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The connectedness of ideas by learning online – towards a new theory of learning
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.1. This IMHO is what learning has become in the 21st century – and how it got there
There’s more going on here than you may realise!
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.2. Traditional top down learning
Two triangles, one above the other and linked with a down arrow suggests traditional top down learning … or simply knowledge transfer from someone who knows something to someone who does not.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 3 By someone’s side
Two triangles, one facing the other, may represent a shift towards collaborative or horizontal learning in a formal setting, though for me it represents the learning you do away from the institution – with friends, with family ‘on the same level’ as it were.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 4. Participatory and situated, networked learning on the periphery
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.5 The thinking starts with Vygotsky and his research into behaviorist learning
It then progressed to the study and analysis of learning in communities
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 6. Activity Theory as conceived of and developed by Yrjo Engeström.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.7 The interplay between two entities or communities coming together to solve a problem and thus producing something unique to them both (object 3) – a fresh idea.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.8. Activity Theory re-connected – breaking out
Though developed over some thirty years the structure of ‘Activity Theory’ as a model is breaking down because of the quality, speed and way in which we now connect overrides barriers and invades silos making communication more direct and immediate.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 9 Activity Theory in a connected world
Everyone and everything is just a click away.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.10 Visualizing the maelström of original ideas generated by people sharing their thoughts and ideas as they form
The maelström of new ideas where people and groups collide and interact. Historically this had been in grounded ‘communities of practice’, whether a London coffee shop or the senior common room of a prestigious university, the lab, the studio, the rehearsal room … today some gatherings online are frequent, enabled by the Internet and no less vibrant as like-minds and joiners contribute to the generation of new ideas.
This, drawing on Engestrom via Vygotsky, might be a more academic expression of Open Learning. Here a host of systems, expressed in model form, interpose their drive to achieve certain objectives into the common whole. That mess in the middle is the creation of the collective powers and inputs of individuals, groups, departments or institutions. The Open bit are the connections between any node in one system, and any other node from any other one of the systems … which blows apart the actions within a single system, making them more open, though not random.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 11 It’s going on inside your head.
fMRI scans reveal the complex way in which ideas form and memories are recalled and mixed-up, challenged and re-imagined. We are our very own ‘community of practice’ of conflicting and shared viewpoints.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.11. Perceiving brain activity as the interplay between distinct, interacting zones
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 12 Ideas enter your system, your brain and are given a fresh spin
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.13 Ideas coalesce until you reach a point of understanding. The penny doesn’t so much as ‘drop’ as to form.
Where would we be without one of these. 98 billion neurons. A uniquely connected mass of opportunity and potential. This is where, of course, memories are formed and thoughts had. Increasingly we are able to share ideas and thoughts as we have them, typically through the tips of our fingers by sharing our thinking online, especially where it comes to the attention of like-minds, and troubled-minds – anyone in fact or strongly agrees or strongly disagrees enough to contribute by adding their thinking and revealing their presence.
Networks, Groups and Sets
Fig.1. My groups, sets, nets and collectives … based on an article (unpublished 2014) by Dron & Anderson.
Groups: Any OU Tutor group – you are put in it, you don’t, in an informed way, form a group or elect to join one group over another. I also belong to a ‘group as cohort’ of some 16-20 postgrad students on the university of Birmingham’s First World War (British Military History). Here only by default of signing up in 2013. But also groups you join or form yourself. Or is a set a sub-group?
Sets: OU Tutor groups can become ‘set-like’ and ‘net-like’ – it depends wholly on serendipity that would only be resolved through psychological profiling to ensure a mix that would foster team work! An example of a set that is becoming a networked group are the reader review forums in Amazon. In the last year threaded discussions, particularly on controversial books, have become heated, protracted and informative. I belong to such sets related to Elearning as well as books coming out to mark or exploit the centenary of the First World War.
