Sunday, May 23, 2010

Learning Dimensions


Some ideas around the social, the private and other learning lands. I am just trying to understand these concepts by spotting intersections with Connectivism. This is a remix of notes I left out of my previous post, Social Learning.


Take the notion of space and combine it with learning. Informal learning can occur in a variety of places. Incidentally, learning may happen with a teacher, without a teacher or in spite of a teacher. Formal learning happens when there is a school structure acting as an architect of a learning space. Yet, informal learning can take place in a university and formal learning can be seen in a social network. What does this depend on? Perhaps on the readiness to identify marginally relevant conversations in a classroom (residual knowledge). Perhaps some recognition that some instances of learning with networks we come across on the web are nothing but old things in a new medium.

Now take the social ingredient and add it to the learning soup. Social as the people factor. Social as someone who can be friendly with us should we need to pick their brains. Mind you, not your friends who like you or friends of a friend who send requests, but an ever shifting node in the network that can help you learn wherever your drive takes you in your knowledge quest. It may seem that the world is a small town. It does not matter if the node is six degrees away. It's not as much about access as it is about diversity of contribution.

How does this work?
One node at a time. At a learning ripe time. To me, the node is not there to simply share what they know or show you how they have been learning, but to learn together with you. Not social because they pressed publish to their thoughts. Not just transparent about their processes and sources. People learning right there and then, as a natural consequence of the connection and its current conversations. Something like "I can't help learning from you because you learn here and now with me".

This kind of learning timing does not seem to be liable to scheduling. It goes beyond having learning interests in common. I find it closer to personal values and attitudes to nodes and the learning process itself.

Now season it all with the Internet and what do you get?
Acceleration. Sparks. Too much to read in your RSS. Suddenly you affirm digital learning is different. Is the internal learning process (not the observable outcome) really different? Or is the digital dimension more clearly revealing or confronting us with the way genuine, long lasting learning has always been?

Think of a traditional classroom. Imagine students unable to interrupt a teacher's lecture and no mobile phone distractions. Then listen to teachers affirming that what is going on in there is knowledge transmission. Would you, digital citizen, say that the learning which may have resulted in such classrooms was due to transmission? Learning has probably never been too different. What has changed is perspective and description.

Digital learning spaces are providing new evidence. Learning is more complex than our preconceptions. The social and the space are the context of learning. Learning can happen outside context. Hard to keep in a cage called formal or informal. Is learning voluntary or involuntary? Not every student learns the same in one given classroom. Learning revolves around togetherness and individuality. Togetherness is ruled by social context and degree of synchronicity (same place, same time). Individuality is ruled by personal relevance.

Maybe the distinction between formal and informal learning is misleading. Informal learning examples are probably the evidence that formality in education is a fiction. A learning tale. I am not saying I have not learnt anything in a class. All I am trying to say is: what if it was not because of that class? Description as explanation is insufficient.

I see a lot of metonym talk around. The tool as an umbrella term for the venue, process and outcomes. Stretching an idea of learning, surpassing it or destroying it. Learning is not in the tool, but in its shadow.

Far from objective facts, my reality and truth about learning will spring from my unique perceptions and interpretations. To me, learning is experienced as social during conversations. That's how I feel it. However, our perceptions, as Dr. Carl Sagan teaches us, are somewhat limited:



Frankly, I find that most of us work on the outskirts of a true learning land. What we know is not automatically in sync with what we do. It makes me wonder whether authentic learning entails some disrespect for our most cherished illusions about difficulty grading, linearity of syllabus and hierarchies. The world is flat, we say. We are flat landers, busy building our flat classroom business, projecting our models on the dimension of learning spaces for our own individual purposes.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Social Learning

The title of this post is arbitrary. I am simply choosing two of the most frequent words in a long trail of thoughts shared in Twitter. I transcribed the tweets (as seen from my end @fceblog) in a wiki page for reference and context.

Several questions emerged in that Twitter exchange:

-Is all learning social?
-How can learning be not social?
-Is social learning mediated by language?
-Is reading a book an example of social learning?
-Do learning nodes need to be human?
-Is language social? Is language socially constructed?

