23 January 02012

Notes on Emergent Learning

As part of updating the wiki on agile learning, I've been reading up on Emergent Learning. As long ago as 2004, Michael Feldstein was arguing that "Emergent Learning" is an oxymoron. In brief, his argument was that the term was being used very loosely to describe any circumstance where learning emerges as a by-product of collective activity. Certainly that looseness still exists in some accounts. However, I'm interested in digging into a couple of examples where the term may be applicable in the strict sense to which Feldstein is committed. It turns out that this leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions.

Here is the nub of Feldstein's argument:

[S]ome philosophers of mind suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of brains. Each individual neuron is simply a mechanical switch responding to triggers in its immediate environment. But when you string a bunch of these switches together in the right way, you suddenly have an aware being. The neurons aren’t individually conscious; it’s the brain as a collective entity that posesses the emergent property of consciousness.

When people talk about "emergent learning" these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. This is, no doubt, an important phenomenon to understand and try to cultivate. However, it is not emergence. A democratic decision-making process is not sufficient for an action to be called "emergent." Almost by definition, if you have the kind of self- and group-awareness that is usually entailed when we use the word "learning", you can’t have emergence. You can say that a colony of ants "learns" what the best foraging strategy is, but it is the colony as a whole that "learns," not the individuals. If the individual ants were able to learn the best foraging strategy, communicate it throughout the hive, and consciously arrive at a consensus, then their adaptive foraging would not be an emergent behavior. So "emergent learning" as the term is currently being used is actually an oxymoron.

Remember this: none of the ants has learnt, or knows, the strategy, but collectively they can put it into action. If you look at the case studies in this recent Special Issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning on "Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning," it's clear that the learning and knowledge of individuals remains the primary focus. "Emergent" in this context seems to be another way of describing the knowledge and skills — some of them tacit — that individuals accrue from taking part in self-organised and/or very fluid learning experiences.

By contrast, look at this from A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It doesn't use the term "emergent learning" but nevertheless describes the kind of collective (not individual) mastery that Feldstein insists is the mark of true emergence. So here emergent learning would not be an oxymoron?

Continue reading "Notes on Emergent Learning"

6 January 02011

Unplugged! The Agile Learning newspaper

Agile Learning newspaperHere are the copies of the Agile Learning newspaper, of which I took delivery this afternoon.

You can read the full text at the foot of this post, after the links which augment the physical version of the newsletter, including the unabridged versions of the interviews.

If you'd like to keep in touch and find out more about the ideas in the newspaper, there are several things you can do. Tell us what you'd like to see next via the Agile Learning survey. Follow Agile Learning on Twitter, Amplify or Facebook. And if you're near London, please join our meet-up group on Facebook or GroupSpaces.


Here are the full versions of the interviews (they're 3-5 times as long as the versions in the newspaper, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your orientation):

Continue reading "Unplugged! The Agile Learning newspaper"

6 December 02010

Tony Hall on teaching by not teaching

Tony Hall at the Royal Festival Hall

Tony Hall takes photographs and makes photomovies. At the same time he describes his interests as "thinking about sustainable learning communities, shared learning in public spaces, using social media". Like me, he's a regular at our weekly meetings on self-organised learning, so I've absorbed his views about learning through conversations by osmosis and, indeed, many conversations.

But that doesn't mean that I always agree with him. I've done only a light edit on the transcript of this discussion with Tony — which took place in our regular spot in London's Royal Festival Hall and also involved Patrick Hadfield, Fred Garnett and David Pinto. Hopefully this captures some of the spirit of the conversation, as it circles around rather than progressing linearly, veering as it does so between the serious, the subtle and the throwaway. You may also detect a hint of amused frustration from me (though the most flippant and testy exchange has been edited out, at Tony's request).

As well as conversations, key words in Tony's vocabulary are gentleness and conviviality. Some of my frustration stems from my attempts to square this emphasis with the idea that learning frequently involves elements of challenge and risk. While Tony wriggles away from my attempt at confrontation, it's clear by the end of the discussion that he's no stranger to risk and conflict in his practice. So his way of dealing with my questioning is perhaps an instance of gentleness in action.

