open and transparent communication channels – all 100% online. But dissatisfaction is very present 😦

I find David Wiley’s course an inspiration and a model for those like me who are suspended in the twilight zone of how to teach and facilitate all at the same time. His course is targeted at people who are already experienced with online communication, and David’s reputation attracts a wide variety of people from around the world. His participants are highly self motivated and network learners before they engage in his topics. The course is initially presented instructionally with clearly articulated schedule and expectations in a wiki format. Each topic in the schedule asks the participants to read, reflect and then write to their blog. David then demonstrates facilitation practices once the participants are under way with this. He summarises their work, comments and links people’s posts to each other. It helps that he has some farely well known edu bloggers participating in his course and so the topics and discussions go further and wider than the course participants themselves. I don’t have intimate knowledge of David’s course however, and he may be grappling with his own demons, but it is useful at least for me to see his approach to structure and conduct.

I think, if I am asked to “facilitate” another instance of Facilitating Online Learning Communities, I will follow David’s model initially, and either strongly suggest prerequisite experience, or a pre course for instruction on how to use various forms of core technology, but this doesn’t solve the problem of needing self motivated learners to participate in a facilitated learning environment. It is generally assumed that this ethic emerges after a participant practices blogging and experiences networked connections. This is true for approximately 10 – 20% of the participants I have had contact with, so what of the 80 – 90%? Perhaps this number will decrease as more and more people experience this type of expectation and meet others who have experienced it before.. a bit like the take up of email… or perhaps social networking sites like Facebook or Ecto will replace the idea of blogging and bring us back to group work, which seems to be what we are all schooled to being more comfortable with.. sadly

Plane home to Dunedin is about to board, so I’ll end this here. Just some notes to continue with later.

I wonder why not a soul in Australia or New Zealand thought to contribute to the Gmail collaborative video? With nearly 2 million views so far, and a Google map pinning everyone who contributed, I would have thought at least one keen videographer in Australia or New Zealand would have thought it a good idea to get a shot in and get noticed…

Why didn’t I put one in? Maybe my lame excuse is similar to all the others in Aust/NZ

I seem to recall having mixed feelings at the idea of participating in a Gmail fan club. But clearly I should have just gotten over it and put one in!! I would have been a lone pin representing Dunedin and Aust/NZ.

Barbara Dieu posted to TALO these links to stat graphs looking at the generational uptake of social media. Click to view. My initial thoughts from them:

I see the high bars moving WITH the generations, rather than other generations adopting these practices… which means the types of things that we are seeing 18-26yo doing online will change and evolve as their life experience grows.. in other words, social media will become rich and broader ranging with information and learning on a wider variety of things and with varying levels of depth.. within about 5 – 10 years. At the moment educationalists could be doing much more towards attempting to engage the % of the age group, and on their terms, so as the maximise the potential energy in this early adoption. Obviously, doing so will mean we learn the things now that we will need to know in 5 – 10 years time.

Then again, do these stats affirm the need for reaction at all? Or are those that promoted the use of social media doing so on the belief that it is simply a good thing to do proactively?…

Long time no chat with Teemu Leinonen. Tonight he skyped me out of the blue and in no time has me signed up to Jaiku – another group IM system, but seems to have more features than Twitter such as intergration with mobile phones..

We also got to chatting about various stuff in the world, flicking links to movies back and forth before we settled down to watch the first part of the BBC series Century of the Self. More info about this BBC series here.

Its another very thought provoking film in what seems to be a series of stuff I’m just happening across, such as Newman’s History of Oil and Zeitgeist. Apart from being interesting in that this BBC series seems to support in some way the general ideas coming out of the more “conspiracy” minded films like Zeitgeist and History of Oil, Teemu and I kept the skype chatgoing through out the 1 hour movie. We chatted to each other, summarised what was being said, grabbed links to some of the names etc. It was quite an enjoyable way to watch this film.