This post is not about answers. This is a post about the roads my mind goes through when I approach thinking about these issues. I cannot offer definite answers. Truth is something we attempt to aproximate through different learning grids. I just hope to be transparent about what I bring, as a node, to my personal learning network.

Language and clarification of terms can reveal subtle hidden differences in the way we view our networked learning experiences. I think we cannot underestimate the importance of trying to be clear about terms. Having a blog, a will to share, a number of coincidences and lots of enthusiasm with the topic is far from saying we talk about the same things. We often assume shared basic knowledge. Perhaps this belief partially springs from being in contact with some people for so long. This might be the drawback of echo chambers and preaching to choirs. However, the bell makes a new sound every time we touch it.

For the sake of simplification as well as to getting started in conversation, we are naturally inclined to take for granted the meaning of words such as:
-social
-learning
-language
-connection
-conversation
-reading

The idea is not to be prescriptive trying to define them. The point to me has little to do with finding the best definition, but simply with identifying what we mean when we loosely conjure up so many concepts. I am interested in finding contradictions between what I claim to know and what I actually believe. I find these intersections are a fertile learning ground.

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, my learning grid has been influenced by studies of general linguistics, applied linguistics, literature and translation. I believe that good reading is very much like a conversation, whether the author is present or not. It is a kind of internal, unique dialogue where the reader is a co-creator of a text; that is, the meaning of that particular text. Widdowson, as cited by Bauri, resonates here:

"According to Widdowson, reading is an act of participation in a discourse between interlocutors. It is regarded not as reaction to a text but as interaction between writer and reader mediated through the text. This interaction is governed by the 'co-operative process', where encoding is a matter of providing directions and decoding a matter of following them. In this interactional exchange what is actually expressed is vague, imprecise and insignificant, it is satisfactory only because it provides the interlocutors with directions to where they can find and create meanings for themselves. Widdowson suggests that this kind of creativity is not exclusive to reading but is a necessary condition for the interpretation of any discourse. Spoken as well as written discourse, operate in accordance with this co-operative principle (Widdowson, 1979, pp. 174-175)."

The mention of learning happening in conversations or interactions is generally linked to social networking and the connectivist learning that occurs among nodes. However, to affirm that learning happens in conversations also points to the idea that learning involves some negotiation of meaning or object being learnt in aconstructivist fashion. Re-reading our Twitter exchange, I think I find a tendency to explain new phenomena with old terminology. There seems to be a stretching of a pragmatic definition of knowledge derived from conversation to explain learning as we experience it enabled by technology. This suddenly sounds to me as old things in new ways. We do not voluntary construct serendipitous knowledge, which simply emerges.

The crux of the contradiction is probably a confusion between constructivist and maturationalist views of knowledge creation. A reading of connectivist views quickly points to several analogies with neuroscience, not pragmatics. If learning happens within our brains, we cannot hurry to equal learning with social.


"Research (particularly in the field of neuroscience) is beginning to indicate that the primary learning component of our brains is pattern recognition, not information processing. Stephen Downes (2005) extends this concept by offering a challenging vision that learning is not a direct causal interaction between teacher and learner. Replacing the causal model of learning (need highlighted, instructional intervention planned, measurement enacted) with 'network phenomenon':

“But with online learning comes not only a much wider, more diverse network, but also the idea that (a) the network may be based on non-physical (or emergent) properties, (b) that the individual may choose to belong to or not belong to a network, and (c) that an individual may assume multiple identities or memberships in multiple networks. The theory of distributed representation has a profound implication for pedagogy, as it suggests that learning (and teaching, such as it is) is not a process of communication, but rather, a process of immersion.”

This explanation of learning in a digital age is far from equating learning with social. I would be inclined to think that what we broadly describe as social learning is simply not connectivist. To begin with, the concept of social is elusive. Before going to the web to find a definition that may help us prove a point, I think we have to examine first what we are actually saying. In our Twitter exchange, the term social clearly includes two components:
a) people
b) language use
We are unarguably saying social means interactions mediated by language.

