1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am a researcher for Canada’s National Research Council, the federal government scientific agency. I specialized on online learning, media and collaborative technologies. Since 2001 at NRC I have worked on learning object standards and repositories, content recommender systems, collaborative content authoring technology, and massive open online courses (MOOCs). I am best known for my daily newsletter, OLDaily, which covers advances in educational technology, for contributions to connectivism, which is a learning theory based on distributed knowledge, and for the development of MOOCs.
2. Why connectivism made our education more elaborative?
The central idea behind connectivism is that knowledge is distributed. What this means is that even a simple concept (like ‘Paris is the capital of France’) is not stored as an atomic fact or sentence, but consists rather of a state of connectivity and actuivation of a network of neurons. Learning this is the development and activation of these connections. This means that we can’t learn effectively simply by importing content (what Friere called the ‘banking theory’) but must actively engage and work with the knowledge. I often compare the learning process to be similar to developing physical fitness through exercise.
3. Please discuss about the importance of designing a course?
While a course was traditionally thought of as a series of presentment facts, like a book, in today’s online environment the design of a course is much more like the design of an environment (to follow on the previous analogy, it is like designing a gym or exercise facility. This means that instead of charting a route through content, course designers need to present options and opportunities for learners to engage, interact, work with resources and create new knowledge.
4. What are challenges in open online education?
The primary challenge I think is that it is very difficult to move from a system based on courses and credits to one where learners are more engaged and creative in learning. The existing system is based on the idea of attending college and university, at significant expense and opportunity cost. But we want learning to be connected to and part of a person’s personal or professional life, an extension of what we do every day rather than a replacement for it. This requires an advanced communications infrastructure, in order to facilitate access to professors and resources, but also a change in teaching philosophy.
5. What is web based courses? How web based courses can contribute more to education?
I prefer to use the word ‘course’ in the traditional sense, which means ‘series’, rather than the sense in which we mean classes and tests and grades. The course is (as I offer it) a series of discussions or related activities around a theme or area of enquiry. It is not ‘taught’ in the traditional sense, but rather resembles more a community, where the course facilitators provide a communications environment and facilitate interaction, and where academics leading the enquiry are active participants in the community (not ‘guides by the side’ but rather exemplars of professional or expert practice). What makes it a course rather than (say) a community of practice is that it has a start and end date, and is more tightly focused. This has the effect of creating a new and temporary set of connections in the wider community, effectively shaking up existing communities and introducing people to new ideas and experiences.
6. How technology help in improving the teaching practices?
The idea of ‘teaching’ in a connectivist environment is (to put it simply) to model and demonstrate expert practice. Technology makes it possible for experts to include novices and others in their day-to-day practice in ways unimagined even a decade ago. I recently mentioned the example of Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who employed social media to share his experience of commanding the International Space Station. It was a ‘course’ in the sense that it had a limited three-month duration and was focused around a specific activity. But people participated through dialogue and social interaction, as well as through sharing and discussing the unique resources produced by Hadfield during the event.
7. Do you think the online education is in the right direction? What makes this more useful and powerful ?
Online learning is still struggling to find its way. While free and open learning is of the greatest benefit to learners and society at large, it is still subject to commercial forces seeking to ‘monetize’ learning communities, often through enclosure but also through advertising and upselling. There needs in my mind to be a clear and consistent foundation of open access to learning which is publicly provided as a social good in order to ensure the widest benefits of our common culture and base of knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, and to foster the widest and most creative possible innovation. Commercial and economic activity should be derived from the fruits of the educational system, rather than tapping into the provision of it; it is analogous to the way commercial and economic activity is greatly magnified by the creation of a transportation infrastructure, rather than through the creation of private or toll roads.
8. As a researcher, what do you think about the face of education in 2025?
I think it will look very different. Colleges and universities will exist, and will still offer ‘courses’, but these will increasingly be offered to people in the workplace (or in earlier stages of their education). Enrolment in a course will not be constrained by admission to an institution, and will be characterized by free access to information and resources. Time to participate (and often many of the learning materials) will be offered by existing and prospective employers. Evaluation will not be through tests and assignments but rather through computational analysis of the students participation in the learning and wider disciplinary network. Students won’t ‘study’, they will engage and participate, learning through performing actual and important social functions.