28 inches and counting

The forecast for 18 inches of snow had me running every errand for the week on Tuesday. Once the snow arrived, I've shoveled the walks and driveway 3 times so far. The snow is expected to end after 48 hours of continuous accumulation at midnight. We've got 28 inches so far and expect another ten. At least the Colorado Rockies dd not make it into the World Series this year. I'll get back to blogging here next Monday, Nov 2nd.


Trying smarter for a change

Sometimes we succeed by simply trying harder to achieve our objective. Getting the lid off a jar or a garage cleaned out -- calls for trying harder. All it took was a little determination and focus on the goal. Too often, these successes get over-generalized. We jump to the conclusion that we can always succeed by trying harder. Most of the time, trying harder backfires after stringing us along with false hope that our determination will win out in the end.

Trying harder to succeed can make the original problem worse. It depends whether the problem has a life of its own. Living problems can retaliate when we mess with them. They can feed off our problem-solving attention. They can escalate the dynamics into a crisis or a "can of worms". They make us appear naive, gullible, simple minded or mistaken. Living problems say things like 'there's a lot more to this than meets the eye" or "it's not a simple as it first appears".

One way to recognize the warning signs of a living pattern is to consider if there are any cycles involved. Inert problems are straightforward. Living problems come back around to haunt us, go in in circles or flip flop back and forth between extremes.  They indicate there's a deeper level to the problem that we're ignoring. There make it obvious there is no solution at the level of the presenting problem. They redirect our efforts from what evident to what's inferred, implied or implicit.

We may have heard of the distinction between "trying harder and trying smarter". That does not mean we know how to try smarter. Usually our only options are to try harder or to quit. If we knew how to try smarter, we would not be trying harder in the first place. We'd already know how to try differently and not rely on determination to overcome the obstacles.

We try smarter when we get below the surface evidence to understand the underlying issues. Below bravado may be panic and desperate urges. Under bullying there are usually lurking insecurities and patterns of self contempt. Deeper than sales pitches we may find hidden agendas and long established successes with deceiving others.

When we encounter what keeps the problem so alive, we see ways to transform the complex dynamics. The problem we're inclined to fuss at may be the solution to a deeper problem. The issues that seem to be contested may be invitations to become more respected, understood and trusted. Chronic problems with making changes happen may show the way for the changes to fall into place once stability is valued equally. In each case, we've made the switch from "trying harder to trying smarter".


Orchestrating additional expectations

The final question in this series on student engagement impacted by Web 2.0 tools is:
How could the use of the tools be made more effective in combination with some other methods, strategies or contexts?
An answer to this question occurred to me while learning from Nicola and minh in the extended series of comments on Same Old Class Discussions. My answer involves combining the use of tools with the expectations that learners are using amidst their experiences of new content, interactions and personal reflections. I'm considering the possibility that their expectations are highly influential in whether the tools increase or decrease their engagement.

Any tool is prescriptive by nature. It dictates how to use it, what to expect from its use, what it takes to avoid mishandling it, and what added payback to expect from getting practiced at using it. That set of prescriptions may encourage instructors to neglect orchestrating expectations beyond what the tools dictate. It may also put the expectations provided by the tools at odds with the instructor's "command & control" set of expectations. Both a laissez-faire and a no-win approach could undermine student engagement. This raises the possibility of some middle ground between those extremes.

What if the Web 2.0 tools are necessary, but not sufficient, to realize increased student engagement? What if the departure from controlled conformity, facilitated by the tools, is off to a great start? What if the tools need a toolbox that puts them in a larger context which then frames their effective use? What if the combination of tools and expectations realizes a "best-of-both" space for spontaneous and fulfilling engagement?

If those possibilities are right, then the students need to be given expectations about what can go wrong with the tools. The possibility of using the tools in ways that yield more disengagement -- needs to be explored as I've done in this series. The value of additional expectations ought to be considered. Expectations might also include how learning really happens, how it's possible to go through the motions and get no useful results and how to troubleshoot problems when learning is not happening. Then there will not be an over-reliance on the tools by instructors or students. There would be less defeat when the tools no longer offer the thrill of a new toy. There would be more responsibility taken for using the tools wisely in service of one's own learning journey.

Note: links have now been added to every answer I've explored to the ten questions on Inadvertently designed for disengagement?


Merely providing hiding places?

In the initial post in this series, I wondered "how easy is it to hide in classes making use of the tools of engagement and keep one's lack of interest, motivation or comprehension out of sight?" This calls into question a pattern I recognize in countless management situations, as well as in mentoring individuals who are carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Here's four hiding places can be easily recognized:

  1. Hiding behind their job description: People who cannot think outside the box, risk making a mistake or solve problems that arise -- use their duties as an excuse. Rather than reference their incompetence, they avoid a challenge by blaming their job description for negating the possibility.
  2. Making a show of commitment: People who cannot buy-in, follow through or convince others to commit, will give lip service to the rallying cry. They hide their cynicism, misgivings and lack of commitment behind a pretense of collusion.
  3. Putting busywork on display: People who cannot improve their productivity, become more efficient or find useful shortcuts will compensate by appearing very occupied. They avoid getting asked to do more in the alloted time, to take more initiative or to volunteer for added responsibilities -- by being obviously too busy already.
  4. Throwing their weight around: Weak leaders who cannot earn respect, command a genuine following or envision a beneficial advancement -- will intimidate others, demand respect and punish detractors to hide their incompetence.
If this pattern emerged in the use of Web 2.0 tools for increasing student engagement, I would expect signs to appear such as:
  • a flurry of tweets and text messages lacking substance or value to the readers
  • a bounty of blog posts that "read between the lines" as a message about "no learning happening here"
  • the launch of a wiki or open document that gets plenty of links to it but no edits, added content or revisions
  • uploads of "user generated content" that generates a chuckle, some thrills or another tweet, but no insights, realizations or deeper significance

Hmmm. Guess what pattern I'm seeing in the show of effort to increase student engagement :-)


Affordances that amplify disengagement

It seems likely there are affordances that amplify negative effects and dampen positive effects. Learners might be slightly bored before associating with such an affordance and then be "bored out of their skulls". Facilitated by the affordance, they could be watching an interaction for what to say and then feel "totally silenced" by the patterns they recognize. The learners could be on the brink of connecting new content to their own previous concepts, experiences and praxis until the affordance took affect and convinced them the work of connecting was a "complete was of time".

Note that these are extreme reactions that follow tentative explorations. Something about the "amplifier affordance" must be translating tentative experiences to extreme formulations. That raises several follow-up questions:
  • Does the affordance appear to be going to extremes itself, and inducing "monkey see monkey do" imitation behaviors?
  • Does the affordance send a message of exclusivity, superiority or intolerance which transforms the experience of the learner into feeling excluded, inferior or rejected?
  • Does the affordance prescribe a range of tolerable participation, interaction and contributions that excludes what the learners are ready, willing and able to share?
  • Does the affordance downplay early signs of student engagement while making a big deal out of controlling the conversation, staying on message and covering the material?
  • Does the affordance send mixed messages like "do as I say, don't do as I do" or "do what's required, don't recognize toxic patterns in this relationship"?
If the answers to any of these questions is "yes", there is a disconnect between form and function. The affordance was not designed to escalate disengagement. The effects are unintentional. The evidence of amplifying disengagement would likely be dissociated, put into denial and poised to shoot any messengers who expose it.

Fixing the negative amplification is not easy at the level of the affordance. Like the steaming tea kettle that will explode by plugging the hole that's whistling, there's a need to find a way to turn down the fire producing the steam, not fix the affordance. Situations like these work themselves out when they are open to user feedback, seeking to align with user experiences and receptive to user ideas for improvements. Discovering the tool plays into amplified disengagement gets regarded as a gift, lesson or invitation to collaborate. of course, the opposite reaction occurs in closed systems devoted to the use of the affordance "at all cost" without regard to whether it's working or how it effects the users.


Not enough connecting?

Over the past few weeks, I've read two books about Actor-Network Theory: Reassembling the Social and Prince of Networks. Like the CCK09 course on Connectivism, there's a big emphasis in these books on connections. Bruno Latour makes a wonderful distinction between intermediaries who pass along what comes through like an empty conduit and mediators that do the work of translating the throughput. Rather think of networks as systems of pipelines or subway systems, he considers a network as a reflection of the quality of the translation work. The higher the quality of the mediation, the larger the network that results. While that facet of networks are emergent results that simply happen, he explores the work of making connections when faced with resistance, tests of strength and black boxes seeking to remain closed.

This morning I was reflecting upon all the different kinds of work that connecting involves. I wondered if student engagement, like Latour regards networks, could be a reflection of the quality of all that connecting work. The Web 2.0 tools, that are being relied on to generate increased student involvement, could be under-performing the students expectations as a support system for all that connecting work. If that pattern is occurring, we could expect the tools of engagement to result in increased disengagement.

Here's what I'm thinking is the full spectrum of "connection work" that tools for engagement ought to support:

  1. Seeing connections: Recognizing "traces" of interrelationships is far from easy. Latour recommends eliminating distinctions like global/local, context/content and macro/micro to detect subtle connections.
  2. Making new connections: Getting help, support, or follow through is difficult when we're facing resistance or apathy. This work calls for political maneuvering and negotiation skills.
  3. Experiencing connections: Connections can be very enjoyable, gratifying and fascination when something we've put out there goes beyond our launch, getting translated, transformed and combined with others.
  4. Articulating connections: Connections get stronger by exploring both ends, conversing back and forth, comparing viewpoints, and exploring tough questions together. The value of the other end of the connection becomes more obvious and refined.
  5. Using existing connections:  Well established connections allow for cooperation, collaborations, P2P projects, and crowdsourcing to get things done faster, more resourcefully and even more creatively.
  6. Blocking connections: When we set up boundaries, filters or black boxes, we keep out others from seeing what to connect to or from making connections. Our form of isolation may be done to protect property rights, avoid piracy, control a brand/reputation or many other motives.
  7. Abandoning connections: Connections are usually high maintenance if they prove to be useful. Cutting down on the maintenance workload results in the loss of neglected connections.
If the tools for engagement got all this work done "on steroids", it seems very likely that student engagement would be "through the roof". That may not require any change in the tools, only a change in how they are used. Perhaps the only problem behind the "declines in student engagement" is "not enough connecting" getting done, supported and celebrated.


