Archive for the ‘OISE Learning Journal Posts’ Category

In this post I write about what two of my classmates and I have been discussing in our online course together.

What about doing away with linear timelines, taking a worthwhile topic and grinding it into dust and not taking up a new topic until we are satisfied that it has been throughly pulverized? This is actually what the kids in Bereiter’s article “Putting Learning in its Place”, chapter 8 of Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age They came across the topic of growth completely serendipidously and started out with rather uniformed observations and discussions. Months later, left almost entirely to themselves, they had gotten into deep investigation of the issue of growth and their investigation and their discussions became scientific in nature. They discussed theories, collaborated on their own knowledge building, went to outside experts as well as their parents and other teachers, and by the end of the 3-month period (I am not sure if the 3-month period was imposed or if that is when the topic petered out naturally by itself) they had come to understand growth in about as much detail as anyone at age 11-12 possibly could. And they did the research themselves and developed invaluable skills and habits in how to acquire and process information. They become scientists, researchers, and I imagine that many of them are going to use their newfound satisfaction in learning in their life-long process of education. And they will always remember what they learned about growth!

I had a somewhat similar experience, in Clare’s constructivism class. I remember reading Bereiter’s article “Situated cognition and how to overcome it“. What an article! It took me a while to get my head around that one. I had similar challenges with Pea’s article (Pea is a keynote speaker in the CSCL conference in Hong Kong this July!) and maybe one more, but it’s Bereiter’s that I remember the most because it was difficult, new, very different from anything I had learned before, and brilliant. I spent a lot of time on it, writing in our forum, getting into picky points like Dan and I do here, and had a unique learning experience. I was lucky in that I had a few classmates who were as interested in the article as I was, and we really did a thorough job of analyzing it. I think the discussion carried on past the one week. I still remember the feeling of deep satisfaction that I got from wrestling with a difficult and fascinating topic and not stopping until… the discussion was over. Did we really pulverize it? Possibly, but we didn’t allow what we learned on sit cog and distributed cognition to lead to learning about related topics.

One thing that is absolutely essential in this kind of process of deep learning (and KB!) is TIME. I would not have gotten to the bottom of sit cog or distributed cognition if I hadn’t had the time to read, think, write, post, read more, think more, in a cyclical process leading to true understanding at a deep level. Stian wrote about time and how limited his is and how he goes back to previous threads when he has more time. Dan wrote about how topics seem finished at the end of the week for him, but I think that this is because topics have been set up that way. I teach university classes and I know that only a certain percentage of my class is there to learn and has a strong commitment to it. This is true of grad students too. There is a wide variety of Students A, B, and C in all classes, with their related goals of A) task-completion B) learning and C) knowledge building. The majority of students are probably A or B, but maybe this would change if classes were structured around knowledge building instead of around weekly topics. All of the kids in the Grade 6 class were building knowledge together, there were no A or B students (at least, this is the impression I get).

There is also a certain amount of material, a certain number of topics that have been identified in the syllabus/curriculum and need to be covered. What would happen if they were not introduced on a week-to-week basis but on a “once we have dealt thoroughly with this topic we’ll move on”? Some topics might not be dealt with at all. Is this okay?

Honestly tho, topics with no time restrictions at all, no weekly change of topics would be the best way to learn. Topics that are less interesting would take up less time. For me, tagging was worth a very small discussion while something like sit cog and distributed cognition could/should take weeks. It could branch naturally into related areas and each of these could be investigated to the satisfaction of the students. This would be a true Classroom C, where the control over learning and KB would be left entirely up to the students. Well, maybe not entirely because someone has to get us onto the notion of situated cognition in the first place. But you get my drift. If there were no weekly topics, students could contribute whenever they had time. This is great not just for busy people but for time to accommodate and assimilate all the new knowledge we are building.

