Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Future Learning Environments 2021

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Apr 28, 2021

This is an unedited AI transcript of a conversation I had with a group of people at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. Please note that the AI does not distinguish between speakers; in all, sever different speakers spoke. To hear the audio please see


Sure. Before I present you our part of our task force, can I kindling ask permission to record this meeting if it's possible? Maybe not. Yeah. Yes, it's definitely possible and I would also like to record it on my end as well because I like recording my meetings and putting them online.

If that's okay with you. Okay, I hope so. If not and tell me it's okay. It's okay. Okay, so please I'll milk me introduce because I've already shared information about you to our group and I would like to present you Dr. Jason Sparks and adoptable then so Jason Sparks is our advising the greatest clue for vacation and he is the lead of this small task force and he'll be providing you more.

Like information about it. And a lot of fundable that is our professor from the Department of Turkish studies at the School of Social Sciences Humanities. So, I think we were ready to start. Yeah. I'm already. Okay. All right Well Stephen thank you very very much for for your time and I'll just say a couple of things.

So we're from Nazarbayev University here in what was Astana Kazakhstan and now it is Nursultan Kazakhstan and our university is is relatively young so we're in our 10th year if I'm not mistaken for the undergraduates. I've been here for eight years in the graduate programs and like universities all around the world we've been you know in the throws of this online learning and teaching experience and I think our university.

Is recognized that this is also an opportunity to maybe capitalize on some of the you know expertise and you know innovations that we've all been forced to create over the last few months as and in the hopes of moving back to you know, place based campus experience and really our task force is tasked with doing a little inquiry and coming up with a report for our school on what would be the ideal learning environment for our students in the next five years and they really the university really does want to put this into a kind of action plan and start.

The funds some of these things So we're really meant to provide a kind of vision and a little bit of a game plan for doing that our discussion with you today is really focused on some of these visionary things where we might go and what some of the trends are that can help guide us and we know we know you're someone who's going to be able to help us here.

So thanks very very much. So, I mean, we we have a couple of the obvious questions to get started with but first. I wonder that what do you think of this task force that we are this idea of a task force like us tasked with doing this? Oh, well, it's a good idea.

I mean, I'm just reading earlier today the old saying never let a good crisis go to waste and had certainly what we have and you know the advantage of the last year and some is that we've been forced to reconsider some of the practices that we thought, you know could never change couldn't imagine changing them and we've been forced to change them and we've had to do it in a hurry and you know and haven't always responded as well as we could have but it.

Gives us this broader perspective and gives us the opportunity to to bring in some of the lessons having a task force in particular to look at it is a good way of focusing your efforts. I'm working on the assumption that you know, you're looking at getting is broad-based representation both within the membership of the task force as well as from the perspectives that you're getting and I'm hoping that you're speaking to people not only.

That are involved in the university system or the academic system, but also some of those who are outside the system who perhaps for the last two years were prevented from accessing the system for one reason or another or perhaps people who were prevented from accessing the system the way it was before and might find new opportunities with some of the methods that have been adopted during the last year.

It's very interesting. I mean, obviously, I haven't thought of it. It's surprising how few people do and it's a point that I've taken to trying to remind people that you know, the the the audience the the target population the demographics, whatever of the university aren't is not composed just of the people in the university the entire community.

Great yes speaking about. Because diversity within the membership we have three more of our members of the task force joining us today, so I will just briefly introduce it to them we're in Rocco is the deputy direct center preparatory studies, he's the cool lead of this task force our recovery, he's our graphic instructional designer and we together with him like me and I oh regardless and I are working at the same unit of innovative learning hub and middleware design over she is representative of the students in this task force awesome.

And so for those of you just joined know you were not late. I was early. Great thank you, thank you for joining us. Steven and thank you. I'm on for organizing this it's wonderful. Yeah this is great thanks very much and so yeah I guess we did start a little bit early and I'm sorry about that guys, so what we just started out with this kind of ice breaking question, but we're curious, you know what Stephen thought of our task force in the work and that was very that was a great answer we also got some good suggestions there well and if I'm I'll ask a couple of the obvious questions but I I'm hoping this is a real conversation among us all but then but Steven what do you think so again we're tasked with describing what the ideal learning environment might be or could be.

Five years what do you think of could be what is an ideal learning environment to you and you know for a university situation well, I guess my first remark would be something like, you know, the ideal learning environment is different for every learner, you know, even among the people I'm looking at here today you're coming from different backgrounds different perspectives, perhaps have different income levels, maybe speak different languages.

I don't know about linguistic diversity in Kazakhstan, unfortunately. And you know, so and some will be living in cities some will be living in rural areas some will have good bandwidth and connectivity others will not you know, there's lots of debate about learning styles and I won't go into that but some people prefer to learn through conversations some people prefer to learn through reading directions and trying to make something you know, there's all kinds of different approaches.

So I think that the ideal learning environment right off the bat before we get into any specifics would have to be something that allows for individual modes of participation and by individual. I don't mean just doing it by yourself but I mean individually selected modes of participation as much as possible.

Yeah, that's. Everybody's talking about we want to get back to doing our classes in person and and but maybe take some lessons and you know, they talk about that in the workplace as well, we want to get back to the workplace in person and I I look at my employers and say no, you can't make me go back there.

I'm happy here. I'm working from my own home. I'm in my own office. I'm comfortable here. I'm having a nice chair. I have better bandwidth been in the office. I've cats they won't let me have cats in the office and I need cats, you know. Am I think, the same is true of education, you know, creating a requirement that people show up at a specific time in a specific place and for whatever reasons that's done and there are reasons why that's done it also creates a barrier to some people not to all people and certainly many people prefer that but you know, it's it's I think necessary to think about what happens if you can't show up at the right place at the right time does that mean you don't get an education?

I think that's not really an idea. Outcome.

