Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Hammer and the Hacksaw: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

My family has a love affair with tools. My father started teaching me to work with tools before I could walk, and my grandfather’s tool collection was legendary. As he put it, “I just like ‘em.” My relatives instilled the belief that a well-rounded person has many tools and knows their capabilities, and I carry that mindset forward into my study of learning theories. Over the past two months, I have tried to look at learning theories not as being “right or wrong”, but with an eye to “how is this useful?” and “what can this teach me?” The hammer and the hacksaw are both valuable tools, but one is clearly better for pounding nails and the other excels at cutting timbers. So, too, with learning theories: each is valuable for certain tasks, and we need the right tool for the job.

I was surprised to learn how divergent some of the theories are—I expected a Grand Unified Theory of human learning. In retrospect, that was an odd expectation to have. I was struck, repeatedly, by how slippery the concept of “learning” is. A behaviorist’s idea of learning looks rather different from a connectivist’s idea, but both claim to describe the same thing. I also learned to beware the seductive habit of assuming that everyone else learns the way I do—I now believe that the mark of a good instructional designer is that he tries to understand how everyone else learns too. This leads toward an eclectic view of learning: if a theory explains how anyone learns, we should pay attention to it.

This course has shown me the huge role technology and connectivity have played in my learning over the past twenty years. Although I am a cognitive constructivist at heart, my habits tend strongly toward connectivism. I spend much of my life researching things or sharing things on the Internet, and my life would be poorer without it. In pondering this, I have come to see the Internet (and its associated technologies) as a new constructivist environment: a rich context full of authentic tasks that have meaning for learners. Generational diversity plays into this, and I have spent much of this class thinking about what people of different ages expect about learning and educational technology.

In designing instruction, I tend to ask “why” a lot. Why do it this way? Why do the learners need to know this? Why is this class failing to teach what I want my learners to know? Learning theories help to give me answers to these questions, because they break down the nebulous “learning process” into more manageable chunks that I can diagnose and debug. I came into the class with some strong ideas about what constituted “good instruction”, and I still hold many of those views; the learning theories have helped me to understand why “good instruction” succeeds, and why “bad instruction” fails.

Theories provide a foundation for understanding how instruction works. Like most foundations, their structure is sometimes hard to see, but without them, the house falls down. We may not interact with the foundations every day, directly, but we rely on their support. Learning theories make me a better designer because they help me to know what I am trying to achieve and how to get there. The theories also offer strategies for fixing problems—these different approaches and lenses give me new tools to try when designing instruction.

Where is this going? Part of me now wants to study educational psychology at the doctoral level, because it fascinates me. More immediately, I plan to continue asking how the training programs I develop support learning, motivation, and transfer. In that sense, learning theories have already been valuable to me: I used motivation theory in developing a presentation last week, and I have been getting rave reviews about it. I used connectivism to explain why social services need to adapt to the habits of today’s users, and I used constructivism to develop an assessment tool that really works. It all comes down to having the right tool for the job.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dipping from many wells

I've spent the last two months studying learning theories at Walden University, and it's been a fascinating journey. The class forced me to get involved with blogs, and it made me jump head-first into the pool of Web participation. Talk about a lesson with wide-reaching effects!

Photo by Diego_3666

When I dipped my toe into studying learning theories, I classified myself as a cognitive constructivist, and I think my first instincts were good ones. Although aspects of behaviorism hold true for me (as they do for everyone), that theory doesn't explain the way I learn higher-order skills and knowledge. Cognitive theory, with its focus on connections between related concepts and emphasis on metaphor, is an obvious choice for me; it pairs well with constructivism, which explains the fact that I learn best in rich environments where I can see the problem, work at it from different angles, and draw on different resources to find solutions.

As I've learned about later theories like connectivism, social learning, and adult learning theory, the water has grown a bit muddier.

Connectivism--the focus on a network of resources, rather than one person's knowledge--has played a tremendous role in my intellectual development. I adopted technology early on, hit the Internet well before the Web had been invented, and never really looked back. The network of resources has been a feature of my learning since elementary school. I still spend hours each day immersed in the Internet, connecting with friends and colleagues, researching new ideas, communicating, and learning. I only recently learned about connectivist theory, but I've been doing what it describes for years.

