Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Most Important Question (2)

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 27, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, January 27, 2010.

I respond to some requests for elaboration from the same person (who prefers to remain anonymous). His questions are in italics:

1. Is the issue that LMS's are driving instruction rather than professors? I have some interaction with an LMS at Queen's but in general it's been irrelevant to what I'm doing. As more of a constructivist handling an adult audience I'm concerned about things that matter to them.

Professors would probably say that it is. LMSs restrict what a professor can do, particularly if he or she is not tech-savvy. They then have to follow the default model, which is much more constraining than the open classroom.

But the LMS is only an early, and arguably out of date, technology (see the Google results form the 'VLE is dead' debate in Britain for a good example of this discourse). From the perspective of the student, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference if the professor tells them what to do or whether the LMS does.

In general, new technologies have had a liberating effect. But from the perspective of the managers, from whom people are being liberated, it has a constraining effect.

From a constructivist perspective, you can find LMSs (such as Moodle) designed from a strictly constructivist perspective. You may argue that it has been more or less successful, but it's clear the intent is there.

From my own perspective, I don't see constructivist methodology to be a whole lot more liberating than traditional instruction. Students still receive a great deal of direction from the instructor. They are not free to pursue an alternative learning methodology. This is especially the case when the students are younger, but still applies in adult learning.

2. When you refer to management, do you mean the content of learning or the mode, pace and timing of its delivery? I assumed the latter but thought it was wiser to check.

I mean all aspects of learning, from the definition and selection of subject, to the application in a practical or learning context, and to the mode, pace and time of delivery.

In this regard, it may be useful to create a taxonomy defining the extent of what constitutes 'management' in this context. Because historically a great deal of management has remained in force (for example, the selection of subject matter) simply by redefining it out of the scope of 'learning management'. But in general, if a decision is made, then in my view it constitutes an aspect of 'management'.

3. I am sympathetic to Freire and also to Gramsci (cultural hegemony) and agree that corporate interests will attempt to penetrate universities even further. Is there any way that ed tech can return control to professors and/or to learners in groups or at least those virtually connected?
I don't really see the benefit of returning control to professors, except insofar as this extends to their own research and learning. This though amounts to a negotiation of working conditions, and is consequently a wider issue.

With respect to control over student learning, my own inclination is to allow professors only a minimum of control, ideally none (though it is again part of the research question regarding how much, and under what conditions, learning can occur absent professorial control).

My own feeling is that it may be more useful to discuss the role of the professor in a learning environment, rather than to talking of returning control. If the discussion is framed as one in which professors and corporate interests vie for control over student learning, then we have by stipulation defined out of the frame the idea that the student might control his or her own learning.

What sort of role might be contemplated? I have in the past suggested that this role amounts to modeling and demonstrating the values, abilities and behaviours desired in the student; the idea is that the student (voluntarily) looks to the professor (or, indeed, any professional, or any other person of higher esteem) as an example worth emulating and following; the student learns by attempting to emulate, in an active and reflective manner, the exemplary model.

Another frame you have set: a choice between giving control to professors, or to learners in groups. This is perhaps a preference for social constructivism showing through. Many people argue that learning is inherently social. I think that if you are attempting to learn social behaviours, then you will want most to practice in a social environment, in order to support authentic learning. And many disciplines, even those we see as overtly scientific, such as chemistry, can be defined not simply as a body of content to be retained but rather as a set of values, skills, beliefs and ways of seeing in the world learned and demonstrated as learned effectively by participation in a community.

But there is nothing inherent in learning itself that says that this should be so, and so there are many types of learning, and aspects of learning, perhaps best undertaken by a person working alone. The models we learn from need not be human. There is, for example, a long and viable history of learning from, and studying, and emulating, nature. Much of my own learning takes place in this way. Other forms of learning even in social contexts may be supported not by interaction, but simply by observation.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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