You've written about and and works quite a bit. Examining personal learning environments, so I wonder what you haven't communicated that's that's that's key to your study there that connects with with with the response that you just gave to to Jason first what I haven't communicated that's a hard question because what haven't I communicated?

I'm one of these people if I have an idea I'll share it and then later on I'll think about whether it was a good idea, but so I actually communicated. This year, yeah. I mean. I've been working on this concept of a personal learning idea or personal learning environment for a long time and I've messed around with code.

I've messed around with my own application of looked at the different concepts. And it's really hard and and I'll admit it one thing I said just yesterday in a presentation so I guess it's not something I haven't said but it's something I hadn't said until yesterday, you know, yeah, I gave a talk about connectivism and I said, you know doing it the traditional way.

More personalization is harder, it means more things it means adding things it means extra languages, it means extra modes of communication customization creating additional choices, but personalizing things the connectivist way means less means fewer rules fewer restrictions fewer constraints, you know. I I've set up my system so that.

It's very customizable for the individual. And what that means for the institution is they don't need to worry so much about presenting content and all of these different ways they provide the basic information and then the individual learner creates the environment creates the context and even the activities around that content for themselves now that's still hard and and creating application that does that is still hard and those such application exists but on the other hand.

We have the whole internet we've got tons of tools available to us and this is something we've always done with connectivism and our our MOOCs is to try to use these other tools as much as possible there's frustrations there, you know because if you know more tools you use the more login IDs you have to have and students find that very frustrating.

I find that very frustrating then so that that's a concern but it's better than trying to bring everybody in. To one centralized tool like one centralized learning management system, or even something sprawling like Google classroom with all of its applications or you know, the Microsoft environment so. You know, I think thats maybe the you know, yes for a big unsaid thing the big unsaid thing is that you create a lot of advantages especially for the institution but also for the student if you decouple the institutions environment from the individuals environment and allow those to be different and and not try to control the individuals environment as much as you might be inclined to.

I don't know if that's the kind of answer you want it, but that's the best I could come up with for that question. It's it's it's fascinating you're you're suggesting a lot of your suggesting a lot about autonomy there you're suggesting a lot of investing a lot of trust in course designers in instructors even in students.

I heard you suggest yeah some the role that students can play in perhaps materializing resourcing teaching even even assessing maybe the course is to which they belong and that's there's a lot of moving parts there, there's a lot of responsibility yeah and I imagine that. There's a lot of.

Investing that kind of trust there's a lot of responsibility that that is required at multiple levels in order to achieve. I think this wonderful vision that you're just sort of you're giving us definitely some very critical some some critical broad strokes here to sort of motivate us but I can also see complicated that that is going to be to live into well.

I'm to be very frank. I mean, most people haven't received the the training and development to use a phrase that they, Need in order to function in such an environment and most people, you know have been trained through their lives to follow directions and I assume that's true and has extend I certainly know that it's true in Canada and you know, we're we're a pretty unrestrained kind of nation where you know if we can set off on our own we will but we still follow directions and that's how we've learned how to learn so you know, it's not like you're going to suddenly.

Switch from what you're doing to this kind of vision. That would be terrible advice and I would never give it. So. But the idea here is to see what the end point is and you did begin this by saying, you know, what would the ideal environment be? Well, that's the ideal environment.

But you're not going to get there in September. No one's going to get there in September, but if you have this as a target or at least among your targets because you know, again, there are many different priorities in an educational system, then you can begin to say things like what things could we do to enable greater autonomy and greater response.

Ability, right? You know what actions can we take? How are we going to evaluate these actions to make sure that you know, they're actually feasible. You know, what can we build into how we're training people and again I don't like these were training people but I'm going to because to a certain degree, you know, being autonomous being a you know, somebody who knows how to learn this is a skill, you know, this isn't.

Now people act as though well it takes a certain special sort of person to be able to work autonomously and on their own and develop their own learning and that's not true it takes a person who has learned those skills over time. They've learned skills simple skills like time management, although I'm not one to talk about time management, but more important skills like being willing to ask questions being curious about things doing the work.

Practice, you know, developing the habit of doing something every day on an ongoing basis. That's you know, that's not doesn't take a special kind of person to do. It takes time and effort and you know for most of us the appropriate guidance. So setting that sort of framework. What do people need to be able to do what does our system need to be able to do?

That that creates the target. You know from a systemic perspective, you know, it could be something simple like allowing people to select more courses as electives or whatever that's a bad example, but you get the idea, right? You know a lot of colleges certainly and I don't know about your system in particular but, In Canada, we have community colleges and we have very prescribed sets of courses that you have to take.

And. So creating greater autonomy means in that list of courses allowing students to take different courses. Now most universities have great freedom flexibility of selecting courses, but if you didn't say then you would want to think about okay, how do we enable this greater freedom and you have to plan for that, you know, what does it take to offer more courses that people can select from the time staffing resourcing scheduling all of that sort of stuff?

Or a more concrete example. What would it take to allow a student to be able to take a course completely online or if there is an in-person component to be able to schedule that flexibly to fit their own schedule. And again, you run it as a mental exercise, right?

Suppose we were planning to do this. What would we do? And then that creates targets that you can look at for longer-term development. That sort of thing.

So it sounds like one of the key one of the features of an ideal learning environment would be one that plans for enabling students to have greater autonomy and help develop students to be the kind of learners that you imagine you want, right? That's correct and and ultimately. Ultimately.

I mean if it were me and it isn't but if it were me I would actually want to change the focus of learning from being defined as a body of content. To being defined by what participants in the learning want to do. And that's that's a little bit hard to get a handle on.

It's a lot easier if you talk about more specific instances of learning like, you know, maybe project based learning or something like that. But the idea here is that the end goal of the learning is maybe to to build something to create something to accomplish something to become something.

And there's a great deal of flexibility here because out there in the world, there's a large number of jobs and positions and you know, even a hobbies or projects that people can do needs that they have. And then. As a person is developing the capacity to do these things and they will need various support learning support and they don't know ahead of time what they'll need.

