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

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 16, 2002

12. Learning objects seems to be new hot issue in the world of eLearning, but most other educational technologies have no clue what these things mean.

OK, well this isn't really a question, is it? Heh.

Look - most computer users doesn't know what OLE is, they don't know what an API is, they don't even know what a DLL file is even though they have dozens of them in their computers. At a certain level, it doesn't matter whether or not they know what learning objects are, how they're designed or even how they're deployed. It's like web browsers - your web browser accesses content objects from around the internet, processes some of this content through special programs (called viewers - which Mosaic users will remember loading and installing separately), and display it as an integrated presentation called a 'web page'. How does HTTP work (and what is it, even)? Irrelevant.

The big issue for people involved in learning isn't the learning technology. Content producers will need to understand the technology to a greater degree, but content producers will increasingly use editing software. People specialize. Writers don't don't understand web offset printing presses, but they depend on them. Artists don't need to worry about laser colour separation: that's handled by the printer.

What teachers (and increasingly, students) need to know is what makes good content, how do you locate content) using (some software), how do you evaluate content. Designers will need to know how to integrate content. Things like that.

I put it this way:

  • How will educators respond when students show up in their class already knowing everything the teacher wants to teach
  • how does learning and teaching change when learning is something that is as commonly available as, say, writing is today

These are the sorts of questions end users need to consider. They need to look at the possibilities and to define where they want to go. What would edcucation, in the ideal sense, look like? Define this. Then develop your thinking and your learning about educational technology based on this idea.

It's not about teaching teachers how to use PowerPoint (PowerPoint will eventually develop to the point where people don't have to learn how to use it). It's about understanding whether using PowerPoint makes any sense at all, and if so, when and where. The learning follows.

Same with learning objects. There's no decision to make yet because they are not widely available. But in a few years, a learning object repository will be available on every teacher's desk. The question then become not, 'what are they' - this will become evident - the question becomes, 'should I use these?' and 'how?'' There is no single answer, nor should there be. Different teachers, different learning objectives, different students - each of these speak to the answers to these questions.

13. Where do you think the future of learning objects in Canada is going?

I think I've covered that already.

14. Where do you see advanced educational technologies, especially virtual communities going say ten years from now?

Well you could read my essay, The Future of Online Learning. Heh.

But look - if you could learn about anything you wanted any time or any place you wanted, simply by making a request, then how does this change learning? Especially if the learning you receive when you make a request is high quality multi-media with simulations and exercises and user groups and expert assistance... and it's available for the price of a paperback book.

This is the ineviatble end-point. It may not happen in ten years. Large publishers are terrified of this scenario, because it means more than an order of magnitude drop in the price of educational content. Educational institutions and treachers are unclear about their roles in such a system. And everybody - including me - is terrified about the possibility of getting this wrong, about the possibility of creating an educational system which doesn't work, which fails a generation. That would be a disaster.

We only get one shot at this. We only get one opportunity to educate the next generation. Through history, we have more or less gotten it right, at least, right enough that the next generation could take knowledge and learning a bit further. "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." The future of society itself depends on our getting this right. So a little caution is understandable.

Learning will be ubiquitous because it can be. The question is: what sort of support does the learner need in such an environment. Can we, for example, simply insert them into the community at large - in much reduced roles, of course - at, say, the age of twelve, and ask them to learn what they need from the system for the rest of their lives? Or does in addition to always-on learning does a twelve year old - or a twenty year old - need a learning guide, a counsellor, say? And what part of these functions are privided by the communities the learner belongs to?

The playing fiuelds of Eton symbolize not just a certain approach to learning, they also symbolize a certain social order. Grandma's schoolhouse (and my grandmother really was a teacher in a schoolhouse) symbolizes a different order. Why don't we really have boarding schools today? Why do we send our children to live in university residences (or the student ghetto surrounding most campuses)? These modes of organization symbolize a form of learning, but they are also informed by the state of educational technology, they are also informed by our wants and needs as a society with respect to education. We have community schools, not boarding schools, because family and community are more important to us now. We have residential universities because networking and professional community are important to us now.

What do we want? That is the key question facing society.

I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle. Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be. This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence. This is what I aspire toward, this is what I work toward.

Information is cheaper than water. We can get information to places like Addis Ababa much more easily that we can get a water supply to them, which is why mass political ideologies such as Marxism or crony capitalism take hold in these cuntries well before the development of an economic, social and political infrastructure. There is no reason why we cannot distribute learning worldwide, and with it, a means to enable people to develop their own culture, their own lives, in their own way.

