The Connectivist Riots

I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently thinking about things that aren’t real. I’ve realised, that actually, not a lot of things are real. Obviously there IS a lot of things that are real. The computer in front of me, and my car outside are both very real. However there is a vast array of things processed by the human mind, that have no physical form.

From a consumer perspective, consider the ‘Coca-cola’ brand. It has been said that if the entire infrastructure of Coca-cola’s operations were to be lost, it would be okay if the brand were preserved. Where does the Coca-cola brand exist? It is a representation in your mind.

The same can be said about psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapists will help clients recognise that many of their beliefs and fantasies, and how stopping a certain thought can solve the problem.

Many of the thoughts we have concern the qualitative (attributes), quantitative (numbers) and connective factors of the things we interact with. For example, many things are red. You cannot create redness though, can you? You could produce red paint, or show me something red, however red only exists in your mind.

As you can see, the role of these thoughts is as a means to an end. The end is to buy Coca-cola, live more comfortably, or enjoy the knowledge that you own a red car. These ideas and norms only work because of social connections which tell us our ideas are in sync with the wider world, and thus, something more real is taking place.

This is the origin of connectivist theory, a new way to view learning, as a process which takes place across a network of people. It has come to light at this point in time, as we now live in a highly connected age, where we also have a lot of mediated-but-non-existant stuff to sift through. Connections are powerful, as they give us a new perspective on things like accountability and authority. Suddenly, large groups of people are able to communicate, unify, travel or effect change.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The rise of mediation and connection has improved access to education, living standards, democracy and freedom of speech. It has also made possible less desirable things, such as the London riots, and mass terror. I wish to dwell on this point for a moment, because I thing it really does put things in perspective. The London riots began with a small group of youths, discontented with a court decision relating to a member of their community shot by the police. As violence erupted, it was exacerbated as it was shared across twitter. There was no specific factor that unified all who rioted, other than their access to social media.

I’ve often thought that if the connected world has the power to do what it did in England in 2011, it should have the power to do enormous levels of good too. It is connectivism that has given much positive publicity to Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing. (I mean, you don’t think it came from the establishment do you?) The massive quantity of ALS ice bucket videos is another example of the power of networked activity.

There’s a lot of power here, which can be employed in problem solving or divergent creativity. The power of connectivism is decentralised, and virtually impossible to take away, And I don’t think that is a bad thing, because it empowers individuals. In fact, the only thing that could stop it, would be for the energy to run out.

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The Division of Knowledge

I was re-reading the paper by George Siemens entitled: Connectivism: A Learning Theory For The Digital Age. While I was reading, something hit me.

Siemens talks about the way the abundance of information in today’s world is forcing us to do things differently. He explains how the continuity that existed for people in days gone by is all but gone. People living in previous generations may have trained for one career and remained engaged with that their life long. Now, however, we have an ever growing pot of knowledge which would be almost impossible for any one person to handle or evaluate.

A solution, which Siemens calls connectivism, stores knowledge across social networks instead. In connectivism, groups of people benefit from laterally stored knowledge, which is then evaluated almost phenomenologically by the collective intelligence of the group.

Now all this is very smart, but where does it fit in to the real world?

Well. Once upon a time, a couple of hundred years ago, there was a different revolution: the industrial revolution. We discovered that we were sitting on an abundance of fossil fuels. Through organisation and the division of labour, the production capacity of what had been until very recently a manual process, grew exponentially.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

 

This is the information revolution. Our fossil fuel is computing power. As we use one another as a surrogate for knowledge (Stephenson, undated), our modern replacement for the division of labour is the division of knowledge. Just as our industrial ancestors created highly productive patterns out of the chaos, businesses and researchers alike can benefit holistically from team work and effective divisions.

When I hear talk of the knowledge economy, I am aware that this is not merely a transition to office jobs. Those who will thrive will be those who can sift through the meaningless noise and identify the applications that will yield a real benefit.

Coping with Autism: My Perspective, Part 1

A powerful and open perspective from a friend of mine.

AUTHISTIC

I’ve been in one of those moods recently. The sort of mood which begs for some sort of output, some sort of creative release. The last time this happened, it was brought on by watching what turned out to be an abomination of a show. You could probably say that what brought this on is of more consequence.

This past week I was in Nottingham, volunteering as a counsellor in a youth programme called FSY (For the Strength of Youth). I was responsible for nine incredible young men, and it was one of the most rewarding and exhausting experiences of my life. I loved it. And yet, when it concluded on Saturday, I ended up in one of the lowest moods I’ve felt for a long time. Why? I’ll get into more specifics later on, but for now it suffices to say that I tweeted this at one of my…

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You Can Learn Anything

I recently saw the new campaign for the Khan Academy, entitled ‘You Can Learn Anything’. The Khan Academy is an online learning tool, which uses the psychological principle of mastery learning to help individuals learn at their own pace. Content is tailored to each individuals own level, and the successes and competences gained server additional as motivators.