The term learning is also tricky. Do we mean that only people (alive) learn? Then, books do not. Do we mean that cells in our brains learn to make new connections? Then, the social component of learning is a trigger but it is different from affirming that (all) learning is social.

We are leaving out of the discussion any learning that does not happen in contact with people talking to us. We are assuming that language -with its social exchanges- mediates all the learning. This is not true every time. We learn essential things like eating before we can actually utter a word or fully comprehend our parents language. What is important to bear in mind is that we have unawarely decided to limit the object of our talk. So the learning we are concerned with is one that occurs between people and mediated by language.

Connectivism seems to suffice its arguments leaving linguistic aspects outside the discussion. However, there are some similarities between what learn fromChomsky's studies on universal grammar and the notion of personal knowledge as presented by Downes in Buenos Aires, Argentina. According to Chomsky, no amount of talking and teaching can make a child learn the principles and parameters of language. The distinction between internalized language in the brain as opposed to a particular language in use is key. So is the notion of personal and social knowledge distinction in connectivism (Slide 17). Learning, though socially triggered, is not a social outcome. Performance in a test does not necessarily show learning evidence. Learning needs immersion and exposure to models. Learning uses something external to the self to build an internal capability. Learning is mediated in the conversation, by language in use. Learning is not an object socially negotiated, but rather a new capacity (neural connection) in our brains.

Bringing the concept of language into the picture does not make a good argument in favour of social learning, because language is not inherently social. What is the difference between universal language in the brain and a particular language (English or German)? The level at which the abstraction is made. Now, abstractions like these are made for a purpose. Teachers may disagree with the need to focus on unobservable capabilities in the brain and prefer to focus on observable classroom outcomes. In my opinion, the oversimplification that learning in a digital age could be analogous to being a foreign language speaker and going on to say there are natives and immigrants is a good example of not making abstractions at the right level.

In spite of all this, I will most probably continue teaching my students with the metaphor that we can have a dialogue with the text. It seems to be an effective resource for a purpose. The danger lies in confusing the map with the territory, or abandoning cartography because we are comfortable with one map (ours of course).

To me, more than arguing language is social, what is useful for a teacher to understand is that the capability to develop language use to the level of Shakespeare is simply within human reach. We all inherit that capacity. Teachers have power to hinder inborn capabilities or let them emerge and grow. Certainly teaching has been a systematic attempt at controlling the construction of learning in contexts rich with language use. The problem with formal teaching is that it overlooks the reality that within networks knowledge can emerge quite unplanned. Through teaching we can collect evidence that learning is social. What we cannot explain observing teachers experiences or conversations in groups is the amount of learning that happens outside those interactive contexts.

Teaching is definitely social. Learning is probably not.


Now I want to read how Bud Hunt challenges my thinking.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

An Aside

Day: Friday evening, May 7th 2010.
Place: Colegio Las Cumbres, downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Scene: Stephen Downes had just finished his informal talk with teachers. Everyone is walking about the room.

I just wanted to say thank you when a small talk started. The fueling ideas after attending the morning presentation, the engagement of the teachers debating how far to guide students was all there. Stephen said something about noticing the enthusiasm among us. He added it would be even more interesting if people disagreed with him at times.

I deliberately took that as an invitation to voice disagreement. I found myself unable to do so, though. My own mind was a bit clouded with so much f2f blog talk. I tried to explain to Stephen why I could not disagree yet. This is my best recall of what I said mixed with what I meant.

When I hear an idea explained concisely, articulately organized and backed up by effective domestic examples, I find it hard to disagree immediately. I simply know that I will have questions. Eventually, at a later moment of the day, or perhaps some other day, I will find the points where inconsistencies with my own thoughts will provoke a need to challenge both his message and my previous way of thinking. I cannot help needing more time for disagreement to happen.

