Thoughts on My Thoughts

I wrote the previous post as part of a larger paper on my thoughts regarding designing for distributed learning. Looking at the paper again, with the insight provided by Dr. Scott Warren, tell me I have a lotmore thinking to do.

My problem is that I believe in multiple tools, multiple approaches. I don’t believe any one item can be effective for every learner, every learning style, every subject, every… you get the idea.So I tend to draw from multiple theories. It follows my “Whatever works” approach to getting things done.

I am beginning to understand that while “whatever works” works in the trenches, it doesn’t fare so well, or more accurately, so simply, when travelling in the realms of learning theory. I still believe more than one tool can be used, more than one theory can support my work. But, I must recognize and formalize what works when & where. I have to identify when an objectivist approach works best: the types of learners who must be required to demonstrate specific observable outcomes as opposed to the constructivist approach where learners must be allowed a freer rein to construct their own  knowledge.

And on other fronts, I have to define where the bridges are between opposing practices. Or, I have to understand that “whatever works” doesn’t work anymore. Probably the best way to find my way is to revisit classic theories–constructivst and otherwise–so that I can establish what truly describes the theoretical basis for what I have practiced. And then take these theories and show how my beliefs are an extension and, possibly, a new application od sound learning theories.


On Distributed Learning

We are first and foremost physical creatures. We are able to manipulate objects, to lift, carry, and hold. But, as a species, we possess an innate urge to be physically close to others, to be part of a greater social entity, to interact and to belong. This urge manifests before our first aware sensory perception, our first thought or emotion. It can overshadow our instincts for self-preservation; it can lead us to actions that fly in the face of common sense, logic, and facts.

We are sensory creatures. Born with the capacity for direct perception without thought, we are able to experience our physical world in unique ways.

And we are learning creatures. Armed with intelligence, reasoning, and curiosity, we are gifted with minds that are suitable for, and capable of, developing thought and making meaning. We organize and analyze that which we perceive in our attempts to understand our physical world.

The combination of physical, mental, and sensory qualities enables us to be socially constructive creatures. Individual intelligence makes it possible for us to learn through personal observation and experimentation with the physical world. Our ability to engage in social interaction, to collaborate with peers, to learn from more knowledgeable others, to negotiate meaning within the group and to process that meaning into personal understanding through reflection, allowed us to come out of the forests, to build empires, and to explore other worlds—on this planet and beyond.

Our ability to learn is supported by the use of technology. The same mental, sensory, and physical attributes that enable us to create resources also guide the direction of such creation. Our bodies, and most specifically our hands, allow us to be tool builders. But that is not enough. Would the written word or crafted image have any meaning, would they drive the development of the pen, the printing press, the television, or computer graphics if we could not see? What would force the development of musical instruments, the phonograph, radio or CD if we could not hear? Even with these sensory capabilities, could we possibly have created any of our technological innovations without the mental capacity to draw together abstract concepts to create functional hypotheses, to organize them into theoretical models, and to produce working resources that meet our sensory, physical, and cognitive needs?

Our use of physical, sensory and critical thinking skills to create technology is advanced by using technology to further develop these skills, to discover or create new ones, and to increase our capacity for their use. Distributed learning is the natural extension of both our educational endeavors and our innate need to express abstract and critical thinking within real world contexts. By providing numerous avenues—multimedia, simulations, narratives, immersive and augmented environments, discussion boards, and chat rooms—and by employing them in a designed collection of situated learning, anchored instruction, collaborative activities, and reflective exercises for the delivery of content and development of meaning, distributed learning overcomes temporal and spatial barriers, differences in learning styles, weaknesses in cognitive processing, demands and proscriptions of culture, and the different levels of previous knowledge that exist within and between members of each learning community.

With the proper assembly of theory-based experiences and resources, distributed learning pushes students out into new environments and pulls in remote locations, resources, and specialists. The pedagogical focus shifts from content memory to process mastery. Distributed learning advocates the transition of knowledge gained in specific learning situations to expanded contextual application across multiple domains.

Test Drive # 3: R U There?

From the git-go, “There” ( is clearly not Second LIfe. For the most part, the graphics are not quite as good (but check our the insides of Egypt’s pyramids), the civilized areas are not as highly-detailed.

Nor does it offer the lush environments of World of Warcraft. Fortunately, there are no dark minions waiting to pound you into oblivion. But there are the occasional griefers

And there are some quirks. Friends got dropped and were somehow locked out (unintentionally) for up to 30 minutes. And there is the maintenance at 5:30PM (CDT) that seems oddly scheduled. Your comments appear in a text cloud above your head; chatty people have several clouds; and groups of chatty people will find it difficult to see all that is being said.