Tools that transform us

When we use Web 2.0 tools on social networking platforms, there's a login button to click on. There's usually a check box to indicate if we want to remain logged in on the computer we're using. We think nothing of those buttons and boxes. When we're blogging, adding a comment to a blog or contributing to a wiki or discussion thread, there's a publish button to click on. It seems pretty silent as we use the tool. When we're reading the feeds we've subscribed to via RSS, Atom or email, we click on messages or folders to see what's inside. There's plenty of content to look over but no apparent communication in the feed reader or email program itself.

Marshall McLuhan disagreed. He said "the medium is the message". What the tool tells us speaks more loudly than the content conveyed by the tool. In his day, he saw televisions saying a lot more than the TV programs we watched on them. Nowadays he'd say a wiki, blog, feed or social networking platform tell us much more than what we thought we were being told by the content in them.

Bruno Latour agrees with McLuhan (and me). He regards Web 2.0 tools as actants that function just like actors. They perform for us in ways that move us, stabilize us or combine something about us with them even though they are not human. Through our relating with any actants and/or actors, we are made to act differently ourselves. They mediate, translate and transform whatever made them act they way they did. We pass it on by mediating, translating or transforming what made us act.

So the question I've been exploring lately can be reframed this way: Are the Web 2.0 tools of engagement making us students disengage, lose interest, act bored and cut back on our participating? if we assume those tools don't tell us anything, the answer is obviously "no". Once we accept how profoundly we get transformed by media/actants, the answer is "yes". The next question is "how?".

Perhaps when we click on a login window, publish button or message, we come under a spell. What if we're made to act in the same way as everyone else who clicks on those. Maybe we're transformed into acting more selectively, expressively and exploratorily. Perhaps these tools feel like powerful extensions that amplify our inclinations to socialize, connect, get understood and validate others.

If that's occurring without our conscious intentions, then we've slipped into an echo chamber. We're indulging in consensus and collusion. We're thinking alike and doing the same things as everyone else. We've lost contrasts and contradictions. There are no differences that make a difference in our understanding of ourselves, others or what's called for right now. It would then make perfect sense to disengage. The tools would make us act less involved emotionally, less active in contributing and less interactive with others. We'd seek ways to make a difference outside the echo chamber. We'd be made to act more effectively by escaping the conformity and collusion.


Banging the drum easily at first

Back during my middle school years, I spent several months (not years) learning to play the baritone horn. I found it easy to get a sound out of it, but difficult to get my fingering fast enough to keep time. I knew I had it easy compared to friends playing the clarinet, sax or flute. I figured the baritone horn was more difficult than any percussion instrument. I bailed on the baritone when my frustrations outgrew my diminishing satisfactions. When my father rented a vibraphone several years later, I had no regrets about the abrupt ending to my brass instrument days.

I've been wondering this morning what connections there are between learning to play musical instruments and using the Web 2.0 "tools of student engagement". I imagined that all the tools are easy to use at first, like a percussion instruments that support "banging the drum" with no practice, sheet music or metronome signaling the beats. I then questioned whether the Web tools also have the equivalent subtleties of coordination, timing and expressiveness. Could there be a phase of learning the technique that gets followed by "playing with feeling"? I suspect the answers to both questions is "yes".

It then follows that lots of people could become discouraged as they used the Web 2.0 tools like I did with the baritone horn. It's not the the tools discourage engagement and deeper use. It's that the challenges beyond the beginner stage take considerable determination, intrinsic motivation and social support. It's not for the casual player or those with a fainted hearted interest.

Where the tools invite exploring personal freedom, self expression and one's own curiosity, they also demand a level of practice and proficiency. There's no freedom in the work involved, dedication required and patience called upon by setbacks. Perhaps we are over-emphizing the liberation and downplaying the confinement when the tools of engagement backfire, yielding more student disengagement.


Same old class discussions

Back when I was teaching college courses, I found a gem of a book: Small Group Teaching - A Troubleshooting Guide. Richard G. Tiberius had compiled a wonderful set of questions for diagnosing why class discussions fizzle out. In brief, he recommended exploring:
  1. unclear goals
  2. unattainable goals
  3. unacceptable goals
  4. lack of interaction (2 way conversations)
  5. teacher dominating the interaction
  6. students participating unequally
  7. students tuning out (emotionally and motivationally)
  8. teacher tuning out
  9. students not cooperating
I've wondered if blogs, wiki, threaded discussions, comment boxes and tagging of shared content -- would changes these dynamics. Could the digital context for class participation revise how the students felt, reacted and interacted? Always the optimist initially, I assumed the answer was "yes". I presumed the Web 2.0 tools would offer more freedom of expression due to the added time to think up what to say, the 24/7 windows of opportunity and the exposure to others' contributions. The pressures to think up what to say in a hurry would be alleviated. The possibility of learning from classmates "modeling the desired performance and revealing their own preparatory processes" could make it easier to join in.

