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Presentation: Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO)

This entry provides an over view of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO) presentation. It is divided into three parts: a) Presentation Description: Network Learning Environments and Educational Innovation; b) Presentation Notes; c) Reflections...

Presentation Description: Network Learning Environments and Educational Innovation

On Friday May 6, 2005 I'll be a Spotlight Speaker at the ECOO (Educational Computing Organization of Ontario). The invitation to speak, and the reason I accepted the offer, came by way of Peter Skillen, a colleague that I have had the pleasure of working with in the past. Then I read this in Peter Skillen's bio:

My passion for educational change is greatly influenced by observing the ways in which people learn in 'out of school' environments...He advocates models of learning which engage a student's natural 'desire to know' and therefore is very focused on social-constructivist activities in education... a focus on pedagogy, thinking skills, and societal implications.

I've been out of touch with Peter for some time now, however, it is interesting to see the similar path we have been traveling: "the ways in which people learn in 'out of school' environments." That captures a basic direction in my own work and I was happy to read it since it provides a natural bridge into a presentation.

The presentation description is found at the bottom of this entry. You will see that although there are some general areas that will be addressed, the specifics lie in wait. But I think Peter's idea of "the ways in which people learn in 'out of school' environments" is one possible way of building coherence. This is also captured in the title of the presentation since network learning environments have little to do with educational innovation. The title is a loaded one since the two ideas actually create a conflict. Some may interpret the title by thinking that network learning environments are a means to promote educational innovation. In the end, they are really a way to eliminate the need for it by redistributing authority, influence, and power via learning.

Network Learning Environments and Educational Innovation
Brian Alger

Brian will introduce and explore the opportunities and challenges with the implementation of network learning environments within education systems. Ideas about curriculum, instruction and evaluation as they apply to the design of new learning experiences in the school system will be discussed. Computer technology will be discussed, but the presentation will not be limited to it.

Brian will extend the ideas presented in his book “The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere” and weblog “” Examples from the Connected Intelligence Network Learning Project will be shared. This project was designed by Brian and involved the systemic coordination of a number of experts and organizations in North America and Europe. This presentation will be of interest to educators interested in exploring how new approaches to learning and technology can impact education systems.

Audience: G/A
Brian is the author of “The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere.” He has designed and implemented network learning environments for: KPMG Consulting Digital Strategies Practice, UNESCO, Connected Intelligence, The Madeiran Ministry of Education (Portugal), The Learning Partnership, Scotch College in Australia and The Composers In Electronic Residence.

Brian has appeared on City TV’s Media Television and TV Ontario’s Parent Connections, in Computing Now magazine, and has delivered presentations in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. He also spent 11 years as a public school educator. During this time he received the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Educator Award and produced The Virtual Community Project, described by Industry Canada as a national benchmark for the use of multimedia in education.

Presentation Notes

ECOO Conference Presentation (May 6, 2005)

Network Learning Environments and Educational Innovation

I'd like to thank the ECOO Conference Committee for inviting me to talk to you today. I understand that the invitation came through Peter Skillen, a colleague I have had the pleasure of working with in the past. I know that Peter and I share a common interest in how learning takes place in a wide variety of situations and circumstances, so I decided to focus my talk today on network learning environments and innovation.

Before doing that I thought I would briefly share with you some of my background in order to provide some context for what you are about to hear. My education was focused on music - specifically ethnomusicology. The idea of exploring musical creativity and expression in different cultural contexts is something I still enjoy to this day. The teaching of music, however, also has an uncreative side that I struggled with. For example, many of my early experiences learning to play the piano were decidedly technical in orientation. In other words, I learned to play scales, chords, arpeggios and other such things as well as a number of compositions. There was a clear focus on technique. It wasn't until I started playing in a local amateur rock band and jazz ensemble did I discover the more creative side of music - that is, improvisation, arranging and composition. In fact, when I first started to play in these groups I found myself completely unprepared for the creative side of music and wondered why my own education had left this part out. To that point, the grades I had achieved both in school music programs as well as the Royal Conservatory of Music seemed to indicate that I was well prepared. What I soon realized in those early days of performing with local bands was that while I was extremely well prepared in the realm of music theory I was nearly completely unprepared for the authentic everyday life side of music.

As a teen, I decided I would begin trying to figure this whole thing out. In exploring the famous composer's habits (e.g. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and so on) I discovered that they immersed themselves in improvisation and composition at a very early age. For them, the act of creating music and the act of performing music were completely unified and inseparable, yet somehow for me they had become completely separate and distinct. While I was technically proficient I was creatively impotent and it was at this point that I refocused my musical studies. Improvisation is the cornerstone of musical creativity and expression, yet while improvisation was a natural and normal part of the famous Western European composers' daily routine I could see that it had been largely confined to specific musical forms in our own society, mainly jazz and rock music. Prior to this personal discovery when I heard the word improvisation used I immediately thought that it was something jazz players did and to some extent rock and roll musicians. What became perfectly clear was that all creative musicians regardless of their particular musical genre immersed themselves in improvisation as a natural and normal part of their daily musical experiences. That was when I first began wondering what had happened, what we had done to lose the fundamental importance of improvisation in any music teaching and training.

[Improvisation: The first day of a musical technophile in a rock and roll band]

You see, somewhere in time, and I suspect it was somewhere in the 1800's, the teaching of music became something separate and distinct from the creation of music. In other words, a person was trained to perform existing music, but did not explore their inner creative voice. Technique takes the act of performing music and breaks it down into parts. The parts are then practiced in isolation under the astonishing delusion that by mastering these imaginary parts a musician will somehow put them all together into a creative whole. Of course, this is completely misguided and it reminds us of the saying, "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." When I began to learn about music in different cultures I realized that our Westernized notions of music were distinctly clinical, somewhat sterilized, and obviously mechanical. In many cultures the act of performing music is a natural and creative extension of the culture's beliefs and traditions and learning music meant, by default, learning to be musically and culturally creative. Our musical culture started to appear to me to be somewhat odd and strange.

