Monthly Archives: January 2014

#FutureEd Peer Assessment 1 – Unlearning What it Means to be Learned

I’m not sure if it was reading encyclopedias for fun, or treating Jeopardy as appointment television each afternoon, or the years on the school quiz bowl team, but as a teenager I was quite certain that you could identify an intelligent and educated person when you saw them because they knew a lot of stuff. I also knew that factual accuracy was hugely important.  I just couldn’t understand why, one day when I patiently corrected an acquaintance that every big, fancy church was not a cathedral and that you had to have a bishop in residence, he promptly told me off.

It was in college that I started to unlearn the proposition that factual knowledge = intelligence and education.  I noticed that the adjuncts with Master’s Degrees, not the tenured Ph.D.’s were the instructors that had the best rapport with students and seem to inspire the most learning. But surely all those Ph.D’s knew more, didn’t they?  If being learned didn’t mean knowing stuff, what did that mean for me?  For a very long time , being the person who knew lots of stuff had  been a huge part of my identity. I took being called a walking reference book as a compliment. I won at Trivial Pursuit against a room full of Mensans.  Then came the absolute tipping point … Google.  The game was up.  With a search query , anybody could know stuff on demand with no expensive book habit required.

I still remember a moment when I started to understand what the alternative was.  I was in a music methods class and the professor was discussing the folk ballad “The Twa Sisters”.   I mentioned how it was like _________ (I can’t remember what, but whatever it was was non musical.) After class she stopped me and told me it was an intelligent comment, because it had made a connection between two not obviously related things. Maybe being educated was about being able to put facts and ideas together, like puzzle pieces. (Please note that I still can’t stand jigsaw puzzles.  They don’t lend themselves to brute-force analysis.)

This realization has, slowly but surely, changed how I teach.  In my first few years, I still clung to “objective” tests because I lacked the confidence and energy to defend a “subjective” grade on a writing sample.  I have slowly but surely moved the other direction, and have now reached the point where the graded multiple choice exam has disappeared from my course design. That unlearning also helped push me towards things like #FutureEd.  Most of our educational habits teach students something (explicit memorized knowledge) that is much less important than it used to be.  The questions I am left with are, “What learning tools help to create what I now understand a learned person to be in the same way a pile of encyclopedias and a Jeopardy habit helped create the knowledge-filled person I thought  a learned person was?”  “How do we make those tools as available to the world as Google is?”

Rhizo14 Week 3: Uncertainty and Goals

This week, Dave asks “How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite, achievable goal?”  This is a fascinating question, which Dave has already answered. 🙂  The last step of Dave’s plan for success in a MOOC is “focus”, the point at which you decide what your goal is for the course.  There’s always a goal, it’s just a matter of where that goal comes from.

This doesn’t just happen in formal learning environments.  When most people learn to drive they have the goal of being able to get a driving license.  A smaller group have the more ambitious goal of getting a CDL so they can be a chauffeur or a trucker.  Very few have the goal to make it to NASCAR or Formula 1.  The learner always decides what their goal is.  They may or may not make that learning goal explicit.  Only when  an external credential is sought does the adult learner cede some of that control. In order to earn a driving licence, one must learn the traffic laws/highway code/etc. well enough to pass the written test.

This brings me back to a point I made in week 1.  Learning is very open, free, and flexible.  Most of the issues of power, dependence, and the like arise when learning is joined at the hip to credential seeking.  Ergo most of these issues are less about learning per se and more about learning’s role in the credential seeking process. Alas this is probably inevitable.  I imagine the number of people willing to pay to learn would be much smaller if there were not a promise of economic benefit.

What Education Should Be

Among the questions of the week in “The History and Future of Higher Education”  (Cathy Davidson’s MOOC at Coursera) is “What kind of education do you believe in?”  There are so many ways to answer that question that it quickly becomes daunting.  Nevertheless, I’ll start with the most controversial thought first and go from there, but before I get started, let me explain why this post isn’t in the Coursera forums.  One of the items in A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age is “The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property.” I’m asserting that right by not putting my discussion posts in the forum at Coursera.  Instead they will be here on my blog that I administer.  If Dr.  Davidson and her colleagues were more serious about this right, they’d consider setting up an RSS aggregator as DS106 has done.

1.  Education should care less about sorting.  The process of dividing the A’s from the B’s from the C’s, while it may be nice for HR departments sorting through candidates, doesn’t seem to me to help people learn.  I believe in education that puts learning first, assessment second (has the learner met the objectives) and sorting last.  If I could snap my fingers and change one thing, all education would be pass/fail.I think this would also help build community, because you’d never be trying to get a higher grade than the person next to you.

