Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Buntine Oration: Learning Networks

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 08, 2004

This Journal A - Publications in Refereed Journals published as The Buntine Oration: Learning Networks in International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning Volume 1 No. 11 Online Oct 31, 2004. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

Text of the Buntine Oration, delivered to the at the Australian College of Educators and the Australian Council of Educational Leaders conference in Perth, Australia. MS Word version. MP3 Audio Recording.

Spanish translation by Diego Leal

00:00 Introduction

Thank you. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to address you here today. On behalf of the National Research Council and the people of Canada, greetings.

I am by vocation a learning technologist, a researcher, a sometime programmer, a speaker and writer, and a passionate believer in the value and importance of education. I am by education a writer and philosopher, a student as much of Wittgenstein as of Piaget, as much of Descartes as of Dewey. I am indeed lucky that by this time in my life my pleasures have become my pursuits; I often tell people that I do for a living what I would do for fun in my free time, if I had any.

As I prepared for this talk in my mind - because nothing would translate into writing - I prepared for this talk by giving a series of other talks across Australia, traveling from the Top End to Tassie, from the Red Centre to the Barrier Reef. I talked about leaning standards and learning object metadata, learning management systems, content management systems, the new student and old traditions, the affordances of technology, barriers to learning, open source and open access, knowledge management, knowledge generation, language, literature and new media.

I wasn't so much speaking as listening, not so much showing as searching. I am a student of learning technology, but learning technology is for me becoming increasingly empty.

I don't know if I found what I was looking for. But I did find this, nailed to the wall of a wooden building on the west coast of Tasmania:

"If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet, if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept the view than man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole - then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, and largely artificial world." Olegas Truchanas, 1971.

In 1971 I was in grade seven, in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world, and possibly at the very time these words were written, organizing my fellow students as we stood in a line to enter our class to put our hands on our heads and make clanking sounds like chains, the condemned. I do not regret my stint in the Principal's office for what was, after all, a political crime. But as I stood before this building in the wind and the rain in Strahan, waiting for my bus, I realized, that we have been and are doing the same thing to ourselves as we have to the trees and the forests, and that the same thing that will save Tasmania, will save me.

03:00 Learning Objects

In 1995 or so I found myself working for Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Manitoba, a small city of 40,000 people on the wheat fields of western Canada, working, on the one hand, to prepare college materials for distance delivery, and on the other hand, to prepare the college and the community for the advantages the internet would offer the world of learning.

At Assiniboine I built a learning management system, something we called OLe, short for `Online Learning Environment', a computer program designed for the World Wide Web that would be like an online learning manual, but better. And I had the idea that units of learning, what we called `modules', could be designed in such a way as to be reused in one course or another. Unknown to me, another Canadian, Wayne Hodgins, had had the same idea, and instead of calling them `modules' he called them `learning objects'.

Hodgins explained,

"My journey into this world of learning objects started with an 'epiphany moment' watching my children play with LEGO blocks many years ago... I began what has been more than ten years of refining a dream of a world where all "content" exists at just the right and lowest possible size, much like the individual blocks that make up LEGO systems." (Hodgins, 2002)

This early vision has undergone numerous changes since its inception, though the concept has remained the same. Learning objects are small bits of reusable digital content that can be used to support learning. How they fit together became terribly important, and so there was much debate about the correct analogy to use. Learning objects were thus more like atoms, for example. Or there should be things like data objects and knowledge objects, which would instead be combined to form sharable courseware objects. Hodgins himself abandoned the Lego metaphor, recommending instead what he called a multi level content taxonomy. (Hodgins, 2002)

The idea caught the attention of the educational community, and so while I was still at Assiniboine the first draft of the influential IMS Meta-Data Specification (IMS, 1999), describing the concept of the learning object in exquisite detail, landed on my desk with a thud. I printed it out and enthusiastically showed it to my colleagues and said, "This, this is what the next version of OLe will have to conform to." They looked at the inch-thick document and said something I will loosely translate as, "You've got to be kidding."

