Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Connectivist learning networks

This week's Learning Theories assignment involves connectivist theories of learning, and we've been asked to start compiling ideas about our learning networks--the idea being that most of us rely on networks (of people, computers, services, etc.) to provide much of the information we use, and to help us learn (or know) more than we already do.

Here's my start, with the focus being on electronic means of accessing networks. More to come as we go.

Click to see larger version.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

There's no emotion in text?

Crisis hotlines all around the world are working on ways to bring crisis counseling services to people whose preferred communication media involve text-based communication, rather than voice-based. There's a lot of really exciting work happening in the field (I was part of it, on the national level, until very recently), and it has a ton of potential.

People often try to shoot holes in the idea, though, saying things like "you can't talk about emotion in text", "texts aren't real communication", and "omg ur suicidil lol!!!". Typically, the level of hostility is linearly related to the speaker's age. They often focus on the unavailability of verbal and visual cues (tone of voice, pacing of speech, expression, redness of the face, body language, etc.) and use them to justify the belief that emotional communication, online, is impossible.

My new rebuttal: if verbal and visual cues are necessary for communicating emotion, how is it possible that deaf and blind people share their feelings? There's a deaf woman who works in my local grocery store, and I speak with her quite often. She knows how to read lips, and she's able to speak intelligibly even though she can't hear herself (the more I think about this, the more impressive it seems). She's quite capable of understanding and conveying emotion without tone of voice.

Similarly, our crisis hotline has had several blind volunteers--all were successful crisis hotline workers once we got them past the technical challenges of using our unfamiliar technology (phones, databases). It's worth pointing out that, as far as crisis hotline callers are concerned, ALL of us are blind. And yet we help them.

Saying that online environments cannot convey emotion clearly is the same argument as saying that emotion cannot be shared over the phone, by deaf people, or by the blind. It's just not true. The means of communication may be different, but people find a way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Behavior" and behaviorism, positive and negative

'Behavior', as it's often used, is not the same thing as behaviorism. They're different. As I try to understand learning theories, I often see people confusing two different ideas. This article is my attempt to help.

Behavior is a word that's much in vogue with parents and educators, and it's usually used in to describe undesirable activities (I could have said 'negative', but I didn't—we'll get to that later on). But behavior, like stress, is a concept that comes without any value judgments attached. Behavior just means the stuff a person does. You're exhibiting behavior right now, reading this, and I'm exhibiting different behavior while writing it. Everyone is exhibiting behavior all the time, whatever they're doing.

But these days, we've forgotten about the desirable and neutral aspects of behavior, and have largely restricted the term to mean undesirable stuff. A teacher doesn't summon Billy's parents "to discuss his behavior" when he aced a test or won the science fair—she summons them when he pulled Janie's hair. Similarly, we don't talk about "being stressed" when we just got a raise—we focus on the undesirable side of things, and we talk about "being stressed" when, e.g., little Billy pulled yet another girl's hair at school.

'Behavior' has been used so many times in this context that it seems we've forgotten about its more general term. As such, behavior is now largely synonymous with 'discipline' and 'obedience'. But we want to understand behaviorism as a learning theory, we need to get past that collision of meanings, or else proactive interference is going to ruin the new ideas.

What behaviorism isn't
Behaviorism, as a learning theory, isn't primarily concerned with the goal of compelling discipline—although we want Billy and Janie to get along, that isn't the real point here. Behaviorism holds to the central idea that people's actions—their behavior—are conditioned and influenced by the way the world responds to them. I'm drawing broadly here, and there are disagreements, but I think that's a fair general statement.

Referring to the Walden classroom discussion that prompted this post, behaviorists would agree that discipline problems (like Billy and Janie's) can often be solved through behaviorist methods. But they would also be quick to point out that discipline is only the tip of the iceberg.

Positive and negative

Remember how I said I was avoiding the word 'negative'? It's another one of those words that has so many meanings that it's easy to lose the appropriate one. We aren't talking about 'positive and negative' as synonyms for 'good and bad' here—we're talking about "presence and absence", "fullness and emptiness", or "yang and yin". Have a look at Edgar Rubin's vase over there in the margins. On the left side, what you probably see is a yellow vase represented by positive space—the presence of color, lines, and shading. But if you look around the yellow vase, into the negative space, you'll see something defined by absence: a pair of faces in profile. To make this negative image clearer, we've provided a version of the image with colors inverted.

