Becoming an active, critical reader…

Back in September, Jim Groom shared his thoughts on the importance of reading for context. An approach to reading that for me is about becoming a more active, critical reader. As I read his post, I found myself nodding along, each sentiment reflecting what I find myself saying to both my GCSE and A-Level students on a weekly basis…

I’ve taken pains to reinforce how essential it is to read for context. To read for the things that don’t make sense, read for the things you do not know, and read for the ideas that make you stop and think. And in the process take the time to play detective. Look things up. Follow the lead the writer gives you, try and build a context for your reading. What’s more, with the ubiquity of the web the process couldn’t be any easier.

Without an understanding of context…

You miss something in the understanding. And with the web always already right there it makes the excuses of not doing it nothing short of paltry. Contextualizing and augmenting one’s understanding of any book is that much easier, faster, and more powerful—and it should increasingly be expected of students.

Yet I often find that it isn’t or hasn’t been. And as Jim exemplifies in the age of Google there is no excuse.

With my own students I begin at an even more basic level. When they encounter a word they do not know, I encourage them to work to figure it out; to contextualise it. And should that not work, to turn to the dictionary and find the definition. What I won’t do is tell them the answer nor will I allow them to ignore it. Why? Because…

…the act of reading is not to be taken for granted.

Reading is an active, critical process that needs to be cultivated. While it may not seem likely to them at first, I believe that most of my students come to appreciate that rather than taking the pleasure out of reading, stopping and looking things up improves their understanding and their enjoyment with it.

Blog Feed Update

Those of you who subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed may have noticed some strange chemistry related posts appearing in the feed. These posts were not written by me and if you navigate to jamesmichie.com/blog via the web you will not find them. I became aware of the problem a few weeks ago and have been trying to rectify it. However, this has not proved successful.

What does this mean? It means that I wil be deleting my FeedBurner feed shortly. If you wish to continue subscribing to this blog you can do so by resubscribing to the following feed address: http://jamesmichie.com/blog/feed; or you can follow me via Twitter where posts are pushed automatically.

Unfortunately, for the small number of you who subscribe via Email, I will be unable to offer this form of subscription for the foreseeable future.

[Update: 03.01.13] Email subscriptions are back up and running thanks to MailChimp’s RSS to Email feature. Click on the following link to subscribe: http://eepurl.com/tAnET.

MOOC MOOC – Day Four

Before I could join in with Day Four’s activities, I decided that I needed to better understand the concept of ‘Connectivism’.

Connectivism

Stephen Downes states that: “At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.” Which in my mind, could easily be describing my experience in using Twitter to develop a personal learning network (PLN). Through Twitter I have connected with a network of individuals, shared and aggregated resources and ideas, which has resulted in both learning and the (co-)construction of new ideas and resources.

He goes on to outline four process that are integral to connectivism:

  1. Aggregation
  2. Remixing
  3. Repurposing
  4. Feeding Forward

Considering this list closely, it would appear that connectivism is very similar to constructivism, particularly given that these activities encourage sharing, creation and collaboration.

However, Downes et al., see connectivism as a distinct model of its own. In ‘What is the unique idea in connectivism’, George Siemens explains that “learning is defined as the creation of new connections and patterns as well as the ability to maneuver around existing networks/patterns.” While this sounds very similar to Downes’ interpretation, Siemens emphasis on the “creation of new connections” implies that the learning occurs through networking as opposed to the act of construction. Artefacts created, either individually or collaboratively during MOOCs are, to some degree, a byproduct. The dialogue and connections generated before, during and after their creation is where the learning occurs. The network is the essence of connectivism; the essence of the MOOC.

Siemens continues, asserting that “Coherence. Sensemaking. Meaning. These elements are prominent in constructivism, to a lessor extent cognitivism, and not at all in behaviourism. But in connectivism, we argue that the rapid flow and abundance of information raises these elements to critical importance.” This is certainly true, and within MOOC MOOC this has been more than evident. However, for some participants, the sheer scale of information generated by the network can be overwhelming. Therefore, I would argue that, to be successful in a MOOC, you have to be well-versed in the use of tools that can help you make sense of the information. Moreover, as I have previously written, it is important for participants to be willing to plot their own paths and not feel that they have to read/do everything.