Despite their initial skepticism I was convinced and while I never did program an IMS compatible version of OLe, the idea, it seemed to me, was sound, and when a few years later at the University of Alberta I wrote the paper `Learning Objects' I had in my mind already well rehearsed the argument in favour of reusable digital learning content. It made no sense, I argued, to produce the same module in trigonometry or Shakespeare over and over again; the principles of mathematics and the language of literature were quite unlikely to change one year to the next.

06:00 Two Visions of Online Learning

For a while there I was completely in synch with the rest of the world. My paper was at the top of the Google listings for `learning objects'. And it had become apparent not only to myself but to the rest of the education technology community that learning objects would have wide applicability not only in distance learning but learning in general. And it became apparent not only to myself but to the community as a whole that the use of web based materials would change the nature of teaching itself, that teachers would, as the old saying goes, become a guide by the side instead of a sage on the stage.

I had this vision, you see, that the use of learning objects would, in effect, make learning content seamlessly and effortlessly available not only to all students, but to all people in the world who wished to learn, and that the portability and reusability of learning objects meant that we could develop an educational environment where students were not marched in lockstep through a predefined curriculum but instead could have the freedom and capacity to explore the world of learning according to their own interests and their own whims. Learning, genuinely free and accessible learning, could be produced and shared by all.

I may have been in synch with the rest of the world, but it would not last long. While I was thinking of what the educational system could become, the network of publishers and software developers and educational institutions that developed around the concept of learning objects had a very different idea.

Here's what it would be. Learning resources would be authored by instructors or (more likely) publishing companies, organized using sequencing or learning design, assigned digital rights and licenses, packaged, compressed, encrypted and stored in an institutional repository. They would be searched for, located, and retrieved through something called a federated search system, retrieved, and stored locally in something called a learning content management system. When needed, they would then be unpacked and displayed to the student, a student who, using a learning management system, would follow the directions set out by the learning designer, work his or her way through the material, maybe do a quiz, maybe participate in a course-based online discussion.

That's the picture. That's the brave new world of online learning. And honestly, it seems to me that at every point where they could have got it wrong, they did. And though I don't have a lot of time, I'm going to linger here a bit and draw out a few features of today's online learning. Not just to show in detail why I think they are wrong - through there is a certain pleasure in this - but to analyze why I think they went wrong, and therefore, where I think we ought to go instead.

I don't have the time in today's short talk to look at everything, but a look at three aspects of the new system should be enough to prove the point: content packaging, federated search, and learning design.

09:00 Content Packaging

Educational content has long been the domain of the publication industry, and while perhaps some professors felt that the new technology might result in a new type of publication, it is equally true that existing publishers believed they had discovered new markets. It is no coincidence that one of the earliest entrants into the field (and still an important player today), NetG, which introduced `NetG Learning Objects', is owned by Thomson publishing. Learning object metadata has been formalized as IEEE as 1484.12.1 Learning Object Metadata, and adapted by the U.S. military as a requirement for all providers as a standard called SCORM, or the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model.

In order to satisfy the needs of the publishing industry, the second specification undertaken by IMS was something called `content packaging'. The analogy between the digital package and, say, a book or a magazine, is obvious and deliberate. In this model, groups of learning objects are assembled to form courseware; this courseware is packed and compressed (or `zipped') and then sold as a bundle to an educational institution. The bundle is then delivered, either on a CD-ROM or via the internet, where it is loaded into a Learning Content Management System, to be routed for delivery to the student on a learning management system.

From my perspective, this model is about as far from the model of the internet as one could get and still be in the realm of digital content. It resembles much more a school library or a CD collection than it does the world wide web. It also resembles the way publishing companies view the sale of digital journal subscriptions and e-books, as prepackaged content, the use of which is tightly controlled, or of software, complete with encryption and registration, that has to be licensed in order to be used, and requires an installation process and close interaction with an operating system, in this case the LMS. And, of course, without an LMS, the learning content is effectively useless. You can't just view it on your web browser.