You can kind of plan on it, but you don't know ahead of time what they're gonna want to do. And that's that's why we just settle on subjects right because it's easier but if we're creating greater flexibility. What we want at least in my world is to help as much as possible the individual to define what it is that they want to do or at least the direction they want to go because people are going to change their mind.

I changed my mind so I assume other people will want to change their mind they follow what could be called a strange attractor right there's there's always something attracting people goals desires needs whatever but it's a strange attractor, it isn't just a single point it move. D and bounces around and they follow this through the course of their lives, so you can't really predict what it is, they're going to want to do but whatever it is at any given time they're going to have needs.

And the role of the institution in this sort of picture is to best provide for those needs. Now again, you can pull back from that ideal picture for example by saying well look we're not going to support just any kind of thing people want to become we're going to focus on say, you know people wanting to become lawyers of different types or people wanting to become medical professionals or whatever right you that might be an intermediate step but in the long term in the educational system as a whole and not just jurisitation really what we want to do.

It is support people in these endeavors however they need to be supported and now we we begin to think about okay, what what would support look like yeah and you know wouldn't involve a conference like this yeah how many students have the opportunity to have a conference like this with a panel of experts it never happens, you know, would it be one-on-one tutorial support would it be guided instructions to build something you know with?

Videos and and you know how to's and things like that would it be Richard Feynman videos about fundamental particles in physics, which I strongly recommend by the way, you know, any of these things in you know, again you can't list them all you can't create them all ahead of time so you find your institution in the process of responding to these needs dynamically often, you know with you know, unpredictable.

I'm predictable days. Done a part of the staff well, you know, the student needs come in you respond to them but as you're doing this. You're also creating this very large library of content that again can be used and reused or you know, you can apply artificial intelligence to it and mine it for new ideas etc, you know again far future right we're talking ideals here, so you begin by thinking the role of the institution is to support the learner in their learning endeavor.

And then you you begin asking what that looks like and that's different from saying the role of the institution is to teach teach people x y and z. And you know as soon as you make that conceptual flip. The world looks completely different at least it did to me.

And I was I just want to quickly sum up and then I then I don't want to then I want someone else to talk but I just wanted to know that in asking about the ideal learning environment you really focused on learning and learners you said the role of the institution is to support the learner allowing for the diversity and also then enabling learners to become those autonomous owners, maybe developing them in some skills and helping them do what they want to do.

I just wanted to say that but I think that's very interesting was the learning and learner, okay? I'm sorry. I think I interrupted some.

Maybe I. Think so um, you know those don't when we have the meeting with the doctor or curt bulk from Indiana University, yeah, he was the one who actually told us if you guys want to be aware of all the current and emerging trends in higher education, you need to subscribe to our dance blog so what I did actually and the the one threat especially specifically that I just like it comes to my mind every time I read your boxes learning analytics, but also I was just like, To ask what do you see as the real must help for the higher education in terms of having a like, you know, like a must have following and teaching but in terms of etc but in terms of.

It. I like educational technology, okay, oh there's a one must have yeah, three four, yeah I mean. That's I mean, let me think. But I mean the very first thing that comes to my mind is banned with you know, I mean if you don't have bandwidth, it becomes really hard to do anything and so you know, you need the infrastructure for that bandwidth he need power you.

Computers to use that bandwidth. I know I'm talking about pretty basic stuff but you said the one thing that all institutions need you can't do any of this stuff without that, you know, if I were going to my minister and I had a university and I was going to my minister and I was asking for funding.

You know on the technologies. I'd I'd be putting most of my effort into making sure I get adequate bandwidth and yeah we can make do with $10 computers but we can't make do with 300 bud bandwidth it's just not feasible so that that would be the first thing that would be the key thing, you know, the you can do so much literally with it well.

I think they're $14 now but you know the raspberry pie or whatever you can do so much with really simple computers. But the bandwidth is the key, so I'd be the first thing.

Beyond that I mean, You know, and everyone's gonna say something like this and I'm not going to disagree there has to be a good.

How do I want to phrase it? Because everybody's going what everybody's going to say is your staff have to be trained to use the technology but I don't mean that. What I mean is that. The staff at the University have this relationship with the tools that is very comfortable and very familiar and it that's a hard concept but that's what you need and I'll define it by analogy in the previous generation our previous generation of faculty and staff had that relationship with books.

Right a faculty member or an educated person would never see a book as this challenge to be overcome no a book is an opportunity right a book is this thing you can approach sure you could read it from beginning to end but that's a very dull way of approaching a book, you know, a book is a resource you do things with it, it's stimulates thoughts and allows you to be creative you build things off of it, it helps you make your own book.

S. Right so that kind of fluency. Is needed with technology is needed with you know, the tools that we use for learning today, and so I don't mean learning to use this tool or that tool well. But rather I need it in the sense of each new tool each new application is like a new book.

It's not this big challenging thing. It's an opportunity. Sure, you could just follow all the instructions on how to use it beginning to end but that's not a very imaginative way to use a piece of technology, right? You explore it. You do different things with it. You try things with it.

You try to make it do what it wasn't designed to do. My favorite. Story about the internet is that we have built. A trillion dollar. Infrastructure system. Incredibly complex and incredibly expensive we've devoted entire budgets of countries to build it and we use it to send cat pictures to each other.

And that tells me of the kind of fluency that we want. So that you know, it's we're so comfortable using it that we use it for the everyday.

That's that's hard to develop and that kind of culture is hard to develop, especially in an academic institution, which has previously so invested in books. And it's still invested in books and they love books. And I don't know my love books too. But but that's what you need. That's the second thing you need.

And if you have bandwidth and if you have fluency, you have everything everything else follows from that but developing that is hard.

Oh today well, I mean it depends on the bandwidth you have at your institution, but I'd be looking at cloud-based so many reasons for that. Yeah, it's just so many reasons. It is hard to maintain a server-based environment. I know because I've done it, you know. Simple example in this happened to me.

