Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Reply to Stephen Downes' "The Knowledge Hunters"

This is a reply to Stephen Downes who kindly took the time to address some of my criticisms on his blog, Half an Hour, in his posting entitled, "The Knowledge Hunters".


Hi Stephen

I've read back over my review and cannot find a reference to any "Downseian fanatical training agenda".

What I did say was :

"an attempt was made at ConVerge 2010 to promote and massage this Downesian connective knowledge theory into the government's fanatical training agenda."

I am not accusing you of fanaticism. The point I was making is that an educational theory espoused by you is being tailored to fit the questionable and narrow educational agendas of others ie. the entrepreneurs of a particular eductional ideology endorsed by Govt/Industry. No great surprise. A reduced, simplistic version of what you are talking about sits very nicely with the e-learning sales pitch of most institutions here in Australia : learning what you like, when you like, wherever and however you like --- making sure of course you do it on their platform, using their software, working within the parameters they allow, conforming to the rigid, received competency standards they articulate ... and most importanty, paying big bucks for the privilege!

This is not "Open Learning" as far as I am concerned. It is also contrary to any tradition of Open Source sharing, free exchange and social networking.

You say, and I totally concur :

""we are probably very much in agreement - there is very much a contradiction between what I would encourage in an educational system and what those who envision a fleet of learning management systems, core vocabularies and competencies, and standardized assessment mechanisms would envision."

In your reply you hone in on my mention of observing students note taking, give it a interesting twist and transform it into evidence of questionable practice on my part.

You say:

[what you do] ... "sounds like a desire to engage students in creativity and participation, but is actually a countervailing edict. Unless there is an active discussion taking place (in which case we might still see some note-taking, but demonstrably less) what is being lost is rather their rapt attention as someone feeds them 'the facts'. That's not engagement, activity, or anything of the sort. It's receptivity."

Are you suggesting that any kind of explicit instruction or presentation when it is required (eg. a sentence written on a whiteboard by the teacher to illustrate a part of speech, verb tense or language point for the purposes of explanation/clarification and ultimately practise by the students ) is not kosher?

It's easy to characterize presentation as ineffectual, boring, "receptive" or as just "feeding facts". It is often a small part or lead-in to the staging of subsequent interaction or other more engaged activities. Let's be honest -- presentation, as a time honoured technique, is used by a range of teachers (and others - you?) across a range of teaching situations.

My students have at best a very confused knowledge of these lingustic "facts". In the first instance, the information presented to the group does indeed require some attention, thought and engagement with the one person in the room who actually does have a thorough knowledge of it -- the native speaking, English teacher. I don't see anything particularly contraversial about that. I'd hardly describe this as craving "rapt attention". Many language learners - often with little experience of the classroom - copy the board because they think that's what students are meant to do or what the teacher expects.

Personally Stephen I have no trouble with PLENK. As I said in my initial post, it's an approach for people like you and me, for those who already have had the opportunity to acquire a solid educational foundation. The approach, it seems to me, requires a capacity to explore and exploit the tools, to access and criticially sort social networks, to have the wherewithal to negotiate new media and genres productively and independently.

You say:

"... I am dismayed when people say that students today just don't have the chops to manage their own learning. It's a denial of the sort of education, of the sort of life, that is worth living. It is to suggest, contra all the evidence to the contrary, that there's no point teaching them to live their own lives, because they'll never learn."

I agree, questions of learning run deep. There is, therefore, a serious responsibility for teachers to ensure learners are not left floundering -- as was often the case in the 70s under the regime of what you call Discovery Learning.

I am not opposed to supporting students in "learning to learn", of helping them establish the foundation they need to function and participate in a complex 21st century society. My own work in this area has been pretty substantial - any doubts check out this link.

Students do, however, need that initial foundation (literacy and numeracy, technology basics). And dare I say, this might involve some form of traditional work in the classroom and computer lab - with the teacher (God forbid)taking the lead!

You say:

"I know, oh I know, that many students and even adults are not in a position to manage their own learning. They do not have the skills and discipline. This is unfortunate, because it leaves them dependent and unable to adapt."

