X.Os in Learning and Technology

There have been some huge developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially those around the internet and the way we learn. The “X” in “X.O” represents “fault lines” or tensions between local and global, groups and networks, structure and chaos, homogeneity and diversity, teacher-led vs facilitated and simple vs complex. With each tension comes a lot of hard work and experimentation, sometimes building on existing paradigms, sometimes with novel approaches. This post tries to summarize the different X.Os in one place.

X.O

The X in X.O represents versions or generations of thinking and capacity. Not unlike versions in software or documents, X.Os represent change and a philosophy of transformation. While Generation 1.0 showed us the power of visualization, of search over aggregated knowledge, of 3D immersion, of multimedia based learning, Generation 2.0 has facilitated for us the power to network and to leverage collective insight through social networks, learning 2.0 styles, collaboration and ever growing news forms of media. Generation 3.O is still very nascent and further improves on Generation 2.O by adding ubiquity and context to the teaching-learning process.

The caveat, and there is always one, is that the internet is a powerful medium, but only to those for whom it is accessible. We must leverage alternate forms for audiences that are either not empowered or not influenced by these technologies. In the end, technology is an enabler – not the knowledge itself, not our relationships with others in a network and not our own little hype that we believe is the only solution. We have to learn how to use these effectively and judiciously and it equally behoves those that have this access to disseminate it to others who do not.

Generation 1.O

Gen 1.O has shown us the power of Web and computer based learning. This generation of learning has become popular and has an established art, craft, business and science. What is this generation? It started with small computer programs that were used by teachers to explain and simulate educational problems. These evolved into computer based training or CBT modules that became richer and more appealing with the advent of multimedia and the evolution of the personal computer. But an inflection point emerged with the birth of the Internet towards the end of the last century. Suddenly a new accessible medium and a common presentation language  enabled us to create web based training – training that could be placed (hosted) on a server on the Internet and be used across the world. This shift enabled immense economies of scale to corporations that were able to save costs of training logistics and precious travel time. As bandwidth improved, video conferencing evolved to provide immersive situations for collaboration and communication.

For teachers and students, all this marked the beginning of a change in the way instruction was designed and delivered. No longer did we have the flexibility of a classroom, board and chalk. We did not even have the chance to know a student by name and look her in the eye. We lost conversational ability and had to strive to ingenuously incorporate that ability within WBTs using third person role-plays and scenarios. We also tried to reinforce and replicate the same fundamental ways of teaching – only magnified the scale through a global platform – and kept the expert, now a mix of multiple more rigorously defined skills such as instructional and graphics design, at the centre, rather than the learner. The limitations of the WBT were sought to be overcome in part by virtual classrooms and satellite based video conferencing. Te teacher could at once scale to multiple locations via a global classroom with the help of technology using simple, rapid elearning tools such as Powerpoint (somewhat misplaced, no learning is that rapid to create, deliver or experience). They also brought with them the reinforcement and perpetuation of systems that promoted the teacher at the core of the learning experience.

Even bigger innovations brought together learning theory and technology to create real-life immersive simulations and a high level of engage through gaming and virtual reality. Parallely, systems for managing learners and administering learning programs and content (LMS/LCMS) – also evolved to manage the huge amount of training content and delivery that was created. Industry, government and academia got together to build standards such as SCORM.

The benefits were enormous. There were huge improvements in terms of standardization and quality of presentation of content. The space became more specialized and verticalized in terms of both skills and solutions.

Improvements were largely innovation-led through advances in pedagogy and technology. Elements such as 3D graphics, simulations and gaming are still high-cost, esoteric and time intensive to create.

But still, such a lot of effort, suffering from tensions of art vs science, autonomous vs teacher led, local vs global, has still left an entire generation dissatisfied!

And the main reasons for this dissatisfaction are not hard to find! Cost is one factor. Learner engagement is another. Lack of personalization is yet another key cause. Teacher awareness and skill and sharing of best practices have been challenges. Key challenges such as learner retention, visualization and real-life immersion are the learning domain’s own unique and continual challenges.

