After seeing several MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) come and go over the past couple of years, I’ve decided to play a part in a new one being facilitated by Dave Cormier, George Siemens and Stephen Downes.
This is an unusual course. It does not consist of a body of content you are supposed to remember. Rather, the learning in the course results from the activities you undertake, and will be different for each person.
This type of course is called a ‘connectivist’ course and is based on four major types of activity:
When a connectivist course is working really well, we see this greate cycle of content and creativity begin to feed on itself, people in the course reading, collecting, creating and sharing. It’s a wonderful experience you won’t want to stop when the course is done.
And – because you can share anywhere – you won’t have to. This course can last as long as you want it to.
The schedule consists of people who are pretty much who’s-who in my corner of the digitally-connected world; I’m particularly looking forward to:
Week 3 – Martin Weller (Digital Scholarship)
Week 9 – Dave Cormier (Rhizomatic Learning)
Week 17 – Howard Rheingold ([How] can [using] the web [intelligently] make us smarter?)
Week 25 – Stephen Downes (Knowledge, Learning and Community)
Week 33 – George Siemens (Sensemaking, wayfinding, networks, and analytics)
Week 34 – Bonnie Stewart (Digital Identities & Subjectivities)
That’s because these are people I know will provide interesting stimulus material and sound guidance. However, I’m also looking forward to being surprised by others!
MOOCs have a structure that allows you to dip in and dip out. This course is running (at least) until 20th May 2012 so there’ll be times when I can pay more or less attention. Given that I’m handing in my thesis in the next 14 days I should, on average, have a whole lot more time on my hands to get involved.
Why don’t YOU take part as well? It’s a great way to meet new people and think through new ideas!
In 2006 George Siemens asked a bunch of people (including me) to proofread his book, Knowing Knowledge which he – innovatively for the time – released as a book, PDF and wiki. I happily did so and was credited along with many others who had been following George’s work in progress.
I know that many people reading this blog have followed my doctoral studies which has lasted about the same time as I’ve been blogging – six years. I’m delighted to say that yesterday I sent a complete draft of my Ed.D. thesis to my supervisor at Durham University. It may be a bit rough around the edges and there’ll be some inconsistencies, but it’s a huge relief to me.
Whilst my thesis – entitled What is digital literacy? A Pragmatic investigation – has been online since I started writing it in 2007, I thought I’d take this milestone as an opportunity to point people towards it and ask for some feedback. The major new update is Chapter 9 where I propose an ‘essential core’ of eight elements which make up an overlapping matrix of digital literacies.
I’ve had some great input and made connections with people all across the world during the last few years as a result of sharing my work. It’s a bit like pregnancy: the expectation during gestation is very different from the reality of delivering it. But now’s not a time to become coy and overly-protective about something I’ve been nurturing for so long; it’s time to, as with all my work, share it for the good of mankind. Ideas should be free.
And hopefully, just like a baby, people will admire and smile at it.
It’s rare in this fast-paced world of Twitter and synchronous communications to come across high-quality reflections on how we connect online both professionally and personally. The video below, put together by D’Arcy Norman with contributions from the likes of Dean Shareski, Jim Groom and Barbara Ganley, is 15 minutes long. It’s absolutely worth your time – watch it now:
Connecting with people online is, in a sense, a very strange experience. I can know a lot more about someone that I’ve never (and probably will never) meet in person who lives on the other side of the world than I ever will about a work colleague. In fact, as I’ve often commented to people when doing this, I think meeting people online actually leads to better relationships than if the situation is reversed.
For instance, this might sound silly but I’m always very careful never to wear my glasses when meeting people for the first time. Why? I don’t want them to pigeon-hole me. The next time they see me and I’ve got my contact lenses in I’m the guy ‘not wearing his glasses’. It’s a perception thing.
Meet people online, however, and it’s almost a window into their soul. One thing I find fascinating is people’s choice of avatar on Twitter. Some people choose to have an image of themselves to aid recognition when people meet them in person. Others change their avatar often. The people I’m interested in, though, are people like me: people who stick to one avatar and use it everywhere they go online. Presumably that’s because their avatar says something about them. Here’s a few by way of example from people in my Twitter network – what do you think their avatar and bio says about them?
