27 November 2012

MOOCs, what about them?

MOOCs have caught the public eye and not just those of education professionals. The reason is that potentially they change the game of higher education. Not just because some claim they will (as does Sebastian Thrun of Udacity) but also because many fear or predict they will. So, engaging in ongoing debate about them is necessary, to steer their future development and to be prepared for their potential influence on higher education. At present, I am at the ASCILITE 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand, where this morning a 'great debate' was organised about MOOCs. The debate was lively, although it was a pity that the normative ('should MOOCs have a role in HE?') was not sufficiently divorced from the factual ('will MOOCs have a role in future HE?'). I here want to expand a little bit on two remarks I twittered during the debate. They regard the normative aspect of the debate.

cMOOCs aside - the Siemens and Downes kind which embrace networked or connectivist types of learning - the xMOOCs exemplify a development in higher education that mark a landslide. Private companies have always had a role in education and there is nothing wrong with that. However, with xMOOCs for the first time they may end up as helmsmen of higher  education. Sebastian Thrun predicts so much when he says that in five decades or so there's room for 10 universities only, the rest of the market being catered for by venture-capital sponsored companies such as Udacity, Coursera (or more likely, the companies that will have bought them). Is this what we really want? In my view, education in general and higher education in particular is a public good. The goals that it serves are manifold. They include preparing adolescents for the job market, but also educating them to become well-informed citizens who can make judgement calls. A viable democracy needs critical people. And then there is also the goal of helping these adolescents to find out who they are, what really interests them and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I have a hard time believing that for-profit companies would be interested in promoting competencies and skills other than work-related ones. It is not a matter of blaming them for their disinterest in this, it is a matter of us deciding how we want to organise higher education: Run by a private company as a private good or by democratic institutions as a public good?

Second, MOOCs have been hailed as contributing to inclusion. Again, I have a hard time believing that MOOCs run by private companies will see this as their duty (I am still talking xMOOCs of course). They will, but only to the extent that providing courses for free is a means of 'scouting out' the really talented, almost as talented athletes, soccer players, etc.  (Cf On two kinds of MOOCs) True as this may be, you could still argue that a great many people in developing countries would still have access to high quality, higher education courses, which they otherwise would never have had. Although this is not entirely true - see the Open Educational Resources movement - there is also the issue of cultural imperialism. This will not be much of an issue for AI courses or courses learning to program with Python, but things start to change with courses on social network analysis and certainly with courses on social issues and culture. The developed world should make sure not to make the mistakes it has been making consistently all over again.

In conclusion, I think we should continue experimenting with MOOCs but at the same time we should be very suspicious of what Coursera and Udacity are doing with them lest in a year's time we academics have to admit we were lured into doing something we in retrospect had absolutely wanted to avoid. For those of you who want to read up a little bit on MOOCs, you may find a collection of 6 months of scoops here.

Note added January 3, 2013. There was an annoying mistake in the original text. In the final sentence of the one but final paragraph, it said developing world, which should have been developed. I have corrected this now.

4 November 2012

About 'setting up' a learning network

Kinds of learning networks 

Learning networks come in a variety of different kinds. First, there is the personal variety, the personal learning network or PLN, which the individual person sets up and maintains, and provides him or her with  a view of or a lens on the outside world (cf. Rajagopal et al., 2012). In social network analysis, this is called an ego network for the obvious reason that the individual is taken as the network's focal point. Although a PLN is a collection of people with whom (or with their content) you want to interact, access to them is mediated through tools. Examples are the well-known social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, or more specialised social media, tied to your specific needs. An apt example of a specialised tool for a researchers is Mendeley, which is used for keeping your references to the scholarly literature in order, but is also very good at organising groups - private or public - of people around subsets thereof. I, for example, maintain such a group on networked learning. It is used not only for broadcasting relevant literature I found, but people also post requests for participation in a survey on networked learning or ask for help choosing an appropriate platform for hosting their portal.

The second kind of learning network takes the opposite perspective, not from the inside out but from the outside in. They are organisational learning networks and they try to cater for a more or less well delineated group of users. I call this variety outside-in, because, typically, they are set up to draw users into the network and then use all sorts of tools to connect them with each other. Not everybody gets connected to everybody else, of course, but only those who may have something meaningful to tell each other. Another way to put this, is to say that weak links are turned into strong links, in reference to the now famous papers by Granovetter (1973, 1983) and discussed by, for example, by Chris Jones et al. (2008) in the context of learning networks (see the Mendeley group mentioned for details). I will not go into this topic any further, what are desirable patterns of connections and how to make sure these emerge is a large research area of its own.

Organisational networks come in different kinds, depending on the nature of the organisation that acts as the network's sponsor. To mention a few cases:

  • an association of public libraries in the Netherlands wants to involve its employees in thinking about the change of their business, from lending books to being an information broker
  • a school wants to provide a social portal to its students, rather than just a VLE
  • a company wants to involve its customers in, say, product design (cf. Von Hippel, 2005
  • a group of people who share a specific interest, say the linux operating system, want to share knowledge on the topic of their interest.

In  all these cases, there is a  portal that acts as the focal point. The portal acts as the lens on the network and those who visit it often have to register before they can join in. Such portals are managed, certainly in the case of organisations that have a vested interest in the network's existence (the first three cases), but they may also self-organise as often is the case with 'user groups' (with self-organise I do not intend to say that an organisation somehow magically emerges, but rather that there is no hierarchical chain of command at the outset, although one may arise on the users own initiative, cf. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source, 2004 for a further explanation of this point).

Does it make sense to set up your own portal?

It is these portals I want to say a little more about here. It seems that a dedicated portal for organisational (learning) networks is the only way to go, but a blogpost by Kirsty Newman has invigorated the doubts I already had. Although Kirsty talks about portals in general, what she says applies to organisational learning networks as well. She gives four reasons for why you should think twice about setting up a portal. The first question is whether the lack of a portal is the problem. In my own experience with EU-funded research projects, routinely portals are set up for knowledge sharing and the EU officials even demand that the portal is maintained for some time after the funding stops. But typically, such portals do not work as there is nobody out there who has a demand for it. Only if nothing exists and there is a genuine demand, it makes sense to add yet another portal to the welter of existing ones. The public library example seems to be a an example of where it is needed, at least so far.

An example where it did not make sense was a large international organisation which needed to disseminate knowledge about operating particular medical equipment to developing countries. They developed courses for this purpose. Not only did they not want to consider using existing materials that were available on for example iTunesU, Wikipedia and Wikiversity ('my boss insists I write this myself and be recognisable as its author'), they did not want to use those platforms for disseminating their home-grown course materials either. Their superiors required them to set up their own portal, even if it were a VLE, because only then the organisation's involvement would stand out sufficiently. This example also speaks to the second question Kirsty is raising: is someone else already doing it? Clearly in this case, someone else is, and it would make sense to consider what are first priorities (disseminating effectively) and what aren't (being easily identifiable as the sponsoring organisation).

Kirsty's third question is whether the portal could just as well be hosted on Facebook. This is a variation of the second question, but draws attention to specific social networking sites. I would be reluctant to host a learning network on Facebook, not so much for its possible lack of functionality, but more for its miserable track record in privacy matters. LinkedIn would be another option, although if you are principled about privacy, it has the same problem that learner's private data are entrusted with a company that has advertising in mind, not the learner's best interest. But students at least don't seem to mind. At my own university a Facebook group that psychology students run themselves attracts much more traffic than does the official VLE. If anything proves this third point, this does.

Finally, Kirsty wonders whose one-stop shop the portal really is. "A common argument is that setting up a one-stop shop will save people time since they only need to go one place to find everything they need", Kirsty says. The Facebook case just mentioned illustrates the attractiveness of a one-stop shop, but Kirsty's argument is that the assumption that many people have overlapping shopping list simply isn't true. The case of the EU research project portals illustrates this point quite well (Kirsty gives other examples). The participants in the projects do, but the rest of the world needs to be convinced that the research reported solves some genuine issues they have (and not: are supposed to have in the eyes of the project). A strategy that ensures that the research results somehow enter into people's personal learning networks would make a lot more sense. This applies more widely, to lifelong learners in general, and the courses that educational institutions want to interest in them. The problem is that it is rather difficult to target those unknown 'customers'. But, of course, setting up a portal only seemingly avoids that problem. What it takes in either case is that you as a disseminator take a genuine interest in those 'customers', make the efforts to chart them out and approach them on their terms.

