Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Freedom in E-Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 31, 2003

Five posts from my participation in a recent IFETS discussion around a theory of e-learning. I focus on the suggestion that learning requires a curriculum and propose instead that e-learning allows us to introduce freedom to learning. The full discussion archives are here.

1. Discussion Topic - Theory for eLearning

[As posted in today's OLDaily...]

The current discussion paper for the International Forum of Educational Technology & Society, this paper takes the broad view of e-learning and posts a set of ten principles. I think it's a good discussion starter. I think that the resulting discussion will find these principles too narrow. For example, the author posits that "eLearning can be used in two major ways; the presentation of education content, and the facilitation of education processes," which leaves out a whole range of applications based on game playing and simulation. Additionally, he writes that "eLearning tools are best made to operate within a carefully selected and optimally integrated course design model," which again leaves out any sort of open-ended and undesigned learning. Finally, he proposes that "The overall aim of education, that is, the development of the learner in the context of a predetermined curriculum or set of learning objectives, does not change when eLearning is applied." This gets both the overall aim of education wrong, and understates the impact of technology. But like I said, it will be a great discussion-starter.

2. Hypothesis 9

I don't want to cause too much of a digression from the main points of this discussion, but I have been asked to elaborate on my comments a bit. I won't elaborate on all of them, for reasons of length, however this seems to me to be a good starting point.

Hypothesis 9 states, "The overall aim of education, that is, the development of the learner in the context of a predetermined curriculum or set of learning objectives, does not change when eLearning is applied."

By way of explanation, we read: "In other words, the curriculum is still king." And later: "If participation in a bulletin board is not relevant to the curriculum, then its use as an assessment tool should be questioned."

There are two bits to hypothesis 9. Let me tease them out gently:

1. The overall aim of education is the development of the learner in the context of a predetermined curriculum or set of learning objectives, and

2. E-learning does not change the overall aim of education

Now let me analyze the first part. It breaks down into an objective and two contexts.

    Objective: development of the learner
    Context: predetermined curriculum, or, set of learning objectives

OK, now let's look at the objective. At first blush, though it sounds reasonable, it's too vague. Running a mile a day would develop the learner (or, at least, the learner's leg muscles), but we would not call that education. When we talk about education, we usually mean something more specific: cognitive development, for example, or moral development, spiritual development, social development.

Rather than quibble about wording here (though a proper theory should contain some precision on this point) let me use these observations to establish that there is a wide range of objectives involved in learnings, objectives usually (though not exclusively) related to capacities, involving not only knowledge and skills, but also an understanding (say) of appropriate behaviours and responses.

Having said that, let me look next at the contexts. To focus on the point directly, we need to ask: are the contexts defined (the tools defined? I'm not sure 'contexts' is the right word here) both necessary and sufficient for each of the various objectives of education. I would argue that they are not, which is why I comment that the definition is too narrow.

Consider, for example, one legitimate objective of an education: the development of successful social skills. To establish out point, we look at four questions:

    i. Is a predetermined curriculum necessary for the development of successful social skills? Clearly not. There is to my knowledge no predetermined curriculum for recess or pub night, those parts of education where schoolchildren and university students respectively develop their social skills.

    ii. Is a predetermined curriculum sufficient for the development of successful social skills. In principle it is possible, I suppose, though there would have to be some statement about the curriculum being applied. I have seen curricula with this objective. But typically, even a predetermined curriculum would advocate exercises and activities beyond the curriculum. At some point, as when learning to fly an airplane, you have to leave the instruction behind and fly the plane solo before you can say you have learned to fly.

    iii. Is a set of learning objectives necessary for the development of successful social skills? In other words, could social skills develop in an environment where no learning objectives are stated? Of course they could, and thus learning objectives are not necessary, at least in this case.

    iv. Is a set of learning objectives sufficient for the development of successful social skills. Again, there would have to be something said about the application of learning objectives (consider the bully saying, "I'll teach you respect," and then administering a beating. A desirable learning objective was stated, but the desired result was not obtained).

However we define the objectives of education, it seems clear that a predefined curriculum and a set of learning objectives is neither necessary nor sufficient for the attaining of those goals. The desired objective could be met in a much less structured environment, an environment conducive to such learning, but not designed with such learning in mind. And the desired objective may fail to be met in environments specifically designed with such learning in mind, but where for any of a large number of reasons the learning does not occur.

OK, let's set all this to the side for a moment and look at the second part.

