Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinking Like Grass

Like most everyone else for the past six months, I've been thinking about MOOCs (note that on Susan Bainbridge's current Connectivism Scoop page, easily half of the scooped articles are about MOOCs (2nd note: if you are at all interested in Connectivism and MOOCs, then you should follow Susan's Scoop. It's invaluable, and I deeply appreciate her work.)). I've introduced a good friend of mine to MOOCs and Connectivism, and he read the things I sent him. He was interested in the concept, but he had two immediate concerns about MOOCs:
  • Social sharing can legitimize any kind of knowledge, like racism, sexism, imperialism. Without an ethical standard, knowledge is free to kill as well as to cure. (Which is not to say that traditional education is ethical—I don’t think it is. But there are other options.)
  • And the second is the danger of elitism. I don’t see my students getting very far in their rhizomatic education. (Which is not to say that they will get very far in traditional education either.) I guess I would call this feature the “appearance of democratic education.”
He concluded by asking if I have read "Morris' News from Nowhere—a late 19th-century British utopian novel" in which the citizens "have no theory of education at all, and no specific practices either." I have not read the novel, but I will—after all, turnabout is fair play, but I want to respond to Dan's concerns.

First, I have not thought much about the ethical aspects of Connectivism and MOOCs, nor have I read much about ethics from anyone else in the connectivist discussion, but I think Connectivism and cMOOCs have an ethical perspective built into the first O in MOOC: Open. MOOCs are open in any number of ways, but especially in terms of network connectivity. Anyone is free to connect to and engage a MOOC, and they will do so IF they perceive value in the connection. No one has to connect, and in fact, most of the people who sign-up for a MOOC do not engage the MOOC in any degree that might be significant to an observer—say a college administrator looking for the ROI. This should not bee sting as a bad thing. Rather, it should be seen as bee efficiency. Apparently, when bees want to move their hive, the scout bees fan out in all directions. Most of them find nothing, but a few find something, and through their connections, they channel the other bees into these promising pathways until finally the way to a new hive emerges. What starts as chaos (MOOCers will be familiar with this sense of early chaos in a MOOC) turns out to be a highly efficient way to create new meaning for the hive. Still, it's highly wasteful, like most MOOCs. Fortunately, the cost of each connection to a MOOC is almost nil, so the waste is functionally irrelevant. But the waste identifies quite efficiently those students who are in some way ripe for learning whatever emerges from the MOOC. Those who are not ripe simply fade away with little to no damage to the MOOC. I like this bee efficiency.

This openness to connectivity is an aspect of network dynamics, I think, and it has to do with a shift in the way value is created in a network as opposed to a hierarchical structure. In a hierarchy, one's relative value is measured by the number of people under one and subject to one. In a network, one's relative value is measured by the number of people willing to connect to one. This is an obvious oversimplification, but it points to a seriously different dynamic in the relationships among people in a functional group. The relationships in hierarchical groups are based more on power, benevolent or otherwise, while the relationships in network groups are based more on mutual attraction. Engagement or not is up to the agent, and this is a powerful kind of agency.

This radical shift in agency demands an equally radical shift in ethics. It seems to me that ethics for the past few hundred years has been based on the need to manage exchanges across discrete boundaries. In other words, reductionist thought makes each of us a position within a hierarchy—a "cog in something turning" as Joni Mitchell put it—with quite distinct boundaries between positions, or agents, and agency has been defined in terms of who gets to tell whom what to do and how to think and how to reward and punish those exchanges. This kind of ethics, this Lockean social contract, does not work if, as a node in a network, you have no fixed position, if you are free to engage or disengage connections, and if the connections depend on mutual attraction, as they do in MOOCs. We need an ethics of complex, multi-scale networks, which is partly how I define a MOOC. Perhaps such an ethics exists, but I don't know about it (any philosopher out there willing to enlighten me. I'm a fairly quick read.)

So I revise what I said earlier about connectivism having a built-in ethics. It doesn't. Rather, it seems to me that the openness of connectivism and its MOOCs calls for a new ethics based on a rethinking of agents, their boundaries, and their exchange processes. The ethics that works for an agent occupying a position in a reductionist hierarchy will not work for an agent acting as a node in a dynamic, complex, multi-scale network. The networked, connectivist agent needs a new ethics that guides the dynamic choices that help identify useful connections and cultivate those connections and eventually close some of those connections. To put this in MOOC terms, MOOCers need a new ethics that guides their choices about which MOOCs to engage, which agents and content within the MOOC to engage, and how to engage: how to both give and take value within their networks. Actually, I think give and take are the wrong terms, too strongly tied to the reductionist, hierarchical ethics with its exchanges across discrete boundaries. We need an ethics that helps us become value within a network, increasing the value of the network to the benefit of the entire network. I suspect, then, that ecological movements may be working out the details of the kinds of ethics that I'm looking for. I'll have to check into that.