So why is it that we still follow linear models of learning instead of far more organic models in university classes? If Grade six students can do it, can’t we? I suspect the answer lies in structure, grades, syllabi, and the obvious observation that not all students would like to learn this way (at least not at first). I guess many students appreciate the predictability of one week after another, one topic neatly dealt with and another promptly introduced, like topics coming by on an assembly line… (sorry, it’s not really that bad, is it?). This assembly line model of learning is more convenient for teachers and for many students as well. But is it the best way to learn? How much knowledge building can take place in this kind of setup? Because of my experiences in Clare’s constructivism class, I’d say yes, it’s possible to build knowledge even in compressed amounts of time. But think of what would happen if knowledge could be built in here like a tree, with a trunk going up and branch after branch growing out, all student-led, all generated by interest…

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I’m writing here in response to my classmate Shu-Chen’s post, which is a response to my post on Mubarak. In her post, Shu-Chen hit on so many of the problems facing anyone on a quest for the facts. There are so many articles, so many points of view, so many details to read and store and compare new information to. In any new event that comes up the amount of information that must be sifted through looking for the facts is enough to discourage many who would strive for peace if only they knew who represents peace and who represents war. In the recent events in Egypt that Shu-Chen mentioned, we have the western mass media view of an unpopular politician being overthrown by his people, who are reaching for democracy, and we are encouraged to celebrate this. In my view, and the view of some others, the NED “encouraged” opponents to rise against Mubarak in a plan supported and initiated by the US government in order to get rid of a ruler who was becoming inconvenient for US policy in the area. Mubarak was resisting the push for war against Iran, as was Gaddafi.

If we are talking about military action, then the question will be who will take this military action? Who will do it and who has the right to do so?” Gaddafi told the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York. Gaddafi said action against Iran could set a dangerous precedent, noting that other countries including India, Pakistan, China, Russia, the United States and Israel have — or in Israel’s case are assumed to have — atomic weapons. “All of them have nuclear bombs. Why not take military action against them?” Gaddafi said.

The current war against Libya is another “regime change” being attempted by the west. The western mass media claims that Gaddafi used air strikes against his own people, but there is evidence against these claims. See this video by one of the major alternative news sources, RT (Russia Today) “Airstrikes in Libya did not take place” – Russian military.

I had planned to write a post about recent events in Libya but then realized that I was no longer writing a Learning Journal but a political blog (and my time is limited and I have a final paper due soon) so I stopped. But what is important about this, and why I’m raising the issue now, is that this all comes down to the ever-increasing question of “How do we know that what we think is true is really true?” This question is so important today, as country after country is tossed into turmoil and bloodshed mounts, all for what? Are the people of these countries really rising democratically against their leaders? Or are they being manipulated by the west, as so many other countries have been? I will leave it up to you to answer this question to your own satisfaction, but if you’d like a few references, I’d start with Killing Hope by William Blum, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and the alternative news websites RT, GlobalResearch, and VoltaireNetwork. By the way, on the topic of Mubarak, Voltaire Network has a recent article titled, “In Egypt, a New Guard” that begins with these lines, “In Egypt, so far not so good despite the recent change of faces. With Egyptian armed forces being a virtual extension of the Pentagon and Washington’s agents preparing to funnel funds to boost pro-US political parties, Steven Gowans doubts that whatever change the Egyptian rebellion will bring about could amount to anything more than a new form of Mubarakism without Mubarak.” And, by the way, who is supplying the Libyan rebels with arms? Egypt. Would Egypt have done this under Mubarak? Not likely. Who is making money from this new war? So far, just the ones who make the weapons, in this case the US. Later there will be reconstruction costs and maybe Dick Cheney’s outfit can help us out with that. Who is paying for the weapons, and who will pay for the reconstruction? The American taxpayers. How much have the war in Iraq and its reconstruction cost Americans? About 781 billion dollars, so far.

While the official reason for this war is “humanitarian” concerns, there is evidence for other motivations. In this video, RT documents the gold dinar as the currency being promoted by Gaddafi and other African nations. The theory that replacing the American dollar with the gold dinar in oil-wealthy countries being the reason for war cannot be easily dismissed, as both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi tried to introduce new currencies in their countries, coincidentally only months before wars were initiated by the west in both Iraq and in Libya.