Even in that admission I pick up a hint of hostility to the idea that a "teacher" might be needed? (They - the students - will always be "dependent") Would it be better to leave them to their own devices?

Since there seem to be problems in your scheme associated with learners "without skills and discipline", I wonder then if you really believe PLENK is universally applicable?


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hunters and Heels, PLENKS and Platforms : ConVerge 2010 - A Review

It was the Twitter stream projected on multiple screens which held my attention at the recent ConVerge 2010 Conference in Melbourne (November 25-26). As the Tweets birbled and scrolled on screen the keynote speakers faded into the background. On both days I'd watch as those in audience tapped away on their laptops quoting those who spoke, pouncing on the words of others and just as quickly setting them free into cyberspace as if they were liberating caged doves.

This behaviour fascinated me. The "knowledge hunters" in the audience presumably believed they were broadcasting valuable or new information to wider networks and audiences elsewhere. There was something almost slavish about the "note taking" behaviour of those in the audience which troubled me. In fairness I generally worry about voracious note takers --- are they actually listening to what is being said? I discourage my own language students from taking too many notes. I want them to be there with me in the moment, hopefully engaging me or the material I present directly, thinking through and subsequently coming to new personal understandings for themselves.

On those two days of the conference I had no sense of the Twittering forming a part of any worthwhile dialogue. There seemed to be relatively few or no Tweets coming back at us which provided any constructive or critical foil to what was being reported. Sure, it was fun and there were one or two comical Tweets on screen which provoked a giggle or two from the audience. But just how important was it to discover that the keynote speaker had picked up her high heels during a recent trip to Barcelona?

And all the while I wondered if the mad tappers actually believed they were contributing to some larger fund of knowledge elsewhere?

Who were they talking to? How widely distributed, how valuable, was this strange on the spot reporting? Were these virtual gems evaporating into the Twitter-sphere as quickly as they were being typed out? Or were the Tweets being received by other like-minded professionals providing new leads and references, faciliating bold new insights and opportunities for reflection and learning somewhere?

All of this got me thinking about the quality of information circulating within these personal online networks --- the Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) if you like --- of the conference attendees.

By coincidence, members of an online community of Adult Community Educators to which I belong, had recently started a discussion about PLNs.

PLNs and PLEs (E for Environment) or more broadly, PLENKs (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) appear to be all the rage at the moment. The PLENK philosophy popularised by Canadian, Stephen Downes, is basically a connective knowledge theory underpinning the explosion of social networking and use of Web 2.0 for teaching and learning.

New Zealander, Joyce Seitzinger (of the Barcelona High Heels fame) referenced many diverse examples of PLNs, encouraging the attendees to study the self-articulated learning programs of various practitioners from around the world --- and to add to the long list with a PLN of their own. These PLNs, to my mind at least, end up looking like indecipherable diagrams from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory though they may be helpful to some. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Now on the subject of PLNs, I must say that Stephen Downes ideas appear to me to be neither new nor particularly "revolutionary". The great romantic image of the Automath --- "the self-taught man" --- the person who possesses a high degree of self motivation and enthusiasm for self education is very much an elitist 19th century notion.

Pedagogically, the reality is not all of us are in a position to "teach ourselves" as easily as Downes suggests. Many people do not possess the foundation skills, knowledge, language, literacies or the required access to social networks to embark upon such an ambitious, self directed learning project in the first instance.

Here I think about my own Adult Literacy and Language students with often low or no education in their first language. They neither possess the means to buy, set up nor contemplate online social networking as a meaningful learning pathway or program. PLENK assumes a substantial pre-existing knowledge and skill base to be useful to the learner. OK for me and you, but as a general educational approach for all?

Another colleague, Michael Gwyther, commenting on the discussion about Downes and PLENK at acenetwork.ning remarked:

The ol PLN idea suggests we are already skilled in using knowledge, sorting it, shaping it, customising it, catergorising it. What of those who are not? Perhaps I am redredging the old Learning to Learn arguments we had in the late 80s and wonder if this is a fine idea with those of us hip to organising knowledge and using Web 2 but wheres the roadmap to helping those who aint?