Collectives: a writers group that formed between 1999 and 2002 in Diaryland, a group with interests related to grandparents and great-grandparents who were either combatants in the Machine Gun Corps the Royal Flying Corps or during the Third Battle of Ypres, ‘Passchendaele’; applied eLearning in business (corporate eL & D), probably a still quasi-association of OpenStudio links of the more active and reciprocally linked students – especially if and where these have ‘leaked’ into external social platforms (LinkedIn and WordPress blogs).
Whilst the terms are interesting they are open to considerable debate and constant change. Instead of terms, network theory should be brought in to give the number, strength and ‘vibrancy’ otherwise we risk being stuck in a debate on semantics. Web 2.0 connectedness is too big, too messy, too fast changing …
Creating things in a social context – construct, connect, social cognition – is not new. Think of university student amateur theatre groups from uni, to the Fringe and ‘Beyond the Fringe’. The greater the sharing, the greater the benefits – unless that becomes your modus operandi and the assessment process is out of kilter, typically reverting to an essay rather than the artefact as a product of a collective effort (such as an end of term play, exhibition, film or other event that is conducive to collective enterprise).
‘Permission to make mistakes’ is the creed of creatives and entrepreneurs alike. Connectedness equates also to distraction – at some stage you have to close yourself off, shut the doors and turn off the Internet. i.e. for all the networking writing is a lonely and singular task. Team tsks are a different story.
We have needed typology since Noah’s Ark, to try and agree terms so that conversations can be succinct and make sense. The risk here, and I’ve seen it in learning design, is that the terms become set in concrete in the minds and in the usage of an exclusive handful of academics and so ceases to be pertinent to others who cannot speak in that rarified language – this article shows a creep in that direction.
The likelihood of ‘creativity’ emerging from the kindle formed by the twig-like links between groups and sets, the natural ‘serendipity’ of creation evolving from mistakes and exposure to a myriad of ideas has been put on speed by Web 2.0.
Do you understand the same thing from Dron and Anderson’s four terms?
On the basis of definitions provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is difficult to distinguish between groups and nets as both contain people that are connected in some way, or between collectives and groups, as a collective is a group. A set suggests belonging or use, which also makes it group-like, though less ‘connected’. For these reasons I disagree with the way Dron & Anderson (2014) try to define these terms.
Were these categories useful?
No. There are other and more suitable ways to look at how people relate to each other … and relate to themselves (there are internal relationships that allows the individual to take sides, and have an internal debate). Activity Theory tries to show how groups, also called nodes are connected; Yrjo Engestrom has developed the idea to talk not of ‘networks’ but of ‘knotworking’, the tangle of attachments that form where a node connects. Better though would be to think move on from a debate about the terms which will always be ill-defined and contentious and think of network analysis as a science. Networks are of interest because of how much they tell us about the way systems behave, so much so that it is considered a science worthy of study. The ‘read-write Web’ as the authors call it, or the Semantic Web or Web 2.0 is readily suited to network analysis.
What additional questions would you like to ask them?
Independently of sets, groups, collectives and nets ‘memes’ as ephemeral artefacts are also nodes that represent ideas that float as it were between the connections between people. Identifying such memes and seeing how they connect and how such connections and links shift is of interest. This might identify people in ‘sets’ taking as its meaning to ‘set course’ or take a direction … this movement in a common direction towards or with the meme is what identifies this aggregation of shared ideas.
The authors indicate considerable bias by using phrases such as the ‘protective cave of closed systems’ implying that isolation, or working alone is a negative, even an absolute. In any day we will elect to be alone or with others … while at night we may think we are alone when we sleep but our unconscious mind has other ideas. Similarly to suggest that leaving such a cave is a ‘leap into the unknown’ may be how they feel to ‘expose themselves’ but is not how anyone who is inclined to perform sees it – for them ‘being on the stage or in the limelight’ is a leap into the known.
Their argument is weak and hurried. The neuroscience, Darwinianism and psychological aspects of learning individually or in a community, team or or as tribal activity requires far greater development, probably with a neuroscience, evolutionary biologist and a psychologist contributing to the paper.