Generation 2.O

Then the internet changed. Fundamentally. The next generation is radically different, both in core technology and it’s application in learning. The next generation of the Web was christened Web 2.0. The most fundamental elements of this new generation are user-generated content, social networking, mashups and remixable data sources. Let us examine these elements in greater detail.

User generated content

The web was deemed “read-only” for the vast majority of users. This meant that you needed specialized expertise to author and publish content on the web. This is different from e-mail that is used to communicate one on one or one t o group easily. It was the process of being able to create something to share with the global community that was esoteric. Some of us embraced that technology readily while a lot of us struggled with using even the most basic tools, let alone be capable to generating highly sophisticated elearning.

With Web 2.0, these barriers to creation and sharing of content have been significantly reduced. Anybody can contribute – all it requires is web browser, an internet connection and lots of ideas and experiences. Blogs provide, for example, a channel through which anyone could share content with the global community. The web has become writeable. Not only could you write textual content, but could also author and share other forms of content such as pictures, audio, pictures with audio and many other continuously emerging new forms of media. As a result, the amount of content generated over the past 2-3 years has been many thousands of times the amount in physical form ever created by man. This sudden explosion has been facilitated by advances in software, hardware and networking, very specifically, by advances in storage, processing power, improving network technology and virtualization.

Social Networking

But being able to author content on the web is not enough. The real power lies in being able to share it. As humans, we have an innate need and desire to communicate with each other. We build relationships, we create networks, whether they be friends, family, colleagues or just about anyone else. We learn through these networks by sharing and communicating thoughts, ideas and experiences. Web 2.0 enables us to create digital social networks, virtual communities of people irrespective of who and where they are. These networks have the potential to grow virally and have sen tremendous growth in the past few years.

What does that do for us? It enables us to draw upon the shared thoughts, ideas and experiences of people globally. The internet is now suddenly not a website anymore. Rather it is an open space for dialogue, debate or collection of information and critical thinking. It is a space that can help us leverage collective insight. It can help and grow relationships and reduce the asymmetries of knowledge and information. Correspondingly, it provides tools to search and source knowledge from millions of different sources.

An element of this generation is the ability to create one’s own classification or interpretations of knowledge. A name or place or visual could mean or evolve associations differently for different people. Which means that if it is classified using a particular standard taxonomy like in libraries or directories, it may never be found by someone who associates a different taxonomy or interpretation to it. This new way of classifying information, the personalized or group taxonomy, is called Folksonomy (more popularly known as social bookmarking or tagging). A fundamental change brought about in this generation is not only the ability to tag but also to be able to share these tags with your communities.

Mashups

The third most fundamental element of this new generation are mashups. Prior to the introduction of this element, software applications such as an order and pay ecommerce application were standalone islands that architecturally, were not built to inter-operate (thence standards such as X.12 and EDIFACT) and share their data with other software applications (at least not easily). Today it has become easy for even novice users to create more complex views of information (e.g. Dapper), e.g. combining pollution indices with geo-spatial maps. Web services now provide the glue through which these can happen. It has become very easy to “plug-in” and integrate functionality pieces from multiple sources into your own application or portal – skills that were uptil now, the domain of skilled programmers. For example, Yahoo! Pipes and RSS combined can place the knowledge of your interest area at your disposal.

Remixable data sources

The power of this fourth fundamental element lies in the ability to look at the internet as a large database system.  The world’s data, in this view, becomes a set of inter-related structure (not unlike an RDBMS), with elements semantically related with each other through defined and dynamic associations. As Sir Tim Berners Lee believes, the semantic web is something that we can use very intelligently to perform a lot of tasks triggered by these associations. Over time, these tasks could be handled by agents without the need for human intervention prompting futurists like Ray Kurzweil to talk about the future half machine half human social form.

Learning 2.0

Consequent to this fundamental transformation and aided by continued frustrations with the existing teaching-learning process and the evolving behaviour of digital social networks constituted by new age digital learners, is the push towards the next generation of learning. Founded on an epistemological framework that defines knowledge as being emergent, adaptive and composed of connections and networked entities (Stephen Downes, 2006), George Siemens posits connectivism  as a learning theory that suggests that the act of learning is largely one of forming  a diverse network of connections and recognizing attendant patterns (Siemens, 2006).