Downes ideas largely impress me as being a new form of 70s style Progressivism (a "let them feel their own way" approach, this time with a high tech, social networked twist). Both old and new versions of this story are essentially the same, with the focus on the individual possessing an almost-mystical capacity to articulate his or her own learning needs. He or she realizes this potential by force of his or her own will and by conjuring the knowledge-power of others through diffuse networks. A tall order project indeed.

But back to the Conference. I commented on Geoff Young's blog recently that "the assumed learners" at nearly every workshop and presentation I attended at ConVerge 2010 were "young, tech saavy twenty-something year olds".

Older adult learners -- adult basic education learners -- do not exist in this ideal, high tech vision of personal learning through networks.

I commented:

There was hardly a single mention of older learners within the TAFE sector (although they actually make up quite a considerable percentage of the student cohort). Have older learners fallen off the radar all together? What about the pedagogy / androgogy + relevance of Web2.0, social networking etc, etc for this significant proportion of learners? Most students in the Adult Community Education sector are 55+ but I suspect the focus is well and truly on younger learners in TAFE because of the greater number of potential articulations into employment that can be made?

Geoff's reply, took not only older learners, but interestingly, older teachers into account. His fears are, I agree, cause for concern:

I’m worried about both sides of this cohort; are our older teachers and learners tech savvy enough to be active participants within a framework that would seem to be catering to a much younger market?

And there's the rub --- we are really talking about education for Youth and not considering the needs of many learners who require careful initiation into the use of technology and online tools for learning.

Of course it it easy to bang on about technology and PLNs when your learners belong to a class and generation accustomed to social networking, who are au fait with the internet and comfortable with the idea of using technology independently for learning and leisure purposes.

I was disappointed that the organisers felt it necessary to haul in Andrew Douch, apparently for a second year in a row. "Douchy" is a teacher from the secondary school sector working with already tech saavy teenagers. Andrew is an "inspiration" but teenagers are a far cry from your regular adult learners challenged by technology. The two groups are hardly comparable and I thought the choice of this presenter was rather inappropriate and confirmed my suspicion about the narrowness of focus on younger learners.

Interestingly an attempt was made at ConVerge 2010 to promote and massage this Downesian connective knowledge theory into the government's fanatical training agenda.

At ConVerge 2010 we were introduced to the TrainingVC, (formerly the TAFEVC) and its new LMS centre-piece, Moodle 2.0.

At times I wondered if Moodle Inc. might not be the major sponsor at ConVerge 2010 so heavy was the spin being placed on the product by the entrepreneurs of the TrainingVC. We were led to believe this Learning Management System (LMS) confined within the secure, firewalled boundaries of a "virtual campus" - a mere platform - is capable of accomodating or facilitating just about anything as far as elearning is concerned.

Pause for reflection on the words of Christian Dalsgaard from Aarhus University:

learning management systems do not support a social constructivist approach which emphasizes self-governed learning activities of students ...self-governed and problem-based activities are not very well supported by LMS. LMS are to a large extent developed for the management and delivery of learning – and not for self-governed activities of students. Learning processes of the kind described in the social constructivist approach outlined in this article cannot be managed. What can be managed, however, is the administrative aspects of a course. Thus, a management system is limited to organizing administrative issues

For me, there seems to be an apparent conflict or contradiction between PLENK and the world of the controlled LMSs of the TAFE institutional sector, which as main beneficiary of the Government's fanatical Training agenda, has most to gain. It surprises no one that business managers and bureaucrats are interested in the administrative power of tightly managed LMSs which provide convenient (but by no means reliable) evidence of "learning outcomes". It amused me that at ConVerge 2010 there was so much talk about social networks and ephemeral philosophising around the concept of PLENKs --- all the while imagining elearning happening within highly controlled, institutionally driven online educational environments.

And even though I tweeted and twittered incessantly wanting an explanation why and how TAFEVC in 2001 had become the TrainingVC 2010, I predictably got no reply. So much for my attempts to find answers through the twitter stream at #converge10!

