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Walking the Virtuous Middle Way

Stephen writes:

“You can help people find their way around a city, or you can tell them where to go – and if you don’t appreciate the difference between those, then you won’t appreciate the difference between what we’re doing and what Wiley wants us to think we’re doing.”

I think everyone understands the difference Stephen is highlighting. What I think he is missing is that people generally seek out someone to ask directions of when they want to go somewhere specific. Have you ever seen someone pull over, flag down a pedestrian, and ask, “can you tell me how to get around the city?” More often than not people seek out help when they have a specific need. And when you need to know where the hospital is, or where the theater is, or where the airport is, you don’t want a two hour treatise on the virtues of the city and how to get around it.

When someone hears that there’s an online course (that’s the OC in MOOC, you know) on connectivism, they are only likely to join if they think they’re going to “deepen their understanding of connectivism.” Why else would you join such a course? And if you’re not trying to provide people with a more efficient path to deepening their understanding of connectivism, why would you organize a course on the topic? The idea that the people who organize (aka structure) these courses don’t have specific learning outcomes in mind is just silly.

Now, sometimes there’s not anything specific you’re looking for in the city. You’re just interested in getting to know the place. In these cases a tour book or a knowledgeable friend with a day to kill are what you’re looking for. Or, you could take the completely unstructured, unguided, pure discovery learning approach. And you can get to know a city this way. But again, this approach is extremely inefficient. There are likely many things in town you would have preferred to see (compared to what you actually saw) in your limited time if you had only known about them. Your experience will be greatly improved by a guide with relevant expertise. We are learning that even what we once thought were true self-organizing systems rely heavily on “key, well-informed individuals altering their behavior according to their prior experience” to increase their efficiency.

I recently wrote that “MOOCs are just like a hammer, screwdriver, or any other tool. There are cases when they’re exactly the tool you want, and other cases where you probably shouldn’t try to use one. Understanding those boundary conditions is important if you want to practice responsibly.” When people want to simply “explore the city”, MOOCs seem like an appropriate educational methodology. But when people want to learn something specific in a reasonable period of time, other approaches will be more appropriate. That’s my primary claim here. Anyone who thinks a single instructional approach (even if it is an “unschooling” approach like MOOCs) is the best way to teach every person in every context all content has passed beyond reason into zealousness.

5 replies on “Walking the Virtuous Middle Way”

Powerful arguments. Nonetheless, i agree with Stephen on differentiating the various abiliites of the town ‘walker”. I think all things said and done the strength of connectivism cannot be overemphasised. Personally i have been gained a lot from Stephen Downes and the MOOC- i am a product of connectivism.

connectivity is vital.I am in Kenya and very interested on issues of e-learning.I suggest if time allows,that ideas on implementation,challenges and prospects of e-learning,be shared to assist those in developing countries kick off in this area.

David, I just started studying self-organizing systems and emergence from reading this blog post and reading about your work as you’ve written about for the change11 MOOC. I’m finding it extremely interesting and relevant to my own passion for creating and contributing to community-centered learning. But they are difficult concepts to grasp. As pertains to this post, why do “key, well-informed individuals” make a system not self-organizing? Aren’t they still just individual agents in the network of information and communication exchange? Do varying levels of power between individual agents change the nature of the system to something not self-organizing?

I’m not sure if the example of someone trying to get to a hospital is analogous to a learner with a specific need. The hospital has a fixed location and boundary but knowledge doesn’t, especially in our time when our understanding about the world and the world itself are constantly changing. Learning conditions that motivate learners to locate networks and navigate in them seem appropriate in knowledge acquisition.

Regarding your point that even an open course like MOOC has outcomes, which is “to provide people with a more efficient path to deepening their understanding of connectivism”, I’m not sure learning how to recognize learning networks and navigate through them is the outcome for this or that particular course. Rather it is a precondition for acquiring knowledge in an open and connected world. And this is an idea that teaching or learning shouldn’t contradict. Pre-defining outcomes for learners or placing learning in a specific network, however, can set limits on learning.

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