We have the people, the resources and the technology to get us to this state within ten years, at least in Canada. Whether we will get there in ten years, or twenty, or a hundred, depends on a host of other factors. It may take a generational change, it may take an advancement of the wealth of society, so people don't need to worry about hoarding, it may take a social or cultural upheaval. Or, we may simply build it.

15. What are the issues you consider important in building virtual learning communities?

A community - any community - is a virtual entity (much in the way that people say that a church is the congregation and not the building). It is created by the members of the community and is an emergent property of the network of relations between those members. As such, because membership may not be precisley defined, so also the bounds of a community may not be precisely defined (though through history and even in education today there are many attempts to artifically draw such boundaries).

A community will build artifacts. A physical community will build physical artifacts - houses, streets, shopping malls, airports. This is the environment in which a community resides, in this case, the physical environment. A community will also build a social, political, cultural and regligious environment. An artistic environment. A history. At NLII Melissa Koch presented what she called the "12 principles of civilization": purpose, identity, communication, trust, reputation, groups, environment, boundaries, governance, exchange, expression and history (she, or her company, has also trademarked the term "12 principles of civilization," showing that she - or her company - really doesn't get the concept).

These 12 principles (and we could debate as to whether there are more or less) are the artifacts created by a group of people interacting, they are the emergent properties of these interactions. This is crucil. You do not build any of these 12 principles, and you do not define them prior to there being a community. You don't create a community, for example, and then say, "OK, this is what the community's history will be" (I know - I tried that with MuniVille - my work is littered with errors, remember?). You don't create a community and say, "OK, this community is now founded on trust."

This is important because in the typical online learning community designers try to define at least one - and usually several - of these principles a priori. Governance, for example, is usually in the form of a dictatorship - the teacher or instructor rules by fiat. The purpose is pre-defined - "This community is formed with the intent of studying EDPY 254." The learning communities of today are like those model communities build by Disney where everything is pre-planned, and you WILL have a good time (or you will be expelled). But these are not communities. They are collections of people, collections of people who interact, even, but they are not thereby communities.

So the issues I find important surround issues related to facilitating the cohesion of a group of people into a community, a facilitation that entails an understanding that the structure of the community will be build by the members themselves, and that therefore my role is nothing more than as a facilitator of that development - a gardener, to use the metaphor employed by many online community theorists (such as, say, Rheingold).

16. Being a guru in the field, what kind of advice do you give to a newbie, who wants to enter the field?

Well, first - why are you entering the field? Do you have some sort of goal in mind? A vision for learning? I'm not saying you have to develop your own philosophy of educational technology - you are free to borrow mine, for example, or Guy Bensusan's or Farhad Saba's or even Elliott Masie's - but you should have some sort of idea of what you want to do.

And your objectives need not be selfless - some of mine aren't. Perhaps you are entering the field because you think you can make a whack of cash in an obviously growing industry. Perhaps you see the potential for a stable income and residence so you can raise a family. These are worthwhile goals (we don't get to have a society without people wanting to make money and raise families). I want stability. I want to develop into a world class dart player. I want peace and serenity in my life. These are important things.

Make the goals you have lofty, unattainable, even. Do not compromise when you declare your goals, not even a bit. Compromise can come later - there will be prenty of compromise in your life, no need to take it as a starting point.

Now - what do you need to do to achieve your goals? Try to identify subgoals (you need not be complete and detailed here - you won't know parts of the route until you are closer: to get from Moncton to Vancouver, I have to get to Calgary - there may be a route from calgary to Vancouver but I don't need to worry about that until I'm closer to Calgary - and for that matter, I don't need to worry about how to get to Calgary until I've first managed to get to Toronto (which, via Air Canada, is enough challenge for me for the short term).

Now, concrete steps:

Learn. Read what there is to read, take courses and classes, increase your knowledge base. Gain a deep knowledge in the topics you will need most of all to attain your goals, but give them solid support through a knowledge of the rest of the discipline, and an environment through a knowledge of related fields. If you want to become an instructional designer, for example, obtain a deep understanding of instructional design, a good knowledge of educational theory and learning technology, and a working knowledge in media studies, logic and reasoning, graphic design, etc.

Practise. Each time you learn something new, try it for yourself. If you are learning about constructivism, for example, take some courses designed using that model. Try building your own course and test it on some people (you don't need a research grant for this, simply take the time to create your course and then post it online (though if you are working in a research environment, communicate your plans and ensure you get proper clearances and approvals (e.g., ethics approvals) (and if they are not forthcoming, get a different position)). If you learn about graphic design, create some posters (for your local Opera Society, say, or an upcoming protest march, or the Spring sale).

