This had been a sticking point in much of the Connectivism debate, so I was really interested in how Rory McGreal and team are addressing the challenge of assessment and accreditation in an open world in a formal way (recordings here of Rory’s presentation). The project (called OER University) objectives were to survey the existing methods of assessment and accreditation across the world, assess scalable approaches and document the lessons learnt in order to provision a framework for learners who are taking the OER. As the OERU website states, “(t)he OER university concept aims to create a parallel learning universe based solely on OER to augment and add value to the formal education sector”.

The Complexity

So here is why the problem is complex. By definition, if the learning process is open and the technologies and content on the basis of which the learning experiences are based are also open, this poses several challenges to assessing the process. It is not a controlled institutional environment and in many cases it is only a partial learning environment, suited to content (as of now) that doesn’t have supporting physical dependencies like LABs or for traditional classroom type group collaborative activities – i.e. more suited for digital self-sufficient learning processes. The other problem is formalizing a process that is inherently complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it requires resources, a challenge that the open movement has succeeded in surmounting in the creation process, but critically, not in the support process. There is also the problem of the digital, an affordance that the bulk of the global learning population has limited (if at all) access to.

The OER-U Model

The OER-U project focuses on a subset of these challenges. Open Collaboration (for learning) is constituted by four things: open curriculum, open design and development, open pedagogy and open student support. Educational Institutions are then playing the role of a service provider – open assessment services, open credential services and open community support. This is backed by the OER support infrastructure that comprises open business models, open ICT infrastructure and open student administration (a new term for me). The use cases range from OER based free self-directed learning to consuming fee-based services. Cost is a major concern and therefore two important things need to be pursued vigorously – use of technology to make the assessment process more efficient (automatic marking?) and pushing down the cost of any type of assessment (teachers in India get 2$ or lower per exam script, which in itself provides a great business case). Obviously quality assurance, a weapon of the establishment, finds its way into the project as a critical component while accrediting institutions.

The model paradox

The acceptability of the model is being promoted in comparison to the existing models. For example, for open assessment services to be credible, they “must be strictly equivalent to that for mainstream students” and therefore must involve a fee. My argument is that the world over, traditional assessment mechanisms (as also learning) have been criticised for their inability to assess students accurately and for their inability to provide a job-ready candidate. Even different components of the same system don’t really trust each other’s credentials (witness entrance testing and qualification tests like GRE and TOEFL which also serve an important need of matching limited institutional resources to most deserving students). In this, and many other senses, the OER-U model promotes a hybrid inside-the-box model, not an out-of-the-box open model.

Fearing the establishment

Part of the reason for this approach is fear. This is a new realization for me. It is the fear, as Rory remarked, that if this model takes off, the establishment (traditional universities) will mount a heavy offense (backlash) with quality as their main argument. As I think about it more, this fear has many other dimensions as well that OER proponents must contend with – acceptability by employers, acceptability by students, lack of government support and so on. And our thinking is often shaped by these fears.

These fears are real. But I would also like to point out the opportunity to do something new. World over, demand is exponentially outstripping available educational infrastructure and resources. We have the opportunity to seriously consider the emergence of other systems which are scalable, cost effective and open. We have the opportunity to master our fears. These other systems need not to be thought of in conflicting terms (either these or the traditional system), but as options to help a fast growing, often disadvantaged population to navigate around the systemic problems that plague the traditional systems.

For example, the open software / open source movement succeeded because it empowered software users. The term OER University conflicts, if there is a parallel intended, with that vision. It is like saying Microsoft should have open source initiatives (which it has), rather than saying that Microsoft should be open source. We have to think of models that empower our learners, our teachers and our employers rather than help traditional universities extend their reach as consumers and ultimate approvers of a new system. Of course, it doesn’t help that I am an incurable optimist, even as I write this!

Services in the model

So, apart from Open Assessment services, there are also Open Credentials Services. Again, by making participating institutions, and there could be other entities or individuals who should be included in scope, have to comply with having credible local accreditation, the model perpetuates the hybrid in-the-box approach. It lays the claim, further, to be a nodal organization for assessments, with any student being able to join, with any student being able to use open content and open support (from perhaps participating institutions and academic volunteers worldwide). The skew is then on assessment rather than learning and by definition, then, it differs from a traditional university in these terms because it removes formal teaching from the mix.  And assessments in this way involves many other challenges – proctoring and security, for example.

