Thursday, March 31, 2011

Never Stop Dancing

The other day, George Siemens mentioned Terry Anderson's dance metaphor as it relates to learning and pedagogy so I tracked down Anderson's paper on the subject and enjoyed every minute of it with today's morning coffee. It's a must-read for those looking for practical ways to incorporate Siemens' principles of connectivism into the design of modern, networked distance education programs.

Anderson's dance metaphor suggests that technology "sets the beat and timing...and pedagogy defines the moves" (p.1). As changes and advancements occur in both the theories and the technology - in other words, if the dance is thrown off - both technology and pedagogy can adjust to create a flow and rhythm again. He talks about the creative and unique moves the learner throws in to enhance the dance further.

I like this dance metaphor in relation to connectivism - the idea that you never need to stand on the sidelines or dance alone in the dark (oh! doesn't everybody do that?). Rather, you can "dance with anyone, anywhere, anytime coupled with the vast sound tracks and light shows (open education resources) accessible on the Net, (and) demand that learning be an experience of connecting and applying resources, rather than memorizing particular tunes or steps. The art of improvisation, of learning to dance, becomes the life learning skill - accumulating static data or memorizing scripts becomes obsolete." (p4).

What does this mean for our learners? Students should be encouraged to learn together "while retaining individual control over their time, space, presence, activity, identity" (p.5). Making use of networked social technology tools in the context of self-paced programs is key to achieving this, including tools which allow learners to declare their presence, communicate, collaborate, and reflect.

A couple weeks ago, I was thinking about flash mobs and what a great metaphor they are for connectivism. Watch the flash mob below and as you do, think about this metaphor. Notice how it starts: a few people start things off and more and more join. You can come as you are. You can stand there and smile or bop your head (lurk?), or you can jump right in and get fully involved, while letting your own creativity shine in your moves. Your individual creativity is brought to the network of dancers who then disperse back into the crowd and make new or revive old connections. In other words, when the music stops, the people don't stop moving. They just keep going about their business, interacting and forming new connections wherever they go. The network never ends. Although flash mobs are becoming more predictable in their frequency of occurrence these days, they are still unpredictable in that you never know when or where they will occur. This reminds me a lot of the unpredictability found in the chaos of connectivism.

And now I present to you: connectivism at its finest:

And similarly, as the music of this course ends, the network will never stop dancing. Nor will the light shows. In the 21st century, you really have no option but to become a dancer.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Power Shift

Maybe yesterday's post was a mistake: Snap's "I've Got the Power" has been running through my head for a full 24 hours now (yes, I am certain the song entered my dreams) since my post on power yesterday. It's all fine and well for me to smugly proclaim I've got power over my learning, as I go through my days with hot showers, a job, and a couple computers in my heated house. This morning, I woke up thinking about those who are powerless. Power is unevenly distributed in our world. Freire once said:

I didn't understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn't dumb. It wasn't lack of interest. My social condition didn't allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge (Freire).

I once heard Sugata Mitra speak at a conference I was attending. As an education scientist, he wanted to see if those lacking in traditional schooling could learn through computer-assisted self-organization so he started his Hole in the Wall experiment. He planted a computer with high-speed internet in the middle of a slum in New Delhi and left the village children to navigate their own learning. These children had almost no command of English, and it was their first time seeing a computer. However, when he returned just a few months later, he was amazed by all they had learned. By handing over the power by offering the equipment and then letting them work unsupervised, he learned that groups of children will learn if simply given the opportunity; that is, by having the tools and open, free access to information.

This is in contrast to what critics are saying; that is, that skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving cannot be learned without first having a knowledge base. They state that "cognitive science teaches us that skills and knowledge are interdependent and that possessing a base of knowledge is necessary to the acquisition not only of more knowledge, but also of skills. Skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects." Hmm.

Does anyone want to chip in and buy them a flight to India's slums to see for themselves what skills can be learned without a prior base of knowledge? By trying, failing, choosing, collaborating, and controlling their own learning, India's poorest of the poor, given the right tools, gained not only knowledge but also the empowerment to say what Stuart Smalley has known all along:

"How we think about ourselves is as much a matter of learning as anything else." (Downes)


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I've Got the Power

In this interview with Gary Olson, Paulo Freire describes how the authority and "arrogance" of the teacher interferred in his learning by causing inhibition. Similarly, I can recall not grasping concepts in school because I didn't have the courage to put up my hand and ask, perhaps because I was insecure or perhaps because it would insult them by showing they hadn't explained it well enough. After all, the silence of the other students made it seem that they had all understood.