This little story is an important one in my own life and my own learning, and would also remain a steady and significant influence in my work as an educator. Much of what I have tried to do in teaching, whether it be through music or some other subject - is to reignite the creative spirit in my students. For example, the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teacher Award came to me by way of a music program I had designed that integrated MIDI Technology into a music program that was decidedly and relentlessly focused on musical composition, arranging and performance. Of course, such innovations do not tend to win you support within your own region, especially from such people as curriculum coordinators and consultants who had promoted and implemented a program clearly focused on technique in the absence of originality. These people I referred to not as curriculum coordinators, but as curriculum wardens. They, I'm sure, had a wide variety of colourful ways to refer to me. One of the criticisms of my work, and it was an incredibly ignorant one, was that it focused on "technology" not music. The first problem with this criticism, of course, is that there is a complete lack of understanding of what technology is on the part of the detractor. A flute is just as much as piece of technology as a synthesizer. Musical notation and theory are also forms of technology. They simply could not understand that they themselves were biased by their own technology. Yet what they saw occurring in my classroom was in fact something that caused them fear, for the students were creating music at a level that was completely foreign to the curriculum expert. What was strange indeed was the fact that they themselves had little to no understanding of the importance of authentic and self-organized musical creativity. And how dare a music teacher challenge the existing curriculum developed by a team of musical experts anyway. Yet the proof was in the students and it was obvious to see. Edward de Bono's quip came to life for me, "An expert is someone who keeps digging the same hole deeper and deeper."

Little did I know in those early days that this conflict between authentic creativity and the abstract curriculum would become a steady and on-going challenge in the other various subject areas I began teaching. In fact, this conflict of interest between the authentic and the abstract remains an underlying theme in my work today. The thought process behind it all is quite simple. When I looked at and experienced for myself what real musicians did and then looked at what students being educated in music did I saw a dramatic difference, and it became a personal mission as a teacher to try and reduce this gap between authentic experience and, if you will "technified" experience. Students clearly loved music and spent hours exploring it on their personal time, yet being educated about music was something many had grown to dislike and even avoid. This problem is alive and well in many subject disciplines and we could easily spend the rest of the presentation talking about these differences.

Technology: But there are some essential points here to make about technology that are central to my discussion about network learning environments.

The first is that the word technology refers to a ways and means of doing or achieving something. Too often, I hear people use the word technology as if it was something specific to computers and the Internet. This type of understanding is both narrow and misleading. A pencil is as much a piece of technology as the latest and greatest computer system. A curriculum is a technology designed to educate large masses of people over time. So it is vitally important for us to broaden our understanding of technology and its effects. My own introduction into this came by the way of Marshall McLuhan - an individual whose work I believe is all too often misunderstood and undervalued.

[Improvisation: Derrick de Kerckhove and the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology]

One of the things that McLuhan pointed out to us is that technology has effects on our perceptions and sensibilities that are often invisible unless we train ourselves to seek them out. For him, technology was a kind of environment, or what he sometimes referred to as a total surround, that influences our behaviour and actions. To not understand curriculum or instructional design as a form of technology is quite simply a mistake. Yet many discussions in educational circles are focused on technology as if it were something specific to computers and the Internet.

The second insight, again from McLuhan, is that it is the artist that is predominantly the one who finds creative uses of technology. Now this word artist can cause some challenges too, especially in an age when vacuous musical performances are promoted as artistic on shows such as American and Canadian Idol.

[Improvisation: The perception of the Artist on commercialized music]

Commercialized and corporatized music such as the Idol shows is not artistry - it is merely vocal pyrotechnics. An artist is able to reach into the under causes, the underlying form and reveal it in creative ways. A poet, for example, is not an artist on the basis of how well he or she can create variations on existing poetic forms. Merely being able to write a Haiku does not make an artist. A poet that is an artist will reach into the depths of language to pull out an underlying meaning that causes our thoughts and feelings to shift in ways they had not done before. We quite literally understand our experiences differently as a result. A musician, gifted in the pyrotechnics of musical performance, does not make an artist either for the mastery of technique has little if anything to do with art. So in our explorations of technology, it is, in my opinion, always best to look to artists that are exploring the inner reaches of it as a means to find creative and innovative ways of expressing something of value. The odds of finding creative and therefore meaningful uses of technology by the way of a technologist are remote.

So we are immersed in technology everyday in a total surround. Technology is not so much something we see with our eyes or touch with our hands, but an underlying form that serves to guide and direct our actions. A curriculum is, at its most basic level, an underlying technology that guides and directs the actions of students, teachers, parents and administrators. A corporation is an underlying technology that guides and directs the actions of employees and employers in the pursuit of economic profit. Often, the technology that is shaping our actions lies just out of awareness.

This perspective on technology is an essential building block in what I will soon describe as a network learning environment, and without understanding it much of this discussion will appear foreign. We aren't really "teaching" technology unless we are revealing the underlying system of causes and effects that bias our behaviour, and I would suggest to you that those people that speak about technology as multimedia, distributed learning, e-Learning and so on and link those hardware and software components in some manner to a "quote - better or improved - end quote" way of teaching or learning are precisely those that fail to understand what technology is. I have been immersed in using computers in education since the early days of personal computing and can say on the basis of that experience that any proposition of improved education and learning by virtue of the presence of some form of computer or Internet technology alone is hopelessly misguided. In fact, beware the visionary for they are often blinded by their own sight.