So OER-U is like a melting pot which brings students (learners), teachers, academic volunteers, institutions all together, but takes ownership over assessments. It is not a new model in that sense either. There are assessment and accreditation bodies across the world.

Stephen pointed out an inherent conflict because resources for learning are intimately connected with assessment design and development. This would lead to other formalizations such as a process for certifying additional resources (not necessarily) open and even creating a cadre of certified open support resources. Rory’s response, in the context of the university, was that it was a way surely of generate an alternate revenue stream, but was open to a more distributed approach, with this being one way that students could choose from. Also, he talked about quality in the context of teaching to the test and also talked of evaluating competency based models for assessments.

So what are possible directions for change?

In my mind, and since this is Change11, the change could come from various sides. The most important factors influencing change will neither be OER or technology, nor will change come from private players. Rather they will come from either the government or from an entire distributed movement that is able to capture mindshare and shape future systems.

Why I say government is because any new initiative whose outcomes are not clearly visible (except in the vision) and which entails a single window (democratic) decision-making in the face of risk and uncertainty, quite clearly has to be backed the government (our combined resources). The government is critical because it is responsible for creating the traditional system and the onus of change rests with it. By definition of democratic systems, the onus of convincing government lies within us. Of course there are challenges to make governments think and feel this vision, but it is not an impossible task.

Why I say movement, is equally obvious. The more we can take control of our own futures, the more the chances of change  actually happening will improve. Obviously too, there are challenges with this approach, and inherent contradictions, but isn’t that we are all already trying to achieve through our individual and collective efforts? Perhaps it needs to be more organized and focused.

An important feature of this change will be innovation in assessments in the OER context. Dave pointed to the need for students to be able to pass the test which is especially important professionally, so it would be important to design tests differently for different needs (for example, early learning assessment vs. late learning assessment). Some suggestions in the chat room also pointed to an absence in thinking of assessment types that we have been talking about in the past – like those covered in LAK11 (Learning Analytics), peer assessments, competency models, data trails and critical literacies. Obviously, when we are talking of open design of curriculum and content and learning environments, we must also focus on open design of and new forms of assessment.


Two questions that Tony raised – do institutions need to change and does this change need to come from within or from outside – in his recent talk in Change11, obviously need answering. Tony makes the case for a formal planned process for adoption and use of learning technologies in the institution. He makes the important point that technology has been used to create infrastructure, administrative application, enhanced (not improved) use of technology in the classroom, low online learning options and the preponderance of LMS based points of view.

He makes an important point – that the institutional leaders must be aligned, planned and strategic in terms of how they go about really leveraging digital technology and new pedagogies for the future. Structurally, both roles for the institution and a clear decision-making process must be in place – in short, a system of governance must be established. The role of course design is also extremely important. What happens is that costs in effect go up when introducing an online component because the face to face instructor time is not going down.

Which is really what most people would say when faced with the challenge of change. The standard response is a structured one – usually top down and systematic, backed by consultants (internal or external experts). This approach presupposes many different things:

  1. Firstly, it assumes that the approach is scalable in terms of numbers. It is not. The sheer amount of intellectual resource and skill, investment, management time and development effort required does not by definition scale. Therefore the strategy of structure imposes constraints on the poor and helps make the rich richer. We don’t have enough skills to manage large scales.
  2. Secondly, it assumes that such deterministic structures can help organizations gear up for the future and achieve goals such as cost reduction, higher retention and improvement in academic outcomes. In effect, it perpetuates the myth of structure being an effective solution for an acknowledged complex and chaotic system.
  3. Thirdly, it kind of assumes that usage of digital technology will primarily drive these outcomes (though Tony has far more elements in the how). This is just one part of the picture. When people realize that the basic capabilities to bring about change do not exist in a majority of our institutions (which is also one prime reason for the lack of or difficulties in implementation of these structures), that is when real change will occur, in my opinion. For long, our focus on technology as the critical agent of change has been misplaced especially for entire countries who cannot hope to reach the technological sophistication of a developed country. I have asked the same question of connectivism itself – what would happen to it if the technology aspect was simply removed or absent.
  4. Fourthly, it also perpetuates the absence of an important voice – that of the student. For long I have bemoaned the fact that academic institutions advertise brand, history, alumni, amount of space, high paying placements and other such things to attract/influence students. Very rarely would one see a student being marketed the course design process, or even exposing the student to that choice. When students don’t make the choice of an institution based on the strength of its design of the learning experience, something is seriously amiss. It is an assumption that students make on the basis of other factors. Students are assumed to be transient entities with no entrenched interests in furthering the quality of the institution itself.
  5. Fifthly, the approach runs the danger of being a model of choice for institutions nationally or globally, without a true understanding of local contexts and constraints. It is a case of structure without the content, in this case.
  6. Very explicitly, this assumes that the machinations of corporate consulting can be directly applied to an academic institution. I do have specific issues with there being a university COO or CEO, the main being that we, by default, are then tuned to thinking of a university to be run in a corporate fashion.