There were underlying assumptions to why I felt a need to explain this to Stephen. I believe that Stephen is an expert blogger who does not share these thinking or writing time limitations. He has learned a kind of fluency of expression regardless of the writing conditions. He can protect his mind from a hectic airport and decide to write like this. I admire that capacity. Yet, that kind of admiration is something I will need to question. Particularly if I find myself using it as an excuse to limit my own writing capabilities.

I said to Stephen that today I listen to him and give him the benefit of the doubt. For now, I am just taking my mind on a ride towards the message. Then, I'll take a few steps back to think further. I will try to post reflections or questions here in my blog. Sometimes, I need to write my mind out before meeting the lecturer. I find it is a blogger's advantage to do so. To write the here and now of my thoughts saves them from being taken ashtray or buried forever by a new glittering idea. I think I write to save my personal fledgeling thoughts. What I do not write today, I will never write again. Ever.

By then, a few teachers had gathered to listen to this. Stephen looked at them and concluded: "This is what we do when we blog".

Since last Friday, the personal pronoun 'we' has taken on a new meaning.


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Friday, May 07, 2010

Liveblogging: Stephen Downes in Buenos Aires

Edited on May 8th.

Yesterday morning I attended the presentation Stephen Downes gave at Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires. Slides, video and audio.

I had many times participated in other blogger's liveblog, but I had never experienced being the liveblogger. As the conference proceeded, I found myself shifting roles in the way I blogged.

At first, I had the idea of an audience in mind. Probably I had a memory of myself being a remote enthusiastic participant at the other end of a screen, curious about the experience inside the conference room. The first role was the reporter of the event. A window for a remote audience to peep into.

I tweeted the link. I realised people were probably lurking, pondering whether to join me to say something or not. I moved a step away from that in my mind. Having read Stephen since 2006, the talk was familiar at first; however, the wording of the message was new at times and it started to engage me. I tried to separate what I heard from Stephen from my own thought sketches by enclosing mine in parenthesis. I became a side commentator. When this kind of involvement with ideas happens -generally when I blog- I feel a need to turn off the music and make my room as quiet as possible. At this point, the thought that viewers could interrupt me with their own reactions to the video streaming suddenly made me uneasy.

I had to choose. Should I continue writing for an audience or just for myself? I stopped checking the Twitter tab on my netbook. I had a good view of Gabriela Sellart's screen sitting next to me. I could see her exchanging thoughts with Diego Leal from Colombia. I felt that was enough. I stayed in an inner network circle, an echo chamber perhaps. Most viewers were busily sharing tweets as well as noisy (by which I mean, uncommented) re-tweets and tagging them #downesba. A tag I had suggested in Facebook to join teachers who would like to meet Stephen for an informal talk, accidentally became the tag of Stephen's visit to Argentina, not just Buenos Aires. It conveniently became a stream to gather ideas separately from my liveblog. A place to visit later.

I went into blogger mode. Involved in semi-private reflection. Trying to extract new meaning to a message I had heard many times before. Obtaining meaning for me is like going for a ride on a carrousel (1). You go round and round seeing the same places from your own movable centre. Sudden changes in perspective make the known seem unknown again. The man standing and taunting the children with the key to a free ride prize is always standing at the same corner doing what he dexterously does. Going round and round is no guarantee you will get it. There I was sitting and blogging about connectivism again.

The value of this experience I share may probably be strictly personal. This liveblog documents the shifting focus of attention of my mind, from a word spoken to portions of Stephen slides, through emergent flashbacks of the days when I studied Chomsky's generative grammar and back to the speaker. At times, the tip of the iceberg of a question appeared. I was lucky to be able to relax at the brief question time. Stephen would meet with a few twitterers later in the afternoon for an informal talk, so I saved my questions for later. More about that, when Stephen shares the recording of that meeting.

The following are my raw notes. Reflection posts will follow.





Note on the tool used. I unsuccessfully tried to pull in the hashtag #downesba into the stream of the liveblog. Just one tweet made it. Perhaps it was a limited feature in the free version of the tool.

(1) The metaphor of the carrousel is a stretch from the way the writer Juan José Saer describes the experience of writing. I've been playing with it in my blog in Spanish.

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