Tuesday, May 5, 2009

5.*: Challenging the assumptions of 'm'

I am embroiled in writing E-Primer 5, "eXtending possibilities"; at present I am focusing on particular on m-learning. A recently released eBook, "Mobile Learning: Transforming the delivery of education and training" is an ad-hoc and broad compilation of chapters from academics around the world (mostly UK). What prompts me to blog here is the paradigm the book adopts in its opening chapters.

Ally (2009, p.1) presents the utopian vision for m-learning:
Learners will not have to wait for a certain time to learn or go to a certain place to learn. With mobile learning, learners will be empowered since they can learn whenever and wherever they want. Also, learners do not need to learn what is prescribed for them.

Traxler, in the first chapter of the eBook (2009, p.10) continues in a similar vein:
Looking at mobile learning in a wider context, we have to recognize that mobile, personal, and wireless devices are now radically transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge, and are responsible for new forms of art, employment, language, commerce, deprivation, and crime, as well as learning. With increased popular access to information and knowledge anywhere, anytime, the role of education, perhaps especially formal education, is challenged and the relationships between education, society, and technology are now more dynamic than ever.

Later (p.14) he adds:
Learning that used to be delivered “just-in-case,” can now be delivered “just-in-time, just enough, and just-for-me.” Finding information rather than possessing it or knowing it becomes the defining characteristic of learning generally and of mobile learning especially, and this may take learning back into the community.

(Emphasis added). I think I'm finally able to explain my concern with this sort of thinking. In response to Ally, formal education is not inherently disempowering and neither does it seek to treat a prescribed curriculum as all there is to know. Formal education is a means to a transformed mind; in the words of Montaigne, it seeks to 'make minds not fill them'. And, formal education is not about access to information and knowledge. So, in response to Traxler's first point above, m-learning represents an opportunity to formal education and not a challenge. Further, it is way too simplistic to differentiate learning based on it being 'just-in-case' or 'just-in-time'. This ignores completely the value and mechanisms of formal education. When has anyone ever 'needed' Plato? Seneca? Postman? Rorty? Or, perhaps better relating to e-learning folk, Shirky? Yet these thinkers and their perspectives continue to open minds, to broaden them, to challenge them. Using Laurillard's distinction of everyday and academic knowledge, everyday knowledge should be just-in-time; academic knowledge is just-to-challenge, just-to-open, just-to-blow us out of our own ways of thinking. To criticise formal education for adopting a 'just-in-case' approach to learning is simply nonsense. To further assert that finding information is "the defining characteristic of learning" is very alarming, because it is actually 'knowing it' that helps you to develop a mental filter and include the information in your personal mental framework. Brighouse (pp.23-24) puts it plainly:
the critical thinking skills involved in autonomy can neither be developed nor exercised without the ease of access to a considerable amount of information which is provided only by having learned and internalized it… the idea that [students] might develop the more complex skills of reasoning about information without having a good deal of it instantly available is silly.


So, a Google search is more powerful than an educated mind? What if (as Jeanneney suggests) the question were not, "What is the capital of Venezuela?" but rather "Does democratization favour equality?" Here, it is the ability to evaluate and not merely find knowledge that becomes 'definitional' of having truly learned.

My criticism of Ally's phrase is that it reveals a deficit perspective of formal education, and seems to confuse the advantages of informal learning with formal learning. For Traxler the issue is epistemological, and a likely confusion between what it means to train and what it means to educate (Rosenberg, to whom the contrast between 'just-in-case', 'just-in-time', 'just enough' and 'just for me' is attributed, is involved in e-learning for training purposes). Traxler does acknowledge that a good case can be made for the use of mobile devices in incumbent formal education however his use of the term 'impurist' to describe this is somewhat loaded.

Finally, Traxler (2009, p.10) describes m-learning as "essentially personal, contextual, and situated". The fundamental error here, I think, is that Traxler has mistaken potential attributes for m-learning as essential. There is an unfortunate idealism in place here, as if Traxler is correct any use of a mobile device in educational contexts that is directed, abstract and theoretical cannot be 'real' m-learning. Far from being a pedagogical option, then, m-learning rather becomes a revolutionary slogan.