Tony says an important thing about ways to control costs. He says one of the ways is to transfer work to the students. I am not sure what that really means. If it means students using mobile devices to collect data or conduct interviews, how is it a transfer of work? If it means that teachers can use technology to cut down time spent on monitoring these activities, it is still not transferring work. Institutions do not give up the power to grade students even if they allow students to self-organize or collaborate on activities.

The second way is to use OER. While there is much hype about the OER phenomenon, how many open courses can really be used effectively (and I have raised this question before) by a teacher for her class? A senior university leader once told me that the content being produced by the premier institutes in India (the IITs – Indian Institutes of Technology) were of a quality not suited (read: too complex) for students to really understand outside the IIT-context. While writing on Can eLearning really scale?, I asked similar questions. While selecting pedagogies and instructional design methods, what is the danger of resurrecting what obviously has not worked so far in online learning? I see many examples of institutions taking a course online, but is there a way to measure how good that really is? And Tony makes a point for scale, when talks about the Socratic myth.

By focusing on pre-service training, Tony has hit an extremely important nerve center. I have a basic objection to the notion of pre-service, but that notwithstanding, I have made two points in the past. One, that our teachers usually go in without a clear understanding of what teaching really is (particularly at the HE level) with the focus being on academic achievement. Two, that even where there is a formal education degree, the same system is responsible for teaching teachers to think differently – our teachers are a product of the same system that they need to overturn or substantially reform (a point that Tony himself made). Such are the travails of this kind of structure. Tony also make an important case for training of educational administrators, equipping them with the necessary skills to make necessary decisions.

So the ultimate questions are (for this MOOCWeek):

  • Can universities or colleges change from within, or do we need new institutions for 21st century learning?
  • What would reformed or new universities/colleges look like?

Stephen asked a telling question – how would it work for MOOCs – something outside the context of the institution. Tony responded with the user choice of wanting accreditation – an alternative could be ePortfolios and employers educated to understand the value of these ePortfolios. Which strikes really at the heart of the entire debate on assessment/accreditation/competency that started with CCK. Stephen pressed on by asking if formal degrees could be awarded by institutions on the basis of MOOC experience. But isn’t asking the same structure to validate a MOOC a little strange in the first place?

I think, these are wonderful questions to be thought about today. There may not be a single answer (in fact, there won’t be a one size fits all solution), but we should focus a lot of thinking here. My belief is that we are near an inflection point, not there yet. So, thanks to Tony, for a real interesting presentation and discussion!

The position paper by Allison Littlejohn and her presentation leaves me a bit challenged, particularly in terms of the vocabulary. If you recall, there was a large amount of discussion in CCK around groups vs. networks (and Terry Anderson’s session here), collective vs. connectives, the entire crowdsourcing hype (p16 on Paul Anderson’s What is Web 2.0), the Critical Literacies MOOC and some of my own work centered around trying to find a way to capture evolution of collaboration in networked settings and different learning formations.

Although the presentation is titled Connected Knowledge, Collective Learning, Allison talks more about collective knowledge (which she defines as the knowledge distributed across people, machines, networks and artefacts) and Collective learning (the term used to describe learning processes that make use of this collective knowledge).

Collective Knowledge is then, the output of charting – connecting, consuming, creating and contributing by people. In her opinion, the individual and the network are indivisible and collective learning itself is emergent. Also, the individual views the networks, groups and collectives through the lens of her own goals.

Allison defines groups as composed of the individual, team, manager and colleague with similar skills. Network is broadly defined to include this group and external contacts, peers with similar goals and anyone.

The quest is to understand the inter-relationships inherent in groups and networks, understand the forces that bind individuals in their learning, understand the learning process, how collective learning can help improve outcomes at the workplace and the literacies required to achieve collective learning and how to understand how different resource types might  support collective learning and knowledge building.