I'm not convinced yet, but I am intrigued, and I hope you will be if you cast your eye over the discussion.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure if this will be the last of this series of interviews, at least in this form. The format is obviously text-heavy — which I defend in comparison to audio or video since it's much easier to skim and select from — but the transcription and editing process is not that agile (it's taken me over three months to get from recording this discussion to publishing the blog post). Advice or suggestions for alternative approaches very welcome.

David Jennings: How did you get into teaching, and how did you learn your craft?

Tony Hall: I got into teaching through not wanting to teach, basically. I got into teaching because a few people in a youth centre were interested in something I was interested in: photography. They felt that I could probably help them. "Help" is the wrong word. Not help, just get involved in photography in some way. And being outside of school was important and interesting.

Continue reading "Tony Hall on teaching by not teaching"

21 August 02009

Progressive austerity and self-organised learning

Shake Up Your Class, by Gideon Burton

A month or so ago, my friend Guy, whose children are educated at home, treated me to one his occasional rants. "People know there's an Arms Lobby," he said, "so they're very wary about calls for more spending on Defence and question whose interests these serve. But there's an Education Lobby too, and it always wants more spent on educational initiatives and new technologies. Because it frames its proposals as Public Goods," he went on, "middle-class liberals find it harder to see through this hucksterism."

I don't think Guy was having a go at me specifically — I neither support nor participate in any formal lobbying activities in education. But I couldn't escape the fact that a good slice of my consulting income comes from public funding for educational initiatives and new technologies.

And there's no escaping the fact that that funding will not be sustained in coming years as it has been for the last decade. Earlier this year I did some work for the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. Via Seb Schmoller comes a quote from the head of a think tank under the heading of Progressive Austerity, "Any agency with the word 'improvement' in its title could probably disappear without discernible negative effects." Hmmm.

We're all programmed to learn

We all need to take responsibility for finding ways to do more with less. I'm with Guy and many in the growing Collapsonomics wing in thinking that the silver lining to this particular cloud may be not just quite substantial but also very necessary.

Continue reading "Progressive austerity and self-organised learning"

3 January 02008

Looking for examples of social networking for professional development

I'm copying here something I've just added to the OpenRSA blog, relating to some work I'm doing in collaboration with Seb Schmoller:

I'm looking for examples of organisations (or looser affiliations of individuals) who are using social software for professional development. Does anyone have any suggestions that I could follow up?

By social software I mean social networks (e.g. Facebook, Ning), blogs, wikis, shared bookmarks etc. And professional development can mean many things, but I'm mostly interesting in enhancing intrinsic job-specific skills on the one hand and broader scouting of collaborative/entrepreneurial opportunities on the other. The organisations could be membership-based, employers, educators or just self-organising networks.

The selfish part of this is that it relates to some work I'm doing for the National College for School Leadership, who are interested in extending the way they use social software with their constituency of school leaders. I'm happy to feed back the lessons from any leads that anyone gives me and share them with readers of this blog. Look forward to hearing from you if you can recommend any suitable examples (with contact details if possible). Our immediate deadline is 18th January, but happy to continue the discussion beyond then…

Any suggestions welcome, either via comments here, or private communication.

12 October 02005

Games and learning design

Like many people, I often accumulate knowledge by seizing on 'facts' that reinforce my intuitions and prejudices. So, given my feelings about use of games in e-learning, my radar jumped on the ESRC press release that says, "young people's experience of playing games (76% at least weekly in 2003) had a negative effect when they approached science simulations like a computer game and did not take them seriously" (via Seb Schmoller's mailings).

One way of reading this is that the attempt to sweeten the pill of learning with the sugar coating of a game fails to take account of young people's media habits and expectations. If you make it look like a sweet, it gets treated as a sweet: the sugar rots the kids' teeth, and they don't digest the pill! As Seb says (in a personal email), "You'd also need to know more about which learners reacted this way — level, ability; and how good the simulations were". Neither of us have been able to find the report which the press release describes, but my searching threw up a few interesting leads.

