Friday, May 3, 2013

Quantum Random Walks and MOOCs

If Reality is an emergent property of the zone of engagement between the Knower and the Real, then what does that say about education in general and educational practices such as MOOCs in particular?

I think I should draw out some of the implications of this arrangement: a zone of engagement between the Knower and the Real. Most of the Real is hidden from us, both because it is beyond the horizons of possible engagement and because there is more Real than we can engage even within those horizons. Still, there is plenty of Real that we can know (we won't run out), and we are ever extending our horizons through technologies that allow us to engage more and more. So there's lots to learn, even if we can never learn it all. That's extremely good news, I think. A fine gospel for educators. Our vocations, if not our jobs, are secure.

That's our status in terms of the Real, but what about Reality, or the stuff that we can engage and can know, the stuff that "resists our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, or mathematical formulations" (Manifesto, 20)? Do we know all of that? This seems to me a tricky question. The first glib answer is that, of course, we don't know all of Reality, but I immediately want to counter that while I or you alone don't know all of Reality, maybe we do. Is it useful to define Reality as the sum total of what humans know and have known? I think so, and I think it points us to a most useful feature of MOOCs.

It seems to me that MOOCs, especially of the Connectivist variety, help us to approach the question of what we know rather than what I know. This is an important question because it undermines traditional education and its strict grading economy: 1 student = 1 grade, no cheating.

As electronically networked entities, MOOCs function similarly to quantum walks, a concept I first heard about in MIT quantum computing engineer Seth Lloyd's talk on Quantum Life, or how organisms have evolved to make use of quantum effects. At one point (11:50), Lloyd asks how photosynthesis can be so efficient (about 99%) when a photon that strikes a leaf must go through a maze of molecules to find the central photosynthesis processing unit. Apparently the photon engages in some very special kind of quantum multi-tasking, or quantum superposition, called a quantum algorithm. I don't have the science and mathematical knowledge to go into the details, and as Lloyd notes himself, even quantum scientists find superposition counter-intuitive, but basically the photon is able to explore all pathways at once, quickly locating the correct path to bliss.

For me, a better, more manageable, image of quantum walks is how bees search for a new hive. The bees start from the hive and then search all paths (approximately) at once, bringing back reports about each path, which is subsequently processed by the hive. This is what MOOCs can do, and this is what makes them so powerful, at least for me. Like bees searching for a new hive, MOOCers can begin in the middle with a given curriculum, but then they fan outward making a thousand different connections at once before bringing that new information back to the MOOC. Rather than exploring the single path of a single instructor, a functioning Connectivist MOOC explores nearly all paths at once, making connections to more knowledge, more contexts, than any single instructor, even a really bright and gifted instructor, can make. In other words, like bees in a hive, MOOCs use a process something like a quantum random walk to search all paths (approximately) at once, aggregate that knowledge with something like GRSShopper, and thereby create actionable knowledge available to the entire MOOC.

I like this image. For me, it captures some of the best of what happens within a successful Connectivist MOOC. This is good stuff.
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