Friday, January 11, 2008

Content versus community

From David Wiley: Social Objects and Campfires:

If your educational materials are not “social objects” - in other words, if you don’t already understand that their main purpose is to bring people together so that social learning interactions can happen - why are you producing and sharing them? A relevant follow-up question is, if you are not providing the functional space for these social learning interactions to happen in (or at least pointing to a space where they can), why are you producing and sharing them? This is the key question for all OER and OCW projects.

The focus being on maximizing the opportunities for interaction, collaboration, and learning. It's not about content. Which is why content management systems and course management systems are the wrong tools for learning. These tools place the focus in the wrong place.

6 comments:

Eli Sagor said...

Thanks for sharing this Kevin. Really reframes Extension's purpose. Perceived social norms and personal interaction are far more powerful motivators for behavior change than facts. We need to focus on getting people together and fostering interaction rather than dumping data.
-eli

Deb said...

I both agree and disagree with this and am tying myself in knots trying to explain the ways that I disagree.

Now I will have to go away and see if I can figure what I'm actually wanting to say. Damn you! You have made me think.

Kevin said...

Excellent. I'll look forward to the discussion. I have more to say as well. :) I hope you provide me the opportunity.

I'll remain silent for now. Setting the trap...

Deb said...

Okay. First of all, I absolutely, completely, totally agree with this. I think focused conversations are essential to learning and that it's something that universities do without much effort and which is still difficult to do well across space and time (not so difficult informally, because, obviously, we're doing it right now, but harder to do as part of a class, I think).

But, here are the places I struggle. And maybe I'll just lay them all out and then see if I can make sense out of them. First, I thank my lucky stars that I got through college before the era of the 'group project'. I would have hated group projects, hate learning that way, and would probably have learned less. Would I have retained more? That's a good question. People say--well, that's how you do things out in the world, but it isn't necessarily. Sometimes you do things on your own, sometimes you come together as the one person with your particular expertise, and really successful 'real world' teams are different because the goal matters whereas in the classroom everyone may have a different goal (and if the goal doesn't matter it's usually not a successful team). Blah...whatever--you will say, but this isn't about group projects-- which is true, but it feels related to me.

Second, when you are learning something brand new, you need more than critical thinking skills to start. You've got to have some basic understanding of terms and concepts. And while people try to do that through social interaction, I'm not convinced it's a particularly good way to do it. Sometimes you just have to sit down and learn something. Or shut up and listen.

I have to wonder how much learning styles have to do with all of this. While I think everyone regardless of their learning style can benefit from focused conversation and social interaction, sometimes I just want to read a book or write a paper or take a quiz. So I'm suspicious of pronouncing on a way we ought to do things because usually it just shifts the 'who benefits from this' model.

Sometimes when I'm teaching and people ask how to accomplish a particular thing I can give them six or seven things to think about and apply depending on their circumstances and how something works. But sometimes I do, in fact, have the freaking magic bullet. Sometimes the answer really is as simple as 1-2-3. Especially for a beginner. Perhaps this is training, not learning. Or, perhaps the learning happens when the person actually does it. Or, perhaps, learning happens when the person says to someone else--omg, I just got the freaking magic bullet.

So, part of my problem with saying--oh yeah, community=awesome, is that sometimes content *does* matter. And part of it is that when I start talking like this, I want to say--you know, some people really are experts and we really need to listen to them. But then, there's 'Citizens, Experts, and the Environment' by Frank Fischer (which you should read by the way, if you haven't), which I also agree very strongly with which, in an over-simplified summary says that sometimes 'experts' aren't really the people you need to listen to--sometimes local knowledge trumps 'academic' knowledge.

So I guess what I'm really saying (and haha, isn't the joke on me :-) is that I agree with you, but I want to talk about it more.

And I probably have more to say, but I'll shut up now.

Kevin said...

That was a really well thought out comment Deb. I tend to agree with you. (Other than that part about learning styles.)

I'm thinking my rant has to do with that we focus on the content to the exclusion of how real people will interact with that content. I think that was David's point too. That if you don't somewhere plug-in some thinking about the learner then what have you really accomplished?

I'm afraid that we focus on the content as a result not the learning. So you produce the content -- what difference does it really make. I'm not sure we can answer that question.

Not disagreeing (except for that learning styles thing :)) -- just thinking out loud.

I'm guessing I will have some more to say as well. I always do...

Bud said...

For the past couple of years, I have been running my classes as an open conversation in a blog network. I had been evolving toward that mode for several years but only made the clean break when I switched universities.

To Deb's point, content and vocabulary are important, but the criteria for their attainment are not fixed. It's all social. You've attained the concept when some group determines you have attained it, not before. Sometimes the group norms are established enough that attainment criteria can be codified (e.g., the bar exam in law) but often not (e.g., what makes a good contribution to an OSS project).

The other thing I do is focus on student generation of content, not professor generation of content. The goal is to get them to generate meaningful artifacts and written statements.

I tend not to buy into this idea that you can only produce meaningful statements once you have mastered the vocabulary. You master and sometimes alter the vocabulary by attempting to make meaningful statements.