The battle for the control of information has led to a website called InfoWars (see the recent article there by historian Webster Tarpley titled Obama’s Bay of Pigs in Libya: Imperialist Aggression Shreds UN Charter). Even Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the huge impact that Russia Today (alternative news site has on the world, with 300,000,000 viewers on YouTube and CNN (mainstream news site) with a mere 1% of that at 3,000,000. See RT Win: Clinton asks for cash as US ‘losing world info war’ for her speech requesting Congress to increase funding for the US to push more of its own propaganda.

We are awash with propaganda, and as Shu-Chen insightfully pointed out, the victim is truth. Covered by layers of spin, twisted and distorted by the western mass media until it is unrecognizable, truth has to be rediscovered in ways that were not possible before, and few of us have the time to do it. Shu-Chen wrote, “Experts spend lifetimes becoming conversant with the relations between and within countries such as those now in the news. Can media technology short-circuit this process so that the masses can be educated to the point that they can meaningfully participate?” This is the main point exactly. Yes, the information is out there, and we don’t have to be experts to inform ourselves. Once we begin to make our way through the mass of information, certain paths become clearer. The hardest part is realizing that we are being lied to, again and again, constantly, and taking the first step against this, which is doing our own independent reading of multiple perspectives of history and current events. In this way, we take the first steps towards becoming informed and therefore responsible.

We have been facing increasing propaganda and lies ever since the end of WW2, well, even before that, but it seems to have gotten much worse since then. Worse because the US and its western allies are fighting war after war for no other reason than financial gain. Words like democracy and terrorism have taken on new meanings in a vision similar to that of 1984. Democratic nations are those who welcome US foreign policy and free trade, and terrorist nations are those who oppose it. Gaddafi opposes war in Iran, his country has oil, and the US is looking for ways to get an entry into Africa to loot more natural and mineral resources there and therefore it’s time for war in Libya. Could this war really be about bringing democracy to people? How can we be saving lives by shooting missiles? How naïve is anyone who believes in this convenient lie.

What does all of this have to do with education? Well, it has a lot to do with history and social studies, global issues, geography, and current events. And it has something to do with the way we learn, the way we look for facts. If we consider only the mass media view, we’ll be obedient citizens and nod in agreement as more missiles are launched against peaceful people, and civilian casualties are mounting already in Libya. But like Clare said in her video for Week 9, teachers should model appropriate learning strategies for their students, which for me means going beneath the surface layers of easily painted stories and digging for truth.

I don’t say that what I believe is the truth. As Shu-Chen writes, how can anyone really know the truth unless they are working “… in some diplomatic capacity and to have real everyday access to insider knowledge.” But even then you may have more access to one side of the story than another.

The key is something that we have discussed before – multiple perspectives, and we have access to multiple perspectives on the Internet in articles and videos, and we have access to multiple perspectives by choosing a wide variety of books that focus on the issues at hand. We all know the official stories because we are faced with them every day on TV, in newspapers and on radio stations. Official stories are promoted by official media that are owned by those who profit from providing only one side of the story – the side that benefits the US and makes an enemy of anyone who protests against US foreign policy. This is not limited to the US, of course, but extends to Canada, the UK, France, Germany, most of Europe in fact, most of the west in fact. Who doesn’t support American and western foreign policy?

Well, the American people don’t, for one. And neither do Brits, or French, or Germans, or Canadians. 65% of Americans oppose the current intervention in Libya. The majority of citizens of all of these countries are opposed to war. We all want peace. But still we believe our leaders when they come up with stories of “weapons of mass destruction” (have you seen the video of where Bush pretends to be looking for them? Warning: it’s offensive, and there are some graphic photos as well), of bearded men in caves destroying World Trade Center buildings (watch Blueprint for Truth and then try to tell me that airplanes brought down the World Trade Center buildings), we believe them when they say this leader in that country is doing such-and-such and must be stopped. And millions die, and US territory grows, and geopolitically strategic locations and those with significant natural resources are one by one conquered by the rich west. We are back in the times of pillaging and looting, and the worst part of it is that it’s the rich west looting developing countries, and killing civilians in the process. And we support it by paying for it with our tax dollars. We support it by not protesting.