What happens if your server installation is flagged by anti-spam groups as a spam site. All of a sudden none of your email messages are being sent anywhere. What do you do? Right? So using cloud-based and hosted services will address things like that. I'm not automatically but but you know, it makes it much much easier to handle and and that's why I switched my email from you know self-hosted to clown-based because all of a sudden all of my emails were being rejected not because I'm a spammer.

But because I got flagged to spam and I could not convince the anti-spam services that I'm not a spammer. So yeah cloud, you know, there are other reasons as well, um, you know interestingly from the point of view of your students, it won't make a difference right whether you host the infrastructure or whether you use the cloud because it's all cloud-based right, you know, there's just you're building your own cloud infrastructure as it compared to using a pre-built cloud infrastructure, my major caution would be price, you know, you have to be on top of that with a cloud-based infrastructure.

You know, you have to have safeguards in place to make sure that you're you don't run price, you know, you don't run through price increases to rapidly on the other hand if you have a certain demand, you know, a surge of demand you can scale up a cloud environment in a way you can't scale up immune house environment so yeah right now for me there's no real question.

I would go cloud.

I request a question thank you very much for this presentation my questions about flexibility to the faculty, so you mentioned let's work your students how how faculty can be flexed yeah terms of creativity. That's that's a terrific question. The university faculty are really odd in a particularly unique way in that all of their education and training is for a different job than the one they have.

If you went through accidental odd things to say but if you think about it, it's true take your average chemistry professor. Okay the chemistry professor is taking a bachelor's master's PhD advanced studies post-doc all in chemistry. This person knows everything about chemistry. But what's their job teaching? That makes no sense does it and.

That's a really hard concept to grasp yeah now we have people like Tony Bates here in Canada who say well look their job is teaching. So every professor should learn how to teach. Should be given support in how to teach. And I see the reasoning. But. You know chemistry professors became chemists because they liked chemistry not because they like teaching they're interested in chemistry not teaching and you're going to any classroom in any university and you'll see the person at the front of the room is interested in their subject far more than they are in the students that are in front of them.

I know that's a horrible generalization and sometimes it's not true. I mean, sometimes the the professors really are engaged in the teaching process, but Arts agree, they're not. And I say that's okay and I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say because you know, it seems like well forget about the students and that's the opposite of what I'm saying.

But now we come to the question of flexibility for professors. What we want of our chemistry professors is that they continue to be the best chemist that they can be. If that's their interest. I mean, if they develop a different interest we should probably support that as well within reason because you know, they were hired as a chemistry professor we really expect that.

But there going to want to and be able to teach to contribute to the teaching and learning mandate of the university in different ways. You know, and I did a presentation a while back, you know the role of the educator and there are many different roles of educators everything from the one-on-one mentor role to the project management role to the front of the room lecturer role to the administrator and the number crunch or some professors of chemistry really discovered that they love managing other chemists.

You know, it's just the way it is so now this is really hard to accommodate if all of your learning is the same way all of the time if what you do is offer courses that are taught by a professor in that it you can't be flexible but interestingly.

If you take the approach of you know, we're offering these different kinds of support for students. That allows us to imagine. An environment where our professors do different things according to their interests and abilities some professors should work directly one-on-one with students in small research teams, you know, and so you'd set up these research teams you'd have you all a few first-year students a few second-year students and so on and the professor would gather them together and they'd work on projects MIT media loves set up like that.

Right? Other professors like to lecture like me. So okay, set them up and have them do lectures and have students come in you don't have to make them do a course but you know over the year have them do a course of lectures. Invite students invite the public, you know, you have somebody who's good at lecturing about chemistry share that with the community.

You know for the management types, you know, give them management jobs. You know, some people like writing they like doing research and papers so you encourage them and doing research and papers. And each for each one of them for each one of these professors though, they can involve students in what they're doing, you know, the the lecturing types for example have students as audiences, they might have students follow along as they build their lectures.

I like to do a lot of my work for example openly and I wish I could do it even more openly, you know, I spent. You know, I gave a big talk last night on connectivism. Is it two-hour talk and I spent two-day solid preparing for that talk? I wish I could have shared that as well as the time was nice to share the talk but people who are interesting, you know, how do ideas get formed?

How do you organize things into a presentation? People might have enjoyed seeing I don't know but you know, you only get that possibility if you make that available. So you're sort of trying to match things. Some people like, The gangster in questions. I like doing that too. So you'd set up, you know this chemistry professor he's still doing chemistry but he's gonna answer questions.

Oh, I'm a you just had somebody crash here video. And that was cute. That's what I love about everybody working from home. We get to see family members pets, whatever. I like that a lot. So that's basically my answer, you know by creating flexibility for students we also create opportunities to create flexibility for our instructors.

It was very it was very interesting Stephen because as you were talking I was thinking. In saying that the chemistry teacher who may not be a great teacher, it's not really a problem and then the first thing I was thinking of well, what about you know, the role of the institution to support the learner maybe autonomous that they have all that flexibility in the learning but you you flipped it and not only is the the chemistry teacher who's not necessarily a great teacher not only is that not really a problem.

He's an asset in another way if you reorganize the entire teaching and learning environment. Yeah, the trick is reorganizing. Teaching and. Learning environment not something you're doing by September.


Here I think about sort of the the professor as lecture as almost like a tower of Babel like with babbling right babbling not nonsense, but but scientific knowledge for example, yeah but like on lecture upon lecture and it's it's kind of stacking the next singularly where you have this tremendous depth of expertise and you're deploying professors in the same sort of mode and asking them to take on all of these other responsibilities that they're they may or may not be built for or trained for yeah and practice has expanded.

