On Open Learning Environments

Sweden’s Vittra School (Image from Edudemic.com)

When looking to explore the panoply of 21st century incarnations of education, I am often compelled to seek out a tangible unifying force at work which might correspond within a larger context of society as it is being influenced by the digital technology revolution.

As the web has increased in its capacity for open sharing and collaboration, it has inverted power-structures and business models that have failed to meet authentically the potentialities of the emerging digital age. Where we can see outdated business-practices in the music and film threatening those industries’ continued existence in the age of file sharing online and the advent of remix culture in aps and Macintosh Arts on devices around the world, educational institutions should seek to embrace the 21st century as an opportunity to help cultivate educational value in the communities they serve. In attempting to identify this through-line within the lens of imagining future learning environments, I find inspiring the conception of a scholastic experience whose foundational purpose is to aid in the removal of the boundaries and walls which exist in our institutions.

The literal and perceived ‘walls’ of school largely extend from a bureaucracy established to serve a different conception of knowledge and schooling than exists today. We separate students by age and grade, divide classes by time (with bells!), segregate our subjects in different areas of our buildings, and detach much of the experience of learning about a variety of topics from applying or rejoicing in the value the labour of their learning contributes to the community. If we look at the manifestation of 21st century principles at work in enterprises like Wikipedia – where the values of connection, openness, and collaboration have made the peer-edited encyclopedia a global storehouse of emergent knowledge – schools would be well advised to adopt similar ethos in creating tomorrow’s schools.

While the information revolution might be in the process of changing cataclysmically the manner in which we go about learning informally as much as formally, the spirit of connection, openness and collaboration presents the possibility of a one room school house for the 21st century, where the physical barriers in our schools – walls, separate subjects, age groupings – dissolve along with the larger boundaries we imagine construct our schools.

John Willinsky talks about how “the democratic culture of [our] country is dependent on the educational quality of our civic lives,” which I would like to apply to a conception of schooling wherein the cultivation of this ‘educative civic life’ is nurtured and maintained by the learning activities carried out by the students themselves. This notion of learning has been nurtured in my own practice through the open-education movement and pioneers such as Stephen Downes, Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, who have worked to develop the architecture of open online courses. In opening their courses and institutional learning communities to the wider web, and reflecting on and reforming their work publicly, they have created courses which function as just this sort of societally enriching education.

In sketching out the design principles underlying effective self-organizing networks, Stephen Downes describes how “human neural networks, student educational experiences, the cities, ecosystems and anything else you want to create a network out of work better if they satisfy the following four criteria”:

Autonomy, the individuals in the network makes their own decisions.

Diversity, being one isn’t about being the same. Let me repeat. Being one isn’t about being the same. Being a Valencian isn’t about being the same, being a pine tree isn’t about being the same, being a doctor isn’t about being the same. Diversity, in fact, is what makes being doctors possible.

Interactivity, the knowledge created by a network is created by the interaction between its members and, as we would say, is emergent from its members and is not simply the propagation of one person’s opinion to another, to another, to another, to another. Everybody contributes together to make knowledge.

[…]

Finally, openness, because networks cannot work if they are closed. Networks cannot work if there are barriers to communication, if there are barriers to entry, if only some kind of messages are allowed.

Something I’ve been thinking about in my last few posts has been the possibility and potential for our schools to embrace these more open principals while fulfilling their institutional responsibilities. As much as we might wish (or philosophically rationalize) that education to take on this more free-range (or what Jim might call feral) approach, there is tension here between an intrinsic inspiration – that emanating from individual learners – and and the extrinsic obligations of institutional requirements. But in exploring the boundary between these opposing forces, there is much to be learned about which assumptions about learning we can retain, and which we might discard.

Jim Groom‘s recent Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, which he has been teaching with Paul Bond, has offered an example in striking a new balance in course planning, execution, and assessment:

What was somewhat unique about this particular test was that the students designed it. The questions for the test were based on the four panels discussions they ran over the first half of the semester. These panels were student-led, driven by the research they did in the first couple of weeks on specific topics such as internet historyhow it workscreation/consumption, and intellectual property.

Given the students have been framing the curriculum and discussions for the class thus far, it only made sense to have them create the midterm. The result was pretty remarkable. The test is impressive, and it reminded me a bit of what happened with assignments in ds106. What’s more, the feedback students gave Paul and I on the test was interesting–almost to a student they found it both difficult and useful in forcing them to re-engage and clarify what we discussed during each of the panels.

Gardner Campbell recently captured the web’s role in bringing about some of what these first two have described here by highlighting the role of recursion and syndication in learning:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Education as a constantly refreshing database. A web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making. Idyllic, utopian even. What might such principles lead to in the K12 classroom, though?