In conclusion then, whenever the idea comes up to set up a dedicated portal to serve an organisation's needs, ask yourself whether a portal is the right way to go. It could, as with the libraries, but likely, more often than we care to admit, it does not. In the latter case, look for ways to engage with people's personal learning networks, try to get the individuals to interact with each other on your topic and have them build mutual links. Even though from the individual's vantage point we are still are still dealing with a set of ego networks, the collective of those ego networks qualifies as an organisational learning network. It only is a little harder to put your finger on it.

Acknowledgement: thanks to @SebSchmoller for twee alerting me to Kirsty's blog post via a Tweet.

5 October 2012

How to improve teaching with technologies?

Today, I had the privilege to participate in a seminar by Katie Vale. The seminar was organised at the Caledonian Academy in the context of the Technology Enhanced Professional Learning Special Interest Group (TEPL-SIG). At Harvard, Katie heads the Academic Technology Services unit, a group of some 13 people who reach out to faculty and help them improve the quality of their courses. 13 may sound like a small number, and it is, but faculty are supported through direct funds and to incentivise them there is donation money available as well, effectively making the budget that is available for improving the teaching through technology much larger than a group of 13 suggests.

Katie first discussed several projects that she and her team have been involved in over the last years. Although the projects themselves were all interesting in their own right, it was the rubrics under which they were discussed that caught my attention. In terms of the classification that Knud Illeris makes in his book How we learn, they were all labels for specific kinds of learning environments:
  1. direct instruction environments, i.e. ordinary lecture theatre teaching enhanced with clickers or other 'learner catalysts'
  2. cooperative learning environments, enhanced by for instance websites or collaborative annotating suits
  3. environments for mastery learning, supported by for example interactive storyboards
  4. environments for (authentic) role play,  such as case studies and Second Life
  5. environments for learning to think inductively, consisting of for instance mathematical simulation software and supported by dataverse software for publishing and sharing research data
  6. environments for exploratory learning, such as virtual and augmented reality environments, simulations, games
  7. environments for learning by doing, supported by facilities for peer tutoring, ePortfolios, etc.
  8. environments for inquiry learning, used to teach making inferences from data and working with the scientific method
Although not said so explicitly, the implicit message here is that technologies shape the environments in which we learn. The classification comes in handy to label what these technologies may achieve.

The second part of the talk was about the organisational aspects of putting together these environments, ensuring that faculty works with them and benefits of their use are disseminated. The problems encountered here sounded all very familiar, with the usual dilemmas. What is better, organise academic support at the level of faculties (colleges) or through a central service? Harvard has a central service, although it happens to spend most of its time with the science and arts people. What is better, to let faculty take the lead or should the initiative rest with the educational experts? In the former case innovations that are known from the literature, will be done anew, even innovations that have been shown not to work will be attempted again. In the second case, faculty will have no sense of ownership of their projects. Harvard has chosen for the former solution, prioritising sense of ownership over efficiency. 

Finally, key to all that is done as a service to the Harvard academics is that it is seen as an opportunity to do research. This is perhaps most clear with the Harvard MOOC-experiments in edX. These have been set up as an opportunity to experiment on a large scale with  direct, instruction-based, distance learning. Harvard has decades of experience with distance learning through its extension programme, so is unlikely to go at this with the naivety that some of the other xMOOCers do. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary to acknowledge that, though the dichotomy of xMOOCs and cMOOCs may still be valid,  the xMOOC comes in two varieties: the for-profit ones, such as Udacity and Coursera, that are funded by venture capital; and the-not-for profit ones, that are funded through donations. edX exemplifies this second kind. Making the distinction is necessary when evaluating the value of these xMOOCs. I am anxious to learn how Harvard will evaluate their edX MOOC. 

The slides of Katie's presentation are available, as is the audio

30 September 2012

What's learning? A way to approach the question, in response to Steve Wheeler


The other day, Steve Wheeler in his blog asked the question What is learning? and invited his readers to comment. To explain why he asks this question, he mentions the existing, bewildering variety of learning theories - including Connectivism, discusses that learning needs not be fun necessarily, quotes Dewey in support, and finally wonders if learning has changed in the digital age: We now see the emergence of a number of new theories that attempt to explain learning in the 21st Century. [...] One of the characteristics of learning through digital media is the ability to crowd source content, ideas and artefacts, and to promote and participate in global discussions. That's why I want to ask the questions: What is learning? Does it differ from learning prior to the advent of global communications technology? Does learning now require new explanatory frameworks?

Related to this is a 4-year old blog post by post by George Siemens in his Connectivism blog entitled What is the unique idea in Connectivism? I recently put this on my networked-learning-learning networks Scoop.it pages, because it is still relevant and bears upon Steve's question. In a tweet, Alejandro Armellini (@alejandroa) asked me to expand on the comment I added to the Siemens' Scoop ([The article] is useful not in that it delineates connectivism very precisely, although I like the above definition, but in that it traces its historical roots and list its distinctive characteristics), asking me to expand on the usefulness of George's definition of Connectivism, adding that according to him (Alejandro, that is) in it Knowledge and learning are defined in a debatable way, ditto Connectivism. Finally, just recently I spotted a blog post by Mark Wade, published in May this year, in which he attempts to critique Connectivism, arguing that it isn't genuine learning theory (also Scoop.it-ed here).

These are different question, wondering what learning is, how Connectivism should be defined and whether Connectivism is indeed a learning theory. Yet they are related because they are all about whether and how learning and the theories that acount for it, have changed in the digital age. To Steve Wheeler this seems to be an open question, which prompts him first to investigate learning per se. For George Siemens the question is answered and Connectivism tells us how it has changed; contra Mark Wade, he portrays Connectivism as the learning theory for the digital age. In this post, I will not try to solve the question Steve asks nor will I attempt to analyse whether Connectivism is the learning theory he is looking for. The questions are too difficult, have too many ramifications to be able to answer them in the context of a simple blog post. However, I will make some observations that may help to arrive at an answer.


1 Asking what learning is, presupposes that our everyday 'folk notion' (folk as in folk psychology) of learning somehow maps onto a scientific equivalent, if only we were able to pinpoint its proper definition. This might happen but more likely than not the notion of learning that serves our everyday talk, is not sufficiently precise and specific for scientific discourse. For those who still remember their secondary school physics, the term 'force' in Newtonian mechanics has a very precise definition (Force equals mass times acceleration), which is radically different than the term in, say, 'may the force be with you'. I believe that conceptual clarficiation is a hallmark of scientific progress. Therefore, it may be entirely unproductive to even ask the question 'What is learning?' if we do not try to unwrap it.

2 In a very insightful book called How we learn; learning and non-learning in school and beyond  the Dane Knud Illeris points out that de notion of learning may be understood in at least four different ways (Illeris, 2007, p2-3). Two of those are not so interesting from a theoretical point of view, yet failure to recognise them as ways in which some people understand learning leads to confusion. For some people, then, learning refers to the outcomes of learning processes, to that what is learnt. For some others, learning is equivalent to teaching in the sense that what is taught is learnt. Obviously, these are everyday notions we should ignore as objects of theorising about learning, although the objects of learning and the ways in which we may help people to learn (by teaching them) could of course enter learning theories.

Then there are two other, more interesting ways to understand learning, still according to Illeris. First, learning could refer to the mental processes that go on in someone's head, which lead that individual to show behavioural changes. Second, learning could refer to the interaction processes between individuals and their physical and social environment, processes which in turn lead to the mental processes just referred to. Although both ways to understand learning make sense, they are very different.

3  Scientific concepts and scientific theories grow hand in hand. When theories get more accurate, the concepts that feature in them become defined more precisely but they also become more specific, ignoring parts of the original concept. This suggests that the term 'learning' has different meanings in the different learning theories we have. Indeed, this is what Knud Illeris suggests. Learning qua mental activity belongs to the realm of psychological theorising, with such theories as behaviourism, instructionism, cognitivism, constructivism. Learning qua  interaction process is much less easy to pinpoint in terms of an overarching discipline. But such fields as sociology, social psychology, game theory, network theory, artificial intelligence, computer science seem relevant.

I surmise Steve's question is referring to interaction processes. Even though we have numerous contrasting if not conflicting ideas on how people learn qua mental process, Steve's question is not about that. He wants to now how learning qua  process of interaction with the physical and probably mostly the social environment needs to be accounted for differently in the digital age. I also surmise that Connectivism as introduced by George refers to interaction processes. He says, the interaction processes have changed, and we need to talk networks in order to understand how they have. Whether Connectivism as an account of this new approach that learning qua interaction in digital age demands, stands up to scrutiny is another matter. Mark Wade for that matter says no.

