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 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.