Monday, October 18, 2010

Gaps Between Galaxies: Learning in MOOCs

(I started this post, then published it unfinished. My apologies to any who saw that unfinished, briefly published post. I know better.)

I involved myself in a wonderful conversation over at Dave Cormier's blog about #PLENK2010 and PLEs, and I want to reflect on that experience and draw some lessons for myself. Also I want to move my comments back to my blog and not clutter Dave's blog, though the links are still here if anyone wants.

First, I think that such conversation is among the best things that can happen in a MOOC (massively open online course) such as PLENK 2010. The organized sessions and the prepared spaces on the wiki are also quite beneficial and educational, but nothing quite matches the spontaneous learning that happens in these open web spaces. Deep space, the gaps between galaxies, that's where the best learning is for me.

As often happens in such conversations, we conversants formed some agreements and some disagreements. While I found the agreements satisfying and validating [I'll have to explore later the role of agreement in supporting knowledge formation], I found the disagreements more stimulating, as they forced me to look again at my thoughts. I think that agreement can sometimes close a discussion too early. The main complaint that grabbed my attention was that Dave and I were engaging in a bit of hand-waving and loose talk about the nature of PLEs, which I interpret to mean that we had slipped into arcane, esoteric pedantry at best or into sloppy writing at worst. So I looked back at the conversation and found that it still struck me as relatively clear writing (writing can ALWAYS be clearer) about an important issue. So what was I to make of the complaint? Why did three seemingly bright people NOT see the same issue in the same way, consider the same evidence and arrive at the same conclusions?

It occurs to me that this is a fine illustration of the kind of rhizomatic learning that I have been trying to talk about. Let me explore this with the help of a metaphor: people and groups as galaxies. PLENK 2010 is a massively large galaxy (a rhizome) composed of 1,500 people, massive content, the Internet, computers, languages, theories, and so on. I visualize it as a galaxy not from on high, as a god might, but from the inside, as I do the Milky Way. Moreover, each of those 1,500 people and other points of light (content, Net, etc.) is itself a galaxy just as large as PLENK 2010, or larger.

To my mind, this is not loose talk. This metaphor is quite pointed (in the complex way that all metaphors are pointed) in addressing a misconception that most of us struggle under: what Edgar Morin calls the simplified thought of reduction and disjunction. We are in the habit of speaking of people or knowledges as single things, closed units, when we know that they are not. Each person is a complex constellation of physical and mental points, each of which is also a complex constellation of yet other points, and each of which is a point within some other complex constellation of points. This is a fractal, complex way of envisioning reality, and it is quite scientific and hard-headed. Quite concrete. And yet quite foreign to the way we've been thinking for the past several hundred years of scientific positivism and reductionism.

Actually, this complex view of people and classes seems to account best for the confusion many expressed when first trying to engage PLENK 2010. They seemed to view PLENK 2010 as a massive field of stars, a galaxy, that at first seems like so much white noise, an undifferentiated background. They frantically look for a Northstar to get their bearings, and if they don't find one, they panic. This is where Dave Cormier's advice about clustering comes in handy. When approaching a new galaxy, we must pick a point of light or two and map to those to see if there is a match to any points in ourselves. If not, we move on until we find some points that map. We then connect with what we can recognize. We anchor to a couple of points of light: to people, concepts, theories, or interesting conversations. It hardly matters what so long as we anchor. If we never find those anchors, then we fall away (as many seem to) and turn our attention back to the other galaxies (rhizomes) to which we are already linked: work, family, etc. etc.

But if we can and do anchor, then we change the galaxy, the rhizome, to which we anchor. In this case, we change PLENK 2010. As we come to know it, map to it, it comes to know us, or map to us. We change the group, and the group changes us. To use other metaphors, we exchange energy and DNA and fluids. Or as I said so loosely before: “The individual learns from the environment, and the environment learns from the individual. In the interplay, they shape and reshape each other, learn and relearn from each other, teach and reteach each other.” This is precisely what happened in this conversation on Dave's blog. This happens all the time among cells, and it happens to us as cells in a society, or a class. To quote perhaps too much from Morin:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. … This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically. Logically, the system cannot be understood except by including the environment. The environment is at the same time intimate and foreign: it is a part of the system while remaining exterior to it. … Theoretically and empirically, the concept of an open system opens the door to a theory of evolution, that can only come from the interaction of system and eco-system … In other words, it is a theory of living systems. (On Complexity, 11)
To my mind, then, education is a theory of living systems, and as such, it must include both the individual system and the eco-system, considered together as a meta-system, both dependent on the other and both autonomous. Morin is, of course, approaching his topic in the above quote from the point of view of the individual system (person, cell, star, whatever). Later, he adds that the eco-system cannot be understood except in terms of its included systems. In short, a learning theory must account for the individual system (the learner) and the eco-system (the world), and it must account for the complex interaction between the two, or among the many, to be more precise. It must account for the knowledge within the system and the eco-system and how the interplay (including the random and the black swans) within the eco-system changes the knowledge flowing in both systems and eco-system.

As near as I can tell, Connectivism has as good a chance of explaining this kind of complex learning as any learning theory that I know of, and that is why I'm attracted to it. Finally, it's this kind of complex learning that interests me. While behaviorism has taught me a few things about learning, in the end, if learning is no more than stimulus-response, then let computers do it. They don't get bored.

I suspect that I'll continue to write about this, but I have a paper to finish for publication. Later, scholars, and thanks for the wonderful ride. And special thanks to Dave Cormier and Scott Leslie.

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