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Five Questions ... For George Siemens

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / April 2009

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Lisa Neal Gualtieri: Do you believe the educational system is broken, and, if so, have the problems been created or influenced by the Internet?

George Siemens: I wouldn't use the term broken to describe the education system. I would say, instead, that our education system is mismatched to the needs of today's society. David John Frank and Jay Gabler, in their book Reconstructing the University, argue that universities map reality. That is, universities reflect the society in which they exist in content and in method. The University of Tokyo in 1900 offered courses in explosive and arms technology. Several centuries prior, western universities served the spiritual and religious needs of society. As the environment in which universities exist changes, so too must its universities. Obviously, it is difficult to define an era when you're living through it, but early indicators suggest that ours is an era of participation, of engagement, of breaking down silos that have been created to serve a different society with different needs from our own.

The changed context that we face has not been exclusively created by the Internet. I've argued that we are riding a multi-millennia wave of increased ability for individuals to create and control content and information. Current technologies are an instantiation of that longer cycle of change. The development of writing, the printing press, and more recently the participative Web, have reduced the barriers for interaction with information. Almost anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now produce a book (online or paper-based through a service like Lulu). As more people participate in creating information, new problems emerge. How do we make sense of information abundance? What role do experts play? How do we make sure that important information is not lost in the trivial?

It is here that we begin to notice the growing mismatch of education to the societal context in which it exists. How can we reframe education to better serve the ability of individuals to participate in and make sense of tremendous quantities of information? How shall we restructure society to account for the global networked-flow of information? How do we re-create our social spaces when technology increasingly mediates our interactions with each other? How do we acknowledge and foster expertise in a continual flow of information? How do we weigh the contributions of amateurs with the vetting processes utilized by experts? I'm convinced that our responses to questions of this nature will be a central legacy that our generation will leave for subsequent generations.

LNG: What do you see as the optimal role of pre-constructed models (such as courses) in education for K-12, university, and workplace learning?

GS: Pre-constructed models like courses are useful for fields where information is somewhat stable. History, for example, hasn't changed significantly (other than our interpretation of it). The heroes of ancient Greece, the development of philosophy, and the development of the scientific process are all fairly stable. If we can put borders around information-which is exactly what we are doing when we create a course-without oversimplifying it or reducing its accuracy, then we can teach it as a course. If, on the other hand, we are dealing with information that is complex, requires multiple perspectives, or is changing rapidly, then a course model is not desirable. Why? If we take a snapshot of a subject, it must be accurate to be of value to the learner. If the information base in a discipline is stable, the snapshot is useful for learners. If the discipline is not stable, any pre-constructed model will be ineffective. It's like trying to identify someone who is 65 years old when all you have is her baby picture. The snapshot, in this instance, is almost useless.

A business person, for example, must be able to adapt and respond to clients. Parroting information acquired in a course is hardly effective. The give-and-take interactions with clients, of identifying needs and exploring solutions, of building capacity to adjust to changing circumstances, is not possible through taking courses. Various theorists have defined this as a shift from knowing to being. Our capacity to continue to know more is of greater importance than what we know today. Courses, therefore, are best served in developing basic knowledge and skills. The effectiveness of courses diminishes as a field becomes more complex and evolves more rapidly.

LNG: What are the primary skills people need to learn at these different ages to function well in society and are they being taught right now?

GS: Education plays many roles in society. On one level, education is focused on preparing for a career. On a more idealistic level, education is concerned with preparing individuals to be productive participants in a democratic society. Skills needed by learners will obviously vary at different age levels. In the K-12 system, foundations are important. Learners must develop basic literacy in reading, writing, technology, math, sciences, critical thinking, and information validation in order for improved social participation in public spaces.

At a higher education level, these skills continue to be developed, but the focus shifts from learning foundational skills to participating in and contributing to the expansion of knowledge. At this level learners develop greater awareness of the foundations of society, of the history of ideas, and how to participate in information creation and exchange. While this has always been the case of both K-12 and higher education, the process is now mediated by technology and is occurring in a space where pace and mutability of information have increased. As a result, new skills are required in sensemaking, wayfinding, and forming coherent narratives of a discipline. It is important for learners to function in fragmented information environments, participate in distributed teams, and interact with different cultures, beliefs, and viewpoints.