To finish, I would like to offer a set of theses to to with higher education:
  • Formal education seeks to open minds, rather than fill them; however opening cannot be separated from filling, nor vice-versa.
  • Formal education does not stop or hinder informal learning.
  • Formal education aims to orientate academic apprentices into an ongoing academic conversation; it does not claim to be the conversation itself.
  • Formal education seeks to add value through: a) its structuring of knowledge, and b) its insistence that students participate in exercises that force reflection and integration of knowledge.
  • Formal education is a deliberately tiered process, gradually immersing academic apprentices in a critical, co-dependent and questioning epistemology. The further the apprentice travels, the clearer the value of the tier becomes to them.
I welcome critique on the bulleted suggestions above. When I think about e-learning, I consider how these aims of formal education can be furthered. It wearies (and worries) me to see formal education, whether directly or indirectly, criticised on the basis that:
  • it is focused on filling minds with irrelevant nonsense;
  • it is concerned with memorising facts;
  • it is locked into an outdated model of objectives and assessment;
  • it considers itself a monopoly on learning;
  • or that it is a waste of money and time and a barrier to more natural informal and networked learning.
By all means let's critique formal education, but let's do so fairly and from a perspective of appreciative inquiry.

5 comments:

Anamaria Camargo said...

Hi Nichtus. Just thinking here about your post. I’m really interested in what you wrote and I’m beginning to suspect how little I know about it. More than commenting on your post, I’m asking here a lot of questions, which I hope will not overwhelm you. Please don’t feel pressured to answer them all (or indeed any of them). But of course I would be very thankful if you could do it – in your time. I know it's cheeky of me to ask, but the worst that can happen is nothing ;)

Your ideas about formal education and its purposes resonate with my own and because of that, it worried me (even more) about education in the context of my country (Brazil). Specifically:
“the idea that [students] might develop the more complex skills of reasoning about information without having a good deal of it instantly available is silly.” – If that’s true—and I think it is—that’s really awful when you consider that very, very few people in Brazil have access to good quality formal education. Does this mean the majority of Brazilian children and young adults are sentenced to being incapable of thinking critically to the extent of actually altering our current political/educational/economic situation? And most specifically, does it mean that the use of informal learning technologies such as blog writing used as a cheaper form of compensation for their lack of formal education would not be enough? Please be honest: do you think that would be a waste of time (and money)?

Not related to education in Brazil, but with my own wonderings about learning and learning theories. You said, “Formal education seeks to open minds, rather than fill them; however opening cannot be separated from filling, nor vice-versa.” – In terms of learning theories, how would you categorise this ‘opening and filling’ of minds? What is your view on connectivism according to which, knowledge is grown, not acquired (or filled in, I suppose). The reason I’m asking this is that I’m trying hard to make sense of this learning theory, but I honestly haven’t been able so far, so please bear with me…

“When I think about e-learning, I consider how these aims of formal education can be furthered.” – Considering how far Brazilians are from quality formal education, I would very much like to believe informal learning could play some significant role in changing this picture. But… that’s perhaps just my utopian side speaking. I have a more pragmatic side too: I’m a MEd in eLearning tutor for the University of Hull (http://www.hull.ac.uk/CES/courses/post-graduate/taught/medelearning/index.html), so I am very much immersed in formal education and trying to make the best of it. How has in your view elearning helped further the aims of formal education you mentioned in your post? Do you see a significant pedagogical help coming from the use of social networks and virtual worlds for instance?

Well, once again, sorry for so many questions. And thank you in advance.

Nichthus said...

Hi Anamaria,

Wow. Lots of questions, some very big issues. All I can offer through this medium is some impressions... I hope these help.

* Does this mean the majority of Brazilian children and young adults are sentenced to being incapable of thinking critically to the extent of actually altering our current political/educational/economic situation?

I think there are degrees of critical thought. Each of them requires a broader perspective. I would argue that the more you know (in your head), the broader your cognitive filter and the more you are capable of critical thought. But it's not just a matter of quantity. The actual ideas you are exposed to are also important. In my schooling I was exposed to Orwell and Huxley... their work makes you think about political and social manipulation by immersing you in a story. Blogs will expose you to opinion and perspective, but the extent to which they can immerse you is questionable. There is a real difference. Imagine a class that has just read '1984' being guided through a discussion of Cold War Russia (and, for the more enlightened classes, an associated commentary on contemporary US politics through the likes of Chomsky). Wow. Powerful learning. Perspective changing. Eye-opening. Blogging simply lacks the depth for this level of interaction.

* And most specifically, does it mean that the use of informal learning technologies such as blog writing used as a cheaper form of compensation for their lack of formal education would not be enough?

