Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Pushing the Envelope

21st century education. It’s as conceptually different from 20th century education as one could imagine. As teachers, we are preparing our students to learn and function in a world which is experiencing rapid change, a big part of which is revealed through the virtual environment. The overall rate of technical progress (the paradigm shift rate) is doubling every decade. The technological progress that will occur in the twenty first century will be equivalent to the changes that would have taken place across 200 centuries at the rates of change prior to this acceleration. Our modern, highly connected culture is experiencing a phenomenon known as “space time convergence” where the space between people and ideas is compressing. It’s a fast world, and getting faster. In light of this, apparently, much of what was taught in the twentieth century is no longer relevant. Students need different skill sets which include a more collaborative approach to problem solving, the ability to evaluate vast amounts of readily available information, a capacity for critical and reflective thinking as well as a creative approach to meet the new challenges of a living in a rapidly evolving global community. They need to be adaptable, resilient, empathic, connected, flexible, communicative. As teachers, we need to facilitate learning so it is appropriate for this exponential age in which adaptability will be crucial.

In this post, I'd like to explore my own (never ending) learning journey in this extraordinary era. Maybe some clues will emerge, and if not, at least I will have raised some questions.

A few mornings ago, I had an abrupt, early awakening, with my nine year old son asking, “What is eight times nine?”

In a semi lucid state, before dozing back to sleep, my instant answer was seventy two  At breakfast, I asked if he had woken me with that question, (in case it was a dream) and indeed he had.

“Why did you ask me?” I enquired. “Don’t you know the answer?”

“No Mum, I have to work it out and I couldn’t be bothered,” was his reply.

So the assumption was that I just “knew” the answer. Which of course I do, because I am of a generation that rote learned, amongst other things, my times tables, to be regurgitated without thought when awake, asleep or semicomatosed.

But for a child in year three, apparently, eight times nine is really eight times ten minus eight. Or possibly eight times eight plus eight. Perhaps seventy two is a side issue. Our start at a Steiner school, where the philosophy is very much about teaching children a love of learning and how to learn, made me comfortable with the priority being “working it out” rather than memorising. Even if working it out means asking someone else who knows. The basis of collaboration.  Fine. We’ve all come some distance since rote learning of everything was THE way, even if Steiner thought of teaching people how to learn as well as what to learn way back in 1907.

As a scientist, (albeit not a practicing one) with extreme left brain style cognition and all that comes with being a visual, object oriented learner, a return to higher education 3 years ago caught me somewhat off guard when I experienced a very different way of doing things.
I’ll share an excerpt from my learning journal in the second week of my fully online post grad course (a baptism of fire, l can assure you)

Week 2:
Education has changed a great deal since I was last a student, and although I have observed those changes through involvement with my children at high school and university, it is a little different when one is in the driver's (or passengers) seat. I’m not sure which one it is yet. Much of learning these days is about learning. It has been an adjustment to give appropriate priority to content and process.I have been inclined to approach content as though I was going to have to sit an exam the following week, and have realised fairly quickly that the lesson is as much about ways of considering that content (and that is quite outside of learning about study methods such as interdisciplinary methodology etc) as it is about the content material itself, particularly as this unit is an introductory or orientation to the course. So I am trying to keep a broad perspective so I don't miss the "lesson".

And by week 10:

I am enjoying the very broad range of perspectives of the group. So many factors come into the equation: lifestyle, where we live, our stage of life, our age, our views and backgrounds and and and. I see my way of thinking changing by having been challenged by the views of those younger, those with strong religious conviction, those way more educated than myself, and of course the profs.It seems to be very beneficial to collaborate with people of such diversity, and how easy it is becoming over time to explore ideas quite openly through forum discussion, whether one believes those thoughts with conviction or not. 

By second semester, I was asked to give an orientation talk to new students. To break the ice, I told them that in preparation for starting the course, I had purchased a pack of A4 envelopes for posting my essays for assessment. I initially had no concept of what online learning was about, in either the practical sense nor in terms of a very different way of learning, you know, the one where you work it out, WITH OTHERS! The one where memorising isn’t really important, but collaborating, communicating, discussing, experiencing the different perspectives shared by both teachers and other students. All this was essential for developing evaluation and thinking skills which could be creatively harnessed to produce things like critical reflections, shared through wikis and discussed in forums but certainly not printed out and posted in an ENVELOPE!

Fast forward two years and I am now tutoring in the same said course and about to embark on a PhD, most probably about learning outcomes. To diversify, fill in the gaps learn more about online learning and keep intellectually stimulated during the semester break and until I organise myself to be a good doctoral candidate, I’ve embarked on this MOOC journey. My own personal foray into the exciting, virtual wonderland of connectivism. My post grad course, although fully online, global in nature and wonderfully stimulating, is a bit of a blend, very much the social constructivist experience, but kind of in house. 