For those of you who've seen the Da Vinci Code, you may recall a good explanation of positive and negative space in Leigh Teabing's description of Da Vinci's Last Supper, where he talked about a chalice appearing in the negative space.

So what does this have to do with learning theory?
Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment are the major tools of behaviorism. We use reinforcement when we're trying to get a behavior to stick around, and we use punishment when we're trying to get it to go away.

Positive techniques add something. In the case of 'positive reinforcement', we might tell students we're proud of them when they do what we want... or we might elect politicians who tell us just what we want to hear. We're adding (positive) something to increase behavior (praise for what they did).

'Positive punishment' is a little bit less intuitive—remember that we're adding (positive) something to inhibit behavior (punishment). So positive punishment might be what happens when your credit card company raises your rates after a late payment, or it might be the old example of students being made to stay after class to clap erasers for the chalkboards. Positive punishment gives you more of something that you didn't want in the first place.

Negative techniques take something away. In the case of 'negative punishment', where we're trying to remove (negative) something to inhibit behavior (punishment), we might take away Billy's cell phone because he pulled Janie's hair again.

'Negative reinforcement' is a little harder to see, because we're trying to remove (negative) something to increase behavior. Suppose that Billy normally has to pay $20 to the family for his cell phone each month. We might negatively reinforce desired behavior by saying that, in every month where he treats classmates nicely in class, he will only have to pay $5 for his cell phone. We removed something (the expense) in order to increase his desirable behavior (being nice to classmates).

So when you're thinking about behaviorism, try to let yourself drift away from the idea of behavior as something bad. Behavior is just the way that humans interact with their world. And similarly, when you're thinking about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, try not to think of positive and negative as "good and bad"... think of them as full and empty, present and absent, and yang and yin.


Standridge, M. (2001). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from

Got questions? Think I've misunderstood something? Let's talk! Please comment—I check the comments frequently.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Problem-solving in adult learning

Since I work primarily with adults, I'm especially interested in the ways learning theory informs instructional practice in older learners. As I'm discovering, there are quite a few resources out there to help instructional designers work with adult learners.

The International Journal of Learning (IJL):
This journal's focus is very broad: "a forum for any person with an interest in, and concern for, education at any of its levels and in any of its forms, from early childhood, to schools, to higher education and lifelong learning — and in any of its sites, from home to school to university to workplace." Recent articles cover a variety of topics from the care and feeding of teachers through sexual identity to the implications of teaching in a multi-language environment.

I discovered IJL because of Robert Toynton's work on integrating various learning theories into a pedagogic approach he calls "jigsaw"-based instruction (Toynton, 2007). The idea is that groups of adult learners, working on "group-supported implicit learning through discovery", are often able to learn a great deal by mobilizing implicit (un-taught) knowledge that exists already within the group. He describes the jigsaw approach as having six main points: learning by doing, discovering, elaborating, collaborating, experiencing, and being supported (p. 61). He integrates these ideas within a constructivist framework designed to help learners share in discovering (and therefore owning) new knowledge. This approach seems particularly well suited to adults, who typically have vast amounts of implicit knowledge in the form of life experience. I particularly appreciate Toynton's guidelines for teachers: stay out of the way, let the students discuss and argue, and only intervene when you're fairly sure they won't reach the goal without your help. When you must intervene, do so as minimally as possible.

As Toynton points out, the jigsaw is "particularly useful, for learning and teaching with groups of varied levels of experience and prior knowledge" (p. 64). By placing learners in small groups in a shared problem-solving environment, the jigsaw method supports group trust while mitigating the effects of different knowledge levels. Students with a lot of task-specific knowledge are free to use it, where less-experienced students may feel comfortable learning by listening and watching. The jigsaw method describes some of the best teachers I've ever seen, and I look forward to reading Toynton's other works to see more specific examples.

Learning and Instruction:
Learning and Instruction also displays interest in learning, across "a diversity of learning and instructional settings", and places some emphasis on adult learning. Its mandate is to publish "the most advanced scientific research". It seems as though articles from the journal receive a lot of citations, which is good to see.

Rieber, Tzeng, and Tribble (2004) describe an experiment in teaching college students about basic Newtonian physics using a computer simulation that allows practical experimentation without requiring initial understanding of the physics involved—focusing on "experiences, rather than explanations" (p. 308). Within this framework, they evaluated the result of using single- and multi-medium instruction in the context of dual coding theory.