From my perspective, if online learning held the promise of reducing the cost of learning materials and opening access to all, this model effectively took it away. Even for educational institutions, the cost of entry is the purchase of an LMS and an LCMS. Although content could in theory be authored by school or college staff, the requirements of metadata, packaging and compressing entail the use of expensive authoring tools. There is moreover no effective way to share learning content with other institutions, no such thing as a web of learning objects, no such thing as a Google to help instructors find them. It is, quite literally, a separate internet, one which is likely to become more separate still.

12:00 Federated Search

Because learning objects are invisible to Google, there have been several projects designed to make them discoverable; for the last two years I have been involved in one of them, the eduSource project, based in Canada, which has as its objective the linking of collections of learning objects, known as repositories, to support what is called a federated search. In the e-learning world in general this has been the next new thing; IMS has released a Digital Repositories specification, and instead of Google operators of learning content management systems are intended to access these federated searches.

Without lingering on this for too long, let me say that a federated search is everything that Google isn't. With Google, information about every website in the world is collected in one place; the user accesses the Google interface and searches it all at once. In a federated search, the information - in this case, the learning object metadata - stays where it is, in individual repositories. When a person conducts a search, this search is sent to each repository in the network individually. Thus, if there are ten repositories in a federated search network, the search is conducted ten times, once on each repository, and the results are sent back to the searcher.

If this process seems odd and cumbersome, it is. In practice, the federated search over even a small number of repositories is significantly slower than Google. It is also exclusive; in order to be a member of the federated search network, it is necessary that a repository be able to support an instance of each and every search. It's like requiring that every website have the capacity of Google. But most importantly, it exercises control over the search results. Because metadata originates only from the source repository at the time of the search, access to the metadata can be blocked if, for example, the searcher does not have the appropriate license. Moreover, the only information about a learning resource to be had is that information provided by the vendor.

What Google has, that a federated search system by definition cannot have, is what I call third party metadata and what Google calls PageRank. In order to order search results, what Google does, essentially, is collect information about what other people think of the resource, and to incorporate that into its search. For example, Google counts the links from other sites to the resource in question, and if many people link to the resource, it is ranked higher. No such ranking is available to searchers in a federated search network; the only ranking possible is that provided by the vendor, and that is rather more likely to have to do with the vendor's business model than any third party information about quality, classification, usability or suitability.

15:00 Learning Design

In a learning management system, learning objects must be displayed to the student. In the world of learning objects the IMS way, learning is completely contained within the content package. The manner in which these objects are presented to the student is called Learning Design, and is the subject of yet another IMS specification.

Learning design follows from an earlier IMS specification called `Simple Sequencing', and the name of the former suggests the direction of the latter. Learning design has its roots in computer based training, and is essentially the definition of a set of interactions and activities that present materials to students based on their responses to things like tests or quizzes. The analogy employed by the designers of the Learning Design is that of the play, where learners take on various roles, and where the learning design document itself acts as a script, the learning management system as the director.

In other words, the model has become such that learning objects, insofar as they support learning, must necessarily come with specific learning objectives, in order to fit into the learning design. Indeed, the more explicit a learning objective is, the better a learning object is, because it can be used explicitly in this or that learning design. But as Wiley argues in his paper `The Reusability Paradox', the more specifically defined the learning objective of a learning object, the less reusable it becomes, until you get to the point where a learning object may be used by one, and only one, learning design.

Indeed, learning design and learning objects essentially amount to the same thing, because the paradox works in the other direction as well. In order for Learning Design, the specification, to work as advertised, it must control the selection and display of learning objects. But in order to do this, you have to know what objects you are going to select and display. A script has to have lines; it's not improv. So someone must select the set of learning objects to use in a given learning design, and to put this list in the learning design itself. This means that a new learning design must be authored for each unique learning objective.

Learning Design is, in my opinion, very much a dead end. A dead end not because it results in e-learning that is linear, predictable and boring, though it is that. A dead end not because it reduces interaction to a state of semi-literate yes-no, true-false multiple choice questions, though it is that. It is a dead end because it is no advantage over the old system - it doesn't take advantage of the online environment at all; it just becomes an electronic way to standardize traditional class planning. It's not cheaper, it's not more flexible, and it's not more accessible.

