Category Archives: Developing a Personal Philosophy

Learning – Is it Really about Who is in Control?

This week, it seems like no matter what I read, I kept facing the word control as it relates to learning – teachers in control vs. learners in control. This makes it sound like learning is a game of tug of war. So, who is gaining ground and who is going to end up in the mud? Frankly, neither position sounds like an advantage to me…

To be honest, just thinking about linking those two words – control and learning – ties my stomach up in knots. Is that really what learning is about – who is in control? 

I remember many teachers from back in the day who would have liked to “control” my learning. They tried. I am and I was a bit of a rebel, though, I guess – or maybe I was just difficult. People liked to say that I was bored in the classroom because I wasn’t challenged. Well, they were wrong. I was bored in the classroom because it was boring. Period. End of story.

Fast forward to May 2007, my first college class after a twenty year hiatus. It was speech communications with Mr. Mosley and, right off the bat, he asked us why we were there. I raised my hand and why wouldn’t I? The question wasn’t that tough. We were there because we were expected to be there. Wrong, he said. You have a choice. If you don’t want to be here, there is an alternative.

But, even back in the fourth grade, I knew that I had a choice and that I made the decision, and if I failed, I suffered the consequences.

So, my question is this-

Is there such a thing as control when it comes to learning?

If so, what – exactly – are we trying to control? Are we trying to control the learner and their behavior in the environment? Are we trying to control the content so that a specific message – and only that message – is conveyed and retained by the learner? Are we trying to control the learning process? Do we see learning as a map with a single line between destinations? De we see learners as little identical boxes that are to be stuffed full of uniform information?

Personally, I see learning as more of a relationship of complex interactions – a web, of sorts – but not one that has to exist online or solely online. I think that we can still apply the nodes definition from connectivism, but the web would be much more limited when offline. From my perspective, the role of the teacher – as someone or something with new information – can be occupied by multiple (and even simultaneous) players. If anything, control here is shared, but maybe it doesn’t even exist.

Does control need to exist for the sake of learning?

Connectivism and Developing a Personal Learning Philosophy

I chose to study Web 2.0 tools and applications because I see interaction as the primary component of teaching and learning in the online environment – interaction with the material, interaction with the instructor/facilitator, and interaction among peers – and I believe that Web 2.0 tools facilitate and support that interaction as the methods for connecting.

Interaction is key to learning online.

From the perspective of connectivism, this interaction occurs in the web of a personal learning network which is not limited by the structure of organized learning. A personal learning network is our unique set of connections to people, to resources, to repositories of information. When a problem requires solving, our personal learning network of trusted colleagues and authenticated resources is where we turn. This is how we sort through the chaos and where we contribute our own unique perspectives.

As much as I appreciate the idea of connectivism, as a learning theory it assumes certain capabilities that are not actually ubiquitous. Connectivism can only apply to those who have the ability to connect and not every human on the planet has the hardware device and Internet connection available to participate.

OK, I am going to open myself up a bit here. I believe that learning – in the broadest sense – is synonymous with living.

Learning is key to life.

Learning is not a set of physiological processes or a collection of biological entities as life may be defined, but learning is what we think and believe and how we engage with the world around us. Interaction is what is happening when a person learns and our interpretation of that interaction becomes our evolving knowledge.

So, if interaction is key to learning – particularly learning online – and learning is key to life, then how do we reconcile the missing voices??

My Instructor Role Models

What makes a great instructor in the context of Web 2.0?

I have had the good fortune of learning from several excellent online educators over the past few years. So, I thought that I would use my own role models to answer this question. Of course, these traits are probably not limited solely to online educators.

Great Instructors Inspire and Expect Creativity-

I took a comparative religions course as an undergraduate. A few of the assignments, at first glance, seemed daunting to me. Create a mandala that represents you as a person and explain the details and why you chose them. Write about the encounter if you were to meet up with Confucius, the Buddha, and Laozi. What would you learn from them? What would it mean to you? These were challenging assignments. They forced me to ask myself difficult questions, but in the end, they also provided me with valuable personal insights that I will never forget.

Great Instructors Build in Opportunities for Active Learning-

In abnormal psychology, our final project was to create a fictional case study that included all DSM-IV sections. The client of my case study was a college gymnast with anorexia nervosa. To lighten the mood of the paper, I called her personal physician Dr. McDreamy. Though she remains faceless, I developed the character history to such a great extent that I can see a picture of her in my mind and I will never forget the value in that learning experience.

Great Instructors Build in Opportunities for Experiential Learning-

The book for my art history course was about four inches thick and we read every page-full of colorful images and tiny writing. Thankfully, there was much more to the course than the content in the book. The main project required us to select among a variety of topics and I chose my favorite – a comparison of Romanesque and Gothic architectures.

I found a cathedral – The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine –  in the Morningside Heights section of New York City that, due to changes in leadership and varying phases of construction, exhibits both Romanesque and Gothic features. I visited twice as I worked on the project. The church structure was undergoing major cleaning and renovation following a fire, but on my second visit I was able to take a vertical tour that included climbing the spiral staircases and walking above the nave and across the tops of the interior and exterior buttresses.

A lover of photography, I ended up taking several hundred pictures of the interior and exterior architectural features. The final project contained so many images that I couldn’t upload it through Blackboard. To this day, more than two years later, I can tell you the differences between Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Not only that, but I developed a true love for the diversity in architecture. Whether someplace local or someplace new, I recognize and appreciate the variety in the architecture and I don’t think that is anything that I will ever lose.

Great Instructors Build in Opportunities for Participatory Learning-

One of my graduate courses in adult education research involved a progressive set of activities. Each activity provided an opportunity for another participant to volunteer to take the leadership role. Each group member contributed to the ongoing discussion, sharing resources and providing valuable feedback in order to achieve consensus. After several years of online learning, I believe this course fostered the development of community better than any other.

Great Instructors Create and Shape Learning Environments-

In one of my graduate distance education courses, the instructor impressed me from the start. I had chosen her particular session because we share similar research interests and in an introduction, she provided multiple methods for contacting her (including a home phone number). I never used it, but her level of openness did encourage me to ask her questions that fell outside of the formal curriculum. She was always very helpful and incredibly generous with her time.

In what is written about instructor presence online, experts warn against directing the conversation by interjecting too many comments into the asynchronous discussion. Perhaps as a result of this warning, many instructors monitor, but do not participate. This particular instructor found a way to participate in the discussion – which I personally find to be a critical component of online learning – without actually dominating it. Instead of directing or correcting us, she asked questions that prompted additional discussion and clarification. She would bring in research and researchers, when relevant, to encourage us to further investigate our own interests. And at the end of a discussion, she would post a short review summary and tie up any loose ends, which I found to be very helpful.

In my experience, these are the characteristics that make a great instructor in the context of Web 2.0, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. What experiences have shaped your idea of a great instructor?

The Transformative Power of Adult Education

To my own detriment, many times I have written with my heart exposed out on my sleeve!

I regularly mentor remarkable adult students who fight to find ways to get an education and keep the rest of the wheels on the bus moving forward. Their struggle hits close to home because the memories of scrounging for enough money to buy milk in between paychecks are still fresh and vivid for me. While it is very true that we all make choices AND that we each have a responsibility to figure out how to work and live with them, I would give every cent that I have to a single parent (or anyone else) who wanted an education. I have seen what education can do to lift a family out of poverty and all of the ripples that continue to produce positive results long afterward. It doesn’t happen every time and I’m not sure how often it really does, but the potential is there (and I am all about optimizing that potential :-) ).