Archive for the '682' Category

Constructivism and Instruction

November 24th, 2010

As the semester winds down, there are some issues that I’d like to address relative to the ideas surrounding constructivist theory, instruction, learning, and education.

One issue is the idea of constructivist theory. The underlying notion of constructivism is that we each build our own understanding of the world. Given the emphasis on objectivism in the literature surrounding the topic, this seems counter intuitive. Perhaps one way to play with the idea is to consider that there is an Objective Truth. Things exist outside of our ken and the nature of those things is immutable. What’s at stake in constructivism is how each of us understands that Objective Truth.

Example: There is a rock in my yard. I discovered it while mowing. That rock means something to me but existed before I knew of it. My wife doesn’t know about the rock. She doesn’t mow the lawn. Her mental construction of the world does not include the rock. My daughter, on the other hand, knows about the rock because she used it as a background in one of her digital images. Her construction of the world includes the rock – just as mine does – but for her, that construction is linked to her creative efforts and not to my lawn mowing. We have — all three of us — constructed knowledge about the world and each of our constructions is unique.

Objectively there is a rock. Some people know about the rock. Some people don’t. Even those of us who know about the rock do not agree on what the rock is.

Education doesn’t care about the rock in my yard. From a certain perspective, Education doesn’t care about learning at all. The focus of Education is the business of instruction. For many societies, the main purpose of Education is the indoctrination of the next generations to become good, upstanding members of the society. In large part this is a political effort, but here in the US the idea is rooted in a Capitalist ideal. People should grow up and be able to take care of themselves.

Because Education is a business, there are constraints on what Education can do. One good thing is that Education can actually help make a positive difference in the lives of those it touches. Teaching a child to read or a youth to calculate are both valuable life skills which can lead to the acquisition of commercially marketable skills. As adults we need marketable skills which can be traded as labor in a marketplace in order to earn the incomes we need to acquire food, shelter, and security. The uncertainty in the last two decades as information and knowledge technologies gain on the more industrial ones has caused a substantial realignment of the economic landscape. A similar realignment happened during the Industrial Revolution as generalist agrarian populations became specialized urban ones. (In the course on Technology, Education, and Culture I argue that technology does not change culture, but defines it.)

The intersection of Education and constructivism is really a null set except for the subset of Education which involves effective instruction. Instruction is the production work in the Education factory. Classrooms and their technological surrogates are the work centers where teachers work to produce learning in their students. This relationship is key to understanding what we’re doing. Teachers do not produce knowledge. They do not produce students. The knowledge exists without the students. The students exist without the teacher. The purpose of the teacher is to help the student acquire the knowledge in useful and meaningful ways. Those ways vary from content domain to content domain and from student to student.

Example: A dance teacher needs to help students understand the cultural, social, aesthetic, and kinesthetic reality of dance. They may use examples from history, practice on the floor, movies, whatever. There’s a large collection of materials upon which to draw depending on the specific requirements for that particular course at that particular time for that particular set of students. In an ideal world they help students learn to dance, but in an Educational world their role is to assess and validate that the students have acquired the prescribed level of knowledge outlined in the content guidelines.

Example: An algebra teacher needs to help students understand priority of operation, principles of substitution and equivalence, and how to solve equations with one or more unknowns. Unlike dance, this is a mental construction — more abstract than concrete — and requires the student and teacher to enter a largely theoretical realm. In many ways this is a virtual world where the computer that mediates and creates the world is internal to each of us. We need to learn the rules and be guided through the operations. We need to learn how to navigate and what might have meaning. Again, in an ideal world the teacher helps the student learn how to solve a collection of real problems which they will encounter in the real world — namely how to calculate a real value when we don’t have all the direct numbers, but instead must deal with – for example – proportions. In the Educational world, the role of teacher is to assess and validate that the students … etc.

In both these examples and in both worlds–regardless of what or how the teacher teaches–a constructivist would hold that each student builds their own meaning, their own understanding of the subject matter. Yes, they dance. Yes, they solve equations. The meaning of the dance or the nature of the solution is unique because it’s constructed anew for each student based on their particular context.

