How Does the Educational System Become Decentralized?

George Siemens
George tags himself as “Curious. I’m inquisitive. I like exploring. I’m exploratory. I think I’m resistant in terms of existing trends and I’m always trying to find some of the deeper issues that arise. I think connected. I emphasize relating to and being properly affiliated with other individuals and working together.”

 

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How has your understanding of WE changed since the rise of the internet?

George Siemens >
I think it has changed, and one way of showing this is, I actually grew up in an area that was not very technologically based. It was actually quite limited and frowned on technology, frowned on advancement and progress. There was a heavy community clustering and a real sense that you received your worldview from listening to your parents and your religious sense from listening to people in the community interact. There was a religious framework that guided you. But this structure, this tight-knit sense of community has, for many people been largely fragmented since the rise of media. Media has a way of fragmenting humanity, at least in its initial iteration. Through radio and television, and then with the advent of the internet, suddenly we were able to exist in small social subsets.Where we don’t know the people we interact with at work even though we are fairly well related to people who we’ve maybe only met online – through text or bulletin board systems or blogs or whatever. I think what WE have now become has been formed and transformed by social media so – in a very ironic sense – the initial fragmentation of media that McLuhan looks at as electrification is how we split up our various identities across different platforms and different systems. We acquire our worldview not through a newspaper only or even not through a newspaper TV program. We form our worldview really through weaving networks, forming a narrative of coherence, by interacting with others in these social spaces in somewhat surprising ways.Social media, as a very loose term, has a resulted in a sense in a ‘binding back’. We’re binding back to the small cluster of humanity like the very closed community I mentioned I grew up in. Only in this case it’s occurring in more of an open space. We have the sense that we now can be very well connected to small groups of individuals who guide us,inform us and provide a sense of direction. I think in a lot of ways that sense of WE is contributing to how we form our understanding of the world.These individuals that we know, likely global networks, assist us in forming our understanding. They’re doing it primarily through social means, through filtering information, through amplifying information, through introducing each other to their own contacts. In that sense, I think WE as a concept has moved from the communal hold that we perhaps had before technology to a fragmentation of technology created by the rise of social technologies, to a binding back to small clusters, social groups.

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Do you see any connection between this new understanding of WE and the fact that we are saying that education is one of the biggest future challenges we are facing?

George Siemens >
I think so, and this is one of the difficulties that I believe educators face. Not just teachers, instructors or professors, but really leaders, parents, school leaders, the funding challenges that arise around the education system. There’s a sense in which education serves several roles. On the one hand, it serves the advancement and development of individual minds – what Edgar Morin calls ‘the vital combat for lucidity’. But there is a secondary sense as well in which it serves to elevate the capacity of a society to meet its own challenges and so, if an education system isn’t matched, so to speak, to the needs of a society or the needs of a particular era, it faces irrelevance on many levels. When we have tightly structured classrooms that aren’t permeable– as permeable as they need to be for innovation because innovation occurs in climates of diversity. In climates where you get a lot of elements bumping randomly into each other; forming novel connections and novel experiences that come from those connections. The education system we have today is based on a duplication model in many cases.

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Duplicating what?

George Siemens >
Duplicating what’s known. If someone has decided this is a body of knowledge and this is what you must learn – textbooks are great examples. If someone said this is a textbook and regardless of the experience and attributes of the individual learner, individuals are put to mastering this textbook. But the reality is that even if we can’t put a body of knowledge into some kind of a structure in a textbook, each learner approaching that textbook comes out with a dramatically different set of life experiences. I think to not to have an adaptive approach is essentially a model for rendering your system obsolete, because the world around you changes and yet your education system is based on the generation of a certain sense of normality – which it really is. Education normalizes people, in many instances, to a certain standard. That’s why we have standardized testing and things like that. If we put those concerns aside and start to say, “How can we adopt a mindset in education that’s directly related to the needs of society? How can we create a permeable, loosely coupled system that is capable of interacting and changing to the needs of society in terms of the varying skills and experiences of the learners?” – then I think you have a system that better meets the future challenges.

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How do you think we can introduce this kind of informal learning into existing classrooms?