Sal Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) interviews Carol Dweck, whose research on growth mindsets reveals a lot about optimal learning climates. Dweck’s research shows that if individuals are praised for their ‘intellect’, growth quickly stops, because they believe that their capacity to achieve is a function of what they were born with. Conversely, if an individual is praised for their effort and strategy, growth will take place. The person learns that they can improve their abilities through work and effort, and thus, they do.

Having considered the principles of behaviourism and conditioning, I do believe that many people could achieve a lot more than they do, if their environment were changed. I fear that many young people today achieve but a fraction of their potential, due either to believing that they aren’t intelligent, or even being numbed by the distracting mess of mediated mess that surrounds us today.

Perhaps bizarrely, I have talked to people who strongly believe that this is fine just the way it is. Some have said it is fair, because in theory our social and political system will allow people from underprivileged backgrounds to ascend. However, I believe that the evidence speaks otherwise.

I have already briefly covered behaviourism, however I want to bring social psychology in to the equation. Zimbardo’s prison experiment can be related to a lot of situations, especially with regard to the nature vs. nurture debate. The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that you can take a selection of healthy men with privileged upbringings, and quickly have them treating their peers like animals. Now let me ask: is that nature (dispositional cues)? Or nurture (Situational cues)? If you can get good people to do that, I ask you to consider what effect a deprived background might have on even the best intentioned individuals?

Now, I am not here to talk politics. I want to adhere strictly to what the evidence says. I would summarise it no better than Sal Khan has already put it: YOU can learn anything!

There is a lot of discussion taking place at the moment about how successful the efforts have been in the United Kingdom to bring higher education to more people. Many undergraduate degrees have been criticised as not giving people the skills they need to be effective in the workplace. It is, however, important to separate qualifications from learning. Imagine if all the people graduating high school, or university did come out with the high skill set that the economy rewards?

It is a scary thought, but the evidence would tell us it is every bit possible.

Remember: YOU can learn ANYTHING!

SAFMEDS Cards and Metacognition

During the last year of my education, I have spent some time, and had some discussions around the topic of metacognition. For the last few years, my supervisor, Jesse Martin, has been overseeing research to measure to what extent metacognition can be taught to an individual.

To answer the question of what metacognition actually is, I will explain. Cognition means thinking, while ‘meta’ means it concerns itself. metacognition may be defined as awareness of your knowledge and thought processes. One who has a high metacognitive awareness should be able to work more effectively due to a more accurate perspective of their own levels of knowledge and also their own abilities to deal with certain challenges [1].

The work which has been done at Bangor is centred on a confidence based quiz. Participants first answer the question, and then they answer whether they were sure or guessing. In doing so, participants appear to be learning to discriminate over their own knowledge. After taking these quizzes for a number of weeks, participant metacognitive index (a number based on A’ calculations) was seen to rise.

I would like to talk about one of the applications of this theory, both in terms of research and how I used it to support my own exam preparation. One of the students at Bangor linked metacognition with a school of thought known as precision teaching

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

. This is an approach to education, largely rooted in behaviourism. It is the idea of using quick fire techniques to improve fluency of recall within the rote learned components of education. The particular application which I shall now discuss concerns SAFMEDS cards. SAFMEDS (Say All Fast [for a] Minute Every Day Shuffled) cards involve taking brief snippets of content, and quickly cycling through them, and testing oneself for being able to correctly recall an answer on the reverse of the card.

One key aspect concerning the use of SAFMEDs is that the user needs to discriminate quickly what they know and what they don’t know, so they can have as many opportunities inside of one minute as possible to recall correct answers. It was the hypothesis of this study, that using SAFMEDs would also build metacognitive awareness [2]. Indeed this hypothesis was supported, with the previously mentioned A’ scores significantly rising for SAFMEDS users, compared with the group. It has been argued, therefore, that the use of SAFMEDS cards are an effective means of fostering self-monitoring and instilling metacognitive activity.

I used SAFMEDS myself this year to help me prepare for my final exams. Like clockwork, they worked exactly as expected. I found myself quickly able to memorise key terms, and it was motivating to be able to chart my progress. They also helped me keep the breadth of topics I needed to learn within my awareness, so that I could manage my time and select the right areas to study more deeply.

It is a shame that I can’t end this by sharing what it did to my own metacognitive awareness. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a baseline or a post-intervention test. However we have been working on something which we will be unveiling soon, with which you can train and measure your own metacognitive awareness.

[1] – See Cognaware: Supporting Evidence

[2] – Francis, K. (2013). [Effect of Monitoring on Metacognitive Performance Using SAFMEDS Intervention]. Unpublished Raw Data.

This is Real Learning!