Sorry, I’ll stop here. Watch (and read) John Pilger, read William Blum, Naomi Klein, Michel Chossudovsky, Webster Tarpley, Howard Zinn and Anthony Sutton. This would be just a beginning, but a good one. For a more complete list, see How the World Really Works (excerpts from many useful books are available at this website). The amazing thing about the Internet is that so much information is available there, for anyone who takes the time to go through it. The Internet alone is not enough, though. If we really want the details, we need a multitude of books as well. Yes, it takes a lot of time. But if you really want to know what is going on in the world, if you care about the bombs that are falling on strangers halfway around the world, if you wonder why Muslim countries seem to be taking all the heat these days, read on. I can guarantee that it is not a waste of time, and will change the way we see the world. It is not a world of black and white but grey, so many shades of grey. But the truth is in there somewhere, if only we will take the first step and read.

Shu-Chen wrote, “In considering these three options I am struck by the irony that having given us the possibility of mass participation the actual effect of technological progress may result in increasing numbers of people opting out of the political system…To the extent this occurs the net effect for these countries will have been to exchange a wealth/military autocracy for an autocracy of knowledge.”

The majority of people in our countries oppose war. If only we could arm ourselves with knowledge, perhaps we could challenge our own leaders, instead of fighting against people we have no quarrel with, half a world away.

In this note, I’m going to look at the various kinds of technology I’ve used for the first time since the start of this course. This is mostly commentary on the usefulness of the technology and any problems I/we encountered with it. One of my goals, not only for this class but in general, was to find out about and use more forms of technology. For example, I’ve seen wikis before but never made one myself. As a lecturer in a technological university, I should be up-to-date on the latest tech and know how and if I can use them in my own classes. Here’s my report:

1. Wikis

Q: Why use a wiki?

A: A wiki is a collaborative way to produce a group document. With a wiki, people around the world can work on a document together asynchronously, which is very useful for writing a group paper, or a list of resources, or a website where contributions from many people will be included.

It’s odd that I had never made a wiki myself because I wrote a paper on wikis back in 2005 with my colleague, Rick Lavin. He had been using wikis with his classes and suggested we write a paper together on wikis. He wrote about wikis and I wrote about how wikis represent some tenets of constructivist thought. I was the theory person, he was the practical wiki person. Our paper is good, I think, when I read it now, and it’s a good example of a cooperative (as opposed to collaborative) paper where two people bring very different skills and background to a project, where you cannot contribute much to the other person’s side of the project because you don’t know much about it. In any case, even after writing the paper and presenting it with him I did not try out wikis on my own.

So it’s very satisfying to have finally produced a wiki, and a very collaborative one, with my teammates Anni and Dan. We used one because we had studied wikis in class, knew their affordances well, and a wiki seemed to meet our need for a common writing ground.

Indeed our wiki at Wikispaces, a popular free wiki was very convenient and useful. One of the tools I like best is the History tool. It records all versions of the wiki that have been produced. If you choose two versions, say the latest version and the one before that, you can see all the changes that have been made. All text that has been added shows up highlighted in green, and all text that has been deleted shows up in red. So a contributor who doesn’t know exactly what changes have been made can find out simply by selecting the last version that she/he read, and the latest version. You can also use the Notify Me tool to get an e-mail sent to you every time the wiki has been updated.

I chose Wikispaces randomly from the available wikis simply because of its prominence and because Vincent told me that it had a discussion page. In fact we never used the discussion page because we discussed everything using our online KeC forum and by chatting using Skype. In retrospect, I think it was a good choice, and I like that Wikispaces comes with a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License, which means that anyone can use it or adapt it as they please.

The one drawback to using this wiki, and I think it’s a big one, is that it doesn’t tell you when someone else is updating the wiki. Dan and Anni were both editing at the same time, and our wiki didn’t tell us that, and they had a huge problem in that when they finished the update, the changes the other person had made were lost! This seems to be an obvious kink and I wonder why there is nothing in place to prevent it from happening. The wiki should only allow one person to edit at a time, with a simple message box of “Someone else is editing the wiki now” popping up would suffice.