Moreover, connectivism, is a pedagogy that places significant emphasis on interdependence. Perhaps then the most important facet of the MOOC acronym is ‘openness’. Relatively free from geographical, economic, social and cultural constraints, the cMOOC gives rise to democratised, networked-learning that emphasises participation and collaboration.

Participant Pedagogy

Day Four’s task was to consider participant pedagogy. I entered into this having not really had time to look at the reading, but with some strong views about learner participation and the student/teacher paradigm. In my own words

Learning is and should always be in the hands of the learner.

A number of us, decided that some face-to-face interaction was needed and so a Google+ Hanout was instigated. After a few technical problems, Sheila MacNeil, Martin Hawksey, David Kernohan, Alan Ng and I engaged in a fruitful discussion.

The discussion covered a number of related topics:

  • the pedagogical models found within the cMOOC/xMOOC dichotomy;
  • the position of teacher/lecturer and the way that we (educators) view education/learning;
  • the problems with systematised education (sage on the stage, teach to the test culture);
  • participant pedagogy, including the problem of the teacher/student paradigm

As I suggest a number of times during the discussion, I believe that the dichotomy of the traditional student/teacher relationship is a false one; based on an out of date system of education. If our goal is to foster a love of learning, then I believe it is necessary for educators to position themselves as learners, facilitators, guides; not as experts. A scary prospect for some.

Pete Rorabaugh argues that:

Critical pedagogy, no matter how we define it, has a central place in the discussion of how learning is changing in the 21st century because critical pedagogy is primarily concerned with an equitable distribution of power… Digital tools offer the opportunity to refocus how power works in the classroom. In its evolution from passive consumption to critical production – from the cult of the expert to a culture of collaboration – the critical and digital classroom emerges as a site of intellectual and moral agency.

This is certainly a thesis that I can support, given that I would describe my own classroom in similar terms. However, I am left asking whether or not such an evolution requires ‘digital tools’ to achieve such equity? Can learning not be democratised within traditional educational settings, without the influence of technology? Does this not, have more to do with shifting beliefs and values about pedagogy and the student/teacher paradigm?

Teo Bishop, makes a similar case, asserting that:

A teacher and a student, when presented as text on the screen, look exactly the same. They are just text. The internet is the Great Equalizer not only because it provides the world with a seemingly unlimited amount of information, but because it reduces us all to font, to pixels, to bits of sound and noise that only begin to approach our full complexity.

Perhaps… although I think this is a naive view. Technology, in this case ‘the internet’, is being given far too much credit. Social status, expertise and power are in no way absent from the world wide web. Blogs and social networks may have given everyone a voice, but that does not mean that everyone is listening.

Technology, itself, does not have the power to improve education. Nor does it have the power to democratise it. The participatory pedagogies alluded to by both Rorabaugh and Bishop require a change in values and beliefs on the part of not just educators, but society as a whole. Moreover, they require a dramatic shift in the priorities of educational institutions. It’s better economics for institutions such as Stanford and MIT to proffer xMOOC style courses, as the investment in participant-based co-creation and the development of networks is labour intensive and difficult to control.

Earlier in the article, Bishop asked what I think is a more important question: “I’m in a position where I can do my best work, and inspire the most dialogue, by openly not having the answers. Do teachers have that luxury?” Yes they do, but they have to be prepared to take risks; to be willing to redefine their role within the classroom. As I shared in the Hangout, I do not consider myself to be a teacher anymore. I am a learner, facilitator, and guide.

On reflection, I wonder to what extent teaching Media Studies has impacted on the way I view education and my role within it. Media Studies is in a continual state of evolution, built on theoretical ideas rather than absolutes; responding to a changing landscape, influenced by social and technological developments. There is always something new to learn, to understand, at no point would I therefore, profess to be an expert.

Jesse Stommel (on Twitter) shared: “Every semester I teach at least one book that I’ve never read before. I read it with the students and actively under-prepare.” Within his words, there is a clue to a deeper philosophy, a belief in shared, interdependent learning between teacher and student. I take a similar approach with my own students, wishing to participate in a ‘learning journey’, where the opinions of student and teacher are of equal value.

Of all of the reading that was provided to support this part of the course, I found Howard Rheingold’s article ‘Toward Peeragogy’ provided the most compelling narrative. Reflecting on the development of what he has coined “peeragogy”, Rheingold draws out, what I believe to be, key tenets in encouraging independent/interdependent learning in any classroom.