18:00 What Went Wrong

So what went wrong? I mean, it's easy to say that the systems are too expensive, the learning too boring, the search too cumbersome, the reusable objects too not reusable. What matters here is that I be able to explain why the existing model is inadequate, and how it differs from the model that is worth emulating, the one that I have suggested, and now say explicitly, is the model instantiated by the World Wide Web itself.

It has been observed many times that a new technology evolves in two stages. In the first stage, it emulates previous practice. Thus, for example, when movies were first introduced, they were essentially recordings of stage plays, with a single camera located in the position of the audience. Only later did we get multiple camera angles, zooms and fades. Similarly, the refrigerator began as the ice box, and only later did we get air conditioning, ice-cube makers, and an ice rink resurfacer known as the Zamboni. Early automobiles were known explicitly as horseless carriages, and only later did we get motor coaches, transports and interstate highways.

Online learning has evolved in very much the same way. The learning management system was designed explicitly to emulate traditional practice. The basic unit and structure of instruction remained the course; the basic unit of person remained the class, and for the most part, albeit with new technology, the time-honoured techniques of instructional delivery, interaction and testing were emulated in this new environment. If learning management systems imported anything new to traditional learning, they did so though migration from existing practice in distance learning.

We talked about the discussion of a metaphor for learning objects. But the idea of the learning object has drifted far from the idea of learning objects as atoms, or even of learning objects as Lego blocks. Indeed, on observation, it could be said that if any metaphor applies to learning objects, it would be that of the word in a sentence, the line in a play. The use of the learning object has become, in practice, not the combining of individual entities, but the arrangement of them, learning object metadata forming a vocabulary, learning design creating a syntax, content packaging assembling them into a book, federated search acting as a bookstore or (at best) interlibrary loan.

And if language is the metaphor, then language itself is the problem. For everything that language is - static, linear, structured, ordered, hierarchal - the internet isn't. We are locked in language. We are locked into the structure of language, the ordered, neat idea that language represents, the management, the organization, language as plan, language as structure, language as order, the world made neat, and tidy - the world made dull, uniform, and largely artificial. We must leave language behind, and forge our way toward something new.

21:00 Leaving Language

When I say that we must leave language behind, I mean it quite literally. Language must be replaced, is in the process of being replaced, by a mélange of multimedia, of a chaotic mixture of text and symbols, audio and video, of words and images, topics and theses, concepts and criticisms, not neatly stacked into rows and distributed through an orderly process of content management, but blasted aimlessly into the environment, a wall of sound and sensation, not written but presented, not read but perceived.

The idea is as audacious as it is breathtaking. But it is happening today. You have probably heard of the concept of the digital immigrant and the digital native. The idea that the digital native, one who was born with today's electronic technology, one who got his or her first mobile phone before his or her first pencil (if they got a pencil at all), one who is part of, as some characterize it, the "MTV generation." The digital native, we are told, operates at "twitch speed," multitasks, and - quite literally - thinks not in an orderly progression of thought but in multiple parallel threads, associating seemingly at random, communicating not so much through sentences and paragraphs as through a barrage of images and (something like) text.

It is difficult for us to imagine - but think for a moment of the cave paintings found on aboriginal lands here in Australia and in similar dwellings around the world. Why didn't they just write on the wall, "Don't eat the yellow part?" It is, of course, to a significant degree because these cultures were pre-linguistic. If they had a language, it wasn't the sort of thing that was functionally useful, not the sort of thing they could scrawl on a wall. Written language was invented, and the complex structures and characteristics that followed invented as well, and it began from a sense-based, pictoral representation of the world. And if we think about how such people must have thought their thoughts, it must have been quite literally in pictures, the linguistic capacity of speaking to oneself that cognitive theorists are so fond of talking about today either not used or not existing.

It is almost incomprehensible, but it is not beyond comprehension. We can, if we wish, learn to at least understand the language of the digital native, even if we are not able to speak it fluently. We can, as we understand the prehistoric, understand the future, by reading the artifacts. What unfolds is not only a new way of understanding the future, but a new way of understanding the world itself, and for us, as educators, a means of doing what we must, of preserving and propagating the knowledge and values of the past (and we have to do it right - we only get one chance).