I'm not sure where I stand with social learning theory. Some of my best experiences have been with other learners, but I tend to gravitate toward learning on my own. Perhaps this stems from years of being interested in things that bored my classmates, or maybe it grows from my native introversion. When I can find groups of people with similar interests, I learn a lot by discussing and debating with them, which is why the 'net is such a wonderful tool for me. I also learn through teaching.

Adult learning theory seems more like a collection of descriptions than a coherent theory, but it has a lot of merit. It points out that adults tend to be self-directed learners (I am!) and tend to prefer forms of instruction that explain why the learning is useful. We also draw heavily on our past experiences and pre-existing knowledge, and use technology to aid our learning.

I rely on technology for many things: I use a computer to stay in touch with friends and colleagues; I participate in forums, blogs, and email lists where I both learn and teach; I schedule my time with the aid of a BlackBerry; I make music on electronic instruments and record the analog instruments with a computer. Technology plays a big role in my learning because it makes it easy to find information and it also simplifies the task of preserving what I've learned and publishing new ideas. Discussion boards are very helpful to me, as are the few close friends who'll indulge me, because I often cement learning by summarizing it and explaining it to someone else. Internet connectivity facilitates this. I also find a simple word processor valuable in taking notes--I can type at around 100 words per minute, which is more than three times the average handwriting speed (31 wpm). Faster note-taking means less time away from the material I'm trying to drink in.

My learning theory preferences seem to relate to the letter 'C': the more 'C's, the better. So I am strongly constructivist and connectivist (both have two 'C's), still quite cognitivist and interested in social learning (one 'C' each), and not very behaviorist (no 'C's at all). Since every family needs a black sheep, mine is adult learning theory, which lacks a 'C' but still enjoys my warm regard.

You may have noticed the water theme running through my post. That's intentional: one of the things I learned from cognitivism is that attaching metaphors to things can make them easier to learn. I feel like my understanding of learning has flowed through each theory, sipping from each, drinking deeply from a few. In the end, I find it difficult to say which influences me the most--so much depends on context. I think they all serve useful purposes, and I intend to continue dipping from each well.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Geolocation in learning

I am intensely interested in the ways location affects learning and development, as I've written in the past. I think the rise of geolocation technologies will have profound and subtle effects on the way we teach. I'm using geolocation in two senses here: one being the (relatively broad) sense of using GPS and other technology to describe two-dimensional position in latitude and longitude, and the other being a more general term for electronically-mediated spatial awareness: a sense of "knowing where things are".

Some of the technology here doesn't exist yet—but that's the nature of technological prediction. I owe a debt to Educause's 2009 Horizon Report for getting me thinking about some of these issues in a new light.

NatureMapping (as referenced on Edutopia) is one sort of educational use, but there are others. I found relatively little information about geolocated learning on Edutopia; perhaps the field is so new that little has yet been written. With luck, I'll be able to contribute something one day.

Maps have always helped me learn. From the day I discovered them, they fascinated me. They help me understand topography and illuminate historical trends and wars, but I realize now that the map is one of my fundamental metaphors for interacting with the world. Here, then, are a few ideas about how new mapping tools—geolocation tools—could be used for instruction.


There are obvious opportunities for tracking and data collection. But what might that mean? Students in libraries could be automatically directed to the nearest open study carrel, and music students could be automatically sent to the nearest available practice room.

A mobile phone with a store map and Hamiltonian circuit calculator could read your shopping list from your email (or, e.g., and help you find and follow the quickest route to getting all of your groceries; it could also help you determine where to park for optimal shopping speed. If we combined fine-grained geolocation with communications ability, we could have shopping carts scan RFID tags when you placed groceries into the cart. When you arrived at the checkout counter, your cart could just communicate its contents to the cashier, saving time for everyone.

Location as metaphor

There are other exciting possibilities, too: we could also use geolocation to provide metaphors for teaching other concepts, in a cognitive theory sense. We can use geolocation to unlock other ideas for our learners, giving them a scaffold to hold onto.