This leads me to Dan's comments about elitism and that he doesn't see his "students getting very far in their rhizomatic education." If he means that, unlike elite students, most college students lack the internal motivation and skills to engage an open network of inquiry and discussion, such as cMOOCs, then he's probably correct. Aside from the graduate courses at elite universities, too much of our education is an exercise in what Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987) call tracing, a careful, meticulous repetition of patterns and truths already laid out for us in a curriculum and watched over by proctors keen on sameness and competence. Open cMOOCs call for mapping, or a process of "active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback" (Cheun-Ferng Koh, 1997). Thus, our students have learned to trace well, but they see no advantage in going outside the line, in mapping new territory for themselves or others. The last thing a successful student wants to do on a test is to tell the teacher something that she doesn't already know. That is largely and by default defined as failure. Tracing well does not prepare one for success in a MOOC. Actually, that skill frustrates both the MOOC and the student.

If, on the other hand, Dan means that in the open network of a MOOC a few students will attain more status and value than most others, then he is also correct. The power laws of scale-free networks express the strong probability that some nodes will be more well connected than most other nodes. This happens in every MOOC that I have engaged. Often, the teacher or weekly leader in a MOOC is a highly connected node, but I suspect that this is in some part residue from traditional education, in which the teacher is the ONLY well-connected node in the hierarchy (too often connections among students—talking—are censured and censored). In the best MOOCs, sub-networks develop as students connect to each other in their engagement of a mutually interesting and enriching discussion. MOOCs encourage this kind of networking within the network, and often enough, one or two nodes of those sub-networks gain more status, become elite, through more connections from other nodes. I do not see a problem with this, but I do think it is distracting to those students who are looking for the correct content to trace competently rather than for the new content to map usefully.

Finally, like Dan, I wonder if education can do without theory and practice. I think it can, but only if we are thinking of theory and practice as mechanisms for promoting tracing rather than mapping. When many first-time MOOCers move from tracing in the traditional classroom to mapping in a MOOC, then they feel a loss of theory and practice. They are disoriented. The lines drop out from under their feet, and this causes real stress and grief for many, which those students have expressed in blog posts, tweets, and feedback in many of the MOOCs I've engaged. And these are elite students, by the way.

So as with the call for a new ethics, I think MOOCs call for a new theory and practice in education especially, and I'm fairly certain that this new theory and practice will strike many of us as NO theory and practice. I think Deleuze can offer some suggestion here. I read an article by Xiao-Jiu Ling called Thinking like Grass, with Deleuze in Education? (Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, Vol 7, Num 2, 2009) in which Ling draws so tempting implications from Deleuzianal thought:
Then, what could Deleuze mean to the field of Education? My first temptation is to simply boldly borrow his phrase above and to propose thus: There is no need for education: it is necessarily produced where each activity gives rise to its line of deterritorialization. To get out of education, to do never mind what so as to be able to produce it from outside! [italics in the original] Perhaps, it is indeed a Deleuzian repetition that we can aim for in education, a kind of repetition that is a transgression, in which its possibility hinges on opposing as much to moral (nomos) law as to natural (physis) law (DR, p. 2-3). By working in opposition to the order of the always already-existing laws, in the spirit of parrhÄ“sia prefigured by Diogenes the Cynic, Deleuze is proposing new possibilities of working in the direction of creating artistic realities; that is, to treat philosophy itself as an artistic endeavour in its essential nature. And if one is to realize the fundamental role that education plays in forming our frames of thinking, that is, providing existing and always the dominant images of thought of our society in general, the relevance of Deleuze’s analysis and his “anecdotes” of philosophizing is hard to deny. Or, at least we are tempted to make this parallel: that if philosophy can be made fecund with the open-mindedness of an artist, then the work of education can also be made fertile through the exigency of treating it as an artistic engagement, something that not only demands creativity but more importantly a critical consciousness of the ethical dimension that is inherent in education. (43,44)
Well, let's talk about this some more, later.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WAC 4: ePortfolios

I have grounded my concept of a writing across the curriculum program (WAC) in connectivist theory: that knowledge and communication are network phenomena, a function of mapping and traversing complex, multi-scale networks. As Stephen Downes says in his post Types of Knowledge and Connective Knowledge, "connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections." To my mind, language is one of our primary tools for mapping and traversing these networks. Indeed, language is more than a tool—language is a fundamental part of the knowledge and communication networks themselves. Language is like DNA: it is the tool and instructions by which the organism/network emerges, it is part of the scaffolding of the emerging organism/network, and it is part of the maintenance system for the emerged organism/network. Language, like DNA, is woven into the very knowledge and communications that emerge from its play. It's a bit like making the blueprints and hammers and saws part of the house they are helping to build.