Since then I watched many online forums, blogs, wiki, etc -- fizzle out. The dynamics look to me like the same old class discussions moved into the digital domain. When I recently returned to Tiberius's protocol for interrogating disappearing class discussions, it appeared to me that the Web 2.0 tools would simply "pass through the dysfunctional dynamics". Once the thrill was gone from getting to play around with new technology, it seems very likely that the "tools for engagement" would restore the familiar patterns of student disengagement unchanged.


Coming up with something to say

A blank sheet or paper or empty screen can make things worse when someone has a bad case of writer's block. The opportunity to appear before an audience can heighten fears of making a fool of oneself. Whenever Web 2.0 tools contribute to decreased student engagement, it's possible the tools are no help with coming up with something to say and the courage to face the consequences of having said it.

A majority of people rank "public speaking" as their greatest fear. It's likely each has internalized nightmare experiences of getting teased, shot down or embarrassed in front of others. Survivors of abusive relationships are ashamed of exposing their thoughts or feelings. They believe they are mistakes that are not worthy of respect, not one of us humans who make mistakes.

When I've provided a preamble to students about to deliver class presentations, I attempt to de-escalate the adversarial context that fuels their fears. I remind them how school typically penalizes them for making mistakes and how learning to do things better only occurs by making mistakes. I offer them the choice of appearing perfect from the git go or appearing dedicated to further improvements. I suggest they can cling to their past history or let go of it to face the opportunity with less familiarity. I'm deliberately creating a context that supports risk taking, tolerance of imperfections and getting better ideas "for next time" after the presentation.

Web 2.0 tools may be getting offered as course requirements without any supportive context. They may "stare back at the students" like a blank sheet of paper. They may look as bad as standing up on stage in front of a hostile crowd. They may stir up lots of bad memories that inhibit self expression, sharing with others or learning from classmates contributions. In these cases, the "tools for engagement" could easily backfire and yield more disengagement.


Wrong tool for the job?

You may already had the experience of replacing a car battery when the alternator, generator or ignition switch needed replacing. Like me years ago, you may have tried to get a ton of school work done by staying up all night when the work would have been done faster and better with more sleep. Every problem situation challenges us to make a correct diagnosis. When we fail to identify the job that really needs to be done, we have set ourselves up to select the wrong tool, remedy, solution or intervention.

Situations where student disengagement appears to be a problem are rife with opportunities to unwittingly make a misdiagnosis. We won't realize how disengagement is not the real problem. We won't consider the network of related problems. We'll become overconfident that the student disengagement is the real problem to be solved. It will seem obvious to us that "tools for engagement" will solve the problem.

There are many other problems for which student disengagement is merely a warning sign, symptom or lagging indicator. Here are some of those possible real problems indicated by evidence of student disengagement:
  1. "learned helplessness" or "morbid dependency on authority figures following years of getting told to comply with classroom dictates
  2. chronic anxiety tied to pending crises in other contexts which interferes with paying attention, making a contribution and subsequent reflection upon new information
  3. insatiable addictions to escapes from burdensome obligations offered by socializing, gaming, media consumption or substance abuse
  4. loss of reading comprehension from prolonged and repeated exposure to audio-visual, conversational and micro-text communications
  5. devotion to a counter-dependent stance that gains approval from a peer group whenever choosing to act defiant, deviant or disinterested
  6. internalized damage from abusive relationships which dismisses personal validity, voice, viewpoint and receptivity to recognition
  7. repeated incidents of confusion, disorientation and defeat from under developed resources for critical thinking and conceptual manipulations
If any combination of these dynamics are functioning as the real problem, then wiki, blogs, and comment boxes are the wrong tools for the job. No amount of open-access opportunities to contribute, collaborate and learn in public view -- will alleviate or remediate these problems.


Getting used by our tools

While I don't know that it's actually happening, it's very possible and likely that our Web 2.0 tools are using us. Whenever tools use the user, the user is unaware of getting used. Tools don't share our interests or serve larger purposes. This offers one possible explanation for our "tools for engagement" yielding the same level or more disengagement among learners while the use of the tools is multiplying exponentially.

There are a few examples that have gained a lot of traction for this "tools using the user". It's been proposed that our petroleum burning vehicles are using us in ways to maximize travel distances and time behind the wheel in spite of our discomfort with smog, traffic jams, long commutes, loss of pedestrian environments and depletion of oil reserves.  In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that DNA is using human bodies as disposable instruments for its own replication and survival. Our specie's intense survival and mating instincts, accompanied by sporadic incidents of civilized conduct, lends credence to this reversal of "who's using who?". More recently, it's been proposed that the World Wide Web is using all of us contributors, searchers and shoppers to become more knowledgeable while maintaining the illusion that we humans are enhancing ourselves by using the web.