Rieber et al. designed their study to see whether it was possible to improve referential processing of information, to the point that students might learn principles of physics that they could successfully transfer to other problem domains. Their methods are interesting in part because they used a ball-and-impulse computer game to teach and assess the students' understanding of physics.

They suggest that, rather than using simulations as a post-instructional assessment, it may be more effective to integrate simulation into initial experience--and that brief instructional moments may significantly help to diminish cognitive load and improve learning. Something I found worth noting was this: "students with little prior knowledge in a domain do not necessarily make good decisions when it comes to their own learning" (p. 320). When the researchers removed the experimental constraints on access to instruction, most participants eschewed help--with detrimental results to their assessment scores. Within a constructivist framework, teachers need to pay close attention to the fact that learners sometimes need us to intervene and teach, because they will not otherwise seek help.

Maybe I'm just fascinated by the possibilities of using physics simulations to test learning theories because I used to be a computer scientist and a physics geek. But it seems very much germane to my studies in instructional design and technology, and I look forward to reading more of the research cited in Rieber et al.


Rieber, L., Tzeng, S-C., and Tribble, K. (2004). Discovery learning, representation, and explanation within a computer-based simulation: finding the right mix. Learning and Instruction, 14, 307-323. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Elsevier, doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2004.06.008 .

Toynton, R. (2007). Theorising 'jigsaws': investigating the transferable elements of a problem-solving approach to teaching and learning. International Journal of Learning, 14(5), 59-66. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Education Research Complete database.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Geographically-Situated Learning

Michelle Pacansky-Brock offers some fascinating ideas about how Google Earth can be used to teach art history ("Interactive Learning with Google Earth"). The basic premise is that Google's open software solutions for terrain mapping have allowed people to develop tremendous value for instruction -- as, for example, in an art studio class that flies across the Google Earth, zooms in on the Prado, and has high-quality digital images of famous paintings available to look at.

Another great example of how location-based sites can really improve learning comes from Andrew Lavigne's fantastic site about the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains, here in New York. That's a topic near and dear to my heart since I normally spend most of the year hiking or (rock/ice) climbing there. Andrew is a Winter 46er; I'm a bit more than halfway there, although I made almost no progress this year thanks to a bad knee injury. Anyway, Andrew has done a masterful job of combining trip reports, photographs, GPS traces, and geolocation to give hikers a truly valuable resource--and to give non-hikers a sense of what it's "really like" to climb these mountains. Check out his base map: click on any of the tags and you'll get a link to that mountain's page, which includes photos, trip reports, etc. It's great!

My friend Dale Hobson, webmaster for North Country Public Radio, got the geotagging bug recently. Now they're tagging news stories, to help readers get a sense of what "local" means up here in the big north. Check out their map.

The possibilities for rich instructional environments are obvious, and I think it's also possible to limit the information enough to provide some educational direction. If one of the tasks of instruction is to help learners discover a hunger for more information, I think situated learning has a lot of potential.

If I'd had access to this kind of information when I was working on a bagpipe music archive in Scotland, I might have used it to tie our recordings to the villages where the pipers lived. Scottish bagpipe music has a definite terroir just as wine does, and it would be really neat to make it easy to hear the regional differences, and to listen to the changes as you scrolled across a landscape. We could integrate sheet music that tracked with the recordings, to help with differentiated instruction for our students, and we could include photographs of the pipers, their homes, and the landscape.

Learning to play the glorious piobaireachd "Lament for the Children"? You should see where Padraig Mor MacCrimmon lived when he wrote it, and be able to learn about that remote cove on the Isle of Skye where he lived. Cognitively, the repeated F#s in the tune--normally cheerful notes in pipe music--take on a different sense when you know that Padraig wrote his tune after losing seven of his eight children to smallpox--carried by a Spanish vessel that sailed into that bay. You might even draw some melodic comparisons between his Lament and the Spanish traditional music of that time. The possibilities are rich. (Thanks to Bruce Gandy for the recording--Bruce is a fantastic piper from Nova Scotia).

Teaching children about the geopolitics of food, and the reason why there's a "going local" movement? You can talk about climates, transportation costs, spoilage rates, piracy, and the rest. But might it not be clearer to start with the image of your local grocery store on-screen, and zoom out to a map of the world, with clickable tags showing where the foods you ate came from? Draw lines to map out the trading pathways, and you start to see why China enjoyed Most Favored Nation status--the pathway is as thick as a slab of imported beef.