The second part consists of the assertion that e-learning does not change the overall aim of education. This at first sounds true, because it could be argued that whether or not e-learning is employed, the goal remains the development of the learner. However, as argued above, this goal is too vague. Indeed, from the discussion above, it should be clear that, if we leave the goal expressed in such a vague manner, then the hypothesis expresses a significant and startling thesis.

For, consider one of our candidates: the development of leg muscles. Were we to allow that this is an objective of an education, then we would reach the startling conclusion that a goal of e-learning is the development of leg muscles. Now this could be true - I do not want to presume the opposite - but I suspect that it is a point that would require a significant amount of argumentation.

If we leave the definition vague we require a significant amount of argumentation. But if we make the definition more precise, we see that the statement is simply false.

Consider, for example, a fairly basic skill: communication. Now this is something that, we would agree, that we desire a student to learn whether or not the education is delivered online. But what constitutes communication, what constitutes the sort of development we would like to foster, is very different in the two environments. The basic act of writing online is different from writing offline. Penmenship (which is what it was called when I was a child, and on which we spent many days) is degraded as a necessary attainment; typing, which was once taught only to those in the secretarial stream, is now an essential skill.

You see, what is hidden in the statement that e-learning does not change the goals of education is the assumption that the world for which a child is being prepared in a traditional education is the same as the world for which a child is being prepapred online. But it is not. One of the reasons why we would even consider e-learning is that we are entering an e-world. Or, put another way, the very fact of e-learning changes the rest of the world. People educated online use instant messaging the way people edcated in an analog environment use the telephone. But just as the two communications tools are different, so are their uses, norms, behaviours, codes and practices.

The points I have raised above are sufficient, I think, to establish the comment that I made in my newsletter. At the very least, they explain the reasoning I went through when I made the comment. But I would like to take this all one step further by combining the two points. I'll do it in slogan form first:

Learning online is a lot more like the learning we did during recess than it is like the learning we did in the classroom.

What does that mean? Well, overall, what it means is a shift in the balance. In a traditional education, most of the learning is obtained in the context of a structured curriculum and learning objectives. The unstructured learning was viewed mainly as filling the gaps, rounding out the rough sports, and applying the in-class learning. But online, most of the learning takes place in an unstructured environment, while learning using a sructured curriculum and learning objectives is used to fill gaps, round out rough sports, or to support practical learning.

The argument to support this point would probably fill a book. But I can suggest at least what the framework of such an argument would look like:

    - Much of traditional learning is based on control; control was required for a variety of reasons but mainly because learning was standardized and therefore noither interesting nor useful to the learner

    - learning was standardized because it had to be; there was no efficient means of delivering personalized, enquiry-based learning to the mass of students in an industrial society

    - but in the internet age, these limitations no longer apply; it is possible to deliver personalized, enquiry-based learning.

    - Therefore, standardization is not necessary

    - Therefore, control is not necessary.

I know that's pretty sketchy, and probably not without its own contentious point. But my belief is that this is where e-learning is taking us, and therefore would argue that the goals of learning are very different in an online environment than they are in a traditional classroom.

3. A couple of quick points... (in Response to Mark Nichols

1. In your response you refer several times to a legal or institutional framework in order to justify the need for a predefined curriculum. For example:

"The harsh reality is that we must as accredited providers of education work within pre-determined and clearly documented curricula."

"These are identified and transparent standards of learning that students must meet if they are to be accredited with a pass. "

"Even a PhD has objectives and criteria that must be met - otherwise how will you be able to confer one?"

And so on; the point is restated is various forms throughout the response.

Now I ask, is education to be equated with the social, political or institutional framework for paying for or recognizing education? In other words, do we define in terms of what governments will pay for, in terms of what employers or students recognize?

I would argue against this proposition, on the simple grounds that government, corporations, and various other organizations involved in the regulation of education may have the definition wrong.

For example, if we define education in terms of what is needed to confer a PhD, as suggested above, how do we know that we have correctly described the conditions under which a PhD should be granted?

2. I don't want to be diverted by the question of 'process-based' as opposed to 'outcomes-based' systems (or assessment-based as opposed to teaching-based criteria) for describing learning. For the purposes of my argument, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

That is is, I would argue that just as what counts as education is not defined by the criteria used to assess learning, so also what counts as education is not defined by the process through which learning is intended to proceed.

The reason why I take these positions is that both process and assessment are intented as tools in order to achieve a certain objective, and it is circular to define the objective in terms of the tools used to achieve that objective.

For example, were we to define "travel" in the same manner, then we would be defining "travel" as either "using a car or vehicle of some sort" or "showing that you have arrived at a given destination." But neither would be satisfactory definitions of travel; they describe the process used to achieve travel, or the determination of when travel has occurred, but they do not themselves define "travel."

