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Students, measurement, & connection: Book Club Post 4

Time for another Summer Book Club post! What? You say summer is over?? I am keen to hold on to every ray of sunshine, and as a slow reader, I’ll be posting well into November. This post covers pages 240-347 of Stephen Downes’ (free) ebook: Toward Personal Learning. I wrote about the earlier sections in these posts:

My method in writing these posts is to gather the bits that stop me in my tracks, make me think, write them down, and then connect the dots around them. Three themes emerged for me in these hundred pages: the students, the measurements that sometimes bind (as in hold fast, like hands tied) us, and connections. Let’s start with the students.

The students:

Downes does a very good job of turning the authoritarian perspective on its head. Here he clarifies a student view on the purpose of formal education:

“as a means of obtaining an education, and establishing a track record, rather than as courses leading to credentials… The democratization of learning… it will be students themselves who decide whether to participate, and whether these courses are worth their time.” (p248, bold added)

This is so important. For me, as a teacher, it would be a dangerous thing to slip into a path where I thought I knew what was best. I am not denying  a need to learn, nor the need for direction, but that individuality is paramount and if I, for a minute, forget that my students are individuals, then it all goes sour. I agree that there needs to be an:

“unbundling of this traditional course design” (p256)

to facilitate creative engagement that is relevant to the discipline. You can’t learn music from books alone. You can’t learn teaching by sitting neatly in rows. You can’t learn to change a tire until you have done it, no matter how clear the instructions are.

So there is a balance, there has to be a breadth and wealth of potential information – Yes, I am thinking of a personal network where someone can reach out infinitely in all directions and connect. – as well as a balance of application. And none of this is any good if there is not

“cognitive access” (p255).

I can give my students all the stuff in the world, all the opportunities, but if they don’t understand how to use it, how to access and facilitate their learning, their connections, their progress, then it is not much use.

Downes talks about why people take MOOCs, and his reasons also translate to the wider question of why people learn. He says they:

“learning in order to know, and second, learning in order to do.” (p258)

I think you could add that people learn because they love it, and don’t particularly yet realise if it is for any other reason (even though it often is either to know or to do, but sometimes it is just to dance with the concepts).

On measurement:

I love this first quote. It speaks for itself:

“‘Teaching’ is a service. An ‘education resource’ is a commodity. But ‘education’ and ‘learning’ are neither commodities nor services. You can’t buy a ‘temporary PhD in Astrophysics’ the way you can buy a temporary tattoo.” (p270)

It leads us nicely into an excellent discussion of value and metrics (all of p270 is golden). It is so sad that the argument, so rationally and simply made, that

“A bank or a business can be judged to be ‘successful’ by economic metrics, but I think few would judge the ‘success’ of Harvard or MIT in their respective communities in terms of the money they make or even the earnings people accrue from having attended them. When I visited Harvard, I went there to soak in the weightless atmosphere, not to count bricks.”

Yet it seems these stats are at the forefront of how judgements are made these days.

He goes on to discuss another popular statistic, completion rates. His discussion is in relation to MOOCs and specifically how we conceive of value. The argument is that it is not a relevant metric:

“And so here’s the response to completion rates: nobody ever complained that newspapers have low completion rates. And yet no doubt they do, probably far below the ‘abysmal’ MOOC completion rates (especially if you include real estate listings and classified ads). People don’t read a newspaper to complete it, they read a newspaper to find out what’s important.”

Blamo! I love this and as a teacher I am going to put this on my door – to remind myself that I better make my teaching, the time I spend with the students, FULL of the important stuff. It circles back to the beginning quote where students will decide if it’s worth their time. I hope they decide it is.

On connection, transfer, and access:

On Connectivists:

“They see a person learning as a self-managed and autonomous seeker of opportunities to create, interact and have new experiences, where learning is not the accumulation of more and more facts or memories, but the ongoing development of a richer and richer neural tapestry.

They understand that the essential purpose of education and teaching is not to produce some set of core knowledge in a person, but rather to create the conditions in which a person can become an accomplished and motivated learner in their own right.” (p290)

These themes are recurring throughout the book, and the reinforcement is welcome. We all need to be reminded that each person is learning, each student is on their own path. Each year actually is new and the possible connections, technologies, situations, and yes, even content evolve and change. Teaching can never be simply reading the same text year on year.

It sounds so basic, but teachers can calcify. We can avoid this by using our muscles and encouraging reflective, growing practices within our own learning.

Drawing on this, in the book there are several little sections by other people. There was a very interesting little article by Darren Gergle on ‘Understanding and bridging the language gap on Wikipedia’ where he explains how there is only ‘1% of conceptual overlap across 25 languages’ in articles. This blew my mind. I knew there were very different translations of articles that take into account cultural viewpoints, and sometimes have very different versions of events. He wasn’t talking about this, but something more fundamental. Basically what is described in one language is not ‘the same’ even on a concept level as in an article in another language. He gave a simple example using common languages:

“So, eg., we have a page in English on ‘river’, which links to a German page, which links back to ‘canal’, which links to a French page, which links back to ‘canyon’.” (p308)

For me this highlights the need to communicate even more, and to supplement our words with other formats of explanation. I don’t know really how or what to do about it, but it makes me aware of bubbles in bubbles where communication and perspective are concerned.

And then the sections that made me think about how to burst the bubbles:

“We live in a world in which most social and institutional structures are designed in such a way as to disproportionately help those who already have an advantage.” (p321)

I had a thought when reading this. This quote comes at the end of a straight-to-the-point critique of a piece of writing by someone who appears to have not done their homework when putting together their article… that aside, when I read this sentence I thought – of course they are. It is easier that way. In order to help the people who do not have an advantage it takes effort. In fact it takes more effort than you get in return, at least in the short term. If someone is disadvantaged, there will be a need to gain access, or gain skills, or gain funds, or gain something – that’s where the initial extra effort comes in. Then there is the ‘understood’ effort of teaching learning, or whatever the course involves. Long term, the rewards can be disproportionately wonderful, but that initial investment of time, effort, outreach, and care is big- and to make that a priority, institutions have to realise they can’t, and shouldn’t try to balance the books in terms of outlay and instant recuperation – if that’s the case, the whole process goes wrong before it begins. If there is a longer view, then there is hope to invest in real value and make a difference.

The whole section ends on a very heavy note about institutional agenda, and no, it isn’t all institutions, but unfortunately money is at the centre of many things.

“The very nature of the institution restricts access, is focused on profit, and is designed contrary to network principles. These are values contrary to the nature and intent of learning.” p338

After that I must stop. I found myself quiet, subdued, and asking in my head: how can I teach people to look out, to connect, while working from systems bound by money when the individuals may have none. Students do have it tough. Earning while studying, working for rent, hoping to get on a property ladder, hoping, hoping, and I don’t want money to be part of it. (yes, I am an idealist hippie) It is a dichotomy, it is tricky, and connection is where it is at- we are greater together than alone. I don’t have the right words for this one, but it’s big. I better go play my cello.

I realise it isn’t summer, and it’s a pretty small book club, but please do join in with a comment, post, or even with a handwritten snail-mail letter if you feel inspired to read some of Stephen’s book. Next post (for me) is due by the end of the month, covering up to p478.

Featured image by James Barkman CC By-ND was chosen for the perspective, and connections within the world portrayed within the ‘walls’ and how those connections transcend those walls.


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