Continue reading "Games and learning design"

19 June 02005

Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems

I've finally finished the rigorous evaluation report of Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS). Seb Schmoller has an overview of the report and commentary on the small number of actual LAMS implementation cases.

One strand of the report jumped out at me. It observes that "it is less easy to adapt [a] lesson 'on the fly' in LAMS than in a traditional teacher-facilitated session," and that "some [students] were frustrated by the inflexibility of a LAMS sequence". Elsewhere the report refers to the linearity of LAMS sequences as restrictive and less than satisfactory.

What this suggests to me is that LAMS — in common, it must be said, with most e-learning approaches — reinforces the separation between the planning of a learning experience and its execution. This separation reduces the scope to be sensitive to the interactions with (and between), and to adjust and improvise accordingly.

Continue reading "Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems"

19 May 02005

Teaching as performance

Doug Brent has written an interesting paper in last month's First Monday on how historical trends are being played out in online education. He draws a distinction between "knowledge [or, more strictly, teaching] as performance and knowledge as thing" (emphasis in the original). Loosely speaking you could map this onto my process-versus-product distinction in e-learning.

What Brent adds to this simple opposition is an explanation of the trend towards the thing/product end of the spectrum. He follows the work of Shoshana Zuboff in seeing it as an example of the increasing recording or 'textualisation' of work, which can be traced back at least to the Scientific Management school of the early twentieth century. In this trend, work is increasingly written down in manuals and procedures, or embodied in ICT systems, so that there is less reliance on the more oral traditions of apprenticeship and learning by interacting.

Continue reading "Teaching as performance"

3 May 02005

Update on Learning Activity Management Systems

Seb Schmoller's fortnightly mailing provides the latest news on Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS), which I touched on last year. The LAMS concept, developed in Australia, now has a web site, from where you view a four-minute Flash demonstration of LAMS in action and download the open source LAMS software. Seb has more details on the background and the UK trial of LAMS. [Update 27 May 02005: the LAMS evaluation report has now been published.]

The LAMS concept depends for its 'pay-off' on teachers developing sequences of learning activities, and then sharing them and/or re-using them themselves. This is effectively a programming task, even if the programming environment is heavily visual, to make it easy to use. And research shows that this kind of 'end-user computing' is bound up with many social, organisational and task-specific influences — because end-users are not drilled in the systems analysis and design disciplines that allow software engineers to abstract from real-world requirements to modules of code. People like Bonnie Nardi have done extensive and insightful research on the social ecology of users participating in the design and re-use of everything from spreadsheets to intelligent agents. It would be interesting to see that kind of research applied to the use of LAMS by teachers.

26 March 02005

Implementing the BS 8426 British Standard for supporting online learners

The seminar on 'Supporting e-learners', at which Seb Schmoller and I were due to present, didn't happen in January and we've been told recently that it's postponed indefinitely. We had already prepared a eight-page handout for our presentation [PDF, 156KB], which we've been given permission to publish.

Continue reading "Implementing the BS 8426 British Standard for supporting online learners"

5 March 02005

How to teach art: notes from RSA lecture

The two-headed lecture on the topic Is the Art School Dead?, at the RSA this week, was a bit of a curate's egg. Neither of the speakers — Professor Roger Wilson and Brian Eno — presented a very coherent argument, but they strung suggestions on loose scaffolding. (Eno appeared to be recording himself on mini-disc: does he like to improvise and then review what he's said to pick out the good bits later?)

