Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Education as Platform: The MOOC Experience and what we can do to make it better

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 12, 2012

Presented to EdgeX2012, Delhi, India, March 12, 2012.

My name is Stephen Downes, I'm from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. New Brunswick is a small province on the eastern side of Canada, near the Atlantic Ocean. The entire province has about 800,000 people in it. The city where I live has about 140,000 people in it. So my experience of the world is a bit different from yours.

My experience of the world is very filled with birds and trees and trails and water and things like that, and it gives me a bit of a different perspective, and one that I enjoy. And it's a perspective I look at the world from when I travel, and I come to places like this, and I'm looking for what's familiar to me. I'm also looking for what's new. And I'm looking for ways of interacting, means of interacting, and mechanisms of interacting.

That's not what this talk is about but that's the frame or the perspective from which I'm speaking at the moment.

What this talk is about - it's called "Education as Platform" - is the idea of exploring some of the experiences we've had with massive open online learning, and exploring some of the criticisms that we've experienced, some of the criticisms that we've seen, and trying to understand what elements of the design are working and what elements of the design are not working, and to use this understanding to try to advance our perspective on the way online learning is proceeding and should proceed.

Now, a couple of caveats, and they're not in the slides, but I do want to bring these out, because George (Siemens) mentioned them a bit. One of the caveats is the idea of education as solving mobility problems, social problems, employment problems, poverty problems, and I think it works the other way around. I don't see education as being the means to solve these problems. I don't think it's an automatic thing. I know it's a really good selling point for education generally and online learning in particular, but I don't think that the root of social problems lies in a lack of education, and I don't think that the solution will be there.

If we look at the actual literature, there's a very strong correlation between poverty and educational outcomes. Solving poverty solves the problem of education, not the other way around. And that's my experience.

That said, education has a role, and a significant role, in the quality of life that people who are educated can have. A person can be out of poverty and uneducated and have a very poor quality of life, but I think it's very difficult to be educated and to have a poor quality of life. I think education creates ways of seeing, ways of doing, ways of becoming that are not possible otherwise. And these are the things that make a life worth living and make a person willing to work more diligently and more forcefully toward having that life.

I raise these considerations because the idea of the Massive Open Online Course, and the theory of connectivism that George coined the title for and that George and I and Dave (Cormier) and a whole pile of other people have worked together to create, is largely about self-education, is largely about how we create our own learning. And I think a big part of that has to be why we create our own learning, why we educate ourselves, what are the motivations here.

There's this thing about education being what is needed in order to get jobs. As though there's enough jobs at the end of it. And I think that's a fallacy. People respond - and this happens in our country - they respond to the doctor shortage by educating more doctors. They say, "this will solve the problem!" But they don't create new doctor positions. And so we've educated a hundred doctors and still have a doctor shortage after because nobody's paying for doctors.

And George mentioned robots. I love robots. I think robots are really cool. But I'll tell you: robots take jobs. And more and more we are in an environment where the machines are the productive entities in society. And that's true not just in Canada; it's also true here. And it's true not just in manufacturing but across the board: in agriculture, in education, in government.

George talked about learning analytics. Learning analytics is using machines to count numbers instead of using people as we used to. So we have to come to grasp, as educators, with the reality that education is not going to change that. And that if we are educating people for jobs that don't exist, then we're not being honest with our students. And that the problem of wealth and distribution in society isn't going to be solved simply by educating.

George made some interesting comments about disruption in education and was saying that some of the new programs, the new initiatives like Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, and others, are not disruptive enough. I think he's got that right. And what we've tried to create with the massive open online course is something that is, as he said, transformative, something that takes what we know of as education, sets it aside, and rebuilds it for a world that is dramatically changed, complex, changing, difficult to understand, difficult to comprehend, difficult to work in. And what we've created is called the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course.

There's been a number of MOOCs over the years. We claim - and I think it's a good claim - to have created the first MOOC, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008. And it was very recursive because the topic of the course was how to create courses that are about that course kind of topic. So it was a course that studied itself. And that's the perfect kind of course, for some things.

There has been a variety of other MOOCs. Rita Kop and I did a MOOC on critical literacies. Jim Groom has done a MOOC on digital storytelling; he's done that a few times. Dave, George and I (and Rita) have done Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge. Right now we're going the Change Online MOOC, where each week we introduce participants to a leading figure in educational technology. There have been the MOOCs by Stanford University on artificial intelligence.

