Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Apr 27, 2022

I was recently interviewed for the Vincens Vives blog (in Spanish). Below is the full-length set of answers I sent, in English, to the questions I was posed.

 

 


In recent times, technology has undergone a transformation. How has this influenced learning?

 

This is a broad question. We could talk about it in terms of the transition to digital technology, but this is a transition that has been underway for half a century, so it's hard to call it 'recent', even if new digital technologies continue to take traditional institutions by surprise.

I prefer to focus on the last ten years. Smartphones exist. Things like websites, blogs and search services are well-established. These are the years after the introduction of 'web 2.0', which means that things like social media (including Facebook and Twitter) are not 'recent'. Nor are things like online banking and digital commerce, including things like Amazon.com or eBay.

So, on this picture, what counts as 'recent' really boils down to three major things: the introduction of cloud technologies, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the emergence of web3, which includes decentralized networks, crypto-currencies and blockchain. Together these have opened the door to advanced technologies for even small and medium-sized institutions.

The most obvious impact over the last two years has been the emergence of videoconferencing as a useful tool. It became inexpensive and widely accessible. It works on the average person's desktop or even mobile phone. We're seeing this coupled with services such as automated transcription and translation. Videoconferencing is also being merged with workflow platforms such as Slack or Teams, giving people the ability to collaborate online.

To me, the most transformative aspect of this is that people can become more 'hands-on' with their learning, working with the actual tools and data they will use on the job or in their future career. It has also made them more productive, more easily able to collaborate with people in the next office or around the world. And it makes them more independent; there's less of a need to be satisfied with low-level jobs when people can learn and earn a much better living with their own digital tools and access to platforms and infrastructure.

 

And how has it affected schools?

This depends a lot on the school. In much of the world, where digital technology isn't yet available, it has left them with an even greater gap to make up in preparing their students for the global stage. Where technology is available, but staff and instructors have not yet adapted, it has made them more flexible and resilient (even before the pandemic, schools were replacing 'snow days' with 'e-learning days') but capable of offering only an inferior learning experience that we call 'remote learning'.

It also depends on the purpose of the schools. In much of the world, including the western world, learning is still considered to be the acquisition of knowledge and (sometimes) skills, where direct instruction and testing are important. In such cases, technology poses more risk than benefit; if poorly implemented, students learn more slowly, leading to the phenomenon of 'learning loss'. And even if well implemented, there is (as has been long demonstrated) no significant difference in outcome.

Where schools were able to access technology and employ it productively, schools have been transformed. By enabling students to be more independent and to learn directly from hands-on experience in collaboration with others, digital technology is well-suited to progressive learning models, such as constructivism, which lead to deeper and more transferable learning, with the result that students from such districts (for example, in Ontario and Quebec, Canada) are among the highest ranked students in the world in international testing.

There has been much discussion over the years that technology will support 'personalization' of learning. It should be noted here that there has been little demonstrated success, as to date personalization has typically meant 'individualized instruction', which while it may be marginally more efficient than 'group instruction', doesn't offer any real pedagogical advantages.

 

If we talk about the students, has this transformation benefited them?

Again, it depends on which students we are talking about.

Those who have access to technology, and are supported by well-informed instructors, and employ progressive pedagogy, are probably as a cohort the best educated and best prepared students in history. They have had to learn to thrive in a complex world that demands orders of magnitude more expertise than in previous ages and the evidence is that they are thriving. The world is by no means a perfect place, but we have made steady (if sometimes bumpy) progress in virtually any science and discipline we care to name. Surely that reflects well on the educational system.

And yet, no discussion of the benefits would be complete without a discussion of those who are not enjoying the advantages offered by recent technology, which is most of the world. There is evidence, I think, that they are better off than they were, but also that there is a greater gap between where they are and where those who have all the advantages have found themselves. To the extent that some students have benefited, it is arguable, they have done so at the expense of others less fortunate.