Imagine a whole class of high school students wearing location trackers. We run several iterations of an exercise where all of the high school students start in one location and race to another—the first n students receive a reward. The iterations:

  1. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to reach the classroom at the other end.
  2. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to run down the hallway, up the stairs, and into the classroom.
  3. We put the students in the same hallway as (2), but we allow them a choice: run down the first-floor hallway, then climb the stairs; or climb the stairs, then run down the second-floor hallway. Reward the first ones to arrive.

When we've finished, we come back into the classroom and upload all of the location tracks into a computer and superimpose them on a map of the building.

What are we teaching? We're teaching electrical concepts in physics class. We've given people kinesthetic experience with a few important physics concepts—which is important because kinesthetic intelligence is underused in most science classes—but there are some other parallels too:

Scenario (1) simulates flow of electricity in wires of different gauge. Students run with low resistance through the wide wire (hallway), but the resistance changes when they all try to cram through the narrow wire (doorway), and they slow down. I bet some of the students would jostle in the doorway, too, which illustrates the principle that added resistance leads to heat (or arguments). By giving a reward for the first ones to finish, we've gotten the students to behave kind of like electrons (or molecules in an ideal gas): they're all moving as fast as possible in whatever direction they're pointed.

(2) does the same thing, but it's a longer race, so some of the front-runners get tired and fall back; here we might still be talking about electricity, but we could be talking about the movement of sperm in biology class or the changing fortunes of political campaigns. In looking at the position traces over time, students might come to understand the group dynamics in flocks of geese, or the positional strategy of car racing. We could use the example to talk about chemical diffusion, too.

(3) runs back to electricity: increase the number of paths, and you decrease resistance. But the same concept has applications in plumbing, civil engineering, event planning (bathrooms), packing algorithms (math)... and you might then relate it back to educational theory and talk about how multiple-intelligence instruction offers multiple paths and makes it easier for more students to move more quickly through material.

In each case, the students will have a bunch of concrete memories to associate with the new concept, and they may start to hook together such disparate topics as electron flow, fluid dynamics, crowd behavior, and plumbing. By letting us show the individual movement within the crowd, geolocation offers a lot of interesting opportunities for "real world" simulation of complex topics.

The rise of geolocation technology also offers the opportunity to talk about trust and privacy issues in terms that are relevant to today's learners. Today's students are comfortable sharing their personal lives on sites like Facebook, and my students often laugh at me for talking about privacy concerns—but how would they feel about a smart bathroom stall that published the user's name to its data log? Geolocation is neat, but do you want your girlfriend and your mom to be able to look up where you were last night? What if your boss can tell that you were in the bar all afternoon even though you claim that you were at an important meeting? Are these things privacy concerns? What if police could use your cell phone to track how fast you were moving and send you speeding tickets automatically?

We could use geolocation to start a discussion about critical thinking and information sources, too: we frequently assume that location data is "true", somehow. What if the photographs of Rodney King being beaten in Los Angeles had included location tags showing that they happened in the Mayor's parking lot, or if someone published a Photoshopped picture of Tiger Woods and his mistress and geocoded it to be taken from her house?


Location underpins a great deal of our society, and geolocation devices offer a great opportunity to make that underpinning visible. They could be used in behaviorist contexts (imagine a weight-loss program that wouldn't let you leave the gym until you had spent five minutes on each machine), but the best uses are cognitive and constructivist contexts. Location can help us to develop rich metaphors that connect learners to the concepts in the world around them, and geolocation tools can also help learners to create knowledge and seek out things that interest them. When we include geolocation within the greater sphere of always-on communication devices, it becomes a real tool for connectivist theory, because it allows us to pull relevant knowledge from our networks whenever we need it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Connectivism in my life

This week, Walden's graduate course on learning theories asks us to consider Siemens's theory of connectivism, which broadly states that learning is affected by those we meet and work with as much as by our own experiences. We are asked to respond publicly to some discussion questions and, in so doing, refine our own thinking.