The free membership can be upgraded for $9.95; then you can use voice-chat, start your own groups, and a whole lot more. This solves your text-cloud clutter; but you still have to keyboard to chat with buddies who haven’t upgraded.

There’s a lot to like about There. It’s got a homemade feel that other virtual worlds lack; indeed, they spend big $$$ trying to avoid. Maybe that’s what I like most. I also like the fact that it is easily accessible. Simple guides give you the basics & you’re ready to go. No major studying to enter, as with Second Life. No tons of commands and levels, like World of Warcraft.

Just drop in, borrow a hovercraft or use your board, and away you go. Unlike Second Life and World of Warcraft, There is well-populated. And there are helpful people who offer to show you around. Not employees, just good neighbors welcoming the Noobs.

That’s another thing I like. The inherent sense of community that comes from not trying to keep up with the Joneses of the Worldwide Web. For those seeking an online site for educational purposes, the homey feel can make for easier community-building. The University of There offers an educational platform for those who want to teach or learn. Some instructional design, a little pedagogy, a little content and you’re teaching.

If you want to take your instructional efforts to the next level, become a designer. While the graphics for the main areas of There are not top-shelf, what I saw in the pyramid was pretty impressive. Someone with imagination and talent could create a great historical site, scientific simulation, or … whatever.

So, if I were going to build my online educational presence, I’d take There over Second Life any day. As any gamer (or researcher) can tell you, it’s not the graphics but the engagement that’s important. Sure, you’ll have to create something that students will want to stick with. But There is an easily-accessible environment with enough locations and built-in features to give most educators, and tourists like me, a worthwhile experience.

Digital Test Drive #2 –WoW!!!

I recently had the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in World of Warcraft. I can definitely see why some peoples’ real-world lives disintegrate while they rise to higher levels in this absorbing digital world. Even someone like me, who is all thumbs (not in the good, gaming sense) can enjoy WoW. And when I lost my sword and shield, I still figured out how to beat the Nightsabers in 2 out of 8 bouts using only my bare hands. For me, a 25% success rating approaches my personal best when it comes to gaming.

Of course, the question is: “”What is the educational value?”. For me, this gets extended to “How can this be used in medical education?” I’m not sure there would be much value in teaching our future doctors how to treat for bites from those huge yellow spiders, or to repair the damage inflicted by the rather severe weaponry in WoW. For medical students, this will probably never serve as more than a time out during studies.

And while I’ve heard of economics and geography being taught using WoW, I’ll leave it to people who ar more knowledgeable about, Economics, Geography, and WoW. But, I do see it as having possibilities for strengthening critical thinking skills and providing team-building experiences.

Of greater importance is what WoW offers educational game developers. WoW has a very concise, but highly effective introductory overview. And the in-game help is easily accessible and not a cryptic or clouded as Second Life. And, of course, there are tons of fan-based and commercial online and in-print supports.

Research has shown that while excellent graphics are nice, it is the story that engages users. Research has also shown that users don’t care whether the story is fact or fiction. Which leads me to believe that it’s possible to create knock-your-socks-off educational gaming.

Why can’t game developers share code in partnership with educators so that educational servers become available in WoW, with quests geared toward stated objectives, based upon accepted learning theory, and driven by a well-thought-out pedagogy? Educational game developers will never have the deep pockets that commercial developers have. But, if they could license popular games from the developers they would get a lot of the costly work done & paid for; having saved both time & money, they could create truly meaningful games in environments already familiar with students. And the commercial developers would get free advertising every time a student entered the educational environment of their online game.

The “C-Word”

Moore and Kearsley (2005) state that “Distance education is about change”. A simple statement; a lot of impact. For as much as we pride ourselves on innovation and the evolution of society and technology, society isn’t all that keen on innovation or evolution. And it’s very suspicious of technology. For these are either agents or effects of change.

Whereas change once represented the onslaught of nuisances such as a de-regulated phone industry, property taxes, and the cessation of home deliveries by the milkman, the change ushered in by contemporary technology is truly frightening to those who are merely comfortable in their routines as well as the honest-to-goodness Luddites in our midst.

It’s because the technological changes span our world and dig deep into our personal lives. The ubiquitous PC allows all of us to be producers of information. And even as consumers, many of us have discontinued our subscriptions to the Sunday paper in favor of our RSS feeds and beloved blogs.

And with so many sources of information, the shelf life of news, data, and other forms of information has shortened dramatically. Likewise, innovation has sped up. Computer memory doubles while our personal memory shrinks in response to the cognitive barrage we face daily. And in many other instances, we cannot keep up with the pace of innovation.

This causes problems and provides opportunities for distance learning. On one hand, we must develop systems for well beyond the horizon instead of just around the corner. And the artifacts from today’s lessons must be developed so to remain useful in the future. Teaching strategies, learning theories, and other elements that shape our instructional efforts must evolve for use in new systems or face obsolescence.