Don't limit yourself. Don't wait for other people to let you learn, to let you practise. Don't depend on getting a research grant; always plan for what you would do if there were no money available. Take your learning and your practice outside the domain of your profession and let it enter other parts of your life. Don't let them make you specialize.

Communicate. Share your work with others. Advance your own ideas and learn from theirs. Join a community (I belong to various mailing lists, a web based community or two, a political party and a dart club). While on the one hand being careful to learn about and observe community culture, conduct yourself as a full (and as appropriate) professional member of the community from day one. You are not on probation in life - what you know is valuable, even if it's not very much, what you contribute is valuable, even if other people find it lacking, and you belong if you say you do, even if some people say you don't.

There is no deep secret here. Anyone can learn anything if they follow this approach. In my experience what I find holds people back is almost never ability, it is either:

  • motivation - they don't really want to learn this stuff. That's why setting goals is so important.
  • lack of confidence - they don't really think they can learn this stuff.
That's where mentors and community really help. The rest of it is just time and effort. It may take a long time if you are starting without a good educational foundation. It may take a lot of work. But it is possible.

Take risks. Not the senseless kind, like skiing in avalanche zones or jumping out of aircraft, but the safe kind, like expressing what may be an unpopular point of view, trying a new language, leaving an unproductive job.

17. Most people think that the elearning practiced in corporate world is significantly different from the one which is school driven. And that eLearning in the corporate world is an attempt to commercialize learning. What is your opinion there?

Promoters of private for-profit education and health care from time to time come into our country (from another country that will go nameless) and complain that our objections to commercialized education and health care is based on a fallacy, because everyone in the field - from the most dedicated teacher to the most skilled surgeon - gets paid to do it. Education and health care are already commercialized, they say, the only thing different about their approach is the manner in which the payment for services received is organized, and they are promoting a customer-based market system instead of a command-based monopolistic economy. People defending a public health and education system respond very badly to this argument, if at all, but understanding this argument is a key to understanding the different between education in schools and education in the corporate sector.

I am happy to say that education (and health care - all my comments here apply to both fields) is commercialized, that it is based on the exachange of money for services. I am here in Moncton, for example, because the National Research Council was willing to pay me more money and to give me stable employment, two things the University of Alberta was unwilling to do (they say they were unable to do it, but of course that's a polite fiction). There is nothing wrong with earning money for services: each one of us needs to eat, clothe ourselves, obtain shelter and even drink the occasional pint of beer.

What distinguishes corporate learning from the public sector has nothing to do with the commercialization of learning. It has eveything to do with the reason why the learning provider is in the business of providing learning. Put simply, people involved in corporate learning tend to provide learning for one purpose, while people involved in the public system tend to provide learning for another purpose. Moreover, the people who purchase learning in the corporate sector tend to purchase learning for one purpose, while the people who purchase learning in the public sector tend to purchase learning for another purpose.

In the corporate sector, the people who purchase learning do so with the belief that the purchase of learning will help their company make more money. This is because the purpose of a corporation is to make money - is almost solely to make money - and thus any activities undertaken by the corporation are based on that need. Corporations make money by selling goods or providing services, and so the purpose of learning in a corporate environment is to enable the corporation to either sell their goods or services for more money or (more frequently) to lower the cost of producing these goods or services. Thus, learning is directed toward a specific goal as determined by the corporation.

In the public sector, two major groups of people purchase learning. On the one hand, public institutions, such as governments or school boards, purchase learning. On the other hand, individuals, such as university students, purchase learning. Typically (but not always) this is a combined purchase: the student will pay a share and the government will pay a share. Thus, typically, the purpose of the learning purchased is split between the two: the student's purposes matter, but so do the government's. Some students purchase learning simply to make money, others to broaden their horizons, others for other purposes. Governments often purchase learning in order to improve the economy, but they also purchase learning in order to ensure there is a base of knowledge common among all its citizens: a base level of literacy and numeracy, for example, an understanding of civil and moral codes of conduct, an awareness of shared goals and aspirations (such as, say, multiculturalism).