At the same time, I remain hopeful. I think there is evidence that rapid development and transformation is possible once access to the right technology and instructional support are enabled. The development of local expertise, and access to a global market, enables students even in high-poverty nations such as India and Nigeria to earn an income and develop their talents and capacities.

 

What technological tools are most effective for online learning?

This again depends very much on what you want to learn and what you believe that looks like. But if I were to want to put it into general terms, I would look for platforms that:

  • Provide the capacity to cooperate virtually using conferencing technologies and collaborative editing, and support this with access to learning resources and services
  • Provide access to advanced functionality such as artificial intelligence, cryptography, and virtual reality through access to remote cloud-based services
  • Support hands-on practice either through direct access to real-world applications or at least, simulations of them, working on real-world problems in diverse communities
  • Enable individuals to demonstrate their learning through support for publication, sharing, portfolios, demonstrations, or other success metrics

There is, in other words, no individual tool that is most effective for learning; today, tools are used in tandem, and a student might move from online conferencing to applied design to video editing to data analysis all in one day.

 

You are an expert in online learning and have worked for many years on the theory of connectivism. How would you define it?

I've just published a long paper on connectivism, which readers may enjoy. https://www.downes.ca/post/73314

Connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is constituted of the sets of connections between entities, such that a change in one entity may result in a change in the other entity, and that learning is the growth, development, modification or strengthening of those connections.

 

Among its most outstanding successes is the creation of the Massive Open Online Course. What is it based on?

The original MOOC developed by George Siemens and myself was designed to put in practice the principles of connectivism as they had been developed to that point in 2008 (we've learned a lot since then). We found that the topic of connectivism was very difficult to explain without a concrete example, so we set out to create a concrete example. The success of the MOOC was in essence the first evidence of the success of the theory.

To that end, we developed the course as a network, with the idea being to facilitate the creation of connections between resources with each other and with participants in the course, and of course to develop participation in the course as a kind of social network, rather than as (in more traditional settings) a collection of individuals taking direction from a central authority.

While we more from topic to topic in the course, we were clear that the point of the course wasn't to focus on the topic itself, but to stimulate interaction and discussion around the topic. The topic, as instantiated in course content (articles we wrote, interviews we did with people), was to be thought of as the 'macguffin', that is, the object that motivates the interaction, and helps us develop deeper and more important insights.

So there were no 'learning objectives' or 'required course content' in our MOOC. Rather, the first task of participants was for they themselves to determine what would count (for them) as success in the course, and to introduce their own resources and contributions, which they would share with other participants. In this way, the building of the course was as much the work of the participants as it was the instructors.

 

Which are the main benefits of MOOC?

The true outcomes of the course were not instances of 'knowledge learned' as might be assessed by a test or assignment.

Rather, the outcome was 'knowledge' as defined by connectivism, that is, the development of an interconnected network of people, ideas, and artifacts.

The longer-term benefit of that approach is now evident. Out of the course a lasting global community of teachers, scholars and researchers formed that to this day continues to advance thinking in the fields of teaching and learning, and who have adapted and applied the model in a variety of environments.

For each individual, the benefit was probably different, though I can think of any number of people who were able to benefit personally and professionally by applying what they had learned in the course.

Thinking of MOOCs in general, probably the most significant impact is that they enable access to knowledge and a community of practitioners that was previously reserved only for people able to pay significant tuition fees. By accessing MOOCs, people around the world have been able to develop concrete skills based on real-world experience, or even simply to fill gaps in their understanding by reading and considering subject matter (again, every person benefits in a different way).

Moreover, the development of MOOCs entranced the concept of open online learning in a way that hadn't been considered before. After the success of the initial MOOCs, it became impossible to imagine a world where all learning required formal admission to an institution and payment of tuition fees. The idea that experts or well-positioned individuals could share their knowledge freely to massive numbers of people at little cost to themselves made it inevitable that they would.

 

How has MOOC changed over time? What is their future?