On he other hand, increases in bandwidth efficiency, memory capacity, and resource accessibility will continue to increase the possibilities for presenting meaningful educational experiences and activities to a greater variety of learners. While the traditional classroom may not vanish, it will open up to more distributed forms of education. Hybrid courses—with face-to-face meetings supported by online resources and tools—will become more of the standard. In drawing from more remote resources we will become more familiar with different societies and cultures.

To do this more effectively, we will need to conduct research that establishes delivery systems, teaching strategies, and theories on learning that span, and include, the diversity of cultures that we will be drawn increasingly closer to. Research will also need to focus on the applicability and effectiveness of emerging technologies so to best implement them within educational settings.

Most important is our need to change—to realize we must constantly let go of worn-out or broken practices, beliefs, and attitudes so that we can make use of innovations. But, we must also continue to cast a critical eye towards each element of modernization. For new does not always mean better.

Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (2005). Distance Education A Systems View,
Belmont, CA: Thomson.

Research: the differences between media and technology

In 1983 Richard Clark stated that “studies clearly suggest that media do not influence learning under any conditions”. And I agree with that. It has been shown that we can swap out one medium for another and still get the same results or, at least, results that show “no significant difference” from the original delivery system

But, what happens when we study technology instead of just media? Semantics, you say? Not really. For technology is more than just the media appliances used to deliver content. Technology also includes the pedagogy guiding that use of the media; it includes the teaching strategies driven by stated objectives; it drives toward desired outcomes, using a healthy mix of experiences, activities, and tasks. It mingles collaboration with reflection. Technology is not the buffet where you can pick and choose; it is the entire seven-course meal. You may not polish off every course; but you’d better get a good sample from each. If you wish to research the effectiveness of a technology, you must consider more than just the efficacy of the hardware.

This is not to say that one must examine every factor present, every issue involved. Such a study would include assessments of cultural impact, administration concerns, faculty development, learning styles, and student attitudes. It would encompass everything from initial instructional design to post-test results. Pedagogy, return on investment, the allocation of resources, and the economies of scale. And more. Too much information, I say.

But, to truly gauge student satisfaction or achievement, the relevant internal elements and external forces must be drawn into the study. In effect, we must examine the issues surrounding and impacting the focus of our study, before we can focus on our study.

We must find the relationships or correlations between different elements. Comparing social networking to collaborative PBL is of limited value; examining which approach is more effective for different learning styles tells us something that we can use to improve specific areas and expand out to the more general learner populations.

By continuously studying different systems, we can assess what works and what doesn’t in given situations; then compare those results to related studies with somewhat different conditions. In time, we can capture significant elements in the “statistical crossfire” that results from this multitude of related research. We must move away from the head-to-head studies of one medium against another, or our knowledge will always reflect the insight of the blind men describing the elephant.

The Changing Role of the Instructor

With the popular acceptance of each new learning theory, with the rolling out of the latest standardized testing system, with the acceptance of the latest pedagogical application, the role of the teacher has changed. This change has never been so great as that experienced in the last twenty years.

Computer use in the classroom has become more widespread. Moving beyond the convenience afforded by productivity software, the opening of classrooms to the worldwide web has introduced a host of resources and experiences. Now, in recent years, increased use of distance and distributed learning systems has introduced the most profound changes.

First, is the teacher and the technology. Many instructors still do not feel “at home” with computers—even with basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Add search engines, social networking, desktop sharing, and virtual environments, and you will place many of today’s teachers in an alien environment.

Next is the teacher and the environment. A majority of teachers are familiar with the same time, same place, F2F classroom experiences. The synchronous chats of distance learning, the asynchronous discussions of distributed learning, and the other activities that are also employed in these systems take some getting use to. Unfortunately, most school districts and institutions fail to provide teachers with adequate professional development opportunities. Imagine having to learn how to rebuild an engine on your own. Now imagine having to do it with the engine still running. And with a bunch a highly critical students watching your every move. No one is going to undertake such a task if they can avoid it.

Then there is the teacher and the content. Whereas being knowledgeable in one’s field was once what was most required from teachers, it is now much less important. They can no longer hide behind content. Instead, they must create an environment where students make a connection with that content.  And, no longer being at the center of the action, they must accomplish this engagement from the sidelines, or at least the backfield.

Finally, there is the teacher and the process. On top of everything else, teachers are no longer the clients of the technology, the ones who use the computer or the classroom. They are now the servers. They initiate the discussions, send out the topics and tasks. They guide student development rather than shape it; and, at times, do it remotely.

Today’s teachers must interact constructively with learners. The ability to communicate individually and with the group, the necessity for engaging students who one cannot see, and the demand that, somehow, the teacher gather the broad range of learners into a community of interest makes for a pretty demanding job.