George Siemens >
Well I don’t even know if it has to be informal learning. I think formal learning is fine, because really what formal learning says is “Here are a few goals we have … these are a few outcomes that we want to create” and in many cases you need that. Part of the reason is that the education system services many stakeholders: it serves individuals, it serves government, at advanced levels it begins to serve industry and corporate environments. There’s nothing wrong with some sense of structure. But the difficulty is that you can’t have structure leading. You can’t have a template created in advance of learner needs, drop learners into that template and force them through the outcome. What you want instead, in my eyes at least, is to achieve structured clear aims largely through a distributed decentralized model. Initially that was very difficult. When we started fragmenting media to a greater degree, when we started using different tools and technologies, it became difficult because essentially what happens when you distribute control and power is that you also distribute responsibility which means that now you can’t say, ”Well, it’s the church’s fault that we have this problem“ or “It’s the government’s fault that we have this problem.” Now suddenly it’s like, “What am I doing to contribute?” because there’s a sense of personal responsibility and ownership involved. In the same sense you can still say, “These are the goals that industry needs. These are some of the skills and attributes of an individual leaner.” – that, I think, is perfectly accept-able. How you choose to achieve that is where my concerns rest and my concern is that a structured model is incapable of adjusting to the individual needs of each student. It always has been but in the past we’ve been able to ignore it and largely gloss over it but, I think, we’re now facing the reality    that it’s just not working. It’s not … even if we can package things nicely, learners will be at such a different skill level that we won’t be able to meet those set outcomes.

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Many people have been working on this for decades now – why do think the change will happen now?

George Siemens >
Well, first of all, I hope it will happen. I wouldn’t be quite so presumptuous and say this is absolutely what will happen, but you’re absolutely right. People have been writing about this and talking about this for centuries almost. People asked how do we address this initially and from there you had individuals such as Piaget who picked up the emphasis on some sense of individualization and adaptation in the education system. More recently we’ve had seen people like Seymour Papert who have similarly suggested that we need to be creators, we can’t simply be consumers of this type of information. I think what’s different today – and I’m not 100% convinced it would be the final tipping point – are several things. First of all, current economic concerns are forcing a rethink of the model we have. There’s a recognition that – and this is what Ivan Illich addressed in the early 70s as well – the education system, the funding costs of the   education system are so enormous that there has to be a breaking point. We’re now facing certainly issues around the suitability of funding approaches to this kind of system and we realize that it’s perhaps not working as well it could be – especially considering the outcomes we’re generating. There’s that sense of a climate of change. There’s fertile soil for change right now that we didn’t have in the ‘80s when everything was going well. We didn’t have that same sense of need for change, that urgency.

we-magazine >
Are you saying it has started to hurt?

George Siemens >
Well, I’ve heard it said that we change when it hurts less to change than it does to stay the same. So I’m not sure if that’s quite where we’re at. But I think in some combination – financial is one. The globalization overall. The rise of other countries, they’re increasingly competitive with what we at one point largely held to be the domain of Western society. We’re starting to see that other countries are being innovative and aggressive and competing and that we need to change our approaches. Again, I’m starting to become almost a technological determinist. My view is that in many regards the development of technology, especially those technologies that enable us to connect with, to be social with others, technologies that can partly create and recreate some of the experiences we have in physical environments – the inclusion of haptic devices, touch-based computing, generation of analytics particularly around visualization – all these do indeed change the educational process. We have a unique condition where we have very fertile soil. In other periods we’ve had fertile soil for reform, but we haven’t necessarily had the tools to enact the change we conceived. But now, as I stated earlier, we’ve distributed control to a network function. With that distribution of control, responsibility has been distributed as well. I think that a combination of factors may prove to be significant for reform.

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Should access to the Internet, meaning access to education, be a human right?

George Siemens >
Education is a human right. Education is an equalizer, addressing the inequalities that other societal systems and pressures generate.
Since the internet is a growing point of information access and communication, providing new affordances and opportunities, yes, internet access is quickly moving into the realm of basic rights. This raises important concerns about three-strikes laws for piracy where internet providers can cut people off from internet access. The rule of law surrounding human rights should not be administered by corporations. If the internet is equated with education, and thereby human rights, the current legal system around this “basic right“ is terribly inadequate.

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How can WE make sure, that people in developing countries don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made when they establish their education system. How can they learn from our mistakes?