MOOCs have become more diverse and more reflective of the social and cultural reality where they are offered.

In the United States, for example, they have become more commercially focused, so much so that in many cases they can no longer be considered open online learning. Commercial providers such as Udacity and Coursera raised funding, formed partnerships with universities, and began to charge fees, first for certificates, and eventually for access to content and community. The EdX MOOC platform was recently sold to 2U, a large online program management (OPM) company, and hence is playing a more traditional role.

In Europe, MOOC platforms such as FUN and EMMA tend to be developed by educational institutions or government agencies, and have preserved the focus on open access, with their role being more to develop community capacity and in some cases prepare them for employment or higher education. Similar origins and objectives can be seen in Middle East and Arab platforms such as Rawq and Eduraaq.

In developing nations such as MOOCs are part of national development programs, and have become important tools used by development agencies. In India, for example, the MOOC is part of the natural progression of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). We see a similar pattern with MOOCs in South Africa, as well as the Africa Virtual University, and South America.

Finally, in China, platforms such as XuetangX combine the commercial roots of US-based MOOC platforms, support for continuing learning in a very competitive employment market, and at the same time constitute part of China's overall education and development policy, which include the use of open online learning by its leading educational institutions. Just a few days aafo Class Central published a list of 24 Chinese MOOC platforms that offer over 69 thousand courses in Chinese which serves as evidence for this observation. https://www.classcentral.com/report/chinese-mooc-platforms/

 

E-learning 3.0 is a recent project, this third phase of electronic learning. What does it consist of?

I discussed e-learning 3.0 comprehensively in my course of the same name, which readys can enjoy here: https://el30.mooc.ca

In this course I described a series of progressively more disruptive technologies and systems currently under development and widespread deployment. There are three major phases to e-learning 3.0:

  • The first phase involves the transition from more traditional linear ways of representing knowledge (such as by means of a book or story) to a global cloud-based interconnected graph of data sources. This requires a new way of thinking about knowledge, transitioning from a model of narrative to one based in pattern recognition
  • The second phase is organized around changes in the learning and development infrastructure, and considers especially distributed (and crypto-enabled) resource and recognitions, supported by an idea of community based decision-making processes and consensus.
  • The third phase involves changes to the individual's relation to knowledge in particular and society in general. It includes decentralized identity networks (a.k.a. self-sovereign identity), the integration of learners directly into knowledge-creating communities and real-world problems, and the consequent emphasis on and importance of individual agency.

While these trends were obscure in 2019 when I first began to discuss e-learning 3.0 recent, we've seen much more development in recent years, with concepts (such as non-fungible tokens (NFT)) reaching widespread notice. Cloud technology is well-entrenched, there is a new focus on topics such as data literacy, and access to advanced data-based cloud technologies, such as artificial intelligence, is beginning to change the way we design learning services and evaluate learning outcomes.

 

In our last interview, you talked about E-learning 2.0. What is the difference between E-learning 2.0 and 3.0?

One way of putting it is this: the original web was where we read about things. Web 2.0 was where we talked with each other about things. And web3 is where we do things.

Another way of putting it is this: in web 2.0, the 'source of truth' was physical. We talked with each other, but the important things – community, learning, content – were rooted in the physical. In web3, however, the 'source of truth' is digital. Even where data originates in the physical world, its verifiability and authenticity depend on community recognition, which we grant digitally.

These obviously are very different ways of describing the difference, and this demonstrates the gulf between the two ways of thinking.

In web 2.0 (and in every version of knowledge before that) we had access to what was in retrospect a very small number of physical facts: the actual possession of things, for example, or credentials written on paper, or human physical characteristics, or license plates on cars, or contracts written on paper.

But in the world of web 3.0 (and in fact, the world we're living in today) we have access to an uncountable number of physical facts, for example, the identity and ownership of every single thing, a full description of competencies and skills, detailed DNA and health data, the speed and location of every single vehicle, the full history of contract law. The only wany to manage this amount of information is digitally.