Enter Sweden’s Vittra School, which brings us back to the initial idea of division and barriers in the classroom:

The principles of the Vittra School revolve around the breakdown of physical and metaphorical class divisions as a fundamental step to promoting intellectual curiosity, self-confidence, and communally responsible behavior. Therefore, in Vittra’s custom-built Stockholm location, spaces are only loosely defined by permeable borders and large, abstract landmarks. As the architects explained, “instead of classical divisions with chairs and tables, a giant iceberg for example serves as cinema, platform, and room for relaxation, and sets the frame for many different types of learning,” while “flexible laboratories make it possible to work hands-on with themes and projects.”

Whether our schools feel compelled or pushed to pursue these (r)evolutions is something only time will reveal. But there is an ecosystem of knowledge and learning that is enabled by the advent of the web that schools would do well to embrace if they are to grow meaningfully into the 21st century.

Liberation Citizenship for the 21st Century

Freire

As I continue to wade through Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressedit is easy to see its range of influence within faculties of education across North America. The intentions expressed in Freire’s praxis of critical pedagogy form the basis of (what I sense to be) most teacher-certification programs, graduate diplomas and masters programs. And yet we continue to work in a (North American) system of education that seems more and more taken with reforms that impose just the sort of oppression Freire fought against, an irony that probably doesn’t escape Chet Bowers, who introduces the collection of papers from the conference titled: Rethinking Freire | Globalization and the Environmental Crisis

Bowers introduces the constructive critique that Freire’s ideals and insistence lead to an unsustainable “universalism.” By placing critical reflection at the center of the liberation process, an unintended consequence of Freire’s pedagogy is “the double bind inherent in promoting a universal vision of human nature and mode of inquiry in the current context where linguistic and species extinction are increasingly intertwined.” Bowers stresses the vital connections “between linguistic diversity and biodiversity,” and:

“The different indigenous ways of knowing, which are adapted in ways that take account of the characteristics of the local bioregions, are also the basis of intergenerational knowledge that contributes to self-sufficiency.”

He also frames “the efforts of Freire’s critics [as] directed toward strengthening local traditions of knowledge that are being threatened by the spread of Western-based monoculture.”

“The promotion of universals, whether in the form of representing critical reflection as the only valid approach to knowledge, the Western ideal of the autonomous individual, or the economic assumptions underlying the World Trade Organization, represents an effort to sustain a tradition of exploitation that current changes in the Earth’s ecosytems are forcing us to abandon.”

With the recent publication of the ICPP‘s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change stating even more emphatically the dire advanced state of the environmental crisis, Bowers seems to be directly on the point in saying that “The environment will […] force us to acknowledge that the future lies with the revitalization of local knowledge and cultures that are as diverse as ecosystems.”

There is an echo of the idea at the heart of my thinking about reconciliation, and survival:

Doesn’t our work as citizens in such a country then revolve around creating a narrative that allows for the continued expression of the country’s diverse elements?

 Here the Canadian Multiculturalism Act provides an affirmation:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to:

  • (a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;
  • (b) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future;
  • (c) promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation;
  • (d) recognize the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society, and enhance their development;
  • (e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;
  • (f) encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be both respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character;
  • (g) promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins;
  • (h) foster the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultures of Canadian society and promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures;
  • (ipreserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and
  • (jadvance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.

As we face the crumbling of many aspects of the Industrial / Imperial paradigm, whether through political terrorism and corruption, financial crises, or the mass extinction of human languages or living organisms, it is heartening to find enshrined in Canada’s governmental mandate an effort to achieve a notion of objectivity that is composed of, and sensitive to, our various cultural subjectivities:

The Government of Canada recognizes the diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society and is committed to a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada.

…a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.


I woke up this morning with the lofty goal of revisiting Gardner Campbell‘s keynote from the Open Education conference that went down in Vancouver this week, The Ecology of Yearning. However, the gods of the Internet didn’t agree and the archive seems to have gone missing for the time being, so I will hopefully return to it soon. In the meantime, I’m digging into an older presentation from Gardner called “Teaching, Learning, and the Digital Imagination” that is hosted on Youtube and his blog.

Even though the talk is only a year old, it synthesizes so many ideas that, even in a year, seem foundational to vastly greater heights. Beginning with Clay Shiky’s quote,

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race.


Gardner discusses the “Digital Imagination” as a vision of the Internet’s transformative potential. Far more than a data management system, or the efficiency of email, he frames our appraisal of technology’s value or purpose in the tradition of under and mis-valuing innovation. Just as we mistook the true innovative potential of the electric motor, the question is not, to be sure, How can the Internet make us more efficient? but What is the real meaning and appropriate function of the Internet itself? 