Collective knowledge is defined as formal learning, libraries, dynamic knowledge (wikis), collaborative spaces, knowledge networks, smart information, your knowledge, shared and recommended resources. The Collective is defined as a combination of groups, networks and collective knowledge. The individual is as the center and connects with groups and networks, creates/consumes/contributes to collective knowledge. Goals may change/evolve over time and so may paths, Allison feels, and this where she says charting really helps.

Inundated by familiar arguments regarding open content, debates on re-use, freemium business models for open content publishers, moral and economic arguments for open textbooks and so on, by David Wiley at #Change11, I can’t help but ask – Is Content King?

Content is king for publishers, authors and institutions in the educational context. This is because, as equated to a textbook or interactive digital learning object, it represents structured interpretations of the domain, vetted through a process of academic scrutiny, and backed by the repute of the author. Often, it degrades into corrupt practices at the institutional level itself, but broadly users and subscribers to the content ascribe value to these outputs, both economic and academic. With open content, there is also a moral (access, freedom) argument. Like other things – LABs, classrooms, teachers, software systems and libraries – an institution treats such content as an essential foundation of learning.

Over time, with the digital variants emerging on new devices, the representation of content in educational contexts has also evolved, but the essential structure remains the same. It is perhaps apt to question the importance we give to the medium at this point. The textbook, as a constrained medium – as an imposition of structure on a non-linear learning process, as an output of decisions regarding the finiteness,  as a representation of the periodicity of the “semester” or the “term”, tied inextricably to the concept of the educational system, predicative of the level of learning & intellectual advancement – in effect, removes the conversation from learning and constrains the learning process in many other ways. It is also fairly impervious to context – both learner and environment. It is an attempt at standardization with personalization left to the wiles of the unsuspecting and often ill-equipped teacher. Wiley himself acknowledges the reusability paradox – the more context laden (read “richer”) a piece of learning content, the less it can be reused.

Taking a medium like this and making it open is as anachronistic as the first generation of eLearning – converting the textbook into interactive digital variants. So long as we consider the textbook as the foundation, we are condemned to operate within its constraints.

Stephen proclaimed the “end of paper” as a threat to the open content model. However, both the claims – of open content models and of the end of paper – are severely located in the context of these developments. It is easy to get carried away and ignore the main problems – that most of the growth in population of learners in the world is not going to happen in these contexts, which are already tanking on GER (Gross Enrolment Ratios). “Online” is still the preserve of the developed nation. The low cost tablet does provide a feasible alternative to the delivery challenge in other nations. The problem is that these other nations are swept away in the hype and perpetuate open content promises to an unresponsive or simply “unable” audience.

Wiley himself provides a possible solution, that of OSOSS (online self-organizing social systems). The “noise” in such systems often puts real world academics off, as also the debate between “academic and everyday knowledge”. But such systems are, by definition, complex systems. The only discordant note to me is the use of the word “online”, as the most relevant prefix. We have to investigate models where online is the most efficient possibility, but other models of conversation exist and are promoted. It is like going back to CCK08, when I asked the stupid question – what would happen to connectivism if the technology did not exist?  Can we think of a paradigm where the poor get richer than a model where the rich get richer?

Content is not just textbooks or eLearning courseware. But somehow, there is a lack of imagination (or perhaps we are still not that state of art), in conceiving options beyond these delivery-oriented keywords. Sure, there have been a lot of initiatives (like the MOOCs) that attempt to break this paradigm, and I hope they succeed in bringing the complexity perspective into education.

To really leverage open content, we must break away from the constraints of the textbook or the eLearning course. We must encourage diversity. For example, my idea of open content would be to take a concept and open it up to the entire world to write their interpretation of it. By implication, the context richness would provide many opportunities for non-linear real life learning. So instead of looking at content vertically (hierarchies of domain trees and curricula), publishers would look at it in a networked manner with clusters of self-similar nodes. In that situation, learners and teachers would both find it instantly easier to locate in-context learning content. In one stroke, then, the reusability paradox would also be resolved, simply through scale.

No real-world system today looks at content that way. The same way for search. If I want to learn about the reusability paradox and I respect David Wiley and Stephen Downes for their seminal ideas around it (top two articles on Google?), I should be able to access the network of content in and around their contributions, plus curations. So I am not searching a digital repository for keywords that an IMS standard predicates, but I am able to put a filter through nodes that are not content items to get to the content I need. And what if there was really an offline way of doing this, so that more and more people could learn that way?

In summary, please let us think out of the box and in a global context.