Primary MFL teacher, ADE, eTwinning Ambassador, speaker and blogger, improving techie and generally enthusiastic gal who loves her iPhone
Changing the node set…
In the video embedded above, Dave Cormier talks about the ‘light’ connections we make with people and how these build up over time. I think this is what D’Arcy Norman (author of the video and, as of last month, no longer on Twitter) and Stephen Downes (a one-way user of Twitter) don’t get about social networking. Yes, 140 characters may be all too brief. But if I connect with you 50 times over the course of a few days, having had to craft each message to fit within the 140-character constraint, I bet we know each other a whole lot more than we did previously. And then you can go and look at my Flickr stream, my blog, etc. for more background. It’s not a replacement, it’s complementary.
Knowing an individual’s personal background and beliefs helps you judge when making decisions on whether to follow their advice and/or lead. But that’s not always best done only on the strength of meeting them face-to-face. I, for example, am much better (in terms of being coherent, understandable) when expressing myself using the written, rather than the spoken, word. Most connections online these days inhabit a world that is partly synchronous, partly asynchronous.* People may respond straight away to something you put online, or they may respond hours, days, weeks, months, or even years later. Because online content is an implicit open-ended invitation to give your opinion and make comment, you can do so at your leisure. This promotes thinking and drafting when blogging, and iterating towards your actual opinion when using tools such as Twitter.
People who haven’t seen videos or listened to podcasts in which I feature are often surprised when they meet me in person. For a start, I’m often younger than they thought (one person commented that they assumed, because of my avatar, that I was ‘a fat, balding, forty-something’ – thanks!) People also don’t tend to realise I have an, admittedly diminishing, Northumbrian accent – replete with the rolling R’s. I’m all for personality and individuality, but sometimes these two factors – my age and my accent – have proved to be barriers in the physical world. Not so online. 🙂
So an ode to the internet and the connections it makes. No, scratch that. An ode to the people who give up their time to connect to people. To those who make my life better by contributing, questioning and criticising my work and my thinking. It’s great to have and to be part of an active audience!
* There’s probably a word for this, but I don’t know what it is!
Karyn Romeis’ dissertation is going to be on “the use of social media on the professional practice of learning professionals”. She’s asked the edublogosphere for ‘testimonies’ – how we got started and the difference it’s made to our professional practice.
For what it’s worth, I’m going to chip in with my $0.02 as Karyn has often helped me before and has been a valued commenter, both here and on the now-defunct teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk.
The questions Karyn has asked are:
How did you get started with social media?
What was your introduction, and how did the journey unfold?
What difference has it made in your professional practice?
I shall take the points, as they say, in turn:
1. How did you get started with social media?
Although I knew what a blog was before 2004 (they came up in Google search results, for one) I didn’t really start subscribing to RSS feeds, etc. before then. I read the early ‘big names’ in what was then a small edublogosphere – the likes of Will Richardson, Dave Warlick, Stephen Downes and Wesley Fryer.
After subscribing to a number of blogs, including educational ones, I started blogging myself in late 2005. My confidence had grown from commenting on a range of blogs and having created websites the old-fashioned way as a teenager. I set up my teaching-related blog on a sub-domain of the mrbelshaw.co.uk website I was using with students in my classroom. When I found myself off work for a sustained period due to stress I began to blog at teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk every day. Like so many in the early days, I saw the huge potential of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom, and genuinely believed they could revolutionise the way we deliver learning to young people.
Wikis came later. I still haven’t found a way to use them in the classroom in a truly collaborative way, but I’m willing to keep trying. I’ve dabbled with podcasting, but blogs are my main method of communication on the Internet. Blogs, wikis and podcasts were – and to many still are – the defining tools of Web 2.0. Indeed, it’s pretty much the title of Will Richardson’ book.
2. What was your introduction, and how did the journey unfold?
I’ve mentioned the first part of this question above, but the journey unfolded in the following way. First of all, I started getting comments on my blog. These actually came from ‘seminal bloggers’ – in some cases figures such as the luminaries mentioned above. This spurred me on. During my absence from school due to stress, blogging gave me a focus, positive feedback and, I believe, aided my recovery.
