Monday, May 6, 2013

Learning scales, teaching doesn't

I grabbed a quick Audiobook download for my commute this morning, Douglas Thomas and John Sealey Brown on A New Culture of Learning.  One chapter starts with an adage from Heraclitus that a man cannot step into a river twice, for it is not the same river, and it is not the same man. This is a good reminder of an inconvenient aspect of research into how people learn with or without technology, not to mention the difficulty of projecting how a given population (in space and time) will respond to a particular technology (dependent on platform, programming, media, etc.). It might be possible to gather fairly reliable data on say an increase in heartbeat across a range of subjects when on stepping into a river a certain portion of their body was suddenly immersed in temperatures ranging over so many degrees.  However it might be difficult to extrapolate given fluctuations in more complex aspects of the river (as Sidhartha noted, always changing yet always the same) vs the many contexts in which the man might approach the river. These contexts might change widely over time, and change is in fact an accelerating variable in education, especially with constant developments in educational technology.

Which brings us to the next adage mentioned in the chapter, that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for day; teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.  Not so fast say Brown and Thomas, this assumes both a constant supply of fish stocks, and an assumption that the techniques used to catch them today will maintain in the future.  However, in our modern world, neither are given.  Change in what we need to know now vs. what we need to know tomorrow is happening at an accelerating pace. Many degree programs today didn't exist ten years ago, and we must assume that teachers are preparing students today for jobs that no one can predict will exist.

It is this certainty of accelerating change that a culture of learning must address.  Brown and Thomas introduce the concept of the collective in conjunction with their observation that teaching doesn't scale.  This is exactly the problem that Siemens has addressed in his theory of connectivism (connectivism, meet collectivism?) and hence that MOOCs are experimental solutions to.  It is understood that two forms of MOOC are emerging. One kind, the cMOOC, is where learning occurs through interaction within the collective, and the other kind, xMOOC, is developing as a means of offering viable courses to thousands at a time.  Both are attempts to scale access to learning when traditional "teaching" fails under the sheer weight of numbers.

And then the final insight on my drive this morning: regarding the problem with corporate and other institutional training programs.  They are attempts to teach participants in these programs to fish in an era where the tools of fishing are evolving rapidly, perhaps so fast that fishing will be supplanted by something else in the near future. For example, the benefits of training in educational institutions in the use of particular branded technologies may be growing less appropriate as change becomes more likely in a rapidly approaching future.  In other words, such training doesn't scale. It becomes less efficient the more rapidly evolutionary change approaches. Training should focus instead on the wider issues of finding a range of tools available to address desired pedagogical tools.

The answer is learning, not teaching.  Learning scales. This is what MOOCs are about.  They are experiments for scaling learning.  The xMOOCs do this in a sense by finding ways to scale the teaching, but insofar as the learners have a lot of flexibility in choice of MOOCs and other options for open learning, they are also part of the scaled-learning solution.

Brown and Thomas were discussing gamification as another tack in the quest for scalable solutions to learning, but I was pulling up to work by then, so we'll get to that in another post, or in an extension to this one.


Thomas, D. and Seely Brown, J. (2011). A new culture of learning. CreateSpace. 140 pages.