Freire drives home the point that the teacher must be mindful of the student's context (ie, subjectivity) and must take every opportunity to encourage curiosity. In so doing, he states that the teacher's duty to teach and have authority must remain but without "such power that it crushes freedom". 

At the risk of sounding like 'Daddy's little girl", I must admit that my dad did this better than the teachers in class who intimidated me; turns out, he was (is) a great educator. Conversations every night at the dinner table would inevitably lead to questions which my dad would answer with "look it up". After much protesting, and his unwavering insistence that someone run for the dictionary or encyclopedia to find the answer, one of my siblings or I would read up about the topic or find the definition of the word. The continued discussion and trial-and-error use of this information within the safety of our home/family led to knowledge that could then be applied to our outside lives. How empowering is that? He taught us to take control of our learning and use it within our family network before taking it out into the world. I am sure that his example has also played a big part in my curiosity about things and in my desire to be a lifelong learner.

Technology gives us the tools to sit around the table (so-to-speak) with a network of others and gives a whole new and larger meaning of the words "look it up". Curiosity doesn't actually kill the cat; rather, in a connectivist networked setting, it can create in even the most anti-social of cats, a sense of conviviality that would make Ivan Illich proud.

And now, be inspired (as you likely were on a dancefloor in the early 90s) to know that you really do have the power.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Changing Roles of Educators (for CCK11)

As an EAL educator to internationally-educated nurses who are scattered throughout rural Manitoba, I have been given no choice but to embrace technology as a way to reach them. If my dream could come true, education would be as networked as a Filipino BBQ.

But, first, how has the role of the educator changed?
Traditionally, educators stood at the front of the classroom and told students exactly what they needed to learn and dictated how they would learn it. Teachers were the experts on the material they were told to teach.

Today, technology has had the impact of changing how we interact with each other. It allows us to be in contact 24/7, all over the world. We use it to find people and information and it affects our every day lives. With desks and paper on their way out and the possibility of e-portfolios taking a back seat to entrance exams (Barseghian, 2001), there is simply no choice for educators to fight this. To the chagrin of critics such as Mark Bauerlein who believes today’s youth need more “adult pressure” and “suspended social lives”, school-home boundaries are becoming a distant memory (Bauerlein, 2011). Educators need to embrace – in fact, take full advantage of - the technology of a connected world, take a back seat to the learners and stop trying to control their learning outcome (Jenkins, 1999).

What are the appropriate responses?
Ideally, when teaching and designing courses, an educator should remember the following:
  • networks are more effective than groups. Downes differentiates networks from groups by using a “salad bowl” (network) metaphor where each entity is distinct and individuals are encouraged in their uniqueness (Downes, 2007). As an educator, the goal should not be to create like-minded groups of learners but rather open, diverse, networked learners.
  • what we know today is not as important as our ability to stay current” (Siemens, 2007). Information is not something to pass along to others to acquire because it will be obsolete as quickly as we give it. We must equip students for lifelong learning by teaching them how to find information and promote learning as a continuous process.
  • student control and freedom is integral to 21st century life-long education and learning” (Anderson, 2011). We need to be learner-centered, allowing learners to take the reins through active engagement with others.
  • diversity should be celebrated. If “learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions” (Siemens, 2004), we need to discourage the “sameness” that has traditionally been the goal of educators (taking on our teacher’s viewpoint is how we passed our tests in school and kept the peace in Sunday school). We will learn from the diversity we all bring to the network.
  • all learning has an emotional base” (Plato). Downes discusses the concept of “being yourself” (Downes, 2008). You cannot underestimate the value of warmth on the other side of the computer. Educators need to show their personality and their humanity; empathy goes a long way in creating connections and personal connections bring people back.
What are the impediments to change?
Resistance to change is inevitable. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and the “old dogs” are still running the institutions. But there is also resistance among learners whose computer skills are limited, and when the technology is a means to learning (not the goal) this poses a problem in terms of time and resources needed to satisfy the learning curve. Teachers may also cling to their desire for authority and see technology as “a threat to their professional expertise” (Jenkins, p.4).