I found this interesting article by István S. N. Berkeley called Some Myths of Connectionism. He starts by stating:

These myths are often repeated claims that have been made about connectionist systems, which when closely scrutinized, fail to be adequately justified, or properly qualified. In some instances, such claims are simply false.

The myths that he seeks to refute are:

  1. Connectionist systems are in some sense ‘neural’ or ‘brain-like’ – We have heard often a likening of connectivist systems to be brain-like or with brain like properties. He references Churchland (1989: p. 160) who introduces connectionist networks as follows:

    The networks to be explored attempt to simulate natural neurons with artificial units…Each unit receives input signals from other units via “synaptic” connections…the “axonal” end branches from other units all make connections directly to the “cell body” of the receiving unit.

    Talking about Rumelhart’s claim about the close similarity of a connectionist processing unit to an abstract neuron, Berkeley states there is nothing like an abstract neuron. There are many types of neurons in the brain, so it is valid to ask which type of neuron are we abstracting the type from since the features and functional properties of one kind of neuron may not apply to the entire class of neurons. Corresponding to this argument, there cannot be homogeneity in the processing units typical of the connectionist architecture. So also for the “bias” term or connection weights which are part of connectionist models – there seems to be no evidence that “threshold membrane potentials in biological systems can be modified in any analogous way”.

    Similarly, talking about connections, a visible difference in biological systems is that dendrites (the signal receivers) and axons (the signal transmitters) are part of the neuron, not distinct from it as in connectionist models. Not only that, connectionist structures are massively parallel (every node is connected to every other node in prior and subsequent layers of the network), but Churchland notes the fact that cortical neurons are rather sparsely connected; not everything is connected to everything else.

  2.  Connectionist Systems Are Consistent With Real Time Constraints Upon Processing – Connectionists believe that their algorthms must have considerable parallelism because the brain has slow components, but many of them – “neurons operate in the time scale of milliseconds, whereas computer components operate at the time scale of nano-seconds” (the 100-step argument). According to Berkeley, this argument ignores sub-neuronal activities (e.g. at the level of the synaptic cleft) and the “many chemical processes of the dendrites which take place over a wide range of time scales”. The argument also leads on the basis of an over-simplification – that neurons operate at the scale of milliseconds – which is untenable because of a “variety of different intrinsic firing patterns and rates” of cortical neurons and “three distinct types of nerve fiber which have differential rates of signal conductance”.
  3. Connectionist Systems Exhibit Graceful Degradation – We are able to make sense of imperfect inputs such as the distorted digit on a scoreboard. Connectionist systems claim to be able to recognize patterns that non-connectionist systems cannot. This overlooks research in non-connectionist systems that is able to deal with degradation.
  4. Connectionist Systems Are Good Generalizers – “As a rough first approximation, a system can be said to generalize when it can produce outputs which are appropriate for a particular input or class of inputs, which it has not been previously given information about”. Generalization may not be considered a fixed property of connectionist systems due to the fact that “even with identical network architectures, training regimes and similar starting parameters, different versions of the same network will exhibit different degrees of generalization”.

I am not the expert here, but reading this article has made me think a bit about the proximity of connective knowledge and connectivism to neuroscience.

Following up from my earlier post on Native Collaboration Techniques, let me elaborate on the concept using an example situation for collaboration. Let us take a scenario where the technology platform is a Virtual Classroom where learners dial-in using a phone line or VoIP.  They connect to the virtual collaboration platform component which allows things like application sharing, presentations, surveys, quizzes, breakout rooms etc. At the end of the class, records for attendance and quiz results are stored for future analysis. The network level access is brought about by one-to-one or one-to-many chat sessions or back channels that learners can initiate while the class is going on.

Let us assume a content/domain of collaboration, say, sales training. Let us take the simple example of a topic that focuses on (say) requirements capture or needs analysis from a customer and the offer of the correct product to the customer.

The context in this scenario could be the need to shorten the ramp up time for training new hires on the company’s basic process for sales so that they can become productive quicker than usual. From the new hire perspective, the state of world is that they have to use their prior experience, skills learnt and practice in the classroom to make sure that they not only understand the products, but also the customers and the sales process.

Let us assume that the company has invested in building  a simulation that models the products, best practices and customer profiles in their business and provides a real-life immersive activity for the learner to learn and practice on skills.