3. You state, "the sound application of eLearning would provide social opportunities because social interaction in addition to its lifelong learning transferability is an ingredient of best practice in education."

I agree with this statement.

But we need to ask WHY social interaction is an ingredient of best practices in education. It is not clear that the benefits of social interaction are described in statements of learning objectives of curriculum. For example, we do not see:

    - "The student will learn to engage in meaningless social chatter in an online environment."


    - "Today's lesson: ten minutes of fruitless discussion."

Yet both are chacteristics of a successful education. But though being characteristics of a successful education, their occurrence and emergence cannot (almost by definition) be planned; they are at best emergent properties of a learning environment, and typically occur in spite of, not because of, a definition of learning outcomes or curriculum.

This is especially the case in the workplace. I read constantly (the most recent being an article this week) of how companies are trying to clamp down on "non-work" uses of the internet. Yet they fail to recognize that such non-work uses are an essential component of learning, albeit one that would never show up in a corporate training plan.

4. Nice statement: "I am of course relating the ten statements of eLearning to an institutionalised context..."

I would argue that online learning de-institutionalizes learning, and that therefore those elements of learning which emerge as a consequence of institutionalized education are stripped away in an online learning as non-essential elements of learning.

This is, indeed, my position in a nutshell.

5. You write that you wrote, "If participation in a bulletin board is not relevant to the curriculum, then its use as an ASSESSMENT tool should be questioned." Further, "I am observing that to assess a student based on bulletin board use outside of reference to the curriculum is inappropriate."

My first reaction is, "Why not?" But of course I know better.

This is an instance of the more general principle that, in order for an assessment to be fair, the criteria of assessment should be known. In this case, the method for making the criteria known is to post them as curricular or learning objectives. The evaluation of class activities which fall outside those objectives cannot be known, and thus, it is unjust to assess students based on those activities.

I did not linger on the point of assessment because I think that masked under this reasonable argument is a more general, and less justifiable - position. One mught ask, if the bulletin board does not support the learning objectives or curriculum, why use it at all? This is certainly the principle many students employ: if it's not being assessed, why should I take the time to use the bulletin board?

My view is that this is an artifact of a system of education where learning is defined in terms of learning processes and assessments, as discussed above. "Learning," properly so called, does not exist if it's not on the test, and therefore students shun the practice that does not lead to learning. yet to see And yet - a great deal of learning takes place in discussions outside the classroom, learning which is not formally assessed, but assessed nonetheless (just as now readers are trying to decide whether I am knowledgable or just a crackpot). It is arguable - and I would argue - that if students are told through a formal process that the only way to learn is to learn through a formal and structured process, then they will find themselves unable to learn in a less structured environment. The definition of learning makes itself true through its application - somewhat like Kierkegaard's leap of faith, but applied to other people, not oneself.

Imagine the situation were we to assess art that way. An artist would be judge great by the manner in which he or she were able to colour between the lines, rather than assessed against the unstated, unwritten, non-existing criteria of greatness. I wonder what school would look like were grades assigned at random, were grades assigned by unseen external observers with hidden criteria, were grandes assigned by virtue of a vote by one's peers. These are all much more reflective of the world at large, and yet we depict it as somehow more fair to create an artificial and fully controlled environment in which to assess something as nebulous and changing as learning.

So long as we think of learning as though it were some sort of legal system, then we are constrained under Solon's legacy. But if we can see learning as something else - something more personal than social, something more creative than cognitive, something more ephemeral than physical, then we can see that the rule of law has no more place in learning than it does in thought, speech, belief or any of the other freedoms associated with an enlightened age.

5. I offer two overtly educational resources on the internet. As much as I am loathe to be self-referential, I hold these up as counter- examples to the (now renamed) Statement 9:

a. Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies - a set of resources describing the known fallacies of reason. The resource consists of approximately 60 stand-alone pages, each of which describes the essential characteristics of a fallacy.

The site does not have learning objectives; I am not prescribing some sort of attainment users of the site are supposed to achieve. Nor does it have a curriculum; users are able to pick their own path (if any) through the material (it is worth noting that there is no assessment on my site; people are judged in their own environment by admittedly ideosyncratic criteria by their peers as to whether they are 'logical' or not).

Such an organization of learning material is common on the internet; my site is nothing unusual, except perhaps by virtue of its age.