4 Two final remarks. What George refers to as Connectivism, many others refer to as 'networked learning'. Even though details may differ, possibly significantly, the idea that online social networks should and do already play a crucial role in learning qua interaction, has been in the air ever since Peter Goodyear in the late nineties started talking about networked learning.

Second, it is good to notice that there are significant differences between George Siemens's ideas as he phrased them in 2004 and the ideas of Stephen Downes, even though there are similarities too. Stephen recently wrote: Knowledge is, on this theory [of Connectivism], literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience". This seems to touch upon learning qua mental process. Indeed, he seems to want to ignore mental processing entirely, suggesting they are not relevant, epiphenomena of networking at best. I will leave the analysis of this claim for another occasion (or someone else).

Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn; Learning and non-learning in school and beyond (English ed., p. 289). Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

6 September 2012

Reaction to two comments on 'about formal and informal learning'

This blog post is a reaction to comments by Jay and Nick to my original post on formal and informal learning. Thank you for your reactions, as they helped me to refine and extend my thinking on the issue. I knew I was getting into murky waters and your reactions pay testimony to that. You raise a lot of issues in your reactions and consequently there is a lot to be said in response to that. However,  I will focus on two items only, not to wiggle my way of of a thorny issue, but because there's only so much you can do in short post. Your other remarks do not go unnoticed, however, I hope to tackle the most important aspects of your reactions. To be sure, I certainly do not want to create another shouting match, as that doesn't solve anything. And that is of course what I try and tried to do. Let me explain.

First, I too have worked with, thought about and written about the formal-informal distinction, and at some point of time my reaction was to give up on it as something not particularly useful:  better ignore it and avoid not very fruitful discussions by saying something like there are all sort of shades of grey. However, that solution turned out to be unsatisfactory as many people persist in using the distinction as if it were a clear one (including myself, I noticed myself). Apparently, we want to express a difference but are unable to do so with clarity. The distinction has to do with learning at schools and similar, and learning outside of them.

Second, I realised that there is a difference between a concept that is defined as a continuous variable - the shades of grey (the wavelength of light; intelligence before the theory of multiple intelligencies) and a concept that has a variety of dimensions (colour, which is characterised by wavelength but also by saturation; intelligence if indeed there are multiple intelligencies). The formal-informal distinction is one of the second kind, not of the first kind. For instance, if formal learning is school-like learning, then what if there is a course but no curriculum, assessments but no diploma, teachers but no tuition fee? You can vary on all these dimensions and more. This is not a contrived example, note that xMOOCs are almost defined by these duplets. In discussions about xMOOCs, bundling courses to form a kind of curriculum, certificates as pseudo diplomas and even small fees are raised as possible innovations. To give these discussions proper credit, a linear continuum won't do.

Third, I realised that people started to amalgamate accounts of how we learn (learning theories) with the formal-informal distinction. Nick's idea that we only learn informally is an example of this (I do agree that at school people learn very little of what they are supposed to learn there, certainly in view of the enormous amounts of money that go into educational systems; I also do not know how to solve this, but we cannot afford to let them not learn the little that do learn). So I realised that the formal-informal distinction needed to be decoupled from our accounts of how we learn.

These are the reasons I came up with the idea to define formal learning as learning with a social contract. This way, theories of how we learn are definitionally independent of the way we organise our learning, the learning environments we create, the interventions we plan. And this allows us to ask such questions as How does formal learning (defined my way) fare in the face of current learning theories?, and What forms of informal learning should we consider in the face of existing learning theories?, and indeed, Are all forms of informal learning under all circumstances more efficient and effective than formal learning?.

With this proposed solution, the problems are not over of course, because we now need to distinguish learning theories, identify their claims, derive what consequences they have for learning environments and interventions, etc; only then  we can try to answer these and similar questions. To give an indication of the problems ahead, Siemens and Downes claim Connectivism to be a (novel) learning theory (even an epistemology), but is it? Personally, I am interested in networked learning, something like Connectivism but without the claim that it is a learning theory, let alone an epistemology. Can you have formal networked learning? All sorts of people seem to think so as they are happy to discuss the creation of personal learning networks for their pupils. Should all professional learning be a form of networked learning? No, I guess, but what lines are there to draw?

Finally, a few words on definitions to further contextualise what I try to do. Definitions come in two kinds, depending on what you try to achieve. You may either try to capture as precisely as you can the common way of using a particular concept (often called real definitions). Or you may deliberately deviate from existing usage and try to improve discourse (stipulative definitions). The former is impossible if common discourse is vague and ambiguous, as is the case with the formal-informal distinction. The latter is doomed to fail if your stipulation does not improve on common usage. I have tried to avoid both pitfalls by framing a definition that captures at least a large part of common usage, as well as one that offers significant benefits for our discourse on learning. But the verdict is of course out on whether I am right or wrong on this.

31 August 2012

About formal and informal (non-formal) learning

Discussions abound about how to properly differentiate formal and informal learning. To make things even more complicated, some throw in the notion of non-formal learning as a further refinement. On the one hand, the distinction has been made loosely to differentiate between learning in schools (formal) and all the other learning (informal). As long as you don't think to deeply, this works. However, now that some want to start theorizing about informal learning (workplace learning, professional learning, ...) and environments are claimed to be developed for it (such as MOOCs), too loose a definition won't do anymore. I will make a suggestion here for a sharp distinction that is simple to apply yet allows us to continue most of the conversations about formal and informal learning that we have engaged in.

Although my intention is to make things simpler, I want add one more term before tackling the formal and informal divide. I want to distinguish between learning that is intentional and learning that isn't. The latter kind I call accidental learning, it is the kind of learning we cannot refrain from doing even though we do not set out explicitly to learn something. It refers to for instance making a mental map of a route you are walking in an unknown city or to picking up some interesting tidbit while overhearing a conversation. It is the kind of learning that made us as a species successful (in terms of sheer numbers, not necessarily in any other sense). Formal and informal learning are both intentional because people explicitly want to learn something and make a conscious effort to do so. Eraut (2004, Informal learning in the workplace) calls this implicit learning.

Now on to the formal. Formal learning is all learning that involves a (social) contract between a learner and an (educational) institution. This could be a school (if it is about pupils and students) or a training institute (if it is about professionals). The contract implies that the learner hands over her responsibility for her learning trajectory to another party. That party employs people (teachers) and has all sort of policies in place (curricula, assessment routines, remediation rules, etc.) to honour the contract. Crucially, the contract only means that the institution will make a sincere effort to let the contractee (student) learn, it gives no guarantees about learning outcomes in terms of diplomas, etc. Finally, it is a social contract as other parties tend to be involved, such as governments who take an interest in providing an initial education for  their young people and lifelong learning opportunities for the labour force; or a company or association of companies in a particular sector which wants to provide training opportunities to its employees. Informal learning now is defined by exclusion: all intentional learning that is not formal is informal. From this it already follows that informal learning comes in many kinds, some of which will resemble formal learning more than others. However, it is the absence of a contract - implicit as at schools or explicit as often with training - that makes the difference.

Informal learning thus includes learning that professionals do at their workplace, that students do at university next to their curriculum-based lecture sessions, that ordinary people do when surfing the web for information on a medical condition, that ... I'm not sure it makes sense to subdivide informal learning, but time will tell. Oh, and non-formal learning is synonymous with informal learning, at least for the time being.

Strictly distinguishing formal from informal learning implies that I disagree with Eraut (2004) who maintains that all dichotomies are signs of lazy thinking; many are but certainly not all. It also follows that I disagree with the 2003 report by Colley, Hodkinson & Malcom  (Informality and formality in learning: a report for the Learning and Skills Research Centre), who see formal and informal as attributes of situations. This too would result in a continuum of informal and formal. However, I do agree with them that the distinction does not extend to theories of learning or kinds of knowledge. The formal-informal dichotomy is about learning situations or settings, in which either the responsibility for one's learning trajectory is contractually handed over to others or isn't. The way people learn (learning theories) and what it is they learn (conceptions of knowledge) are independent of this. The benefit of this way of differentiating formal from informal learning is that it does not affect our theories nor our epistemologies, we may keep theorizing about learning irrespective of the setting. So we may remain seeing learning as a mix of knowledge acquisition through transfer and through participation, even though emphases may differ.

