Tuesday, February 24, 2009

5.*: Education 2.0: Time to sever the link?

Susan Greenfield warns that social networking is having an adverse affect on users (specifically, children) in a recent Stuff article. Just some uninformed hack taking a swing at something she does not really understand?

Judge for yourself. Her publications include Brain power: Working out the human mind, Tomorrow's people: How 21st-Century technology is changing the way we think and feel, and I.D: The quest for meaning in the 21st Century.

As we pursue the promise of social networking in education it is increasingly important that we do not let the tail of social networking wag the dog of structured education. That such tools lead to "shortened attention spans, a lack of empathy and more self-centred children who increasingly define themselves based on what others think of them" is in itself cause to:
  1. Applaud those schools which ban such sites during school hours. 
  2. Refocus the broader contextual issues surrounding social networking onto evidence-based critique, rather than application.
  3. Fundamentally re-valuate calls for 'education 2.0'. 
I hope that Lady Greenfield's warning is taken seriously by all - most particularly those calling for education 2.0, who should really know better. In her comments regarding how such technologies affect 'real conversations', I am reminded by Naomi Baron's observation that online communications give significant control to their users. This change in control alters power relationships, and even what it means to relate to others.

For the record, I am committed to a socially constructivist appreciation of what it means to learn. I am also committed to the value that formal education can add to the process of learning. How far can we go before we actually undermine the very value of what strcutured, formal education has to offer?

Friday, February 6, 2009

5.*: Some pet hates

I am reading around web 2.0 and its potential for formal tertiary education, for the next E-Primer... and I have to get these false dichotomies off my chest. These often come up in Web 2.0 literature as providing legitimacy for its use.

  • Just-in-time (good) vs just-in-case (bad) learning. This dichotomy is infuriating. So-called 'just-in-case' learning can, in fact, be providing a valuable and necessary context for further cognitive development, further context for enabling students to later participate in the broader conversation about the subjects they are studying. This dichotomy suggests a surface, utilitarian concept of knowledge that assumes education exists for immediate ends, not extended means. Education is the means to an end, and not the end in itself. It has more to do with enabling conversation than solving immediate problems. Once this important epistemological difference is understood, any distinction between 'just-in-time' and 'just-in-case' in the context of formal education becomes meaningless.
  • Teacher-centred vs student-centred learning. Bah, humbug. I have blogged elsewhere on the importance of subject-centred learning a la Palmer, where the teacher embodies the subject and gives it its voice rather than becoming the central focus of authority. This removes us from the blinkered 'teacher-centred' approach and the equally idiotic notion of a 'student-centred' one in formal education.
  • Teachers as sages on the stage vs guides on the side. I have blogged on this elsewhere. What sparked this fresh tirade is a quote from Mason & Rennie (2008, p.30):
"In effect, 'teachers' and 'tutors' will need to change their roles from being the sole repository of knowledge, to roles in which their experience is utilised to help facilitate and focus learners to contextualise knowledge within the wider framework of their experience".
This is a rather one-eyed perspective of what teachers and tutors attempt to achieve in formal education, and an unfair basis for advocating the application of web 2.0 applications in education - a classic 'straw-' err, 'person' argument. Any tertiary education course with a recommended bibliography and readings other than those authored by the teacher or tutor will bear this out. In the institution I work for, each course is worth 15 credits (150 learning hours) toward a qualification. Of those 15 credits, pre-determined readings and classes usually account for one-third of the allocated time (and these invariably consist of more than the teacher's or tutor's own writings or presentations), another third to self-directed learning, the final third to assessment tasks designed to encourage reflection and integration, drawing on wider sources. How, then, is the teacher or tutor "the sole repository of knowledge"? The teacher provides the frame for learning, yes - but surely this represents the value-add of formal education? Further, no teacher or tutor is naive enough (or brazen enough) to suggest that students would be dependent on him or her once the course has finished. Where, then, is the grounds for such a criticism?

There is plenty of value in Mason & Rennie's (2008) E-learning and social networking handbook. The authors are sympathetic to the use of web 2.0 in formal education, and provide some very useful guidelines for its use. I am just wary, sensitive, dubious about claims that educators must fundamentally change from being the narrow-minded knowledge tyrants they never, in fact, were. Yes, there are exceptions... but let's remember that they are, in fact, exceptional.