Therefore, O members of my learning network: please respond to my ideas here. Help me process and interact with what I know, and share your knowledge with me. Thanks!

How has your network changed the way you learn?

Thinking back on it, I've always relied on a network for learning. As a kid, I was always snagging books from the school library, and trips to bookstores were big days because many of my interests weren't represented by the local libraries. Quite early, I absorbed the lesson not to believe everything I read, and I came to view reading as a useful tool for figuring out the truth.

"Figuring out the truth": that's important. Back in school, it often seemed that my teachers thought complexity was undesirable. The textbook says that the Civil War was fought primarily because of disagreements about slavery, so it must be true. Therefore, we'll go with the idea that slavery was the motivation behind that whole period of American history, and we'll sweep industrialization, cultural differences, and divergent opinions about the nature of a federal government under the rug. School often showed me the world in a sanitized Burger King package with all the mud wiped off.

Maybe it was because I grew up as the child of a lawyer, but I never saw things as being that simple. I learned from my dad that even "the law" is often unclear--there are always new situations for which no specific law exists, so lawyers are trained to find a way through those thickets. As I see it, the truth of the world tends to emerge from the murky depths of conflicting information, and there is rarely any confirmation that we've gotten it right. The world exists, unsanitized and covered in mud, and that's how we have to deal with it.

In that context, networks are incredibly valuable because they point toward truth. Networks help us to find inconsistencies within arguments, and they show us ideas we might never have considered. The networks help us to think better, although they shouldn't be allowed to think for us. When lots of different parts of our network agree on something, it cues us to consider it. Where they disagree, that's a sign too. A wide network of learning sources is better than a narrow one for the same reason that academic papers are better-respected when they include substantial literature review than when they don't: breadth signals careful attention.

I first started using computer networks in the late 1980s, back when AOL, bulletin board systems, gopher, and MUDs were all the rage. Those networks exposed me to all kinds of ideas--and people--I wouldn't have otherwise encountered for years. The rise of the Web kicked it into higher gear by making it even easier to research ideas.

I would say that I owe a huge part of my intellectual development to the internet, both because of the data sources it exposes and because of the personal communications it facilitates.

Which digital tools best facilitate learning for you?

My two biggest digital tools are Google and Wikipedia. Both are wide-ranging, available 24/7, and free. When a new concept comes up, I'll often check to see if there's a Wikipedia article on it, read it, and then Google some related terms if I'm interested in learning more.

My strategies change depending on what I'm planning to do with the information, too. If I'm researching something for work or academia, I slant more toward the formal, authoritative resources--partly because of their greater accountability but also because I don't usually need broad overviews when I'm researching something for work or school. I do not consider Wikipedia authoritative, because anyone can modify it, but I do find it valuable for getting a quick overview of a topic.

I strongly dislike tools that require me to install additional software, since I've been a Linux user for years and many of them insist on Windows. I'm also very skeptical of sites that require me to register and log in--privacy issues and simple internet-laziness lead me to move on.

I bought a BlackBerry phone about a year ago, and it's been incredibly valuable to me--but not for the reasons people suggested. People told me it would replace my computer, would make it easy to browse the Web from everywhere, and so on. But in reality, Verizon's 3G network is very slow in northern New York (sometimes Google's homepage takes more than a minute to load), and I can type orders of magnitude faster on a computer keyboard than on the BlackBerry. But the BlackBerry really shines in two areas: controlling my schedule and clearing my mind.

I have my BlackBerry calendar connected up to my Google Calendar, which means that whenever I add appointments on my phone they sync up with Google--and vice versa. When it's time for an appointment, my phone buzzes at me. This is old technology, but it's very easy to use, and it has made my life a great deal simpler. My job life requires a great deal of flexibility--I'm never doing the same task two days in a row--which means that I rarely have any sense of routine. The BlackBerry keeps track of the immovable commitments in my life.

Which leads to the second virtue: clearing my mind. I no longer have to pay as much attention to my schedule, because a computer does it for me. As long as I'm diligent about putting new appointments in, everything works out. I was worried about server failures at first, but (knock on wood) they haven't been a problem. I can scan my email from my phone, which allows me to manage incoming data and responsibilities; I usually respond later, when I'm at my computer. I write down ideas and tasks in the To Do list, which frees me from remembering them.