Gardner, round one.

Photo Courtesy of @drgarcia

Even as I generally find this sort of argument quite compelling, I was especially struck with the power of the idea that in practicing, refining and education we are striving – one might even say yearning - to oblige a “moral responsibility to be of the most use to civilization,” and that the Internet creates the possibility of a “self-reinforcing virtuous cycle” that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to witness over the course of the last week with Gardner and other educators out of no more technology than guitar amplifiers and a few printed lyrics and chords.

Audrey Waters highlighted the connection that has become tradition among the DS106 tribe in Vancouver,

I started to write this post, and then found myself spending the evening at a musical jam session with Campbell and others. So there’s that. And that’s actually a wonderful ending to a wonderful beginning of the day. Because jamming is sharing. Jamming is collaborative creation. Jamming is learning. Jamming is process. “Make art dammit,” as DS106 commands us, with the emphasis, I think, on the “make” more than than the “art.” And at the end of the evening with the music ringing in my ears, Campbell’s keynote makes perfect sense, and there’s nothing much to say.


Being able to play music with Gardner a few times this week – including two attempts at the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” among others – added a different authenticity to his words this morning, though. He wasn’t speaking abstractly about his thinking that technology might prove the platform for a heightening community’s potential; he was speaking specifically. Shouting, really. Singing, explaining deftly to a crowd of ecstatic participant-revelers that, “Her name is Gloria.”

A Week without Technology

Telramen op de bank in de klas / Counting-frames in classroom

Essential classroom technology

A few weeks ago, I wrote:

I would also be interested in establishing a school learning community that values face-to-face dialogue, debate, and experiential, first-hand learning for students and teachers alike. If we are to ask that our students are committed to the present moment of their current learning, why shouldn’t we expect the same of one another?

Blog Post as Essay: Cell Phones in the Classroom
Wederopbouw: provisorisch schoollokaal / Improvised classroom, shortly after the War

How much has changed since this photo was taken?

After writing that post, I thought about the possibilities of setting up this ultimately face-to-face school environment that would not only challenge those of us who rely on futuristic technologies – iPhones, laptops, projectors, etc – to rethink our jobs as facilitators of classroom learning, but also give those who would ban cellphones in their classroom a greater context to appreciate the current, rampant rate of technological progress.

I thought that a week without technology – without email, photocopiers, announcements and overhead projectors – would be a bounding step forward in establishing a truly local school community, and a rallying point for digital natives, and immigrants.

  • Why not turn such a week into a fundraiser, a way to promote awareness about our dependence on technology, and question our relationship with our digital (as well as other) tools?

As he has a habit of doing, Ira Socol is a few steps ahead of me:

Let’s try a week without clocks and bells. Few technologies interrupt the learning process more, and limit learning to “the shallows” more, than the school timetable. And few things belittle students more – or expose our hypocrisies more – than bells. They are not just Pavlovian, they are unfairly so. Kids are “late” when the bell rings, but teachers often insist that they get dismissal power, meaning bells are only significant when they can punish students. So take a week. Cancel the start time and the finish time. Abandon the class schedule. Let students pick which of their classrooms they want to be in – and when. Let kids spend a day working on one thing, or five minutes, whichever they need and want. Let them eat when they want, use the toilet when they want, debate Shakespeare when they want. See what happens. Our school schedule was invented by Henry Barnard to train kids for industrial shift work. Is that what are schools are still designed to do?
Speelplaats van een Rooms-Katholieke school / Schoolyard of a Roman Catholic school

How it could be.

Let’s try a week without desks and chairs. Pile them all up in the corner and ignore them. Let kids bring what they need to make themselves comfortable. As I asked one school district: “Do any of you have furniture like this at home?” The chair and desk, that contribution of William Alcott in the 1830s, might have made sense then. But we have central heating now, and carpets are available everywhere. And pillows are cheap at Ikea – so are lapdesks. And kids would rather be comfortable. And… teachers might find themselves worrying a whole lot less about controlling how kids sit in their chairs. Let’s try a week without books and paper. We know how many of our kids struggle with reading and writing – the physical acts. The word decoding, the holding of the pen, the traditional keyboarding – these things are our primary creators of disability. So let’s get “Socratic” for a week. Lets get fully digital (adaptable text, speech recognition) or simply verbal/audio. Let’s talk and listen. Let’s think out loud and work on auditory memory. We might see a whole new set of student skills rise to the top with those “Gutenberg technologies” stripped from our kids’ lives. We might see a whole new kind of learning.