Some consequences. Is Connectivism about formal or about informal learning? Assuming that we exactly know what Connectivism is and in so far it is a learning theory, it would be equally applicable to formal and informal learning. And, indeed, we see that Connectivism is embraced by teachers who want to set up PLEs for the students, or help them do so. In connectivist terms, the PLE is what they have learnt. But equally, cMOOCS are being set up by George Siemens and Steven Downs where people from all over the world learn together without any institutional ties. How about xMOOCs, are they then environments for formal learning? My guess would be that they are, although the ties between the student and the institution (Coursera, Udacity, MIT, ...) are very loose indeed. From this it follows that the even broader category of networked learning suits both formal and informal learning, although the way it is implemented in a particular situation of course differs between both learning settings.

Comments added after publication:
  • I wrote a follow-up post in which I also react to the comments by Jay and Nick. (September 6, 2012)
  • "But Eric Roberts, professor of computer science [at Stanford] and a frequent critic of online learning, said there might not be as much enthusiasm [for online learning] as has been suggested, and he said he feared the innovations could "change the nature of the social contract" of the university." From meeting notes at Stanford on online learning. What is relevant in the present context of course is the mentioning of a social contract. (October 28, 2012)

15 July 2012

Setup for a small online course, some lessons learnt

This spring, I taught an online course for some 10 doctoral students, most in Switzerland, some as far away as Mozambique. The topic was technologies for informal learning, and it was part of a larger series, called Cross-FIELD (cross-fertilization between formal and informal Learning through Digital technologies) and set up by three  universities in Switzerland. But that is not what I want to write about. The format of the course is, though. When asked to do this, the request was to give an online seminar on informal learning, but I thought it would be a little more exciting if I were to make things more social, more multi-way interactive than is customary in a seminar. After all, when learning about informal learning it would be nice to experience it to some extent as well. I here want to share some thoughts about how effective this format has been in my opinion.

How as the course set up? 

First and foremost, I wanted to make sure the students would not just consume, but also produce something. Being doctors of philosophy in the making, I felt writing a short (1500 words) essay would be most appropriate as a means to close off the course. The choice of a subject was only constrained in two ways: a) informal learning had someone to feature in it, b) they could either write a conceptual paper or write a persona and discuss what informal learning meant for that fictitious person. This way, I could also ensure the experience would be maximally useful for their doctoral work. Since the group was small, I could afford to read the essays and provide feedback to them. And, of course, I hoped to also learn something myself along the way.

Second, I wanted them to have discussions, with me and among the group members. Informal learning being a concept with mostly negative definitions (i.e. anything that is not formal learning) - which according to all the books on proper definition is to be avoided, and concept formation being one of the hallmarks of scientific progress, I felt budding academics needed to engage in discussions about the topic. This way they could get a feel for how to discuss conceptual matters and, hopefully, both learn how complex the question is and how you go about contributing to such a conceptual discussion. So, I ended up having three online seminars in the course as a whole, at weekly intervals. The first seminar was devoted to the pedagogical challenges of informal learning. As a preparation, I gave them some stuff to read: a chapter from a planned book as well as a blog post of mine. The second online seminar was set up similarly (including a new blog post) and covered the technological challenges of informal learning.  In the third and final one the students had to discuss the topic that they wanted to write about, so their peers could comment on their plans. To help them prepare, I wrote a blog post with some general recommendations, for instance about design as a research method. After that third session I wrote a final blog post with some suggestions on how to profit from your peers during the writing process.

Being an online course, the events were structured via my blog posts. Each one had some housekeeping, there also was a welcome post in the very beginning which headed of the course. E-mail was used throughout, I even set up Google group to make it easier to send out alerts to everyone (url for the Flasmeeting for instance). However, I tried to limit the use of email to inevitable personal messages only ('can't make it to the next semiar'). All online seminars lasted  60 - 90 minutes. I used Flashmeeting as a technical infrastructure. For who doesn't know this, it is similar to Adobe Connect; people take turns to speak, the routing is done by a moderator, the conversation can be recorded, you can also exchange files and use chat as a back channel. I set up a private group in Mendeley, in which I shared the papers I wanted them to read and papers I recommened them to read. I also pointed them to a public group in Mendeley on networked learning, which I moderate and where they could find more general background literature. I urged students to Twitter about their experiences during the four weeks that the course lasted and in particular in the final writing week, using a specific hashtag. And, finally, I suggested they use Google docs, for their writing, so they could read each others' works in progress. I toyed with the idea of also giving my comments on the Google doc version of their papers, but ultimately decided against that as my comments would then be public. The students deserved to receive these in private, which would also allow me to be more  frank in my commenting.

Did it work?

Some things did work, others didn't. Going over the technologies I used (marked in italics in the previous paragraph), technically everything worked with the exception of Flashmeeting on one occasion; but this was entirely due to a scheduling mistake of mine. The blog posts and emails served their communicative functions, although I would have like some more comments on the posts. The same goes for the seminars. They worked but I would have liked them to be a little more interactive. The Mendeley groups were used, Twitter was hardly used. Some did use Google docs for their writing, others did not.

So, were the students better equipped sensibly to discuss informal learning? I don't know about the 'better', having no comparison really. But some said so and the quality of their papers was generally speaking good. Allowing them to either conduct a conceptual discussion or write a persona, was a good decision in retrospect as it accommodated the more theoretically and more practically inclined students. This no doubt contributed to the quality of the papers and, of course, allowed them to profit from the seminar in a way that suited their individual PhD projects best (a key tenet of informal learning, make it relevant for yourself).

Did I succeed in making things interactive? Not to the extent that I would have liked to. The reason for this is likely to be in part the unfamiliarity of some with the technologies I exposed them to, in part the lack of a structure that forced them to use these. My idea was that the tools I exposed them to are the tools of informal learning; so using them in the course would give the students first-hand experience of their use. As I said, I was only partly successful in this. I don't think using other tools (say, Google hangouts for Flashmeeting) would have made much of a difference. Possibly, if I had used additional tools, such as Scoop.it to curate their own informal learning topic, more interactions would have occurred. Following each others' topic with it is easy and has an immediate pay-of in the form of rescoops. ( A confession, while the course was running, the thought came up to use Scoop.it, but I had little experience with it myself, so I decided to go and immediately curate a topic on Networked Learning myself).

In conclusion, I am reasonably satisfied. But I remain in doubt whether, on a next occasion, to further structure the course and make more specific demands on the students (the usual teacher's response) or to look for a better, more inviting set of tools (the proper way of non-formal learning). Although, as a researcher of informal learning in social networks, I really should have no doubt.

26 June 2012

On two kinds of MOOCs

There are two kinds of massive, open online courses around (MOOCs), the Downes-Siemens kind and the kind that mostly (uniquely still?) universities in the USA offer. The archetypal example of the former is PLENK10, a course on personal learning environments networks and knowledge, which ran in September 2010. An example of the latter is the Introduction to AI course, taught by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google's Director of Research Peter Norvig. Sui Fai John Mak makes a serious attempt in a recent blog post entitled What are MOOCs all about to make sense of the differences between these two kinds. He differentiates between them in the following way (my emphases):

Downes-Siemens type:
1. Those MOOCs based on a connectivist approach – with learning focusing on the learning process, with network construction and navigation, where connections, interactivity, diversity, openness, autonomy are emphasized.  ...

US Universities type:
2. Those MOOCs based on an instructivist – behavioral/cognitivist (blended with constructivist) approach – with learning focusing on the learning outcomes and thus are basically content based, where learners are guided by the main instructors, and are also assessed based on either the machine based assessment tools or peer assessment.

So, in his analysis, the key difference is one of a different underpinning by learning theories, connectivist versus instructivist. Although this certainly is a correct way to differentiate between the two, I don't believe this goes to the heart of the matter. In my view, the key difference between the two kinds of MOOCs is one of underlying of ideology. The education-theoretical stance merely follows from that.

For Downes and Siemens openness is key to their ideology, they want to change education as we know it by being totally open in an attempt to empower the learner vis-à- vis the powerful institutions that schools and in particular universities are. Their view is very much in line with the ideology that underpins the open universities of the world, which arose in the seventies and eighties as a means to emancipate and liberate those who for some reason had not been educated to the full extent of their capabilities. The online character of their MOO-Courses is what gives the openness unprecedented opportunities, massiveness is not an intended effect but rather a collateral one (and their courses are  not massive at the scale that the other type is).