‘Increased exposure to knowledge also means increased exposure to ignorance, and sometimes, malevolence’.
Think of Hamlet. He exposed himself to the ignorance and malevolence of his own tortured mind. You don’t have to expose yourself or your ideas to feel these things.
Whilst the ‘read-write Web’ exposes us to new ideas and ideas with more flavour (Dron & Anderson, 2014), they also do the opposite, exposing us to old ideas and the bland. It is like walking through a metropolis – you cannot be influenced by everything, only by those things you find or stumbleupon. This might reinforce your beliefs, or alter them depending on how and where you look.
Engestrom (2008). From Teams to Knots (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives) (p. 238). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Every bit of you contributes to your learning experience
When it comes to learning, everything matters – epecially the tips of your toes.
‘Human learning is the combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person’. Knud Illiris (2009:24)
In 1980 I worked the winter season in a Hotel in the French Alps. It was a 13 hour working day that started at 6.00am and included three hours off over lunch – 12h00 to 15h00. That’s when I went skiing – in all weather. That season, like this, had an abundance of ‘weather’ with more snow than even Val d’Isere could cope with. An avalanche took out an entire mountain restaurant … or rather burried them. They were fine and re-opened after a few weeks. Towards the end of the season I would shot up the slopes, in my M&S suit, with a plasticated boiler-suit like thing over it and skied the same run maybe 11 or 12 times before returning to the hotel and an afternoon/evening of carrying bags, digging cars out, taking trays of food, cleaning and translating French to English for the Hotel Manager. I had a Sony Walkman cassette player. I played Pink Floyd ‘The Wall’ and skied to ‘The Wall’.
33 years on, using the same skis if I want, the music on an iPhone, I manage three to five turns at a time … rest … three to five more turns … rest … three to five turns and take a suck on my Ventolin inhaler …. and so on.
And what comes to mind?
‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ Gibbon and Alexis de Tocqueville ‘L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution’ – both required reading before I started my undergraduate year of History later in 1981.
These are the games the brains plays on you. I can now of course recall Madame Raymond, the Hotel Manger, The Sofitel, Val d’Isere and Christian, the waiter who taught me to ski … and the word for dust ‘poussiere’.
And while up here 33 years later I have so far got through three books:
‘The A to Z of Learning Theory’ (2002), David Leonard; ‘Contemporary Perspectives in E-learning Research’ eds. Grainne Conole and Martin Oliver and ‘Contemporary Theories of Learning’ edited by Knud Illeris (2009) … from which I drew the above quote. The first covers some 150 learning theories – by the time you’ve finished it you may conclude that there is life and learning while death brings it to the end. As Illiris states, everything counts. The second is one of those academic compillations of papers. The title is disengenious as I could not find in ONE single paper (chapter) any attempts to give a perspective on e-learning research, rather these are papers on e-learning. Period. While the Knud Illiris edited book does the business with some great chapters from him, from Etienne Wenger and Yrjo Engestrom. So one is the K-Tel compilation from Woolworths, while the latter is ‘Now E-Learning’.
As it is still snowing I may have to download another book.
If you study the Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education a reading list after three years might look like this
I LOVE the way the brain will throw you a googlie. It’s why we’re human.
And then there’s this – 12 grabs of an Activity System looking like Toblerone.
One per month, one per hour.
This is the point. The thing is
a) a grab in time
c) a construct or model (as well as a theory).
A theory because it can be re-applied (for now).
Fig.1. Its image explains itself.
Engestrom and others go to great lengths to remind us that the model/theory of an Activity System is a snap shot in time – that even as we look at it things are moving on, that the relationships don’t simply change as a result of the interactions with each other – but because the whole thing shifts.
OK. Take a chocolate triangle of activity Theory and visualise it in sequence. Better still, drop what you are doing and go and buy some.
Now take a piece and eat it.
The logic remains equally sound when I suggest that by consuming a moment of the Activity System in its last iteration you are enacting what the Internet has done and is doing.
