Friday, September 12, 2008

That's Week One in the Record Books

It's Friday evening, I've just sent out OLWeekly, and I can reflect on the first week of the course.

I know that George can probably claim to have had the busier week, since he was on the road in England all week. But I think I had my own share of business as well, with a couple of on-line presentations sandwiched between a trip to Fredericton and some other writing.

Much of my week was taken up getting The Daily up and running. I decided, at the last minute, to adapt gRSShopper for the task. The software, which I use to run my personal website and newsletter, wasn't really designed for a course, so I had to make some changes.

First, I needed to create a screen to allow people to submit their feeds. This is usually an admin task. The only thing readers do on my site is submit comments. So I added a screen - but had to turn off the spam-filtering mechanism in order to accept the feeds. Within a day, I was knee-deep in spam. I spent a lot of time this week deleting spam messages - not here, but on my home website.

I also had to set up the system to allow me to mass-import a whole bunch of names and to subscribe them to the newsletter. This actually went pretty well. I also had top adjust the archive system to allow different pages to be viewed, something I would have had to do anyways. And I had to create the templates for the various pages and displays. It wasn't a huge pile of work - probably only a couple of days - but it came at a bad time.

This weekend, I'll be atten ding to the feed harvesting. For some reason, my feed authorization system isn't working on the connect.downes.ca site (this allows administrators to 'approve' feeds before harvesting starts - otherwise I'd be harvesting spam every day). And I want to finish the submission form, so people will edit (right now, they back up and try again, which results in multiple submissions). Then a small bit of work to get the posts into the newsletter - this bitr is already tested, so I know it works.

So that's the mechanics of it - what about the course?

Well, I'll say right off that I think i allowed myself to be pulled into the Moodle discussion too much. It's seductive - the system defaults to sending you these emails, and you start reading them with the best of intentions, and then, someone was wrong on the internet and, of course, must be corrected immediately. This happens once or twice on the first day, a dozen times on day five. Ack!

The course elements have kept me busy. There are three major things to do - the Monday presentation (I did a video, George did a doc), the Wednesday Elluminate (two sessions because of time zone issues) and the Friday UStream. That's four hours right there. And I haven't had to set any of that up - George did the wiki, moodle and website, along with the Elluminate site, and Dave Cormier and Jeff Lebow set up the Skype-UStream set-up. This really is a group effort, even if it doesn't appear that wai - Alec Couros is helping, Helene Fournier has set up a survey, and I'd really like to get someone to manage the documentation (Leigh....?) Not to men tion the people who set up Google Groups, Second Life sites, translations, and all the rest.

It was funny to read some criticism part way through the week about this being a course - if we were really practicing what we preached, we wouldn't be offering a course! Funny, first of all, because I've been practicing what I preach for many years - more than seven years of OLDaily, for example. And funny because the course elements of this are the hardest bits to pull off, the bit6s that feel the least natural, the bits that create the most needless complexity.

Having everybody descend on the thing at once, for example. Not that the 2152 people currently signed up aren't welcome. But it has felt, at times, like people wanted to cover the entire subject in the first five days. It's a lot easier if we can have people join more gradually, if we can ease our way into a discussion of various subjects. This instant pressure will lessen as the course progresses.

The nature of the subject has also contributed. If it were a course in logic and critical thinking (which I'm thinking of doing in the same style some time in the future) there would not have been the same rush. Most people in this course didn't even know what connectivism was when they started, and those that did know weren't sure they believed it. A less controversial subject would have a different type of discussion.

Also, connectivism is a really difficult topic to introduce. Normally, when you introduce a topic, you can do so with realatively common and widely understood concepts. Even something difficult like calculus, for example, is introduced using the vocabulary and tenets of mathematics. We aren't so luck in education. The foundational tenets of our discipline are almost uniformly in dispute. The ontology of the study - the nature and purpose of the things being studied - is in dispute. We say in our discussion this week that we could not even agree on what a theory is.

Next week will help, if we can get away from the arguments debunking connectivism long enough to study the underlying precepts of connectionist knowledge. I have found myself running around in circles this week, trying to respond to criticisms while at the same time trying to explain these underlying concepts.