Note: Photo of Joyce Seitzinger's Spanish high heels republished with the permission of @botherbybees

This article also appears at

Sunday, August 15, 2010

#5, 2010 : Bon Voyage - Teaching Online Forms to ESL and ALBE Students

Have some fun (with students or without!) creating your own first class boarding passes on Qantas, Air France and even the ill-fated PanAm International at Ticket-O-Matic:

Teaching forms is a staple of nearly all ESL and Adult Basic Ed curricula ... but can be deadly boring for all involved. Just how many forms can students read and complete without going totally troppo? I have been using a few good sites like Ticket-O-Matic and the Flight Search pages of Air.Asia to introduce students to the most common features of the online genre. Nothing too complicated or overwhelming. Students seem to get a real kick out of producing a fun product to print off and take away. I have also been integrating listening and role plays into the picture via ipadio, having students working in pairs with their mobiles or home phones set on loudspeaker to "make inquiries" about flights between a client and travel agent. If you're interested in hearing a couple of examples have a sticky at some student phlog recordings at:

For our ESL Frameworks Elective this semester all levels are doing Australian Government and this involves timely learning about elections and voting. I have been able to incorporate form basics by using the Australian Electoral Commission's Online Polling Place Locator which consists of a single input field, drop down box, check box and submit button . This locator is also great little tool for teaching maps, location, directions and the like with students whose skills are very basic.

Now I'll settle back into my First Class seat and enjoy the (albeit, imaginary) trip to Hong Kong on Qantas! Bon Voyage!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#4, 2010: Ring, Ring, Why Don't You Give Me a Call : Mobile Phone English

This week I have introduced phonecasting to my ESL learners with surprising results. (That's not really true ... I knew they would love it!) Noticed that the use of Mobiles and home phones for quick recording tasks immediately appealed to students at all levels of lingustic and technological competence. The recording procedure is infinitely easier than other voice tools (eg. Voxopop - though in other respects, not necessarily better) and the familiarity of the phone as a communication tool seems to help in circumventing fears and certainly cuts down the time it takes to teach students how to put their voice on the internet.

I have set up a Duke Street Phlog at :

Level 2 and 3 students started with a simple exercise based on telling the time. I pitched it as "a little experiment" and used the landline in my office (with speaker-phone switched on) to demonstrate the procedure. Each took a turn at phoning in their task and were amazed at how easy it was.

We then moved back into the classroom, flashed up the ipadio phlog site on the whiteboard and listened to the recordings. Before long the SpinVox scripts were generated for each recording made and students could see their "speech as writing".

There was an immediate sense of achievement. No one had to engage with "layers of screen" (logins -> finding the right page -> finding the discussion ->mastering the recording client -> testing ->uploading, etc) or clunky tech extensions (getting headphones or microphones to work). The familiarity of the telephone worked wonders in cutting through frustrations.

Some students were concerned whether the service really is free, if their phones and mobiles could be hijacked or tracked by spammers, advertisers, Telcos, stalkers and the like ... but once they were assured this was not the case and that they were phoning in with numbers and pins that were not related to their own phone numbers in any way, they relaxed --- and could not be stopped!

I printed off a simple instruction sheet for each student to follow and this will be used at home this week to complete another simple task.

My Level 3 students working on VPAM544: Australian Government (Elective) are listening to a range of Community Language Radio programs embedded in this week's lesson on my Blog.

They will phone in short summaries which will then be compared with written summaries they submit via a Goggle Docs form which I have similarly embedded. A couple of screenshots:

It has been a fascinating and rewarding day. I am looking forward to seeing what my students come up with and am thinking of various other ways in which I could use this technology effectively in class - and how my students could use it out of class.

And to think I don't even own a Mobile ! (yet)

#3, 2010 : Phlog me (again)!

A telephonic reflection about the trip to Portland by Dale and Michael G ... and other musings ... happy listening!

