Towers of technology

Reda Sadki#DigitalScholar, Learning strategy

This came up in one of the Live Learning Moments in the first week of the Geneva Learning Foundation’s #DigitalScholar course:

This is for Reda: I’m very used to the Coursera/EdX kind of LMS and I’m finding it difficult to follow the course related postings and schedules on the digital learning community currently. I just feel that we are missing some structure.

This comment calls for reflection on the knowledge architecture of Scholar in relation to other technologies. In the first week of #Digital Scholar, we examined the architecture of the lecture and the classroom. I understand the yearning and the preference for a container view of knowledge, even though I believe the time has come to autopsy the discipline known as knowledge management. This view is reassuring because it is familiar. It mirrors the experience of mass industrial-age education that has shaped most of us. But does it correspond to the learning needs of today and tomorrow – and those that we are trying to address with #DigitalScholar by inventing a new method for the rapid, agile production of digital learning? Is learning a process or a product?

Scholar's Activity Stream

Scholar’s Activity Stream

What you are seeing in Scholar’s Activity Stream is learning as a process. It moves fast. There is no way to know everything. Learning to navigate becomes a key competency that you develop by doing. This is contrary to the views with which we were able to function in the past. But it models the fast-paced world we live, and it is not going to slow down. (George Siemens’s Knowing Knowledge remains for me the best explainer of what this means for learning.)

Now, I tend to be fairly agnostic about technology for learning. Basically, my conviction is that if you give a good learning designer a piece of string and an e-mail account, they can use these tools to enable an amazing learning journey. In fact, I have seen beautiful learning design compensate for the deficiencies of even the most broken, nightmarish corporate learning platforms. And I have friends and colleagues who have built amazing learning journeys on MOOC platforms or in Moodle. But to my mind they have had to work against the learning architecture of those platforms in order to achieve these.

In the MOOC platforms (and in many other similar learning management systems), the container view of learning is expressed by the curriculum. Sign in, and that is what you see: the content. Dialogue is buried in siloed discussion forums. If you are in one compartment, you may not see what is happening in the other. Furthermore, you may have a user profile but it is not really relevant to the course work. You exist only as an individual consumer, with an individual reward (the certificate). You may engage with peers in the forums, but that is mostly in response to specific discussion prompts. You consume content, and then get quizzed about your ability to recall it. Finally, when there is peer review, its purpose is to scale grading without needing tutors. You receive a grade, and then that’s it. There is no revision stage in which you are invited to think about the grade you received and what that means for your work.

In EdX, content transmission is center stage

In EdX, content transmission is center stage

In Moodle, you see the syllabus and, separate from that, a discussion forum. Dialogue is hidden from view, organized into one or more silos. Learners can submit work to the tutor or teacher, and then the assumption is that this teacher evaluates the work. This model requires more tutors for more learners. It is expensive to scale, and not very practical. Moodle replicates the classroom learning architecture. I understand that in the early days this may have been important to reassure professors exploring the use of technology that they could reproduce their behavior and keep the same habits of teaching. It is particularly ironic that, buried in Moodle’s documentation, you will find the claim that its design and development are guided by social constructionist pedagogy. That was a long time ago.

A linear sequence of assignments in Moodle

A linear sequence of assignments in Moodle

Philosophically, there is a distinction when thinking about what we mean by the democratization of education. Is it making learning technologies open source (Moodle)? Is it about opening access to content (MIT’s OpenCourseWare)? Or how about transmitting content from elite universities for consumption by learners who otherwise would have no access to it (EdX, Coursera)?

These are all important and significant. But there is one more, and it is fundamental. It is about recognizing the value of the experience and expertise of each learner. It is focused on dialogue between learners to foster network formation, that can happen around expert, curated knowledge but is equally likely to take place in relation to the learners’ own needs and context. It is about scaffolding the production of new knowledge that both individual and community can put to use. Individuals take responsibility for their own learning, but then learn from others as they are formulating feedback and inputs to their peers. Ultimately, it is about recognizing that every learner is also a teacher. And that teachers have much to learn from their learners – and this learning strengthens their role, rather than diminishes it. The expert’s value as convener, facilitator,and designer increases in a system in which the expertise of every contributor is recognized.

The most notable difference between Scholar and other platforms for learning is in the pedagogical model (Bill Cope’s and Mary Kalantzis’s 7 affordances of New Learning and Assessment) that underpins it.

Cope and Kalantzis 7 affordances of New Learning and assessment

Cope and Kalantzis 7 affordances of New Learning and assessment

Functions and features in Scholar are not dictated by a list of IT specifications but by this model. Everything in Scholar is about dialogue, not content. Content has its place: as an opportunity for discussion, reflection, and construction. Content is always shared in a network, whether that’s in the Community or in the more structured and private, safe space of Creator’s anonymous peer review.

For me, it was a Eureka moment in 2012 to realize how the use of Scholar would give me a new economy of effort to teach and learn. I had been struggling with trying to improve “click-through” e-learning modules that have limited efficacy and that people don’t finish even when it is mandatory. I have never finished a MOOC either. With Scholar, the opportunity to build something, especially if I can then use it in my work changed everything. I don’t know if your experience of this course will lead to the same epiphany. You may be attached to paticular tools and the ways of teaching and learning that they afford. Your practice or even your livelihood may depend on these. At the very least, I hope it will feed your thinking, learning, and doing on the tools and models you are using now, and how you are deploying technology to do new things in new ways, consistent with the needs and challenges of our times.