Quite a bit since we've moved online learning where we're spokes have learned new skills now and the visual that you give me is not one of sort of stacking higher, but almost creating like a a distributed leadership model among teachers something that's more circular yeah that's flat even where you capitalize on the strengths encourage the strengths and link up professors, perhaps who have a weakness but who have an interest in exploring you make me think of a Mihai checks and Mihai's flow concept right of of bringing sort of like the state of Relaxation and a sort of a peak of passion together or working on people's areas of weakness connected to others areas of strengths and doing this kind of professional development within and creating these these wonderful teams who are who are doing more with each other for students and making the making the team much more dynamic it's it's it's really interesting.

I think I think when we sort of pull these threads I'm really glad we're recording this conversation because I think when we pull some of these. Threads these rich threads are giving us let's get it's gonna be a great start for us to follow through on that's why I like recording these things, you know, a lot of the times the idea is only occur when I'm in a conversation like this and I think that's probably true of most people and the trick is to recognize when the idea happens and then as you say pull in the thread I like the way you you brought in the concept of flow and you know, we think of flow, As something that applies to the learner and it does right we want to catch that ballast between two easy and two challenging and get them right in that channel but that applies to professors too, you know, I've seen professors who you know, you know spent 20 years coming in teaching the same subject they're not in flow anymore, they're in stasis, you know, they're they're and and and they hate their job and and you know, that's not good for anybody, you know, you you want to challenge.

And engage and and bring people into this, you know, creative mode of being whether they're teachers or students. I mean, it works for both. We're talking about what's best for students and we have a student here. I wondered where what do you think about what you're hearing and what what kind of questions do you have for Dr.

Downs? One like small question. So first thank you so much for this health response now like we are facing underneath and like coordinating it already demonstrators said all unexpected interruptions, they can change our ways or learn.

Er what students and what instructor and even a community can do you know that you create not only flexible also the same time somehow stable learning environment in others that can be like that can or this any change any challenge it's such a like unexpected situation happen and how instructor and students can be really can be prepared.

Yeah, that's a hard question. I mean because it touches on elements of being prepared it touches on elements of resilience it touches on elements of capacity and you know, everybody's different in that regard some people are less able to cope with you know, something like a pandemic or you know, any disaster.

I mean, there was a an earthquake in. Northeastern India today, you know and not creates an emergency situation for people there fortunately not a bad earthquake, but you know, you know in Canada. About 20 years ago, we had a nice storm and everything in eastern Ontario and Western Quebec was covered with three inches of ice you know, what you do, you know all the trees started falling and collapsing the power lines all broke there was a massive blackout and it was minus 30 degrees out side, you know, not everybody can cope in an environment like that, so.

You know, I think this is advice good advice generally but but but it especially applies in these situations. I mean the first thing I mean, well, the first thing is to take care of yourself. Because you know, it's it's you know the old story right, you know this the sick doctor cannot heal, you know, or if you're playing this crashing get your own oxygen first then you know, so that's that's the first thing you know, and you know some people take that to extremes and that's all they say you look out for yourself and that's it and that's a terrible way to live but you have to look out for yourself.

I use the expression and I'm not sure if it works. And what it works in seafaring nations where people used to work on tall ships with sales. And they go up into the mast in the storm to adjust the sales and ship depends on this right but the saying is one hand for yourself one hand for the ship you have to make sure you're hanging on so that you don't fall in order to be able to do your work, so that's the first thing.

But the second thing is. That the reason why you're doing this the focus all of this is on other people. And. You're engaged in a series of relations with other people and this is especially true during an emergency but it's always true generally. And again, especially in western societies like Canada and the United States people say people look at transactions and they think how can I benefit from this transaction?

And that's exactly the wrong approach especially during an emergency. And rather the idea should be to enter any interaction with the perspective, how can I offer value how can I help the other people what can I contribute? And it sounds selfless but it's not and it's not into regards first of all by contributing by helping other people you're making society stronger so during a pandemic your first thought is how can I help people during the pandemic and then you look at the different ways you can help and everybody's going to be different some people can volunteer and medical facilities other people can take care of children while their parents volunteer and, Medical facilities other people can.

You know provide information for people, you know, right documentation other people can help with research, etc. But the second thing is that. By looking for the best way you can contribute to the wider community that's also the best way to develop your own capacities your own expertise and your own capabilities each time you help somebody else you're becoming better and you know that does have the practical benefit of making you indispensable to the rest of the community, but also has the practical benefit of making you a better person.

Now you are asking about something pretty specific right, how can you know, how do we respond to something like the pandemic and I said well, it means being prepared. The way you're prepared. For something like a pandemic is by having this attitude before the pandemic and I know it's a little late now over in the middle of it but there's gonna be another emergency in the future and the best time to start anything is now so even if you're not prepared to contribute meaningfully for this pandemic and not everyone is and that's okay.

By changing the focus by beginning to think about how best can I contribute you know how best can I can I look to and address someone's needs that's how to prepare and and I know that sounds like all kind of a hand waving answer but it really is about that, you know, I mean and that's not just me saying it that's you know loud shoe saying it that's gandi saying it let's a whole.

List of people throughout history saying, you know, if you focus on service, you get your own benefits back many times over. Does that help? Is that useful.

It's speaking to a it's speaking to a kind of ethos that I that I love. I think it works for it works in education it works. I think it works in just about every facet of life trying to have more people around you who give more than they take or who want to give more than they take it's in it speaks to the values based it speaks to values based hiring it speaks to values-based teaching and learning a values-based education values-based love and disregard friendship, etc.

But it's it's you really are speaking to the future of education because so much of what I think we grow into as learners and maybe as educators as what can I get out of this thing I'm going to get a document yeah a piece of paper. I need the paper yeah, I need to get through this course, it's give me give me give me the education yeah and the teacher saying give me give me the assignment and you're speaking to something much more consequential the converse that the design that we have.

Must be consequential the approach that that teachers and students alike must must matter must be of consequence right so that the conversations that we're having the the the way that we materialize a course and teach a course the way that we assess the course it has to matter because if it doesn't matter then why yeah why I care right why should I care about your assessment if you want me to give but there's nothing worth giving to or for?