Over the last few weeks I’ve observed a few examples of teaching which I was really impressed by. I wanted to share them to amplify their examples.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary's, Horsforth.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary’s, Horsforth.

The first one I saw while at work a few weeks back. Since finishing my undergraduate degree in June, I have been working behind the delicatessen counter of a local supermarket. A local man (a web developer by trade) came through the store with a group of young primary school students, all armed with cameras. He told me they were doing a project about the different people who work or shop on ‘Town Street’. They asked me if they could take a picture of me doing my job.

It turned out that they were making a website. Having been inspired by the work of Vivian Maier, (a Chicago street photographer whose portfolio was not discovered until after her death) they wanted to create a street portfolio of Horsforth.

This is a great learning opportunity. It is a chance for students to gain an appreciation for history, and walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. It is also an opportunity to have a go at disseminating digital photography via the web – the modern application of what we draw from the history books. It benefits from intrinsic motivation and empowers students to create, not duplicate.

Source: North Leeds Life

Source: North Leeds Life

The second one I read about today in a local magazine. Year 8 students (aged 12-13 years) were asked to bring their phones to school, which they used to measure the mobile phone reception around the school site. They used computers then to map out their findings and consider reasons that may have accounted for the differences they found.

This is a great way to apply classroom teaching to the real world. It answers the question students so often ask: ‘why are we learning this’? Instead of learning a lot of stuff (the what), or how something works, these students become empowered to find out why things are as they are. They have autonomy and purpose, and a sense of real world problem solving.

I am impressed with both of these examples, because they both create meaningful stimulating activities which motivate the students. One way brings history alive, and it presents students with a lot more than just a pile of information. The other empowers the students in a problem solving role, and links mathematical/scientific concepts to the real world. This is the type of learning that will remain planted in their memories. It is the type of learning that will motivate them to study, and take charge of their lives. This, is real learning.

The PKM Masters Degree

I discovered this morning that Harold Jarche had written about how at Bangor University we had been teaching the Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) framework to students. As a ‘Psychology Information Technology Skills’ (PITS) tutor, I have played an important role in teaching PKM, and wanted to share a bit more about my experiences throughout the year.

We actually faced a few challenges in helping the students warm to PKM. It seemed that many could not see the reason why they had to do PKM, and also that many struggled to catch the vision of how to do it. A lot of students had expected higher education to involve memorising information to pass exams, as they had previously done in school. PKM did not have that same type of measurable outcome and many students would ask me what exactly it was they needed to do to pass the class.

However, a few did grasp it well. One student informed me that she kept a fashion blog, through which she had established a network with several clothing labels, who would send her free products to review. Other students ventured to find my twitter account, or to join Pinterest and Scoopit. Students who had used Pinterest previously were also quicker to grasp of PKM, perhaps because the way Pinterest users collect and curate content is similar to PKM’s seek, sense and share framework.

Perhaps PKM is the difference between higher education and that of the typical high school. That it was challenging to foster may be akin to the old adage that ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Indeed it is personal, because you do it for yourself. Nobody else is there to grade or assess you. If people don’t want to do it, that’s fine! However they may loose out as the knowledge economies adapt to future needs.

For research and knowledge based economies to work, they need to be more than just transferring information. It is the intrinsic passion and ingenuity that transforms information in to actions or solutions to problems. It comes from within, and that is why (beyond teaching the PKM framework) it can’t be forced. Some will do it and change the world, others won’t.

PKM as a Masters Degree

This takes me on to my second point: PKM as a masters degree. This last year, I took a class called ‘Science of Education’. It was an open ended, ‘autonomy supportive’ blogging module. We would go away, and do some research, and disseminate what we found through writing a weekly blog. Additionally, we would write five weekly comments on fellow classmates blogs, to academically critique their work. We would seek the information, sense what is being portrayed, and share our own ideas in relation to the content. With social media as the platform, each class member came away with their own blog: a portfolio of ideas and discussions, as well as links to original sources.

Bangor University have just agreed to expand the module into a masters degree, run as a MOOC (massive open online course). Students will be able to specialise their knowledge of the ‘scholarship of learning’ through blogging and participate in an online critical discussion. Participation is free and open, as will be the learning and knowledge management skills which are drawn from it. However, those who pay a course fee to the university may have their portfolio assessed and accredited. Students may then graduate from Bangor University with a post graduate certificate, diploma or a masters degree (the level of qualification depends on the number of modules completed).

I consider PKM to be a really exciting development in the way we handle learning and knowledge. It brings meaning and depth to the information we work with, and makes it both accessible and memorable. You might even say it turns information into knowledge. It doesn’t happen automatically, but with practise and involvement, I believe it can make a person very effective in their work. I am excited to see this program commence at Bangor University, as it is a brilliant development for both MOOC’s and knowledge based economy’s. This is a great step forwards for higher education practise and the scholarship of learning.