Now in order to defend Statement 9 it must be argued that either this site is not educational, despite being used by hundreds of thousands of people for precisely that purpose, or it must be shown that it does contain learning objectives and a curriculum, despite the author's avowal that it doesn't.

b. OLDaily - this is a daily email newsletter supported with a website and knowledge base of archived materials. OLDaily was designed to facilitate the continuing development of e-learning professionals. Its contents are directed toward the topic of online learning, though that topic is left undefined and has been seen to include pictures of snow crystals, among other unusual resources. yet to see Again, except for the fact that it is promised to be delivered on weekdays, OLDaily has no curriculum. Nor either does it contain anything resembling learning objectives. Indeed, it is used as an educational resource only by a portion of its readership; others consider it part of the work environment.

As above, in order to support Statement 9, it must be shown that either OLDaily does not provide an education, in spite of manifest indications otherwise, or it must be shown that it embodies a curriculum and learning objectives, in spite of the author's stated report that it contains neither.

4. Some Notes

From Mary Hall:

I've a couple of questions / thoughts in response...
1 - I think we need perhaps to distinguish between 'learning' and 'education'?

Some quick and rough distinctions:

Learning = the acquisition of new knowledge, where knowledge is information that is acquired, evaluated and integrated

Education = (1) a process that supports learning, or (2) the outcome of that process (as in 'an education')

Surely, though, the concept of 'education' includes an implication of purpose? (Back to the old Latin root, as I learned it e ducere [ducare?]:to lead forth.

The ancient Romans got a lot of things wrong, and they never did discover electricity. And their civilization fell. So we need to take Latin roots with a certain degree of scepticism.

That said, yes, it could be said that education has a purpose: to foster learning. Usually people have a certain purpose in learning as well, a certain reason for wanting to acquire and use new knowledge.

But in my previous post I very deliberately compared education with other freedoms. As Mill defines utility: the pursuit of one's own good in one's own way. The concept of utility implies a purpose, but it does not follow that a particular purpose (not even 'happiness') is inherent in the definition of utility.

In our traditional understanding of education, the purpose of learning is defined by an external agency: one's parents, the Church, the State, the corporation. This is so entrenched it is difficult to conceive of education without an externally defined purpose. And therefore, it makes it difficult to define it without an institutional structure.

If we make this distinction, and place 'education' as a subset of 'all learning' then I think the difference in perspective between your comments and Mark's are largely explained? It also would allow for the the assumption some of us seem to be making, that 'education' tends to imply a degree of 'formality' .

Education is not a subset of learning; that is a category error. Learning is a process of a specific type; education is something that facilitates that process. Learning is an event; education is a catalyst.

If this concept of "feral learning" describes the individual's natural learning process in a de-institutionalised environment, (eg 'grazing' as opposed to lesson-sized 'mealtimes') - is this akin to what you are putting forward, Stephen, as 'education?

I didn't participate in the feral learning discussion. But...

What I am talking about I would be hard pressed to describe as anything like 'natural learning.' It seems to me that feral learning would be learning that takes place without any process intended to facilitate this learning. It would be, as the name suggests, learning that we would obtain no matter what, learning that would occur in the absence of any teacher, in the absence of any education.

But the non-institutional learning I am talking about isn't like that. Such learning is facilitated. But it is not facilitated by a certain structure or institution. In some cases it is facilitated by the self; I deliberately undertake a self-education process. In other cases it is facilitated by external (but non-structured) resources.

Someone in another post compared the learning resources I described as being akin to books. In one sense this is true, but only in the sense that coal can be compared with rocks. Some books can provide an education; they are specifically designed for that. Other books are indifferent insofar as facilitating learning is concerned. Still others (Heidegger comes to mind) are hostile to learning.

The resources I described were created with education in mind; they are intended to facilitate learning. That is the reason for their being and the genesis of their design. Just so, they could be compared with books: but the interesting question is: with which books?

5. Freedom in E-Learning

From Grant Sherson:

Am I right in thinking that Stephen Downes suggests that a formal curriculum is old hat? If I was learning to be a mechanic and had all the resources I wanted in front of me but no specified outline of what I needed to know - I would never be sure I knew enough to set up a garage and offer my services. I may have big holes in my learning and I would be afraid I would make costly mistakes. I would have no way of knowing whether I knew enough or not. There is no freedom in that!

To restate my point more clearly:

  • Not all learning is like learning to be a mechanic
  • Not all people studying auto mechanics want to set up a garage

In a formal program of study, as is assumed in this counterexample, a formal curriculum is required. But not everyone wants a formal program of study. Sometimes people just want to know enough to tinker.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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