I don't really give a damn knew him and if it if it doesn't matter it doesn't matter right and you're speaking to the question of why you're speaking the purpose driven education the most important thing of all really and trying to redesign a community that's that's that puts product on the back burner and purpose at the foreground it's it's the it's reverse engineering really and the hard part is you can't just tell people that right you can't just tell people like I just did be selfless, right?

Um, you can't because people won't listen and that's fair enough. But what does work is being the example. And and I find that when I'm around people who are selfless I am a lot more selfless because you know, it's really awkward to be the only selfish person in a room so you know, it's it's not about what's being said it's about actually living and instantiating that value and you know, sometimes it's even better if you don't actually say it you just do it, but sometimes it needs to be said.

I know I know times times kind of we. Picking about an hour of your time doctor drowns and adjusted whole if I can interrupt don't call me doctor. I do not have a PhD so you should not call me doctor people make the same mistake with you as they do with me sometimes sometimes I sometimes I accept false praise and and sometimes I correct them yeah, it happens all the time and it's yeah just call me Stephen well Stephen you've been you've been wonderful for us and I think you.

You know through my mind something of our project we're broadly looking at right future of learning from our particular university a few years from now you've suggested the difficulty of trying to imagine radical transformative change occurring in such a short amount of time you said certainly it's not going to be ready for September or or by Halloween and probably realistically this is going to take this this may be even generational change that we're talking about here, but but I wonder sort of in conclusion if you could.

Share with us just based on what you know about our project in conversations with I'm on and what you've heard today, what are some things maybe that some threads that you're you'd be interested in pulling if you were on our end in sort of exploring this idea for community.

That's really hard because I'm not as familiar as I would like to be with Kazakhstan, you know, and and I find that you know, each each place has its own local strengths. And let's say. Because. Barity over gaining familiarity with our with our own operation on our own right guess what would be useful to link that to some threads that you might put yeah well I mean, but that's that's just dead the the first threads I'd pull would be local threads the localization what unique capabilities are there, you know, and so I can't name them because I don't know what they are but you know when I was in New Brunswick, for example, one of the unique thread was the, English French bilingualism where people really did work and live in both English and French and that creates a lot of opportunities and it also creates a lot of capabilities and and it positions new Brunswick right at the right at the crossroads between the English-speaking world and the French speaking world and that was unique that that was special right so all of a sudden you have a way of bridging for example East Africa with West Africa, East being English-speaking and or sorry.

It's yeah and West being French speaking for example right here now. I live in a small town in eastern. Ontario it's farm country cattle country, a lot of milk a lot of cheese, you know harvesting grain things like that and so I look for that kind of strength, you know, there's a history of farmers co-ops or our major employer in a place called Saint Albert, this is a, Is a cheese cooperative right so there's a history of organizing and working together, you know in what is a very difficult industry agriculture is probably the hardest industry there is and and that's how they've managed it and I'd look for that.

You know, every place is different every perspective is different and there's something unique everywhere and you know. I don't know what it is for Kazakhstan. I can't tell you like I can imagine right, you know, the the the vast plains of central Asia there's a lot of history there there's a lot of movement through the territory there there are large wide open spaces that must mean something, you know.

About how that translates into you know, the the on the ground advantage that you have the the particular capability, you know. It's hard to get a finger on I you know what? I you know, we started by. Me saying something like well, I hope you got a diversity of opinions from both inside and outside the institution that's what this process is intended to produce right you can't learn about a community without engaging the community and you can't serve the community without learning about the community.

So that to me would be the key thing, you know, I keep trying to tell institutions in this country that you know, you have to focus on more than just your student body, you know, we're looking now at a future where there's gonna be a lot of pressure on institutional budgets, you know, we've spent a lot of money during the pandemic and our future is going to be restraint.

And there's gonna be a lot of pressure to pull back on funding for our institutions well, how do you preserve how do you preserve the institution, how do you preserve the support well, you have to serve the community that is supporting you? I read in the chronicle of higher education just a couple of days ago or responds against that saying no no no, we can't be serving the entire community we have to retrench and think of ourselves as only academics that's a good way to become very small and very irrelevant again and it's also a good way to create a destructive force in society rather than a helpful force in society it a long story there, but.

So I'd be trying to find you know, we talk about focus on the student but there's also the focus on the community and be looking at every way I can to provide ongoing day by day support for the community not support in you know, as as a way of raising revenue or anything like that, but support as how can I make this community better and thereby learn more about the community to make it even better still and it becomes a, Symbiotic relationship right where you are a part of the community drawing on the strengths and helping build the strengths whatever they are.

Great. We just I know that we are run out of time so I mean, I know that you got to have one question and after that I think will will conclude our just like wonderful conversation. In cada. Hello, Stephen, thank you so much for your time so far. I have a quick question on I've noticed in your profile did you talk a little bit about your learning 3.0.

I'd like enough to dwell on it and talk about potentially the disruption disruptive native nature that this can can bring to education how can we implement it globally and you're talking about checking the local community so we have to have a global mindset but has to be localized yeah or as economy is saying that the localization let's call it in that in that way, so I just wanted to think.

Of a little bit about that and and share sure if you could share your views on on it especially because you're talking about how you know in the future maybe budgets are not gonna be as available and we're gonna have to potentially scale back but at the same time we want to move forward because you know, the future is not gonna be waiting for us and so in order to idealize the future in the best way possible, how can we be disruptive interesting engaging how can we create course customization, how can we build upon you know, the the the things that that AI might eventually bring in education and How can we use this IT based strategies to kind of draw from expertise that is available everywhere and anywhere now that we can for example just access people like you and have your brilliant inputs in in without you know, just a distance of a click so I'm this was kind of a mix of certain considerations and thoughts and and kind of a question that I have since I work in indexed drug instructional design and I deal with AV tech all the time and I'm trying to you know, get a sense of what's coming next as well, thank you so much.