George Siemens >
That’s a complex question. The education system in developed country has done many things well. The now standard of universal educational access for all children in a developed countries has set in play the opportunities for technological innovation that society today enjoys. The real problem, in my view, is concerned with creating an education system that is mismatched for a particular era. For example, the education model in the developed world was created to serve the needs of another era. The pressures and concerns the education system faces in these countries is one of relevance – i.e. producing learners with critical mindsets and skills that enable them to participate in today’s society, recognizing whole person learning, lifelong and life wide learning, etc. Education should map the reality of the society it seeks to serve. For developing countries, the same issue exists: relevance of approach, process, and model of education is the key.

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What kind of impact do you see the internet and all these social network kind of things is having on kids – on their social behavior and their environment?

George Siemens >
The impact, I think, is up in the air. We know – and Pew Internet Research has put out statements on the number of hours that an average young member of society through the 8 to 18 level spends on these tools – and it’s enormous. Essentially, if a child is awake, they’re online. The same goes for me too, and I think for many people. Just walking down the streets of New York, coming here, I was watching people with their mobile devices. They’re constantly connected. They’re checking e-mail, they’re looking for directions, they’re searching for information, they’re interacting with others, so no doubt this notion of the ubiquity of connectiveness is very close, I think, to being realized. Kids today are experiencing that and I think that influences how they view information. But they don’t view information as I did growing up. You go to a place to find information like you go to a library, or you have to find the right journal article and you dig through university journal archives to find that article. There is a sense where individuals today – and I see this  in my own thinking at least – no longer expect to go information. I expect information to know me. I expect it to come to me and I expect – and Google does this quite well – based on my interactions with information that the systems that I interact with start to provide me with context-sensitive and relevant resources.
Now, there are big privacy issues around this with Google Latitude, for example, at Foursquare and other services like that. But that’s part of what’s changing and what’s morphing. How does that impact on youth in the classroom? I think it’s too early to tell. There are definitely some psychologists who have suggested that the change is negative – that it’s changing our ability to socialize. Video games are changing how we interact with  others, in some cases desensitizing us to violence. There are negatives that exist, but there’s no such thing as change without a negative disruption. The real question isn’t, “What are the negatives?” The real question is “What is possible with this and then how do we minimize the impact of the negatives?” I think that’s what I mean when I think of house technology changing, of how the internet is changing. I think it’s creating a global populace of learners who are aware of what’s happening around the world in a much better sense than I had growing up at least. My country consisted of where I lived and my region and yet now most of us have colleagues all over the world and we’ve perhaps only met via Facebook interaction or perhaps on Twitter or on blogs. In that way there is a growing sense of global citizenship that comes from the technologies the kids are using. One of the drawbacks, I guess, that need to be addressed is a sense of distractedness – that’s a real concern. Sometimes deep thinking requires sustained periods of time whereas continual distractions can sometimes have a negative impact. So those are the kinds of challenges an education system needs to address or must try to find a meaningful way to navigate around or at least try to reduce the implications of those negative trends.

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Would you say that making friends via social media, not knowing each other, is possible?

George Siemens >
Absolutely. It absolutely is. In fact I think not only  is it possible but on some levels almost preferable because there is a sense in which when we meet people face-to-face – and this is definitely the case at different age levels – we are quick to form opin-ions of people which are not based on their minds. We can form opinions on the clothing they wear, the way they accessorize and so on. All these things play a role and so we can form an impression of someone very quickly without actually knowing the person. I found individuals that I’ve met online, that I’ve connected with, if you will, on a mental level, on a social level. I very much enjoyed the friendship formed with them and then, when I’ve had the opportunity to meet them face-to-face, quite often you’ll find it’s the kind of person that you might not normally – ever – take the time to meet if you were in different social circles. It strips away some of the superfluous or superficial ways in which we try and project ourselves into the world, and technology generally permits, I think, an increased capacity to meet with people at an intellectual level.

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What social skills do you think kids can learn on the internet, on the social web?

George Siemens >
I would say any skills that they could learn in a face-to-face setting. You learn how to be apathetic, you learn how to be compassionate, you can learn how to give and take help. I mean that’s sometimes a difficult thing to do but you definitely can develop those kinds of approaches as well. In those kinds of spaces, basically you learn the way in which you form your identity, the way in which you project that identity and the way in which you interact with others. There is, admittedly, something about the initial impact of social networking technologies – whether it’s your not using your own profile picture or you might have an avatar image or something. There are different ways that you express yourself and some of the accessorizing that we do to project ourselves in physical settings occurs online as well. But once you begin to interact with people over a period of time, then you begin to see patterns and you begin to form impressions. Much like you can form a quick impression by meeting a person face-to-face, over a period of time you can form, I think, a fairly accurate impression of a person by interacting with their multiple spaces online. It’s not that they’re interacting just in one area. They’re likely to be on Facebook and perhaps Twitter. Perhaps you interact with them on LinkedIn maybe on Second Life. It’s the aggregate of all of these multiple representat-ions that forms our ability to understand a person. And I think that’s a very real social experience, and the skills that learners need are really not all that dramatically different from a face-to-face setting.