Networks: Another important personal discovery that came to me by the way of music creativity is that networks exits by default. Today we seem to equate the idea of a network with a kind of hardware software infrastructure designed to link computer systems. While this is true, it is only a very small part of the picture. In the music program I mentioned above, networks flourished even though at that time there was no Internet capability available, nor at that time had I developed a clear understanding of networks. Students, in pursuit of creativity, would self-organize into various kinds of ensembles and bring together various kinds of musical instruments to pursue that creativity. It is an amazingly normal thing for them to do, and as a teacher I only needed to facilitate possibilities and opportunities rather than predetermine groupings for them. This is networking, for a network is really a system of relationships that run across people, places and things. A network is also a core metaphor for the artist - seeking out relationships and connections that are new and unique, if not to others then at least to themselves. However, group work or collaborative work, has little if anything to do with networks. The two are strikingly different as I will describe later in the presentation.

This may seem like a long preamble, and perhaps somewhat self-indulgent on my part since music is a pet topic of mine, but I know these experiences and some others I do not have time to share today transferred themselves to areas other than music. And a few of the key thoughts are:

1.) That learning is something decidedly different than being educated. This is not intended to be a back-handed criticism, but I think it is vitally important that we distinguish between the two.

2.) That technology is not merely a collection of hardware and software. It is a pervasive system of influences and processes designed to achieve a particular goal or outcome. And, more to the point, by assuming a narrow definition of technology has something closely connected to computers and the Internet we make ourselves less effective in our work as educators.

3.) That there is a gap of some kind between the experience of being educated and the broader experiences of learning in the confluence of everyday life. We can see attempts to capture this idea in slogans such as lifelong learning or constructivist learning. These adjectives, as I will explore in a moment, are completely redundant with respect to learning, unless of course we wish to spend time trying to brand a new political solution to workforce training, illuminate a new theory to act as a right of passage, or to create a foundation for consulting endeavors.

4.) That networks are naturally present by default and are systems that extend far beyond mere hardware, software, wires and screens.

5.) That networks, in the broadest sense of that word, are the basis for what is often called innovation. Without networks, innovation is likely to fire and fall back, much as River Oaks School did in the late 1990's.

[Improvisation: River Oaks School]

Before continuing, I would like to note that I am speaking to you today without the aid of a PowerPoint Presentation or other media. If you are interested in following any of the references I mention here today, you can simply make a note of them and do a search on my weblog to find them. I felt this was an easier process that would provide fewer distractions. And I'll leave time at the end of the presentation for questions and further discussion with you.

One of the most fascinating questions I have ever encountered is, "How do we learn the things we value the most?" The question came to me in a discussion I had with Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan's son. As I recall our conversation, Eric and I were talking about learning and he recalled when his father was asked what the best way to learn was. And in typical McLuhanesque fashion, Marshall replied with a probe, "Think about how you learned the things you value the most."

It is a deceptively simple but fundamentally important question for anyone involved in education. I have found that when I ask people this question, their answers rarely refer to their education, but instead focus on experiences in their lives that stand out as having importance. Some of these experiences are happy ones, others difficult. One of the more obvious things we can take from this question is that education and learning are not the same thing. For example, if we were to ask ourselves, "Think about how we were educated in the things we value the most?" I suspect the thought patterns and memories triggered are quite different. That may sound frightfully obvious, but it is also frequently forgotten.

So what becomes important in developing an understanding of learning as something unique and distinct from education are the experiences of people's lives - the situations and circumstances they find themselves in and how they manage their way through them. So one of things I have come to believe is that learning is more closely tied to the stories of people's lives than it is a theory or some other such construct. And by the stories of people's lives I do not simply refer to mere biography, or the cold hard facts and statistics of a person's life, but their most important moments, their most crucial decisions, their happiest moments and their most devastating moments. This is the underlying ground for learning and the unavoidable confluence of everyday life that I refer to in my book. It is here where I believe we find the depth and breadth of learning. Yet our thinking and research into this area is nearly non-existent.

I could easily spend an entire presentation if not course of study on the idea of the underlying ground for learning, however, for our purpose today I'll share an example of what I mean by this. Here is a quote I would like you to consider…

I like the spiritual feeling of being on a mountain. The space. The sounds. The vast openness of it. The most annoying question I get is, ‘Why climb when I can't see the view from the top?’ You don't climb for the view. No one suffers the way you do on a mountain for a beautiful view. The real beauty of life happens on the side of the mountain, not the top. (Erik Weihenmayer)

Now I ask you, if I may, to close your eyes and imagine yourself on the side of a mountain. Not yet on the top, and perhaps both the foot of the mountain and the summit are out of view. What do you see? And now, if you will allow me, keep your eyes closed here, but now also close your eyes as you imagine yourself on the side of that mountain. In other words, you are climbing that mountain blind. You cannot physically see the view there, but you can sense the immensity of where you are. It is a spiritual feeling that, of course, should not be confused with something that is religious. And that immensity, with all its incredible beauty and terror is life happening on the side of that mountain. This is learning.

Erik Weihenmayer successfully climbed Mount Everest. Erik Weihenmayer is blind, but has a vision that is unique. But aside from this marvelous and inspiring accomplishment, there is a great deal to be learned about education by the way of Erik's life experiences. One source of his journey in life is that of school and the prouncement:

You see, schooling for Erik was a source of intense frustration. The educational system he was in, as described in his wonderful book "Touch the Top of the World," was confining, restrictive, and largely irrelevant to him. This is not in any way, to be sure, intended as a derogatory comment on the particular people that were his teacher's for his intent is certainly not to be vengeful, but it is clearly an indictment of the situations and circumstances, or what we sometimes refer to as the system, he was forced to be in by the way of his own experiences in education.

