Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Stephen Downes works with the Digital Technologies Research Centre at the National Research Council of Canada specializing in new instructional media and personal learning technology. His degrees are in Philosophy, specializing in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. He has taught for the University of Alberta, Athabasca University, Grand Prairie Regional College and Assiniboine Community College. His background includes expertise in journalism and media, both as a prominent blogger and as founder of the Moncton Free Press online news cooperative.  He is one of the originators of the first Massive Open Online Course, has published frequently about online and networked learning, has authored learning management and content syndication software, and is the author of the widely read e-learning newsletter OLDaily. Through a thirty-five year career Downes has contributed pioneering work in the fields of online learning games, learning objects and metadata, podcasting, and open educational resources. Recent projects include:gRSShopper, a personal learning environment; E-Learning 3.0, a course on new e-learning technologies; research and development in the use of distributed ledger technology in learning applications; and research on ethics, analytics and the duty of care. Downes is a member of NRC's Research Ethics Board. He is a popular keynote speaker and has spoken in three dozen countries on six continents.

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Coronavirus / Covid19 quick reference kit, to take your class or conference online cheaply and in a hurry:

Creating an Online Class or Conference - Quick Tech Guide


Constructionism and AI: A history and possible futures

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This is a nice paper showing the history and nature of the association between artificial intelligence and the educational theory of constructionism and discussing some current and future prospects. Here's the short version of the history: " In (the) early days... there was a clear relationship between constructionism and symbolic artificial intelligence. More recently, this has changed with the wider shift in AI towards machine learning with neural networks and big data, which constructionism has mirrored." But something is missing, write the authors, in this new emphasis on neural networks. "With neural nets, students are now making ‘toy brains’. They are not programming at the level of concepts, symbols, and plans, but instead are relying upon crude approximations to how neurons work in brains." Maybe (and this would certainly reflect Minsky and Papert's criticisms of connectionism). But maybe programming at the level of concepts, symbols and plans lead students astray in precisely the wrong direction. No matter; the paper references numerous interesting projects and resources and should be read by anyone interested in the topic. The paper is open access but I found the BERA system made it difficult to download, so I saved a copy here: 13 page PDF.

Today: 4 Total: 4 Ken Kahn, Niall Winters, British Journal of Educational Technology, 2021/06/18 [Direct Link]

Wow! Some significant statements coming from this highly-regarded physics professor!

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I guess now that a Harvard professor has endorsed it, the debate about onlin elearning is now over. "“I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now," he (Eric Mazur) says. "I am convinced that there is no way I could do anything close to what I’m doing in person. Online teaching is better than in person." This post links to Teaching: Why an Active-Learning Evangelist Is Sold on Online Teaching by Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle and which may or may not be locked behind a paywall (depending, I guess, on what the AI says about your liklihood of subscribing).

Today: 5 Total: 5 Daniel S. Christian, Learning Ecosystems, 2021/06/18 [Direct Link]

CS First

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As Richard Byrne summarizes, "CS First is a free computer science curriculum designed specifically for classroom use." Basically, you set up your class (Google will ask you some questions about what class you're teaching and what tools you've used) and then you offer a set of basic hands-on activities recommended by the classroom engine. Actual programming exercises "teach students the basics of block-based coding and Scratch." Why would Google do this? Beyond there being an industry-wide need for more talent, Google is also able to foster a way of thinking and reasoning about problem-solving in general, as well as to introduce people to Google's own technology and the how the company approaches emerging challenges in general. See also: Google's tech toolkit for families and guardians.

Today: 4 Total: 4 Google for Education, 2021/06/18 [Direct Link]

What if the future of media is only newsletters and podcasts? Axios seems to think that’s right.

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If I were starting an institution of learning in 2021 this is pretty much the recipe I'd follow: "blog, newsletter, podcast. From there you scale up and start adding additional verticals, like events (both virtual and in-person as more people get vaccinated), discussion forums (like a Discord server for paying subscribers), a YouTube channel and so on." The overall cost for participants would be a lot lower than traditional instruction. I'd look for (but not depend on) government and industry support for the wider more open-access elements on the basis of public support and social value. More expensive personal and hands-on applications would be targeted to the people and places where they're most needed.

Today: 4 Total: 4 David Tvrdon, The Fix, 2021/06/18 [Direct Link]

The Growing Business of Student Surveillance

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Tim Stahmer summarizes a recent article in The New Yorker, Is Online Test-Monitoring Here to Stay? "Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes, especially since the broader student surveillance industry is rapidly expanding." He observes that most teachers don't trust students, and adds "despite the biases hard-wired into these systems, and the lack of evidence for both the need and effectiveness, their use will expand. Someone – or something – must be vigilant watching for cheaters."

Today: 61 Total: 61 Tim Stahmer, Assorted Stuff, 2021/06/17 [Direct Link]

Power dynamics: A systemic inquiry

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I enjoyed this discussion of the dynamics of power in society (though I confess I had to read some way in before I was sure Anna Birney was talking about community relations and not energy policy, which reinforces how deeply the metaphor runs). The article is divided roughly equally between looking at existing power structures and trying "to understand how we transition to a future that is equitable and just and has power dynamics (new power) that are fluid, plural and understand life as a process." In particular, I think it's worth sharing the set of practices that lead to this outcome (none of which, I might add, involves 'telling other people what to do or not do'): minimizing one's own power over others, modeling and using processes of shared power, and enabling people to develop their own sense of agency.

Today: 57 Total: 57 Anna Birney, Networkweaver, 2021/06/17 [Direct Link]

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