The other kind of MOOC embraces a simple business ideology, and as such is almost the antithesis to the first kind. Its proponents emphasize the aspect of massiveness, which allows them to stretch the benefits that result from economies of scale maximally. Although emancipation etc. may be a result, for example in areas where educational opportunities are hard to come by, it is not really the intended result. What they ultimately aim for is recruiting excellent students from the masses these courses serve. Openness, then, is not a goal in itself but a means to the end of massiveness. The online character of these MOOCs is the only way to achieve massiveness at vanishingly small costs for each additional student.

Is there anything wrong with this state of affairs? Yes and no. To start with the no, it is quite all right that people attempt to innovate education, for we need to do so to sustain our knowledge-hungry societies. And indeed both kinds of MOOCs qualify as educational innovations. However, we should not mistake them for what they are. Calling the two kinds of MOOCs by the same name doesn't help to spot the large differences that exist between them. And it certainly doesn't help to uncover their antithetical ideological underpinnings. Pinpointing those is important for the learners, so they know what they are getting themselves involved in. But it matters even more to educational institutions when they consider adopting either kind of MOOC. The ultimate question is whether you see education as a means to prepare people for the knowledge society we live in or as a way to get a head-start in the competition for the talented. So ultimately, it is about the kind of university you want to be.

Note: after finishing this post, I came across a blog, which discusses business models for MOOCs. It says Udacity has suggested that it might double as a headhunter for companies that might like to hire some of its more impressive students. That is exactly the kind of difference I am referring to.

4 June 2012

On another kind of blended learning

This is a short note on two forms of blended learning. The first one is generally accepted, but seems to be mostly more cost effective. The other one seems to be interesting from a pedagogical point of view mainly.

There's little point in reviewing extensively what blended learning customarily refers to, but it seems that it predominantly means the mixing of different learning environments, in particular an environment for formal, face-to-face teaching with an environment for formal e-learning. The former is an environment in which the teacher is personally present, which implies that students need to be present as well, at a certain place and time, in order to be taught in the classroom, lecture theatre or hotel room hired for training purposes.The later environment is an online environment that students access through their computer, (smart) phone, tablet, from wherever they want and whenever they want. Note that I've said nothing yet about pedagogy and that is deliberate.

The characterisation is primarily one of logistics; blended learning in the sense of mixing learning environments is attractive because of its promise to save costs or be more convenient, not because it offers a superior pedagogy. The fact that people can access the learning environment also from home, allows one to let students study at home, and thus saves the reservation of a classroom  or the rent for a hotel suite. The decreased costs predominately come about through the diminished involvement of the teacher, thus benefitting the school or company. Note, though, that this concerns the course's runtime. For students to be able to learn independently, sitting in front of their computer, teachers need to make significant investments upfront. Clearly, this only makes sense at an institutional level if the numbers of students to be expected is large enough to recoup these costs through the deminishing costs of teaching face to face. Blended learning in this sense not only benefits the institution but also the student. The benefit is in increased agency, as now they are able to decide where en when to study. This would suggest that one resort to e-learning fully, however, that would significantly diminish the amount of control a school or company can exert or the directness of access a student has with his or her teachers, which would presumably affect learning effectiveness. In sum, blending of learning environments affords one to optimize learning efficiency (costs) and effectiveness in formal learning contexts.

The second form of blended learning would be mixing bouts of formal learning with bouts of informal learning. Thus learners engage in a training session of some kind but also learn informally (or as some prefer to call it non-formally), in their contacts with their peers, be they school mates or work mates. Whereas blended learning in the first sense seems to be generally accepted as a sensible form of learning, this does not seem to be the case for the second form of blending. And yet it makes a lot of sense also to consider this a form of blending. The emphasis is not now on logistics. The formal part could be situated in a face-to-face environment or in an online environment, whichever suits best. Even blending in the above sense may be considered. The informal part may refer to presence situations, in the classroom or on the shop floor, or to online experiences, for instance in online social networks.

This kind of blending, I surmise, offers a superior pedagogy, one that should ensure that the formal and informal learning bouts that someone experiences become wedded to each other and constitute a single learning experience; a pedagogy also that should warrant that learning is gauged in terms of progress made towards the achievement of personal learning goals and not measured only in terms of progress on a scale defined by others. The notion of a personal learning network by taking a decidedly personal perspective is an attempt to do so. The TRAILER project's attempts to incorporate informal learning experiences in e-portfolios, is another one. Through extending their personal learning network or by expanding their e-portfolios, students profit from this kind of blending. But so do the companies that embrace this kind of blended learning. The increasing awareness of the relevance of informal learning at the workplace, makes this kind of blending of the formal with the informal imperative. There is room for training at the workplace, but for knowledge workers in their pursuit of solving wicked, ill-structured, authentic problems this doesn't suffice. As these problems are unique or at least uniquely dependent on their specific setting, training simple is non-existent. Such knowledge workers are in need of fellow experts, with complementary expertise, from whom they can learn and together with whom they can develop the new knowledge that is needed to solve their problems. For them, blending in the first sense offers no solace, but blending in the second sense should. They could make use of bouts of (individual) formal training to efficiently come up to speed with a particular topic they are unfamiliar with; they should use informal bouts of collective learning to then solve the problem at hand. It is the maturity of the field or discipline a question refers to that is decisive: only for mature fields it makes sense to develop a formal training (for more on this, see Maier & Schmidt, 2007). Viewed this way, blended learning in this second sense is the bread and butter of workplace learning (cf. Littlejohn, 2012). Obviously, at least from my point of view, a learning network is the type of learning environment in which this kind of blended learning finds a natural home.

Littlejohn, A. (2012). change11 position paper; connected knowledge, collective learningejohn.com. Little by Littlejohn, blog. Retrieved May 29, 2012, from http://littlebylittlejohn.com/change11-position-paper

Maier, R. & Schmidt, A. (2007) Characterizing Knowledge Maturing: A Conceptual Process Model for Integrating E-Learning and Knowledge Management. In N. Gronau (Ed.), 4th Conference Professional Knowledge Management Experiences and Visions WM 07 Potsdam (Vol. 1, pp. 325-334). GITO. Retrieved from http://www.andreas-p-schmidt.de/publications/Maier_Schmidt_KnowledgeMaturing_WM07.pdf

6 May 2012

Maintaining your OLI - a possible solution

finger print to symbolize identity
To summarize briefly a previous post and article on online identities or OLIs, they should be as complete as possible to improve the quality of online networked learning, and, at the same time, they should be mimimal because of the risks involved with privacy loss.

Differential access

As a learner, you need to grant others access to your data. These others are providers of learning services. They include the delivery of personalized content, help with finding peers with whom you could collaborate on a project, suggestions for peers or paid experts who would tutor you, etc. Only through access to your data these providers can offer to you personal learning opportunities. The fewer data, the more generic their proposal, the more data, the more specific their proposal. And clearly, since personalized learning opportunities allow you to learn more effectively, efficiently and perhaps even satisfactorily, it is in your interest to provide those data. However, not everyone out there has the best of intentions. To avoid misuse of your data (to imagine what could happen, only think of the way your email address is exploited for sending you spam), you should provide nobody access to your data (see earlier post), but this would of course defeat the purpose of collecting data on you in the first place. The way out of this dilemma is that you provide differential access to your data, i.e. some parties whom you trust are allowed to see and do more than others whom you don't trust this much. This solution has a few problems.


First, to increase data security, data need to be encrypted, not only when in transfer but also on the server that keeps them. If not, anybody who happens to spot the URL at which particular data reside could access them. A simple, one-key encryption schema, moreover, is not safe enough. Loss of the key leads to providing access to all your data to whomever happens to find that key. And loss is actually quite probable as any party who needs to access your data, needs to possess that single key. The solution is a public-private encryption scheme. In such a scheme one key is made publicly available, the other one is kept private; also, one key is used to encrypt, the other one to decrypt. If I encrypt some message with my private key, anybody who has my public key (and that is in principle everybody, since I publish the key on, say, my website) can verify that this was my message and nobody else's (authenticating). If I encrypt some message with the intended receiver's public key, I can be sure that only s/he can decipher my message, thus ensuring the message's secrecy. Only the intender receiver and nobody else can see this message. So, I could encrypt a subset of my data with the public key of some education provider A, thus ensuring that it is only they who have access to those data. If they loose my data by accident, I know it is they who are responsible for this. The same I could do for some company B, which provides assessments, or C, which is a job mediator, etc. The upshot is that public-private key encryption allows me to provide differential access to my data.