Now, in the class, the basic process is explained with a couple of examples. The instructor then starts the collaborative activity. This activity is really the simulation they have developed but with one major difference. The difference is that instead of the learners playing them outside the context of the collaboration platform (like a LAB situation), the simulation provides the instructor a way to see how each individual learner (or groups that she may have created in the class) are performing. That means. the instructor can literally view the sales process executing in the hands of the learners and can intervene at any point if a select indicator for a specific step in the process shows an alert for a user.

It could also be that the learners co-execute a simulation. This could be made possible if the instructor creates teams and configures them to use various channels (closed user groups) for collaboration so that they could combine efforts to execute the sales process on the simulator.

In this situation, the simulation and the virtual platform operate seamlessly together to bring the right results from the collaborative activity. Not only are the basic elements of the classroom (instructor, learners’ roster, help materials etc) available to the simulator, but also the simulator provides its own integration points (interrupt a process, view collaboration activities in a group, trace key decision points etc) to the virtual platform.

In this sense, this is an example where the best collaboration practices and expertise in the domain can be brought together to augment the learning experience. This is something that could be standardized and built into frameworks much like the way SCORM has evolved, as well as take current collaboration platforms to the next level.

In an earlier post, I had visited collaboration techniques and some concepts there that I had encountered and thought about. One conclusion was that:

It goes back to us, as individuals, and how we collaborate as subjects, alone or in teams or in networks. If the capability to collaborate in structured ways is learnt and becomes “native” so will adoption on a more widespread basis.

How can collaboration or the capability thereof, go native? By imparting a purpose to collaboration, I am focusing on collaboration that needs to be explicit, rather than implicit (or as a function of collectives). How can it become an essential part of our daily workflows?

One obvious component is technology of some sort – phone, Internet-based etc. and the knowledge & skills on the technology that you need to collaborate.

The other obvious component is your network and the level of access that you have to people with whom you can collaborate.

The third component is the collaboration skill itself, which is composed of not only soft skills (including social etiquette and cultural sensitivity), but also language skills (how effectively can you communicate) and knowledge of various structured and unstructured collaboration techniques (for example, collaboration could also include negotiation or mediation apart from the regular terms in which we view collaboration).

The fourth component is the content/domain of collaboration. Techniques like the Johari window  are pretty useful here to analyze the domain with respect to the collaboration participants and their level of knowledge.

An important fifth dimension, apart from technology, networks and collaboration skill, also emerges – context. It is really important to understand state of the world before, during and after the collaboration process ends. If we are able to capture that, then we are able to do two things – one, document the process for others to learn from and two, measure the outcomes and build performance indicators.

At this time (or at any time in the past), these have always existed in some form or the other. Online/digital technology scores because of its capability to bring diverse geographically distributed people together on a collaborative platform, but leaves much to be desired in terms of facilitating the use of formal techniques for collaboration.

In our experience, we have more or less learnt to collaborate by experience (I would say this would be a fairly acceptable generalization) and by making mistakes. But also a lot by how we see our peers and seniors collaborate. We take these complex skills involving social interaction, emotional control,  tact, courtesy and so many other dimensions to produce the results we so desire. There are also a large number of successful models that people have developed over the years. In fact Stephen Covey’s Sixth Habit is Principles of Creative Cooperation.

It is so difficult for formal models to be built in a highly subjective and individualized area. I quote Yes Minister where Hacker reveals the three varieties of Civil Service silence – Discreet, Stubborn and Courageous silence.

… He also warned me of the ‘Three Varieties of Civil Service Silence’, which would be Humphrey’s last resort if completely cornered: 1 The silence when they do not want to tell you the facts: Discreet Silence. 2 The silence when they do not intend to take any action: Stubborn Silence. 3 The silence when you catch them out and they haven’t a leg to stand on. They imply that they could vindicate themselves completely if only they were free to tell all, but they are too honourable to do so: Courageous Silence. (The Complete Yes Minister, pp. 93-4)

How does one depict or infer Courageous Silence online on a Chat or Social network discussion?

However, there is value that exists if we do use/adapt somebody’s well thought out or experimented mechanism or recipe for collaboration. After all that is where a lot of people make money in training because they can interpret and adapt to the individual’s context when suggesting a recipe or building capability on a specific technique.

To really be useful and pervasive, we must find ways to enable these dimensions on an Internet scale, in our applications. We must make these tools & techniques and the  knowledge thereof easy to grasp and implement. And this process will continue to evolve and benefit from multiple related developments in technology and technique.