And only by resolving to step outside of education, by embracing the risk of not following the herd, was Erik able to pursue his life's passion. It is an example of being outside education at an early age, but remaining decisively inside learning. If we think back to our earlier discussion of music, we can also say that he decided to experience life as improvisation rather than pre-determined composition. Another interesting life comes to mind, that of Dan Eldon, who chose to experience the world via his own wonderful motto, "Life is Safari." The idea of living a life worth living and art itself are completely unified.

One of the most fascinating ideas I enjoy exploring is that "learning" is something different, something more complete, and something more expansive than "education."

This is not to say, of course, that education is something less important, less vital or of less significance to society. This would be a mistake. But it is to re-emphasize the point that the two are different.

One of the problems we as educators are constantly bombarded with is that mechanism we sometimes refer to as "eduspeak." This problem is not limited by and stretch of the imagination to education, and perhaps the most resonant examples of this are in the sciences. All areas of expertise, it seems, possess a right of initiation that is distinctly centered on the acquisition of language, often with complete disregard for the opportunity for personal authentic experience. Expertise, it seems, can easily become an exercise in language rather than a true reflection of experience. One of the things fundamental to innovation, and educational innovation is no exception, is to release language, and therefore our ability to be creative, from the confines of expertise. In other words, there is no value in digging the same holes we have been digging deeper and deeper.

Let me share with you a few examples of phrase that are nonsensical:

1) Lifelong Learning: The notion of "lifelong learning" to my thinking is really more related to ideas about education and training than it is learning itself. The fact of the matter is learning is lifelong by default. That is to say, there is no "learning" that is something less than lifelong. It is also interesting to note that we do not see something called "lifelong education" being talked about. Often the things we fail to bring to attention are the most revealing. So the adjective "lifelong" is completely redundant with respect to learning. The idea, therefore, of an expert in lifelong learning is pure fiction. We are all, unavoidably, lifelong learning experts by default. What parades itself around as lifelong learning is really a political agenda for re-training the workforce due to the fragile and inconsistent nature of our economy and workforce.

In the end, we learn whether we want to or not; it is as much about the things we remember as the things we forget, the things we are aware of and the things we are presently unaware of, the things we do and those that we fail to do, the things we make and the things we destroy. Sometimes learning is safe, other times it is dangerous. Much like McLuhan's total surround, learning is already everywhere all the time.

2) E-Learning: "E-Learning" refers to learning that is somehow, even mysteriously, occurring by virtue of interaction another equally mysterious thing called online content and evaluation. In fact, no one can define "e-Learning" in any sensible way. That is because e-Learning is not a sensible thing. When I look at software programs such as WebCT, I see a technology that has little to no relationship with learning. Aside from being an incredibly boring experience, software such as WebCT denigrates learning into mere training. Put a group of e-learning experts in a room and there is no agreement as to what e-Learning is, yet corporations and educational institutions as part of their business plans often under the propaganda associated with some notion of a visionary future. Really, when one cuts through all the jargon, it comes down to profit margins. With no disrespect intended to anyone who may be involved in this field, e-Learning is nonsense.

I understand, for example, that York University has an initiative to move a number of courses for undergraduates into WebCT. This means that students will start and finish courses online. Of course, we hear supposed benefits such as those commonly associated with distance learning (another nonsensical term), access anytime anywhere (pardon me for having to say that), or some other platitude that sounds impressive. Really what it means is that costs are being cut at the expense of the students' experiences. The ignorance of this approach, under the leadership of a group of university professors, is staggering and invites us to ask the question, "Higher education is higher with respect to what?"

What we are seeing by the way of e-learning is a group of self-ordained experts that are in fact completely and in some cases hopelessly biased by the very technology they are promoting. What people often fail to take into account is that, in the end, e-Learning is really nothing more than a direct extension of training, and perhaps somewhat modestly an extension of education. But it is decidedly not an extension of learning even though it uses the same name. There is no innovation in e-learning that is fundamental in kind. And I would go so far as to suggest that for the most part our current e-Learning systems are in fact regressive. It's a fool's paradise.

3) Authentic Learning: I have read a modest amount of material focused on the idea of "authentic learning" and ask myself, "When is learning something less than authentic?" or more to the point, "Is it possible for learning to be something less than authentic?" It’s a little like promoting something called constructivist learning. We need to turn on our crapometers and ask questions such as, "Whose construction am I supposed to construct and why should I believe it matters to me?" Learning cannot be anything less than authentic, and if we sense that we are innovating something new then we are living under an astonishing delusion. We are really trying to retrieve something we lost, in this case authenticity, rather than trying to invent something new.

John Holt, a name we are all familiar with as educators, states the following:

We teachers - perhaps all human beings - are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.

Here we come a fundamental point of departure between learning and education. Education, it seems, is driven largely by something called "curriculum" which is most accurately a "technology." As we discussed above, technology is the application of knowledge and information to meet specified goals and objectives. In other words, technology is a means to an end, and in the case of education, curriculum is a technology that is able to define its own means and end.

Holt refers to an astonishing delusion, that is precisely this: we live under a false notion that we can replace the natural confluence of experience in everyday life with something that is planned, structured, designed, coordinated and to some extent sterilized over a significant period of a person's life. The idea of segmenting students by age grouping over twelve or more years of their lives is a bizarre idea that has no foundation, other than ease of administration. The idea that segmenting knowledge into distinct subjects and further segmenting them by the way of scope and sequence is another bizarre idea that has no real foundation, other than ease of administration. Yet these assumptions about age and content, even though they cannot be proven to be the best or even a good way to structure education, have remained in tact in spite of the never-ending cycle of innovation. Until these other, assumptions I have not mentioned here are challenged there is no real opportunity for innovation in education.