MOOCS, on the other hand, and especially EDCMOOC, are really propelling me into the social sphere of connected learning. In my first Coursera experience, I couldn't handle the forums. There were too many people. I couldn't make the connections. It was overwhelming.
So I did my 20th century default number, watched the lectures, did the readings, learned the material and took the quizzes, learned a lot about sustainability and felt very good when I got my certificate.

Not so in EDMOOC! I’m connected, talking, synchronously and asynchronously, with people from different cultures, of all ages (well a few ages, mostly adult one would assume), from all manner of backgrounds, interests and skill bases. Together, even though at this stage we are really a SMOOC, we are discovering much about learning, teaching, social networking, different social media platforms, digital cultures, sharing, cooperating, collaborating, enthusing, encouraging and helping. I love this way of learning. And THE most amazing thing……no teacher! Well not yet. How very un20th century is that!

I see connectivism as a means of learning where we might like to think about the depth, beauty and application of mathematics, the aesthetic pleasure to be derived examining patterns and form, or from the multitude of ways one might arrive at a result. In this context, seventy two could represent something cultural, artistic or even spiritual. The connected experience of discussing seventy two can build new understandings, forge new connections and build bonds to help us work things out together. And other cultural perspectives may shed new light on seventy two or nine and eight. And 9 x 8 may or may not still equal 72, but we might arrive at a better understanding of this equation.

This is a long post, but what I’m really trying to do here is think out loud about my learning journey and in this context, explore the need to prepare students for a changing world. Adaptation is what makes humans so successful. How much do we really need to be prepared for coping with change, even rapid change? After all, it’s what our species does best is it not? The thinkers will think, the inspired will engage, the resilient will bounce back, those who don’t compete will cooperate, those who love to learn will embrace new technologies, challenges and ways of learning  in a changing environment regardless of how they were taught.

I’m quite astonished at my own adaptability, my rapid exploration and uptake of new technologies, software ideas, methods and ways of thinking. 9 x 8 = 72 has served me well. It hasn't prevented me from getting the most out of the social learning experience or the connectivist adventure. I cope well with the pace and nature of 21st century challenges. Maybe for a 20th century person, this is pushing the envelope although I'm more inclined to think its just an example of how we all respond to change regardless of the pedagogy of our formative learning experiences.



  1. Another great post Angela. I was particularly interested in reading about your learning journey through the centuries. I did my undergraduate degree in the 70's (so you can guess how old I am!), and then some post graduate work about 10 years ago. At least computers were around for the post grad but I did still use those A4 envelopes to post my essays. The big change in the past 10 years has been the collaborative stuff, made possible (or certainly easier) by the technology. I have really always learnt in isolation and am trying to force myself into this new connected way of learning. Looks like I may well be getting a lot more out this MOOC than I had anticipated when I joined.

  2. Amazing that we can talk about "last century". I wish it made me feel wise! I was an 80s undergrad and we did have computers (remember wordstar?). Did it all in DOS.... so we are the true digital natives! I fluctuate between serious reclusive learning and hyperconnected and face to face social learning. Depends on my mood and time constraints. But it is good to keep pace with what is going on in the world, for many reasons. I remember just before my Granny died 5 years ago, age 89, she said she felt she no longer belonged in this world. That would not be a good feeling.

  3. A very interesting read Angela. It is interesting to look back and see how things have changed in education and connectivity over the last 25 years let alone the last century. I do see the advantages but also some of the disadvantages, especially the face to face disconnect that I am seeing every day. Will we regret this? I guess this is what your grandmother alluded to.
    I posted in Facebook today about how digital learning is not on a level global playing field. Something that could be problematic if not handled carefully. Some would argue that the field has never been level but the rate of change is such that those unable, technologically or financially, to keep pace are continually losing ground.
    This is not an argument to slow progress, rather an appeal to realise that in this perceived era of global connectivity there are many people across the globe that are not yet connected and this divides the world into digital and non digital societies. I am not clear what the ultimate consequences of this divide will be but I have a suspicion that it will be negative.
    An example of the consequences can be demonstrated here in Wales where businesses look to invest in areas of ultra fast broadband connectivity and ignore those with slow connectivity which impact on employment opportunities and of course things such as on line courses. This is partly down to the topology of Wales but also the tendency of the service providers to install fast broadband where they get a higher return on their investment. Of course Wales is far better connected than other parts of the world.
    This link of what we call NotSpots is out of date but demonstrates what I am saying.

  4. The digital divide is a big issue. There will be lots of consequences, and I was thinking about it in relation to Ary's blog about post humanism. This is another way in which we may divide in societies through technology: human and cyborg perhaps.

    There is also the concept of the myth of progress, which ties in to rate of change I mentioned in the post. This is an interesting thing to consider, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idea_of_Progress In particular the myth part! and also this one in relation to science. http://arantxa.ii.uam.es/~alfonsec/docs/end.htm Not sure I agree with everything, but it is good to stand back and view our culture from a distance and consider some of of beliefs about science, technology and progress.

    There is a body of thought that sees that technology will not create new divisions, but that the digital divide will merely replicate the existing social stratification.