While researching structured collaboration techniques, I came across some interesting work people are doing. Mindquarry, for example, provides a model of collaboration patterns based on 4 elements – people, productivity software, collaborative software and methods. I had earlier referred to Mindtools, who provide a rich set of structured collaboration techniques, like for example starbusting, which is a form of brainstorming. Also, Value based management offers a host of techniques, models and theories.

Essentially, structured technology aided collaboration techniques are a medium through which learning efficiencies can be increased. These techniques:

  • are contextual to domain
  • are contextual to collaboration type (say, brainstorming vs voting)
  • are open or close ended (in terms of time, scope, boundaries etc)
  • could be ad-hoc or planned
  • are quantifiable (both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking)
  • are historically referenceable (audit trails for recorded collaborations)
  • have rules of engagement
  • can be structured to the desired level (sequence of activities, organization of inputs, permissions and access roles)
  • are sensitive to scale of audience, available knowledge and other physical parameters
  • result in trackable outputs/analytics

The logical next step, from a design perspective, is to attempt to model them.  Aldo de Moor’s paper on Community Memory Activation with Collaboration patterns yields some insights on what patterns could be modelled. The abstract for the paper is:

We present a model of collaboration patterns as reusable conceptual structures capturing essential collaboration requirements. These patterns include goal patterns (what is the collaboration about?), communication patterns (how does communication to accomplish goals take place?), information patterns (what content knowledge is essential to satisfy collaborative and communicative goals?), task patterns (what particular information patterns are needed for particular action or interaction goals?), and meta-patterns (what patterns are necessary to interpret, link and assess the quality of the other collaboration patterns?). We show how these patterns can be used to activate communities of practice by improving their collective, distributed memory of communicative interactions and information. We outline an approach that structures how collaboration patterns in communities of practice can be elicited, represented, analyzed, and applied. By presenting a realistic scenario, we illustrate how community memory could be activated in practice.

The other key component is to understand what is the need to collaborate and the forces impeding the required collaboration. This is key to understanding whether collaboration techniques shall be used, substituted by informal methods or not used at all. It is important to understand if they are “over sold and under used” or are “methods seeking an application” or are really cost-effective or intuitive. We have seen that in software engineering too and this may require change management to implement in enterprises.

In other words, the challenge is not quite really all about the technology or process, but is perhaps more about the individual mindset and the overall objectives with which structured collaboration techniques are to be implemented (basically saying that a great process or tool does not automatically ensure collaboration that follows the process or uses the tool or format).

It goes back to us, as individuals, and how we collaborate as subjects, alone or in teams or in networks. If the capability to collaborate in structured ways is learnt and becomes “native” so will adoption on a more widespread basis. On the other hand, organizations or learning delivery modalities can include, as mandatory components, such patterns, tools or processes as part of the workflow.

Janet Clarey sparked off some serious thinking in my head about, really, what we are measuring in terms of RoI on training initiatives. The post in question was Rob Wilkins’ Why do we sacrifice? and you can find our conversation in the comments (and hopefully contribute your thoughts too!). George raises some relevant ideas too in his post On the value of assessments.

I am really intrigued. How can we create metrics (and data collection parameters) so that we can derive RoI from the activities in a learning network?

Almost directly related is the question of how LMS providers, as reviewed in Janet’s series LMSs that kick ass, can contribute to this activity. Outstart believes the LMS and the Social Network are separate platforms, the former controls, tracks and reports on formal training initiatives while the latter enable rather than control informal learning. As Janet reports, Jeff Whitney from Outstart comments:

We developed our social media platform separate from our LMS as many informal learning initiatives do not require the formal reporting and tracking features of an LMS. But we also integrated the solution with our LMS to support activities like the invaluable, ad hoc student-to-student and student-to-instructor knowledge sharing that surround formal learning initiatives.

Charles Coy from Cornerstone makes an interesting comment:

Incorporating multiple modalities of learning is not the challenging part. We can build communities of practice into business workflows and develop social media environments. The challenges, in Cornerstone’s view, revolve around engagement and tracking. Getting people to contribute and then assessing the value of this 80% social learning element for the organization.

John Stearns from Generation21 has this to say:

Gen21’s product focus is on its core product functionality. To that end, core collaborative features in the LMS cover the key aspects of social media – collaborative authoring, wiki’s, messaging, message boards, interactive web environments, content rating, library, etc. Imaginative use of these functions achieves a reasonable level of “social” interaction

…….For Gen21, social media is simply another analogous function that clients may choose to use in their learning toolkit. The elements of social media in our LMS are those that related most directly to our mission to enable learning.