As a result of my very positive experience with a wiki, I’m going to use it with my second year students, who’ll make a wiki of useful websites for studying and/or practicing English. I’ll have to work out a way for them not to be editing at the same time, so I may designate days where only one group member can edit and contribute. But I just found this discussion where it says that Google Docs does not have this editing problem. And here in Google Docs documentation, it says, “If you and another collaborator are editing the same document at the same time, a box with the name of the collaborator appears at the top of the screen. If other people are editing a document simultaneously with you, you’ll see their edits in real time. You can also see their names listed at the top. Click the arrow to the right of the names to open a tab where you can chat with other editors within the document.” This would solve the multiple edits problem, and it would be useful to have the chat right in the same window as the document!

So maybe I will use Google Docs instead. Anni, Dan, want to try our Google Docs? 🙂

Note: Since this is already a page and a half in Word, I’m going to make it a note by itself. Next time I’ll write about blogs.

I have to write about how great my collaboration experience was with Anni and Dan. It’s the first time I have had such an intense experience and it was just great. Big hugs to both of you! What a team effort we made. (Our paper is available for viewing at http://casestudywiki.wikispaces.com )

We started out by using the KeC forum and this we kept as a base throughout the whole project. We had our first Skype chat (at that time the KeC chat tool had a problem) in early February and Anni volunteered to write summary notes which she posted in the KeC view. We scheduled weekly chats. We decided to write a paper as our final product (tho I don’t remember actually discussing that) and to break up the paper into three main sections: constructivism, collaboration, and social presence. We decided that each of us would write about one topic and that we would add to and edit other sections. The other two topics of moderation and tips for online classes we decided to merge into the rest of the paper instead of each having their own section.

The problem with our initial plan (Plan A) was that we ended up with three separate articles that all referred to the same problems that Leanne (the instructor in our case study) was having. So it was impossible to join them together without cutting out huge chunks of text. So we went back to the drawing board and Dan wrote first about constructivism, then Anni wrote about collaboration, basing her writing on what Dan had already done, and then I wrote about social presence, picking up where Dan and Anni had left off. This worked much better!

We used a variety of media to communicate, and this was interesting too. We used the main Case Study view in KeC (discussion board, so asynch discussion), we used KeC’s private message tool (like e-mail) often (probably 30 or more private messages over the past few weeks), as well as quick chats in KeC and planned much longer chats using Skype (both synchronous CMC). These were all invaluable tools. Also the online U/T library was invaluable for finding the articles we needed.

I wrote a mini-introduction which I later expanded and Anni helped by finding some references I needed. Anni was the “go find it” master! She is the one who finally found us a reference for how many Canadian students are studying online, (our opening sentence!) which Dan and I both tried to find, but failed.

We then checked with Clare to see if we were on track, and we were, but we hadn’t considered the questions that the instructor asked at the end. This changed everything! We had thought we were almost finished, and then we had to quickly make Plan B (actually Plan C) to be sure that all of Leanne’s questions were answered in our text. We first analyzed the questions to see which section they logically fit into, and then assigned one or more questions to each of us, based on our topic.

Up to this time, we had been acting rather cooperatively, in that we each had our own task to do and then we put what we did together. But then the real collaboration began. We had a weekly chat which became increasingly focused. “Have we answered all the questions? What has been left out? Which areas are weak? Let’s go check.” And we would all go and look for weak areas or things that hadn’t been done yet.

The last three online sessions were at least two hours long and the last one was almost five hours. We were in top form then, editing, looking for references when need, identifying and rewriting weak paragraphs. There are some sentences that have words from all three of us! We all shared reference work, meaning that if someone said something but couldn’t back it up, we’d all hunt thru our articles to find a good ref. It was like a race at some points.