This is what the connectivity of the Web does – the degree and scale of connections is overpowering and consuming.
One step more.
That triangle of chocolate, nougat, almonds and honey that I see as a multi-sensory expression of an Activity System may be digested in the stomach, but its ingredients hit you in the head.
It’s a brain thing.
Which explains my interest in neuroscience.
It happens. It should be visible. It can be measured.
Just reading this a million Lego Characters are kicking a few more million molecular bricks along a dendrite in part because they must, then again just to see what happens (yes, I have just read ‘Neuroscience for Dummies’). So some stick in odd places. Some will hit the mark (whatever that is) while another will remind you of the very moment you first nibbled on Toblerone.
I LOVE the way the brain will throw you a googlie. (as a fraction of the planet know cricket other metaphors are required. I never even played the game as I was deemed rubbish – actually, though no one spotted it in five years of prep school, I needed glasses).
On the one hand, my interest is to take a knife to all of this, chop it off and put it in the compost bin so that I am left with something that is ‘tickable’, on the other hand I want to indulge the adventure of the composting process.
Visual expressions of Open Learning
Sequence showing my conceptions of the shift in learning.
From traditional top down, to horizontal and collaborative and what’s goes in in the human brain – the interaction between different parts of the brain.
However, whilst this might be an expression of traditional classroom based teaching, through to collaborative Web 1.0 and the semantic Web 2.o as I have illustrated before, the reality is that all of these approaches are going on simultaneously: we still have, and benefit from top down learning – being told or shown stuff, there is collaborative learning, more so in certain subjects.
The second line suggests how things are changing: traditional learning being tipped on its head and on its side or at various angles as an institution, or policy changes, due to the influence of the teacher or because of the subject.
Horizontal learning from siblings, friends, family and extended family – always there in the past goes into hyper-mode as we can connect with ease with many of these people making every day like a family event if you so choose, following and joining in with the antics of others or sharing thoughts on school and life. I should add unconscious learning too – asleep, that sorting process we go through when we dream.
I doubt, from what I am coming to understand about neuroscience, that activity in the brains is greatly different or increased courtesy of the Internet or that stimulation has increased – this is for various reasons: our brain gets bored with the familiar, we turn off, we filter, we select. There is a limit to how much can be process. We give up other things to engage online – though I wouldn’t think giving up ogling at the TV all evening is any loss – the average viewing in the UK is 4 hours a day? Really!!
Open Learning is the last image in the bottom right hand corner – a lot going on, a good deal of connectivity.
But not less perhaps than living in a close, frenetic, village community – more akin to how we lived thousands of years ago with the world at our doorstep rather than our being squirreled away as we now are.
Informal learning (circles look good, or a hub)
Neuroscience for Dummies (a great intro to the subject, I recommend it!)
Put it all together – as your brain does in sleep, and as occurs anyway as you daydream in class or have a parent help you with homework …
Open Learn is kindle in the fire … it stokes it up, motivating, demotivating and distracting. Key is the continued connectivity to friends and family wherever they may be. That ‘hub’ of activity you may get after a family holiday or gathering can be with you in your pocket to support and advise.
Is this what Open Learning looking like? More of what we’ve always had, but now, if you want him, your grandfather can sit on your shoulder all day – in our family my brother would have been asking advice on car maintenance, I would have been quizzing him on first hand detail of the war. Cousins often get briefings from my father-in-law a retired Oxford Philosophy Tutor.
And now, courtesy of all learning online, open and formal, the action really gets going. Or does it? Is it not simply replacing something else? The very active person in clubs, societies, in a large extended family and so on would be getting this anyway?
This second A2 sheet works with Vygotsky and Engestrom and the idea of how we construct knowledge in a context.
The second image shows the familiar Activity System, an expanded version of how Vygotsy expressed how we learn. The activity system has six interacting components: subject and object, mediated by tools or artefacts, rules, community and division of labour. Enegstrom’s next generation expression of the Activity System is to show two systems interacting, the key here being the interaction of two objects or outcomes to produce a third.