What's characterized these MOOCs most of all has been the large number of participants, and that's something that makes it very interesting. In an environment where you need 60, 160, whatever it is, new universities, being able to offer an education to thousands of people at the same time using relatively straightforward technology is something that's very attractive.

Probably the major defining feature of the MOOC, and certainly the place where we started, is the fact that it is open. Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I'm going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure.

It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you'd be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don't have that infrastructure? Well then probably you're not going to want to do a MOOC, because it's going to be a lot more difficult.

Openness also means that novices and experienced people are able to merge together in the same space and communicate and interact with each other. And this is one of these things that you can do online that you can't really do offline. Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that's a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister's always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features.

The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can't really do offline. But online - I see people laughing at the diagram, that's a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC - and the idea here of a MOOC is that it's not one central entity that everybody goes to, it's not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It's distributed. There's a bit here, there's a bit here, there's a bit here, there's a bit here - there's my website, there's George's website, there's Dave's website, there's Rita's website, there's Helene's website, there's Nancy White's website, Grainne's website even (it was only created recently), and it's the website of this student, this student, this student, it's the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever.

And all of these websites are connected through the mechanisms of the MOOC. As George said, it looks like the web. It is the web. And we use different technologies to bridge the gap between these individual websites. And the way we conduct a MOOC, the way we conduct learning in a MOOC, is through interactions in this web. The first - simple - iteration of this is, you send a message to me, I send a message to you, you send a message to you, I post a blog, you comment on it, and the messages go back and forth.

Now that's different, and I want you to understand how substantially different that is. Look what we're doing here. This (indicating the conference room) is not a network. This is one guy at the front who through luck and happenstance got the podium, not that he deserved it, and is broadcasting. One person talks, everybody listens. And that's the only way we could do it, because if everybody were talking we wouldn't have an educational event, we'd have a party or something like that, and nobody could follow what's going on. But online, when we draw these connections together, we can create a learning experience out of it, and we know that because we've done it.

The MOOC is also about aggregating or bringing things together. Not to unite them into being one single unified thing, it's like George said with the crowds, right? We don't want 100 people in the room to all come to the same belief, but we do want the 100 people in the room to each come up with their own beliefs, but then bring them all together.

The MOOCs that we've run have used software that I've written called gRSShopper, and what gRSShopper does is it goes to your site, your site, your site, your site, your site, and brings everything together, organizes it - it analyzes the content, extracts links - creates a web, and then creates a variety of ways of looking at that web, for example, a daily newsletter that we send to every member, and that allows people to work as individuals, to communicate one-to-one with other people, but also to feel connected to the MOOC as a whole.

The newsletter is probably the single most defining feature of a MOOC. A MOOC is characterized by an abundance of content and that has challenged people because when we approach a subject we basically give then access to - well, not all, but as much of we can think of - the content in that field. Volumes and volumes of content.

Our current MOOC, Change11, has right now 2600 participants. When you have 2600 participants, if every person writes a blog post, that's 2600 blog posts. Nobody can read that. Nobody should try. And we don't want them to. And people say, "well what am I supposed to do?" And it's really hard to get people to stand back from that and say "I don't need to absorb all of this."

That's the old way, right? That's school the way it used to be, where the authority at the front of the room will present you with the content you must have and then you absorb it and remember it. But what this is like is an entire society talking together. And you would not expect to absorb all of that.

And I have some metaphors up here to help people grasp how they should understand this. Football. Following football. There must be some football fans here; I've heard it's popular. And there are teams all over the world. How many of you follow the South American leagues? What, nobody? Some of you may follow the European leagues, Manchester United, yeah? How many of you follow Australian football; have you been following what Brisbane's been doing lately? No! Well how can you be a football fan if you're not following all of these? Aren't you tearing out your hair? You just can't keep up? Of course not. You are a football fan by choosing those football games, those teams, those associations that are interesting to you. And you know that there are ten-year olds playing football in the back yard, but you don't feel compelled to go out and watch just because it's football. You learn to let it go.