1.1.1: Distributed learning relationships

In reading through Mason & Rennie (2008) for the next E-Primer, I found this representation of how f2f, blended learning, distance education and elearning inter-relate.

All of these are situated in the context of distributed learning, used as an over-arching term to describe all learning that seeks to "customize learning environments to better-fit different learning styles, whether students are on or off campus" (Mason & Rennie, 2008, p.25).

This diagram is interesting to contrast that from Bullen & Janes (2006; see earlier post), in that it illustrates again the confusion that can result from inconsistent terminology (the curse of the e-learning field!)

What confuses me most about Mason & Rennie's diagram is the lack of connection between f2f and e-learning - as if 'using online resources' suddenly infers distance education. So, making a series of URLs available to students in a f2f classroom on a Web page becomes evidence of distance education? My hesitation with Mason & Rennie's diagram is that it appears to be techno-centric, rather than the more pedagogical or methodological model proposed by Bullen & Janes.

Of course, I could just be confused. The discussion on pp.25-28 of their book seems to imply that distributed learning is characterised by the whole diagram above; it could also be read that it exists in the overlap of blended learning, distance education and e-learning (but this would disqualify f2f as a valid component). The statement on p.26, "technologies of varying sorts are a central component in the practice of distributed learning" gives strength to the latter.

I am glad that Mason & Rennie give space to defining their terms, but am unconvinced by their reason that "distance education and campus-based teaching are converging due to the growth of ICT and the Web". I don't doubt that convergence is taking place; I just think it's too early to pretend that the two are no longer distinct, or that all e-learning use is indicative of distance education practice. Guri-Rosenblit, in Higher Education (2005) 49:467-493 states definitively that "'distance' is not a defining characteristic of e-learning" (p.470). Personally, I would link e-learning and f2f so that their overlap is possible as blended learning...

...the terminological nightmare continues!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

5.*: It's an anthropological thing

Michael Welsch (University of Kansas) created the "The Machine is Us/ing Us", at one stage the number one video on YouTube. In this presentation to the US Library of Congress ("An anthropological introduction to YouTube") introduces the clip and its success - and discusses various anthropological aspects of Web 2.0. Most clips in YouTube are viewed less than 100 times; every now and again, though, as Welsch explains, a phenomenon occurs!

It is wonderful seeing the creativity and connectedness that Web 2.0 facilitates. But the link between education and entertainment is a tenuous one. Of course, Welsch himself provides a classic example of how the two can be linked in "The Machine is Us/ing Us". Educationally there are some great possibilities in the format Welsch used... imagine bring Plato's metaphor of the cave to life, drawing from The Matrix, intermixed with moments in history where the metaphor is illustrated and how it might challenge us today (looking at third world hunger; the plight of the poor in our own back yards; perhaps weaving together various political examples of groupthink to show just how contemporary Plato's illustration is). The challenge to educators is, how can we bring foundational concepts and metaphors to life?

Let me try to tease out my own impression of how Web 2.0 can benefit education. Firstly, Web 2.0 is primarily a wonderful anthropological phenomenon. It connects people. Education however is more purposeful; it aims to connect people with those ideas, concepts, transformational points of view, and perspectives that have changed the course of history and which undergird society (and critique it). Connecting people with people, as Web 2.0 does, naturally leads to the connection of ideas. But the flow of ideas through well-prepared tertiary education aims to draw people out of the cave. It aims to provide a meta-view of ideas. Connection with others is only as educational as it facilitates this. Education is about more than providing information; it is about stimulating reflection, which in turn leads to personal transformation. Good education leads you out of the cave. Anthropologically Web 2.0 is fascinating; educationally, it has potential. Secondly, Michael Welsch's clips in YouTube are excellent and useful educationally because he is an expert. He has worked hard to develop an out-of-cave perspective. The opportunity of Web 2.0 for education rests less on the general availability of participative user-generated content and connectedness, and more with its potential for course design within formal frameworks. Web 2.0 does not signal the end of formal education; rather, it provides the latter with further potential.

I am assuming a liberal arts perspective of tertiary education in this point of view. I wonder if a vocational perspective of education would come to different conclusions?

In any consideration of Web 2.0 in education we need to consider both the connectivity and the content it results in. Social connection in Web 2.0 is a truly fantastic anthropological phenomenon. It's educational benefit relies on the sort of thing Michael Welsch has illustrated; deep, informed, creative and thought-provoking presentations that help lead people out of the cave.