Workplace learning is defined by the capacity of individuals to accept and function in complex environments. Correct answers don't exist in advance of engagement with a particular situation or problem. Solutions are no longer prefabricated and then matched to particular problems as they arise. Many of our problems today are unique and new. Answers don't exist in advance of encountering the problem. Learning needs at this stage are contextual, informal, and situational.

These skills are taught to varying degrees in k-12, higher education, and workplace environments. From my experience, however, the development of these skills is more peripheral than central. Many learners acquire these skills on their own, rather than as a result of a guided or more formal process.

LNG: In your paper, "Learning and Technology: Success and Strategy in a Digital World," you talk about the importance of recognizing essential information and understanding its impact. How do you teach skills like these in the workplace? Can you give an example of a course you taught or know about where these skills were taught? What was the approach and how did you know it was successful?

GS: In fall of 2008, I taught an online course with Stephen Downes on "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" (CCK08). It wasn't really a course in the traditional sense, but I'll use that term. Rather than serving in the role of "primary sensemaker" that educators typically play, we designed the course to encourage learners to develop personal networks in order to filter information. With more than 2,000 participants, this was a challenge. Early in the course, learners frequently expressed frustration and confusion. As the course progressed, however, learners began to form networks and develop habits that enabled them to make sense of the subject matter. Downes and I sent out a daily newsletter capturing the ongoing conversation. We also held weekly live discussion sessions and brought in guest speakers. We set up a Moodle site for traditional discussions as well. From there, we gave the learners as much choice and freedom as possible. Some learners set up a SecondLife component, others translated the course syllabus into different languages (five in total that I'm aware of), and others created their own mailing lists and scheduled regular online meeting times. I know of several learners in the course that formed local study groups (for those in a similar geographical area), but I'm unsure of how these progressed.

CCK08 is an early indication of what courses might look like in the future when learners have far greater control to explore and make sense of environments through their personal networks. The educator or trainer still places an important role (a key node in a network), but is no longer the primary contributor to the development of learner knowledge. CCK08 mirrors the skills and process through which an employee stays current in his or her field. Again, I return to the concepts of sensemaking and wayfinding through networks. A coherent narrative of a subject often does not exist in the manner that courses suggest. We create a coherent view of fragmented information through our interactions with others and through the feedback we receive as we engage with a particular subject.

How did I know it was successful? The problem of determining the success and impact of training and development is longstanding. What do we use for ROI? Money invested vs. results (which are very difficult to ascertain)? Development of capacity to act? Ability to handle complexity? With CCK08, I know it was successful for a very simple reason: learner feedback. During the course, learners expressed their initial confusion and subsequent grounding through network relationships. I continue to receive emails from participants in the course stating the impact it had on their work and on their approach to teaching and learning. I'm not sure how to quantify that monetarily, but at this stage, I'm content to receive direct feedback from learners expressing how it has changed their teaching and their views of the learning process.

LNG: Finally, what advice would you offer someone who is developing or delivering e-learning based on your experiences and insights?

GS: Approaches to learning design, development, and delivery will obviously vary by discipline, grade/age level, and the context in which learning will be delivered. To simplify the process, I'd recommend designers consider three elements:

  • Context: Nothing influences learning design more than the context in which the learning will occur. Corporations can not assume broadband connectivity when delivering training to global audiences. Language and cultural distinctions are important. The technical skill level of the trainers and the learners is also important. And, as information is increasingly represented in specific environments, alternative learning experiences through mobile devices, simulations, and virtual worlds becomes important.

  • Connections: Knowledge is distributed across social and technological networks. Learning involves growing and exploring those networks. Learning design, therefore, is primarily concerned with assisting learners in building the capacity to participate in networks. Learners should be able to access information and experts when needed.

  • Choice: Designers cannot anticipate the full spectrum of learner needs. As a result, choice and variety are important. Choice must be reflected in terms of variety, pace, modality (online, mobile), and degree of support (mentorship, self-guided). Rather than detailing a pathway through material, learners should have the option to wayfind through utilization of personal and social networks. In this model, learners continue to have access to required resources (and their social and information network) after a course has concluded.


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