The numbers of subscribers to the RSS feed of my blog slowly grew from late 2005 until I stopped blogging there at the end of 2007. During this time, I witnessed a huge expansion in the size of the edublogosphere. Ordinary class teachers (like myself) started putting their heads above the parapet online. First, this was mainly in the USA, but gradually I became aware of those in International Schools, then in Australia, and finally in the UK. I’m of the opinion that we still haven’t got enough English bloggers – Scotland’s at least 10 times smaller, population-wise, yet they put us to shame in the edublogosphere!
I’ve cleared my RSS feed reader and started again from zero a couple of times now. I think it’s probably a useful thing to do at least once per year: it gives you a reason to go out looking for new content and angles that can motivate and inspire you.
Finally, Twitter has been somewhat of a revelation. I’ve had my account about a year and a half now. During that time I’ve made so many more connections than I could have done before. You can get answers to very specific questions almost in real-time, begin impromptu more formal discussions or simply get the latest ‘buzz’. I love it. 😀
3. What difference has it made in your professional practice?
I’ve always been a fairly inquisitive person (I chose to study Philosophy as an undergraduate) and never been scared to mix things up a bit. In fact, the reason I became a teacher was to play my part in reforming the system for the better. Being part of a global community of teachers, however, has given me confidence, the knowledge and, in some cases, the skills, to get my point across in my educational institution.
There is such a thing as the ‘wisdom of crowds’, but I think it’s probably more like the ‘wisdom of the network’. Twitter’s a wonderful example. Thinkers such as George Siemens have a theory to explain this – it’s called Connectivism. Learners are ‘nodes on a network’ and the network harbours a great amount of knowledge, on tap at almost any time.
In my interactions with students, it’s allowed me to ‘flatten the walls of the classroom’ – to use a Warlickian phrase. Although students could keep up with homework, etc. with mrbelshaw.co.uk 1.0, the advent of learning.mrbelshaw.co.uk saw the dawn of mrbelshaw.co.uk 2.0, including links to Web 2.0 apps (wikis, podcasts, YouTube video clips, and so on).
It’s also meant I could start really showing my colleagues that they could use the Internet quickly and easily to interact with students. Having to learn HTML or to use a program with a potentially difficult-to-use learning curve to get content online, was a barrier for most teachers. Now, it’s as easy (in most cases) as signing up for an account somewhere, typing/uploading stuff and then sharing the web address with students. It also gives you the chance, again in most cases, to get feedback.
I’ve been fortunate to begin my teaching career at a time when such revolutionary tools are available. It’s just a shame that they haven’t – yet – caused a learning revolution. I’m four years into my teaching career and very much looking forward to what comes next. Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web? 🙂
George Siemens’ book Knowing Knowledge is an excellent work and is available freely online at knowingknowledge.com. The bibliography especially is likely to help me with my thesis. Here’s references from the book with links and references to holdings at Durham University Library, where appropriate:
Benkler, Y. (2006) The wealth of networks (not available @ Durham)
I’m thinking expanding the scope of my thesis (probably at a time when I should be thinking of focusing a bit more, but never mind). Instead of perpetuating the dividing walls between schools, universities and businesses, perhaps I could look at broader themes and trends and then bring them down to a practical level for each. Kind of what George Siemens has done with Knowing Knowledge – although there’s no way I could write anything as magnificent!
Stephen Downes links today in his OLDaily newsletter to an article by Dave Snowden entitled Natural Numbers, Networks & Communitiies. Dave realizes that attempts to create a taxonomy for knowledge management followed by forcing people to adapt to it does not work. Instead, he advocates embracing the messiness of learning and development through informal communities.
He goes on to talk about natural numbers and the amount of people who should be involved at each stage which isn’t relevant to what I’m doing. What is relevant, however, is his identification of a ‘messy learning’ approach to knowledge management and the ways in which this can be harnessed in a positive way. If only schools were that responsive…?
In the 21st century it is almost impossible to be an expert on anything. There is so much information – and indeed knowledge – out there that we could only ever become experts in ever-diminishing content areas. Instead, we need to ourselves become, and train our students to likewise become, experts in connecting knowledge. This is where connectivism comes in:
Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.