Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Design Elements in a Personal Learning Environment

In this paper I would like to address the core design elements in the development of a personal learning architecture being developed in the National Research Council's Learning and Performance Support Systems program. This program was developed and approved to address the issue of skills shortages in technical and professional industries in Canada. It is an issue that costs Canadian industry billions of dollars a year while thousands of Canadians remain unemployed. Our solution is to provide each person with a single point of access to all their skills development and training needs, individualizing their learning path, providing learning support, and supporting learning tailored to industry needs and individual performance support.

This program builds on the National Research Council's deep connection to the e-learning industry, including collaboration and commercialization across the sector. The program draws on NRC's research in other fields, such as machine learning and analytics. And NRC is free to take risks on technology that might daunt commercial providers. NRC's track record in this sector includes the leadership role it played in the eduSource network of learning object repositories, the Sifter/Filter content recommender later commercialized as Racofi, sentiment analysis in learning, the Synergic3 collaborative workflow system, and more.

NRC's Learning and Performance Support Systems program touches on all parts of Canada's learning technology, but has the most direct impact on the learning management system (LMS) sector. This is an area that includes content management systems, talent management systems, and the LMS. It also impacts content developers and e-learning distributors, including MOOC distributors and educational institutions. It also impacts end users themselves: not only students and individual learners, but also their employers.

In recent years NRC has become widely known for developing and refining the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), including the creation of the technology behind the original Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK08) MOOC offered in 2008, creating a dynamic connected application to support learning. The MOOC combined several themes which were in themselves becoming increasingly important: the idea of massively multi-user environments, the idea of using open and distributed content, the idea of fully online delivery, and the packaging of these as an online course.

The NRC-designed MOOC differs significantly from traditional courses. The most obvious difference is that the course is not located on a single platform, but is instead a web created by linking multiple sites together. The architecture of this web is intended to optimize four design principles: each member of the web operates autonomously, the web links diverse services and resources together, the web is open and supports open engagement, and the web encourages cooperative learning.

As mentioned, the first course offered using this model was CCK08, delivered through the University of Manitoba and taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. It attracted 2300 students and connected more than 170 distinct online resources during its 12 weeks. In the years that followed CCK would be offered three more times. Additionally, the same platform was used to deliver a course called Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge (PLENK) in 2010, as well as the 30-week course on Change.

In 2011 Stanford University offered its first MOOC, the Artificial Intelligence MOOC authored by Norvig and Thrun. It differs from the network-based connectivist MOOCC (cMOOC), though, by being centred on a single platform and focusing on content like a traditional course. The xMOOC, as this model came to be known, is characterized by limiting autonomy and diversity - all students followed the same lessons at the same pace. Although it was open, interaction flowed one-way, from professor to student.

It is also worth contrasting the pedagogy of the cMOOC from the xMOOC. Engagement is at the core of cMOOC learning. Participants aggregate resources from multiple sources, remix these in various ways, adapt and repurpose them to their own needs, and then share them. If we look at the structure of the course from this perspective, we see a network of individual learners interacting with each other and exchanging, and working with, diverse resources obtained from a variety of internet sources.

Looked at more deeply we can describe specific support requirements for each student. A student creates a resource, and makes this available to the course where it is accessed by a second student, who via this resource finds a third student's resources. From the course provider perspective, students contribute content metadata and the learning provider may create additional content, all of which is accessed and shared by course participants, who may also attend live online events or access event recordings. From the student's perspective, by contrast, the view is to a set of other students or course instructors, and via interactions with these course participants, to a wide range of resources and services across the wider internet, everything from blog posts to YouTube videos.

To support a student's involvement, therefore, technology design is based on the idea of putting at the centre of a learning network, connecting via a single environment to other participants, course resources, and myriad online services. This in turn suggests a simplified design that supports this student-centered approach with connections to learning support applications, and in particular, to resource repositories, to external cloud media storage, to learning applications and APIs, and to external graph-based analytics. These components form the core of the Learning and Performance Support Systems (LPSS) technology development proposal, which incorporates these connective elements with a personal learning record to support lifetime management of credentials, training records, and learning activities, and a personal learning assistant to manage the system.

The NRC LPSS program is a 5-year $20 million effort designed to develop these core technologies and bind them with a common platform. The program applies this technology through a series of implementation projects with commercial and technical partners, including other NRC and Government of Canada (GoC) branches. These projects are managed through a program organization that maps the technology effort to client demands and the employment outcomes described at the beginning of this paper. Program deliverables include not only the technology development, which will be implemented in corporate, institutional and government environments, but also a series of publications and white papers describing the LPSS learning network, how and why it works, and how to connect to it.

Also LPSS can be viewed as a stand-alone system, it is designed in a distributed and modular fashion in order to enable it to be inserted, for example, directly into work environments and corporate contexts, directly addressing human resources and training requirements. This interoperability is achieved through the personal learning assistant (PLA). Like an LMS, the PLA displays learning resources and plays interoperable learning technology (using standards such as ADL's SCORM or IMS's LTI). But it also the leading edge to much more. As mentioned above, the LPSS program is developing five core technologies, linked by the Common Framework (CF). These are the aforementioned PLA, the Resource Repository Network (RRN), Personal Cloud (PC), Competency Development and Recognition Algorithms (ACDR), and the Personal Learning Record (PLR).

Let us examine these in more detail. The first of these is the Resource Repository Network (RRN), needed to provide connectivity with external resources. This package of applications enables a user to manage and discover lists off sources and resources. In a sense, it functions like the syndicated content (RSS) readers of old, but is designed to access and manage many different forms of content, including calendar information and modern Javascript-based (JSON) descriptions of courses and programs.

A second aspect of LPSS is the Personal Cloud (PC) set of applications. These applications manage personal cloud storage services. Some of these are familiar, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, and some of these are innovative, such as personal home-hosted cloud storage using OwnCloud. But more is involved than merely storing data; resources must be secured, backed up, authenticated and synchronized. This enables LPSS to support genuine data portability, and eliminate reliance on a single provider.

As mentioned above, interoperability is achieved through the Personal Learning Assistant (PLA). In addition to displaying learning resources and running e-learning applications, the PLA is designed to 'project' LPSS capacities into multiple platforms. These include not only desktop and mobile devices, but productivity applications such as Word and PowerPoint, interactive environments such as conferencing systems and synchronous communications platforms, simulations and games, as well as tools and devices. The PLA exchanges information with these environment, enabling them to interact intelligently with the user. One example of this kind of integration is LPSS's integration with another NRC product called 2Sim, which provides virtual haptic training simulations in medical environments. By exchanging activity data (using the Experience API, or xAPI data exchange format) LPSS supports a continuous learning path using these systems.

This points to an additional set of services that can be integrated into a distributed learning application, Automated Competency Development and Recognition (ACDR). This is a set of intelligent algoritms designed to import or create competency definitions matching employment positions, to support the development of learning plans based on these competencies, to provide resource and service recommendations, and to tackle the seriously challenging task of assessing performance based on system and network interactions. It is worth noting that while LMSs and xMOOCs tout learning analytics, only a distributed personal learning network application can apply analytics using a person's complete learning and development profile, and not only the specific LMS or cMOOC.

This functionality is enabled by the Personal Learning Record (PLR), which collects learning records and credentials obtained through a lifetime and stores them in a secure locker owned by the individual and shared only with explicit permission. The PLR collects three major forms of records: learning activity and interactivity records, such as xAPI records; a person's personal portfolio of learning artifacts and evidence; and the person's full set of credentials and certifications, these verified by the issuer.

It should be noted that LPSS recognizes, and is designed to cooperate with, existing personal learning environment and personal learning records, including Europe's Responsive Open Learning Environments (ROLE) project and start-ups such as Known, Learning Locker and Mahara. Additionally, LPSS is designed to work with MOOC providers - not only NRC's gRSShopper but also Coursera and EdX. We've integrated badges in a Moodle and Mahara environment for the Privy Council Office, we're doing xAPI application profile development, and are engaged in collaborative workplace training and development. These implementation projects (as we call them) reinforce LPSS's mandate to be more than just a theoretical exercise, but to apply the technology in authentic environments, supporting individuals in a learning network and feeding this experience back into product improvement.

It may be suggested that there are any number of companies engaged in aspects of learning analytics, personal learning records, learning technologies integration, and the like. But the LPSS approach is different - by creating many small things linked together instead of one large centralized application, many tasks that were formally simple - like data storage, content distribution, authentication and analytics - become that much more difficult. Take analytics, for example - how do you do big data analysis across thousands of separate systems each with its own unique data structure? These are the hard problems NRC is trying to solve.

LPSS launched in an initial pre-alpha version October 1, 2014. Invitations may be obtained by going to and filling in the short form. Users will also be asked whether they would like to participate in LPSS development research (this is not required and all personal research is subject to strict Government of Canada research ethics protocols). Functionality in this early system is limited; the first release focused on content aggregation, competency import and definition, and simple recommendation.

The next release (March 31, 2015) will feature the 'connectivist' social interaction architecture being designed through an implementation project with the Industrial Research Assistanceship program (IRAP) supporting small and medium sized enterprise. The roadmap projects two other major releases, at 6-month intervals, coupled with ongoing client-specific and industry-specific learning solutions. Technology will be transferred to partner companies beginning in 2017.