With that as a background, we need to construct a new reality–an understanding of the pivotal role of teacher as worker in the Educational factory.

Any effective worker learns how to do the job most effectively and efficiently. In part that means understanding what the job is and being clear about what that construction entails. For a teacher, the learner is a black box. Stuff goes in. Stuff comes out. We can’t really see what happens in the middle. We have some theories — Behaviorism, Objectivism, Operant Conditioning, Constructivism, Constructionism, Connectivism — but they are all just ex post facto analyses of observed phenomenon which are used to predict outcomes based on the results of previously administered inputs.

I like the notion of Constructivism — although Connectivism is gaining currency with me. Philosophically, the idea that there is an Objective Truth which must be discovered by each individual seems more rational to me than the idea that nothing exists until we think of it. My experience validates the notion that construction is unique to each individual — even on things that seem obvious like the rock in my yard. If you come to my house, you can see the rock. We can agree that it’s there. What it *means* and how it relates to anything else is the key. I think that idea of meaning and relation is the key to any knowledge — not just the trivial idea of the rock in my yard.

This underlying philosophy — that everyone constructs his or her own knowledge — forces me to consider that what I want to teach has very little relationship to what my students learn. Ideally, I’ll manage congruency and they’ll learn what I need them to learn in order to satisfy my role as teacher. That philosophy dictates that I accept and understand that what I teach is only a subset of what they’ll learn and that the meaning they create has only a passing and tangential relationship to any assessment I may use. This is particularly true when I consider that I cannot assess the difference between what I intend to teach and what I actually teach. The situation only gets worse when we take into consideration that even the student might not know what they’ve learned — what the meaning and relationship of that knowledge might be to the rest of their lives — until weeks or even years after the course ends.

The implications of constructivism for my practice are that, ideally, I want to create educational situations where the students are offered the opportunity to construct knowledge in the domain of interest. Whether that domain is concrete like geology or abstract like algebra, it behooves me to create environments that encourage students to create their own knowledge. Because my job is to assess and validate for the Education factory, I need to temper that by applying assessments that satisfy the institutional requirements. The more that my assessments approximate real performance–the more my students can demonstrate what they’ve learned and not just answer questions about it–the more confidence I can have that the students actually learned. If I teach cooking, having students cook something instead of taking a multiple choice test about cooking something is more authentic and is likely to provide me with a more satisfying assessment and even–perhaps–a better sense for how well and how much the student has learned.

Level Up Your Gaming

September 27th, 2010

Lately I’ve been looking around for a new game. Like I really have time to play but the truth is that gaming adds a bit of spark to my humdrum existence. Sometimes I just like to get away from it all and play a bit.

One of the things I used to do was MUD. That’s a text based MMORPG where you don’t have pictures and such, but room descriptions and rapidly flowing text. I love those things, although they may be a bit dated now. I still think they’d be great reading interventions for middle and high school students. The one thing that MUDding does is give you lots of practice reading. My favorite MUD – Last Outpost – went off line after years of play. We even used it in the 688 Games course a few times.

Recently a house guest – somebody I met while MUDding – showed us Lord of the Rings Online. The service recently went to a Free-to-Play model and the free version works very well indeed at lower levels. A word of warning — it’s an adventure game and in order to advance you have to slay monsters (and sometimes kill animals, people, HUGE spiders, etc.). It’s not terribly violent but there’s certainly an aspect of violence that some will find offensive. On the upside, there is no player-vs-player violence. There’s enough action in the forests.

What I’m finding fascinating from an instructional design and educational gaming perspective is the meta-cognitive view of the game. This is a “level up” game – that is, you gain more skills and powers as you move up the ladders and earn more points of experience. You gain that experience by completing quests that – at least at the level I’m running at so far – involve a lot of running around from here to there and finding people/things that you are looking for. The set up involves race (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit) and a variety of classes (Hunter, Guardian, Minstrel, Champion, etc). The characters are enhanced with skills and traits to emphasize various aspects of their experience. Elves are agile, dwarves are not. That kind of thing. All told, an interesting and complex set up.