Access policies

However, the system as described is unmanageable. There are so many data about us out there, that it would rapidly overtax individual data owners to identify, store and provide access to their data, let alone keep a record of who has rights to what data. In the above, I mentioned three parties A, B and C with whom I might want to share data. In actual fact, that number is much larger and indeed incorporates companies (or individuals) I am not even acquainted with. The solution to this manageability problem is to specify sets of access policies for sets of providers. So for instance, a policy for public universities, one for private education providers, one for prospective employers, one for government agencies, etc. These policies would then have to be coupled to a public-private key pair that is related to my policy on the one hand and to the public and private key pairs of the institutions that constitute a set (otherwise I would have to start negotiating with them to issue a pair to me, which with all the users who address them would make things unimaginable for them). Also, my policies are likely to evolve over time, including some data in the data set and excluding other, including new providers in the set, excluding particular old ones. This updating should be easy to do, making use of the same public -private key pair, lest I need start negotiating again with all the educational providers that are, will be, and will not be anymore covered by my policies. These are quite complicated issues.

The above situation was the starting point of a recently published  (October, 2011) piece of PhD research carried out by Luan Ibraimi at the University of Twente, Netherlands (Cryptographically Enforced Distributed Data Access Control). Please consult the original publication to see that the story is a bit more complicated than I portray it here. For those interested, the thesis of course describes in detail how these access policies may indeed be implemented

Making it work

With the technology in place to provide differential access, we're not there yet, though. The solution as described demands the collaboration of all online (educational) service providers and all parties who store personal data. These are often the same parties, although they all provide only some services and all have access to parts of your data profile. Sticking to education, the education providers need to make their public keys available and be willing to access your data through their private keys if they want to make you an offer. As it is in their interest to do so, you are a prospective customer, they would probably be willing to do so. But the story is different for those parties who already have access to you data, whether education providers (the university or school you study) or others (Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, ...). Their making your data available to others implies helping the competition! This barrier can only be taken by disallowing them to make use of your data, even if they reside on their server. That can only be done by routinely encrypting all personal data. For that they need to use your public key to ensure that you and only you can decrypt them again. It does not take a gigantic leap of the imagination to understand that these parties will not do so unless forced to do so by law or consumer pressure (see my post on Privacy and your online identity).


There is not one single solution to this problem. Data should always be anonymised if possible. For statistical analyses it is, for personal recommendation of course it isn't. They should also be allowed automatically to degrade, the degree of which could perhaps be coupled to particular policies (cf. Harold van Heerde). However, these measures are only supportive. Any comprehensive solution as described above, is predicated on regulation. That is, online service providers who keep personal data should be forced i) to put them squarely under the user's control as for instance the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues. This includes the rights to remove data and alter them, ii) to routinely encrypt those data with the user's public key. The former brings ownership back to where it belongs, the latter allows data owners to exert ownership, for instance along the lines discussed above. Together, this would solve the problem I raised in my previous post on the topic of online learner identities. Data are brought back under their owner's control and although they remain fragmented, the differential access policies actually allow you to treat them as one large body of data.

The kind of regulation that is needed may come about voluntarily, through a process of consensus formation of all interested parties as in the creation of standards. Given the huge commercial interests I am not optimistic that this will succeed. Perhaps things could start this way, for instance at CEN/ISSS, but ultimately legislation will be needed, for instance as part of EU Commissioner Neelie Kroese's efforts for a Digital Agenda for Europe. Finally, this proposal restricts itself to creating the right conditions for users' differential control of their online data. It would clearly not be a good idea to give governmental institutions control of data themselves. They are no less a party with interests as is any company. The role of the government should be restricted to drafting legislation and enforcing it. As this is going to be long in the works, private initiatives, such as that by the QIY foundation, which operate along the lines sketched, are very welcome.


After I published this text, I found out that the Leibniz Centre for Information Science at Dagstuhl, Germany had organized a Perspectives Workshop on the somewhat wider topic of Online Privacy. The abstracts of the talks have become available, but unfortunately the full manifesto hasn't yet. Nevertheless, as a Perspectives workshop is intended to be an agenda-setting meeting of experts, it illustrates the significance of the topic. 
Full reference: Fischer-hübner, S., Hoofnagle, C., Rannenberg, K., Waidner, M., Krontiris, I., & Marhöfer, M. (2011). Online Privacy : Towards Informational Self-Determination on the Internet Edited by Executive Summary. Dagstuhl Manifestos, 1(1001), 1-15. doi:dx.doi.org/10.4230/DagMan.1.1.1

13 April 2012

week 4 writing the paper

Now that you have a topic to write on, I would like to point out how maximally you could profit from each other while writing. There are various systems for collaborative writing, see this website for an overview, what we (or rather, I think you) need here is a tool that allows the collection and identification of comments by your course mates. So, it should be private and also free, and there's no need for a powerful editing toolset. Google docs is a tool that fulfills these demands, but so would Zoho for example. I suggest we use Google docs. < br> Second, make use of Mendeley. The web application will suggest papers that are relevant to your topic if you have filled out your profile and, it is my impression, the better the more papers you have in your collection of publications. Finally, sending out Tweets to your followers with specific questions for suggestions, also is a means to collect feedback.

week 3 picking a paper topic, some thoughts about design

In the previous two weeks we have discussed the pedagogical and technological challenges that anyone with a wish to design a networked learning environment has to face. Now I will go a bit more into the idea of what it means to design a learning environment and do some suggestions for topics of papers. Remember, the papers are to be 1000 to 1500 words (exclusive of references) and should be written using Google docs. That way, they can easily be shared and commented upon.

Design, in the abstract

I defined learning networks as online social networks designed to foster non-formal learning. Technically, this definition is a functional definition in that it tells you what a learning network should do, not how it does it (that would be a causal definition). The good thing about functional definitions is that you do not have to change them every time a new tool comes around. The bad thing of course is that it tells you nothing about what tools you may use. We further unpacked the definition though to conclude that any design that fosters learning should address the pedagogical challenge of adhering to particular pedagogical principles, such as those of self-directed (guided) learning and social learning. Second, we realized that fostering learning for personal learning environments makes different demands on tools than does fostering learning in managed learning environments. And finally, this resulted in the discussion of a number of services that the tools should provide.

There is quite a complicated story to tell about the role of design research in scientific inquiry. Some argue that it is not genuine research as it only allows you to test overall designs and thus never get to understand the exact role some factor, say group size, plays in for example learning effectiveness. Others will argue that these factors or so mutually dependent anyway that testing them one by one is silly at best as it doesn't help, misleading at worst as it suggests answers that are plain wrong. This is the argument for the contextual nature of educational theorizing. This is not to place to argue this out (but see Collins et al. 2004: Design Research, Theoretical and Methodological Issues), the game we have decided to play was not so much to get into the theoretical underpinnings of non-formal networked learning, but rather in ways to make it work. That leads automatically to a design-based approach (see Diana Laurillard's book Teaching as a Design Science, which was published just this March).

Choosing for a design-based approach does not imply that theoretical underpinnings do not matter, they do if only to tell sensible designs apart from designs that are known not to work. However, Theoretical underpinnings (almost) always underdetermine a design. That is, completing a design almost always requires knowledge, often of a practical nature, that is simply not known and not easy to come by either. In such cases, a designer needs to make decisions based on informed guesses. A design that then proves to work reinforces the believe in the correctness of the guess, a design that doesn't questions that believe. Some of this is illustrated in a presentation of mine, still work in progress though.

Concrete designs 

There still are a lot of unknowns that have to be filled in. I surmise that those can only be filled in in the context of a concrete problem, a concrete demand for a learning network to be developed. Lacking those, there is a technique, borrowed from computer science, one may use to come as close as possible to such a demand. It is called writing personas. According to Tina Calabria in her Introduction to personas and how to create them (KM Column, March 2004, see private Mendeley group): 'Personas are archetypal users [...] that represent the needs of larger groups of users, in terms of their goals and personal characteristics. They act as "stand-ins" for real users and help guide decisions about functionality and design.' The eight use-cases we discussed in Chapter 1 of Sloep et al. are not detailed enough yet to serve as personas, they do however come close to what is intended. Particularly the second set of organizational use cases don't fit the description of a persona as they are not written in terms of persons but of institutions. However, replacing them with the description of a manager tasked with setting up a learning network would do the trick. So writing one or more personas, either as archetypal users of a PLE or as archetypal managers of an MLE, should help to arrive at a concrete design.