Notes from ELI 2015 Riyadh - Day One

Rob Kadel
The Untapped Potential for eLearning
Pearson Research & Innovation Network / University of Colorado Denver

- learning to think laterally, or to think divergently (think outside the box)
    - instead of thinking of one answer, thinking of many possible answers
    - example: alternative ways to commute to work

- Research & Innovation Network (Pearson) - Kimberly O'Malley, head
    - turning ideas into useful and usable innovation networks
    - various centres for different projects
    - accomoplishments: collaborative games, essay scoring algoritms, etc

- Student success - what does it mean?
    - beyond school - Oxford Economics survey 2011 - skills most in demand:
        - interpersonal and communication skills
        - digital
        - agile thinking
        - global operating skills
    - CEOs valued these, but said most employees today do not have these skills
        - we can reach this, but have to look at the world students live in today

- The current environment - tech in schools
    - two speeds: full steaam ahead, or, what do we do now?
    - we need to meet students in their own space, in the technology they already use

- Personalized Learning
    - Howard Gardner: individuation, pluralization
    - individuation: each student taught in ways that are comfortable
    - pluralization: anytung being taught should be taught in several ways (to reach more students)
    - in a practical snese - not just 1:1 computing
        - students and teachers customize learning objectives and strategies for work
        - rigorous curriculum framework
        - relevant assessment, teachers as facilitators
    - SAMR model of technology integration

- It takes a village: components of education transformation
    - leadership: establish vision, lead by example,
    - policy: align with outcoms
    - curriculum and assessment - in alignment with each other, must ensure students gain essential knowledge and 21st c skills
    - digital tech - tools and data to support personalization
    - sustinable resourcing - develop resources at scale
    - research and evaluation

- Purposful planning - getting to goals
    - eg. 'all studnets must achieve success in mathematics before graduation'
    - need to clearly define what these thinsg are
    - Goals > Objectives > Activities > Tasks (hierarchal structure)
            - if you can measure the tasks, you can measure all the way up
            - the task level is the easiest to measure
            - eg. Pearson's MathXL
    - importance of verbs (action words) - use Bloom's digital taxonomy (HOTS to LOTS)
    - the full-steam ahead approach is not purposeful
        - need to map out all learning tasks beforehand (example, school with Chromebooks couldn't read MS Word documents)
        - ensure that adequate staff are assigned to each task
        - ensure that budgets are accurate
        - that you can measure the success of your program

- Learning outcomes and efficacy
    - it isn't enough to merely be good, you have to do good (ie., you have to show you are good)
    - Pearson - has taken a strong effort to measure our products and our services
        (video clip from Pearson CEO) (but no, this isn't an advertisement for Pearson, he assures us)
    - "return on investment in human capital"
    - measuring the tasks = measuring efficacy

- Challenges in the Gulf region
    - infrastructure - are all schools and all users connected?
    - leadership - are leaders supporting and demonstrating effective technology use?
    - language - more than half of websites that exist are in English
        - how to maintain rich heritage of Arabic language
        - but how to teach them all English
    - digital literacy - students need basic understanding of how to use devices
        - not just mobile phones, can you work with computers, eg., save and send a file
    - professional development for teachers


    - Q: will tech in the education field cut out labour, the way it has in other fields
    - A: I don't think it will replace teachers
        - there is the danger or potential that it will replace teachers, but that's not the way we want to go
        - want to keep teachers as facilitators
    - Q: you talk about an outcome-based theory, based on tasks, which is a classical theory around for years
        - but do you do tasks first, or goals first?
    - A: just a way of redefining the way we have thought of education in the past
        - it is very difficult to measure goals, but it is possible to measure the outcomes
    - Q: what about social media
    - A: replicate them in the 'walled garden' -- or experiment with tools (but they don't always work)
    - Q: knowledge is non-reductive?
    - A: it depemds on the language we use - 'what does it really mean'?

Olaf Zawacki-RichterThe development of online distance education and media usage behavior in higher education

- traditional students - 1950s - male, <25 br="" from="" high="" school="" straight="">- C.A.Wedemeyer 1981 - increasing diversity in university, beginning of open university, open admissions
    - University of London 1826 "beginning" of open university, distance learning
    - 1889 - sample of advertisement describing correspondance study
    - so correspondance education is closely linked to the development of the postal system in Europe
    - South Arica - UNISA
- The open learning movement - begins in the 1960s
    - list: OU (1969), Athabasca (1970), FernUniversitat (1974)
    - some very large ones - China, Turkey
    - new open universities - Nigeria, Malaysia
- UMUC - development of online distance education
- more open universities - Russia
- traditional campuses - eg. Penn State - 'world campus'

Institutional Structures
    - Oldenberg University, Germany
        - need organizational structure to "manage this process in a profeessional way"
        - Centre for Lifelong Learning (C3L)
    - Structure of the blended learning program:
        - independent study phase
        - 1st cintact session
        - online projevt work
        - 2nd contact session
        - project portfolios

Instructional design model: ADDIE
    - emohasis on first phase, evry important - need to know prior knowledge, media preferences

Media usage behavious in Education
    - does the net generation now arrive at the university?
    - very few empirical studies supporting the claims of Tapscott, Presnky, etc
    - so what are these studients doing? Research questions: wat do they use, what is their value, informal media, etc?
    - exploratory study - data in 2012 - big 276 question survey, 2,339 students fro German universities
        - 99% have access to broadband, 38% use internet 4-6 hours per day
    - media typology (Grosch and Gidion)
    - acceptance rates llfdifferent tools and rechnologies
        - second Life - dead last on the list
    - cluster analysis - 5 groups:
        - ubiquitous web services, email, LMS
        - provuided by uni - eg. online library
        - cooperation & entertainment - comouter conference, social netwirks, iTines
        - external web 2.0 toos, blogs, skype
        - exotic applications - 2nd life, Twitter - not used much for learning
    - high acceptance by traditional studnets just a few, eg. email, non-traditional students use a wide range of tools
    - gap between demand and supply of e-learning, significantly higher demand for e-learning among non-trad
    - media usage typology
        - entertainment - 51%
        - periphrial - 20%
        - advanced - 20%
        - instrumental - 7%
    - Implications:
        - developed authoring tool for courses for tablets - iAcademy
        - C3LLO - mobile LMS - mostly for communications
        - no relationship between age and media usage
        - very high acceptance for LMS and print-based materials
        - the university should not imitate informal social networks

Richard L. Edwards
Executive Director, iLearn Research, Ball State University
Increasing Student Success through Online Learning, Learning Analytics, and Learner-Centered Practices

- student success - students maximizing their abilities
- online education joins: online learning, learning analytcs, and learning processes

- from minister of education: "less teaching, more learning"
    - more learning = more effective teachning

Student Success
    - formal vs informal learning
    - learning anytime, anywhere
    - learning how to learn
    - lifelong learning

Areas of broad agreement at #ELI_2015
    - we have the technology to make online learning effective
    - the demand for online education is growing rapidly
    - 21st century learners were born into a digitally connected workd
    - there will continue to be waves of innivation in e-learning

Claim: students are leading us into the "postmodality" er
    - online learning is no longer a novelty
    - meeting the needs of these students will require institutional ecosystems
        Thomas Cavanaugh, 2012, Educause

Premise #1    - success in online learning requires an ecosystem
    - can't focus on student success in isolation from, eg:
        - faculty development, eLearning support, 3rd party support, IT support, admin & services
    - "we have educated them in terms of their whole mind and body" - clubs, sports, etc
        - we have to replicate that in online learning
    - Ball State's iLearn

Premise #2  - eLearning mindstes andd our cultures of learning affect how we develop our online programs
    - institutions that take risks succeed, institutions thta take a step back do not succeed
    - success is possible, but you first have to believe that onlin innovation is what you want to do
    - "You have to believe"
    - Drector of iLearn - chief moral officer:
        - foster continuous learning among faculty and staff
        - encourage critical and creative thinking, new solutions, etc   
        - turn research into practice, support pilot projects, fail fast
        - build a culture of assessment to identify successes and failures
            "we no longer can talk about what constitutes great teaching without evidence"
    - disruptive innovative - elewarning has that potential, but it won't be destructive
        - educate more of your citizens at a lower cost
        - continbuous evolution
        - the more we talk about teaching and learning and the less about technology the more success you will have

Premise #3  - anticipate great change
        - what is going to change the most? education, work, or society?
        - I would say all of them are going to change a lot
            - the drivers are deep changes in the nature of work - the jobs 20 years from now aren't the jobs of today

Overview of iearn Research Projects
    - new forms of content delivery   
    - open educational resources
    - learning analytics
    - gamification
    - flipped intsruction
    - enhancing student engagement

    Support :: learner Centred Practices
    Engagement :: Blended and Online Learning
    Feedback :: Learning Analytics
    (Research-based model :: Action Research Projects)

    - student in the centre
    - types of anaytics, stakeholders, data quality and transfers, potentiql bottlenecks, scale of analytics
    - speed of anaytics
    - small data: descriptive; big data: predictive

3 Takeaways
    - Adopt best practices for learners (7 principles of good practice - Chickering and Gamson 1987)
        - what are the practices great students do
        - eg. self-regulation
        - eg. Ball State MOOC to give students better skills - note-taking, study skills, historical thinking, writing skills
    - help students develop their metacogntive skills - learning how to learn
        - most of your existing tools can be reourposed to support this
        - eg our HITS project - eg. pretest for foundational skills, then fix deficiencies
        - eg. write metacognitive questions to be answered each week - identify misunderstandings and confusions
            - based on data from online course - students responses result in just-in-time changes
    - start small pilot projects, see how it works in your ecosystem, and evaluate outcomes
        - collqborate with faculty and staff
        - strategic coordination

- teaching is teaching; learning is learning

Q: should we be building one platform for the whole country, o multiple platforms?
A: I tend to favour one platform, because of support costs, but prefer a flexible and customizable approach
    - one platform for all is just good business sense
Q: suggestion to use MOOCs not to teach a course, but to teach the skills hey need - but how do we make sure students use them?
A: we're going to require the prep-MOOC for every student that gets a deficiency grade at the mid-term

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ten Key Takeaways from Tony Bates

Like pretty much everyone else in the field I've been immensely enjoying Tony Bates's work-in-progress, an online open textbook called Teaching in a Digital Age.

