Sunday, March 9, 2014

DML Conference Days 2 and 3: Scaling Connected Learning

“Connected learning” is a term used to describe interest-driven, peer-supported, academic learning. It’s based on three design principles: 1) shared purpose, 2) production centered activities, and 3) openly networked institutions and individuals. Day two of the DML conference focused on both creating opportunities for connected learning among students from non dominant backgrounds (ethnic minorities, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, historically marginalized groups, etc.) and developing methods to study the effectiveness of connected learning environments across settings (classrooms, after school programs, summer programs, outreach programs, etc.).

As I discussed in my last post, the role of technology in connected learning is both ubiquitous and somewhat invisible. Social media and internet affinity groups make it possible to connect learners who share a common interest or goal, and even to connect students with adult professionals who can serve as information resources as well as mentors. 

The production-centeredness of connected learning environments means that groups are not just sharing ideas, but actively working to create artifacts that can serve a common interest: curating materials, conducting experiments, producing media, remixing, designing, etc. Again, the focus in this process is not on the technology itself, but on the product; technology merely serves as a tool for mediating that process.

Linking individuals and institutions across industries, popular cultures, interest communities, etc., is the third principle of connected learning. The idea of making these connections is essentially to pool knowledges and ideas that serve a public interest, and share resources across openly-networked platforms.

There is a commonly recognized need to make these opportunities possible for learners who come from backgrounds and environments where access to technology and knowledgeable peers is not readily available, and this was the focus of the second and third days of the DML conference. The most intriguing talk I attended was the plenary session on approaches to spreading and scaling the principles of connected learning into schools and beyond. Cynthia Coburn presented her framework for spreading and scaling connected learning in various educational organizations, and covered everything from professional development to funding to infrastructure development. Dr. Coburn discussed at a practical level some of the difficulty researcher-practitioners have in introducing change in schools - think of a one-to-one program or curriculum overhaul. Skepticism and discomfort among faculty and administrators can be a huge deterrent to the effectiveness of such large-scale initiatives.

In her framework, Dr. Coburn discussed four types of scale: adoption, replication, adaptation, and reinvention - similar to Ruben Puentadura’s SAMR model of technology integration (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition). It’s easy to think of these examples of scale as four hierarchical positions, with reinvention as the most transformative or valued outcome, but Dr. Coburn did not present them as such. I think this is important to note, as the subtext of her presentation was not to sell her framework, or extoll some virtue of schools reinventing themselves, but rather of understanding how schools can build the capacity for change, and what types of change may be necessary for realizing more relevant learning opportunities for students. Adoption, for instance, represents a very significant form of change, in that it can mean adopting new teaching practices (such as those that center on connected learning). Schools may not need to reinvent themselves to be able to enact more student-centered pedagogies, but they may need to adopt certain practices that foster student-centered learning, and that scale student-centered learning among faculty. A key component of this is participation among members of the learning community - students, teachers, administrators, parents, etc. But this leaves a big question open for us all to consider: how do we establish common goals to work towards, and how to we foster a greater level of participation towards those goals? 

Nicholas Wilson
Academic Technology and Digital Media Specialist (Upper School)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thoughts from DML 2014, Day 1

 Today was the first day of the three-day Digital Media and Learning Conference ( This year's theme is "Connecting Practices," which, really, implies a range of ideas, from connecting education research to teaching practices, to connecting students with real-world cultural and professional "practices." Term "practice" itself has been appropriated by a variety of domains, but in education circles, predominantly refers to ways of performing or doing the tasks that most recognizably identify what it means to be a member of a community - a community of teachers, of carpenters, of knitters, of gamers, etc. So in a nutshell, the idea of "connecting practices" is to inform how we structure learning opportunities for our students, by providing them with access to activities (and mentors) in ways that make learning relevant and meaningful. 

Not surprisingly, as a conference on "digital media and learning," there is a pretty large emphasis on technology throughout the sessions, but it is certainly not a conference about technology, or even technology integration. Rather, the overwhelming emphasis (at least after one day) is placed on teaching and learning. Technology's role seemed somewhat secondary in all of the sessions I attended today - and rightly so. 