It is these resistant educators who cling to beliefs that multitasking “muddles the mind” (Holden, 2009), and that young people can’t cope in face-to-face social settings as a result of social networking (Bauerlein, 2009).

And the Filipino BBQ?
My organization recently hosted a BBQ at a local park in celebration of our learners’ achievements. Our predominantly Filipino group (network?) of 40 nurses turned into a multi-age crowd of over 125 people. To our surprise, our learners had brought children, cousins, grandparents, uncles and friends. Former students showed up. If I had taken a course and was being recognized for that, I would show up solo, thinking (in my Western way) “I accomplished this”. What I saw with our learners was the idea of “we did this; let’s tell the whole network and celebrate this”. And, just as we were beginning to panic about not having enough food for the group, everyone in the network started pulling food out and placing it onto the picnic table beside what we now saw as our meager contribution. The variety made us salivate and created in us a desire to try a bit of everything. We engaged with each other, asking about the process used to make each dish and sampled them all. Our “meager contribution” was explained, explored, and consumed and we saw that it was good too. There was enough food for all because, you see, this network didn’t show up empty-handed; they came with rich abundance and with a spirit of sharing. We all left, a bit surprised by what had just happened, bellies now full, new connections made and new recipes to try at home. To me, the switch from the you-will-come-to-my-BBQ-and-eat-what-I-tell-you of traditional education needs to become the oh-wow-all-your-contributions-were-such-a-pleasant-surprise-and-look-how-we-enjoyed-sharing-them-and-learning-from-each-other of connectivism.

Anderson, Terry. (2011). Technological Challenges and Opportunities of Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogies. Retrieved from

Barseghian, Tina (2011). 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete By 2020. Mind/Shift at

Bauerlein, Mark (2009). Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Non-Verbal Cues. Via the Wall Street Journal at

Bauerlein, Mark. (2011). The Adolescent Instinct and ‘The Dumbest Generation’. Via Inside Academia on YouTube:

Downes, Stephen (2007). The Class Struggle Continues via

Downes, Stephen. (2008). Seven Habits of Highly Connected People via

Holden, Constance. (2009). Multitasking Muddles the Mind. Via ScienceNOW at

Jenkins, Janet. (1999). Teaching for Tomorrow: The Changing Role of Teachers in the Classroom. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2007). The Network is the Learning, Retrieved from YouTube:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Networks are More Effective than Groups

Groups and Networks
Photo by Stephen Downes

We are all aware of groups. They require unity, possibly through a vision statement or common goal. They are coordinated and often closed, sometimes requiring membership or cut-off points based on numbers. Think of sports teams, church groups, AA, Weight Watchers, or even your book club. Knowledge is distributed; it comes from a leader - a chairperson or a coordinator.

Networks are a kind of group, but they are distinct in that they are defined by diversity. They are not coordinated as much as they are open and created by a set of connections between different entities.

The common metaphor used by our CCK11 facilitators to describe networks has been the mosaic. As Downes differentiates networks from groups, Canada becomes a “salad bowl” (network) where each entity is distinct and individuals are encouraged in their uniqueness (Downes, 2007). Similarly, Siemens describes connectives as the Canadian mosaic which doesn’t blend and conform and collectives as the American melting pot where individuality disappears as contributions to the whole are made.

This morning, as I read about the fundraising efforts of a Winnipeg-based Anglican church and the local Muslim community, I couldn’t help but think about connectivism. The diverse association of a local Anglican church, a community of Muslims, and fundraiser attendees was created by a set of connections to a need in Africa. Essentially, the need for a medical clinic in Uganda became the conduit along which the signal could run and, unified but different, the distinction between three groups dissolved in keeping with Downes’ assertion that “networks offer the ‘middle way’ between groups and the individual” (Downes, 2007). In other words, they lost the boundaries that originally separated them into the Anglican group, the Muslim group and the paying group and became a network of entities where their different religious backgrounds (which had originally separated them) had little bearing on the outcome. By getting out of their groups and creating a bridge to each other, they were able to have a conversation and connect about something of mutual value despite their diversity.

As educators, the goal should not be to create like-minded groups of learners but rather open, diverse, networked learners.

Downes, Stephen (2007). The Class Struggle Continues via