24:00 The Blog

Our first artifact is the blog and the world of blogging.

Jorn Barger's original definition of a `weblog' reads as follows:

"A weblog is a webpage where a weblogger 'logs' all the other webpages she finds interesting. The format is normally to add the newest entry at the top of the page, so that repeat visitors can catch up by simply reading down the page..."

The weblog format simmered for a few years, growing in popularity but escaping widespread notice until the arrival of a weblogging service called Blogger. Consisting of little more than a title field and a text field, Blogger was simple enough for everyone to use, free, and popular. Thus empowered, the format grew to the point where there are some four million blogs published today.

If the format is what defines a blog, the author is what defines blogging. The thing about personal publishing is that it is irreducibly personal. What makes blogging work is not only its simplicity but also its almost complete lack of restraint on the authors. Bloggers are variously wildly opinionated or incisive and informed, long and rambling or short to the point of beyond terse, left wing, right wing, anarchist, corporate, or even collective. Blogs are, if nothing else, the voices of the authors; any order beyond that is coincidence.

Blogs today are written in text, but as access improves and better tools are placed into people's hands, we will see more multimedia. Already there are audio blogs and photo blogs. And similarly, blogs are written on the computer today, but this too will change. Already people can send SMS messages or emails to their blogs. They can ring up a number on their mobile phone and dictate to their blogs. Any thought worth recording - and many that are not - are being stored in blogs, in whatever format is available at the time.

To the post-linguistic, each of these blog entries can be thought of as being like a word in the new language. They are the basic units of thought. They are reflective of a vocabulary that is rich and expressive, subtle and nuanced. They are not ordered in sentences but are strewn wildly across the internet; viewed in the aggregate, they appear random, like static, like noise.

To return to learning for just a moment, when we think of learning objects we should be thinking of two things: that learning objects ought most properly to be thought of as though they were blog posts, and that the primary authors (or speakers) of blog posts will be, must be, the bloggers themselves. We can, and should, join in the conversation. But we cannot control it. Learning objects may be constrained, learning design preordered, their authoring cumbersome and their distribution controlled. Blogs are the opposite of all this, and that's what makes them work.

27:00 RSS

If I am going to commit myself to the thesis that blog posts are like the words in the new language, then it is reasonable to ask about the grammar of this new language. And the answer to that question is, in my opinion, found in the underlying structure provided by a type of XML called RSS.

Rich Site Summary, or RSS, was a technology created by Netscape. The idea of RSS was that a content provider - such as a newspaper or magazine - could list the new items on its website in a machine readable XML format so that Netscape's own program could retrieve that listing - a process called `harvesting' - and use it to design personalized pages on its NetCenter website. Users would create a NetCenter account, and then subscribe to those content providers they wished to read, and in so doing, design their own personal NetCenter page.

NetCenter did not, as Netscape had hoped, save the company, and they removed the NetCenter page, and even removed the RSS specification from its website. But by then a group of devotees - including myself - had taken hold of the idea, and RSS was reborn as an unsanctioned, unsponsored, unfunded and (for the most part) unused branch of XML, living on only in discussion lists that eventually became the `Syndication' and `RSS-Dev' groups at Yahoo Groups.

It was to this technology I referred explicitly when I wrote my paper `Content Syndication and Online Learning', promoting the idea that RSS could be used to syndicate learning resources into an online learning environment. Based on this idea, I built such an environment in a site called MuniMall. Designed as a knowledge, learning and information resource for the municipal sector in Alberta, MuniMall was not a course, was not structured, was not ordered. It was - and is, since it is now an indispensable part of that community - an open-ended learning environment, and is probably more like the future of online learning than anything we'll see in a learning management system.

RSS is the semantic web. It is not the official semantic web - as I said, it is not sanctioned by any standards body or organization whatsoever. But RSS is what has emerged as the de facto description of online content, used by more than four million sites already worldwide, used to describe not only resources, but people, places, objects, calendar entries, and in my way of thinking, learning resources and learning objects.

