Distributed Learning – Stephen Downes

As anyone reading my work-related writings would be aware, I am a big fan of Stephen Downes and his insightful, well-reasoned, beautifully articulated thoughts, his prolific writing, aggregating and commentary, and his willingness to share his thoughts (verbal and visual) with the world. There is something reassuring about having someone articulate many of the things are circulating in my own mind, even if I don’t always share Stephen’s point of view on the role of institutions and educators. I have never directly communicated with Stephen but I feel some affinity with him through my interactions with and engagement with his writings and because he is Canadian and I spent a few years living and working in Canada. I very much miss the OLDaily posts – these came to be my main source of EdTech web resources because nearly all the material of interest to me that I found through my own RSS aggregation came to me via OLDaily as well. I miss OLDaily because I am lazy, and I prefer to have a filtered information source that I trust than build my own (for EdTech). But I am also aware of a person behind OLDaily, and I wish that person all the best in his search for meaning and thank him very warmly for the contribution he has made to my understanding of online learning and educational technology and for the richness of the web resources he has shared with us. The degree to which I feel I “know” Stephen through his web personality is an interesting lesson in building online communities, concepts of identity and trust, and peer review in Web 2.0. My view of Stephen has built up over 3 years of reading his work and following his line of thought and as importantly, seeing who and what he links to and who and what links to him.

I listened to Stephen’s recent podcast from Tennessee, and for me it was yet another example of Stephen articulating precisely the view of the world I have been trying to capture:

“We often hear that it’s not about the technology – it’s about the learning … technology is a means to get to the learning …
but actually, it’s not about the learning either …
Learning is a means to an end, and we don’t know what the end is – it is different things for different people.
What is it to have a good life, to be engaged in a life, to have a happy life? Learning is the just the thing we do to try to get ourselves to have a good life, a happy life … a productive life – well that’s another thing.”

Stephen then asks how we should judge the quality of learning if it’s actually about leading a good life. Not by relying on empirical studies, not by looking at educational outcomes from interventions, not by benchmarking etc … if we are trying to live good lives, what would be the test for this? Possibly the most relevant question is whether or not we are happy.

Stephen then comments in passing that he is talking to the wrong people – he is talking to people who are heavily invested in traditional online learning and educational technology – it is their bread and butter, their livelihood, and he is saying to them – “this won’t work because it is not what people want”. The evidence for this is that when people really want to learn something, traditional online learning is not what they do.

[Note – I started writing this two weeks ago while Stephen’s actual words were fresh in my mind, but never quite finished working up my notes … I remember that the thing that particularly resonated with me is the fact that people who are heavily invested in educational technology are not easily going to hear the message that they are “doing it wrong” … yet paradoxically they continue to ask for “expert input” from people who are trying to tell them exactly this. The educational technology community is relatively small, and it seems we are all assumed to be pretty much on the same side despite our strong differences of opinion voiced fairly clearly. I don’t really get it. So I’m at some level relieved that maybe Stephen doesn’t get it either.]

Below is my summary of what Stephen was saying:

Traditional institution-based online learning is product-based, based around “learning content”, learning objects / learning resources. The emphasis is on course content. LMS were maybe a necessary step – a link between traditional learning and the online world, but now need to move on to Web 2.0 (name is a fad, but model is here to stay).

We need to be able to slot in new things as they become available – this is not just a technology perspective, but is an organisational and administrative issue. Ask yourself the question: could you add something that happened last night into your course today? (Yes, probably …) But could you not just discuss it, or note it, or use it as an example, but actually give credit for it? If a new technology was invented overnight, could you use it in your LMS tomorrow? Even if the technical and licensing constraints allowed for it, would the organisational / administrative structures allow it?

In contrast to an LMS (content-delivery) view of the world, Stephen discusses Learning Networks – instead of educators providing a service to people directly, they will be providing a service to enable people to provide that service to themselves. Education is not about the content – content is the medium of communication. If education is about engagement and practice, content is the mechanism we use to get people to this point. Web 2.0 embodies the concept of Learning Networks – the web has changed from a place we go to consume media to a place we go to do things. To elaborate further: where the web is a broadcast medium, Web 2.0 is a platform; where web pages were documents, Web 2.0 is a word processor; where the web was a “read” medium, Web 2.0 is a “production” medium. The web is now a place to produce content. The content doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be good enough.

The idea that good is good enough is not to suggest that there is no requirement for quality in education – rather, it emphasises that quality in education relates to learning quality rather than content quality and improvement in educational outcomes relates non-trivially to what is currently available. Stephen came to eLearning from a remote environment where the choice was not between good eLearning and good classroom teaching, but between eLearning and nothing. “Good enough” is really good when compared with nothing. eLearning is more about access than quality – there needs to be a minimum quality of course, but the important factor is access not quality.