Having said that, I think my perspective is very different from his, and this summary post offers me an opportunity to highlight some of those differences. So in what follows, the key points (in italics) are his, while the text that follows is my discussion.

Note that this discussion is focused specifically on the "differences between classroom, blended, online and open learning." We have points of disagreement in other areas too :) but this post offers a way to focus on some aspects of that. Note as well that I'm not offering 'gotchas' here; Bates has discussed many of these points elsewhere and my objective is not to refute him based on this quick summary, only to identify the differences in perspective.

1. There is a continuum of technology-based learning, from ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching to fully online programs. Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be.

The continuum here is presented in one dimension, the most obvious dimension, with teachers and instructors making the decision as to where some particular course or program ought to lie. I think all elements of this statement are problematic.

First, because online learning provides affordances not available in the classroom, there are multiple dimensions of comparison. For example, we could draw a line from one-to-one teacher on student instruction, to small classrooms, to larger lecture or presentation format courses, to delivery to thousands or even millions of people.

Second, one of those dimensions concerns whether the online offering should be a course at all. Online learning allows for informal conversation, videos, simulations, interactive learning, games, and a host of other models that can be attempted imperfectly at best in a traditional classroom. Understanding, for example, the role informal learning can play is key to understanding the distinction between in-class and online learning.

Third, in online learning the locus of decision-making need no longer rest with the instructor. Unlike a traditional environment, where a student's choices are to "stay" and "leave", an online student can select from many different options - including ion-class, if they're lucky enough to be able to find one that is local and offered at a time they can attend, at a rate they can afford.

2. We do not have good research evidence or theories to make this decision, although we do have growing experience of the strengths and limitations of online learning. What is particularly missing is an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available.

Here I am first inclined to point to differing beliefs regarding the nature and role of research and theories. I consider what I do to be research, for example, and I do not consider surveys of a dozen graduate students to be research. And I am sceptical of the value of theories based on models employing (what have been termed) folk-psychological concepts and naive understandings of human cognition. Any theory of the form "x causes y" in this field should be considered suspect.

So it follows that to me "an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available" is an oxymoron. Far too much in such an account is left unstated and merely assumed, with variables to be filled in by the reader's own prejudices. What constitutes a 'strength'? From my perspective, each person learning seeks different outcomes, so a 'strength' for one is a problem for another.

But most of all here is the presumption that we can determine a priori the desirable properties of online or traditional learning. In this regard, I side with John Stuart Mill, and aver that "the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it." Without an a priori definition of 'effective' most so-called evidence-based decision-making falls flat, and of course, what we do know though observation is that people desire many different things.

3. In the absence of good theory, I have suggested four factors to consider when deciding on mode of delivery, and in particular the different uses of face-to-face and online learning in blended courses: 
- your preferred teaching strategy, in terms of methods and learning outcomes 
- student characteristics and needs 
- the pedagogical and presentational requirements of the subject matter, in terms of (a) content and (b) skills 
- the resources available to an instructor (including the instructor’s time). 

I find it fascinating that three of the four factors are based on the instructor, with only the very generic "student characteristics and needs" constituting the fourth.

I can understand that, from the perspective of the instructor, the instructor's "preferred teaching strategy" matters a great deal. But from the perspective of the student, the response is, "who cares?"  Elsewhere, the many weaknesses of the lecture format, for example, have been documented, as also most instructors' preference for the lecture. This has produced yet another generation of students asleep in their classroom (especially those where electronic devices are 'not allowed').

The characterization even of "student characteristics and needs" is suspect. The phrasing suggests two aspects of concern: first, that we are considering these in the aggregate, as a generalization across an entire class (or generation?) of students, and not individuals; and second, these are factors out of the students' control entirely, as we consider (predefined? instructor-defined?) "needs"instead of wants, and "characteristics" instead of preferences.

Part of this is the unrelenting instructional stance Bates takes throughout his work. It results in an assessment of factors impacting instructional decisions, even in areas where it's not clear the decisions are open for instructors to make. The key difference between in-class and online learning is the shift in the locus of control.

I would also add (cynically) that today the resources available to the instructor are increasingly based on the students' willingness and ability to pay, as our governments gradually remove all levels of support for public higher education.

4. The move to blended or hybrid learning in particular means rethinking the use of the campus and the facilities needed fully to support learning in a hybrid mode. 

No disputing this one.

As the trend toward online learning continues, the traditional school or university increasingly will become a place where local residents access lab and conferencing facilities, no matter where they are enrolled.Meanwhile, classes offered in situ at these campuses will increasingly need recording and conferencing facilities to support their worldwide audience.

5. Open educational resources offer many benefits but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective. 

I mentioned above the need for an a priori presumptions regarding the desirable properties of online or traditional learning. It comes into play here.

For one would ask, what is the basis for the belief that OERs need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The Khan Academy, for example, made a virtue out of offering very low quality videos helping viewers understand math and physics concepts. People exchange and learn from ideas presented in discussion boards across the internet despite these boards having no pedagogical design at all.

I think that only within a very narrow definition of "effective" can we demonstrate a "need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment."

Again, it comes back to what people want to do. Generally, the learning I need to do from the internet is immediate and simple. A (badly designed) Wikipedia page often does the job for me. Indeed, typically, something designed in a rich learning environment just takes too much time and effort to be useful. I don't need a battleship if I'm just trying to cross the river.

6. The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research and open data means that in future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet. 


7. As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses. 

I also agree with this. I've actually discussed it at length in The Role of the Educator.And my reflections here suggest a very different future than the one considered in this article.

First of all, increasingly, educational institutions will not offer courses at all. Why would they? If you're looking for "learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age" you are very rarely looking for a course. Typically, you're looking for help with a project, or maybe an offer of a project, in which you can apply and augment the skills you're attempting to develop.

And different aspects of your support are offered by different people, at different institutions. Why would we suppose that the same agency offering learning is also the one assessing that learning? Insofar as 'design' (properly so-called) comes into play, it will be based as much on principles established outside education.

Sure, there will be structured learning experiences (and we might even still call them 'courses'). But the idea of an instructor offering a course through a given institution will be the exception, a tiny minority of the cases, compared to the much larger learning and development environment generally.

But of course Tony Bates knows this...

8. OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in a digital age. 

Of this there can be no doubt.

But let me add that the phrase"increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services" suggests the repackaging of products and services that already exist. But the defining characteristic of online learning is the wide range of new things you can do to support learning. This leans that there will be a proliferation of new learning services. And additionally, many old learning services will be discontinued.

For example, when I was growing up, there was a thriving industry producing binders and lined paper. Moreover, the concept of blogging did not exist. Today we take electronic notes, blog them directly, and hire blog moderators to ensure children don't get themselves into trouble publishing online.

Learning online isn't simply a shift in modality. It's different. The methods are different, the objectives are different, and the services are different.

9. MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities of practice. 

It is again interesting to see this one thing highlighted. It is interesting to me because this was never the intent of the MOOCs I produced, and with some few exceptions, is not the intent of MOOC producers today.

But more interesting is the question of why MOOCs are a "dead end" in this regard.

The suggestion here (and it's only implicit) is that MOOCs are incapable of providing the learning required to warrant the awarding of a credential. That's why Bates includes the phrase about students "who do not have adequate access to education."This suggests that access to traditional education is a necessary condition, that MOOCs could not provide an education by themselves.

But why not? The role of answering this question is played by the phrase"high quality qualifications." Even if MOOCs could provide qualifications, they would not be"high quality". These, it appears to be suggested, may be offered only by (putatively) high quality formal education.

But I submit that these are not empirical arguments. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the only reason students cannot earn high quality credentials in MOOCs is that the institutions that offer such credentials won't grant them for MOOCs. And why would they? Their business model depends on requiring students undertake extensive and often extensive coursework before the credential can be issued.