Thanks thanks for the question and I like the artwork behind you by the way, yeah thank you had to say something I mean e-learning 3.2 is a collection of I think eight or nine ideas and I'm not gonna remember them all off the top of my head because I'm old and fuzzy enough but.

The overall theme if I had to give it an overall theme is kind of like decentralization and disaggregation, you know, it's kind of like network supplied to society as a whole. Um, You know, there's the old saying I used to work for an international development center called the Russia Center and they had the slogan and everybody has the slogan think globally at locally and that's becoming more and more true.

And the the concept of e-learning 3.0 reflects some of that it reflects some of the redefinitions. Of learning that we're going to be looking at in the future the one that right off the top of my mind and and I guess maybe what I would consider the most important is the way we redefine community.

And community plays a big role in education we know that we learn in communities and we form learning communities and all of that but what is it to be a community in the past we've defined communities as sameness same people same language same discipline but that is becoming less and less the case as we become interestingly as we become more local in certain important respects our communities need to become.

More diverse, you know, simply because you know different people feel different roles in a small community, you know, there's a it's a garage mechanic there's the grocer there's the restaurant tour there's the doctrine there's the lawyer right there, they're all coming from different perspectives and different points of view.

And so what does that mean that community is how do we define community and again we used to define community as well we're all in the same place but look at us now or hey, we're nowhere near in the same place so. The concepts in e-learning 3.0 is community is consensus and what I mean here is not so much everybody in the community agrees on everything that's not what I mean what I mean is the way you define a community is by the way a collection of people makes decisions.

The it's the process that they've undertaken in order to decide what counts as true what counts as relevant what counts as evidence etc it's that decision-making process now. I stole that concept from blockchain believe it or not because blockchain networks are basically consensus networks and they're consensus networks based on well in the case of Bitcoin, for example proof of work algorithms, you know different algorithms right but.

Each one of these communities is defined by the algorithm that defines how it draws consensus. If we think of a community like that then our dynamics of a community change right the the important thing becomes how we talk to each other how we interact how we make decisions and not with the outcome of these decisions are and whether everybody believes the same thing or even whether everybody's trying to work toward the same outcome.

So that's part of what I mean by e-learning 3.0, you know even just you know, our our idea of learning resources. You asked about artificial intelligence specifically in the near future our educational resources will be automatically created by artificial intelligences. That's going to happen. And it's going to happen because it's easy for AI to do all AI needs to do is look at some expert content if you will and break it down chunk it up and simplify it and you have an educational resource and it can find relevant illustrations and organize them in a logical flow.

You know, we already have AI's writing sports stories for the Washington Post. Now the sports story is probably the lowest form of human communication, which is why I like them so much but it's a starting point, right? You look at all the things that GP3 has been doing all right in creating new content new, you know, you know, this is not a real person things like that and certainly AI has the capacity to draw on knowledge broadly thought of to create learning resources.

I'm gonna put a lot of instructional designers out of work. Sorry, but but that's the future of the profession. You know, I mean, then if you if you do work in the field of DevOps and I have right, you know websites are being automatically created, you know, social media posts for being automatically created entire communities are being automatically created, you know, you just push a button and bang here's your your whole new web presence and it almost is not automatic.

So expect that. Now the other side of that though and everybody knows about this, so I'm not saying anything that's new is the the ethics of artificial intelligence and you know. The the problems with bias and prejudice and inaccurate predictions the misuse of artificial intelligence the creation of the surveillance society all of that right and and that's important and I'm not gonna say it's not important because it is but what does that mean?

You know, all of this talks about the ways, we train artificial intelligences because you know, I mean in the future and even today we don't program computers so much as we train them. Oh yeah, okay, some people some some very mathematically oriented people create the algorithms that build these artificial neural networks and I work with a bunch of them you can barely talk to them, but you know, mostly the work is involved in training you give them training data, you run through a whole bunch.

Of. Iterations over that and the neural network grows and develops and response to that training data until the feedback that it receives. And that's where so much goes wrong in artificial intelligence. So interestingly and this is a bit of an exaggeration, but I love saying it for a fact.

There will only be one job in the future. And that's teaching. Because you're teaching artificial intelligences to do different things. And it's I know it's sort of goes against what I said about chemists but the job of a chemist or a chemistry professor in the future will be to teach artificial intelligences that do new chemical compounds or chemical analysis or spectroscopy or whatever right?

I don't know what chemists do. I'm not a chemist. You know, it's an exaggeration, obviously. But it does give us a bit of a different focus on you know, what it is that we're up to. What we're going to be up to is teaching our machines. How do we teach our machines?

Well, again, we're not programming them directly. Right? You know for the most part you're not you know telling your computer you will behave ethically. You can't do that. You're creating data that the computer will use. So there's only one way to train a computer to behave ethically and that is to behave ethically.

If you behave unethically, it will result in unethical behavior in the computer because it becomes part of the training set. And it's a really odd sort of thing where now our relations of power and control and all that they're all turned upside down. Where the only way we can influence somebody else to do something is to do it ourselves.

And it's an odd sort of way of looking at it but it tells you I'll come back to this whole idea of looking at the community and and and thinking about how to benefit the wider community. I know it sounds like big circles, but there it is. So the rest of the learning 3.0 and some of it's more specific some of it's less specific but it looks at these these big society changing moments that are happening and they're all happening right now and and they're all happening in people don't see.

Them for what they are. How was that? Very good, but that being said not have a follow up yes, it's impossible not to have a follow that's fine. I'm fine. If we're talking about you know culture localization for talking about a myriad of opportunities that III might might produce and they will have to be produced based on our inputs then how does that affect curriculum structures brick and mortars assessment, you know, if there's a change that's completely disruptive then the materialization of that change will require different set of rules for implementation and that implementation is going to be biased because it's will be culturally driven wherever in the planet it's going to be implemented yeah.