Or, recipes. There's a lot of food in the world. More food than any person could possibly eat. But, because of that, we don't give up eating. That would be absurd. There are mechanisms both external to ourselves and internal that have us focus on the food that we can access and that we want. We choose what to eat. There are more recipes that we could ever possibly make. There are thousands of recipes for bread. There are more kinds of bread than you could possibly sample. That doesn't mean we give up eating bread. It just means we pick and choose the types of bread that we eat. You get the idea?

Similarly, places to visit. There are more places in the world than you could possibly visit, but that doesn't mean you stop traveling. It just means you pick and choose the places where you're going to go.

So the Massive Open Online Course has a different attitude with respect to content. You're not expected to absorb and ingest the content. You're not expected to remember stuff and repeat it back. The content is the medium that we use in order to do the actual learning but it is not the stuff that we learn. I'll talk more about that as we go on.

The MOOC sets up this contrast, and it's an interesting contrast, and Clark Quinn, who's here, maybe in this room even, maybe in the first row, wrote a post the other day talking about the distinction or the pull between the solo approach to learning and the social approach to learning. And he talked about the Stanford AI course, which really is a bunch of videos, some online interactive exercises, and some tests that you do, as being predominately solo. Predominately you working by yourself with the material. And he contrasted that with the social kind of course that we see in Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or the MOOCs that George, Dave and I have put on, where the action of the course is predominately interaction with each other.

And I think it's an interesting divide, but I think we need to be careful not to represent the world as two polarities, social and solo. The group or the individual. Because there's a midway point that I've characterized as the network, and it's this midway point that we want to get at. And I'll talk about that as well. But there is this aspect of the Massive Open Online Course that involves not just you and the material but you working with other people. And that's crucial to the definition of the Massive Open Online Course.

Dave Cormier, who might also be in the room - he's in the back doing his hallelujah wave - has done a number of really nice videos about what a MOOC is and how to be successful, and again, it's like I said before, success in a MOOC isn't just remembering content. Success is very much what you define success to be, and that sounds a little anti-intuitive. How can you get a job if success is what you define it to be? Then again, that comes back to the purpose of this in the first place. What is success in a MOOC? Dave defines five steps:

- orient (figure out where stuff is),

- declare (and what that means is, setting up a place for yourself, setting up an identity for yourself, even, a little but, using course tags to identify that part of your material that you're contributing as part of the course),

- and then network (because once you set up your space and write some posts nothing happens; it's when you begin to connect with other people),

- and as you network you begin to find people you have affinity with (not necessarily people who are the same as you, but people who you can talk to, people who have an interest in a subject that corresponds with your interests),

- and then finally and most interestingly, find a purpose for the work that you are doing (why are you in this educational experience, where are you going to apply it).

And I was looking at that, and it says 'success in a MOOC', and it seemed to me that it's success in life as well. You know, a MOOC is like the web, and the web is like society, and society is like life, and it's not about remembering stuff.

Tony Bates did a criticism of us recently, and we make the claim that we're not just disruptive, we're transformative, and Bates says, "well, yeah, but on the other hand, MOOCs follow in this tradition - and we certainly acknowledge this tradition, people like Ivan Illich or Paulo Freire - of self-education and education as empowerment, education as being able to determine your own life. I think of it in terms of self-governance, as opposed to self-interest. And he's representing it as this great socialist struggle. I certainly don't see it in exactly that frame at all. But I think there is an element about personal development and personal learning that is central to a MOOC.

One of the first things people ask me is, "how can I apply this to my classroom?" And I respond, "you weren't listening." You can't apply this to the classroom. And then people ask, "well what use is it to me?" And my answer is, "This isn't about how you can go out and be better teachers. It's about how you can learn." And you begin learning this way yourself, you begin learning by connecting yourself, and eventually later on it becomes relevant to your classroom. And it doesn't become relevant in a way that I can say and you can remember, it becomes relevant in a way that you can understand you can apply because it's your experience and your context.

Knowledge isn't something that is given. It isn't something that is acquired. It isn't something that is poured into you like you were an empty vessel or written onto a blank slate like you were a blackboard. It is - you. It is your self. It is what you become. It is how your brain shapes itself as a result of the experiences that you have.