What makes RSS work is that it approaches search a lot more like Google and a lot less like the Federated search described above. Metadata moves freely about the internet, is aggregated not by one but by many sources, is recombined, and fed forward. RSS is now used to describe the content of blogs, and when aggregated, is the combining of blog posts into new and novel forms. Sites like Technorati and Bloglines, Popdex and Blog Digger are just exploring this potential. RSS is the new syntax, and the people using it have found a voice.

30:00 Edu_RSS

With this in mind, my own work in recent years has involved the development of semantic networks within the blogging and RSS networks. More specifically, what this means is that I have been using the existing network in order to collect, organize, and redistribute information. In a certain sense, what I have been building is the equivalent of an airport hub or freeway interchange, a place where many strands of the network come together, are reorganized, and redistributed.

What I have built is a system called Edu_RSS, a software program that harvests the RSS feeds from two or three hundred educational technology blogs, stores the links in a searchable database, and then, sorts the links into topics and redistributes the results as a set of topic-specific RSS feeds. Thus, for example, I have on my website a page called `learning objects' that represents, in real time, the collective contributions of several hundred authors, and yet is specific enough that it represents a very concentrated - and manageable - stream of information for the average reader.

Essentially, what Edu_RSS has become is a specialized content filter. It filters content in two ways. First, it filters content by selectivity. Our of the four million or so RSS feeds available, I have selected only a small number, only those relevant to my particular interests, from sources I think are reliable. Second, it filters by content. Each item is subjected to a semantical test - in my case, by matching it with a regular expression. Only items that match the expression are forwarded through the feed.

Edu_RSS also interprets data as it comes in. The world of RSS is unstructured - there are no fewer than nine types of RSS, numerous modifications and extensions, syntactic variations, and more. From this hodge-podge Edu_RSS extracts only the information it needs. If information is missing it supplies its own data. Part of Edu_RSS, a routine that analyzes mailing lists and creates specialized mailing list RSS feeds, actually constructs part of the RSS file by examining other data.

But for all that, the key to Edu_RSS is specialization. For all its power, it only tries to do this work for a small part of the internet. It is no Google; it is nothing more than a single node in a very complex network. What should happen, what is already happening, is that a large network of sites like Edu_RSS should emerge, forming in essence a second layer in the network. The result of this second layer is that the internet will self-organize, that information generated in a thousand or a million places will cluster, become composite, interpreted, specialized, and produce highly targeted, highly specific resource feeds at the output end.

Already the output feed for learning objects produced by Edu_RSS, even with a very incomplete input network, is probably the most authoritative news source in the world on the subject. No journal, no writer, no editor or formal publication, can match what Edu_RSS does, and yet it does it simply by drawing very naturally on the properties of the network. Academics, researchers and students who wish to keep up to date on the topic of learning objects turn to Edu_RSS first.

33:00 Order Out of Chaos

It should not be surprising that order emerges from a network of disorganized and disparate sources. Order emerges out of networks. This is how networks work, and that's why this is the grammar of the new language.

Order emerges out of networks because networks are not static and organized but instead are dynamic and growing. A network consists of a set of entities - called, variously, units or neurons, but which can be in fact anything from crickets to blog posts to bloggers. In a network, these entities operate autonomously and are only tenuously connected - as the slogan goes, small pieces loosely joined. They receive input from other entities to which they are connected, organize that input, and then pass it on - or as the slogan goes, `aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward'.

As I said, networks are dynamic. Connections come, connections go. A connection may be used a lot, and grow stronger. It may be unused, and grow weaker. Connections form for a variety of reasons - one way, one of the simplest, is Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb's principle of association. Two entities activated at the same time will tend to form connections with each other. Like attracts like. Clusters form, concepts emerge, and small worlds are created.

The type of network I described just now, the network of connected educational blogs created by Edu_RSS, is a type of network called a neural network. As the name suggests, it is a network designed to emulate thought processes. Whether the brain is itself a type of neural network remains subject to some debate, but as Edu_RSS illustrates, such a network can be developed to quite automatically obtain very specific results from very disorganized data. It is, quite literally, order out of chaos.

So where does this position us with respect to learning and learning objects?