But the game doesn’t stop there.

On top of it all (or under it, depending on your perspective) is the idea of a profession. There are cooks and tailors, smiths and woodworkers. You can specialize in farming or forestry. As with the races/classes, these professions have things that they can do that others cannot. Food turns out to be an important asset that’s sometimes difficult to find. Having a cook means getting sustenance when you need it – like after that huge cave bear chewed your leg half off. Tailors can make armor, Foresters find wood and leather. Miners harvest minerals, and it all feeds into a larger construct of the mutually created world of LOTRO.

The interesting thing to me is how this relates to learning and education. You don’t go to school to learn to play the game. There is a very – and I mean very – brief new player intro where you pick up the basic skills of movement and interaction. There are occasional popups explaining some aspect of the game, its interface, or the experience when you first start out, but basically, you learn by doing – you construct your knowledge and understanding of how to play the game as you play the game. Playing is – literally – learning.

Before anybody gets strung out on the next round of High Stakes Political Gaming, I’m not suggesting that LOTRO is necessarily teaching anything about US History or Earth Science. There are aspects of it that are directly applicable to arithmetic and reading. You really do have to read a lot, and knowing a little math helps a great deal. In that aspect, it’s much more like life than a game.

The interesting aspect – for me as an educator – is how they manage to get all that stuff into a game. When you start, you don’t know a snow spider from a cave claw, a forge from a shopkeeper. You need to learn where to go, how to get there, what to do when you arrive. You have to differentiate among Non Player Characters (NPCs) and other people who are driving their avatars (toons) across the landscape. There are merchants, trainers, facilities, and a plethora of mysteries that all get illuminated as the story unfolds. And there’s even an encyclopedia for the game for when you need to look something up — like “What does Fate do?”

At the moment, I’m still unpacking it. The crafting (profession) aspect of it has features that make the game play much more intriguing, and provide a rationale for interaction beyond “let’s get together and kill stuff” that’s common in many other games. This idea of crafting is not new. I believe it was started by EverQuest and moved along into World of Warcraft (I’ve never played them so I can’t speak with any authority) but I know this isn’t a new idea in a game, but it’s still a fascinating implementation.

Still, as a replacement for my Last Outpost experience, I’m finding LOTRO to be a very satisfying replacement.

Actions Not Nouns

September 24th, 2010

Stephen Downes has been having a heavy think about learning and a theory of learning lately. You should subscribe to him and read his stuff. He sent me to this post about learning objectives:

Actions lead to lively activities
A course ruled by conventional learning objectives like “define pathogen” will have simple fact checks and Jeopardy games. A course dedicated to supporting real-world behaviors like “kill pathogens on imported fruit” will be more likely to have realistic simulations, such as an activity that requires learners to assess a crate of apples for possible pathogens and take the appropriate actions.

via Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives » Making Change.

This rings a bell with me. It has a resonance that makes sense to me from an instructional design standpoint.

Read and think.

Learning Styles — Again

September 6th, 2010

Every semester we go around with this. Every semester people argue with me about it. Every semester I run through the evidence and even with it staring them in the face, every semester teachers reject the idea that there is no credible evidence to support the idea of “Learning Styles” as currently applied in education. Here’s another study that agrees with me:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

via Learning Styles — Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

I got this link from a NY Times article about how much we do in education is based–and I’m paraphrasing here–on superstition.

For the 682 class: What does this mean for your designs? If you’re restricted to using ONLY those techniques for which we have good, scientifically based support–as you’re required to do by NCLB, btw–what can you do in a classroom?

For the 801 class: Here’s a leadership challenge for you. You cannot support the use of learning styles as a valid, research-based practice. How do you deal with that?


What We Call Stuff

September 1st, 2010

D’Arcy Norman is one of my inspirations. Usually once a day or so he posts something that intrigues or challenges me. This is what I found when I woke this morning:

It’s very basic, but that’s the point of the video. Could come in handy in talking with faculty members – sometimes they have interesting concepts of what eLearning is (and isn’t)…

via Video: Sticky Concepts (introduction to) eLearning | D’Arcy Norman dot net.

