--Originally published at EdForward
Stephen Downes (2011) offered a massive open online course (MOOC) to teach–or, rather, to facilitate–learning about connectivism. (Connectivism is, to put it crudely, the notion that learning takes place when a learner constructs information from a variety of sources and does something with it.) Without further introduction, I’ll dive right in and start connecting/constructing/etc.
Whether or not you are optimistic about online learning, deepening students’ understandings of content seems to me a pretty non-controversial learning goal. Downes’ course does a number of novel things to promote deeper learning, which I believe can be transferred to most learning settings–although it certainly has a benefit in massive learning environments. I’ll focus on two here.
Downes’ MOOC is a network of experts and aspiring experts. Instead of having any specific, prescribed knowledge that learners must acquire, the course depends on learners bringing problems and learning goals to the table, and working with others to develop an understanding. Consequently, learners are immersed in meaningful work, which mirrors the culture of a professional community. As Downes says: “to learn physics, in other words, you join a community of physicists, practice physics, and thereby become like a physicist.”
J. S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid (1989) use the term “enculturation” for this concept of learning by “becoming.” They also articulate the type of enculturation that happens in the classroom: “…much of what is learned in school may apply only to the ersatz activity, if it was learned through such activity… The idea that most school activity exists in a culture of its own is central to understanding many of the difficulties of learning in school” (1989). Students, then, become excellent at “doing school” but sink in the “real world.” Downes, along with Brown, Collins and Duguid, all subscribe to the same core principle of instructional design: it needs to be real.
Choosing Your Own Adventure
The second important feature of Downes’ course is the acknowledgement (celebration, even) of everybody participating in different ways. This, of course, means that learning outcomes are going to be different for every person… but again, that’s the way communities of professionals work, so for the sake of authenticity (see above), a diversity of participation makes total sense. To quote Downes, “The whole point of offering a course at all is to provide a starting point, to provide a variety of things to read, watch or play with” (2011).
It was hard initially for me to grasp the concept of different learning outcomes for different people. As a former teacher, my reaction is “how will I find the time to assess each student if learning looks different for each?” Then I remembered the part of classroom learning that I hated: I didn’t have opportunity to take ownership over what I learned, and so I didn’t want to participate. And isn’t that why “mastery assessments” were implemented in the first place? Because we don’t trust students to take the initiative to learn on their own? The more we let go of standardization–the more we think of “teaching” as providing a set of tools to “read, watch or play with”–we can begin to trust students to create and find meaning in their learning, and assessment becomes secondary.
Justin Reich, in the MOOC spirit, referred to his class at HGSE as a potluck; we all bring a dish to the table. I’m might also emphasize: we all take a different plate away that best fits our taste, and that’s why it tastes so good. (Maybe he said that too, and I just too engaged with other course material to listen.)