This was all rather stressful as time was becoming a big issue, but it was also very enjoyable, for me at least. The best parts were getting silly together, making jokes, teasing each other. One of us had “a tendency for pedantic meandering” and another had a deleting addiction… “Why edit when we can just delete? Let me delete it…” I had to several times admonish Dan and Anni for dancing and drinking beer (both emoticons in Skype) before we were finished – yes, I was the task master 😦

The last chat was particularly collaborative as we went thru the paper with minute attention to detail, “looking for scabs to pick” as Dan called it. Every sentence was considered, and all weak areas were identified (we hope!). Dan is a past editor and this was a fantastic surprise that he saved for the last day to tell us. He knew all about colons and semi-colons (I have to look it up!) and he explained patiently and clearly how “ill-structured” does not mean “poorly structured”. I hope my teammates learned something from me too! 🙂

But it’s the groove part that I want to get across, the feeling of intense immersion in something and the extra four arms and two brains that I acquired in those last few hours. This is an excellent example of distributed cognition, knowledge building (Dan and I had an animated discussion of what exactly constructivism meant and what it included and didn’t include, poor Anni just waited politely for us to finish) and even distributed intelligence. We were three people with our computers and our articles, our minds all in the same space at the same time, functioning together in harmony and productivity. Yes, I was definitely in a state of flow then, and yes, it was awesome. Now I know what true collaboration means! I think it also helped that we were a small group of three students, and that we had a common goal and compatible schedules. I really think that the Skype chats were what made this project so collaborative. It would not have been the same using asynchronous discussion only. Should I post one of our chats somewhere to show how it went?

So it was odd when I woke up this morning for the first time in 4 days and didn’t go right into a chat with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s over! But I think I will always remember those Skype chats and the very intense feeling of intricate collaboration with two great students, who have become friends, when we had a shared goal of writing the best possible paper together. I hope I’ll have more experiences like that when I write future collaborative papers, but I think that this first will always be the most memorable experience for me.

January 5

(First I’d like to situate this journal entry physically – I’m in Toronto now! We are here for 5 days (we were in N.B. for Christmas with my family) and went to the Ontario Science Center yesterday and met good friends last night and will do so again tonight. Toronto is great – so many things to do, such a rich and international culture! We leave on Saturday for Vancouver and Whistler (skiing) and 5 days later we’ll be in Tokyo for 5 days before heading home to Kitami. I anticipate having little to no Internet access in Tokyo (we stay at an old but lovely hotel) so I’m trying to do as much posting now as possible to make up for any gaps later on.)

In this first week of my new course, I’m amazed by the strengths that classmates are bringing to our online forum/community of practice. The level of tech ability, experience and the collaboration so far will surely make this one of the most rewarding classes I have taken at OISE. It will also revitalize my interest in using CMC in my own classes. The problem is that my classes are Spoken English classes, not written, so while I can use a blended format, there are limitations on what I can do.

This week’s readings bring up an article called Wikis as constructivist learning environments that my colleague Rick Lavin (a wiki guy) and I wrote in 2005. I do see the possibility of wikis being used in socially constructive ways, but I think that they are limited. Of the 6 requirements below for online socially constructed learning (from our article but not available at wikisalon anymore), I think that while wikis and forums both meet all of these to some extent, forums are much better for social negotiation. Multiple perspectives and collaboration opportunities also seem to be better represented by forums.

1. Multiple modes of representation

2. Collaboration opportunities

3. Experience with multiple perspectives

4. Learner centered

5. Learner relevant

6. Social negotiation

For me, after 8 online courses, I have to say that there is no way that I could have learned this much from my peers in an online class, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have learned like this in a wiki either. Wikis certainly are useful and have a place in education, but I see them as only one of many tools (e.g. blogs have great potential for transformation). But forums are discussions, discussions are dialogue, and dialogue is central to critical pedagogy, which is my great passion and also the focus of my dissertation. Here is a comment made about how Freire saw dialogue,

“Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding – but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing.”

Because dialogue is the central means of communication in online forums, I recognize its value for not only changing an individual’s ideas, but also its potential for changing the world.