Maybe since yep totally yeah and all of these change another one of the e-learning 3.0 things is assessment right and right now we assess by some sort of performance like a test or an assignment or an essay or whatever. And then we give people you know, course certificates and and and diplomas and whatever all of that goes away.

And it goes away in the first instance because we don't need it anymore let's look at this particular instance that we're having right now this conversation that we're having right now. So there's five six of you and there's me and the six of you are in a position to be able to assess me right and you're asking me questions and I'm responding but you know, it's not like a test or anything like that, oh he's I just saw the little note pop up.

And it's fine. I don't mind talking you get me going. I don't mind talking so. You are all each individually drawing a conclusion whether you want to or not do I trust this person is incredible does he know what he's talking about right you're all making that judgment, of course you are I'm making that judgment of you sorry nothing personal just happens, you know, I've noted a variety of different things I look at backgrounds.

I look at facial expressions. I look at the words and the whole list of things right those are the sorts of things that would define curriculum. Element would define testing right but none of us is doing that because we don't have to you look the the six of you each individually look and then you'll talk among each other and come to some sort of consensus you look at my performance and you and you.

Recognize either that yes this was a credible performance or no, it wasn't this flimflam artist he doesn't know what he's talking about and I've had events where I've been watching his speaker and that's the conclusion. I'm sorry yeah. I hear them talking saying oh there's no way this person is making this stuff up as he goes along.

Right and there was a recent US president. Who you could see him making stuff up as he went along being just because of the vocabulary he used the way he responded to questions, there'll be good it'll be the best you've ever seen of whatever right with no specifics, so how does that happen?

Is that's a really fundamental question how does that happen and I describe it in terms of neural networks we each have a neural network reach organized a certain way the way we know the way we learn is recognition knowledge is recognition that's another one of the e-learning 3.0 points right and I say that for example to know something is like recognizing your mother she comes through the bus station right it's not a bunch of rules, it's not a test.

You just look and oh yeah there she is it's instant it's recognized so you look at me the overall performance and you either recognize me as somebody who's an expert or you don't. Or somewhere in between right and it's nuanced and in fact that's how we assess people who are in sensitive or high stakes jobs like doctors or lawyers or airline pilots, right we don't just give them a test we put them in an actual situation and have other experts look at their performance and say yes this person is a doctor or no this person is not functioning like a doctor we should do that for police, but we don't that's an aside what a pretty relevant.

And so that's what we do. Well apply that to all of society in a world of artificial intelligence an artificial intelligence is a neural network just like a human brain, it's not as smart as a human brain, but they're getting better. But you can take an artificial intelligence. Show it somebody doing something a task maybe they're doing surgery maybe they're repairing a pipe who knows and the artificial intelligence can say yes this was a good job or no that was not a good job to simple classification exercise ads are very good at that so broaden that out a bit you're doing your work the way you do, you know now in the new world of learning you're not producing content just for your.

Teacher but you're putting it on social networks or you're putting it on your website or even better you're probably participating in projects remember the small teams that the instructors build to work on a project right so these have public artifacts so there's actually a whole lot of information about you available on the internet.

And and some information you didn't want that was stolen by surveillance, let's roll out of we don't even want that right only the information you choose to share right we make that available and then. A computer an artificial intelligence looks at that. And recognize this that yes, you are a practitioner of history, yes, you are a qualified chemist.

Well right off the map we think oh good we've got automated grading but why do we need grades? Well, we need grades in order to get people diplomas, well anyway, why do we need diplomas? Well employers need diplomas right so that they can sort between the qualified and young qualified people but an employer can just have a machine that looks at what you've done and do that and do it better than a diploma could so.

If we put this capacity in the hand of employers so if an employer is looking for specific skills, they use this artificial intelligence this artificial intelligence looks at the published contents of people's websites the report folios, they're contributions to projects their GitHub repositories, etc the AI says this person is qualified this person is qualified this person is qualified you don't need.

Grade certificates diplomas, you can skip all of that as I say now in slogan form the credential of the future is a job offer. Right we know all the rest that we have in between the learning and the job offer are adaptations we make because we don't have the information capacity to deal with it, but now we do now we have a computer program that can look at your entire life's output.

From when you are a kid to now or whatever you choose right and create a very accurate learning profile of you and find the exact positions that you would be suited in. Now you might take much really unfair, you know, the employers have all the advantage but now you as an individual learner can access the same program and apply that program to people who are already experts and apply it to yourself.

Match them up and find out what you need to do in order to become an expert. And it's going to be different for everybody isn't it of course it is right but that's now where we get the support. The support for the individual so you know all of this isn't going to be the case in September it's not going to be the case 10 years ago but 20 years from the or 10 years from now but 20 years from now this is to my mind almost a drop dead certainty that we will have this.

I mean, the only thing that that we can, you know, barring you huge natural disasters a comet hitting the earth whenever you know, but you know, there's the only thing, That really could be inaccurate about this prediction to my mind is the timing and then the effect because there's always the human element what will people think of this how will they respond how will they try to break it how will they try to abuse the system how will they try to take advantage, you know, you begin you ask all of these questions, but that overall structure is going to be in place.

Thank you so much. And I'll just worth filming you to thank you enough for your time for for this conversation to take place yet let's close everyone thank you so much yes so I think we could conclude our conversation today thanking you and really you shouldn't practice this attitude that everyone needs to have caring of each other and as a building bridge towards this whole community of trusts.

And disability and even on different being on different continents, it's still our works so thank you so much against me take care stay safe and healthy oh yeah and let's have a like final final one a screen shot of us all one, two, three smile done, wow you guys all smile like I do.

I love it. Yeah, you get some groups in like it's all teeth all right, thank you so much again have a great day, thank you you're very welcome it was my pleasure. Thank you bye, bye, thank you so much.

Okay, okay.


- , Apr 28, 2021
, - Future Learning Environments, Apr 28, 2021

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: May 26, 2024 4:59 p.m.

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