Furthermore, the web is replete with suggestions for how to design learning networks. I will single out two recent, illuminating examples. First, this blog post by @Ignatia Webs gives a list of standard social network tools that may be employed to build a personal learning network, much in the way we try to use such tools for the present course. Second, for the more technically inclined, this post in the Google App Developers Blog shows how you can do such a thing using Google apps. Parenthetically, both are posts in a Scoop.it topic on networked learning I set up, where other, related topics can be found too.

Topics for papers

I suggest there are two kinds of papers that you can decide to write. If you have a practical nature, write a persona, if need be, inspired by the use cases of Chapter 1, and develop a design for a learning network. The design should be somewhat detailed, that is, it should be clear whether it is a PLE or an MLE, service categories should be discussed and argued for and, to the extent possible, they should be illustrated by tools, existing ones or ones that still have to be built if you can't find any. The paper should finish with a brief discussion of the extent to which you expect your design to foster non-formal, networked learning.

Alternatively, you could write a conceptual paper, if reflecting is something you feel more comfortable with. Then you should discuss any of the assumptions I made throughout the blog posts for this course (or any of the other, on online identities and pedagogical issues), whether explicitly revealed as an assumption or as one that has remained hidden and you managed to uncover. Actually, I would prefer you to tackle the latter, as this could point to flaws in my argument, things overseen or conveniently forgotten. But the choice is yours. Topics for a conceptual paper could refer to the distinction between formal and non-formal (informal), to the distinction between personal and managed learning environments, to the wisdom of using a functional (rather than a causal definition), to the sensibility of the definition anyway,to the need for personal identity management, etc.

I will evaluate your paper, whether orientated on a practical design or conceptual, purely on the strength of its arguments. Factual mistakes and oversights I find less problematic, unless they of course betray a fundamental ignorance of the topic, one that could have been easily remedied by checking only a little bit of the literature. Even if I may not like your design or the conclusion of your conceptual stance, if it is coherently and persuasively argued for, I will value it highly. If you wonder about my reasons for that, I firmly believe that facts without carefully crafted arguments around them will not advance the state of (educational) science. Being a doctoral student, it is the right time to learn how to do this. Oh yes, and connect your topic to your research topic if you can. Success!

week 2 technological challenges

In the post for week 1 and during the ensuing online conference meeting, it was discussed how formal and non-formal learning are different. Also, it was pointed out how networked learning would offer a learning environment that is suited for non-formal learning. After all, networked learning environments are designed with the express purpose to serve non-formal learners. To be sure, this is not to say that other solutions may not exist, but networked learning is a sure candidate.

Environments for networked learning (learning networks) are online social networks. For such networks to flourish and function, tools are needed, that is technological artefacts. At the very simplest level, such technologies are a website with a web address (URL) that one can go to to meet others, one's social network partners. At a more sophisticated level, such tools should foster learning. They could for example induce a network structure which is best for learning, they could allow people to get to know each other, they could help to get answers from the network on content related questions, they could provide means for assessing oneself, etc. These tools may exist already, may consist of existing tools transformed to serve educational purposes, or they could have been custom-built. What tools to use and how to use them is not an easy matter to decide on.

Of personal and managed learning networks

As described in the Design of Learning Networks from an organizational perspective - Chapter 8 from Sloep et al., to be retrieved from the private Mendeley group - one should distinguish between two kinds of learning networks. Managed Learning Networks (MLN) are created to serve some organization's goal, unlike Personal (private) Learning Networks (PLN) which only serve the intersection (average, if you like) of the various individual goals that the network participants have. MLNs are sponsored by an organization, which sets up a network, for instance because it wants its personnel to share the knowledge they individually have with each other, perhaps even use it to create new, to the company strategic bits of knowledge. Organizations exist because they are a means to work more productively or more efficiently than a collection of individuals could. Organizations are successful because its products (goods or services) are better produced by dividing the labour of their production over various people each with their own special area of expertise. It thus makes eminent sense that organizations want to optimize this process of producing through a division of labour, by making sure people learn from each other. And therefore, organizations will tend to coerce their employees into participating in the network they have set up, they will spend money on setting up the network and on making it successful, for instance by telling employees what to do in the network. The second set of use cases discussed in Chapter 1 of Sloep et al. illustrate this quite well.

PLNs are different from MLNs in many ways. First, they exist because there are people who share some broad interest, not because some management wants them to. The first set of use case of Chapter 1 of Sloep et al.  describes them best. As indicated, there is no organization with an interest of its own that can act as a sponsor of the network. There are only the users and their interests. It is they and they alone who should see benefit in networked interaction. There is no greater good, although there will be a division of labour based on the various areas of expertise that the network participants represent. But there is no grand scheme, no organizational structure that has been set up to produce some service or product more effectively or more efficiently. There are only the interests of the individual users. This of course also implies that PLNs arise from the bottom up, solely on the initiative of the users; not, as in MLNs from the top-down, on the initiative of the management. PLNs have no official management, although users may adopt managerial (admin) roles. If they do so, it happens purely because of their merits. (Note: it is quite illuminating to look at the open source software movement and how in there networks emerge; a good overview is offered by Steven Weber, 2004:  The Success of Open Source).


There is another important difference between MLNs and PLNs that should be highlighted. From the perspective of the users' motivation to actively participate in a network, PLN users do so because they themselves want to. They are predominantly if not purely intrinsically motivated. If they loose their motivation, they will no longer participate and their is nobody who will, indeed could force them to do otherwise. In MLNs however, users may be motivated intrinsically, but their main motivation will be extrinsic, 'because my boss wants me too', 'because it is part of my job'. Either kind of motivation has its own problems that one should be aware of when designing tools for a network. Intrinsic motivation is powerful, but costly. People only have so much of it to spend and are therefore economical with it. This implies that PLNs are difficult to get started as in the beginning there is so little to prove that one should be motivated to participate (a kind of cold start problem). MLNs with their organizational sponsors do not have this start up issue. They are typically launched with a bang (party, event) and, certainly in the beginning, carefully moderated to generate traffic between users. This is often accompanied by the obligation 'to go there and do things'. The obligation is either translated in incentives to participate (bonus points, a good assessment, etc.) or in punishment (negative points, a negative assessment by management). The problem with this is that the networks stops functioning when moderation is withdrawn ('the network should now function by itself'). Also, people will tend to 'play the system' to get the rewards or avoid punishment without actually contributing to its greater goal (think of people who buy 'levels' in online games to move up the respect ladder quickly without having put in the effort). This situation is inherent in the two kinds of networks, one can only be aware of it and, for a PLN, try to avoid the cold start problem and, for an MLN, strive for more intrinsically motivated participants. The right choice of tools is also critical for this.

Technologies, tools and services

There is no point in going over a long list of existing tools as these tools will come and go as well as change and evolve rapidly. However, function categories of tools are more persistent. The following list of five only covers the most obvious needs that learning network tooling should address.

  1. content service - a service that points to written resources, such as texts, papers, presentations, collections of links, etc.
  2. peer-support service - a service that connects a help seeker with a potential help provider; if networks become large (from about a hundred people up) one cannot know everyone anymore and participants have to rely on software that matches their needs to the expertise and capabilities of others in the network; peer support covers content-related questions (not the trivial who, where, when, but the non-trivial why and how questions), queries for mentoring, for moral support, etc.
  3. coalition-formation service - a service that helps participants set up teams of collaborators, to write a paper, to investigate an issue, to study a topic, etc.
  4. online identity service - a service that collects online user data and allows recommender algorithms to do their work
  5. portfolio service  - a service that allows users to collect their achievements, show case them and perhaps even have them certified. 

Such services have to be implemented in concrete tools. To name but a few examples of content services, Wikipedia is a collection of lemmas as in an encyclopedia, Merlot is a repository of in a learning objects, Mendeley and dSpace.ou.nl are collections of scientific papers, Delicious is a collection of presentations, iTunesU is a collection of usually rich lectures, etc.  Peer support could be provided through Google's Aardvark service (acquired by Google in 2010, subsequently pulled from the market; cf. for details on its functioning Horowitz & Kamvar, 2012: Searching the Village:Models and Methods for Social Search), through LinkedIn or Facebook groups. I know of no publicly available coalition formation services, but that could only betray my ignorance. However, in the course of our research we have built a dedicated peer-support tool (cf Van Rosmalen, 2008: Supporting the tutor in the design and support of adaptive e-learning; SIKS Dissertation Series No. 2008-07) and coalition formation tools are subject of active research (cf. Sie et al., 2011: What’s in it for me? Recommendation of Peers in Networked Innovation). Online identity services do not exist yet, unless one counts Google Profiles as such (They are tricky, see two of my blog posts on privacy and on the problem). Portfolio services have been around for quite some time, but they have been usurped by formal education. An interesting new development are Mozilla's Open Badges.