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Just imagine you’re a teacher and you introduce these social web tools to your kids. Do you think it’s necessary to have a theory behind all this? How does a network function? How is it to live within a network? Do you think it’s necessary to teach kids this as well?

George Siemens >
Well, first of all, I’m biased towards theory so I would! I think theory has a very valuable role in influencing practice and driving practice so yes absolutely I do think that’s important. To what degree is that critical? I guess it varies. I came from a community where individuals acquired competence not by abiding by theory but by doing, and so if you could a fix a tractor or a combine harvester, it didn’t matter if you knew the theory. The only point of evaluation was what was the outcome, what was the end product? I think theory has a particular role in certain academic settings but perhaps it has a less of a role in other settings. Even though it’s worth noting that all technology is, in a sense, embedded philosophy. So whether you acknowledge the theory that exists or not, it’s still going to exist because it can be an underlying strand that runs through the entire experience. I just want to briefly address this notion of networks because we talk a lot about networks and we hear a lot about networks. I think that’s the wrong focus actually.

we-magazine >
Why?

George Siemens >
The real focus has to be on connections because networks are patterns of connections. We can’t interact with networks in the same way that we interact with the connection. To give you an example, let’s say someone says, “When you take a group of individuals on various boards of different corporations, you start to realize there are certain patterns that exist here”. That pattern is useful but a network is a high-level abstraction that you can’t directly interact with. When you reduce it down to a unit of change that we can control, it’s a connection.

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Two years ago together with Stephen Downes you started connectivism and connective konowldge. What’s that about?

George Siemens >
Basically we wanted to apply some of the principles that we’ve been writing about really since 2000 and some of the views that we have developed as a result of participating in these online distributed systems. These social systems where we were inter-acting with people from around the world. We wanted to really push the limits of what does it mean to learn in an era where – and again I keep  returning to the fragmentation of information – where information is fragmented, conversations are fragmented we’re receiving input from multiple sources – we were trying to make sense of it all, And we thought that the role of a teacher would be dramatically different in the future. A teacher wouldn’t be the person who would create the first structure of the course anymore and you would start to move into more of a participative pedagogy kind of requirement. That’s what we tried to create. We also tried to duplicate the sense of high information abundance. There’s this sense in which we just can’t manage it all so we wanted to create a course system that duplicated, or at least created, that sense of being overwhelmed so the information flow was really quite hectic. The first year we had around 22–23 hundred people sign up. Not everyone participated, of course. But we had the same number on the mailing list till the end of the course so I’m assuming there was some level of interest – unless, of course they just couldn’t click the ‘unsubscribe’ button at the bottom of the  e-mail! We had a combination of trying to fragment the course and the content and the conversations. Then we were experimenting with different ways  of weaving that fragmentation together again. One was through a daily newsletter we sent out. Second was through, basically, a system of matching and trying to group similar topics and themes in regular e-mail exchanges that people would receive. There was a grouping of these topics or aggregation around themes. We tried to look at tags: as on  Twitter or through Del.icio.us or through alerts. And then we tried to look at social systems as a means of having learners form connections and gain a sense of what was happening. With a combination of the instructor still weaving the fragmentation into a unified whole, the technology systems that we were using trying to weave some level of whole-ness to this fragmentation and the learners, through their social engagement with each other similarly forming and weaving some kind of a unified whole, we tried to duplicate this sense of, or at least to disrupt this notion of what a course is and what the role of a teacher is and, most of all, what a student is. That’s why – based on the comments and reactions we’ve had – I believe it was a successful experiment and, obviously we’ll continue for the third year so that probably says quite a bit as well.

we-magazine >
Any surprises?