Our minds are very susceptible to getting used by our tools, proficiencies and expertise. Systems designers describe this pattern as: "the solution dictating the definition of the problem". The pattern is more frequently described as "to the kid with the hammer in his hand, everything looks like the head of a nail". There is no concept of there being "too much of a good thing" and no way to question any overuse or misuse.. There's no limit to how much, how often or how selectively to apply the tool. There's no awareness of the bigger picture, consistent pattern or neglected alternatives. This "solution dictating the problem" is easily observed in countless professionals:
  • lawyers see contentious misunderstandings as requiring litigation and legal services, not mediation, arbitration, financial support, counseling or training
  • team building consultants see breakdowns in business functions as a lack of teamwork that can be remedied with their expertise
  • surgeons see painful symptoms as requiring surgery, not changes in diet, exercise, sleep, medications or relationships
  • highway engineers see problems with congestion, travel time or access as a need for more and wider highways
If this pattern fits the use of Web 2.0 tools for learning, then the tools would be used for problems with motivation, attention span, compatibility with classmates, etc. We would be over prescribing the use of the tools while being very much unaware of getting used by the tools.


Inadvertently designed for disengagement?

Most online and blended courses are making greater use of Web 2.0 tools, regardless of their closed or open enrollment. There are wiki or other collaborative documents for participants to expand, revise and edit. There are forums with threaded discussion lists to contribute to and follow others' inputs. There are course archives or links to public platforms where writing, slide shows, graphics, recordings and/or videos can be uploaded, tagged, linked to and commented upon. There may be real time gatherings via phone call, meeting or collaboration software. There are usually subscriptions to RSS/Atom feeds from most archived uploads pages as well as from periodic searches for keywords. All this is expected to increase learner engagement with a course's content offering and fellow participants.

As more instructors, curriculum developers and course designers try out this abundance of "tools for engagement", there is increasing evidence of inadvertent disengagement. There are always a few active participants just like the front row in a conventional classroom. There are also the exceptional few who engage with the subject matter deeply and balance the formalized experiences with considerable personal reflection. Yet the majority of "participants" seem to be showing either no change in their level of engagement or a regression to increased disengagement. These unintended consequences of Web 2.0 tools has raised many questions in my mind for further reflection:
  1. Do learners need "something to say" before tools for sharing, publishing, uploading and/or archiving will seem beneficial to them?
  2. Do the tools yield no positive effects like making it seem easy, inviting or emblematic of membership to contribute shared content?
  3. To what extent are the active users of the Web 2.0 tools actually getting "used by the tools" like the user of a "hammer that makes everything look like a nail"?
  4. How competent does a learner need to feel about using the tools or about expressing themselves to use the tools as intended?
  5. To what extent do the tools merely replicate the dysfunction of F2F class discussions where most students get silenced, intimidated or bored?
  6. How could the Web 2.0 technologies be functioning as "the wrong tool for the job" even though they appear very well suited for increasing engagement?
  7. How could the Web 2.0 tools be making delivered content seem even more boring, propagandistic or insensitive than it comes across as in conventional classrooms?
  8. To what extent do the tools invite the formation of echo chambers, collusion and self confirming evidence rather than contrasts and comparisons?
  9. How easy is it to hide in classes making use of the tools of engagement and keep one's lack of interest, motivation or comprehension out of sight?
  10. How could the use of the tools be made more effective in combination with some other methods, strategies or contexts?


CCK09 Networked theories

This morning I was contemplating how learning theories function in a larger context. It occurred to me that, in spite of being extremely complex internally, learning theories could function as a closed system in isolation. It would not be an explicit intention of theoreticians to create a silo, group or disconnected cluster. It would occur to filter out excess complications, distractions and other burdens on the scarcity of attention.

Not being a specialist in learning theories gives me an opportunity to take a broader look. This picture came to mind of seven theories that all inform each other. By being interconnected, they exchange insights, metaphors, patterns and models. By providing a larger context to each one, there's an added perspective that prevents going to extremes, reinventing the wheel, relying on antiquated premises or eluding practical applications of the theory.

Briefly, here are the six theories that could inform and contextualize learning theories like Connectivism.
  1. Design theory addresses how we: come up with new ideas, solve problems when we take our minds off of the challenge and get unstuck when no inspirations are coming forth. The theory also explores how we make effective decisions while avoiding premature convergence, procrastination, perfectionism and over-reactions. 
  2. Change theory addresses how some changes endure while others fizzle out. It looks at changes that happen spontaneously and those that take concerted effort. It explains how resistance to change gets provoked and how stability can deteriorate into stagnation.
  3. Socio-political theory explores how we get along and get things done together. It explains how gatherings of people successfully advance diverse agendas, protect their rights,  reach agreements, resolve conflicts, and create support systems.
  4. Economic theory looks at the pricing and distribution of goods and services. It explains how enterprises succeed, innovations get nurtured, workforces maintain a standard of living and economic interests go to war with rivals.
  5. Media theory examines the effects of the appliances we use to receive information and entertainments. It explains the reverberations through economies, cultures and institutions when a change in technology gets innocently introduced as an added convenience.
  6. 21st Century science is exploring quantum theory, complexity theory, network theory and ecological theory. It's explaining phenomena like emergence, self organization, connectedness and contagion.

Each of these theories could inform learning theory advancements with different perspectives, questions and frameworks. Each of these theories could also be enhanced by considering how learning happens, what impedes its occurrences and which are the better ways promote more learning at every level.


