Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

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