An experience my son had in a first-year psychology course at McMaster University brings this issue to light. During the course, the professor was physically in the classroom for one lecture - the first one. From that point on, students attended pre-recorded video lectures. The final exam was of course a multiple-choice test that was marked by a computer. We have in front of us a wonderful definition of the word, “stupid.” In terms of profitability for the university, this is obviously a way to save costs. But of course from the other side of the fence, it is easily the most expensive televised experiences our family has ever had. In terms of a learning experience it was barren and impersonal. Does it not seem in any way odd that a course like psychology would be taught via video lectures? In addition, the course mirrored a textbook so in fact the video lectures themselves were largely redundant. Although my son is able to realize that the value of psychology is something far more significant than the method it was delivered to him, the course was largely a complete waste of time. As it turns out, his grades were quite good. This real experience, I believe, captures Holt's notion of an astonishing delusion quite effectively.

[Improvisation: Using weblogs as a form of activism]

Interestingly enough my son, now in second year commerce, decided that he would not attend any classes at all last term. His opinion was that if they are only going to stand up and a regurgitate the textbook and then base the mark on how well he knew the textbook then what possible purpose was there in attending the classes. I agreed and could not find any fault in his decision. He was quite successful in maintaining his honors grade point average. So we spent $3,000 for that term so my son could buy a few textbooks, read them, and write multiple-choice exams marked by a computer. Now it seems to me that the higher we get up into education the lower the quality of the experience gets. There is no excuse for any professor to simply parrot a textbook in front of a class and then reduce any value that might be in it to a multiple-choice test. Yet with all the electronic forms of technology available, it seems that the most effective uses are not necessarily those that enhance learning, but instead those that enhance profitability.

In any case, we could go on sharing together situations in which the language describing an expertise or area of study in fact has little to do with the experience itself.

In this place, the space between real life experience and the experience of being educated, we find an opportunity for this thing we call innovation - but a kind of innovation different from the "repeating cycle of innovation" and, God forbid, more of those visions of the future that are often, in the fullness of time, revealed to be a hopeless form of myopia. Allow me a brief divergence here for a moment. Phillip Bond, the U.S. Commerce Undersecretary for technology, recently stated in a speech:

Content, teaching, assessment, student-teacher relationships and even the concept of an education and training institution may all need to be rethought… technology's beneficial effects on learning could change U.S. competitiveness and standard of living.

If you pardon a little rant that I allow myself from time to time, the sheer stupidity inherent in statements like these is monumental. My daughter has a wonderful way of revealing my own stupidity to me when I say something less than intelligent (which is far more frequent than I care to admit), "Dad. You're such a dumbass." Usually at this point, I know there is nothing further to discuss and have learned it is quite wise not to pursue it with her. I now refer Commerce Undersecretary Bond to my daughter -may the force be with you.

My previous comments made a brief attempt to simply introduce the possibility that learning and education are two different things. The possibility that learning occurs both because of and in spite of our education. And I have also implied that it is possible that education can enhance learning, but it sometimes will distract us from or even interferes with learning. As Erik Weihenmayer has clearly demonstrated for us, people in real situations and circumstances are the most important, if you will, "curriculum" for learning.

But what about these things called "networks?" Of course, to a technophile a network is a collection of physical parts and pieces that can be connected together and used to facilitate some form of electronic communication. To a technophobe, a network is a bad place where bad things can happen in using them or by virtue of distracting us from other aspects of life that are somehow deemed to be more important. The two perspectives, of course, are both on shaky ground, shallow and incomplete.

My own definition of a network that I have pursued throughout my career is this:

A network is the quality of connections, relationships and associations we create for ourselves across a wide diversity of people, places and things.

The first important point is that a network will have a quality and character associated with it. Some are of high quality, others not. Second a network is fundamentally about the connections, relationships and associations we create for ourselves, not those that are created for or imposed on us. Third, networks involve a wide diversity of people, places and things, or in another way, they are in no way limited to simplistic online experiences.

For me networks invite creative thinking for increasing the ways in which we can enhance our experiences in life. But more importantly, I also believe that a broad and open-ended understanding of network can fundamentally help education to reduce the gap that has developed between what happens in school and what happens out there in people's everyday lives.

In the traditional sciences we find extremes in reductionist thinking. Yet many scientists are now recognizing the inherent weakness and inefficiency of the traditional scientific view. A wonderful example of this emerging common sense is Candace Pert's explorations of "bodymind" in which she provides a unified view of brain-mind and body:

Mind doesn't dominate body, it becomes body - body and mind are one. I see the whole process of communication we have demonstrated, the flow of information throughout the whole organism, as evidence that the body is the actual outward manifestation, in physical space, of the mind.
This is a dramatically different perspective for a neuroscientist - one that expands the meaning of the word "network." Richard Restak, another exceptional neuroscientist states:
"We now know that the brain never loses the power to transform itself on the basis of experience, and this transformation can occur over very short intervals."

The key is here is that the physical reality of the brain is directly related to the experiences we have. This is a profound and fundamentally important statement. Experience, then, is in a sense unified to our physiological being. My point here is really not tied to neuroscience. Simply put, networks are unifying forces; they are expansive by nature or to state it in the opposite they are not reductionist by nature. A network in many ways is diametrically opposed to traditional curricula. We talk about network learning environments, or new kinds of integrative and unifying educational methodologies, yet all long this path the basic assumptions that prevent these things from truly taking form are never challenged and eliminated.

One of the most important ideas associated with networks is that of emergent properties. With respect to learning, emergent properties means that unexpected things will occur as a perfectly normal and natural reaction to learning. And it is the unexpected that is also a key motivator for learning. David Miller quips: “One desirable learning outcome is not to have a learning outcome.”