CCK09 Putting Connectivism into practice

I've been striving to transform my growing knowledge of Connectivism into an actionable practice. I've gotten better at talking the talk, but not walking the talk. Speaking the language seems like a start in the right direction to me. This morning I continued to reflect on how to put CCK into practice and came up with a preliminary protocol. As I explored different alternatives, I formed a strong association with the following pattern of practices. I see myself and others practicing Connectivism whenever we are:
  1. forming new connections and upgrading established connections to a network cluster inside or outside us, connections within that cluster and connections between clusters.
  2. using our personal contexts to realize significance, meaning and/or applications of the otherwise meaningless signals received through our connections
  3. recognizing patterns in the connections and meaning we've formed which opens up further questions, investigations or explorations which leads to more connections
  4. becoming more salient to other cognitive and social networks by being more accessible, receptive, responsive and valuable to those other connections, meanings and perceived patterns
Not surprisingly, I was practicing Connectivism when I came up with this protocol. I recognized a familiar pattern for me where I fall short of "walking the talk". I also perceived a pattern of opportunities to explore a new possibility, reflect on alternatives and formulate new connections. My personal context (valuing pragmatism) was attributing significance to a "lack of practice" and "need for actionable knowledge". Having formulated this protocol, it appeared very salient to my cognitive network. Strong connections formed between it and many clusters within my cognitive network.  If it appears valuable to your cognitive network, I will have succeeded at becoming more salient which will lead to more connections.


CCK09 Speaking the language

As I read the Moodle forum threads for the CCK09 course, the online readings as well as the numerous blogs I've subscribed to, almost everyone is speaking of or about Connectivism. That works if Connectivism is a learning theory. That means to me that we're all theoreticians looking for the right way to sound prescriptive. However, that premise invites me to get stuck in the idea stage with too many abstract concepts to contemplate. The pragmatist in me wants to comprehend what Connectivism is good for, what can I do with it and what happens when I act as if Connectivism is true.

As I reflected on that distinction (theoretic/pragmatic) more deeply this morning, I realized I ought to be speaking the language of Connectivism in lieu of speaking of or about it. Speaking the language could create a context that generates lots more meaningful associations in my conceptual and social networks. This approach could even get me to "learn how to learn" and "reform how I get my/our learning to happen". So I'm going to try out assuming that:
  • connections, links and associations are synonymous with learning (noun)
  • connecting, linking, associating, tying together are synonymous with learning (verb)
  • when I'm strengthening a connection or forming a new connection, I'm learning more than before
  • when I'm reforming a connection, I'm learning more ways that the learning is inherently functional or applicable to other endeavors
  • when I'm dropping a connection, I'm unlearning something I wrongly assumed, concluded or tied together
  • when I lose a previously reliable connection, I'm experiencing the consequences of not using that learning for any purpose
  • when I've made a lot of connections, making lots more connections will happen more easily than before

Why didn't you say so sooner?
I was making lots of connections to the question"What is Connectivism?" without associating all those connections that I formed with the pattern of theorizing/neglecting pragmatism.

What difference can speaking the language make?
I associate that question with pragmatism and my fond pursuit of usefulness. Thanks! When I connect with anything deeply, I associate that with a world view or way of seeing everything. I come from there by connecting with it's premises, basis for conclusions and assumptions about it's value. Speaking the language represents all that pattern in an unspoken way so that listeners/readers can form their own connections to that deeper level.

What's a good place to begin "speaking of connections"?
Perhaps connecting what we already know with the possibility that it's retained and accessed as a network of connections. If we start from the experience that our knowledge is already structured as a web of connections, adding more connections is no change at all. We speak the same language as our knowledge and get the benefits of understanding how it functions easily.


CCK09 Your learning theory in use

You already have a learning theory you use everyday. We all do. It's something that makes it possible to learn when it's not happening easily. Our "learning theories in use" explain what happened, give us something else to try and compare ourselves to others.

Your learning theory may tell you when is a really good time to learn something compared to other times, as well as how important or unimportant the timing is. Your learning theory may explain why you forgot something you wanted to remember or how you got the facts turned around when you already had the ideas right in your mind. You may be able to explain how others learn more or faster than you can, or the reverse where you're the one learning more and faster.

Your learning theory gets called upon when it has become evident that you did not try hard enough to learn something. Your theory will suggest what to do again with more determination, discipline and endurance. It may also prioritize among your options for how to take a different approach to get a better result. Your learning theory may explain the differences between learning endeavors that come easily and those that turn into struggles. It may give you a sense of what to avoid and what to pursue with no motivation problems.

Your learning theory will also reject ideas that seem absurd, impractical or unfounded. Your theory endures because it provides you with stability, confidence, familiarity and resourcefulness in the face of varied challenges, setbacks and progress. Without your learning theory, you'd always be disoriented, insecure and afraid to learning anything else.

Your learning theory in use may need an upgrade. You may have jumped to conclusions about "what's wrong with your ability" or "how you compare unfavorably to others". Your theory may rule out very effective alternatives that make learning lots more fun, energizing, adventurous and rewarding.

