Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thoughts about ANU #gaggle, institutional learning vs networked learning

I attended a forum that is held regularly around Canberra, called Gaggle. It is an edtech forum generally, and I was excited to go, expecting to meet several of the edtech people I have been following for several years. Unfortunately they didn't attend this #gaggle, but I was still interested to see what ANU would bring to the discussion...

Unfortunately I was a little disappointed, leading to some frustration over there being no time allowed for discussion after each 10 minute presentation, seeing me tweet spiky comments and questions instead. Perhaps that lack of discussion is a good thing though.. we have the technology to carry on a discussion here, and maybe the face to face is better used to cover as much ground as possible in terms of ideas and content... I dunno, I tend to think the other way around would be better. Presentations online, face to face for discussion.

One of the presenters, Tom Worthington has been gracious enough to ignore the tone of my tweets and respond to each, at length on his blog. I should have tagged my questions according to the presentations I was referring to though, because not every one was to Tom. My frustration at the time was only added to by the 140 character limits, typing on an android with only one bar of signal and no open wifi in the room. Even more frustrating was the 4-10 seconds for a question or comment after a presentation, just as everyone is told its time to leave.. all of which is hardly conducive to discussion.. especially for someone like me who is yet to develop the virtue of patience.

Tom's come back to my main question:

LB Tweets: What if anyone could pick and chose anything from anywhere to make a degree? Why limit it to institutions?

Tom blogs: You can pick and choose anything for your education. But it may help to have someone help you pick and choose. That is part of what institutions do. They also provide a form of quality control for you, and for others, to say what you studied and what you did with it was worthwhile. This particularly applies to education for professions which effect on people's lives.
Tom's point is one that is often cited to refute Connectivism or networked and open learning, similar in ways that schooling refutes deschooling. That some professions require quantifiable skills and assessment, and that institutions provide that is a fair point in the context of "higher education" becoming more like vocational training, and a point that is exactly what is being challenged. Do the institutions really provide effective guidance and quality, or are they simply enjoying a governed monopoly over the idea? Many parallels have been made here with recent challenges facing newspapers and journalism - one being the institution, the other being the social value it keeps. What happens when that social value is more effectively found (or realised) in places outside that institution?

It would surely be a possible point of agreement that formal education and curriculum does more than simply guide and make quality. There is much more to the formalised learning experience than that. If we then extend that line into questions of what institutions displace in people's learning, and what those institutions might do if faced with evidence that their social value is being met elsewhere, then I think we would be having a discussion on something that is what Gaggle should be about. But this argument perhaps puts me in one historic camp and Tom in another. The argument is impractical to here and now, decades long, with my camp having become absent from most public dialogue within the institutions (Illich, Frier, Holt, McCluhan, Chomsky, and more recently, a medium sized network of blogging educational commentators).

Even in the areas of simple quantifiable education and training, we can find evidence of efficiency gains in self directed and networked learning - largely thanks to recent communications media reawakening old social ideas and the willingness of a % of people to try those ideas again. The values of guidance and quality Tom refers to, is it being diluted by inflated fees, bureaucratic overheads, open educational practices, open courseware, and more broadly - efforts to add value opportunities for learning through social media and connections? If this dilution continues, perhaps the only value left in institutions will be assessment and credentialism, and the learning that credentialasim rewards, finds more opportunities to take place everywhere else but the institutions. The rise in the practice of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), and Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) for example.

To be honest though, I am relatively inexperienced with the Higher Ed sector, having spent 8 years on the vocational training sector, and a few years in secondary. Even there, are threads of philosophical wonderings about competency based curriculum, assessment, and the wider stuff generalised as critical, ethical, social, creative and analytical learnings. All of it leading to what I think ought to be an identity crisis for institutions, and a massive topic of consideration at forums like Gaggle.

There was one presenter positing these questions at ANU #gaggle, Megan Poore. I would have liked to ask her the nagging question I have inspired by reading Illich. Do the utopian ideas of networked learning and socialism through these new technocratic devices actually displace more people than it empowers? Are we utopians watching that ball?


laura said...

Thank you for a thoughtful blog posting that raises more than one important issue.
Firstly, on the matter of being frustrated by the lack of time for real engagement at academic conferences, I agree that this needs to change. I attended an ICTs for Development last week which consciously set out to encourage interactivity (more about that at I have also just come across a conference that is using alternative methods and approaches to plan for real conversations about digital media and learning - see
I think the key issue that you raised about the polarisation that is happening in higher education is really important and it goes beyond ICTs, even if ICTs provoke and enable different modes and practices. This is something that really needs further attention and focus of enquiry. Thanks for naming and insisting on this issue.

Anonymous said...

I agree. It is unfortunate that there wasn't more time during the sessions for questions though often during this event the coffee/tea break is used as to talk to some of the speakers and discuss ideas.

That being said, your frustrated tweets, blog postings and interactions during the session seem very counter productive and unnecessarily alienating. I don't know how this encourages an open dialogue or works towards building a positive community space.

Leigh Blackall said...

@Anonymous I'm sorry about that, and I can certainly see how you and others would feel that way. Its very disheartening to hear that I have already alienated myself in my local network, needless to say though - I am experienced with controversy like this, but not necessarily better at handling it.

I can only guess that your unwillingness to be identified is a result of that alienation you describe. Thank you for at least coming in and pointing that out. I suppose my only response would be.. had there been time for collective discussion (as apposed to smaller groups around the tea and cakes) that we might have come to know each other better in terms of the issues raised. Over even more time, such as a few more Gaggles and blog comments, you might see less reason to be defensive or offended by me, and I will find ways to better express my concerns.

Parag Shah said...

Even though I am a firm believer of open networked learning, some thoughts (and doubts) do come to my mind for some fields of study.

For example, how would networked learning work in medicine? I am sure many sincere students can be good doctors by learning the networked way, but the problem is, this may also let a lot of quacks in. How do we filter them?

Even though traditional assessment and teaching methods are not the best, they do perform a good job of filtering out those who do not have enough knowledge in their field of study. I am sure there are exceptions, but this has worked for the most part.

At the same time there are fields of study where open networked learning is well suited. In such fields even if a charlatan did get into the community of practice, the community would detect such a person, and either help them get a better grasp of the concepts involved, or filter them out of the system.

This is purely a subjective observation, but I feel that networked learning can do a wonderful job at educating sincere people who want to lead constructive lives, whereas the traditional method does a better job at filtering out the charlatans. So the traditional system ensures at least an acceptable mediocrity.

Andy Coverdale said...

I often feel the social and cultural aspects of Higher Education are often overlooked in these debates.

Weller and Dalziel (2007) identify four key functions of Universities:

• a near-monopoly on formal accreditation
• the provision of formal or structured learning frameworks (i.e. curricula)
• the convenience to students in providing access to resources and educators
• the sociability of the student cohort – learning the same things at the same time in the same place

Social media and open access resources are increasingly demonstrating the potential to challenge these, yet we tend to forget the significance of the last function. No matter how effectively structured and sociable learning networks outside institutional frameworks may become, the deeply embedded socio-cultural practice (in Western societies anyway) of going to university – which most middle class, and increasingly lower class, students see as a rite of passage – shouldn't be ignored.

Weller, M. J. & Dalziel, J. (2007). On-line Teaching: Suggestions for Instructors. In L. Cameron & J. Dalziel (Eds.), 2nd International LAMS Conference 2007: Practical Benefits of Learning Design, 26 November. Sydney: LAMS Foundation (76-82).