Roger Wilson suggested that the question Is the Art School Dead? is based on a particular art school identity prevalent in the '60s. Of course that was the decade when both speakers attended art school themselves. However, contrary to the image of art schools being laissez-faire incubators of cultural anarchy, Brian Eno said that his experience of being taught by Roy Ascott at Ipswich Art School had been distinctly disciplinarian. As a sixteen-year old student, he was obliged to take part in group behavioural profiling exercises, and then everyone had to spend the rest of the term inhibiting their natural proclivities, which in Eno's case seemed to involve being strapped to a trolley for much of the time…

Continue reading "How to teach art: notes from RSA lecture"

25 February 02005

Course in Supporting Learning Relationships Online

Sometimes I miss the most obvious things to record here. For example, the one-day course Supporting Learning Relationships Online that I devised and deliver with Julia Duggleby, author of How to be an Online Tutor (among many other roles). The course is marketed and sold through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Continue reading "Course in Supporting Learning Relationships Online"

19 February 02005

What's wrong with e-learning: product and process

My posting yesterday turned into a bit of a rant in places, particularly on the subject of educational games. Today's is part spill-over of that rant, and part explanation of it.

Leaving aside the disingenuous and diffident aspects of smuggling learning under the cloak of 'fun', what I really want to say is that e-learning should leave space for learners (and, where applicable, their tutors) to re-negotiate the learning process as it unfolds. Learning providers should accept the degree to which this entails some loss of control.

The prevailing model in the market for e-learning is to design it as a product rather than a process. What do I mean by this? I mean that the interaction through which people learn is coded into the bits and bytes of the learning material, rather than being formulated as more open-ended activities that allow learners and tutors to improvise and make up their own interactions. E-learning in the guise of games is one example; e-learning that aims to emulate the production values of television is another, following the Video Arts example — as though adding 'celebrity sauce', by hiring a famous face to shoot a sketch or two, makes the learning more enticing and effective.

Continue reading "What's wrong with e-learning: product and process"

19 September 02004

Usability of museum web sites

Paul Marty and Michael Twidale's article A conceptual framework for analyzing the usability flaws of museum web sites is very clearly written and pretty much delivers what its title promises.

It reports evaluations of 36 museum web sites (I'm guessing that most, if not all, were for US museums), on the basis of which usability issues common to the museums sector are identified. The evaluation approach is based in the sound principles of user scenarios, though the authors implicitly concede that their application of it might be termed 'quick and dirty'. Whether or not you want to pick holes in the methodology, some of the results are certainly interesting, and at least plausible, not to say provocative.

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16 July 02004

'Innovative practice' e-learning article published

There's an article Innovative practice in the use of ICT in education and training: learning from the winners published in the current issue (Volume 6, Issue 5, 2004) of the journal Education + Training from Emerald. It's based in part on the successful bid for a National Training Award by the Learning to Teach On-Line course, and I am one of the authors.

I have four spare off-prints of this article to give away — first-come, first-served — so get in touch if you'd like one (remember to include your postal address). The article also includes case studies of two other initiatives recognised by the National Training Awards.

5 July 02004

Online tutor workload and poor research publishing

The paper Faculty self-study research project: examining the online workload ought to tell us more about the pressures on online tutors than it does. The gist is that, based on six university staff keeping records of their online teaching time, they found that the total time taken was marginally less than the offline equivalent, but that its impact was potentially more disruptive since the tasks are spread through a day rather than being concentrated in dedicated teaching sessions.

It takes quite a lot of work to extract that unsurprising result from the paper, and I'll be impressed if anyone can get much more substance of it. There's no insight, for example, into the relative time taken by different kinds of tutoring tasks or how to manage online tutors to make best use of their time.

Continue reading "Online tutor workload and poor research publishing"

22 January 02004

Classifications for tutor support in e-learning

The different pieces of work I've done on supporting learners in e-learning over the last year have required different classifications of the tasks and activities involved. Partly the differences are down to the context of learning, and partly they're down to the purpose of the classification.

I'm not aware of much research that analyses tutors' work supporting e-learners from a management point of view. There's one research paper called Teaching Courses Online: How much time does it take?, which was published in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks last September. The author, Belinda Davis Lazarus, identifies three main components of the tutor's time:

  • Email — including tutor-initiated messages, learner initiated messages, and exchanges with technicians;
  • Discussions — the courses in Lazarus's study involved online discussions lasting 7-10 days, which the tutor had to monitor, participate in and assess;
  • Assignments — grading assignments submitted by the learners online.