Your learning theory in use does not change by learning to talk about new theories. The changes come about by reflecting on how and why things happened to you, for you and with you. By rethinking your explanations, inclinations and resignations, your learning theory in use can be revised to better serve you. With that much familiarity with your own learning theory, just think how you could connect to others' learning theories is use too.


CCK09 Getting it totally

Here's some reflections for CCK09 on "what is knowledge?"

When we know what we know and know what we don't know, Confucius said "we truly know". Most often, we don't know what we know because it's tacit knowledge that we call upon without conscious reasoning in order to know what to do, how to do it and how to steer clear of likely pitfalls. Our explicit knowledge may not even connect to our tacit knowledge. We'll "say one thing and do another" much to our own embarrassment. To know what we don't know seems paradoxical if all our knowing exists at one level. However we can know the limits of our understanding, know what remains an open question for us, and know what seems so unfathomable we cannot even formulate a question about it yet. On one level we don't know what we don't know, on another we only know what we know, then above that we can know the boundaries of what we know and top it off with knowing what we don't know.

We we know something objectively, that's only the half of the challenge. We can point fingers at it, label it accurately and disconnect from it having anything to do with us or our way of seeing. When we also know something subjectively, we turn three of our fingers back at ourselves, interrogate our basis for labeling it and connect "what we're seeing" with our very personal "perceptions and attributions" We own the inevitability of all being spin doctors who bias how we filter and frame what we take in. In the process of coming to know ourselves through the failures of our objectivity, we find we can empathize with or even  identify with the subject of our objective viewpoint. With sufficient practice, the separated object and subject merge into one experience. We are being the observer and the observed all at once.

When we think of knowledge as a thing, we can work at it and try to get it right. When we regard knowledge as an ongoing process, we are continually expanding and deepening our knowledge. We transition from knowledge as property and possessions to knowing as adventure and explorations. We live our questions instead of clinging to what's known to us. We return to innocence after a long bout of being right and jumping to conclusions. We value our curiosity along side our expertise, our fascination with our familiarity and our wonder with our pattern recognition.

When we presume we can make ourselves know more, accumulate more knowledge and become more knowledgeable, we get to be right about that. So be it. When we presume that knowing more comes about naturally, we get to be right about that. We go with the flow of losing some of what we knew to know more comprehensively, inclusively and deeply. We use our inner stillness to let something new arise to explore, ponder and tie in. We learn to trust a process that delivers more to discover each day. We come from a place where life is about experiencing and acting regardless of all the conceptual baggage we've picked up along the way.


CCK09 Possible process taxonomy

I've been pondering how each connection that we make (or that simply happens by association) is dynamic and affected by context. Last week, I read a blog post: CCK09 Ulop’s Taxonomy of Connections (TOC), which got me thinking more about kinds of connections. George Siemens then interrogated the premises of Ulop's taxonomy:
My goal is to create a foundational theory of learning - one that starts with a solid foundation that serves as a suitable structure on which to build education of the future. From my perspective, this requires consideration of connections as entities on their own. How do they form? Why do they form? I'm not convinced that we have different types of connections. Instead, we have connections that exhibit different attributes in the process of forming and re-forming. But, the connection itself carries the same definition at all levels (neural/social/conceptual)
In my current grasp of connectionism, it makes sense that connections are defined by what nodes they connect or what nodes they are located in between. That definition does not change when the connection reforms from weak to strong. It regards connections as "entities on their own". Yet that solid definition of the connection does not characterize the dynamism of the connection or answer process questions like "how do they form?" and "why do they form?". So I pursued the possibility of a characterizing process attributes of connections in a taxonomy. These characteristics begin to answer questions of "how?" and "why?". They frame the definition of the connection as "in process" of forming, growing, changing, learning, evolving, transforming, etc.  Here's a sketch of a process taxonomy for defined connections :

  • 1. Repellant - connected by mutual exclusion or denial of each other's validity as I've explored in connections that fail to form due to error, distance or dilemma. In the process of rejecting, refuting, correcting or guarding against the connection.
  • 2. Tentative - connected by queries, curiosity and openness to new signals. In the process of exploring possibilities, getting questions answered, trying out alternatives, discovering unforeseen options
  • 3. Conceptual - connected by agreement in principle. In the process of staying on message together, speaking the same language, sharing the same explanations
  • 4. Causal - connected by commitments. In the process of following a sequence, producing outcomes together, providing input that becomes output, proceeding unilaterally through a chain of events
  • 5. Recursive - connected by cycles. In the process of providing feedback, maintaining reciprocities, balancing exchanges to seem fair
  • 6. Synergistic - connected by compatibility. In the process of realizing mutual enhancement, generating transformations, energizing collaborations
  • 7. Comprehensive - connected by paradoxes. In the process of balancing multiple polarities, realizing the "best of both" for each component, escaping the tyranny of either/or
As I've since reflected on this taxonomy, I've been wondering if it works as a migration path. Perhaps the first process is a starting point for an evolutionary process within its context. That would suggest the higher orders in the process taxonomy might function with more resilience and sustainability. Instability might move through chaos into a dynamic equilibrium that functioned more inclusively and "connectedly". More to ponder ...


