Research is important, but exposure to authentic experiences in real-world contexts is critical for learning.

Learning What  (Who + When + Where + How + Why) + (with what Outcomes) =  overexposure…

As I have said before, I am in a graduate program studying adult education and distance education and my peer group is predominantly composed of professionals already working in a related field. After spending the first few semesters gaining theoretical background in which to ground my inquiries, I discovered a driving need to orient my understanding of these theories by participating in a variety of educational endeavors. What can I say; it sounded like a good idea at the time. WHAT WAS I THINKING?

This is what I expected.

Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the complexity of such an undertaking – even with only a handful of such endeavors in which to participate – and I overestimated the ability of my brain to take it all in and spit out a tidy summary of the whole grand experience. I have been incubating, reflecting, and reevaluating over the past few weeks, but there is nothing tidy or little about the process thus far.

Where did I go wrong? Since, up until recently, I have been simultaneously learning and experiencing (for lack of a better term) similar content, I think I took the organic nature of my own learning experience and process of learning for granted. It is much easier to learn when you are living the learning, in other words. I consider this Lesson #1 (and a valuable little lesson it is ;-) ).

This is what I have so far...

So, instead of offering you the tidy little summary that I had originally hoped for way back then, what I have for you is a fairly organized review of my experiences and what I am still learning along the way. These reflections combine my own experience as a distant learner in formal higher education as well as participation in the MOOCs #CMC11 and #change11 and #THATCamp Pedagogy 2011.

On Learning Theory:

In class we’ve discussed the evolution of learning theories. The terms behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism ought to be very familiar to us. Plus we’ve hit on transformative learning theory and critical theory and we’ve debated whether andragogy should even be referred to as a theory. Therefore, we ought to have a great foundation from which to consider connectivism – a theory of cooperative networked learning proposed (I believe) by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I think the two are basically the fathers of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), but I don’t know that with certainty. I haven’t heard much about connectivism within the formal learning curriculum, and that is probably because connectivism has not been widely accepted as a learning theory (at least at this point). Mention any of these names in a MOOC (Siemens & Down are co-facilitating change11 with Dave Cormier) or THATCamp and you find immediate recognition, however. Could we really be witnessing the evolution of innovation or maybe the disruptive innovation of education, I wonder?

On Learner Characteristics:

Within formal learning, we are paying for an education that ends at a diploma (hopefully). There is an established curriculum and we are all basically exposed to similar content. Course size is capped, so our classes are reasonably sized and teams within the course even smaller. Since we are distant learners, we rely on a variety of technologies. Most of our learning is asynchronous, so we each approach the learning environment independently, even as we are all contributing to that learning environment – in a sense, learning together. So we rely heavily on the technologies and on each other, in addition to the presence of facilitating instructors.

A MOOC is open and free and therefore available to any interested learner with Internet access and a device. What a MOOCer gets out of the experience is really up to them. In a MOOC, it is all about making connections, but the details (which connections, with what frequency level, depth of investigation, etc.) are decided by each individual and on an ongoing basis. So while MOOCers also rely heavily on a variety of technologies, contributing and interaction are not a requirement. Some content is provided for each unit by the facilitators, but engaging with the material or fellow learners is entirely voluntary. In addition, MOOCs come in any size range, based on the number of interested learners. Over 100,000 learners expressed an interest in Stanford’s first introductory open online course on Artificial Intelligence. Imagine learning in a class that size!

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) was a two-day “unconference” specifically looking at pedagogy in the digital humanities. Interested learners applied for the opportunity to participate and contributing within the community of learners is expected. THATCamp generally has between 75 and 100 participants and sessions range from just a few people to upwards of 40 (just my best guess). Technology is in the title and technology was in the forefront of all discussions, but we didn’t rely heavily on technology.  Had the power gone out Poughkeepsie, discussion would have continued (albeit without the really cool demonstrations and eventually without the ability to create notes for each session in Google Docs. ;-)

On LMS/CMS:

During a conference in March, I sat in on a session regarding our institutional LMS review. I chose this session because I thought that it would be cool to see what the options are and how a large research university with an equally large online contingent goes about such an involved decision-making process. As usual, I did not get quite what I expected. Sure, the session presenters had created a great presentation about their pilot studies complete with color graphics, but the session was dominated by the audience. I do not know whether they were members of the faculty, or instructional designers, or IT, or from some other area, but they were clearly focused on finding out exactly which features were going to be available in an as yet undecided LMS. This really communicated something to me. Whoever they were, they seemed frustrated and they had demands and they wanted them to be acknowledged. And I thought that I was frustrated with ANGEL as a student!

With the current buzz surrounding the release of Pearson’s OpenClass, the mainstream media for higher education seem to be reexamining the top five (mine, not necessarily theirs) LMS issues – there is considerable debate on questions like cost, transparency, security, accessibility, and features. In that entire room full of interested people associated with higher education, however, only one of these five areas prevailed as a priority…food for thought. Distant learners (and apparently faculty) depend heavily on the LMS. It’s our world – our main connection and collection.  When it doesn’t have what we need, there are other tools; but then our world becomes just a little more spread out and complex, which has its own comparison of positives and negatives.

On the other hand, most of the educators and students from THATCamp are involved in traditional residential programs. For them, the LMS is a tool; probably one of many. I got two surprises at THATCamp directly concerning CMS. The first was from an undergraduate student attending Vassar who said she found that the online discussions conducted in the LMS (in this case, Moodle) used by a few of her instructors actually increase identity with the group, improve feelings of community, and result in deeper discussions on a topic – all positive indicators for learning! The second occurred in a session on teaching/technology tools for facilitating collaboration. Among a large group of educators, not one of them is using their institution’s LMS as a tool for collaboration. They are using the Google suite of applications. They are using a variety of blog applications. They are using  social networking. They are not using LMS, at least not when it comes to collaboration.

On PLEs:

I think I’ve already said too much. Next time…

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