George Siemens wrote a very thoughtful post on his current thinking about education technology called “Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else.” Siemens has been very important in shaping my own thought on education technology and online learning. His work has not just shaped my thinking but how I work. The 2008 MOOC “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” was a seminal turning point in the field of education. I think my career has paralleled his in many ways: I too have been involved in education technology since the late 90s. I worked on online writing labs, MOOs, MUDs, early online tutor training sites, etc. on up to my work today. All the while I think I would also share his motivation when he writes:
Most of my career has involved using technology to help people get better access to learning resources and materials, to better connect with each other, to better access formal education, and to improve their teaching practices and pedagogies.
That is why I do what I do – to provide increased access for others to education. It is a simple mission. I think that is the most important thing that I can do – it is why I am also involved in open eduction, open education resources, and open textbooks.
George’s “Adios” seems to come from a pessimism about the current state of education technology which he feels “is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills.” I don’t see this happening in technology – I see this in the implementation of technology. He gives examples of bad implementations when he writes about Udacity:
So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.
I appreciate his frustration with this kind of “education” – Udacity and xMOOCs have set online education back 20 years. It is difficult to watch all of this money and effort go into projects that we who have been involved in ed tech for so long know will fail. I think the claims and hype are the disturbing part. We need to evolve past that hype and the promise of education automation and industrialization which has been the bane of education for the last 150 years.
Technology can do a lot of things. Some of those things are nonsensical or harmful. Some of those things are very useful. Technology can improve education and make it more human only to the extent that it facilitates our humanity. If technology is being used to create community, enable communication and engagement with one another, then it helps education. These are the kinds of connections that I found meaningful about Connectivism. And interestingly enough, communication and engagement are not on George’s framework list:
- Does the technology foster creativity and personal expression?
- Does the technology develop the learner and contribute to her formation as a person?
- Is the technology fun and engaging?
- Does the technology have the human teacher and/or peer learners at the centre?
- Does the technology consider the whole learner?
That list of his five elements are important but the list seems to be missing the student-student engagement, the community, where real learning takes place. From what I know of his previous work, I know that he does not intentionally leave this out, but it is interesting that the main reasons that the xMOOCs failed were from a lack of that level of engagement and student support. And all of that failure was completely predictable by anyone who had even a casual eye on the research that has been going on for the last 20 years around online education and what makes it successful. My frustration as a teacher and practitioner is that I have participated in successful courses and programs, developed successful programs and courses, and there is little interest in that work because what it takes is old-fashioned hard work, talking to people, and creating community. It is terribly old-fashioned. I first came across the ideas around online learning as community if the work of Palloff and Pratt, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace from 1999. The act of building those kinds of connections as education was reinforced by the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes around Connectivism, which ironically, the one Article of Faith I had the hardest time getting around is “knowledge may reside in non-human appliances.”
We have been tool users for at least 2 million years when Homo Habilis started using simple flints. Using tools is part of the fabric of who we are. Learning to use them thoughtfully, purposefully, and with considered intention is what will take us to the next level. I look forward to following George’s evolution because I think it will, as always, invigorate and inform the discussions about what we are doing.