This model is manageable, with set links between the components.
‘In the field’ it is possible to allocate roles to people or departments, to kits and guidelines but then on the second line you start to consider how many activity systems are connected. However, it is no longer simply the case that there is one point of contact – this drive to an outcome or objective.
Already authors wonder if Activity Theory (I have the reference I’ll dig it out for you) can no longer apply, that it has melted.
The middle image in the middle of the bottom row circumvents the set connections to indicated that everything can interact with everything else. Feed this into a multitude of Activity Systems (the final diagram in the bottom right) and you see what complexity is created – the suggestion being that the there is more direct connecting between people with no mediation factors or systems. This assumes that there are no gatekeepers or other barriers, but increasingly, in tertiary education you may find yourself in a discussion alongside the biggest names in your field, whether you are an undergraduate, postgraduate or doctoral student, no matter what institution you are signed up to.
In fact, it is far more open than that of course – by chance or because of an enthusiasm or wish to connect anyone in theory can connect with anyone else – or at least with those who are taking part.
Some 4% of the population in Great Britain who by all accounts should be digital residents don’t event visit – there lifestyle choice is not to use the Internet, just as in the past people may have chosen not to have a TV. Another13% don’t have access at all – no connection, no kit, no space or place to use kit that is shared. And this is the UK. So Open Learning, though not exclusive, cannot be called universal.
Of course, being a purist, if you’re interested in Vygotsky you need to study him in Russian. Now where is there an Open Learn course on Russian?
Models work, as do metaphors, but with the digital world are all such models melting like sheet ice in a warming climate? Merged and blurred like so much ink dripped into a digital ocean?
Though Engestrom sees this as things and institutions, I like to see two people here, say an Art Director and Copywriter working together to solve problems. Two heads better than one and all of that. Any psychologists out there might offer me person to person models as alternatives.
And how many institutions can and do interact? Think of a $100m movie. Think of planning the Olympics. Think of six people with different skills and experiences working together.
Is this what Open Learning looking like?
At what point does the model break down?
Become redundant? Even ideas of ‘learning from the periphery’ (JS Brown and Duguid) falls apart if there is no centre, and no periphery, if everyone is equally ‘linked in’ with no degrees of separation at all, where you are anyone else’s father, brother or son. (mother, sister or daughter).
Engestrom ends up using the metaphor of a Mycorrhizae fungi growth such as this. I also found this rather beautiful image. But can art therefore fool? Something beautiful that is attractive and persuasive may not acutally be representative of the ‘truth of the matter’ – but what is?
Mycorrhizae = the real thing (apologies to the originator, when I can find the reference I will add it)
Which has me thinking of something more fluid, like the water cycle (think digital ocean into the could, then back again)
And in a system, as something more dynamic, with patterns behind the chaos.
In which case, to my mind, Open Learn and e-learning is like global warming to the climate – it is simply putting more energy into the system. Just re-annotate the above (which I will eventually get round to doing).
And if this doesn’t make your brain hurt or your jaw drop take a look at this:
and click on ‘Powers of Ten’ which is, I feel, evocative of Open Learning too – scalable from the micro to the infinite.
Engestrom, Y Various. I recommend ‘From Teams to Knots’
Vygotsky, L (1926 if you want it in Russia, 1974 for the first translations into English)
Rebecca Eynon from the OII for ‘Mapping the Internet’ stats on GB Internet use.
(I’ll flesh this out in due course. There are a dozen references related to the above. But this is Open Learning. You get my thoughts on this in all its various drafts).