The present discussion and the Chapter referred to, should all act as a starting point for Friday's seminar and, later on, the paper that is to be written. The following questions may be seen as starting points for the discussion.

  1. Are there other services than the four listed in the above?
  2. May Facebook, LinkedIn or indeed Mendeley or Academia.eu be classified as learning networks?
  3. Do you know of existing, publicly available tools that could be used to provide valuable services to a learning network?
  4. If Facebook were to be used as the infrastructure for a learning network, does its goal of making money through advertisements stand in the way of its function of a learning network. 
  5. How do portfolios differ from Mozilla's open badges?
  6. Although our group is too small to count as a learning network (if anything, it is a community of learners), yet consider the tools that we have been using. Are they adequate? If not, what should be replaced, what is missing?
Note: the post has been updated, with the addition of links and a few changes in the wording

week 1 pedagogical challenges

Put succinctly, this Cross Field course is an attempt to come to an understanding of informal learning in the age of the Internet. This is quite a daunting task, something which is a key research area for many, including my own research programme on networked learning at the Open University of The Netherlands. However, even if we should not hope to achieve a final understanding, we can certainly make headway towards a better understanding of this question and suggestions for possible answers to it. We will do this by investigating the pedagogical challenges in week 1 and the technological challenges in week 2 that this kind of learning poses. 
To inventory the pedagogical challenges, I will here first discuss briefly the distinction between formal, informal and non-formal, which also touches upon lifelong learning. Then we will look into the specific demands this group of learners make and how their learning may be supported. Finally, I'll list a few questions that may be used to inspire your writing of the short paper in weeks 3 and 4.

Formal, informal, non-formal learning

Figure 1 Forms versus contexts of learning

The term 'informal' learning is problematic in that it is used in different ways by different people. Without attempting to define it once and forever, the following distinctions are useful. By formal learning, I mean the kind of learning we do at schools; learning organized mostly by an accredited institution, with a curriculum, exams, formal entrance requirements and a formal diploma if one passes the exam. Accidental learning is the very opposite of this. It happens because as a biological species we are 'wired' to learn, we cannot not learn. Learning, for example, is not only a topic in text books of psychology but also in text biology books on physiology and behaviour. The crucial  distinction between the two forms is that formal learning is intentional and accidental learning is unintentional. In formal learning, people set out to learn something, learn on purpose; in accidental learning people (and animals) just learn, willy-nilly. The intentionality is also a characteristic of non-formal learning, but the lack of exams, curricula, etc. it shares with accidental learning (even though ways may be sought to somehow give credit for what people have learnt non-formally). Informal learning is sometimes used to label accidental learning, sometimes to describe non-formal learning. This is where the confusion comes in. I will use it here as a synonym of non-formal learning only.

Next to distinguishing these forms of learning, one may distinguish two contexts: initial learning, that is meant to prepare mostly young people for the workplace and life in general, and post-intital learning, which is for people who have passed the initial phase and need to keep learning to stay abreast of new developments, specifically in our fast-paced knowledge society. The need to have the often compulsory phase of initial education followed by a further phase of post-initial education, is often indicated by saying that people need to learn throughout their entire life, that is, participate in lifelong learning. As a short hand, post-initial learners who learn non-formally are often called lifelong learners (see Figure 1). And although this is not entirely correct (if lifelong learning spans the whole lifecycle, it should also incorporate initial education), it is a common usage to which I will conform.

Now for the punch line. In my view, the methods that are used in the context of initial learning, that is a formal learning setting with lecture halls, curricula, etc., are unfit for post-initial education. They are unfit because of the specific demands post-initial learners (lifelong learners) make on learning settings. Therefore, here we will focus on designing learning environments for the lower middle cell of Figure 1, on non-formal learning for post-initial education. Indeed, it is quite possible that whatever insights a focus on this cell produces, may be used profitably to innovate the upper middle cell on non-formal learning for initial education. That would probably be most welcome, as it is something which is next to nonexistent at present. That is, universities, schools, etc. do no seek to help their students learn non-formally nor do they attempt to somehow give students credit for the non-formal learning they have done.

Demands of post-initial learners

See private Mendeley group Chapter 1 of Sloep et al. (2011), Backgrounds and Reasons, here in a quick English translation, discusses a number of use cases, situations of people who may want to engage in lifelong learning (non-formal learning for post-initial education). Generalizing from these use cases, three kinds of demands may be distinguished, which I have called logistic, content-related and methodical demands. Logistic demands are about designing your educational environment in such a way that people may learn at their individual place, time and pace. Typical classrooms are anathema to this. They force learners to come to a lecture hall, at particular class hours, and every time a particular subject is discussed. Thus place, time and pace are heavily constrained. Second, it is the teacher or rather teaching staff who determines the topics that are being taught (content). This of course is derived from the curriculum, which in turn may have to conform to national standards, etc. Nevertheless, a lifelong learner has very specific needs and demands of his or her own. Those may but need not coincide to what is on offer as part of an existing curriculum. Third, people, particularly experienced learners have their own preference for how they want to learn (method); by themselves or with others, driven by tasks set by teachers or just following an erratic trace of their, starting with some realistic problem or by assimilating theoretical backgrounds first, using a classical handbook or drawing on Internet resources, etc. Again, in formal learning it is a teacher who determines this for an entire class, which may not guarantee the best form for each and every individual, but at least something which is acceptably good. However, for lifelong learners with a lot of learning experience who follow their own interests anyway, this won't do.

Figure 2 Demands and Freedoms 

Interestingly this tripartite demands' division corresponds with the classification of eight freedoms offered by networked learning that Terry Anderson and Jon Dron discuss (see Figure 2). Location, time and pace correspond with logistic demands; subject with content demands; and sociability, approach and technology with methodical demands. That leaves delegability, which is a bit of a difficult one. What it for example refers to is the ability of networked (lifelong) learners to have a choice in what people they may choose to work with, to act as peers, etc. It goes beyond choosing in that it not only allows one to pick form a given list (of peers or content items) but to also assemble the list. 

Designing an appropriate learning environment

The upshot of the above discussion is that designing a learning environment in which lifelong learners are capable of learning non-formally is a tall order. One cannot rely on the usual ingredient of learning environments for formal learning as those stand in the way of the freedoms these learning need (demands they make on such an environment). So teachers cannot play the role of experts who determine the content to be studied, unless one is willing to give each student a personal teachers (well, a few students per teacher), and this is of course unaffordable. This not just goes for the role of teachers as experts who pick content, but also for teachers as tutors, who provide help with questions.

To cater for these kinds of situations, one often speaks of self-guided learning: it is the student who guides him or herself. That sounds interesting but really just begs the question: how should students then guide themselves? How should they pick the right content, how should they find people who can help them with hard questions, and, even, how can they overcome difficult periods of lowered motivation?

Without getting ahead of the story, it is technology that admittedly cannot answer those questions to the full, but should at least help to find those answers more easily, perhaps more adequately also. But this is the topic of week 2.


The present discussion and the papers referred to in it, should all act as starting points for Friday's seminar and, later on, the paper that is to be written. The following questions may be distilled from the above.
  1. Are the dimensions of forms and contexts of learning independent of each other (as they should in a good classification)?
  2. Are there other forms than formal, non-formal and accidental? Ditto for  initial and post-initial (exhaustiveness also is a demand of good classification).
  3. Is the classification portrayed by Figure 1 useful?
  4. Are the 8 freedoms independent, is there no overlap?
  5. Are there other freedoms that are relevant?
  6. Do these freedoms indeed cover the kinds of demands you would expect lifelong learners to have?
  7. Is is correct, productive, sensible to speak in terms of designing a learning environment for non-formal learning as I did?
  8. What is wrong with characterizes these learning as self-guided, after all, that is what they need to do?
  9. Why does it make sense to rely on technology to support self-guidedness and meet the demands for the eight kinds of freedoms? or is this a silly question?