I love this use of video. It’s right up there with the Common Craft stuff but there are a couple of things that bug me. Call me a curmudgeon but I really want us to be clearer about some of these constructs.

I know it’s popular to put e- in front of everything. Ever since Apple trademarked i- I suppose we needed a letter and e- for electronic is easier than c- or even cy- for cyber- even tho cy- might be more appropriate and accurate. In this case, since the video actually gives examples that are electronically mediated and not just computer mediated, I suppose the use of e- here is appropriate.

My real complaint is the use of Learning. While the authors allege to talk about electronically mediated activities for learning, what they mostly talk about are electronically mediated sources for teaching. The summary information about the learning environment that included syllabus, lecture notes, assignments, exam results, etc in particular made me question the appropriateness of the term Learning.

Take “syllabus” as an example. At its simplest a syllabus is merely an outline for a particular course of study. While these can be self-generated, typically they’re provided by faculty to tell students how much work they need to do to get a good grade. In a true e-learning platform, I think the platform itself becomes a kind of syllabus as the resources of interest get added to and removed from the environment based on the learner’s need.

At the moment e-learning platforms are much more student centered than these quick videos indicate. I think part of the reason for the oversimplification and the shift in perspective is because of the complexity of true elearning platforms, which really are an organizing component of a personal learning environment, and because mainly these videos target teachers (not students) and telling a teacher they’re not the center of the learning universe has predictably Copernican implications.

I do applaud the producers for including the little bit about web 2.0 connections they added at the end, but I think that really does say a lot about how the producers feel about web 2.0 and its relationship to the e-learning platform–it’s something to be tacked on the end.

Let me offer my own e-learning platform as an example and maybe it’ll help explain why I think it’s a different construct on its face than the e-learning platform described in the video.

First, the components:
1. My computers. Yes, plural. I have a collection of computers to help me manage my learning. My windows based machine gives me access to a collection of communications tools that are not available on my Linux machines. Notably, this involves proprietary environments like Second Life, which have problems with the graphics adapters available on Linux based machines. My main Linux machine provides the horsepower I need to actually produce work like extended works in an audio format and web based development where I can prototype my web presentations without actually needing a connection to the web or exposing the draft work to the public while in development. Last, my netbook provides a handy tool for basic communications and production on the go. I can tuck it in my pocket and use it when I need more space or speed than my smartphone provides.

2. My smartphone. This lets me access people who are at a distance when I’m not at my computer. It also provides a rudimentary interface to web based resources while I’m away from my main connection points. It’s an mp3 player which I use for listening to content when my eyes are otherwise occupied, and a camera that lets me record images of things that might take too long to describe or that can serve as visual referents. (I can take a picture of a plant which I can then show to an expert in order to find out what it is, for example.) It’s also an e-book reader and I use it to read texts when I’m waiting for something else to happen (grocery line, cooking dinner, picking up kids from school, etc). It might be worth noting that I also have dedicated devices for MP3 playing, taking digital images, and reading ebooks. The smartphone has the advantage of being always with me, while I need to make special arrangements to use the dedicated devices.

How I use these devices to manage and organize my learning will probably take a post by itself, but really boils down to asking what do I want to learn and what resources am I using to learn it. The challenge is integrating the many devices in ways that make sense to me so that the resources I want are available to me when and where I want them. The simple answer is, of course, I use my brain to organize the disparate components and only need to remember which place to find the information I want in the context that I find myself using.

Please notice that all this stuff in my personal e-learning network provides me with access to the kinds of environments described in the video, but those environments are only pieces of a much larger picture that comprises the real e-learning platform of my experience. Moreover, the e-components form a subset of my larger personal learning environment (or personal learning network) which includes resources that are both e- and not e-.

Bottom line: We’ve gone too far in simplifying complex constructs to facilitate understand when the simplification mis-represents reality. We need to be careful of that–although I did like the line, “As much E- as necessary and as much human as possible.” I wonder if the producers meant to include the learner as part of the human bit.