And this is really crucial to understanding what learning is. This is a bit of an aside - people talk about how great the traditional university was - Oxford and Cambridge, they had the best professors and the best content - and they had really smart people there, no question about it. But what made these universities great was not the content (often it was wrong, you go back 50 or 100 years, what they were teaching was pure… wrong; we know a lot more now than we did then) but it was the exposure of the students to the minds of these great thinkers and how they thought and how they reasoned and how they inferred. What these universities produced was not people who had a lot of knowledge, it was people who were very good learners, very good perceivers, who could recognize things, who could perceive patterns, find trends, make their way in society even if it changed. Not because they remembered a bunch of stuff.

That is the core of the MOOC. That is what we're after in these courses.

And we're not completely successful. And I'll be the first to say that. And I see George in the back kind of grinning at that because I think he knows too. There are criticisms of the MOOCs and they are good criticisms and I want to take these seriously because it's easy to get up here and say "knowledge is stuff you grow" and "you form connections" and la-di-la-di-da and everybody comes out of it and still nobody is employed.

Well. What are these? Tony Bates again, I'm going to quote from his post ,

MOOCs themselves are highly dependent, as Stephen acknowledges, on students already having a high level of understanding and an ability to learn independently, and to think critically. This is exactly what good quality formal education should be doing: developing and fostering such abilities so that learners can participate meaningfully in MOOCs and other forms of self-learning.

So what he's saying is, MOOCs are good if you're already educated. But if you want to become educated, you've got to go to a traditional school.

I think that's a pretty serious criticism, because if the whole point of a MOOC is to provide an education, then it needs to be useful, the form needs to be useful, for people who are not already educated. Now, against Tony Bates, I think our standards aren't quite as high as he suggests. But nonetheless I think we need to address head on the bootstrapping problem.

Other people have trouble with navigation. One critic writes, "We often found navigating the MOOC waters frustrating. Once we got started it was not difficult to find the course materials and a few other participants, but where was everything else?" And so on. The navigation issue - finding stuff, finding content, et cetera - they say, "if you don't use Twitter you can miss a vital discussion or a thread." And just - there are no vital discussions and threads.

And you see, here, the problem here, the navigation problem, isn't a problem of navigation, it's that we have not been successful in explaining to people that half the process of learning in a MOOC is learning how to explore, is being an explorer. And that it doesn't work if you already know where everything is, because you're not going to learn how to explore if we tell you where everything is.

She writes, "There's a lot of missed connections, synchronous forums are also prone to limited participation, while many blog posts lack comments," and then "the problems with architecture and tools often subvert the promise of connectedness that MOOCs should provide. And that one I totally agree with. The connectedness isn't there. And I don't think it's a navigation problem as she says, but I do think it's a connection problem.

I think that in the MOOCs that we've done, to some degree, and in the MOOCs that others have done, to a much larger degree, too much of the interactivity has been focused around the facilitators. In the Stanford AI MOOC, it's all about the facilitators, who are famous names in Artificial Intelligence. That's not networking. And in our MOOCs as well people line up to - well they don't really line up - they gather in small clusters to listen to George and Dave and myself and it's hard to get them to gather in small clusters to communicate among themselves. So it all becomes centrally focused, and if you can't find that centre you become lost.

Another problem: the size. And again, it's the same sort of thing. People feel for some reason that they need to make a personal connection with all 2000 people in the MOOC. And then they worry that they can't. And they worry that they're missing out on the important people. As though there are important people. And the larger the MOOC gets the more difficult this becomes.

We would like to see this model apply not just to 2000 but to 10,000 or 100,000 people, but if people go into it with the expectation that they have to develop a personal relationship with 100,000 people it's not going to work.

Again, we need this middle point between the solo and the social. We need this middle point - maybe aimed at Dunbar's number of getting to know 150 people - a middle point that allows us to network without necessarily becoming a part of this whole crowd of 100,000 people.

There's the accusation of elitism. That began with Connectivism 2008 with some nasty criticisms, but Tony Bates cites an anonymous academic, a university administrator, who says, and I quote:

Those who will not reach the academic level set by the organizers will remain lurkers who can only profit in discussing with the those in the crowd that can argue at the same level. But they cannot increase their skills…

Again, that's a constant refrain with these criticisms.