In retrospect, I can see the coevolution of my learning journey: my first step was to shift from conventional lecture-discussion-test classroom techniques to lessons that incorporated social media, my second step gave students co-teaching power and responsibility, my third step was to elevate students to the status of co-learner. It began to dawn on me that the next step was to explore ways of instigating completely self-organized, peer-to-peer online learning.

In his classroom, both online and in the lecture hall, Rheingold’s “peeragogy” is built on ‘openness’, ‘social media’, and ‘student voice/choice’ – the same three tenets advocated by Catherine Cronin during a presentation at #EdTech12. Three tenet that can easily be applied to cMOOCs.

The Role of the cMOOC

Returning to one of the articles, from day one of MOOC MOOC, I would argue that Siemens is correct. c“MOOCs are really a platform”, out of which an interdependent network is built. A network that encourages, openness, social connectedness/collaboration, and voice/choice. The cMOOC is nothing without its participants and its participants are in control of the pedagogy.

MOOC MOOC – Day Two

Day 2 of MOOC MOOC was very enjoyable. We were given our first formal activity, which involved creating a 1000 word collaborative essay, addressing the following questions:

  • What is a MOOC?
  • What does it do, and what does it not do?

Based on my reading and my familiarity with using Google Docs, I jumped straight in and began to respond. One or two others did likewise. Eventually, we reached a collaborative impasse, realising we needed to do some more reading and take some time to reflect. In particular, I needed to understand better the difference between the two different types of MOOC that were being discussed: cMOOCs (Connectivist – developed by the likes of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier) and xMOOCs (the Coursera/Udacity model – currently being lauded and vilified, depending on which end of the Media spectrum you choose to read).

cMOOC vs xMOOC

As one of the early developers of cMOOCs, George Siemens writes: “Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.” Marc Bousquet, sums this up more concisely, writing about cMOOCs that: “Good MOOC’s…foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption.”

What we have then in MOOCs is little more than a continuation of the age-old debate between progressive, student-centred learning and traditional transmission-based teaching/learning that has dominated education for a long time. When taking this dichotomy at face value, there is little that is surprising. In that, the institutional model (xMOOCs) is essentially an extension of the pedagogical models practiced within the institutions themselves, while the more progressive model (cMOOCs) built by a ‘connected’ group of ‘individuals’ is relatively free from institutional constraints.

Does this mean that within institutions such as Stanford and MIT no social, creative, networked learning occurs? Certainly not, but like in many educational establishments I would suggest that such models of learning are the exception rather than the norm. Why is this? In my experience, it is not one facet but a combination of factors that result in such situations. Infrastructure, finance, time and leadership all impact on educational practice within educational institutions. I have no doubt that, in the eyes of institutional leaders, xMOOCs represent an opportunity to increase marketing and revenue. When Watters asserts that “the pedagogy – watch videos, take multiple choice quizzes – is an indication that these courses are retreading old practices rather than really rethinking how the technology can transform how we teach/learn”, she is not only right, but also raises the question: why? Is this simply a case of educational practitioners ‘not getting it’? Or is it a case of professors and teachers being asked to produce content for something they have not had time to come to terms with? I am not making excuses, as I sit significantly far to the cMOOC end of the spectrum when it comes to my own pedagogical classroom-practice. However, working within an educational establishment myself, I have witnessed a number of potentially progressive projects and initiatives be delivered very poorly. Why? Usually, because the leadership wants to jump on a bandwagon and little to no time is afforded for professional development or research to develop understanding of the potential pedagogical benefits, let alone best practices.

MOOCs are not about broadcasting education although that is what many xMOOCs appear to be doing. cMOOCs on the other hand have huge potential to be both a disruptive and progressive force within education. They can:

  • Develop and fostering connected, collaborative learning beyond traditional classroom settings
  • Provide learning that does not fit neatly into the curriculum
  • Connect groups of like-minded individuals who share interests
  • Provide a platform for the development of learner independence and resilience

Having developed a better understanding of the cMOOC and xMOOC paradigms, I returned to the Google Doc which had taken further shape. I enjoyed helping to edit and refine it and feel that I was able to make a better contribution having taken some time to step back, allowing my thinking to evolve.