My technology allows me to offload a lot of that memory stuff onto systems that are intentionally designed for it, which seems to leave the rest of my brain more available for actual thinking.

How do you gain new knowledge when you have questions?

I investigate, either through Internet-based research as I previously mentioned or by asking people I know. Often I take a number of different approaches, looking for patterns in the answers.

One major change in my investigation strategy comes thanks to the internet: I almost always do investigate questions that interest me, because the research tools are so easy. In the days of paper encyclopedias and physical libraries, there were many questions that I never bothered tracking down because I didn't have time. These days, I'll open up a browser window, do some initial searching, and save the window for later use.

In what ways does your personal learning network support or refute the central tenets of connectivism?

I'm taking my list of central tenets from George Siemens (2005), since his paper sparked the debate about connectivism. Before I begin, let me say this: it is hard to disagree with connectivism because its precepts are so broad and so difficult to test. Much of connectivist theory seems, well, obvious--in part because Siemens blurs the line between learning-as-process and learning-as-possession. Consider these different meanings of 'learning' and you'll get a sense of the difference: "We are learning about cognition" vs. "He has a lot of learning behind that folksy fa├žade".

Siemens argues that learning "can reside outside of ourselves", and his theories hold to the idea that learning ("defined as actionable knowledge") inheres in networks rather than individuals. I think I agree, but there's a logical end-point that connectivism doesn't explain: if my knowledge is stored in my networks, how do my networks store it? In their networks? Okay, then how do their networks store it? In the end, it's turtles all the way down. To me, this means that connectivism is incomplete as a learning theory--which is fine. We just need to keep track of those other theories too.

Here's a point-by-point analysis of Siemens's principles of connectivism:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions. Absolutely. This perfectly describes my habit of soliciting diverse information sources and then processing their outputs.

Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. Yes, although I'm not sure what defines "specialized", and "information sources" needs to be very general. I'm not sure how Siemens would, for example, explain how a deaf-blind person could learn to walk or speak. What nodes and information sources was Helen Keller connecting, given that she lacked the sensory inputs most of us rely on for information processing? But for me, this point works: I go looking for specialized sources when I want to learn something new.

Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Agreed, although the learning/knowledge line is blurry again. When I use Audacity to record audio files, this seems to indicate that I have "learned" all about Fast Fourier Transforms, sampling rates, bit depths, etc., and that seems a bit far-fetched. I am able to use the capabilities of those appliances, but I'm not sure it counts as learning.

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. My habit of using the internet is a good example of this. As long as I know how to use Google and Wikipedia, I can learn a lot about completely new topics. This does presuppose a certain amount of existing knowledge, though.

Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. Agreed. I do not learn from connections I don't use. However, I can learn in an episodic manner by re-connecting with stale parts of my network, and I then gain access to their new learning. So I agree that it's important to maintain connections, but I don't think I permanently lose "learning" if a connection drifts--only if I cannot re-establish contact when needed.

Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Absolutely. There's a new distinction between the ability to recall information and the ability to process it. One of the things my colleagues like about me is my ability to find connections between disparate ideas.

Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. I'm not sure how to argue this one. I love learning about archaic things, so I often learn--through my connections--about knowledge that is no longer accurate or up-to-date. I'm not sure how to refute or confirm this.

Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision. How can I argue against the idea that the world, and our interactions with it, changes? I am typing on a laptop computer connected wirelessly to an internet website--something my grandparents never imagined they would see. I agree that the way we interpret information depends on our context and beliefs about the world, and I do believe that we learn by making decisions and living with the results--that's behaviorism at work.

I think connectivism is an interesting idea, although I find some of its concepts "fuzzy" enough that I'm not quite sure what they mean. I find Siemens's ideas about information flow within organizations fascinating, and I plan to track down his references and see what they have to say. In that sense, I am learning from his personal learning network. Food for thought.


Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved 4 April 2010, from

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, Retrieved 4 April 2010, from

My learning network (click to view full-size):