Here’s some of the transcript: [10:42:12 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: I am watching the movie too.
[10:42:21 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: πŸ™‚ me too
[10:42:33 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: I have this idea of having a TV with chat. We can do some quick user testing in here.
[10:42:44 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: right πŸ™‚
[10:43:27 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: I have often tried to talk to my grand father about his life – but he does not talk about himself too well
[10:44:28 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: Where did he grow up?
[10:44:35 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: Australia
[10:44:52 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: through Depression WW2 etc
[10:45:48 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: My grandfather wrote down his memories.
[10:45:56 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: good man
[10:46:34 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: was common to keep journals in the 18 19th century hey
[10:46:35 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: I have this plan of “digitalizing” them. They are written with a typewriter.
[10:46:42 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: great
[10:53:50 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: hmm cigarettes
[10:54:02 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: torches of freedom
[10:54:21 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: bernays takes credit?
[10:54:27 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: dunno about that/..
[10:54:37 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: Bernays
[10:55:23 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: Bernays = emotional connection to objects
[10:55:32 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: emotional
[10:56:18 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: I think functional virtues will come back
[10:56:30 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says:
[10:56:46 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: needs to desire culture
[10:57:03 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: does this reflect a European experience?
[10:57:43 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: emotional connection to objects is good if the objects are good. πŸ™‚
[10:57:54 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: ah ha πŸ™‚
[10:58:18 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: I don’t have anything agains good propaganda if the products are good.
[10:58:50 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: cigarettes – torches of freedom – money – wealth – jobs = good in 1920
[10:59:03 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: bad today
[10:59:12 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: hmm.. well…good for whom?
[10:59:32 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: women freedom?
[10:59:39 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: good point.
[11:00:30 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: if you could jump right from the “smoking” to the “torches of freedom” and the rest will still follow it would be much better.
[11:01:06 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: smoking – torces of freedom – money – wealth – jobs.
[11:01:33 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: well, money and jobs are good for others
[11:01:44 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: wealth for the nation/community
[11:02:01 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: women freedom means money for women.
[11:02:02 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: but all this just to question the notion of “good”
[11:02:36 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: “…and everybody was happy.”
[11:03:10 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: this bernays is a demon
[11:03:13 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: πŸ™‚
[11:03:21 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: he has horns
[11:03:28 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: hah..
[11:04:35 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: bernays and co strike me as gloting arrogants
[11:04:46 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: or just american>
[11:06:37 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: freuds thinking = christian belief of inate sinfulness of men
[11:06:40 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: ?
[11:08:01 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: the mob and web2…
[11:08:09 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: unconsciousness = innate sin.
[11:08:17 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: hmm
[11:09:21 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: “engineered concent” – Bernays.. later Naom Chompsky
[11:10:55 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: Actually I mean: freud’s unconscious mind = the christian innate sin.
[11:11:42 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: right
[11:14:54 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: It seems to be that Europe exports “ideas” to US and when they are “imported” back to Europe it is a catastrophe.
[11:15:00 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: need to watch Zeitgeist for an idea about why the depression happened
[11:15:27 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: indeed
[11:16:00 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: …just waiting when the nuclear bomb will be finally “imported” back to Europe.
[11:16:24 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: freedom is impossible 😦
[11:22:41 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: on there is a good film called Despotism – 1947 or something..
[11:25:28 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: yes. I have used the Despotism in some classes.
[11:26:51 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says:
[11:36:01 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: not as active citizens but passive consumers
[11:36:15 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: web2 = active citizens?
[11:36:24 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: hmm..
[11:40:06 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: oh no.. the CIA
[11:40:15 p.m.] Teemu Leinonen says: Right..
[11:40:34 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: good film
[11:40:43 p.m.] Leigh Blackall says: thanks to the google pirate

George Siemens has posted much needed rethinking on the role of teachers and experts in Networked Learning. He presents the idea of a curator as a central player in initiating a focus for a learning network.

I very much like this idea of the curator and I’d like to add more to it by describing and preserving the integrity of the teacher and the facilitator.

