#PLENK2010 orientation

Tourists outside Natwest, Soho, 1978

I’m trying to get oriented to the #PLENK2010 course, and taking what Downes and Siemens mentioned in the Elluminate session on Friday into account. Here’s more detail on open courses and MOOCs from Dave Cormier and George Siemens. Learner goals are up to the learners, and learners have to construct – reconstruct or locate – languages: sets of terms, concepts – with which to set and meet those ends.  It’s bootstrapping.

The MOOC mirrors a discussion at a conference, in a research lab, or in a workshop. One of the key reasons for creating an open course is to bring a wide variety of perspectives to bear on a given topic. In the case of Siemens and Downes’s course in both 2008 and 2009 and also Cormier and Siemens’s “Education Futures” course, the instructors were interested in taking a broader look at the ideas. The course members resemble the people in a corner having an in-depth discussion that others can choose to enter. Enough structure is provided by the course that if a learner is interested in the topic, he or she can build sufficient language and expertise to participate peripherally or directly. The registration process is the approach to the conversation; the filtering, the deciding whether or not to participate, happens after registration. The more people who walk over to talk, the better the chance will be that people will contribute to the conversation.

It’s the Socratic method and it seems to lead to dangerous Socratic knowledge –

We are, in effect, returning to Socratic roots. The change that so worried Socrates was the writing down of knowledge, so that a learner could imitate understanding ideas by being reminded of them, giving the learner the “appearance of wisdom,” not its reality.

In my field of rhetoric, whenever someone mentions a conversation, they mention Kenneth Burke’s model of how knowledge is constructed by conversation. So here’s the obligatory link to Burke’s Parlor.

Or, as I roughly transcribed from Downes in the Elluminate session:

You learn by engaging in a community that is discussing and working with the subject matter. You learn what you need to learn by structuring your participation in the course in order to learn what you need to. That’s an aquired skill. Think of it as inquiry. As you and others all finding out what you can about the topic, then getting back together to tell stories. All co-inquirers. Look for stuff. Bring it back.


The scary part is the pedagogical model, which Cormier and Siemens, in a nifty move, cast as the social contract of the course:

The social contract in an open course is based on the participatory pedagogy model. The educator provides a frame, foundation, or platform for learning through starting-point readings and resources. With this structure in place, learners are expected to actively contribute to the formation of the curriculum through conversations, discussions, and interactions. Without the active involvement of learners, the course retains a limited structure of educator-provided content rather than becoming a multifaceted web of intersecting concepts, ideas, and connections to peripheral fields — a bricolage. Educators must be clear in their description of the challenges faced by learners in a bricolage-style environment so that learners will understand the investment necessary for success. That understanding is critical for an effective social contract between educator and learner.

Downes and Seimens were careful in the Elluminate session to make these matters clear, although getting a sense of what they mean in practice will take some more consideration and time.

In more detail, the educator’s role is not the guide on the side (there is no pre-set path to guide through) but multifaceted: amplifier, curator, scout, exemplar, presence.  Here’s the chart from Cormier and Siemens:

Educator Role Activity of Educator Tactics and Tools
Amplifying Drawing attention to important ideas/concepts Twitter, blogs
Curating Arranging readings and resources to scaffold concepts Learning design, tutorials, adjustment of weekly activities to reflect course flow
Wayfinding Assisting learners to rely on social sense-making through networks Comments on learners’ blog posts, help with social network formation, “live slides” method*
Aggregating Displaying patterns in discussions and content Google Alerts, RSS reader, visual tools (e.g., Many Eyes)
Filtering Assisting learners in thinking critically about information/conversations available in networks RSS reader, discussion of information trust, conceptual errors
Modeling Displaying successful information and interaction patterns All use of tools and activities to reflect educators’ modeling of appropriate practices
Staying Present Maintaining continual instructor presence during the course, particularly during natural activity lulls Daily (or regular newsletter), activity in forums, video posts, podcasts, weekly live sessions in synchronous tools (e.g., Elluminate)

To change directions: Here’s the MOOC from a slightly different angle. Michael Wrech doesn’t teach MOOCs, but seems oriented to constructivist pedagogy and MOOC practices as they play out in large, face-to-face, for-credit courses. First, there’s a problem in traditional teaching and learning that social and digital media and mediation can address:

We have had our why’s, how’s, and what’s upside-down, focusing too much on what should be learned, then how, and often forgetting the why altogether. In a world of nearly infinite information, we must first address why, facilitate how, and let the what generate naturally from there.

In parallel with Downes and Siemens, Wrech bases his practice in subjectivities, with the concomitant upset of traditional learning practices and placement of the learner.

As an alternative, I like to think that we are not teaching subjects but subjectivities: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be taught. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students. Learning a new subjectivity is often painful because it almost always involves what psychologist Thomas Szasz referred to as “an injury to one’s self-esteem.” You have to unlearn perspectives that may have become central to your sense of self.

As an example of teaching subjectivities, Wrech details his World Simulation project, which gives students open-course-like opportunities to remix and share. Students are placed in groups, and are responsible for aggregating and remixing.

A world map is superimposed on the class and each student is asked to become an expert on a specific aspect of the region in which they find themselves. Using this knowledge, they work in 15-20 small groups to create realistic cultures, step-by-step, as we go through each aspect of culture in class. This allows them to apply the knowledge they learn in the course and to recognize the ways different aspects of culture–economic, social, political, and religious practices and institutions–are integrated in a cultural system.

In the final weeks of the course we explore how different cultures around the world are interconnected and how they relate to one another. Students continue to harness and leverage the new media environment to learn more about these interconnections, and use the wiki to work together to create the “rules” for our simulation. …

It sounds like a huge project, but students remix their work into videos, then remix their group videos into one final artifact. The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It is recorded by students on twenty digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from real world history to illustrate the correspondences. The final move is to remix again, as they “watch the video together in the final weeks of the class, using it as a discussion starter for contemplating our world and our role in its future. ”

To my mind, the World Simulation project enacts MOOC practice. They are present in the grouping up, in the aggregating, remixing, repurposing, and sharing: repeatedly reassembling stuff into new configurations, then taking that configuration as the next thing to reconfigure. That’s more than iterative; it’s semiotic.


One thing that bothers me about Wrech’s position, and a lot that of others looking at PLEs, is that it starts from a deficit: Here’s a problem – here’s a solution. I’m of the mind that we don’t need a crisis in education to develop alternative pedagogies and practices.

One issue I’m side-stepping right now is what the MOOC learner does in detail. Downes offers this list – Aggregate, Remix, Repurpose, Share – with some examples. That’s not the kind of procedural or methodological talk that learners want.  That might be part of the traditional learning mind-set.  Personally, I’m not bovvered.

Look at use of wikis in PLEs.