This study and the classification that comes from it are clearly rooted in a particular model of e-learning that puts discussions and tutor interactions at the heart of the learning process. It's questionable how well they would generalise to other settings, particularly since Lazarus's data are based on only one tutor's experience and measurements, and that tutor was her.

Continue reading "Classifications for tutor support in e-learning"

3 January 02004

Managing tutor support for e-learning

Prompted in part by the discussions of supporting learners at the Future of UK E-learning Market event, and partly by some work that Seb Schmoller and I have recently completed for an e-learning provider, here are some boiled-down recommendations for managing e-learning tutors.

The term 'tutor support' covers a range of practices. In a lot of Higher Education e-learning settings, the learning experience is very much tutor-guided: the online materials replace rote lectures and note-taking, leaving teaching staff to concentrate on the online version of what would normally be called a 'tutorial.' In other contexts, tutors are there to support learners only when the automated learning path breaks down or learners somehow get stuck.

These six recommendations apply to differing degrees, depending on the context.

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26 November 02003

Skills for Online Teaching

Why do resources become more reference-worthy when other people refer to them? I suppose it's another of those success-breeds-success network effects. So it's only now that Stephen Downes has seen fit to comment on it, that I get round to referencing a document that Seb Schmoller compiled of contributions from me and other e-learning professionals.

Back in September, Seb asked seven of us for 50-100 words in answer/reaction/response to the question, "Embedding the skills to teach online - is it technical or personality (sic) skills that are needed?" Ever the contrary one, the bulk of my response was graphical. You can download the four-page PDF file with the collated responses via the link to Stephen Downes' comment above or via this page (under the title "Paper about online tutoring skills used by Seb Schmoller at South West of England e-Learning Conference").

15 October 02003

LeTTOL wins National Training Award

Congratulations to the Learning to Teach On-Line team for winning a National Training Award last night for the LeTTOL course.

I believe this may be the first e-learning course to be awarded an NTA.

Having done the course myself in 1998, and worked with some of its main architects since before then, the LeTTOL team commissioned me to write their application for the award, and I also met the NTA "inspectors" when they came to visit. The training establishment is still not used to the kind of re-thinking that e-learning often catalyses — especially when, as in the case of LeTTOL, the main driver is not simply cutting costs.

22 September 02003

Learning through social relations

While looking for something else, I came across the book Learning Relations by Alexander M. Sidorkin. As a Russian emigré living in the US, the book applies the social emphasis of theorists such as Vygotsky and Bakhtin to the current educational establishment in the west (and particularly America).

I've only read the first chapter, available for free on the web, which reviews the way education is organised in society. In a counterpoint to my earlier posting based on Charles Handy's article, Sidorkin sees formal education as an example of the division of labour in society. 'Learning activity' he defines, apparently obtusely as 'the production of useless things' — but part of what he means is that doing things wrong is part of the necessary learning required to do things right. Educational institutions serve the purpose of splitting off this 'useless' production from mainstream production in the rest of society.

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15 September 02003

Apprenticeship, and what is e-learning really good for?

Charles Handy, in his article in the August 2003 RSA Journal, argues for more emphasis on learning-in-the-world and less on learning-in-an-institution. The latter is often given more weight for the simple reason that it is easier to measure. Though often, as Handy says, the measurement relates to how well the learner is prepared to progress into more institutionalised learning, rather than progression in the world.

The article never mentions e-learning explicitly yet it is easy to read much of it as an argument against the tide of recent fads in just-in-time learning and knowledge management:

I have never had much faith in "warehoused knowledge" — the idea that we can learn something, store it away and pull it out when we need it.

Handy's gist is also in keeping with Hubert Dreyfus' critique of online distance learning. This critique is expressed at length in Dreyfus' book On the Internet (see a review of this book).

Continue reading "Apprenticeship, and what is e-learning really good for?"

15 July 02003

British Standard for Supporting E-learning

Working with Seb Schmoller, I was commissioned to prepare the text for a British Standard that sets out a code of practice for supporting learners when they are doing e-learning courses. This includes automated and human (e.g. from online tutors) support.

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