  5. Angela, you remind of the early days of my own experience in learning to collaborate using these very new technologies. We were not at global scale since it was an interagency wide area network but the sense of adventure, of being a pioneer, of breaking down boundaries with other like-minded individuals was exhilerating. All pioneering adventures wind down at some point which is why I'm excited about the next horizon with #edcmooc. What we learned from our pioneering adventures was that the technologies were not the center of the universe. Rather the behavior of collaboration needed to be taught in conjunction with showing (exercising) the tools that could expand that behavior. Our instructors now help our employees understand how they network before the class and how the tools can help them network more effectively.

    In terms of a digital divide that Nigel mentions, I would like to point out that the divide may not be where you think it is most likely. There may be a lack of broadband throughout the world but it may not really be relevant except to the first generation of internet users who grew up "wired" to a desktop computer. Wireless and associated devices are starting to change our wired existence but there is little reason at the moment to give up wired computing for wireless. However in the developing world, they have skipped a technology generation and are connecting in ways we don't understand because it's almost too low tech but highly mobile. And that is changing cultures such as mobile banking in Africa (certainly with associated risks but new opportunities) or quasi-open microblogging in China about corruption that is leading to some change. There is an older book that I really enjoy by William Wallace on Techno-Cultural Evolution. The premise is that we create the technology and the technology recreates our cultures. Sadly the book was published in 2004 so there is really nothing about this explosion of connectivity.

  6. I'm interested in where you are working Kelcy, and if there is a different mindset for employees you mention, than students. If a collaborative environment is both encouraged and required, is this is different to one that you are trying to foster for students who are more self driven/centred? I have just spent a couple of days at the beach with a friend who is in climate research, in the academic environment and we talked a lot about this. My experience is that in many areas of academia, things are slow to change. Collaboration is very measured and done through necessity rather than a more open and genuinely cooperative environment. Sharing comes only after publication.

    I am reading a book called, Meaning in Technology (Arnold Pacey), published in 1999 and it could have been written today, same principles even though we were not connected as we are now. In fact I hadn't looked at when it was written when I started reading, an was surprised how old it actually was. Goes to show, many principles of human/technology interaction are similar, regardless of the technology.
    I haven't really paid much attention to the digital divide, but I do believe it to be complex. I get a bit behind when my broadband is slow, I'm at the extremity of the exchange, so often lagging in speed so I appreciate when it is to be digitally disadvantaged, even if only a little bit. Nigel's post is an opportunity to think about it.

    1. Angela, I'm an intelligence analyst working for the US Department of Defense. My job is to look at new and emerging technologies to see how they can help us do our job better. But that includes identifying and helping develop or modify the tradecraft or practices that might be needed to work with the new technologies. Then I work with the instructors to see what training needs to occur - buttonology (how the applications work) is always necessary but it's more important to understand why the technologies are relevant and to figure out how that technology can be used across many mission areas.

      In terms of the mindset of employees versus students, I think there are a number of factors but students don't have the same incentives (keeping a job, potentially life threatening actions like law enforcement or combat operations, humanitarian assistance,etc). I'm not trying to trivialize what students do but their job is learning. Employees from any field include both learning and doing. Sometimes you are learning on the job and sometimes you can take a moment away to learn. Military training which is what I support at times is solely for the purpose of preparing defense employees (military and civilian) to defend the nation in whatever field they do.

      Change is as slow in the government as anywhere else. All governments are deeply hierarchical bureacracies that resist change. However, there are times when change occurs swiftly because it means lives saved like in humanitarian support to Haiti or Japan. Global collaboration and crowdsourcing was key in helping in those two areas that were not dependent on one country. Volunteers around the world helped map out the crisis in those two countries when other resources were not readily available from any country.

    2. You must have some fascinating perspectives Kelcy! It is a shame that we are constrained by how much we are prepared to type and other limitations of this form of conversation. I'd love to have a face to face chat about your understanding of some of the themes we will be exploring in the course. I guess your understandings will come through in your blogs and the other discussions we will have. What you have written here I find very interesting, thanks.

      In my business ( the non academia one) I find technology is employed on a kind of "need to know" basis, and for expediency toward desired outcomes. Everything is efficient, but our employees are reluctant to invest time in getting to know tools other than to do the job, and that is usually minimal time and energy. And they still have to do it if they don't want to because that's their job.

      Academia on the other hand is hugely exploratory, inefficient and...frustrating! As well as bureaucratic. As for students, I think our edcmooc student sub group may well be quite extraordinary in its makeup and behaviour. Teachers to guide and enthuse us and people like yourself and others from diverse and interesting backgrounds and this very strong desire to use the medium to engage and learn pre course. We are not normal students!

  7. I agree with Nigel. I can give an example from personal experience. I get more freelance projects now that I am in Scotland than when I was in India...continuous net connection and speed are big factors when projects are awarded. Many people from India lose out on opportunities due to slow connection speed.