What makes the MOOC a "dead end", in other words, has nothing to do with the MOOC itself, but rather, has everything to do with the credentials.

The more interesting question here is whether a person working from childhood could achieve the same degree of knowledge and (qualification for) credentials taking MOOCs exclusively. Can a non-literate and non-educated person become literate and educated through open online learning? Is there a fundamental property of closed formal learning that suggests that it is the only route to a credential?

There are arguments to be made on both sides here. But I submit that the case is far from closed, and that this is not a takeaway.  

10. OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of open-ness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities, but ultimately these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.

I think that Tony Bates and I both agree on the importance of an open and accessible public education system.

Where we disagree is in the form that system should take.

The existing public education system does a poor job of ensuring equal access to educational opportunities. Major barriers exist across the board, in factors as varied as child poverty and nutrition, access to school materials, fees and access to extracurricular activities, expectations and class backgrounds, travel and work opportunities, opportunity cost and risk, and much much more.

Viewing online learning as nothing more than an enhancement of the traditional system is, to my mind, to preserve the inequalities inherent in the traditional system. It is to misunderstand the role played by the traditional system not only in the provision of an education but also in social netorking and the formation of social classes.

The primary purpose, for example, of a school like Harvard or Yale is not to provide a superior education (their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding). It is to provide exclusive access to a network of potentially rich and powerful individuals who will shape and promote your career through future life. Simply building an enhancement on that system will not change the inequality it represents.

For online learning to truly reach its potential it needs not only to break the educational monopoly of the rich and powerful, it needs to break the social monopoly of the rich and powerful, rending open their cliques, and laying bare the foundations of their influence. We too can form global networks of mutual self-support, but only if we break the existing structures designed to preserve status and privilege.

And in the end, I think that this points to the deep difference between Tony Bates and myself. I think that we disagree ultimately about what constitutes an education.

I think that he views it in terms of classes and content, of subjects and competencies and credentials, in terms of instruction and demonstration, pedagogy, skills and knowledge. This is a common and very traditional view of education, but one which I have increasingly come to question.

In my view, education is more akin to shaping and growing oneself, of acclimatization to a community and to an environment. The learning of any subject is analogous to the formation of a literacy in that subject, based not only in speaking the right words, but also in seeing the world in a certain way, recognizing some things as important (and other things as not). Expectations are as important as knowledge in this view, the way we say something as important as what we say.

This is what distinguishes between the education an elite receives, and an education that is reserved for the rest of us. While the mass of people get facts and skills and credentials, the elite are transformed into a natural ruling class. It's like the difference between someone who is taught the rules of the game, and someone who trains as an athlete. No amount of skills and drills can produce in a non-elite person the social and literary bearing of an elite person.

My objective is to transform learning as a whole into something that produces at least this possibility for everyone. We should embrace this as a public policy objective. Because, with all the capacity, technology and wealth available to us in society as a whole, it's the least we can do.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Advice for David Campbell, Chief Economist

The province has just announced that it is appointing David W. Campbell it's "chief economist". Campbell discusses the appointment here. Regular readers know I have responded to Campbell frequently in these pages. Just before his appointment (or maybe on knowing he will have it) Campbell posted an "economic development magnum opus", outlining the key planks of his development philosophy. I take this opportunity to reply to them

We must move from a financial program-centric to an opportunities approach to economic development 

Everyone is in favour of supporting opportunities as opposed to merely giving out money, but the devil is in the details. What does it mean to "support an opportunity" other than providing money? Yes, there are policy changes that can be made, but the bulk of support is still financial. Does it mean "picking winners"? I think that with solid value propositions there's no harm in that - but it's urgent that such a program doesn't devolve into cronyism, or into giving the same old enterprises more money. But I offer qualified support to this approach, provided the mechanisms are open and transparent.

We need to implement an ROTI model (return on taxpayer investment) – all investments in economic development should be able to demonstrate a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

I used to tell people around here that "we're all in the tourism business", because people don't just see the main attractions when they come here, they see (and touch, and talk to) everything. In the same way, we're "all" in the economic development business. Every investment the province makes - from schools built out in the countryside to a local arena to a resort lodge at Larry's Gulch - has an economic development impact.

But not everything demonstrates ROI to the taxpayer, nor should it. Our schools, for example, are crucial to economic development - people will not move here if they cannot ensure a quality education for their children. But any attempt to represent their ROI is a bit facetious; we would build them no matter what. Conversely, things that seem to generate ROTI might in the larger picture be disastrous. Fracking and uranium mining might fit into that category. They might generate incolme, but they might make the province a place that nobody wants to live.

The economy is a complex system. No individual element's ROI can be calculated. The contribution of one depends on the existence of, and the contributions of, the others. So we really have to be careful about using a one-off calculation like ROTI.
We need to turbocharge the workforce – Less worry on short term interprovincial migration and more concern for long term impact on business investment decisions arising from a tight labour market.

We have to stop the whole harangue about "bringing our children home". We're not some outport economy; we want to be part of a modern technological society, and that means migration. People want to move, they want to follow opportunities, they want to experience new lifestyles. We are lucky that our children can grow and develop in most any province or country in the world. Many societies cannot offer that opportunity.

So, conversely, we need to become attractive to new migration, to people who have never lived in New Brunswick before (like me!) and people who have never lived in Canada before. We are so used to depicting the province as an economic basket case, but to many people around the world, this is a land of opportunity.

And we need to start thinking innovatively when planning to attract these people. Consider settlers' grants: we will grant you title to land if you settle on it for ten years and develop it into viable enterprise. In the long run, that creates far more return than simply giving the forestry rights away for free to some large company that hides its profits in offshore accounts.
We need to target high growth potential entrepreneurs (HGPEs) not just our current small business fetish – we need to create the environment for these HGPEs – not just small business owners/lifestyle businesses.  

I frankly have seen little evidence of a "small business fetish" in recent years. From my perspective the bulk of attention and investment has been to subsidize large local incumbents who don't need the money.

Having said that, I don't disagree in principle with the strategy, though I believe it has to be based on creating a sustainable value proposition for these companies, and not merely in cobbling together a short term incentives package. We've seen enough cases where a company will locate in the province only for so long as the subsidies persist, only to pull up stakes when the government largess ends. 

We want to be an environment where it is easy for small businesses to enter and exit the business playing field – we want to encourage lots of local competition and dynamic local markets.

This ties closely to an urbanization strategy. And frankly, even in tiny New Brunswick, it is expensive to start an enterprise. We need actual markets - places where new businesses and start, compete, and flourish or fail on a dime.But our craft markets have become a monopoly, our malls and main streets too expensive to operate in for long, our farmers' markets small, fragmented, and mostly closed. We have few innovation centres, few places where someone can make a go of it. The only real wayt to succeed in the province is to know someone who can get you a government grant that will sustain you long enough to get on your feet. That's not the way to do it.

But our growth strategies need to be focused on those entrepreneurs that want to use NB as a base to build a global business. 

Then we need direct flights to Europe. Even if they show net losses over the years. We need cheaper energy. We need (and have just obtained) access to global-bandwidth internet. We need, in other words, to be connected to these markets.

I used to tell people that, from a global perspective, New Brunswick is centrally located. We're the last mainland nexus on the western side linking North America and Europe. We should be taking advantage of that.
We need to focus on attracting investment – particularly investment that fosters product or services export growth.

Yes, but again we have to be careful. Investment expects a return. There's no problem with that, unless we are the source of that return. Investment based on extracting wealth from the local economy isn't helpful in the long run. We need investment that attracts income into the region. Investment based on global services, export income, or some such thing. That was the strength of McKenna's approach - people complained about the low wages, but mostly didn't notice the fact that the call centres were bringing money from outside the province into it.

But I think you get this...

We spend way too much of our effort trying to squeeze more investment out of the local business community.  Between PNB, ACOA, CBDCs, local agencies, NRC, NBIF, etc. we have somewhere in the range of 300-350 people working in economic development in New Brunswick – not a single one located out in the actual world where the trade, investment and immigrant opportunities actually exist.

Right. Our people need to be out there, bringing opportunity back home (where, hopefully, there is receptive capacity to build on it). You've just described my current job.

We need to break New Brunswick’s culture of apathy...  New Brunswickers need to believe their province can change, can address its big challenges and can become a younger, multicultural, growing and dynamic place that is developing growth industries

Break the Irvings and you'll break the apathy.

I know that this sounds extreme. But the reason there is apathy in this province is that the only people who ever seem to benefit from growth and development are the Irvings. Moreover, any enterprise that seeks to rise up in (or move into) the province must contend with Irving monopolies. It means that if they engage in any area of business that the Irvings consider their own - and there are many - they must face down the weight of Irving sanctions. It is a huge weight hung around our collective neck and it prevents any real efforts at diversification - or, for that matter, democracy.

We need to fully engage local government and local community and business leaders in our economic development efforts.

I agree with this. This entails a culture of openness and transparency, an end to croneyism and patronage, the development of policy and investments that make sense on the federal level and on the local level. It entails, in other words, a complete change from top to bottom in the way government does business in the province. I don't know whether we're up to it. But I do agree that it's make-or-break time.

