How the Net Works by Stephen Downes is a very lengthy paper that provides a huge quantity of useful information. I will try to synthesize what I have read for this blog as well as connect the part about evaluation of online learning applications. I may blunder a bit because this material is still slightly over my head. But, that is the reason that I am writing about it; I am trying to learn.
The article begins with a discussion about the most common teaching form, the transmission model, which basically involves the deliverance of what teachers have learned to their students through methods that involve sensory and judgment learning preferences. A study, Testing An Experimental Universally Designed Learning Unit in a Graduate Level Online Teacher Education Course, compiled by Melissa Engleman and Mary Schmidt is cited in the article as serving to demonstrate “…that almost all teachers would select responses that indicate a preference for learning through identifying and memorizing facts and procedures, step-by-step presentation of material, and consistent, clearly defined procedures, order and structure.”
Most of the current learning technologies have been substantially influenced by transmission model. With this strategy, learner objectives are established, lesson plans are developed in a particular sequence, and various technologies are used to disseminate and communicate what the students need to study and learn. The goal is to help students learn to navigate in cyberspace using all the necessary tools to achieve their maximum potential in an ever-changing environment.
The article exhorts us to remember that the mere memorization of facts is not learning. Many examples are given that demonstrate cases of remembering that are not equivalent to learning. Note this instance:”- in mathematics, for example, people can learn how to add and multiply, and yet fail to appreciate quantities; consequently, the retail industry has developed a skill, ‘counting change’, to prevent simple mathematical errors.”
Learning necessitates making connections through repeated exposure to or experience with a concept. The connections actually result in the formation of neural paths to the brain. The connections become our personal body of knowledge. As other concepts enter our consciousness, more connections develop and we create a network. Our network helps us recognize facts, figures, forms, and ideas that we have seen before.
The article indicates that the best plan for evaluating “personal learning” or “informal learning” on the web is to examine what is happening on the world wide web everyday in terms of people searching for information. “Looking at successful websites in general (and looking at usability, information architecture, and other design documents) we can identify three major criteria: interaction, usability and relevance.”
Interaction with other people is important because, as humans, we need to feel as though we aren’t alone with just a machine, the computer. Plus, we need to be able to interact with the content of the course and agree or disagree in a supportive environment that is created by the interaction of classmates.
Usability refers to the management of tools, an application or an appliance, required for the course with emphasis on the ease with they may be used. The easier it is to understand and use the better it is. The article uses Google and Yahoo as examples of “the most usable websites on the internet,” because they are so easy to use.
Incorporating relevant content in context within a course is a challenge because information needs change as the learner’s understandings evolve. Relevance for the course is about maintaining a dynamic learning environment where learners are continually stimulated to move beyond what they currently know, what they want to know, and all the while helping them make sense of what they are learning.
Network learning is another aspect covered in this article. The three types of network learning described in this article are simple “Hebbian” associationism, backpropogation, and Boltzmann and are each complicated to explain. In a nutshell, the associationism involves the simultaneous sparking of a couple of nodes in our brains to form a connection that helps us learn. Backpropogation is the process whereby output of the network is corrected by “sending a signal back through the network instructing it to either strengthen or weaken the connections that produced the output.” This sounds like a signal to and from the brain that tells us we did something right or that we need to make changes as necessary. The Boltzmann concept takes in the idea of the “settling” that occurs after much practice with whatever we are trying to learn; the time of reflection on what and how much we have learned.
Reliability of network learning is an issue to be considered in online learning. By and large, the conclusion is that networks can be trusted and Downes cites James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds. “Many cognitive, coordination and cooperation problems are best solved by canvassing groups (the larger the better) of reasonably informed, unbiased, engaged people. The group’s answer is almost invariably much better than any individual expert’s answer, even better than the best answer of the experts in the group.”
However, Downes warns that not all networks satisfy the needs of online education and those which do must include the following criteria:
Diversity – Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?
Autonomy – Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?
Openness – Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?
Connectivity – Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives? A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to create public knowledge.
Further, Downes tells us that if we bear in mind that,”To *teach* is to model and demonstrate, and to “learn* is to practice and reflect”, we are well on our way to learning how to spot effective online courses. Additionally, he provides the following examples:
Things that model – such as the wiki, concept maps, diagram tools such as gliffy, video / 2L 3D representation, and the like
Things that demonstrate – such as code libraries, image samples, articles describing thought processes, case studies and stories
Things that help us practice – such as games, sandboxes, job aides, simulations and environments
Things that help us reflect – such as presentations and seminars, blogs, wikis, discussion groups, and other ways of sharing and communicating
For any given application in each of the four categories, we can apply the remaining principles to provide an assessment of it likely effectiveness.
For example, consider the wiki. Does it support network learning? Yes – it provides examples to follow, allows correction and criticism, and rethinking and rewriting. Does it support personal learning? Yes, it engages interaction. It supports a genuine voice, experiences, and opinions. It is a simple and consistent interface. It is (mostly) accessible where and when I need it.Is the wiki reliable? Do I have diversity of sources? Yes – but only if there is a threshold number of users. Are the sources autonomous? They can be. And wikis support connectedness with links, etc, and can be open to a large number of contributors. These considerations argue against closed or private wikis, but suggest that wikis can be useful for large groups.
As another example, consider image libraries. They provide examples to follow, but our study suggests that image libraries should have (like Flickr communication channels, ratings and reviews, and ways to link images, such as tags. And an image library will be ‘reliable’ if it allows contributions from numerous photographers. We also see that we want people to have individual identities on Flickr, rather than just contributing to a pool, to preserve autonomy and diversity.
As a third example, consider Second Life. We can see why people are attracted to it. It allows us to create examples to follow, corrections and criticisms. It engages interaction and supports a genuine voice. But we also see weaknesses. Is Second Life a good place for reflection? There are limits on reusing what other people have created. It is also semantically weak. There is only one world, not a large number of diverse worlds. Autonomy is limited – you can’t even pick your own name – and there are questions about governance. There is connectedness, through slurls, but it is not clear that it is an open platform.
This is a long blog, but not quite as long as Downes’ paper. After the considerable investment of time in reading the article, I wanted to blog about it. Some of the ideas are difficult to paraphrase and I, honestly, don’t think I could do justice to Downes’ writing. I hope everyone learns as much as I did from this blog.