The most serious organizational design problem education faces is that the underlying structure and system of assumptions it is built on is fundamentally reductionist in nature. It isn't hard to see this. As I mentioned above, students are segmented according to age, even though there is no concrete evidence to show that this is the best organizational design. The curriculum itself is clearly reductionist in nature. Knowledge is divided into parts usually defined as a scope and sequence. Instruction further reduces experience into discrete blocks of time. Teachers are reduced to subject experts to support the various parts of the curriculum. Further, the curriculum is enforced by a system of standardized evaluation. The result, as many authors have commented on, is an assembly-line or factory motif. And by educating students over 12 or more years in this fashion we somehow expect them to make sense of it, and "prepare them for the world in which they will live." I don’t know about you, but when I hear something along the platitudes of preparing them for the world in which they will live – my crapometer is jumping off the scale.

Networks invite interactivity into the learning process - an interactivity that is designed to bridge territories and experiences that are typically held under some form of isolation. Instructional design, to my thinking, is decidedly centered on an underlying principle of interaction design, not content design. The teacher, freed from the barren wasteland of pre-determined content, becomes an interaction designer and not just a delivery agent. The curriculum becomes a responsive and evolving strategy that captures this interactivity and changes as a result of it. It is here that we begin to see the deeper sense of Peter Gabriel's comment:

Interactivity is exciting because it helps us not just to be artists but to provide a lot of material for the audience to participate in - so that eventually they become the artists themselves and can use what we create, in a sense as collage material, as stuff to explore and learn about from the inside.

[Improvisation: Peter Gabriel and Interactivity]

The idea of "environment" is critical to learning. We can think of political environments, natural environments, corporate environments and sometimes we may also hear the phrase, "learning environments."

If we were to try to create a picture of the educational environment today what would it be? On the surface we can see a very simple structure that begins with elementary education, secondary education, and then post-secondary education. We might add early childhood education to the beginning and post-graduate studies on the other. We can assume that the educational environment has a duration of anywhere from fourteen to twenty-four years. Once this has been achieved, there is an expectation to enter this thing called the workforce. After the work force we enter a period called retirement and it is during our retirement that we die. This may sound quite crass, and perhaps it is, but as a general structure for the way we live our lives much of it is true. This too, is a kind of technology we have created for ourselves.

As I previously mentioned the underlying assumptions that provide the organizational design for the educational environment is curriculum. The origin of curriculum is largely political in kind, that is, we empower the government to outline the basic principles that guide the operations of education. Why we do this remains a complete mystery to me. How often do we need to experience the devastating effects of a government out of control such as the former Harris government? Education needs to be taken back from politics and rescued from the corporate malaise. The notion is, and it is a false one, that a common structure is the best means to educate people to become contributors to society. Or, more accurately, to become an economic asset while at the same time securing votes. It is for certain that a common structure or perhaps shared elements can be of great value, so my point is that we should not simply embrace the opposite extreme. However, to have a government controlling all of the fundamental assumptions about education is simply misguided.

And we know, in spite of the valuable efforts of dedicated teachers, that there are serious problems festering in the educational environment. I'd like to take a few minutes here to outline some of the most basic challenges I felt I was facing that needed to be addressed and overcome in the design of the Connected Intelligence Network Learning Environments.

1.) School dropouts: In the Double Cohort Study, for example, we see a striking school dropout rate, a trend that is also alive and well in other countries. To be sure, it is far too simplistic to place the weight of this problem on the education system alone. The problem is far more pervasive than schools alone and it is far too simplistic to isolate a single cause.

However, it may be that what the system calls a "dropout" is really an "optout." By that I mean that these students who decide to no longer participate in school, often in full view of the circumstances they face, are doing exactly the right thing. Erik Weihenmayer, though obviously a highly unique example, is not alone.

One of the questions I posed to our Minister of Education was, “Who has contacted the students that have dropped out of Ontario Schools?” In other words, I felt it was at least appropriate, given the staggering numbers of student who have left school, that they at least receive a phone call from someone in the Ministry of Education. Perhaps a conversation was in order? Ya think? Instead what we see are more and more committees costing more and more money achieving less and less as time goes on.

The dropout rates in other parts of the world seem to be showing a similar increase, and Madeira was no exception. It is interesting to consider that as education has become more and more globally oriented it is also resulting in more and more dropouts.

2.) Bullying: We also see an increasing trend toward violence in school, or what is referred to as bullying. For me, this is a horrible yet not completely surprising situation. Bullying is also something that has struck quite close to home as my own daughter endured it for more than two years and, thankfully, she is still with us today.

The ineptitude of the school system was monumental in my daughter's circumstances. It was simply unable to accomodate. The school officials I spoke with seemed powerless and were adamantly focused on the principle of, "Your daughter needs to be in school at all costs and all of our efforts must be focused on getting her back in." Yet my daughter could easily see through this ploy and when she asked the school principal the question, "Why should I return to your school when you can't assure me that I will be safe?" she was met with silence and then an answer that avoided the issue. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my daughter can easily see through such ploys and when a reasonable answer was absent, the discussion for her was effectively over.

The police were equally ineffective proving they had neither the interest nor the ability to try and deal with the issue. And, worst of all, the psychologist although well-spoken was laid to rest at my daughter's insights into the problem. He focused on cognitive therapy - she focused on the reality she had experienced. None of the people we sought help from ever once opened themselves to the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, there is something wrong with the system. And for my daughter, at least, it became blatantly clear that the adult world was one full of deception and irresponsibility. This realization, however, was precisely the one that rescued her from what might have been a horrible demise. And she decided to take the world on her own terms and, as Erik Weihenmayer did, "to not play by anyone else's rules." While she is not climbing Mount Everest, she has decided to live life on her own terms, and those terms do not include education.

Prior to the Connected Intelligence Project bullying, or what in Europe is referred to as school violence, was reaching alarming proportions to the point where the European Union had specific projects in place to deal with the issue. It’s a confounding issue when you think about and one that simply cannot be pinned down on school systems alone. Increasing school violence and bullying is in no way limited to North America. In fact, one of my posts about bullying on my weblog generated significant interest in Australia.

