For the past three years, I’ve worked with Veronica Boix-Mansilla and several other colleagues from Project Zero and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to put together a professional learning event called the Future of Learning Institute. The goal of the institute to help people imagine new futures for learning, particularly by exploring developments along three strands: globalization, the digital revolution, and mind-brain studies.
For years, we’ve been dissatisfied with our online learning environment. We used Harvard’s Learning Management System (LMS), iSites, which is fine as learning management systems go, but filled with problems for an Institute. You have to give everyone a password and username for a short 4-day learning experience, and everyone has login problems and forgets their credentials. There is never enough time to teach people the particularities and peculiarities of the system (“the insert image button is hidden on that third tab over here”)and so no one really uses it. Plus, the university closes access to the site two months after the institute every year, so participants never had any incentive to put anything there anyway.
We wanted to try something different this year, and we explored a whole range of possible LMS solutions, all of which had the same fundamental problem: there isn’t enough time to teach people how to use a new system for a four-day institute. Somewhere a few months ago, it hit me that we needed to stop trying to solve the problem with an LMS. We were using our LMS to pull lots of content into a single place where it could be organized, searched, and curated, but an LMS isn’t the only (or even a good) way to do this synthesis. (Everyone involved in creating a MOOC, please re-read that last sentence.) Inspired by the work that Connectivist educators have done with cMOOCs over the last 5 years, particularly by the incredible learning experiences created by the ds106 crew at the University of Mary Washington, I thought we might experiment by solving our problems with a syndication engine rather than a walled garden.
Briefly, Connectivism is an epistemology and a pedagogy that takes the position that knowledge exists only (or at least primarily) in networks and relationships. If most people accept the idea that the smartest person in the room is the room; then the Connectivists go one step further to say that the only entity with any intelligence in the room is the room. Knowledge exists only in networks. Meaningful teaching, therefore, is network building. Even if you find that a little wacky, you can set the epistemology aside and appreciate the insights for education. Learning is social, and teaching is building connections between people. One way to say it, following George Siemens, is that the pipes connecting people in a learning experience are more important than the content flowing through the pipes.
In the case of the Future of Learning Institute, this pedagogical vision of a networked learning environment aligns much better with our learning goals than the instructionist, content-delivery focused, Thorndikian assumptions built into the typical LMS. We don’t really need to disseminate content; we need to empower participants to produce and share their own content.
So our first step, and the most important one, was hiring Alan Levine of ds106 fame to help us conceptualize and implement what we wanted to do. Alan has recently struck out on his own as a consultant, and I can’t recommend him enough to anyone looking for a great thought partner and developer of online learning spaces. He was incredible helpful in the big conceptual ideas, in the building, and in supporting us during the institute with technical details.
The heart of our site is the “Flow,” a syndication engine that pulls together a wide variety of content tagged as #hgsepzfol from across the Web. The Flow finds the content that participants are making during the Institute and pulls it together. It aggregates posts from subscribed blogs, tagged tweets, tagged pictures on Instagram and Flickr, and any posts that the facilitators create from within the Wordpress dashboard. Our best innovation, however, was a simple post-by-email system that let anyone add to the flow from a simple email.
The idea here is that we want people to be producing course content from the Web interfaces that they are most comfortable with. For some Web-savvy folks, that is their blog or their Twitter account. But for pretty much everyone in the Internet-connected world, email is the simplest possible interface for communication, collaboration, and co-creation. We wanted our website to have high ceilings, and indeed you can create posts where you embed a Storify with a collection of your tweets and YouTube videos, but we also wanted to have low floors, and just about everyone can step up to send an email (inspiration from Papert’s high-ceilings/low-floors/wide-walls).
In addition to the Flow, we break participants up into smaller learning groups, and each learning group has its own content feed (a subset of the full flow, tagged for each learning group). For instance, here’s the feed for my charrette-inspired learning group, group 12. We also have a Spotlight, a curated area where facilitators pulled out some of the best or most interesting content or simply made announcements relevant to the whole community.
Of course, in its first year, not everything worked perfectly, but our Flow has about 900 pieces of content—tweets, pictures, posts, videos, slides, and more—that provide a real-time highlight reel of the learning that happened over the course of a full and enriching week. We could have done more to support participants in learning how to use the system, both in terms of technical skills and in terms of thinking about how best to document learning in process in an online space. We could have made more time for people to reflect and share their reflections online; we could have been better. Generally speaking, however, I leave the Institute incredibly excited about the possibility of Connectivist-inspired, syndication-based learning environments for conferences, institutes, and other shorter learning environments.
The best conferences are about networked learning: about making new connections between new colleagues, old friends, and fresh ideas. The affordances of syndication technologies align beautifully with that mission.
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