I need to be careful - again - not to be drawn into this. Because, while I am happy to describe the theory, I really don't want to be drawn into arguments about the defense of it. Because these are disputes that will not be resolved by argument. If you think connectivism is fundamentally wrong, then noting I say is going to change your mind. I don't mind criticism - that is what advances thought. But I will attempt to draw a line for myself when it comes to trying to convince the critics.

What I've seen thus far is that the criticisms have come from two directions. This reflects the strength of the theory, but also underlines its fundamental challenge. On the one hand, we are accused by some of collectivism and even some form of communism. And yet, on the other hand, we are accused by others of rampant individualism. (There are other dichotomies like this in the discussion; this is just the most vivid).

I believe that this is because the theory is neither collectivist nor individualist. It doesn't argue that people (students, whatever) should subsume themselves under some sort of general will. At the same time, it doesn't suppose that people live their lives as lone wolves, responsible for and to only themselves. There is a middle ground between these two extremes, a half-way point between joining and not joining, which (we believe) may be found in the network. Oh, b ut to get to this point, which doesn't come up until week 5!

Well - George is on a train in England right now, and I'm relaxing at home on a Friday night. Time to rest for a bit - I have some programming to do this weekend, then another video to record. I want to move slowly, certainly, through the basic ideas, not arguing for them so much as letting the iudea make their own case for themselves. We'll see. This is a fun and extrordinarily fascinating process, yet not without its challenges.

8 comments:

  1. Stephen,

    I love your recap of the first week: a very honest, helpful guide to the importance of pacing for such an immensely innovative and fascinating experiment. The very nature of the laboratory seems to demand speed and an all encompassing consumption of what's been said. And I think your idea here of slowing down and working through the ideas is right on. Much of the initial reactionary responses will die down and the "course" will assume an identity (or identities) and the discussion will benefit accordingly.

    I was interested in your choice of the Moodle Forum, it seems like forums, in my experience, beg such reactions, and it is where most of them occurred this first week. Moreover, it's not really such a useful tool for the PLE in my opinion. I found for the first week that I was more interested in thinking about yours, George's and Bill Kerr's framework, than jumping in the fray right off.

    The gradual sense of such a experience is important, especially if th course does ostensibly posit a position (namely there is such a thing as connectivism and it is worthy of study) and go about defending it. Seems like a space for thinking about educational theories more generally in the first week, and the logic of thinkers like Vygotsky, Illich, etc., may have helped in this regard.

    I always think of a course as an open ended argument that you develop and define over time, seems like this structure posits a theory immediately and to some degree out of intellectual context, and digs in to defend it for the entire semester which could be a dangerous approach.

    Great stuff, and I'm interested in how you are hacking out rssHopper, it sounds similar to what folks are trying with WPMu curse syndication.

    Anyway, enjoy your weekend.

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  2. Whether this is a course or not, a real theory or not, technocommunism or anarchy - I've had more synapses firing this week than in a long time, and I just want to say a simple "THANKS" to you and George (and all the others behind the scenes).

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  3. No, "someone isn't wrong on the Internet," someone simply didn't buy your line.

    Re: "I really don't want to be drawn into arguments about the defense of it. Because these are disputes that will not be resolved by argument. If you think connectivism is fundamentally wrong, then noting I say is going to change your mind."

    I find that indefensible. You are promulgating a belief system, and you can't stand challenges to it? Huh? You can't remain curious about the challenges to your doctrines because you are so hell-bent on disseminating them. You're like some other ideologues, too, saying that "proof" that you are right must be seen in the fact that you have two kinds of critiques, one that it is too much individualism, and one that it is too much communism.

    Communism fits for me because of the constant destructiveness and false claims of public good and ends justifying means, hiding in fact a very stealth-like controlling mechanism by a few. So you know what? There are individualisms in communism as well -- tyrants. That's how it works. That's how it sustains itself, masking itself as the public good, yet appearing to be "about the collective."