We need to be able to develop our natural resources in a sustainable and responsible fashion.

I think we'll find that in the not-too-distant future a dependence on fossil fuels will be viewed as a liability, and not a strength. Even as we rush to enable exports to Europe in response to short-term geopolitical considerations, Europe is rushing to become independent of fossil fuels, hence becoming fully free of Russian and Middle-Eastern politics. They will no more welcome new sources from Canada than they do from Putin or from the Sheiks. 

And then there's global warming, and the damage our current government's indifference to it is doing to our global reputation. When I travel abroad, people ask me, "what has happened to Canada?" Short-term gain here means long term pain.

New Brunswick does have natural resources, but they are not the sort of resources people think of when they think of energy and mining. The abundant rainfall and the temperate climate are assets not to be dismissed lightly.

We need an urban growth agenda.  If you go back to the 1950s until today, rural population growth in New Brunswick was fairly similar to the rest of the country (modest increase).  It was urban growth where we lagged substantially. 

Here again I agree, but with an asterisk. And the asterisk is this: we have to stop developing suburbs, and start developing cities. And we have to do this in a way that makes these cities dynamic and interesting places to live. In the last decades we have gone backwards. Our cities are not livable - these days they're unbearable. Pedestrians have to walk along main roads; our sidewalks are choked in snow while some special suburbs (like Royal Oaks) get special treatment. The summer is little better; our sidewalks are tiny and broken, our transit systems ineffective, our parks being converted to big box malls.

And there's no means to change this because there's little or no urban representation in government. Our city wards and provincial ridings are splinters, each with the small sharp end some part of the urban core, and the larger part a suburban and rural population. Without a voice, people who live in the cities cannot shape policy.

We need to focus on innovation – across the spectrum. ...  I want to bring back the “living lab” vision for New Brunswick. 

I'd love to see this. In my early days in the province I met with people from Service NB, NBSS, the schools and the universities. Not the spark has gone out of their eyes as inflexible and centrally controlled governance has gradually ground them down. The province would do well to set them free, to encourage diversity and innovation across the system, even if it steps on a few well-connected toes.

When messaging we need to target our audiences.  Almost all stories in the national media relating to New Brunswick are negative. Business leaders, immigrants and other key groups see these stories.  We need to change the national narrative.

Fine. But the only way to change the narrative is to change the facts.

We are the Greece of Canada. A tiny number of people control the province, extracting wealth from  it, and putting nothing back in to support growth and development. Our people are depicted as lazy, but in fact they cannot succeed without connections and cronyism. We have abundant resources, but they are sold for a fraction of their value. We grant large tax breaks to companies who don't need it, and who make promises that are soon broken.

The problem with New Brunswick does not lie in the people of New Brunswick, nor in the stories that are being told about the province. It lies in the leadership, which has been an utter disaster for the last decade, a leadership that lies to the people to get elected and sells its soul to the highest bidder within a few months of the polls. These problems exist not only at the provincial level but at the local levels as well, where it is sometimes difficult to believe that key elements of city governance have not been bought and paid for by special interests to wrest personal profit from the public purse.

We have a chance with a new government to change that. I can't say I feel confident that it will change, but the mandate is yet early and perhaps this government has more backbone that we've yet seen. It's easy for a government to stand up to the people and say it will cut services or raise taxes. It is much harder for a government to stand up to major corporations and interests and to say it will govern in the interests of the people and for the future prosperity of the province.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Becoming MOOC

There are two types of MOOCs. On the one hand, there is the xMOOC - this is a formal course created in a site like Coursera or EdX. An xMOOC will have regular lessons, videos and assignments, be led by an elite university professor, and attract a large online audience. These are the MOOCs that have received most of the attention in recent years and have generally shaped people's impressions. But there's another type of MOOC, called the cMOOC, which is based on connection rather than content, which looks more like an online community than a course, and doesn't have a defined curriculum or formal assignments. These were the original MOOCs, and they posed a much greater challenge to both the educational institutions that offered them and the participants who studied in them.

One major criticism of the cMOOC is based on the free-form nature of the course. Students have to manage their own time, find their own resources, and structure their own learning. For this reason, it is argued, students must already have a high degree of skill and internet savvy in order to be successful. A student who cannot navigate complex websites, search for and assess resources, or make new friends through a social network may have difficulty navigating through a cMOOC. As Keith Brennan writes, "Not everyone knows how to be a node. Not everyone is comfortable with the type of chaos Connectivism asserts. Not everyone is a part of the network. Not everyone is a self-directed learner with advanced metacognition. Not everyone is already sufficiently an expert to thrive in a free-form environment. Not everyone thinks well enough of their ability to thrive in an environment where you need to think well of your ability to thrive." (Brennan, 2013)

But what makes a person able to function from the first day in such an environment? What constitutes the literacy that is missing in such a case? There's no clear answer, but proposals abound.
Brennan himself suggests that proficiency is based in learner efficacy. "Self-efficacy is our belief that a task is achievable by us, and that the environment in which we are working will allow us to achieve that task. It's that ticking heart that measures out the motivation in us," he writes. And in order to preserve and promote self-efficacy, design is important. Tasks must be challenging, in order to be satisfying, but not so frustrating as to create confusion. Whether a particular task satisfies these criteria, he writes, depends on cognitive load and prior knowledge. That's why "why we tend to teach absolute novices using techniques and contexts that are different to the ones we deploy for absolute experts, and why we avoid exposing novices to too much chaos." Other writers refer to these criteria under the heading of flow, and trace its origin to game design. (Baron, 2012)

But cognitive load theory assumes that there is some specific outcome to learning such that supporting experiences can be divided into those supporting the learning outcome (aka 'signal') and those that constitute part of the background (aka 'noise'). This is especially the case if the purpose of the learning experience is to remember some specific body of content, or to accomplish some particular task. However, in a cMOOC, neither is the case. Indeed, navigating the chaos and making learning decisions is the lesson in a cMOOC. The cMOOC is in this way similar to constructivism. As George Siemens writes, "Learners often select and pursue their own learning. Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the 'fuzziness' of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for life-long learning." (Siemens, 2004)

What, then, would promote learner efficacy even in chaotic or noisy environments? A second, more robust, proposal takes the idea of literacy literally. A language might appear chaotic at first. Even if someone has learned how to spell the words, and even if they know what they mean, the nuances of using them in a sentence are many, and a language supports an infinite number of new sentence combinations. Each new experience with a language will be different, there are tens of thousands of words to choose from when forming a sentence, and only the barest of grammatical rules to aid construction. Imagine the language learner given a new text to read and criticize, picture them in front of a blank page they have to fill with words, and you have created an experience very similar to participating in a cMOOC.

What sort of literacy would be appropriate in a cMOOC? Two major types of literacies suggest themselves: 21st century literacies, and digital literacies.

21st century literacies are those literacies appropriate for living and working in the 21st century. This is an environment which changes at a much greater pace than in previous years, where there is a constant flow of information, where connectivity with people worldwide is part of our everyday reality, and where jobs that existed ten years ago have disappeared, and new ones have taken their place. A good example of this is the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which addresses several dimensions of this new type of learning, including core skills of collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking, and supporting skills such as workplace skills, information media skills, and the traditional core types of literacy and numeracy. (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills , 2011)

Alternatively, we can focus on literacies specific to the digital medium itself. For example, the Mozilla Foundation has developed and promoted a Web Literacy Map which describes in greater detail how to engage with digital media (as opposed to merely consuming it). (Belshaw, 2015) Three major types of skills are identified: exploring, building and connecting. The first describes how to find your way about the chaotic environment and even to make sense of it for yourself. The second examines traditional and new forms of content creation, including authoring and art, in a digital media environment. And the third addresses the previously under-represented function of sociality and connection. Taken together, these three literacies can be seen as a way for individuals to manage cognitive load for themselves, to adapt the task of making sense of the web to their own skill level, and therefore to manage even in an environment that is not well designed.

Belshaw writes, "In its current form, the Web Literacy Map comprises a collection of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web. Web literacy is about more than just coding. The web literacy standard covers every part of web literacy-from learning basic coding skills to taking action around privacy and security." In this sense, the modern understanding is about more than communication and meaning in a language or symbol system. It is about operating and interacting in a complex and multi-dimensional environment. This makes it particularly relevant to an understanding of the difference between literacies required in traditional courses and the contemporary literacies required in a much less structure learning environment such as a MOOC.

These types of literacies can be combined into an overarching set of literacies that may be described under the heading of 'critical literacies'. These literacies encompass not only the skills related to comprehension and sense-making, but also the creative abilities that support criticism, construction and communication. And they go beyond this in addressing the dynamics of today's world. They include, at a minimum, the following: the ability to detect and define syntax, structure, patterns and similarities; the ability to identify and generate meaning, purpose and goal; the ability to sense and create context or environment; the ability to apply or use language, literacy and communication to accomplish tasks; the ability to support a conclusion, criticize an argument, offer an explanation or define a term; and an understanding of how to recognize, manage and create change. Or, in brief: syntax, semantics, context, use, cognition and change. (Downes, 2009)

These literacies may be necessary for success in a MOOC, but they are more widely applicable as well. The theory of knowledge underlying the creation of the cMOOC suggests that learning is not based on the idea of remembering content, nor even the acquisition of specific skills or dispositions, but rather, in engaging in experiences that support and aid in recognition of phenomena and possibilities in the world. When we reason using our brains, we are reasoning using complex neural nets that shape and reshape themselves the more we are exposed to different phenomena. Choice, chance, diversity and interactivity are what support learning in neural nets, not simple and static content. Cognitive dissonance is what creates learning experiences. To learn is to be able to learn for oneself, not to learn what one is told; it is to be able to work despite cognitive overload, not to remain vulnerable to it. So the cMOOC is harder, requiring a greater degree of literacy, but in developing these literacies, promotes a deeper learning experience.