Ten Big Questions for Education

Crowds.Brian Kuhn has shared an opportunity with me that offers another means of our class – and others who might find this post – entering into the discourse on shaping the future of education. To echo Andrew B. Watt’s call for students to enter the EduBlogosphere and tell us how we’re doing, this project – which began yesterday – could find the TALONS engaging in a truly global endeavor!

A well known educator / traveling speaker Will Richardson has crowd sourced the 10 big questions for education.  If you’re not familiar with crowd sourcing, it’s a recent phenomenon made possible by social networking tools on the Internet like Twitter.  Will asked people in his professional network to post what they felt the most important questions are for education today.  Basically people in his network spread the message to their networks and the crowd grew as the message spread around the world, literally.  Then Will asked “the crowd” to vote on the questions so that he could come up with a top 10 list.  To facilitate a mass collaborative write for these questions, Will has created a wiki and offered people the opportunity to collaboratively write / share their thoughts and ideas for each question. The end goal I believe, is to produce a free online resource, perhaps a free published “e” book, from this work. This is a great opportunity for you to participate in a global shared writing project.  I have volunteered to moderate and promote question #1 “What is the purpose of school?”  Please click through to this question if you would like to contribute your ideas or to read others ideas. Here are the 10 questions; you can click on the link for a question you’re interested in to go to the separate page for editing.
1. What is the purpose of school? 2. What is the changing role of the teacher, and how do we support that new role? 3. How do we help students discover their passions? 4. What is the essential learning that schools impart to students? 5. How do we adapt our curriculum to the technologies that kids are already using? 6. What does an educated person look like today? 7. How do we change policy to support more flexible time and place learning? 8. What are the essential practices of teachers in a system where students are learning outside of school? 9. How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education and opportunity? 10. How do we evaluate and validate the informal, self-directed learning that happens outside of school?

Welcome to the crowd!

Cultural Geography Public Service Announcements

No sign of Boo BooAs a means to delve creatively into the cultural geography in Western Canada, our socials ten students will be undertaking the creation of public service announcements on issues relating to the present states of plants and animals across several different biomes. Having practiced digital storytelling skills in writing, performing and editing a brief time-line of human history in the local area last week, their sights will be set on documenting the evolving history of human interaction with, and use of, resource species such as the Rocky Mountains’ bears, the Plains’ buffalo, and the Pacific Coast’s salmon.

They were not a nation, nor even a tribe, but a loose association of groups consisting of up to a dozen families. All were, however, united in their allegiance to Tuktu – the caribou – which, in their millions, not only furnished the necessities of life but most of whatever else these people needed. Caribou skins provided clothing (the warmest and lightest known), footwear, tents, sleeping robes, covering for kayaks, even the heads of drums. Tuktu gave meat, and fat both to eat and to fill their lamps; sinews for sewing; and antler and bone for the manufacture of innumerable hunting and domestic implements, even including children’s toys. Tuktu was life itself to human dwellers in the Barren Lands.

Farley Mowat Walking on the Land

Unesco.

Each of the animals and biomes selected by the groups this week bear a similar tradition of use that reaches back to the dawn of humankind, and I look forward to seeing the class’ representations of these ecosystems as they once were, on through their current state. Even in our suburban setting, there is still a reverence for the outdoors in many of the class’ undertakings – whether natural or urban – and the energy in class today as the groups selected their biomes and animals and set out on research stemmed from a connection many members of the class feel with their local setting. In documenting the traditions of our ancestors on this land alongside modern Canadians’ stewardship of the country’s most valuable resources, the project’s lofty purpose will be to offer a message to those who will follow in our footsteps here.

“We are all five-fingered people, the holy people. My grandfather and uncles always said that when we are taught these things, they are for the people, the children, and whoever comes to you wanting your help and the medicine of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to help them.”

Brian Payton Shadow of the Bear

Hopefully we do better than Dwight.

One Week Job

Friends of mine, Ian MacKenzie and Sean Aiken, have put their lack of direction to good use – and a good cause – with their One Week Job project.

One Week Job: The Documentary from Ian MacKenzie on Vimeo.

“Instead of take the first job that came along, he found a unique way of figuring it out: the One Week Job project. How it worked: Anyone, anywhere, could offer Sean a job for one week. Any money he earned for the work, he asked the employer to donate towards the ONE / Make Poverty History campaign. On his inspirational quest, Sean tried everything: Bungee Instructor, Dairy Farmer, Advertising Executive, Baker, Stock Trader, Firefighter, and more. Wherever he could find work, he’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse himself in whatever profession was at hand. And then he’d move on.”