As many already know I try to reinvigorate questions and discussion on the role of teachers from time to time – all be it a little confrontational πŸ™‚Β  Lately I have been broadly focusing on the integrity of a facilitator, especially as I reckon the teaching profession is [innocently] corrupting the integrity of facilitation with teachers calling themselves facilitators – but remaining teachers in every sense of the word. I guess teachers do this in response to the as yet illdefined roles needed in a networked learning. They are perhaps prematurely trying to redefine their role of teacher without yet fully understanding why or how, and engaging in the dialogue that George points to. I don’t think teaching needs redifining, it is fine as it is, it just needs to be deinstitutionalised and moved away from being the primary player in people’s learning. Artichoke is in my opinion the deepest and most thought provoking edublogger writing in this vein of thinking, and she is drawing very much from the thinking of Illich.

As George suggests, perhaps the expertise of a curator are more suited to becoming a central role in networked learning – someone that draws on an array of teachers and content to suit a particular purpose. I want to add the facilitator as another important role here, as someone or something that assists people to negotiate the exhibition that the curator has assembled. Not a teacher dressed up as a facilitator – someone who manages to remain impartial while at the same time engaging and interpretive; someone that can respond quickly to various and often unpredictable contributions from participants; and someone who does all this without asserting a sense of authority or even expertise over a topic, but instead calls on teachers and experts to engage when a teacher or an expert is needed. And that’s where networked learning and the Internet really help us. They give us access to a vast number of teachers and experts to call on at any given time!

But where can we find curators and facilitators? I don’t think we can reliably find good facilitators in the teaching sector.. perhaps we will find better facilitators from the fields of journalism, comedy, performance, talk back radio, speakers to the house of reps, etc. And as George points out, we will find curators from museums and art galleries (lets not forget the librarians!) I see the likes of Stephen Downes, George Siemens, David Wiley and so many other “A listers” – or most referenced contributors, primarily as teachers and content providers in this network. People and content that the curator might draw from. Modern day researchers who are available to be teachers and content providers in an exhibition, conference of course. They’re participants as well – especially in areas they are not recognised as experts, but the sustained focus, quality, popularity, experience and depth of their work makes them more teacherly than participants in their field. So it is not them that are the facilitators (although they are often capable as George showed with his facilitation of FOE). But one cannot be both an expert or teacher and facilitator at the same time.

I’m yet to come accross someone in our widened educational network that I would call a professional facilitator and/or curator.. perhaps like the teaching sector, the edublogging sector is not a reliable source for good facilitators. Perhaps the source for good facilitators and curators do not have an online presence and network yet…

But when they emerge I see the roles playing out like this: A curator finds resources and a space to bring together an “exhibition” of content, experts and teachers, then either adopts the different role of facilitator, or employs the services of a professional facilitator who will assist all the participants to negotiate the various aspects of the exhibition.

For example: Someone who organises a conference is essentially curating content, and will either facilitate that event themselves, or hire a professional conference facilitator to do it. The teachers and experts play a secondary role in these sorts of learning environments by providing the content and focus. In a sense, the people and content in this secondary layer are competing with each other for attention and recogniton.. they often choose to collaborate instead/or as well as compete (I mean compete in a very positive sense) for the attention and participation in their topic area. The tertiary level in this type of learning environment are the participants. They move around the content that is presented to them by the curator, and engage in various discussions, workshops and other events with assistance from the facilitator if needed. Often the curators, facilitators, teachers and experts join in and participate as well, but they unavoidably carry with them the status and isolation of their role, while the participants are free to move around unrestrained by an identity as fully formed as a teacher or expert at this “exhibition” that the curator has put on.

An art exhibition (and the opening in particular) is very similar. The artworks, the artists and the critics provide the content; the curator selects the content; and the participants develop the interpretation/learning. The more I think about it, so much of the world works like this. The old practice of classroom, captive audience teaching, and standard set fees is such an abused privilege!

So begins a new/or revisited thread of networked thought I hope… and we may at last be developing a clearer model for networked learning.