Finally, an understanding of the literacies required also helps us understand the difference between traditional courses, including the xMOOC, and the less structured cMOOC. It also offers ground for criticism of the former. Traditional literacies are rooted in our comprehension of, and ability to work within, abstract symbol systems (and in particular, language and mathematics). It is no coincidence that PISA, for example, measures student performance in language, science and mathematics. These are be languages of learning, as well as the content of learning. But from the perspective of the cMOOC, these traditional literacies are inadequate. They form only a part of the learning environment, and not even the most interesting part, as we engage in environments that cannot be described through timeless abstractions or static facts and figures. But this is exactly what we face when we attempt to extend our learning from the eternal present and into the vanishing past or future. We need to learn to engage with, interact with, and recognize form and change in the environment for ourselves, rather than attempt a static and distanced description.

Learning in a MOOC and literacy in a MOOC become synonymous. We are not acquiring content or using language and literacy, we are becoming literate, becoming MOOC. Each bit of experience, each frustrated facing of a new chaos, changes you, shapes you. Participating in a MOOC is like walking through a forest, trying to see where animals have walked in the past, trying to determine whether that flash of orange is a tiger. There are no easy successes, and often no sense of flow. But you feel the flush of success every time you recognize a form you defined, achieve a skill you needed, and gradually gradually you become a skilled inhabitant of the forest, or of 21st century human society.

Baron, S. (2012, March 22). Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design. Retrieved from Gamasutra:

Belshaw, D. (2015, January 13). Web Literacy Map. Retrieved from Mozilla:

Brennan, K. (2013, July 24). In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice. Retrieved from Hybrid Pedagogy:

Downes, S. (2009, November 12). Speaking in LOLCats: what literacy means in teh digital era. Retrieved from Stephen's Web:

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from elearnspace:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills . (2011, March). 21st Century Student Outcomes and Support Systems. Retrieved from

Note: this article originated as a submission requested by a magizine, but when I learned that they wanted an article that was 2,000 characters long, not 2,000 words, this article became available as a blog post.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Interview Stephen Downes by Renée Filius

Renée Filius: [Introduction] So what I see at course evaluations is that teachers say: 'Well, when I teach online I tend to ask brief questions. Or students just give brief answers and leave again. There is not a lot of interaction going on and learning tends to stay at a surface level.' Do you recognize this problem?

Stephen Downes
: Well, I don't really give brief answers. I mean, I think I recognize the phenomenon that may cause the problem. It's really hard to get the minute by minute feedback that you get in a personal environment when you're responding to a question. So, whereas if you're talking to a person  you can judge by their facial reactions and that, whether you can just continue talking, but when you're online, you don't have those cues and at a certain point you lose track of that nonverbal communication you're having with the other person. So you stop talking sooner in order to get feedback. That's what I think. What I observe is the lack of the personal cues, you know, except in a video environment like this, where I can actually see you nodding, for example, and things like that. But in typical online communications, even synchronous communications, are usually audio only at best. You know, in environments like Illuminate or some of the others, unless you're doing person-to-person videoconferencing, which is difficult and rare in a classroom environment. So, yeah, but as you can tell, I don't stop myself, so I think the phenomenon may be as much a propriety of the person as it is a propriety of the environment.

Renée Filius: Yes. So, you just mentioned, when we talk about the difference between online learning and offline learning in a classroom, you mentioned the difference because of the lack of facial expressions or body language. What other differences do you see between online teaching and face-to-face teaching and how they can affect the learning results, the learning outcomes?

Stephen Downes: One of the really big things that I see, is the lack of a shared object. For example, when I'm working with somebody, I very often haul out this sheet of paper and start drawing. Because that's the way I think and that's the way I communicate. And when I'm online with someone I can't just haul out a sheet of paper and start drawing. Or, you know, even now, what you've just missed is, I made a hand gesture, like pulling up the sheet of paper and drawing, right, which you didn't see. Online there are shared whiteboards, but it's a different kind of experience using a shared whiteboard, than using a whiteboard in a room, for example. The whiteboard in the room, it's much larger in size, even a piece of paper is larger in size than what you have to use online. The implements are much easier to use, you can just draw. So , the scale of the visual display really limits the kind of interaction in sharing objects that you can have. That's the big thing I find.

Renée Filius: Yes, I understand. So that is a major drawback of online learning, you could say. Could you also see, like, an advantage of online learning, if you would compare it with offline learning?

Stephen Downes: Oh yeah, there's huge- Some of the advantages, bridging distance is one. We couldn't do this session without online learning, it's just not possible. Even with the time issues and that, still, it just simply would not be possible. So that's a huge, huge advantage. I'm doing this in my living room, I didn't have to leave the house. For a day like today, when we have three feet of snow on the ground, that's a huge advantage as well. So it's location independent. Also, there's more modalities. I mentioned paper, whiteboards and of course speaking and gesturing, but that's the limit to the modalities, well there's a few more, but that's pretty much the limit to the modalities face-to-face. Online I can share my desktop, I can open up an application, I can use screen sharing, you know, there are systems that allow me to take control of your computer and do things for you. I won't do that, because I'd need your permission, but do you know what I mean? There's a whole range of things, you know, we can simulate environments online, forming digital environments, generally that would be very dangerous offline, such as an airplane or a nuclear reactor or brain surgery. You know, we don't want people practicing on real airplanes, or brains, or things like that, or especially nuclear reactors. So, I think those are some of the affordances. Also, I think communication is different online from the very early days. People talk to the- How they communicate differently in an online environment than an offline environment. Face -to-face is really intimidating, especially for someone like me, oddly enough, and many other people as well. It's easier to try new thing, to say new things, to put on different identities, to be more expressive, in the online environment. Of course that leads to a weakness in the online environment: people don't feel so inhibited as they would face-to-face, and they start doing things like flaming and stalking and trash talking, and all this bad stuff that happens online too.

Renée Filius: Yes, so there's two sides of the coin.

Stephen Downes: Yes, two: advantage, disadvantage. But I've seen, you know, very open, very personal communications happen online that often wouldn't be possible offline, just because of cultural differences, location differences, personal differences, whatever. So it's a different kind of communication that becomes possible.

Renée Filius: Yes, I see. And when it comes to the use of feedback? When I see feedback, I mean, the feedback used by the teacher or the lecturer, but also peer feedback or canned feedback. How would you say- What would you say about the differences between feedback when it comes to online learning, how could we use feedback to promote deep learning?

Stephen Downes: One of the tendencies in the online environment is to make do with very quick  and easy to do feedback, because it's possible. In face-to-face, or even a classroom environment, there are no such things as a like, or a checkmark or a thumbs-up. And things like counting the number of followers is absurd in a person-to-person environment. No, we use that in an online environment, a lot of the time that substitutes for more traditional forms of feedback. Now, that's not a propriety of the technology per se, it's just the way we use technology. I think that the same kind of feedback that's possible mostly in a person-to-person environment is possible online, so whatever the professor does, for example, to stimulate deep learning offline, the professor can do in an online environment. The reason why I say that is, the bulk of that feedback consists of dialogue and conversation, like we're doing now, and as this conversation gives us dramatic evidence for it, we can do that in an online environment. So, if you were to offer a hypothesis or a methodology or something like that, the two of us could work through it, pull load, underline principles, expose assumptions and all of that, right in exactly the same way we did it offline, except my camera is such that you can't see my hand gestures, still. The main significant difference is in physical activities and skills, you know, things like neural surgery, where the feedback doesn't necessarily get transmitted through a computer screen. I've played around with vital feedback simulators so that the design of the equipment that you're on simulates the physical feedback you get, doing neural surgery. But something like that is expensive and it's also very domain specific, but you know, a lot of simulators are made for medical training and things like that. Flight simulation as well, they try to emulate the actual cockpit environment, even to the point of shaking the plane. But again, that's very expensive to do. But still, it's cheaper than a real airplane, quite a bit cheaper than a real airplane, because you don't require fuel. So there is that. So what the point here is, the physical feedback gets harder and harder and is less and less natural to create, than the audio conversation type feedback.

Renée Filius: Yes. Let's go back to the course evaluations. I noticed that a lot of the feedback that instructors give to their students is written feedback, it's not audio, it's not visual.