It's been said that all politics is local. So is everything else. So many interesting trends emerge when we start taking data out of the statistical realm and start mapping it onto the globe. When we can use the newer technologies to make that data accessible through a mapping model, we present learners with a fascinating view... of the world. Let's get on it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blogs worth reading

Although the term "instructional design" is unfamiliar to many people, you probably already know quite a few instructional designers. We stand at the confluence of educational psychology, practical pedagogy, educational technology, and a few other fields, and our focus is simple: whatever subject you want to teach, we want to help your students learn it. We want to make sure you give them whatever they need to absorb, understand, and retain the information, linking it deeply within their own understanding of the world.

Although there are instructional design books out there (an excellent one is George Piskurich's Rapid Instructional Design, in its second edition from Pfeiffer Press), you can also find a lot of information on the web, for free. Here are some good places to start:

Making Change, by Cathy Moore
Used without permission from
I've been reading Cathy's thoughts on instructional design almost from the first day I discovered the field, and she has guided a lot of my practical experiments at work. She has a strong pragmatic bent in her philosophy of design, and she feels that many of the traditional military-model instructional design principles (like ADDIE) are often used too rigidly. As such, I think her words will provide interesting fodder for debate when we discuss models of instructional design.

I love the way Cathy organizes her site. She's a technology-based instructional designer, and her site actually does what she talks about. She frequently posts slide shows, graphic explanations, and other tools that really increase my understanding of her topic. But she's also a philosopher and a careful thinker about why something is worth doing:
Too often, elearning is viewed as simply a way to deliver information . . . . But elearning’s strength is in its ability to challenge learners with realistic interactions that make them interpret and apply new information. ("Could animations hurt learning?", retrieved 7 March 2010).
I enjoy Cathy's writing immensely, and I always learn something new from her posts. They don't come often—the last was in November 2009—but when they do, they're worth the time.

Word of Mouth: the Articulate Blog, hosted by Gabe Anderson
Image from, used without permission
For those who don't know it, Articulate isn't merely an adjective for a well-spoken person; it's also a software package for the development of eLearning presentations and experiences. As such, the Articulate Blog sometimes comes across a bit heavily in the direction of Articulate's products, but they usually have some larger point to make—and when they do, it's worth hearing.

Articulate's bloggers tend to focus on different aspects of the technological expertise required to create strong visual eLearning materials. Since I am not trained as a graphic designer and have relatively little experience with tools like PowerPoint and Flash, I find this sort of advice very valuable.

Articulate tends to have a bias toward corporate training topics, which casts it in a different light from some of the instructional design blogs that focus on schools.

I also really like Articulate's Rapid eLearning Blog.

Instructional Design and Development Blog, by the IDD faculty of DePaul University

Used without permission from the DePaul University Department of Instructional Design and Development
I like reading IDD Blog because, although its voice represents several different writers with diverse backgrounds, it manages to present a consistently valuable, thought-provoking look at different topics that relate to instructional design. I work with a lot of college students, so their university setting is valuable to me. IDD Blog seems to have a good worthy variety of discussions, didactic materials, and simple ruminations, and I enjoy reading it.

For example, some recent posts involve such varied topics as how to handle situations where one person's lack of inability gets cast as a design problem ("Poor Usability or Just Poor Users? The Squeaky-Wheel Syndrome"), some basic tips on good PowerPoint design ("Oh, Good Old PowerPoint"), and some classroom techniques on how to get discussions moving ("Getting Students Talking in Synchronous Sessions, Part II"). None of these posts is encyclopedic, but they often have valuable insight that applies to other problem domains, and some—like the PowerPoint article linked above—are both direct and packed with information.

Why bother?
In their own ways, each of these blogs makes me think. They make me argue with myself, and they make me wrestle with new ideas. I believe that process makes me a better instructional designer, and I look forward to learning more about how these professionals do their work.

Why instruction matters

Hi friends!

I'm Hollis, and I believe that instruction matters. Although knowledge is important (and, I think, valuable in itself), the way we teach it makes a huge difference in how accessible it is to other people. I've also found, in my own life, that teaching others to understand or do something often helps cement that knowledge for me, showing me new facets I had missed before.

Many different topics touch on matters of instruction, and this blog will end up being somewhat eclectic. Although I began it for an assignment in my MS in Instructional Design and Technology degree program, I hope to continue using it once I finish the degree.

Instruction matters. A lot. Let's talk about it!