2. Education should value process over content (most of the time) .You can’t hold a conversation in a language if you have to look up every word, and I don’t want the paramedic taking several minutes to look up things while I’m in a medical emergency, but in many other cases, we don’t need as much instant recall as we once did.  Unfortunately, far too many educational experiences are still designed as if we do.Oddly enough, this is something the oft-criticized “menu” of general education curricula understands.  One can learn a scientific way of thinking from studying biology or chemistry or physics, for example.  Keith Devlin from Stanford recently wrote this about MOOCs

What MOOCs and other forms of online education have already been shown to be capable of – and it is huge – is provide lifelong educational upgrades at very low cost.


But based on what I and many of my fellow MOOC pioneers have so far discovered – or at least have started to strongly suspect – the initial “firmware” required to facilitate those continual “software” upgrades is not going to get any cheaper. Because the firmware installation is labor intensive and hence not scalable – indeed, for continuously-learning-intensive Twenty-First Century life, not effectively scalable beyond 25-student class-size limits.

I like his notion that one of the primary purposes of traditional higher education is to engender the habits that allow a person to learn from a MOOC environment.

3.  Education should be learner-directed.  Ideally, learners should be  able to pick projects from within broad areas that match their interests and passions.  They’ll stick with them not because of grit but because they care about what they are doing. Some of my thinking on this issue is informed by my parallel participation in Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning Course hubbed at P2PU.  It’s probably because of spending a couple of weeks in the #rhizo14 cohort that My first impression of #FutureEd was how restrictive it felt by comparison.  One could argue that #rhizo14 is more of a curated discussion than a course, to be fair.

I wrestle with the suggestions I’ve just made because I recognize the value of some things I’ve learned that I didn’t want to learn at the time.  For example, an “Intro to Literary Theory” graduate seminar, by making me read Freud and Derrida, helped me realize how much the reader matters to the experience of reading and understanding a text.  I’m not sure how to balance the benefits of exposing learners to ideas they didn’t know about and the benefits of learner agency.

A New Date Format or “Where did those zeros come from?”

For some time I have been a fan of the Long Now Foundation, a group dedicated to the encouragement of long term thinking.  This may owe a least a bit to the fact that  Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, one of my favorite novels, was inspired by Long Now’s 10000 year clock project.

One of the more idiosyncratic things they do at Long Now is using five-digit dates,  They hope that seeing that leading zero will help people think of a future when the first digit of years is some other numeral.  As a small virtual shout-out, I’ve tweaked my WordPress template to use five-digit dates.  I will acknowledge that it may not fit well visually with the runes and Old English title of my blog, however.

Rhizo14 Week 2: Independence and Learner Motivation

This week, Dave has challenged us to create a model of enforced independence. Isn’t this at least a bit oxymoronic.  If you have to enforce independence , is the learner truly independent, or is she dependent on you for her (forced) independence?

My other thought stems from a comment Dave made in the week 2 video in which he presented learning to drive or cook as models of the kind of learner independence we are seeking.  Another thing that sets these apart is motivation. If one is not wealthy enough to eat out all the time, cooking is a necessary skill if one wishes to eat.  In many (but not all) places driving is a necessary skill for those wishing to participate in modern society by holding down a job or having a social life.  Necessity does a wonderful job of enforcing learner independence.  Learners are also quite good in many cases at being independent when they are learning what they want to learn.

What if neither of those is the case?  Can you effectively enforce learner independence absent strong internal motivation on the learner’s part?  These questions present themselves in more formal contexts.  For too many students, courses outside their major are hoops to be jumped through.  When the learner goal is to survive/pass with minimal effort, the sorts of behaviors characteristic of independent learning (iteration, seeking out sources)  are perceived as a waste of time.  If you then expect them to be independent and enforce consequences on those who aren’t, you get called in to explain why your students aren’t succeeding.

I suppose the broader question is, “Can a rhizomatic model work with students for whom the learning experience is just a requirement?”

Untangling Possession in Cornish

My language project this year is Cornish (Kernowek, Kernewek),

I’m using Desky Kernowek by Nicholas Williams as my primary text. Having reached all of lesson two, I’m perplexed by possessives.