Stephen Downes: Yeah, and that's why brief hits hard for people to write. It takes time to write, you know I write 250 words in 15 minutes, is that right, that's about right, I don't know. But I can say 250 words in 3 minutes. So the actual time to compose and come up with feedback in an audio environment, audio-visual environment, is a lot faster. It's slower for you, interesting, because you could probably read faster than I can speak. I can read about 600 words a minute, so I'm writing at 250, I don't know how fast I'm speaking, but it's faster, but I'm still able to read a lot faster than I can listen to someone speak. Of course I can do other things while they're speaking, like check my email, watch Netflix. But that's probably why, if it's typed, it's probably going to be short. You know, I get requests to review things all the time and if I want to do anything like a decent review, it's gonna start consuming hours of my time and I don't have hours of time. A professor and a class, you think about it: 250 words an hour, so that's probably- did I say an hour? 250 words in 15 minutes, a 1000 words an hour. A 1000 words is something like two pages of text. If you expect two pages of feedback, which isn't a lot, on an essay, then if you have a 100 people, that's a 100 hours of work. And that's why you get one line. If you look at offline, if you look at the written feedback on an essay, say, it's the same. It's like little remarks here and there, they're not writing a page of text about the essay that was handed in. Although, they will be happy to have you come into their office and they'll speak about it for a bit, as it's easier. And I also know that most people won't do that. If they had to actually give verbal feedback to everyone in the class, they probably have a different view of how great it is. That's my feeling anyways. When I taught, I only ever spoke to a minority of the people in the class, not because I didn't want to, but I can't chase them down and only a minority came to see me.

Renée Filius: And there's another possible cause. I noticed that online teaching, like in the traditional classroom an instructor knows that he has to give a lecture between 13.00 and 15.00, so that's the time that he blocks in his agenda. But online it's different and after ten minutes he thinks: 'Well I have to finish this quickly, because I have to do so much other work and then I will go.' Is that something that you would recognize?

Stephen Downes: Yeah, of course I do everything that way. But no, there is a point to it, because I do my most focused thinking about a topic when I have to be there and presenting, especially in person, in a certain place and time. I actually prepare for that and the stuff I do just online, I prepare for a lot less. I just find I do it that way, even if I have a scheduled online time I prepare for it less. I think there is more pressure to doing it in person. If you're unprepared, you have to stand there and look them in the eyes and be unprepared. Nobody likes that feeling. We do it once or twice and you're over it, you don't do it again, you just make sure you're prepared.

Renée Filius
: No. And would there be any way of making this better for the instructors in order for them to give better feedback or to provide the students with better feedback on any way?

Stephen Downes: Well, raise the stakes? I don't know, I have to think about that. Because what we're talking about here, is the professor's own disinclination to be prepared and to provide the feedback, as opposed to anything structural. They could do the work, they could block the time, they could be prepared, they could be as on top of it as they are in person. But because they're not so much at personal risk, real or perceived, they have a tendency not to be. And the answer might be, even something simply physical, like bigger screens. If you're looking at a real sized version of the person, you might be more likely to think of them as a person, rather than as a computer artefact. You know, that's a speculation, but it's a possibility. We have a Cisco telepresence system in the office and basically it's a life-size high quality video representation of the person and they just sit across the table from you. And you know, you're pretty out of the wall, you know you're not gonna get away with checking your email while you're on that. By contrast, I could be checking my email with you right now, you'd have no idea. In fact, why don't I do that, you'll see how it looks. Here I am, I'm opening my email and I'm seeing something about a movie. You couldn't tell by looking at me, right, that I'm reading my email. I'm an expert at that.

Renée Filius: I can see the change in your glasses.

Stephen Downes: Yes, exactly. So, but in a virtual environment, I can get away with that. When we're talking like this, if I haven't prepared - and I've done this before, right - I have you on one side and I have my notes and stuff on the other side and I look stuff up as we're talking. Now that's both an advantage and a distraction. It's a distraction in the sense that it allows me to be less prepared, it allows me to be less focused. On the other hand, I have access to stuff I wouldn't if was standing in front of the classroom. In front of the classroom in the sense that you have no props, depending on the style of the person, but here in the computer world I can take much more like a disc jockey kind of approach to it. Haul by resources as I need them. And I do do that sometimes. Sometimes I do that even during presentations just for fun, but doing that live is riskier, it feels totally different.

Renée Filius: Would you expect any types of futures technologies or inventions that would help us in the future?

Stephen Downes
: Well, first I need to be convinced that it's a problem. Is the online experience so bad when compared to the in-person experience, that we need to make this extra effort to make the online experience better? That is to say: more like the personal experience. You know, we could, for example, build a room, just a little square room where a whole side of the room is a computer screen, but you don't have a mouse or a keyboard, or anything else in the room, just that screen. And you go into that room and the other person sees you, all of you, and you see the other person, all of the other person, and they're in their own room, and you have a really focused interaction, because there is nothing else to do. That would address the problem, that would fix it. Guaranteed. The question is: Is the problem so great that this is worth doing? Now that's a different issue. It might be, you know, it might be.

Renée Filius: Yes, but you could think of just small adjustments to the feedback process that enables the teacher to give feedback easier or that provides students an easy way to ask for feedback.

Stephen Downes: Well, I'm not sure it's a question that it being too hard to do though. I think it's a question of people not being inclined to do it. Do you see the difference?

Renée Filius: What exactly do you mean?

Stephen Downes: Well, the ease or difficulty of doing something is only one explanation of why something is done or not done. 'Why didn't I give Fred feedback? It was too hard. I don't like Fred. I didn't feel like it. I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't have time. I was washing my hair.' You see what I mean? There's a whole range of possible explanations and the difficulty of doing it is just one of those. Making it easier to do makes the feedback more likely and better, only if the difficulty was the cause of the problem in the first place. But how hard is it to give feedback online? Well, there's the typing thing, I get that, but you can also have a video conference like this, and those are very easy to do. Even easier than the one we have, because, you know, both people will show up on time.

Renée Filius: Those people don't get lost in a snowstorm.

Stephen Downes: Yeah. But you know, it's funny, one thing I have observed, and this is a good example of the counter example I'm giving, in the online environment, it has been observed that professors get many more requests for feedback and students show higher expectations of feedback and more immediate feedback. So a professor that in a class would speak to maybe ten people in a week, will get twenty emails in a week, or more, they get many more emails, cause emails are easier than going down to the professor's office. Well, maybe that's not the cause, but you know what I mean, right? So, because it's easier to give feedback in an online environment there's more expectation of it and in the end, it becomes harder. So, the way to make giving feedback easier might actually be to make it harder for them to do. Then they'd have fewer requests for it, then they'd be more inclined to treat those requests with more seriousness and give it more weight. So, now of course, that's the opposite of the effect that you want, although it's not the opposite of the effect that you want. It's a horribly confused situation now. What you're doing is, you're giving better feedback, but to fewer people, and that takes you right back to real world environment, where professors give better feedback, but to fewer people.

Renée Filius: Yes. If I may summarize you, you say when it comes down to writing feedback, it is more time-consuming for lecturers to write feedback, but it takes less time to read the feedback. And when it comes to giving feedback in general in online education, it is easier for students to ask for feedback, but it is more difficult for lecturers to provide feedback.

Stephen Downes: Exactly. Now what you could do, and I think some people play with this, is, you get the email in and you just say something back and send the recording back. That's easier than typing and you can be faster. But now you're still looking at a situation where professors are spending all of their time reading emails and answering them, or receiving inquiries and responding to them. I really think the volume of the requests is one of the key parameters here.

Renée Filius: But perhaps we could change that by making a better design of the course, of the education?

Stephen Downes: Well, this is part of the thinking of MOOCs. And here's what the thinking was: existing learning is very labour intensive for the professors. It's very labour intensive in the class, and as a result in a person-to-person class you can only have a certain number of people. You know, I've taught in some very large classes, but I know that I'm still only actually interacting with twenty or thirty of them. Even in the 150 student class, I'm still only actually interacting with twenty of thirty and the rest are what we would call online lurkers, which is okay. But the more learning becomes about the interaction, as it does in higher grade levels , the smaller the classes must become, by necessity. Because you can't get a graduate level education, say, simply by lurking. It doesn't work that way. You have to be completely engaged in the process, that's why it's so hard. It's not hard because the material is hard, it's hard because you have to dedicate yourself to it. But online, these constraints appear to disappear. Everyone thinks they have a personal relationship with the professor, no matter how big the course is. This is a problem. It's been problem because online courses very often have many students. It's just like offline, but you get desires who say: 'It takes no more effort to offer a course to eighty people than to twenty. So let's offer this online course to eighty people.' And the poor professor is drowned in email and the discussion posts. When we opened our course, so now we have an open online course. We're not dealing with eighty, we're dealing with two thousand people. In that case, I'm still only talking to twenty or thirty people personally, so the only way, absolutely the only way in such an environment,  is to remove the requirement that everybody talks to the professor in order to get this interaction and feedback. And so, to create what we would call a network based course, where the interaction of students among each other is an important and vital part of the learning experience. So, they get the feedback, not from the professor, but from other students. In an ideal world, and this actually happened, they get feedback from more experienced students.  This is what happened the second time we ran the same course. The second time we ran the same course, many of the people who took it the first time, came back for the second time and they picked up and led a lot of the interaction. They almost led the course. So, one of the things that we have tried to do when designing these MOOCs is to design it in such a way that it accommodates people at different levels in their professional development. So you can go into the course if you're new to the field and you'll get the basics and the few people who are slightly more knowledgeable will interact with you. Those slightly more knowledgeable people are interacting both with new people and with more experienced people, and they're learning more in depth, and so on. You know, it's kind of like the one-room classroom of old, right? Where part of the responsibility of being in grade five was teaching the grade two students. It's interesting, John Stuart Mill comments on that as all the biographies say. It's a great way to learn, teaching is a great way to learn. It's not necessarily, being taught is not necessarily itself a great way to learn. So the real learning happens in the teaching, which happens later on, which is probably why these people came back to the class.