Konrad Glogowski (that’s him on the right) joined us for the 2nd in a series of 10 minute lectures relating to the facilitation of online learning communities. In this recording Konrad talks about developing a sense of community and individual presence before attempting formal learning. Konrad talks to his middle school teaching experiences but his research and insight is very applicable across many efforts to develop an online learning community.

Bill Kerr seems to be willfully applying a modernist frame of reference over his developing critique of social media. To my mind looking at the world today through the lens of modernism is a bit like turning up to a party wearing your work clothes… I’m not sure if that analogy works for others out there, but it works for me at the moment. This is not to say I don’t appreciate Bills choice of reference, it is quite thought provoking and its certainly giving me stuff to blog about πŸ™‚

I get this idea about Bill from a recent film Sunshine and I have just seen called Helvetica.

Its a documentary on the story of the type set helvetica. Well, its more than that really, its the story of modernist visual communication and media and its relationship to the world today. And that’s the link to Bill.
The film started with the old modernists, nostalgically reminiscing about the crisp, clear, rational idealism of helvetica. Through interview after interview it sampled the perspectives of designers on the significance of the type set. The post modernist designers came on later and almost embarrassed themselves with their naive politiks, but they cleared the thick, pipe smoke air left by the modernist old boys, and made way for the deconstructing grunge. The sort of punk deconstructionists destructionists who dismissed it all and wiped the slate clean of these historical burdons and over all disappointments.

Gradually the film moved through these observable historic periods and attempted to clear some of the fog around today. The current generation of professional designers and their freedom to sample everything from that historic pallet. They are able to balance the rational clarity of modernist style, with the political messaging of the post modernists, and the subjective expressionism of the grunge to create a range of unique messages and visual environments based largely on sampling and remixing. Often deep and considered (as it has to be with these historical references), but largely surface and superficial, intentionally too.

Of course the old boy modernists are still hung up about the post modern “disease” that snuffed their flame, and think and behave like they are the guardians of everything “true”. The post modernists are still hung up about their modernist parents not accepting anything they do, and while they relax into a conservative retirement they on the whole refuse to acknowledge the sophistication of their successors. The punks still don’t give a shit and just get on with it.

But its the emerging generation that is interesting to us now.. this is perhaps the age that will be called the neo constructivists, the time when media and communications was somewhat democratised, when the set up cost to be a film maker was within reach of many, to be a communication designer was within reach of many more still, music, journalism etc..

But that right there is still considering the world with a modernist reference! To use the professions of film making, record producing, journalism as some sort of reference or comparison to the socially networked media is a mistake. To be hung up on the quality of output from socially networked media, based on the outputs of professionals is largely out of place. Of course there are emerging professionals that are using the social platforms – the A listers and the like, but on the whole, considering neo constructivism in terms of historical professionalism is a bit like turning up to a juiced up punk/grunge rock party dress and drinking your 60’s helvetica.. you’re gunna get bashed or worse.

Its not quite right, but I wanna say that there’s no such thing as a film maker, a designer, a journalist or record producer anymore. These historic reference points for media and communication have been diluted and washed away. If these things are everywhere now, then these things are nothing (to appropriate Robert Hughes‘ famous line). Of course we still go to see films, and buy recorded music, and take notice of journalistic expertise, its just that these are no longer the only, or most significant platform for cultural expression. Visual communication and design is now merging with personal expression and identity and professionalism has nothing to do with it.

The Helvetica film ended with an excellent observation of this new social mediascape by a fella named – I’ll have to watch the film again 😦 I’ve asked the Youtube pirate if he/she has the clip I’m thinking of… but the fella was observing the scene through the lens of society and communication. The point of this post is that appreciating the historical significance of the socially networked media scape, or the neo constructivists (if i’m ok to call it that (?) is better done through the lens of contemporary social science, through communications studies, through culture and visual communication. Not through modernist perspectives in computing, rationalism or objectivity.

Dangerous words I know – to a precious modernist despairing at the destruction of his world as the boys and girls strip him of his work suit.