But this is still a very abstract concept that may not have an intuitively obvious application. A core, practical application in my WAC is the ePortfolio, an ideal application that fits nicely into a connectivist, network perspective. I'll say why, but first let me point out that I am not saying that ePortfolios are connectivist. A constructivist, cognitivist, or behaviorist can use ePortfolios as well as any connectivist, but I particularly like a connectivist take on ePortfolios. Here's why, and let me cite my source up front: Jonan Donaldson's article Digital Portfolios in the Age of the Read/Write Web in the current issue of Educause Review Online. Mr. Donaldson, an instructional designer at Oregon State University, says all of the things I want to say about ePortfolios and more, so I'm leaning on him heavily in this post.

The first key feature of ePortfolios is that they have emerged from the read/write web. I began using ePortfolios when the e(lectronic) in ePortfolios meant a PowerPoint burned to a CD. This was decidedly old-school and not very network aware. All that is changed, and now ePortfolios are best understood as a function of complex, multi-scale networks. This implies that all ePortfolios are on the open Web and not locked within some organizational silo and that they are owned and managed by the student.

Jonan Donaldson lists a number of affordances provided by ePortfolios:
  • ePortfolios help shift from teacher-centric education to student-centric education, as students become active producers of knowledge rather than passive consumers of knowledge. Rather than simply learning the eternal truth from their teachers, students use ePortfolios to create connections among their bits of personal knowledge and the people they encounter in school. This fits well with Downes' contention that "The very forms of reason and enquiry employed in the classroom must change. Instead of seeking facts and underlying principles, students need to be able to recognize patterns and use things in novel ways. Instead of systematic methodical enquiry,… students need to learn active and participative forms of enquiry. Instead of deference to authority, students need to embrace diversity and recognize (and live with) multiple perspectives and points of view." ePortfolios can provide the scaffolding for this approach to learning.
  • ePortfolios provide students with intrinsic motivation. As Donaldson points out, "Turning consumers of knowledge into producers of knowledge transforms learning into an active experience." Mapping networks is not a passive activity, and it requires some intrinsic motivation. Deleuze and Guattari make this clear in their distinction between mapping and tracing the rhizome. Traditional education is largely a matter of tracing which depends on extrinsic motivations such as rewards and punishments rather than mapping which relies on intrinsic motivations.
  • ePortfolios enhance student autonomy. Donaldson says, "Not only can students individualize the look and feel of their portfolios through templates and design options, they can also enjoy increased individualization of content and the delivery format of portfolio artifacts." ePortfolios let students "recognize patterns and use things in novel ways" and "learn active and participative forms of enquiry." In other words, it helps fit the knowledge to the student rather than fit the students to the knowledge. (Many may seem autonomy as inconsistent with networking, but this is a misunderstanding of networks. Each node in a network must maintain its own autonomy and integrity to perform its role in the network and to make the network what it is.)
  • ePortfolios enhance collaboration. Donaldson notes wryly that "it is often said that we learn best when we do, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that we learn best when we do together." A network demands collaboration and cooperation (in Downes' sense of the term) among its various nodes, and research shows that when students connect to (network with) a teacher, another student, or a community of practice, then they are more likely to stay in college and succeed.
  • ePortfolios enhance digital literacy, as Donaldson notes, "incidentally while tackling the learning objectives at hand." Students learn to recognize, validate, and use a wider range of patterns in different kinds of data and information (text, image, video, audio, number, and more), and they learn to orchestrate this data into coherent, appealing documents. These are incredibly valuable skills.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' digital image. Most of today's college students already have digital image that is unfortunately not under their control and not always positive. Building an ePortfolio helps the student to learn how to build a professional brand and why that brand is important. The online world is not going away, and our students must know how to navigate it and use its powers.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' 21st century writing skills. As Donaldson says, modern writing means "being able to create digital content that conveys information effectively for dissemination through websites, blogs, wikis, online presentations, illuminating graphics, audio content, and video content." This ain't your grandma's writing. Rather, this is the production of illuminated manuscripts: documents illuminated with image, video, sound, calculation, hyperlinks, and yes, text. ePortfolios help us learn this kind of writing, the kind of writing we will do in the 21st century.
I want to add to Donaldson's list that ePortfolios connect students to their communities of practice—first as students and then as fledgling professionals. Blogs, Twitter, RSS feeds, and more tools that can be aggregated on an ePortfolio help connect students to their personal learning networks and to their communities of practice. They connect to each other to get through school and then to practicing professionals to join a profession.

Finally, perfect WAC would include ePortfolios from the faculty and staff. I know of no better way to teach students how to build an ePortfolio than by building one myself.

Yes, ePortfolios.