Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Eighteen Questions - Part One

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 16, 2002

-----Original Message-----
From: Ben Daniel []
Sent: Friday, February 15, 2002 3:41 AM
To: Downes, Stephen

Hi Stephen,
I'm sending you my interview questions by mail. I have also attached them as a word file. Please, find here below:

Interview Questions

1.What is your training background?

I took one year of computer science at Algonquin College, Ottawa, 1979-80. I received some in-house training at Texas Instruments, 1980-81. I completed a BA (Honours first class) in philosophy at the University of Calgary (1981-86) and my masters the following year (1986-87). I completed my coursework, comprehensive exams and candidacy requirements for my PhD at the University of Alberta (1987-91) but did not complete my dissertation. In the field of training, I was operations trainer at Geophysical Services Incorporated (GSI, a division of Texas Instruments) 19980-81, a development education program coordinator with the Arusha International Development Resource Centre, Calgary (1985) and wrote a series of training manuals for the Development Education Coordinating Council of Alberta (DECCA, 1986). I worked as a teaching assistance while studying for my Master's in Calgary and again for the duration of my time at the University of Alberta, specializing in logic courses. I was hired as a tutor in critical thinking by Athabasca University in 1987 and taught by telephone for AU until 1994. With Athabasca, I also taught seminar classes in northern and First Nations communities (Yellowhead Tribal Council (Spruce Grove), Blue Quills (St. Paul), Sunrise Project (Slave Lake and Grouard)). I taught a wide range of philosophy courses for Grande Prairie Regional Instructor as a sessional instructor (1993-94). I devloped an educational bulletin board system (BBS, using Maximus software) called Athabaska BBS (1989) and with my collegaues Jeff Mclaughlin, Istevan Berkeley and Wes Cooper worked on a number of educational MUDs (or MOOs), including Athabasca MUD (1993-1994) and the Painted Porch MAUD (1995-1997). I developed a critical thinking course to be taught using compugraphics (1994). I worked as a distance education and new instructional media design specialist for Assiniboine Community College (1994-1999), building their website, training staff about the internet, creating a number of online courses, and building a learning management system (LMS). I also worked as an evening instructor at Assiniboine (1994-1998). Based on a manual I created at GPRC, I created Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies (1995) as an online resource site. I returned to the University of Alberta as an Information Architect (1999-2001) to build MuniMall, a learning, information and resources portal for the municipal sector in Alberta. In 2001, I started my present position as a researcher in e-learning with the National Research Council of Canada, Moncton.

2. Please, describe your current position.

As a senior research with the National Research Council of Canada, my work revolves around reasearch in the e-learning field. I specialize in learning objects, learning communities, and knowledge management and organization. I am expected to maintain a scholarly cointribution to the field, including the publication of research papers and speaking at conferences. I also perform services for the e-learning community and other government departments, including software and project evaluation, consulting and specialized research. The objective of my position is to leverage my work as a researcher into the development and enhancement of an e-learning industry in Atlantic Canada.

3. When did you start working in the field of learning technologies?

I would place it at 1989 with the development of Athabaska BBS.

4. What are the main reasons that attracted you to the field?


I had no intention of working in the field of learning technologies; I just sort of drifted into it. I still have no real intention of working in that field, however, it is where most of my work seems most applicable. I still see myself as a philosopher working in the fields of media, communication, learning, language, logic and technology.

5. Over the years, people seem to be defining educational technology from different perspectives. What is your definition of educational technology, are you driven by some particular assumptions in this definition?

I have little patience with definitions. Most definitions attempt to apply necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a category where our common sense understanding of that category is more akin to a family resemblance. In other words, the creation of definitions is a misguided enterprise.

Educational technology would have something to do with education and something to do with technology. There are some clear and obvious cases (the use of the internet to teach a class, for example), some less clear cases (the use of an overhead projector in a classroom), and some genuinely fuzzy cases (the use of electricity to light a classroom, for example).

I take a very McLuhanian approach to technology. While on the one hand I recognize that technology is a tool, in many cases merely a tool, on the other hand, thechnology is more than just a tool: it is an environment in which we live, it is an extension of our capacities, our personalities, our selves. The use and selection of technology shapes learning (just as it shapes language, media and (perhaps even?) logic).