The SpinVox script and tags (talking about pickles!) is fascinating. Here's an excerpt [unedited] :

I have decided to do my latest reflection by a flog(?) using our patio and I hope the people don't know anything how captive being how captive for the duration of this monolog. Something that I'm aware of is that unlike writing you can't skim and scan and something that my solicit(?) become massive all those pictures ___ administrators so that rises the issue of ___ me and I guess I'm working against my unprepaired method of expression which is writing which is something that infinitely editable(?) and I think that voice on the other hand seems to be very unforgiving you got one chance to get it right and then if you want to record from scratch you're in a bit of a pickle so look I'm using some scratchy notes too.

Monday, June 28, 2010

#2, 2010: Phlog Me

Was with Michael today up in Ballarat planning sessions and strategies for taking on the Barwon Region as part of the Ementor/Champion project and along the way MG introduced me to "Phlogging" (and it didn't hurt a bit!)

In a nutshell PHLOGGING = phone blogging

Yep, we were just wrapping our heads around creative uses of "Blogs" and now we've got Phlogs to contend with :-o Actually, it's a simple extension of blogging and another easy-to-use voice technology with some wonderful possibilities for teaching and learning.

Stay tuned as Michael and I phlog together as a part of the Ementor/Champion Project. We are building a dialogue over the coming weeks using mobile and conventional telephony via

We have set up a Wordpress blog for our voice journal at:

Depending on the results of this experiment we will hopefully be able to draw in our Barwon participants. At the very least we will have yet another very interesting tool to present amongst a kit bag of new and old tricks and techniques for elearning.

It might come as a surprise to you but I actually don't own a mobile phone but that does not deter the use of ipadio for Phlogging.

We discovered the conventional apparatus plugged into the wall works just as well as your Nokia or Apple Thingamejig. You call a 1800 number, key in your pin and start recording! The recording is created and almost instantaneously some very smart voice to text conversion software (SpinVox) is activated creating (an albeit imperfect) script of your verbal input.

This excites me as I can see an immediate and simple use of this technology for my ESL and Adult Lit students who are adept (if not totally addicted and almost physically attached to their mobiles).

The bonus is the voice to text generated script which can be edited and recycled. You can save the script for discourse analysis in the classroom afterwards.

I imagine creating questions on a website or blog and getting my students to "phone in" their answers anywhere, anytime. They could do their oral presentations from a mobile phone, do on the spot commentaries during excursions and I have only just started thinking about what we could do as a group if the Speaker Phone function were turned on.

Have a read of the EDUCATION section on the ipadio site to gauge broader, potential uses. Here's an intereresting snippet:

Mobile technology is playing an increasingly large role in the classroom - most students have a phone of their own, so why not use a device that they're familiar with to engage them with education? ....

... In brief, Ipadio technology links up the telephony networks with the internet, enabling the live broadcast of audio directly to the internet... all from a standard telephone. There's never been an easier way to record oral assessments, create revision podcasts or collect homework.

For more about educational uses click here

It's the potential applications (not the technology per se) which really stirs the imagination. Michael and I talked a lot about this today ...embracing the principle of "applying technology" and developing new techniques as opposed to getting caught up in the worship and hyped-up promotion of applications and technologies for their own sake. It's how you use the tools, not the tools themselves that are important.

Using, the recording can be easily embedded (see the example above) or else if you use Wordpress the file can automatically be fed into your blog and become a posting.

Will keep you posted on further developments.

A brilliant day MG. Enjoyed the exploration and play, the demonstrations, examples of student work from Moodle, the discussion about facilitation techniques and management inside Elluminate. Learnt more in a day than thrashing around on my own at home for weeks.

PS. thanks to you and Erin for the delicious chicken salad and umpteen cafe lattes and cups of tea. Loved YUM headquarters too - very tasteful indeed.

Looking forward to the Barwon Roadshow.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

#1 - 2010: Learning Styles: A Myth

I thought the "visual learners" amongst you would appreciate the video.

For those with an "auditory disposition", listen in here:

Nothing touchy / feely I'm afraid for "kinesthetic types", but these articles might interest you:

Learning Styles a Myth British Researchers Say

The Learning Styles Myth: An Interview with Daniel Willingham

Oh yeah. And last but not least, a fascinating piece I came across the other day with the irresistible title:

The Rise and Rise of Educational Bullshit

Happy reading