What's that good for? The courses silently separate the elite from the mass. It looks like democracy but is quite the opposite of [real] teaching. Education normally tries to help people to enhance their understanding and make up their minds. MOOCs don't take care of this. They are a non-educational approach. The new freedom and openness is a freedom for nothing.

That's a direct quote from, as I say, an unnamed administrator, and it's something I take very seriously because I'm the least elite person around. I think. And it strikes to the core when someone says "what you set up is for the elite." But - it's accurate. That's what really stings about that criticism, is the MOOCs as we've set up, again, foster this clustering of people around the central core, and those in the central core are going to define the themes.

I criticized DS106 recently - that's Jim Groom's course - and I actually criticized Alan Levine because he was going on, "DS106 forever!" and creating chants and posters, and the whole idea of these projects in that course was that people would begin to identify with DS106. And it became like a political cult. And I know they're just playing at this, and I understand that, and I know it's just in good fun, but when the structure of the course comes to be about this central concept or content, then the actual intent of the MOOC to distribute and democratize learning has been subverted. So, this is a serious criticism to me.

The other concern - and I need to address it squarely - is effectiveness. I say constantly to everyone who will listen to me, "learning isn't about the content." And usually people ask me, "well what is learning then if it isn't about the content?" And if it's not about the content how do you even know that you've learned? And I think that's a serious question as well. I mean, people take our MOOCs, they come out of our MOOCs, they have no credential, no certificate (mostly, if you sign up and pay for a University of Manitoba you might get a certificate credential, but most of the people don't). And even if they did, other people would assume, "oh yeah, they've learned a certain body of content," which they haven't. And we don't want them to. So it really does raise the whole question of, "what is it they're learning at all?"

So on the one hand we have critics saying "they don't support learning," which is kind of true, and on the other hand, there is no learning, which is also kind of true, and it really makes one question the effectiveness, the entire purpose, of having these things. Maybe it's just so Stephen and George and Dave can have a nice career.

Well I don't think that's true. I really don't. But I think that we can only grasp the solutions to these questions if we grasp the concept of what a MOOC is, and I address that as much to ourselves - because we drift away from it - as I address it to the external critics. I can live with the external critics but I can't live with getting the model wrong.

So what does it mean? Let's reconceptualize.

MOOCs are open. What does 'open' mean? Open means that everybody can participate. But not simply that. There are many ways to participate. And I identify a couple here, because I think these are important. Open means, not simply 'doing', but being able to watch while other people do. Open means being able to participate, not just at the expert level, but at your own level.

It's kind of like carpentry, right? You don't have to build the Taj Mahal in order to enjoy carpentry. You can build a little bookshelf. That's all I've ever built. I liked it.

Open means participating or doing things publicly so other people can watch. You hear a lot of talk about education creating this "safe" place. What that really means is education creating a place where you can do things where nobody else is watching. But if nobody else is watching nobody else is learning, and nobody else can learn. Openness means doing things openly, publicly, sharing them, watching them, and being able to be watched. It's a hard concept. It takes a little courage.

Online - it's the third letter in MOOC and it does mean that it's connective and it's online, as I said before. And that poses a challenge in societies where not everybody is online, not everybody has access to a computer, and we need to understand that. But it also means you can't take a MOOC and put it on a DVD. You can't take a MOOC and apply it in a classroom. There are limits to what you can do with this form.

But on the other hand, it's not about the fact that all the communications are in digital bits or electronic signals and fibre-optic fibres or whatever. The MOOC is about the process. And the process is greatly aided by being online. In fact it is aided so much it's really difficult to think of doing it offline. But conceptually you could.

Online, a lot of the tasks - like gathering content from around the world - can be done fairly easily. Online, I can communicate with somebody in Spain instantly, not a problem. Online, I can access more data about more people, I can count links, I can draw charts a lot more easily than I can do it offline. It's not that it has to be online, it's just that if it's not online it's going to be really slow and really cumbersome, and not nearly as good a learning experience.

The third essential point is that a MOOC is connective. And I think where we are failing is that we're losing this point. To the extent that a MOOC is about content, the MOOC fails. And the more our MOOCs are about the content that's in them, the more our MOOCs are failing. And I think our MOOCs have been drifting that way.