Desky Kernowek asserts that both of the following are correct usage for ‘the boy’s dog’.

ki an maw OR an ki a’n maw

Williams cites a phrase from Jowan Chy an Hordth
an ôst an tshei
and suggests that this would render as an ost a’n chy in modern spelling and is an example of the second construction.

This article has a different take, arguing that
1. an ôst an tshei is an example of English usage being absorbed into late Cornish
2. phrases like ki a’n maw indicate that the possessed item is in definite (a boy’s dog [ Ed. A dog belonging to the boy] rather than the boy’s dog)

Since Cornish was effectively extinct, the usual arbiter of grammaticalness is texts from the period when Cornish was a spoken language. Williams includes textual examples in each lesson, but his lesson two examples don’t include the an____a’n______ construction. “Avoiding Overdetermination” doesn’t appear to include source text citations,

My two questions given all that are…..

1. Is there any source text support for “Avoiding Overdetermination”‘s claim that _____a’n_______ indicates an indefinite possessed noun?

2. If you agree with Williams , are an ________ a’n__________ and _________an_________ interchangeable, or are there instances where one is preferable to the other?

Cheating vs. Cheating

As I was making my way through the #rhizo14 stream on Twitter today, I came across a post from Apostolos Koutropoulos. In it he compares learning to gaming, particularly addressing walkthroughs and cheats.

I mentioned in my last post that I think “cheating” is a very loaded word in education, normally associated with breaches of academic integrity, and I found Dave’s instructions to “use cheating as a weapon” a bit alarming.  Today’s mini-epiphany (good thing Epiphany season is extra long this year)  was that Dave, I think, means cheating in the sense of video game cheating/walkthroughs, where the cheating is how you learn to play the game, as opposed to relying on minimally guided trial and error.

If your formal education were a video game, final exams are boss battles.  The point of the “game” is to beat the bosses, and you cheapen the experience if you hand the controller to your more accomplished roommate when the boss battle happens.The other parts of the game/course are the learning parts, where you acquire the knowledge you need to beat the bosses.  Going through the game as designed, and figuring out the puzzles, is a bit like taking a very tightly designed course where you are instructed as to what to do and when to do it, although one hopes the instructor is more helpful than many video games.

The more open approach to learning is akin to using cheats and walkthroughs.  You as the seek out the artefacts and experiences that best prepare you for the big challenges (boss battle/research paper/final exam/ etc.)

Conflict occurs when a learner who wishes to find her own way through the material ends up in a course where the path is carefully laid out and the instructor has made following that particular path essential to the final grade, probably as a way to compel students to follow the designed learning path.  A learning experience that is designed to allow and encourage learner autonomy can end up not providing enough support and prodding for those used to being told what to do. Since the autonomous learner can usually follow precise directions when necessary, even if they don’t like it, we err on the side of explicit design.

Is there a way to design a learning experience so that it can tell students who need lots of direction what to do and when while allowing those who seek their own path to do that if that learning experience must simultaneously assess what knowledge and skills the learners have acquired?

Rhizomatic Learning Week 1 – First Thoughts on Cheating as Learning

Although I shouldn’t, I’ve gotten sucked into Dave Cormier’s MOOC on Rhizomatic Learning.  . As i watched the intro video , two statements jumped out:

1. “A story about something that’s not true is just as valuable as one that is.”

I cringed at first, then I thought for a moment about the difference between truth (in a more philosophical sense) and accuracy (in a more journalistic sense).  I suppose this is what myth is about.  Myth is full of stories that may not be accurate (x happened), but are true (in the way that fables are true).

Perhaps that’s a way in which the sciences are different from other endeavors (says the music and language major).  In science, truths must be grounded in observable fact.  In art and literature…..not so much.

2.  “Use cheating as a weapon.”

Here we have a semantic landmine.  Many educators I know would agree that cheating is a weapon, one used by lazy students who care more about the grade they get than what they learn.  This points me to the idea that cheating isn’t really about learning, it’s about assessment. Is getting from the answer from reading the assigned text cheating?

Cheating has  meaning in education because traditional educational models combine the facilitation of learning with the assessment of something (in deference to Dave I won’t say the assessment of learning) and the reporting to external stakeholders that learners have acquired certain competencies.  Toe be able to make that declaration in good faith (via the awarding of a badge, certification or degree), we must assert that Student A has demonstrated competency B.  Very often when we ask students to find answers, we are actually hoping that they document competence in the research process, particularly things such as synthesis and analysis.

So, the key to using “cheating” as a weapon is clarifying the difference between learning and assessment and that they perhaps operate with different rule sets.