Learning content after “the age of content” begins to look more like the pixels in an image which allow you to recognise the picture as a visual representation of something – learning content (eg blog posts, video, images, animations) allows you to form a picture of the phenomenom you are trying to understand. Learning content is scattered over the web in the form of user-generated content and you can pull it together dynamically as you need it – the picture painted and its usefulness changes over time but the importance of an individual piece of content can be viewed in the same way as the importance of any individual pixel in the overall image.

In Web 2.0, learning takes place not in institutions, but in social networks and communities created by and for the learners themselves, eg Yahoo groups, special interest groups. Content goes into the web where it is aggregated, remixed and distributed to other people, but increasingly, there is no need for professional intermediaries. Scott Wilson’s picture of a personal virtual learning environment built from currently available web technologies and services is so much richer and more dynamic than an LMS – it taps into all sorts of resources using protocols and APIs that allow distributed resources to talk to each other.
Future VLE diagram

The guiding principles of protocols and APIs are simplicity and flexibility. Stephen makes the point that protocols rather standards are the way to go – institutions and corporates try to exert control via standards, which have to be used exactly as they are written whereas protocols, which can be used how they are written, or can be used differently allow for greater freedom and autonomy, and only become a mechanism for sharing information if people want to use them,ie if sharing is important to them for whatever reason.

The internet is no longer (never was?) about consumption, but about interaction with a community – the dynamic network of interactions within the community provides the meaning and semantics of what we do. There is a lot of work on the structure of social groups, and we don’t need to rely on professionals to produce our materials – knowledge created by a community of amateurs will be better than content created by “professional content creators” such that the objectivity of wikipedia is produced specifically by not requiring it – people want objectivity, so that’s what they end up getting.

So we have Web 2.0 – what does eLearning 2.0 (based on Web 2.0 technology) look like? I have copied an image from one of Stephen’s powerpoint slides to illustrate this:

Resource profiles
Resource production
Resource repositories
Resource syndication from repositories
Resource aggregation
Digital Rights Management (in the form of credit for ownership rather than signing away your firstborn child)

eLearning 2.0 resource model - Stephen Downes

We don’t need recording specialists or production houses to produce educational content – there is a huge volume of content being produced to replace traditional educational content.

How do we determine whether new educational technology is connectivist or “old” (Web 2.0 or traditional web)? Here are four criteria to consider:

1. Autonomy
Does it allow people to using the technology to be autonomous? Can they make their own decisions, configure their own environment, user their own services, create and structure their own content?

2. Dependence
Does it force people to use a particular software program, a specific data format, a particular resource provider?

3. Diversity (not of the usual socioeconomic variety)
Can you use different programming languages? Can you use different types of computers and devices to access content (eg iPods, desktops, phones)?

4. Openness
Can you add content to the system? Is content provision restricted to a privileged few? Can anyone get content from the system or do you need to be a subscriber or are you required to sign a licence in your own blood? Does it help people communicate with each other? Does it help people make the kinds of connections which are the kinds of things people look for not from an “education” but from a life worth living?

Downes Educational Theory
A good student learns by practice, practice and reflection.
A good teacher teaches by demonstration and modelling.
The essence of being a good teacher is to be the sort of person you want your students to become.
The most important learning outcome is a good and happy life.

After listening to this podcast and looking over the many articles written by Stephen Downes over the past few years, I am becoming a bit more confident that my serious difficulty in producing an (overdue) report on LMS Governance is not because of incompetence or slothfulness on my part or that of my colleague, but rather from the Douglas-Adams-esqueness of the task …

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

I suspect that the people who commissioned our report will be similarly displeased by an answer like “42”, but I’m not convinced they wish to know how we arrived at that answer, let alone what the right question might be. The idea that LMS Governance is irrelevant because Learning Management Systems are irrelevant is not likely to be a popular view among those who have been champions of eLearning. The idea that it is not about the content, and it is not about ownership, and it is not about quality (given a certain base level standard) is also not likely to be popular an educational technology sector that has primarily focused on these things.

But the really serious bone of contention is probably more about reflecting on and understanding what it is that we do as academics and educators and learners. It is a humbling and sobering thought to realise that much of what we engage in as “serious teaching and learning” is actually incidental to the real learning process, and on mature reflection probably always has been. However this is best the subject of another post – for the moment, suffice to say that online learning is about creating a dynamic timely personalised transportable learning environments around the learner as part of a dynamic interacting learning network, not about restricting “learning content” to institutional LMS.

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