- Openness in Education WK1 MOOC (mymindbursts.com)
- Inter-life, Young People and Activity systems (mymindbursts.com)
- OLD MOOC 2013 – Why Activity Theory needs to be seen, not itemised, to have any chance of being understood (mymindbursts.com)
- “More Complex Than the Milky Way?” –Project ‘Blue Brain’ and New Insights into the Biochemical Makeup of the Human Brain (dailygalaxy.com)
- Martin Weller and the MOOCers (mymindbursts.com)
- Has education come full circle? (jmajor.org)
- Who would you invite to an e-learning dinner party? (mymindbursts.com)
OLD MOOC 2013 – Why Activity Theory needs to be seen, not itemised, to have any chance of being understood
I dutifully followed an OLD MOOC 2013 link to an article that pertained to offer a checklist for a would-be e-learning designer to get their head around the ‘context of learning.’ The article takes the model and theory of an Activity System and implies they will then offer this as a check list – I literally expected a set of questions and a check box set against the key concepts/issues of an Activity System:
- Division of Labour
Though by doing so forgets crucial hidden issues such as the ‘action’ or activity between these points, the historicity of an activity system in a chronology of change, the interaction of more than one activity system to generate an alternative object … and so on.
It has to be a matter of choice and working practice, but for me an Activity System drawn up as a triangle with interacting nodes on a large sheet of paper is a far better way to visualise and share the components involved. The very process of explaining what each node represents becomes a point of discussion, disagreement and compromise that forces ideas into the open.
Fig. 2. Engestrom’s Activity System in practice – addressing accessible e-learning
I have even gone so far as to take out chess pieces and put them at these nodes to represent ‘community’ for example … and have pieces of string to denote the activity and interactions.
Fig.3. Getting an Activity System visualised and closer to the real world – as interaction between people.
Then if people aren’t flummoxed to add a second activity system to represent separate communities or system with a common goal that through interaction will produce a valid, for different, new and unexpected outcome (or Object 3 if you follow Engeström closely). In this respect sharing how Activity Systems can help explain the context becomes a creative problem solving exercise and a crucial part of early learning design analysis.
Fig. 4. How Engeström takes Activity Theory to the next step and conceptualises the interactions between two systems. A meeting of minds or a meeting of institutions?
I found reading about Activity Theory without the classic equilateral triangle rather like trying to describe a rhinoceros without a picture.
Fig. 5. From ‘Methods & Tools’ (1999) Not a checklist so much as a table.
The above strikes me as rather like itemisizing the parts of a jelly-fish in an Excel Spreadsheet. This works for some people – a unique a tiny minority. The entire purpose of laying out an Activity System as a diagram is to help make the complex seem less so – Kaptelinin et al have done the exact opposite.
WHAT NEXT ?
Fig. 8. Third generation Activity Theory expressed using Lewis Chess pieces
I’ve used chess pieces on a front door sized board drawn up as a third generation set of two activity systems to visualise the interplay between systems.
Fig. 9. Twister Max
What I’d like to do is work with 20+ people with a set of Twister Max discs to walk through some ‘live’ activity system scenarios … like a piece of improvised theatre ala Mike Lee, with people role playing personas or ‘insurgents’ in the system.
Fig. 10. Career Guidance for Year 11
To create a Year 11 careers guidance video I did something like this with some 30 students from a local youth theatre. The dots were placed out on the floor in various configurations and the players invited to say what they were doing x years away from their current age i.e. at key life stages in training, employment, at college, or school … beyond at university and so on. So bringing personas to life. This was then translated into identifying and interviewing people at these life stages on the street.
Engeström, Y (1999) ‘Activity theory and individual and social transformation’, in Y. Engeström, R, Miettinen and R.-L. Punamaki (eds) Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kaptelinin, V.; Nardi, B. A. & Macaulay, C. (1999), ‘Methods & tools: The activity checklist: a tool for representing the “space” of context’, interactions 6 (4) , 27–39 .
- How do you use an Activity System to improve accessibility to e-learning by students with disabilities? (mymindbursts.com)
- Accessible e-learning – identifying issues, actions and problems using an Activity System (mymindbursts.com)
- What is a mind burst? (mymindbursts.com)
- A chat with image-tagging startup Thinglink: “2012 was about social, 2013 will be about mobile” (thenextweb.com)