The short answer is this: alongside Edu_RSS I have built a parallel system, the Distributed Learning Object Repository Network, or DLORN. It does exactly what Edu_RSS does, except that, instead of harvesting RSS feeds from educational technology blogs, it harvests learning object metadata from digital repositories. It is, in essence, an end-run around the federated search system, a way of collecting, recombining, and forwarding information about learning objects from a wide variety of sources.

DLORN is much less developed than Edu_RSS. Most information about learning objects is locked away. We need a blogger of learning objects, a simple and useful authoring system that lets staff, and eventually students, create their own learning resources to contribute to the common pool. And we need to rethink our definitions of learning objects, to move beyond static concepts, and to start thinking about learning objects as resources generally, not just textbooks and tests.

36:00 Learning Networks

The long answer involves rethinking what it is when we think about offering learning online. Instead of offering classes and courses, learning online ought to be structured along the model of environments, games or simulations. Writers like Seymour Papert and James Paul Gee talked about this, so I need not review their part of the argument. What I do offer to the discussion are the means and mechanisms for importing learning specifically into such environments.

Think of a learning environment as a space. If it is a space, then it can be thought of as a layer. It is, ultimately, the output layer of the learning network. Corresponding to points in this space, like stars in the sky, are the highly specific outputs of the learning network. Students are inhabitants who occupy this space. These outputs appear as features in their environment. Learning isn't something they go to, something they `do'. Learning is simply `there', a feature of the environment, to be used as needed.

Think further of the learning environment as a space, and it becomes clear that any space can become a learning environment. As access to the internet become ubiquitous, as our internet connection follows us, is available at home, in the community, on the job, it becomes clear that these output points may be located anywhere in the environment, whether that environment is Microsoft Word, a process control system, a grader or a fishing rod.

If, as I suggested above, we describe learning objects using the metaphor of language, text, sentences and books, then the metaphor to describe the learning network as I've just described it is the ecosystem, a collection of different entities related in a single environment that interact with each other in a complex network of affordances and dependencies, an environment where the individual entities are not joined or sequenced or packaged in any way, but rather, live, if you will, free, their nature defined as much by their interactions with each other as by any inherent property in themselves.

We don't present these learning objects, ordered, in a sequence, we present randomly, unordered. We don't present them in classrooms and schools, we present them to the environment, to where students find themselves, in their homes and in their workplaces. We don't present them at all, we contribute them to the conversation, we become part of the conversation. They are not just text and tests, they are ourselves, our blog posts, our publications and speeches, our thoughts in real-time conversation. Sigmund Freud leaning on the lamp post, just when we need him.

And if our words are worth hearing, they will become part of the common lingua franca, our culture and our knowledge, carried on in a new form through successive generations. We don't manage learning and control learning; we can't. We are but stewards.

39:00 Coda

You may not have seen some of the things I've talked about in this paper, things like learning objects, learning management systems, content packaging, federated search and learning design, but if you haven't, you will. Soon.

And you'll probably hear about them from a sales representative or network administrator or supervisor (if you hear from your students, it will be about blogs and RSS, iPods and online games, or if they're honest, file sharing networks).

And if the sales representative comes to you and tries to sell you an LMS or (worse) an LCMS, ask them why you have to pay them so much money for something the web and web browsers do for free.

If the sales representative tries to sell you online course and lessons, ask them whether it supports random access so students can use it when they want, even if they're not at school, or ask them where you can access the dynamic feed with daily updated content, or how easy it is to place images from the course content in your blog.

If the sales representative tries to sell you learning design, ask for the open ended improv version, the game outliner, the simulation editor. When he shows you the software, ask him where the student content goes in, ask him to show you the blog aggregator.

If you are asked to join a federated search network, ask the providers why are they afraid of the market place, what content are they keeping out, where the third party metadata is.

And when they speak of your students as human resources, knowledge workers, consumers or target markets, ask the sales representative if he remembers when he was a child, his mind a little network, small and fragile, but open and free, an ecosystem ready and wanting to support a jungle of diversity and growth.

Ask, above all, that our children be free.

Thank you.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jun 14, 2024 04:39 a.m.

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