George Siemens >
First of all, I was surprised at the sheer amount of natural energy people have and the fact that it doesn’t take long before you, as the educator, start to become less important than you thought you were. And that it doesn’t take long for people to form relationships with each other and to start to use those relationships to filter information. To make sense of complex ideas, to bring diverse perspectives into an idea that we, as educators, perhaps set out as being “This is how it is” and then we get picked away at and we get dissected and analyzed. I was genuinely surprised at the level of energy people brought in and the real value of the diversity. People invested enormous time, individuals created spaces in Second Life to continue dissecting the conversation and there were trans-lations of the course into five different languages, of the course outline. The sense in which individuals are eager to participate in something that is meaningful to them was very evident. It comes back to this concept that because we distributed control, we have to distribute responsibility for the outcomes and that was very much evident. Individuals in a course would really aggressively take on responsibility by helping pull together these elements and we started to see groups clustering in different ways. Groups of people based on different ways of thinking or shared ways of thinking. We started seeing that our roles as the instructors were continually minimized to some degree. We would still comment and offer input, but students were beginning to filter and address things through the systems that they had formed as a means of making sense of this abundance of information.

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Do you think you’re now working with the right kind of model?

George Siemens >
I don’t know if it’s quite the right model yet. It’s a start of a model though. There are a few things wrong with it. Scalability is perhaps one. You need a certain combination of skills as an instructor, technical and facilitation-wise. You also need highly technical skills in installing equipment and working out the program – like for the way the newsletter was handled. The way that the feeds were pulled in That’s still too technical right now for an average educator. When I see certain resources like viral heat, for example, that are capable of looking at this massive conversation of voices that is on-going on all of these different services and all these different platforms and they’re able to present a pattern of what’s happening. They’re able to say, “These are trending topics. These topics are reducing. These are dormant themes and points of view that are rising.” I think that’s definitely a model that with the CCK model once we begin to use a little bit more of that as I mentioned earlier, technology is a means for me to manage the information. Once we get better tools for visualizing what’s happening, better tools for creating a sense of how the language patterns are changing, as learners begin to learn how does one particular interaction with another student influence the formation of a conceptual understanding. Once we get better at personalizing the system, the network, in the sense that Google is able to personalize its offerings based on previous interactions, then I think we’ll get closer to a model that has long-term potential.

we-magazine >
Are physical places like schools still needed then?

George Siemens >
Physical spaces are very important. When I was at the University of Manitoba, one of the busiest places on campus was the library. The library was busy because it had Starbucks. It was busy because it was a comfortable social space where people could connect. I think any means by which we connect with others for social or intellectual information purposes will always be important. So there is a role for physical space, and there’s a role for online spaces. The challenge becomes how to balance the various options you have available. Should schools be the kind of facilities they now are with cubicles designed and closed in? Or should we have more open spaces that are driven for socialization and interactions around complex ideas? How do we strike a balance? Should students go to school five days a week in a physical space? Or should they go for five or eight hours a day? Or should they be going twice a week and then three days a week to various online social spaces or virtual worlds or whatever else. I think these questions haven’t been addressed yet. Some educators are starting to ask them but our education system is – like any of the big systems of society be they government, education, or healthcare – tightly integrated. Integrated with funding. Integrated with legal guidelines. Integrated with the expectations of society. They’re integrated with something as simple as bothparents being able to work with children of a young age. You send your children to school so both parents can work. These systems are so integrated that you can’t change one without causing a ripple or cascading effect on the others. In that regard the potential of reform is currently somewhat limited by the difficulties that we have with the existing systems we’ve created.

we-magazine >
How do these decentralized structures that we’re talking about fit in with the traditional educational system?

George Siemens >
Perhaps a better question is to ask how do the   educational systems fit into this distributed decentralized world that we live in. Because as teachers I know we always like to squeeze the world into our classrooms. I think we’re at a point where we have to squeeze our classroom into the world. Well, not squeeze! We have to open up our classroom into the world rather than trying to push things in. That has I think potential for transformative impact in terms of how people will create curriculums. How people will learn, how people will interact with each other. So there’s potentially a fundamental shift that could arise out of that decentralized structure. As I mentioned earlier, the teacher typically forms a narrative coherence in a classroom, but when we go into distributed environments, learners also form a narrative coherence. They understand the discipline by how they connect to each other, by how they relate to each other, by the signals they send off, by the amplification of information through these social structures. And they begin to understand the world through weaving and stitching together these fragmented entities. The question is, okay that’s what’s going on in the world as a whole, literally. How do we then make our classroom compatible with that kind of environment? The skills required to do so are critical and that’s what our students should be acquiring as they move forward.



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