CCK09 On the horns of a dilemma

In addition to recognizable patterns in new ideas of error and of excessive distance, connections may also fail to form when they are "on the horns of dilemma". Here are four classic Catch-22's to keep in mind as we explore this third pattern of failed connections:
I can't endure this job and I can't endure unemployment
I can't live with him/her/it and I can't live without him/her/it
I can't learn from sitting in classrooms and I can't learn on my own
I can't get along with those people and I can't get along by myself

Each half of any dilemma is functioning a a collective, not a connective. Both horns are internally collusive while rejecting the outside network. The differences appear irreconcilable because they are both negating an opposite possibility. No viable connections can form between these antagonistic positions.

When we're caught up in a dilemma, the situation cannot be resolved by taking one side at the expense of the other. We will discover that "opposing the opposition" only perpetuates our misery. The opposite position will flare up and bring our inner torment to the forefront of our experience. There is no solution at the level of these irreconcilable positions. The connection can only occur at a different level from these insular nodes. Each isolated network remains the same regardless of what occurs in its context. Each fails to learn, change, adapt or evolve. It's mind is made up. Each plays by rules which have been long established. Each relies on its history to define its future. Each regards new opportunities as the same old foregone conclusions.

The solution can be found in a process network that contains these isolated networks. The introduction of changing, learning, adapting and evolving puts the isolated networks into a different context. Both become starting points for ongoing processes. Both entertain new questions to explore and interpretations to consider. Both may discover the error of their ways, their opportunities overlooked and their intentions gone awry. Both may find they are two sides of the same coin or a winning combination that prevents going to either extreme. The dilemma may be reformulated as a paradox where they are both right in a different sense provided by the inclusive, process network.

The transition from isolated networks to an inclusive process network involves some unlearning within each isolated network. Here's some of what typically gets unlearned when dilemmas get resolved and robust connections form between the reformulated positions.
  • There's nothing to be learned from untried alternatives.
  • There's nothing that's changed since valid conclusions were reached.
  • There's no justification for revising what is known to be proven facts.
  • There's every reason to rely on past history to predict the future.
  • There's nothing to question in reliable perceptions and attributions.
  • There's the danger of deluding oneself to expect something different.
  • There's no reconciliation possible between these positions.
That's a lot to unlearn, disconnect from and leave behind. I suspect the process networks that let go of past learning easily have accumulated an inventory of successful experiences with dropping connections and revising meaning.


CCK09 - What a far out idea!

Continuing with what I explored yesterday, another reason connections may fail to form can be explained by distance from the new idea to our conceptual networks. Vygotskians would say the new idea is outside our zone of proximal development. The new idea is lacking in closeness, centrality and/or betweenness to speak in SNA (social network analysis) parlance. The idea is too many hops away from our small world network of closely knit understandings.  We cannot make those hops because the intermediate nodes to "go there" or to "get its significance" are missing. The new idea is literally too far out.

When we're lacking intermediate nodes, it's likely we don't know what we're missing. We don't know what we don't know. It seems paradoxical and defiant of logical progressions to figure what to do to connect to the new idea. Perhaps that's why Stephen Downes is suggesting we rely entirely on association, in lieu of using deduction and inference. We can make spontaneous  connections that we cannot explain or formulate methodically. They happen by two nodes being proximate. "Those close by form a tie".

One way to implement "connection by association" with a "far out idea" is to reverse engineer the bridge from our close knit comprehension. By starting with the new idea, it may be possible to connect back to the small world network where starting from known ideas won't get there. We can probably make some associations to the new idea in isolation. We can make up a story about it or elongate it into a scenario of incidents. We may deepen our appreciation of it by using varied metaphors to characterize it or different criteria to discern its value.

Here's an example of working backwards from the far out idea to connect with a current, complex understanding:

Imagine you have a deep understanding of the necessity of telling others what to think. In your experience people do not think for themselves. They need to be told and wait to be told by you whenever you give them a chance to think for themselves. It's a short hop in your conceptual network between what you think of yourself, of the people need to be told and of what they are not thinking for themselves.  You find the labels "pushy", "domineering" or "impatient" do not fit you in your context. Your actions and comprehension of others seems justified, accurate and consistent with your experiences.

Next you encounter a far out idea: people can think for themselves (when they are not consistently pushed or constantly expected to need to be told). There is no connection between that approach and your experience-based, closely knit understanding of the complete opposite necessity. If you don't dismiss the idea as a lie, deception or mistake, you will experience cognitive dissonance.

To reverse engineer a connection back to your comprehension, begin with the far out idea where it might make sense:

    1. In what context might people consistently think for themselves?
    2. How could be those who think for themselves be supported, encouraged and validated for that initiative?
    3. What's different about people that think for themselves and solve problems without waiting to be told?
    4. How much of that difference in people is the result of how they are framed, categorized or defined by managers?
    5. How could the expectation that "people usually think for themselves" influence their admirable conduct?
    6. What effect would it have on those people to tell them what to think?
    7. What reputation might you earn among those people if you always told them what to think?

The answers to these questions form new nodes and connections. The last two questions make connections back to the small world that necessitates telling people what to think. Those questions function as high betweenness nodes that span across two clusters. The bridge gets built by starting at the far out idea.