3.) Labeling: Evaluation by the way of standardized testing, for me, is one of the most destructive forces in education. The main problem with standardized testing is that it is myopically focused on judging a very specific and narrowly defined form of intelligence. It seems to me that our ability to recall information and express that recollection through writing, while obviously important, is also greatly over-rated. To reduce subject after subject to standardized forms of testing in fact reduces people to thinking about how to successfully navigate the test itself. In other words, our success on the test becomes the basic measure of intelligence. Good teachers provide much more than this, however, when the entire system - or environment - in which the teacher is working is ultimately measured by the way standardized testing and the grades - or labels - people achieve on those tests then our sense of what intelligence is becomes incorrectly linked to the letter or number an individual achieves. If they achieve a high grade or mark they are considered "smart" and become the letter "A." If not, they are labeled as something less than smart. Unfortunately, it is very often the system of testing that is stupid, not the individuals struggling to receive a decent mark.

Learning cannot be reduced to a simplistic mark or grade. Networks cannot be held captive by standardized evaluation practices.

4.) Abstraction: The experience of schooling can be highly abstract. By that I mean that the experience of being in school is something quite different from the experiences we have most everywhere else in life. We hear the criticisms that education systems often lack relevance to the real world and if we are to remain optimistic about the future we must admit a certain validity to this. Without reviewing here again my comments about the technology we call "curriculum," clearly the kinds of curriculum design we employ for masses of students and teachers is a core issue in this. We must understand that curriculum, at its most basic level is a technology that is quite similar in kind to machine technology and the technology of mass communication and if anything even remotely resembling innovation is to occur, then these basic assumptions must be challenged and transformed into opportunities for fundamental growth.

"To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." This saying carries with it a great deal of truth. But what if we were able to change the tool from a hammer to something else? Perhaps then new opportunities would open up to us and this is precisely the basic strategy I designed into the Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects, which we will now turn our attention to.

Network Learning Environments

Design will quickly progress from an essentially reactive to a gradually more proactive stage. New technologies should become the object of design, rather than being at the source of design. Design will find more rewarding fields in patterns of interfacing than in the production of objects. - De Kerckhove, Derrick. The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality.

This is an important statement and one that I have paid close attention to in my own work. Design first of all is a proactive measure, in other words, it is something people do, not something that is done to them. In recognizing the dramatic limitations of new technologies with respect to design, Derrick focuses on another important idea – that new technologies will eventually be rightly positioned as an object of design, instead of being at its source. We see this object vs. source problem in education in the old discussions about teaching the technology or teaching with technology. And finally Derrick points toward the fundamentally important idea that design is more about patterns of interfacing and interaction than it is about the production of objects and material things.

When I first recall integrating these ideas about design into my approaches to network learning I recall Derrick reacting with, as he often does when his attention is captured, intense curiosity. Although he was talking more about design in digital artistry and Internet communications, it wasn’t that big of a step to move from there to learning design since learning is far more closely aligned to patterns of interfacing – or interactivity – than it is in the production of things. As I thought about it more and more it became clear to me that, with respect to learning, curriculum was more about making students the source of design and that instruction was really about interaction design. In other words, the traditional assumptions about content and organization in a traditional curricula were discarded and replaced with ideas about design and interactivity. Content, or what we refer to as knowledge and information, were by-products of the interaction design. Expertise was not limited to possessing knowledge about a specific body of information, but instead how to foster network activity in order to bring Connected Intelligence to bear on a real-life shared problem, situation, concern, need or idea.

Of course, as you can imagine, what I am suggesting here is a complete change in the basic assumptions that have traditionally defined what a curriculum is and what instruction means. Further, this also leads to a redefining of what a teacher’s role is and what the school’s place is in society. Finally, it completely recontextualizes evaluation since in a networked design framed against real-life situations and circumstances, standardized evaluation is simply irrelevant.

Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects
What happens when we make creative attempts to bring learning, networks and environments together?

The Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects that were in operation for three years in Madeira, Portugal are examples of how networks can be leveraged to change education at a fundamental level. Yet, as we will see, however, both political propaganda and corporate greed are formidable opponents to innovation.

Rather than present a detailed discussion of the Connected Intelligence Project here I would rather focus on the core opportunities and challenges that were at the heart of the project. If you are interested in knowing more about the specifics of the project you can find more detailed documentation on my weblog.

Why Connected Intelligence? The impetus for changing the education system in Madeira was internal. The government had recognized a number of issues that needed to be addressed:

1.) To slow or halt the loss of students to the mainland. Madeira is an island approx. 900km south of Lisbon and 1100 kms from the coast of Africa. It's economy is centered on tourism. Yet opportunities for people to pursue various careers were quite limited.

2.) To integrate the education system and establish a leadership position with the directives outlined by the European Union for a unified system of European education. This, if it could be achieved, was an important source of funding for projects.

The question was how to do it. Derrick de Kerckhove invited me over to explore possibilities for using Connected Intelligence to help the Madeiran situation. It was here that I saw an important opportunity to put the idea of network learning environments to the test and as it turned out KPMG joined in support of the project. The result was a $12 million dollar project designed to systematically transform the entire education system in Madeira.

The most important challenge we had to overcome was to find a way not to become linked to the existing curriculum. If the curriculum became the basis for design, we were lost. As it turned out, Connected Intelligence became a unique piece of educational legislation granting it authority to operate on its own terms. While still quite accountable for achieving specific objectives and goals, we were not forced to operate via the status quo.