In corporate learning, the people who provide learning tend to be corporations. Thus, both the providers and purchasers of learning have the same objective: to make money. Because the provider of learning in a corporate environment has no other interest, it is more able and willing to subsume its interests under those of the purchaser. If the purchaser's priority is to teach people to make better widgets, then the corporate learning provider will focus on this objective, and not be troubled by conflicting goals (such as, say, the social and civil morality of making widgets). Corporations, in other words, have learned that it is important that the goals of both the purchasers and providers of learning are aligned.

In the public sector, the purchasing agency usually manages the learning itself and employs individuals to perform the various tasks involved (this also happens in a corporate environment (though learning companies don't get very far complaining aboyt the 'monopoly' when, say, IBM runs its own learning program internally)). By running learning themselves governments are much more able to ensure the alignment of the learning taking place with the goals the government had in purchasing the learning. If the government wishes to promote multiculturalism, for example, it is much easier to ensure that schools actually promote multiculturalism if you run the schools. But contrast, independent schools (such as, say, charter schools) cannot be relied upon (without supervision) to fulfil the government's objectives. And in a similar manner, private learning academies - who's primary goal is to make money - are likely on occasion to put their own goals above those of the government's: they will teach multiculturalism if it is cost effective to do so, not otherwise.

Because e-learning is (or at least, can be) significantly cheaper than traditional in-class learning, it has been widely adopted in corporate learning, because the same result is achieved at lower cost. Thus it is natural for people to associate e-learning with the corporate style of learning (and indeed, to sometimes depict people advocating lower costs for learning as advocates of corporate learning in the public sector). And insofar as e-learning is offered by private corporations into a public market, there is a danger that these firms' objectives (i.e., their desire for profit) will subsume the purchasers' objectives (that is, basic literacy and the promotion of social, political and cultural values). A private system of education (just like a private system of health care) will leave some people without an education (or health care), for example, because providing education for all (or health care for all) is not as profitable as providing education (or health care) for only those willing to pay for it.

A society must look not only at the costs versus benefits of providing an education, it must look at the costs of not providing an education. While a corporation may simply jettison those employees unable or unwilling to learn, a governments must live with all its citizens (except Alberta - which discovered it could offload its unprofitable citizens to British Columbia). Thus, if an uneducated (or an unhealthy) person creates a drain on society, the government must pay a cost - an economic cost, in some cases, or a social, political or cultural cost - that a corporation would not have to bear.

Public institutions, therefore, cannot allow their own interests to be subsumed by those of education providers. Therefore, they cannot accept - as corporations can - approaches to education simply on the basis that they lower costs. Thus, insofar as people and companies (and there are many) who advocate the simple migration of traing approaches from the corporate to the public sector are seen as posing a danger to the public system by proposing a solution that would cost society more than it would save.

18. Do you think that universities in Canada are moving towards eLearning? If they do is there a risk or benefit associated with that?

Yes. Universities have no choice but to move toward e-learning, if only because the technology makes it implausible that they would not. If you have roads and automobiles, then you cannot plausibly maintain that the only available system of public transport will be by horse and buggy.

Benefits and risks are relative. If you send me $500 then you run the (very real) risk of never seeing that money again, while for me there is only a benefit.

Most writers, when they talk about the risks and benefits of e-learning, talk about the risks and benefits to themselves, or, if they are generous or institution minded, talk about the risks and benefits to colleges or universities. But while I care for these institutions, I care not about the risks and benefits to them: I consider only the risks and benefits to the people they serve: to their students and to society as a whole. On the whole, I believe it is better that colleges and universities survive, but their survival is not unconditional: they must continue to serve the interests of students and society.

Put that way, the risks and benefits are relatively simple to state:

For students, there is the risk that they will not be able to obtain the learning they need and desire, either because the learning is of insufficient quality, or because the mechanisms of distribution make them unable to obtain it

But the potential benefits are enormous: there is the potential that learning will be significantly improved because it will much more closely align with their needs and interests, and that learning that was once inaccessible will become not merely accessible but commonplace.

For society, there is a risk that corporate-style education will become so widespread and with such speed that it is no longer possible to advance the social, cultural and political objectives of education. Society also runs the risk that a reorganization of the educational economy will leave some people without access to an education, resulting in economic costs and social, political and cultural instability.

But there is the potential benefit that new technologies will significantly lower the cost of providing an education and will make it possible to provide much more education for all citizens, thus lowering the economic, social, political and cultural costs it now faces. For example, while there is today a significant cost associated with ensuring that all its citizens are literate, the government of the future may be able to achieve the same result at a fraction of the cost, thus enabling it to extend the range of what may be considered a basic education for all citizens.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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