It's like, as the slide says there, it's like confusing the learning of the game, or the playing of the game, with the memorization of all the rules of the game. It's like we have a MOOC for football and more and more our MOOC is drifting toward talking about the rules of football. Well who cares? After a certain point. There's a ball, there's a net, you kick the ball at the net. And everything else is details. But we get caught up in trying to get everybody to remember the rules as though that's football.

It's like confusing enjoyment of food and knowing how to cook with the memorization of recipes. It's like confusing the experience of travel with knowing where things are on the map. There's the different between the (remembering) and the doing and the MOOC is about the doing. But as our MOOCs focus more on content they become less and less about doing, and that has been a weakness of them.

Our MOOCs - including Change, including Connectivism, not to mention the artificial intelligence MOOCs and MITx and the rest of them - are insufficiently connective and they're tending to slip toward an emphasis on content. And that's where they stop being effective.

And there are some reasons for this. When you sit down and analyze this, well why is this? and (you see) our MOOCs are based almost entirely on conversation. And there are reasons for that, there are good historical reasons for that, there's the whole Cluetrain Manifesto "markets are conversations" etc. etc., which is a really bad analogy on a certain level. And the more our MOOCs become about conversations the more they become about content, and this distracts us.

What we need to be doing is looking for other ways to connect. DS106 connects brilliantly with artwork. I wish I could take that further. We've tried to have activities or projects in our MOOCs, but our follow-through has been pretty minimal. Honestly. They've been very poorly defined.

So we need to rediscover our process. We need to rediscover the connective aspect of MOOCs, because the further we drift away from process, the further our courses, the more our courses, become like traditional courses, and if they're traditional courses online they fail. Because all they do is get people to remember content. And it's not that we don't scaffold learning enough, it's rather, we don't give people in our courses enough opportunity to participate, or to play.

So - I want to say, "MOOC, meet game." And on the other side, "Game, meet MOOC." You're both about the same thing. In fact, I think it was Viplav (Baxi) asked me, "what would a MOOC be for a 10-year old?" And I said, "It would be a game." And I want to take that seriously. Not that I'm saying "all games are MOOCs, all MOOCs are games." But there is an intersection here that is very illuminating, and one both sides can learn from.

I talked Viplav's ear off the other day about chess. And he assured me that, yes, people do play chess here. I thought that was encouraging. Think about chess. Think about how people learn chess. Think about how we recognize learning in chess. Now, the rules are pretty simple, but memorizing rules is not 'learning chess'. You could memorize chess openings, but that's not the same either.

Well, I thought, let's go searching for 'chess net'. And see what the world of chess has done online. And I found "" - it's a commercial online service - you have to pay then $4 per month, you have to log on, and they'll set you up with chess opponents. OK, not really what I had in mind.

"Chess world." This is a "dedicated correspondence style" site. So it supports emailing moves back and forth. I used to play that way - in fact, I got kicked off one of the world's largest computers in 1980 - it was like a multi-million dollar computer system owned by Texas Instruments and communicated with other computers around the world for seismic processing, and I played chess by message back and forth with people in Australia, and they kicked me off. I can't understand why. So this is chess by correspondence - pretty good, but not what I had in mind.

Then I found "net chess". And again this is correspondence chess with time controls and everything on the site is free, and the design looks it.

Then I found something more along the lines of what I was looking for, "Babas Chess". Now this is interesting. Instead of sending you to a 'chess world', it's a client you have on your own computer that will take care of connecting to other people. You're still playing with people all around the world, but the client's on your computer. Now that's more along the lines of what I'm thinking about.

Now, let's think about chess again. Chess is open; anybody can play. It's very accessible. You can learn the rules, but that isn't having learned chess. In fact, the measurement of your skill at chess has nothing to do with tests, or anything like that, but is entirely due to your playing other people at chess. That's your measurement. But it's not just a count of the number of games that you've won or lost. Because then you could become an expert simply by playing your little brother over and over and over, and not let him quit. That's what I did. I thought I was becoming a chess expert, but I wasn't.

Chess has rankings; rankings are based on the skill level of your opponent. And yourself. And if you're just beating lower skilled opponents over and over you don't advance. You have to beat better opponents in order to advance. And - well - and that's it.

Chess is connective. Chess is learning in the way that I've been describing. And we have a type of learning that is based on interaction with other people, that's measured this way, that isn't measured with tests, that isn't traditional learning, and might even have (there have been studies) applicability outside your domain.