You can read the finished essay here: A Mooc by Any Other Name (4)

Final Thought

In the video interview above, George Siemens expresses that MOOCs are about learners embracing chaos, making sense of it themselves, rather than someone doing it for them. The collaborative essay was a perfect example of this, we began with chaos but through initiative, reflection and connection we were able to make sense of the chaos and produce a piece of succinct writing. Is it the case then, that the online aspect of MOOCs is what is most important? Owing to the fact that, through the use of web-based tools (Google Docs, Canvas, Twitter) we were able to form connections and collaborate effectively.

MOOC MOOC – Day One

Yesterday I enrolled and began participating in MOOC MOOC a week long, Massive Open Online Course about Massive Open Online Courses.

This is the first MOOC that I have participated in although I have been following the development and growth of the MOOC phenomenon for some time; aided by blog posts and tweets from the likes of Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Jim Groom and Audrey Watters. My interest in such courses is obvious… just a short perusal of my blog will tell you that I have a vested interest in e-Learning, independent learning and learning pedagogies. I am currently writing up my research proposal as part of the Masters in Education I am undertaking. I am seeking to answer the following question:

To what extent can virtual courses support the development of independent learning beyond ‘real time’ curriculum delivery?

I hope that spending the week participating in MOOC MOOC will provide additional ideas and lines of enquiry, as I continue to develop and refine my thinking around both online learning and learner independence. I am also interested in the role such courses can play within the education landscape and the challenge that they can pose to traditional-systematised models of education. I hold strong beliefs about learner independence and feel that we are currently reaching a point where learning has the potential to be more democratised and available to learners, free from economic and geographical constraints. Moreover, I see potential in MOOCs to be a piece of the puzzle in enabling learners to be autonomous; self-managing their learning pathway. I’m not sure how far this view reflects others’ thinking and that is something I hope to discern over the course of the week.

I am also interested to see how a MOOC is/can be different from any other online course? What is the balance/relationship between pedagogy and technology? What is most important within the ‘Massive Open Online Course’? Scale? Openness? Online? Or something else? I have many questions and I don’t expect to necessarily come out the other end with answers but I do expect my thinking to have moved forwards.

Day One: Orientation

What follows here is a collection of my thoughts after the first day of MOOC MOOC

Having enrolled, participants were invited to edit their profile, sort notification preferences and introduce themselves, all within the confines of the Canvas LMS. While I understand the decision to use such a platform to structure the course, it immediately raised questions. Canvas certainly looks nice but is no way different to Blackboard or Moodle in its infrastructure and approach. Does the use of such platforms limit MOOCs? Are our perceptions of what a MOOC is/can be being defined by previous experiences of online courses that have and continue to be delivered within such platforms? How is MOOC MOOC different from any other online course? I don’t have an answer yet but as with all learning, I believe it’s imperative to look beyond the technology. If we do that then, what we are left with is a discussion and a selection of articles to read. Not particularly ground breaking but then it is only day one. I tried to engage with the forum discussion, introducing myself and responding to one/two other people’s posts. However, I found myself becoming irked by the platform; the threaded structure and limited functionality made the process cumbersome. Furthermore, given that a Twitter social was scheduled for 6pm, I have to ask what the point of using the forum was? I am reminded of a discussion I had a while ago about the value of distribution and multiple platforms. However, I remain unconvinced. For each activity I feel it is best to pick one medium (hopefully the one that is best suited to the task).

Finding myself a little underwhelmed, I decided to spend some time reading. A number of articles were posted, several of which I had not encountered before and others that I had. In this process, what a MOOC is began to reveal itself; not only in terms of varying definitions, which I plan to explore as the course continues, but also in terms of my role as participant/independent learner. Writing this on day two, I have already had a number of discussions on Twitter and via a Google Doc about the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. There is clearly a history to be understood and a lot of information to be digested however it’s becoming clear that connecting, discussing, and debating is an integral feature of MOOCs. Dave Cormier says as much in the following video.

Now, a day and a half in, I have oriented, declared and sprinted head first into sharing, collaborating and debating with the network. Like I have experienced during my M.Ed studies, and with my own students, it is the dialogue that is most important. Perhaps then, a MOOC is nothing more than a beginning, a platform to jump off of? Each article, each activity a way to evolve thinking and generate further discussion?