I hired 12 teachers from the Madeiran school system to work full-time as Connected Intelligence trainers (trainers is not the best word to describe what these people did, however, it is a word that has significant resonance in the Madeiran culture). We also created a Connected Intelligence Lab within a high school that became the home base for these twelve teachers and was equipped with the latest computer and Internet technology of the day. This, however, is not the most important feature of the program and in fact while computer and Internet technology were used extensively, they were simply one aspect of a much larger environment. In fact, I spent a great deal of time ensuring that this lab did not simply become seen as yet another high-tech facility. We also avoided corporate sponsorship, although opportunities existed, and instead allowed the 12 teachers themselves as well as a range of external experts I brought into the program to make decisions on their own.

Every school in Madeira, as outlined in the new legislation supporting Connected Intelligence, identified a Connected Intelligence Associate Teacher. This teacher was our main link into the each school. In addition, Connected Intelligence Clubs were legislated and given a formal position in school operations. The traditional school curriculum was not a factor in these clubs and although the standards and evaluative requirements for Connected Intelligence were quite significant, they were not in any way directed by existing school curricula or instruction.

How did we achieve this? Actually it is quite simple in terms of design, but quite complicated to implement given the existing system. After six months of intensive researching and interviewing, I presented my feasibility study to the Madeiran Government officials. While clearly intrigued with the possibility of Connected Intelligence, they could immediately see that it was something significantly different from the traditional norm and that there would be political ramifications. Their concerns then turned to finding ways of linking it or at least making it look like the usual accepted form of curriculum. After some discussion that I found to be quite circular, I decided to take the blunt approach and said, "With no disrespect intended, Connected Intelligence will simply not work if you are unwilling to undertake fundamental innovation in your system. I would suggest that if you are concerned about public perceptions, then we either decide to have the public participate directly in the projects first-hand, or we end our discussion right now. Connected Intelligence will not work if you cannot severe it from your current practices. The choice is yours"

This, as you can imagine, was a critical turning point in the negotiations, and one that the existing Madeiran government decided to accept. Let me briefly overview the projects for you:

1.) A detailed curriculum and instructional design methodology was developed to provide a foundation and coordination for all CI NLPs. The focus of this design was on the development of a broad range of interactivity in a manner that was coherent and expansive.
2.) 7 projects in all (EthnoMadeira, Gardens of Atlantis, Virtual Plaza, Urabn Life, Oceans, The Future of Work, Education for Tomorrow, Communications for Tomorrow, The Comenius Project.
3.) Each project lead by a CITD Trainer and coordinated at the school level by a CI Associate Teacher. For example, in 1999 we trained 120 Associate Teachers in 45 Connected Intelligence Clubs involving 1,800 students.
4.) I hired Professor Jerry Durlak from York University was hired to conduct a formal evaluation of the program over two years and report on his findings.
5.) Ben Delaney, a virtual reality expert from California, was hired to deliver on site training in virtual walk-through technology.
6.) Bruce Damer and Stuart Gold delivered workshops on the use of Active Worlds - an avatar based system of interaction.
7.) The International Center for Entrepreneurship was retained to design and deliver a new "Digital Entrepreneurship" program.
8.) UNESCO and InterArts from Barcelona were retained to design and deliver a "Cultural Development in the Digital Age" program.
9.) Visitors to the program included the Ambassador of South Africa, UNESCO, Italian – French – Spanish – Armenian – Norwegian Education Delegations, as well as a variety of political and business figures from various parts of Europe.
10.) Annual CI Showcases were held that placed the trainers, student and teachers in charge of presenting their work in a CI NLP to government officials, business, the local community, and the media.
11.) CI was placed on exhibit at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany.

A Look The Projects
1.) Ethnomadeira:
• 9 CI Clubs – 9 Associate Teachers – approx 300 students
• Fashion Designer – original design of clothing that reflects Madeiran culture
• Clothes produced by students, parents, teachers in their own schools as well as on site at other schools
• Internet used to facilitate communications across schools as well as to keep the design process moving forward
• Annual Showcase – Student fashion show – sale of items – link to business community

2.) Virtual Plaza
• Ben Delaney – USA
• Have students create virtual walk-throughs of historic areas of Funchal
• Digital work displayed in museum and made available to Minister of Tourism
• 12 Clubs – 12 Associate Teachers – 300 Students

Key Points About the Projects
• Each project had its own character or quality about it.
• To manage the projects an extensive curriculum was developed in order to foster network interaction and design, and to put checks in place to ensure we didn’t revert to familiar practices
• Parents had significant involvement in the projects
• Business community ties – there is a natural flow that can be created between business and school
• Focused: Each network learning project had its own

The Demise of Connected Intelligence In Madeira
In the end, the Connected Intelligence Project in Madeira suffered from two nearly simultaneous issues:

1.) A Change of Government – complete change over in policy and direction
2.) A change in corporate direction – the search for the killer application

[Improvisation: The problem with innovation in educatioon]

Pax Warrior
Before bringing my talk to a close I would like to introduce Andreas and Sean, the producers of an interesting piece of software called Pax Warrior.

I met with Andreas and Sean last Tuesday morning to have a look at what they had produced. My first glance at the product was actually through a BBC documentary that featured students using Pax Warrior. The idea of Pax Warrior is to involve students in a decision-making process surrounding the events of the Rwanda genocide. In the BBC video I was especially taken with the quality of questions the students were asking and had discovered that these questions were in fact not given to the students.

The second area I noticed in their presentation to me was a clear focus on providing authentic and primary resource material. In the simulation, you cannot literally change major historical events, but you can make decisions that lead to various kinds of results. Pax Warrior is also designed to work on a variety of interactive

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And I, on the other hand, entertain by telling the truth.
Good luck Brian.

Hi Rob and Jeremy,

Why am I seeing Jack Nicholson in uniform right now ;-)

BTW - I remember reading The Ecology Of Commerce - wonderful book.

Great advice. Paul Hawken told me the same thing - Your job is not to entertain but to tell the truth he told me

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