I also looked at budget games. Same sort of thing; I don't have time to linger on these. But you can have, instead of chess games, budget games. But you need to be careful with these games, because a lot of these games try to 'teach' a certain subject rather than just be a game. And as soon as the game begins to be about the content, it begins to fail.

I looked at a really interesting interview by Henry Jenkins of Kurt Squire and Squire talks like a programmer but if you get past that - he's talking about this one game about rehabilitating a lake, and he says "we show you the bad lake, and we show you the things you need to do, and the people you need to lobby, and da-da da-da da-da, and we hope that a whole mass of people will learn about how to fix lakes and will go out and do it."

That's exactly wrong. And it's exactly wrong because it converts a game from being a form of interacting with other people to being a form of propaganda. And propaganda isn't learning. Propaganda is getting people to memorize stuff you want them to memorize. Two very different things.

But there are ways we can think of interactions online as game-like, as supported by interfaces like the personal learning environment, where we're not trying to build content, where the skills and the attributes come as a result of playing these games or having these conversations or whatever, that aren't the content of them.

And so when we think about these connective courses we should be thinking about the connectors. in chess, it's the chess game. In football, it's the football game. In cooking, it's the recipe book. Or the restaurant. Third party services, plug-ins - whatever these connectors are, these are the mechanisms that foster the learning. And that's what we're missing in these connective courses - the connectors. Blogs and discussion lists are not sufficient. But again, the connector isn't about teaching people a certain subject, it's about giving them a field, or an environment, on which they can play their own games in their own way for their own purposes, and they will learn in that way.

Language games - I could do a whole one-hour talk on this. Understanding games as the languages people use to communicate back and forth with each other. Understanding MOOCs in terms of those same languages.

And our assessments? Well it's not like chess, because in chess there's just one game and there's a ladder, but we can picture or imagine in our mind multiple ladders, multiple dimensions, and it's a bit of a leap, but think of a network as a multi-dimensional ladder where your position is your closeness to other people in the network. I'm sorry I don't have time to talk about that in any detail, but there is a concept there, trust me.

Badges are not sufficient, analytics are not sufficient, it's the interactivity, it's the relative position with everybody else in the network, that represents learning in this sort of environment.

That's all the content I have. That's all the time I have, plus a little bit, I'm sorry Viplav. And I certainly thank you for your patience and I'd be more than happy to address any aspect of this with any of you. Thank you so much.


Q. These connectors, are they similar to social objects?

A. That's a darn good question! I have to think about that. I really do. I mean, the functions are very similar, but there's a difference between a connector and a social object in that a social object is defined functionally and a connector not necessarily. A connector is defined functionally but in terms of a different function. But - yeah, great question, really great question. I have to think about that. Certainly you can go a long way with that analogy or that metaphor, no question about it.

Q. Do you think a MOOC will devalue minority opinions?

A. Yeah, a MOOC poorly done will be very hard on minority opinions. This is the sort of concern that I raised with respect to DS106. What happens to the one person in DS106 who objects to the propagandizing of DS106? Well as it turns out, they jump on him and exhibit a great degree of hostility. This is something we see in society as well sometimes. Properly constructed that shouldn't happen because there shouldn't be a centre core defined by a majority. A MOOC should not be about a majority. It's not like - well, with chess, right? You don't become the best chess player in the world just because the majority votes for you. It's independent of that. And so you can play with an unorthodox style and that will still stand.

Q. Do you think moderation is required as well?

A. The problem with moderation is it's labour intensive. I'd rather define it structurally. Look at chess, right? Or look at football. This is what kills me, right? The entire nation of India knows how to play football - that would take a massive education project. And yet, they did it. I don't know how many people play chess, but again, you can imagine the entire nation learning how to play chess. Or learning how to speak a language. So, it can be done. But not with human mediation. So you need structural elements that serve in this way. Again it comes back to the social object thing. The purpose of the structural elements is not to shape the discussion or lead the discussion a certain way, but it's to offer this channel, this semantic-free interface between people, a structured interface, but meaning-free. That was a little awkwardly expressed, but you're nodding so I think you kind of got it.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: May 22, 2024 1:15 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.