Without a doubt. Blogging is expedient, social and accessible, but that doesn't make it deep. Sadly, developing deep levels of knowledge and broad perspective frequently involves the level of thought that can trail across hundreds of pages, rather than a single-digit number of paragraphs. Evaluating a sustained argument is an important element of developing a critical perspective.

* Please be honest: do you think that would be a waste of time (and money)?

It depends on what your goal is. If it is to educate for critical thought, I would suggest blogging could be a good medium for reflection - but it would be woefully insufficent as the basis for education.

* In terms of learning theories, how would you categorise this ‘opening and filling’ of minds?

Transformation theory, Jack Mezirow. In additoin to Laurillard and Ramsden, get one of Mezirow's works. "Learning as transformation" (2000). Education is not about information. It's about transformation. Anyone who thinks differnetly hasn't read Mezirow ;o)

* What is your view on connectivism according to which, knowledge is grown, not acquired?

I have serious concerns about it. The Brighouse quote that struck you is a major challenge to connectivism. That knowledge exists across a network is one thing; that this changes the fundamentals of teaching and learning is where George and I part company. I have a draft article section on connectivism if you're interested: nichthus[at]gmail.com.

* How has in your view elearning helped further the aims of formal education you mentioned in your post?

I try to avoid the speculative, and build e-learning practice on the themes I mentioned in the post. This approach doesn't needlessly offend people, and it adds value to transformative education. My cyncism about extravagent claims has actually served me rather well.

* Do you see a significant pedagogical help coming from the use of social networks and virtual worlds for instance?

In terms of 'significant', well, no. People have been VERY successfully educated at a distance in the transformativbe sense for many years with no form of online social networking. Why is it suddenly deemed 'necessary' by many educators? A recent article:

Thorpe, M. (2008). Effective online interaction: Mapping course design to bridge from research to practice. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 24(1), 57-72.

...challenges the very notion of 'social presence' in online learning (more on this in E-Primer 4, soon to be launched). Virtual worlds... I have posted on these before. See http://e-ako.blogspot.com/2009/04/5-second-life-in-peer-review.html and http://e-ako.blogspot.com/2009/01/5-second-life-potential-to-make-impact.html. Virtual worlds are another example of an over-hyped tool that could actually add some value, if only it is properly contextualised.

No worries about the quantity of questions, I appreciate the interaction and the opportunity to think further about these themes. My name is Mark, by the way!

Another item you may be interested to read is the first in my E-Primer series, "E-learning in context". It's avalable from http://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/projects/eprimer-series.

Anamaria Camargo said...

Hi Mark.

Thank you for such a generous response :) You said blogs are good for reflections, and here’s mine…

What I’ve been reading and reflecting on recently, including your posts, have left me more cynical and skeptical about the power of learning technologies in empowering people in developing countries. I like to believe that I have a “mission” to fulfill here as an educator, but it’s getting harder and harder to figure out just how I can live this mission in order to concretely affect the current situation in my country. Of course, hard tasks such as this need well-thought out approaches, and I suppose that, out of ignorance, I’ve been too na├»ve in believing things I read. Web 2.0 tools. The death of universities. Redesigning curriculums to fit learners’ needs. All What are indeed learners’ needs?

I've already ordered 'Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies' by Laurillard and also 'Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates' by Wallace, which I'm hoping will be useful in my informal research by setting a more realistic context. And I’ll keep on watching your space.

Thanks again.

Ian & Ellen said...

Hi Mark,

I hope you don’t mind a comment from a purely technical point of view.

Currently there are only a handful of mobile devices that have a resolution and screen size that would make learning begin to be possible, let alone a viable learning method.

By far, the majority of devices currently being used have (especially when using WAP) issues displaying what could be thought of as reasonably basic content. Certainly, I would not want to have to read more than one or two paragraphs of text (maximum!) on a phone.

Perhaps a better use for mobile phones, for the next few years anyway, would to use SMS (texting) to serve as reminders for the student to actually do their assignments, go to classes, and engage in other informal opportunities to learn.

Cheers,
--Ian

Nichthus said...

Thanks Ian. The conversation broadens when you consider that 'mobile' refers to the ability of the user to participate 'on the move', so devices such as netbooks and other portable devices (MP3 players, gaming platforms such as PSP) are included as well. For cell phones, I agree that SMS is arguably the best means of use. The diversity of devices also makes it difficult; in most evaluation studies I've looked at, the handheld devices were provided for students!

So much for ubiquity ;o)