I am interested in how technology merges with humanity to create new dimensions, new attributes, or humanity, which in concreate form become new forms of teaching, reasoning, learning and communicating. These in turn teach us something about ourselves and about the nature of knowledge in general.

6. Most people assume that to practice educational technology, you have to have a teaching certificate or at least understanding of teaching methodologies, in other words you have to be a teacher. What is your opinion in this line of thinking?

Most people assume that you have to be a teacher (or at least understand teaching methodologies) in order to teach, but a large number of teachers, including the vast majority of college and university professors, have no such background. So I don't think there are any qualifications that may be established a priori (as, I suspect, with most disciplines).

Nor do I think that there is a specific, discrete field of thought that describes 'teaching methodologies,' John Dewey, for example, is known to me primarily as a philosopher in the American pragmatist school, influenced by William James and Charles Sanders Pierce. Rousseau is known to me as a social and political philosopher, known mostly for his "Social Contract" than "Emile". Ludwig Wittgenstein is best known as a philosopher of language but should be regarded as essential reading for any learning theorist.

I do not think you have to be a thing in order to study it, and in some cases it is helpful to be at a distance. True, one can perhaps best understand what it is to be Polynesian by being a Polynesian, but one does not need to be Polynesian to study Polynesians, and important insights about being a Polynesian may be obtained only from the stand point of not being a Polynesian. And knowledge, any discipline, is informed by observations and theories derived from a number of points of view, some from within the discipline, some from outside it. Thomas Kuhn, for example, could not have written "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" while working in what he called "normal science". He has to be at a step removed in order to see the relation between the current state of the field and past states, and possible future states.

What is important, I think, is to be able to view a body of knowledge - in this case, to be able to view the field of instructional technology - from multiple points of view. It helps to have taught, but it is important to be able to view teaching from the point of view of a teacher. It helps to have a theoretical background, but it is important to view learning from the point of view of a constructionist (say). It helps to be able to see learning from the point of view of a student, an administrator, a psychologist. Different people are more or less able to put themselves in the shoes of other people, to empathise. But empathy is essential for a deep understanding of any discipline.

7. Do you think that computer scientists and learning technologists from other disciplines will benefit from exchanging experiences?

In theory, yes, as the question just above illustrates. But it depends on the nature of the people involved and it depends on the nature of the experience related. I can imagine, for example, a teacher relating her frustrations with a computer interface. Yet for a sharing of this experience to be useful, the description of the experience must be self-reflective - it must be something more than, "It didn't work," it should be more like, "Well I tried such-and-such because I thought such-and-such based on whats-it, butthis happened instead, which wasn't what I was expecting at all." And the computer scientist must be able to take that description and create a frame of reference, to construct a theory describing the sequence of activities, instead of, say, performing a third person evaluation of the state of the teacher's knowledge. For example, the computer scientist should frame theories of the form, "Well, this design element caused her to thing such-and-such instead of whatsit, which was intended" instead of "The teacher wasn't smart enough to recognize that the doodad icon means whatsit, not such-and-such."

8. What is the state-of-the art of learning technologies in Canada?

Oh sure, ask a short question now.

Communications - Canada has the world's fastest communications network in CA*Net 3 (and is planning an even faster CA*Net 4) and has one of the highest internet adoption rates and boradband connectivity rates in the world. This will give Canada a lead in the development and deployment of broadband applications, however, these have yet to come on stream. Most of the worl'd internet communications hardware is produced in Canada by such companies as Nortel.

Graphics and Design - Canada is a world leader in graphics and design - Industrial Light and Magic, for example, has many Canadians on staff. Institutions like Sheridan college are world renowned. Canada will be a world leader in 3D and holographic representation.

Computer programming - Canada is comparable to the United States in computer programming, though the Canadian industry is much smaller.

Online courses and programs - Canada is a world leader in the development of online courses - only the United States has more courses online. Virtually every Canadian college and university has at least some learning material online. Canada has several major institutions dedicated to online learning - Open Learning Agency, Athabasca University, Tech BC, for example. Canada has several important companies in the private sector.