Will Hipwell from Geolearning makes a strong assertion that I would love to see in action:

GeoLearning’s GeoEngage module facilitates Communities of Practice (CoPs), enables social networking, and provides access to Web 2.0 technologies like Chat, instant messaging, email, file sharing and uploading, resource library, blogging, wikis, discussion groups and RSS feeds. These are all integrated with our LMS platform so that informal learning can still be tracked, managed and measured as easily as more formal training programs. (emphasis added)

And this one from Dave Wilkins at Mzinga got me really intrigued:

Alternately, for companies ready to move beyond a course- and LMS-centric view of social learning, Mzinga can provide a Community strategy where social networking and social media are more prominently featured and formal learning elements take on supporting roles. In this model, Mzinga “hides” the LMS, but still exposes certifications, compliance, curriculum, virtual classroom, and courses through deep, direct links. (emphasis added)

There are others that Janet talked with such as ElementK and Meridian that are interesting reads. It seems to be clear that LMS providers have integrated social media functions to a large degree, in one way or the other. And that some seem to have some tracking and reporting linkages as well, though I don’t know to what level of detail or with what specific approach in mind.

Would love to hear from the community what they feel!

I found this interesting review by Landy M of the book Knowing Knowledge by George Siemens (which I confess I still need to read). I wanted to reproduce some striking comments:

If Siemens is correct in asserting that the skills of ‘know where’ and ‘know who’ are now more important than the ‘what’ and ‘how’, we must ask: what then are the implications of this position for the role the teacher, and the place of content/curriculum in education today?

To put it another way: what is the nature of the relationship between learning about things – the bodies of knowledge – and learning how to learn about those things? Perhaps the relationship between content and the learning process has always been a problematic one, but it does seem that the impact of the digital technologies in education is bringing this issue into the foreground like never before.

On the one hand, I agree with his observations about the changing nature of the world, the significance of networks, and so on, but I also feel rather uneasy about his point that the ‘know where’ and the ‘know who’ are more important today than the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

For example, might we find lurking in the Siemens’ position a tendency to over emphasise the technical wherewithal required to work with and manipulate digital technologies and data, at the expense of a learner acquiring a deep knowing about the world and his/her place in it?

Obviously, becoming digitally savvy is a vital skill for all to learn, but I also believe we need an informed citizenry that can also understand the world at a deep critical – interpretive level.
(emphasis added)

This really is my understanding too. The emphasis of technology is important, but so is the imperative for citizenry to be informed and understand the world at a deep critical – interpretive level. Stephen has made that point many times too.

Landy also evokes similarities with Manuel Castells, a social science thinker and sociologist, and I quote from Landy’s review, a quote from Castells’ 2001 book, The Internet Galaxy, Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, Oxford University Press, New York: 

A network is a series of interconnected nodes. Networks are very old forms of human practice, but they have taken on a new life in our time by becoming information networks, powered by the internet. Networks have extraordinary advantages as organising tools as because of their inherent flexibility and adaptability, critical features in order to survive in a fast-changing environment. This is why networks are proliferating in all domains of the economy and society, out competing and outperforming vertically organised corporations and centralised bureaucracies…

Networks were primarily the preserve of private life; centralised hierarchies were the fiefdoms of power and production. Now, however, the introduction of computer-based information and communication technologies, and particularly the Internet, enables networks to employ their flexibility and adaptability.

Landy also looks at Section 2 of Knowing Knowledge where George talks about an implementation model. I have a great interest here in evolving an implementation model and applying it to different situations relevant today as I believe, has George.

Siemens gets straight to the point in this section by posing the following question:

 How can an organisation adopt ecologies when their goal is to drive out chaos and messiness, not embrace it? (2006:90)

 It’s a good question, especially pertinent for those of us that work in bureaucracies and education systems, and he responds with a rather conventional solution – and onethat’s hard to disagree with: change the organisational mindset and re-frame the organisational structures around networks. His call for organisational flexibility and adaptability and the creation of a work environment that is conducive to learning, is a refrain that will be familiar to anyone who has kept pace with the literature on Knowledge Management and/or organisational change, for example, Peter Senge is one amongst many who have written about this.

…An implementation schema provides the holistic overview, and then the five domains are unpacked and explained in sequence. The schema is useful, but I’m not sure how comprehensively the discussion in this section resolves the tension between entrenched organisational rigidity and the need to create adaptive and flexible work environments.

An interesting and provocative read. Thanks, Landy!

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