Renée Filius: Yes, that was what I wanted to ask: Why would those people come back, the more experienced students? Is that because they know that by teaching, it's a great way to learn?

Stephen Downes: I don't know if they came back intending to teach. I think they came back because they were inherently interested in the subject and thought that they would get a deeper learning experience the second time through. Which they did, but one of the ways they did this was by talking about all of these concepts with the new people who started the second year.

Renée Filius: But wouldn't it make more sense if they would go to a new and different course on a more advanced level?

Stephen Downes: Well, I wouldn't think so, honestly, because a new course- It depends on how you view the subject. If you view the subject as linear, first you do A, then B, then C, and then you go up to P, and that's the end of the first course. And then the next course starts Q, R, S, T, U, so then, yeah, it makes more sense to just continue. But if the course is A, B, C, D, F the first year and then A, B, C, D, F, but in more detail the second year, then there's- You could just go back to the original class. And I think it's more like the second type, than the first. I think it's more a holistic, you get deeper and deeper, rather than you're doing more things and going further down the linear- following your story as it were. Mathematics works that way, it's presented as: 'First you do this, then you do this, then you do this.' But, mathematics, it's all the same thing always. You're doing the same thing when you do simple addition as when you do set theory, it's the same thing.  It's just set theory is addition, but understood at a much deeper level. So I think that- And then it's the simple thing: you learn better when you teach. So get you get this deeper set theoretical understanding, if you will, when you're trying to teach kids how to add, because you know, they make mistakes you've never dreamed of. That's what I discovered when I taught. My students made mistakes: 'How could you- What were you thinking?' You know, that sort of thing. But the thing is they  were looking at this very simple subject from this very weird perspective and to deeply understand the subject, you need to understand how you can see it from that perspective and what's wrong with that. So this is how you go from simple math, which you memorized, to set theory where you understand.

Renée Filius: But then, do I conclude correctly that it's that much as getting or receiving peer feedback that leads to deep learning, it's providing peer feedback that leads to deep learning?

Stephen Downes: Yes, that's a really good way of putting it. And I think that's true. Providing is much better than getting.

Renée Filius: That's very interesting. If I may ask- Can you think of other examples of feedback interventions that may lead to deeper learning that we haven't mentioned yet?

Stephen Downes: Other examples of feedback interventions. Well, there's music critics. No, I'm just kidding. Yeah, but that leads me to- Synchronous coproduction, no, I just made up that term, of the top of my head. But the example that I'm thinking of, as an instantiation of that, is a jazz band. And of course jazz band came from music critic, that's how my brain works, it goes from subject to subject and you don't know where it's gonna land. Think about how it works in a jazz band. You got, say, four or five players, each with a different instrument. What they're trying to do is put on a show for a crowd, and get paid at the end of the night, cause they're jazz players and they're poor. So they start playing, but they're not playing to a predefined tune, that's the old learning object hardly matters sort of way. They're improvising, but in a jazz band, you don't just go do your own thing, because the sound would be terrible and everybody would hate it. So in a jazz band, you work some common themes, you know, a common beat and a common key, etcetera. I don't know a lot about music, so I'm not sure exactly what they do. But then they begin to play off each other. So, one person, they're doing a certain melody and they'll vary the melody. And then the other person sees the variation in the melody and harmonizes with it. See what I mean?

Renée Filius: Yes.

Stephen Downes: Synchronous coproduction.  Another example is an article co-written in Google Docs. So if you're all working on the very same article and you're each writing bits, in Google Docs you can actually see the other person's cursor and the words pop up as they type. So again, you have a case of synchronous coproduction. So, one person writes something, the other person sees that and changes another paragraph or whatever. So you're not actually correcting or giving feedback directly to a person's work, but rather you're watching, responding to what other people do as you work together, engaged in a single project. That is a whole neat concept there. It's probably been written about, and I'm sure - we haven't invented it - but I'm sure it's a good way of doing feedback. I know it's a good way of doing feedback. It just shows up over and over again. You know, in a football team as the play develops, and all the players are interacting with each other and with the opposition and they're attempting to coproduce a goal. Literally in this case. You know, there's an example. Improvising comedy is very popular here in Canada and that's the same sort of thing as well, where they coproduce something funny. Well, something that's intended to be funny, it isn't always funny, cause it can't be easy sometimes, getting this from your improv.
[later added via Twitter: co-creation is a means of mediating between different visions, each adding and learning, the final form emerging, not pre-designed]

Renée Filius: But the thing is, you work on it together and you look at each other and you improvise and you watch each other and by doing so you choose your next steps.

Stephen Downes: Yes, exactly. So the DS106 course which is a MOOC run by Jim Groom, they don't coproduce so much, but they do have a lot of fun creating things and then looking at what each other has created. They don't go back and change their own creations as a result of this, but what you see somebody else do, influences what your gonna do next. So, you see somebody do a film noir photo and then when you do your video you think: 'Yeah, film noir, that'd be cool.' It's a little less overt than that, but you do see that interaction back and forth.

Renée Filius: Yes. And then I have another question. If I may ask, if I would ask you to formulate three statements or golden rules for providing feedback focused on deep learning, what would you say?

Stephen Downes: There are no rules. There are no rules. There are no rules. I don't do rules.

Renée Filius: And what about statements?

Stephen Downes: Similarly. By statement you mean axiom or principle, as opposed to: 'This text is black. Link text is often blue.' That's probably not what you mean. So you're looking for a generalisation of some type and I have a lot of difficulty with rules, principles, generalisations, because I think they're abstractions. I think that they can be useful in certain contexts. They're certainly useful for observing and reflecting on what you've done. You can identify a pattern in your own behaviour, but as prescriptions they're notoriously unreliable. All kinds of sadness and misery has been caused by somebody who is just following the rules, or just doing what you're supposed to do.

Renée Filius: I can see your point. Well, the reason that I ask you was just by trying to formulate a summary of what we just said. And one of those rules would be: Peer feedback is very valuable when it comes to deep learning.

Stephen Downes: Yeah, but, no, that's the other side of abstractions. They can be so abstract that they're not useful. Some feedback is better than none. Oh yeah, true, but not helpful. I'll give you my methodological principles. They're not really principles, don't treat them as such. They're not generalisations or categorizations either. Together I call them the semantic condition. You may have seen that in some of the stuff that I've written. There's four words: autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity. And autonomy is the idea that it's better when entities - individuals or people or whatever - make their own decisions about their own objectives or goals, than having them determined for them. Diversity is, it's better to have many different things, than many of the same thing. Openness is, as the word suggests, it's better to be open to experiences, better to be open to sharing. The hard one is interactivity, because interactivity is the idea that knowledge is created by the interaction we have with each other, as opposed to something that is created and then transferred one person to the other.  Knowledge, in other words, is an emerging phenomenon and not an inherent phenomenon. So, I decided to call those the semantic principle and they're methodological principles that enable a network type of structure to be dynamic, that is to adapt and change and therefor learn. So, the more you embrace principles like that, in a network or in a system, the more that network or system is able to learn. Conversely, if you impose uniformity, if you impose obedience, etcetera, if you follow principles, the system's unable to learn, it's unable to adapt, it's unable to accept new input to change itself, to change its objectives, its goals, etcetera. Does that make sense?

Renée Filius: Yes, I see your point, yes.

Stephen Downes: That's the best I can do to answer that question.

Renée Filius: Yes, well, thank you. Okay, I have one last question and that is: Are there any other questions that you expected me to ask you and that I didn't ask?

Stephen Downes: Let's see, you covered the weather, so that was important. We haven't talked about the time difference. Sorry, I'm just kidding. I don't think so. You didn't ask me for a definition of deep learning and you didn't define it, that's interesting.

Renée Filius: Well, I did send you a definition of both by email before this conversation.

Stephen Downes: Oh, okay. There's the question that you didn't ask: 'Did you read the email?'

Renée Filius: That's a good one.

Stephen Downes: Because I almost never read the preparatory material for an interview. It's partly laziness and partly, well mostly, because I like to be surprised. That's what makes interviews fun. I don't expect the question and then on the spot I need to think of an answer, that's how we came up with, what was that? Synchronous-

Renée Filius: Synchronous coproduction? Co-creation?

Stephen Downes: Synchronous co-creation is it exactly. Never would have come up with that had I looked at the materials ahead of time and taking notes or whatever. Never would have come up with that.

Renée Filius: No, no, that's great. Well, thank you very much.