    You (and others) just wave away challenges or critiques and say "believe in my system first, that's the only way to understand it -- criticize if you must, but only by endorsing it as legitimate." Huh? What kind of science is *that*?

    I'm so curious how minds get turned to ideologies like this, how the become so obsessed and trapped. It's fascinating to see the defensiveness involved.

    It also seems to me that you're really spinning your wheels on some of this new tech. There's a function on Google blog feeds that is a "share" (I think) that you could just provide to take care of lots of it if you just put it in Google news. AFAIK it is one URL that shows all the feeds you get as a share for everyone else. Grasshopper seems needlessly cumbersome. You don't have to RSS the hell out of something that already has CCK08 on it everywhere.

    Basically, an engagement with a system like this is more interesting for what it shows about minds online and their actions than for anything achieved in "putting over" the doctrine.

    You really should fix up the Moodle to contain just a few more links to things like the readings list -- which you simply cannot find there.

    And would it hurt to put a clear link here on your blog to any videotape you did that explains more verbally what your system is?

    Prokofy
    Catherine Fitzpatrick

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  4. > I find that indefensible. You are promulgating a belief system, and you can't stand challenges to it?

    This is a course, not a philosophical debate. You are free to disagree all you want, but I am not going to take the time I have devoted to explaining the theory and spend it in a pointless argument with people who haven't taken the time to learn about the theory and who have no intention of considering the possibility that it might be true.

    I will also caution, one time only, that I do not tolerate personal attacks on this blog, and will remove abusive comments without warning or response. The whole web is open for people to post their diatribes; there's no reason why I should be required to make a space for hostile attacks on my own site.

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  5. You say:

    "I believe that this is because the theory is neither collectivist nor individualist."

    This is key. As George said on his connectivism.ca blog post (see "Call for a New Discipline") before the course started, the key to working connectives is change. The objective is not to come to some "one best way" of doing things, but to create systems which are agile, which can bend and flex and re-assemble based on dynamic contexts.

    This is a well-known subject in IT, in both design and planning phases. Social ideologies aside, it works very, very well for software development.

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  6. Stephen, I'm not convinced that the best argument for Collectivism is to categorise it against rationalism or empiricism, or to raise the old chestnut of qualitative vs quantitative. While of course these have ontological and epistemological significance, they speak more about methods of knowing than the nature of knowledge.

    I think it would be more fruitful to line Collectivism up against acquisitional and participatory paradigms of knowledge and learning (see Sfard, 1998), which are reflected in the metaphors we use and the intentions we pursue.

    In my opinion, you can approach Connectivism both as a realist or a constructivist. It is the unit of analysis that is different between the acquisitional and participatory, as one would expect of different paradigms.

    The acquisitional approach focusses on knowledge as apparently discrete, bounded entities (whether reified or not). The participatory approach is about the experience of intersubjective discourse, situated learning, knowledge building and identity formation. And Connectivism expands on the dynamic structure and emerging effects of complex human systems.

    All three paradigms tell a relevant story about knowledge and learning.

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  7. Hah, I meant Connectism, not collectivism!

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  8. To rlubensky,

    First of all, I am not offering an argument for Connectivism here.

    I'm just trying to describe the theory, to make it clear.

    Second, I am writing here not about a learning theory, but about connective knowledge.

    So comparing it with acquisitional and participatory learning theories would be irrelevant.

    And third, as we'll see later, the connectivist approach pretty much rejects the idea of 'knowledge as apparently discrete, bounded entities'.

    And fourth, I want to avoid being dragged down the road of 'the experience of intersubjective discourse, situated learning, knowledge building and identity formation.'

    All of this ground has been well-covered by others (who, unfortunately, have left us just as uninformed about the process of learning).

    Connectivism begins by talking about knowledge differently.

    If that's difficult to follow, I'm sorry.

    But skipping over this and jumping straight into learning theories misses the point.

    It's because much (most, even) of our most important knowledge is connective that our learning must be connective. Not the other way around.

    So (and this is a point for everyone now) when I talk about knowing about things by knowing about how they're connected, think of this as a type of knowledge, not a type of learning.

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