Design: Art, Science, Craft

August 25th, 2010

The boffins from The Obligatory What Do We Call It Dept have sent in today’s question: What is design?

We’ll have a reading for you that’s specific to instructional design, but this morning, consider the idea of designing in general. Is it an art? A science? A craft? Maybe something else?

Administrators would really like it to be a science, I think. If you could have a process that you follow and it always yields predictable and replicable results within some envelope of variability, then planning becomes much easier. If you know three people can reliably design a good course in twenty hours using a particular process then you have a recipe for success.

But even recipes have flaws–variations in ingredients, errors in measurement, and even mechanical breakdown in the equipment. Your bread won’t bake very well if your oven is broken. In theory, a recipe would be a good thing, but the problem is generalization. It’s all well and good to make a recipe for bread. You have the general wheat flour recipe, modify it for specific conditions, and you can get relatively reliable results. Notice I didn’t say “quality results” but rather “reliable” ones.

I think many educators believe design is a craft. The process combines technology, experience, knowledge, and inspiration to create a useful entity. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a vegetable peeler or a geometry class. In this idea of craft, we find the cook. A cook takes the things he or she knows and is able to combine them using familiar techniques and tools to create meals that are pleasing to the palate and nutritious. Certainly there is a workman’s ethic in this ideal of design–even as we apply it to instructional contexts.

Personally, I see design as art. Art is an expression of the human. In the best design we go beyond the mundane craft and explore inspiration. No longer are we talking about a cook, but rather the chef–that individual who, through science and craft, creates an inspiration. In the world of instructional design, many people are willing to settle for craft, but those who understand it best know that an educational experience needs to be–by definition–transformational. The students who experience the design need to leave the experience fundamentally changed from where they began it and for that, I maintain, one must go beyond the predictability and replicability of science, beyond the product of craft, and seek the inspiration of art.

The Process

August 24th, 2010

The basic ideas of instructional design are not necessarily intuitive, even to an experienced teacher. The challenge in this instructional task, as in any other, is not merely answering the question of “How do we impart the knowledge?” There are a lot of questions that all need answering at the same time, and frequently we need the answers to some before we can get answers to others, but we go into cog-lock because we can’t know the answers to *those* questions until we get the answers to *these* and it cascades.

So we’re reduced to an iterative approach – a kind of gestalt mindset – that prompts us to try to answer all the questions at once, adjusting the answers on subsequent passes. Here are some of the questions we need answers to (in no particular order):

  • What do we want the learners to learn?
  • What do they know already?
  • How will we communicate with them?
  • How will they communicate with us?
  • How will they communicate with each other?
  • How much time do we have?
  • What tools do we have?
  • How will we know if they learned it?
  • How can we make it better the next time we try to teach?

For many classroom based teachers, a lot of the answers to these questions are already cast in stone. For others, the world is more flexible. In a lot of cases, the answers are not known, or mis-understood. The “what do they already know” question in particular is often reduced to “Have they taken the prerequisite class?” Any teacher who starts up a class with such a prerequisite requirement knows the futility of building on an assumed foundation. Even in the best of well-regulated learning environments, students outnumber scholars, and those who learned enough to pass the test are ill prepared to use that knowledge once the final grade has been assigned.

With that in mind, we’ll be spending a week or so back filling, laying down a substrate of river gravel for drainage and working toward an even foundation for us to use going forward. Some of you will pour concrete. Others might drive a stake or two. In the end, we’ll see how many of the structures remain standing when the course is over and you all move in–or move on.

Advanced Instructional Design

August 23rd, 2010

A new semester kicks off at Morehead University this morning and with it a new opportunity to explore some of the dimensions of instruction.

I’m particularly keen to get going with some of the more advanced ideas in instructional design more explicitly. The course will look at social learning, models of cognition, and models of instructional design that facilitate learner centered learning. A key to this effort will be getting the students to be learner centered after decades of being taught what, when, and how to think.

We’ll be breaking down the fourth wall on the instructional space and playing games with varying depths of instruction. We will, perforce, be limited to the digital realm, but I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can push this envelope before it breaks.