Stephen Downes is widely credited with the term Learning 2.O. According to him learning is not negotiating an organized repository of knowledge, but like electricity or water – available through networks like on tap. This is a fundamentally new view representing an entirely new way of learning steeped in the belief that networks can produce reliable gains in knowledge more effectively than traditional systems. Learning 2.O enables a digital generation to connect, collaborate and co-create knowledge and collective insight through relationships and identity in a network.

Changing Roles of learners, teachers and learning managers

Learners are changing from passive receptors of information and training to active participants in their own learning. This is a viral change, so it is really fast. Today’s digital learners are part of communities. They share their interests with members of their community. They twitter. They blog. They rake in RSS feeds and bookmark their favorities on de.li.ci.ou.s. They share photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. They share knowledge on Slideshare and Learnhub or Ning. They share ideas. They grow by meeting and engaging peers and gurus alike using the LinkedIn or Facebook. On their laptops and on their mobile phones.

Traditional instructors are now moving from being trainers to being facilitators, guides and coaches in a collaborative teaching-learning space. The instructors need not treat their learners as passive receptors, rather they can actively shape, by dialogue and discovery, the nature of their learning.

Learning Managers, though, have perhaps the biggest challenge. Undisputedly, an organization that has both the vision and a demonstrable culture of continuous learning, collaboration and improvement, will benefit natively from the formalization of this style and the adoption of the available tools. This kind of an organization worries about functional excellence and the ability to transform the domain in which they operate through leveraging individual and collective insight.

Several metaphors of the educator have emerged. John Seely Brown posits the notion of studio or atelier learning portraying the educator as a master artist in an art studio who observes student activities, points out innovation and uses the activities of all users to guide, direct and influence the work of each individual. Clarence Fisher talks about the teacher as a network administrator who help students construct personal networks for learning. Curtis Bonk talks about the educator as a concierge who directs learners to appropriate resources that they may not be aware of. George Siemens suggests educators must behave both as curators – experts and guides who encourage exploration and create learning spaces or ecologies. And this participative pedagogy is what is a dramatic change or reform for the existing system.

Emergence of new media forms and collaborative learning

Learning 2.0 has spurred interest in collaborative learning and new forms of media. Immersive collaborative learning, which is really an immersion of self within a networked learning ecology, has been very evocatively been drawn out by solutions such as SecondLife. The practice of teaching and learning can now benefit greatly from these and structured techniques for collaborative learning suc as collaborative online brainstorming, voice and video blogs, voicethread type learning triggers, life threads (that follow an individual online) etc. Communities of Practice, I believe will be an important source of new media forms. CoPs provide an open space for collaboration around a specific interest area and because of that new types of collaboration artefacts stand a good chance of getting created that become a knowledge point in the learning experience.

Generation 3.0

The latest X.O is the third generation of web and learning. What seems to be emerging as unique characteristics of this web generation are ubiquity, context awareness, location awareness and mobility.

By ubiquity we mean an omnipresent network, connecting devices and humans alike to each other blurring the man-machine interface.

By context and location awareness, we mean that our networks will increasing be ware of not only what we need but also where we need it. For example, teaching in class is a context and location combination that should trigger off a lot of relevance to a teachers activity within the classroom.

If we add the temporal aspect, technology could become even more useful in channelling the right knowledge to us and in the right form. This might become a very useful thing because for example, a teacher’s timetable could be synchronised with the frequency of her RSS feed from Yahoo! Pipes or become a trigger for analytics to be fed in from the world on the common problem areas on the topic she is teaching.

Mobility is the other key aspect of the 3.O Web. By this we imply devices that are geared towards specific types of work or as generic tools, that can be added-on to the learner wherever she goes. Examples include some ongoing research on wearable headsets that provide the power of your PC, social network and the internet wherever you go.

It is then not inconceivable to think of the next generation of learning – Learning 3.O. This generation of learning is considered to be ambient – residing in our environment and ready for us to access when we need to. Pundits for this learning technology futurecast it to do to our world what electricity did for the industrial world.

In summary

And there will be more X.Os to come as we grapple with the fundamental transformation of our digital lives. There will always be competing approaches. The challenge for all of us is to be open & receptive to this change, critical in what we accept and be ready to experiment.

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