And therefore – for very specific purposes – we rely on digital credentials as our source of truth. For example, for ownership (NFT), for credentials (badges), for personal data (sovereign identity), for vehicle movements (activity records), or for contracts (DAO).

What I've tried to capture in e-learning 3.0 is not so much how this technology works and how parts of it interoperate with other parts (though of course this is important) but rather how we should be thinking of it, how we work in a web3 environment, and what learning and development mean in a world where there's more knowledge than any person (or even any society) could actually comprehend. That's a world where we are at once self-sovereign individuals developing and enjoying more personal agency than ever before, but where we are also integrally part of the fabric of society, a complex and comprehensive network of data, interactions, activities and events.

 

With the pandemic, schools have had to adapt to online teaching, has this helped them to advance in e-learning?

I think it has, though it might not appear so at first glance.

As many have commented (most recently Tony Bates), we appear to have taken a step backward because of the pandemic, because we've moved from an environment where the principles of good online learning were widely understood and generally practiced, to one in which a demonstrably inferior form of online learning – remote learning – became mainstream.

My interpretation, however, is that if we look at this more closely, we actually see a great advance in e-learning.

The people who had a lot of experience in e-learning and had learned how to do it well did stop doing what they were doing. Indeed, because more people were accessible online, and because more services became widely available, their ability to offer quality e-learning improved.

Meanwhile, a large number of people, and especially teachers and instructors, who for whatever reason had little to no experience in online learning, suddenly started teaching online, and had to learn a large number of technologies and skills from scratch. These were the people most involved in remote learning, as they tried in the space of a few weeks to transform what they had spent a lifetime doing in person to something that would be reasonably effective online.

Just like that, the number of people working and learning digitally increased ten-fold.

On average, it looked like we lost ground, because most online learning was now less advanced than it used to be, less effective than it used to be. But no individual lost ground, and looked at cumulatively, rather than as an average, we experienced a huge increase in our knowledge and capacity to use digital technology to support learning.

 

What advice would you give schools to continue implementing this type of learning?

I expect that most teachers and most schools will seek to return to traditional methods as soon as possible. I understand and accept that, because I think we've all learned a lot about the important roles schools play in society, not simply as a way to teach children, but as a way to look after them, to make sure that they not missing out on the essentials of life, and to ensure that they have access to resources and technology they might not have at home.

Schools were and are a safe space for children (at least, they're supposed to be) and during the pandemic we learned of the importance of that role. They also help parents find the time and space to work. It's much rarer today to have one-income families. Today, both parents often work, and schools make that possible.

But that said, on the return to traditional schooling, I think people will find they miss some aspects of digital learning. For example, as I discussed above, new technology makes it a lot easier to work collaboratively, and to enjoy hands-on experience using real tools and solving real-world problems. It will be hard to simply go back to a classroom and listen to a teacher talking knowing that much better ways of learning are possible.

And so I would say, look for those moments. Find the places where the transition to digital worked, where it resulted in a better experience, and begin to build up expertise and capacity in those areas.

 

Anecdote, we would appreciate if you can prepare a paragraph of 3 or 4 lines with an anecdote that reminds you of your school stage: a teacher who especially remembers, some subject...

Well I have many, of course…

But probably the most formative experience for me was grade 10 English class, where my assignment was to create a journal. By this my teacher (Jamie Bell) did not mean a personal log or diary, but rather, a place where I would collect writing or creative content of any sort. It didn't matter what. All that mattered was that I worked on it on a regular basis over the course of the year.

I thrived on this. I created short stories, I drew pictures, I created crossword puzzles, and more. My journal became the place where I would put any thought of creative impulse that seized me, for the entirety of grade 10. By the end of the year it was a thick volume of bad content, but it was mine, and I knew that from that point forward I would never stop creating, only now, with the world as my journal.

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada
stephen@downes.ca

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Last Updated: Apr 27, 2022 4:25 p.m.