Content production and publishing - Canada trails the United States because it does not have a large publishing, recording, television or video industry.

Advance educational technology - Canada is on a par with the United States and Europe in the race to develop a learning materials infrastructure, though Canada is taking a very different approach that will, in my mind, give Canada a significant lead. While the U.S. if focusing on demand-driven industry and military online learning infrastructures focusing on centralized repositories and publishers, Canada is moving toward a more publicly oriented distributed system.

9. I have noticed that you are considered as a pioneer and internationally knowledgeable guru on the field of learning objects. What motivated your thinking in that direction?

Insofar as I am a pioneer, I became a pioneer by creating applications and approaches rather than working is a strictly theoretical environment. For example, my paper "The Assiniboine Model" started as an internal design document for people working with my learning management system. My essay "The Future of Online Learning" was written in response to Jeff Kerr's request that I put down in plain terms the plan I was working toward (He said, "We know you have a plan, but we don't know what it is."). I have experienced a lot of failure in my career but learned a lot from that.

I think that if I am a pioneer, it is because I have been able to see a little earlier than others what could be done, and this being able to see is a result of my inability to stay located within a single discipline.

Today, for example, I have seen the rise of peer-to-peer trechnologies through such products as ICQ and SETI@Home, and where people are now building peer-to-peer technologies for education, such as Edutella and POOL, I see peer-to-peer as forming the basis of a new approach to learning itself - taking the concept out of the domain of technology competely and viewing it strictly as a relation between people and ideas.

10. Currently, the technology of learning objects is still emerging and somewhat totally new. What are the challenges associated with the implementation of learning objects from development perspectives.

I hinted at one above, in the way American approaches to learning objects differ from Canadian approaches. Learning objects, though in one sense an application of computer technology, are in another (more important) sense a type of publishing. The approach taken by the Americans is to overlay their existing education publishing infrastructure over an online distribution technology. But my experience in media - and experially online media - tells me this is the wrong way to go. The American system will have to be supported through a system of regressive legislation (such as the DCMA), exclusive agreements and proprietary technology. This structure runs counter to the needs and wishes of the eventual consumers of learning objects, and so there will contantly be a tension there - already is a tension there, with the rise of such things as the Freedom of Online Scholarship movement. The American approach is terribly vulnerable to a sort of educational Napster because they are making it much harder (and expensive) to buy content - and even to sell content - than it has to be.

The problem is, the development of an alternative - a distributed learning object economy - is a network project. That is, it requires the simultaneous participation of a large number of entities all at the same time. This is difficult to achieve, especially in an environment such as Canada's university system where learning technology projects are short term, funded for specific objectives, and employ funding programs that encourage competition rather than cooperation between the institutions. Competition is fine, but only once the common infrastructure is build and is being used. This i at least a part of the purpose of CA*Net (by contrast, Internet II is nowheer near sufficient for American needs, and their internet infrastructure is lagging significantly behind Canada's). What is needed is what we might call standards layers and software layers to rest on top of CA*Net to create, if you will, the 'rules of the road' for this network.

At the user level, there is no easy way to use learning objects. What is needed by instructors is (at least) a base level LCMS tool that will let them tap into the distributed learning object infrastructure (contemporary LCMSs are very expensive - too expensive for schools - and provide only a proprietary library of publishers' content - the Americans, bolstered by military and corporate contracts, have a lead in LCMS technology). Such a tool will be built - but the question is whether the tool will be built soon enough to forstall penetration of American silo-style learning management systems into the Canadian market, because once these have established enough of a foothold it will be extremely difficult to establish a network-based system.

11. Approximately how many universities are implementing learning objects in Canada?

It depends on how you define learning objects. In a certain sense, all of them are employing learning objects, because they are all employing online learning. Viewed slightly differently, the vast majority of them - those that use a commercially available LMS such as WebCT or Blackboard - are employing learning objects. But if learning objects are viewed as by, say, SCORM, as consisting of metadata and API wrappers, then none of them are, except in a testbed environment.

Continue to Part Two

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 12:07 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.