In the first session I attended, a presentation/discussion on "Equity, Diversity, and Discourses of Change in Participatory Culture," four presenters described various aspects of online communities that demonstrated varying degrees of inclusion and exclusion, sexism and indifference to gender, and mobilized political action. In all four of these presentations, technology was the medium through with communication and social engagement took place, but in a very large way, the affordances of technology were made somewhat invisible by the profound examples of cultural participation that each of the presenters discussed. One example mentioned was the Ravelympics controversy of 2012. Rather than describe all the details of what happened in this post, you can read about it here. In what amounted to one of the fastest, most widespread online social movements witnessed since the Arab Spring, this group mobilized itself into action and gained international notoriety for pressuring the U.S. Olympic Committee into apologizing for its demeaning portrayal of crafting communities. Definitely an interesting read.

Though it was not the point of the discussion, technology (internet-based forums and social media tools) certainly enabled a grand display of social action in this case. The takeaway for us as educators is to understand how technology can be used as a tool to thereby connect our students to real-world events, and to equip them with ways of talking about and analyzing deep issues like hegemony, sexism, and cultural participation. 

I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Nicholas Wilson
Academic Technology and Digital Media Specialist (Upper School)

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Don't Know Why I'm Defending David Weinberger

I don’t know why I’m defending David Weinberger. I’ve never met him. I’ve never read any of his publications. I have, however, seen him speak publicly, twice: once this past November at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit, and again this past week at the Learning in Commons Conference. He was a keynote speaker at both events. As such, I’ve only seen Dr. Weinberger speak to relatively large audiences, which is ironic in that, in both situations, his central message seemed antithetical to many of my colleagues’ reasons for attending either conference in the first place. At least I think it seemed antithetical to them.

Dr. David Weinberger is a Senior Researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and is Co-Director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. His latest book (which again, I have not read), is entitled “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.” Here’s the blurb:

We used to know how to know. We got our answers from books or experts. We’d nail down the facts and move on. But in the Internet age, knowledge has moved onto networks. There’s more knowledge than ever, of course, but it’s different. Topics have no boundaries, and nobody agrees on anything. (

Personally, this is my meat and potatoes. But I’m not a classroom teacher. Nor am I a librarian. Although I do dabble in both environments quite a lot. The EdTechTeacher iPad Summit and the Learning in Commons Conference were overwhelmingly attended, respectively, by members of each group (or so it seemed to me). So when Dr. Weinberger started to describe how books (remember, this was directed towards an audience of school teachers and librarians) were representative forms of the exclusory, inaccessible, elitist, old world model of education, folks began to shift around in their seats.

Now, I don’t think Dr. Weinberger is wrong here. Books are sort of the hallmarks of a paradigm of education that has systematically privileged certain classes of individuals, while marginalizing others. And really, we’re not just talking people here. Books are notoriously (at least in the past) totems of “knowledge” written by old white men, who have not only used the power of their privilege to promote classist, racist, and ethnocentric ideals, but to marginalize the cultures and ways of knowing of peoples deemed somehow less worthy of access to the Ivory Tower (think: eugenics, or anything Howard Zinn has written against). So books, at least in terms of being vast archives of “knowledge”, may have a somewhat controversial place in history.

Again, we’re in a room of teachers and librarians.

Books are also “static,” as Dr. Weinberger calls them. Their physical construction makes books difficult to edit and update, and it is difficult to merge them with other funds of knowledge than might by complementary. Books are also perhaps one of the most beautiful, glorious inventions humans have ever created, and the benefits research has suggested books have on psychological, cognitive, and childhood development are difficult to ignore. 

But let’s ignore that for now, because all of that is somewhat beside the point. 

In fact, the way I see it, Dr. Weinberger was not in any way foretelling the obsolescence of books, rather, he was criticizing the approach to learning that books have come to represent. His argument went something like this: we are in an unprecedented era in human history for the access to information and the construction of new knowledge, largely thanks to the Internet. But in addition to simply delivering information, new tools have made it possible to share information openly, and to bring information together that would otherwise live disparate, isolated lives, perhaps tucked away on the shelves of libraries thousands of miles apart from each other. And I believe it is here that Dr. Weinberger has it right. At least somewhat.

The open education and creative commons movements have no doubt created a place for people (especially scholars) to share and collaborate in the creation of knowledge in ways that were previously impossible. Many now have access to rich artifacts and resources that can help further our understanding of historic events, of scientific phenomena, and of human sociology. And sites like StackOverflow the Digital Public Library of America have opened their databases for developers to come and create new ways of accessing that information. The point of all of this goes back to the idea of knowledge construction – building new forms of knowledge that help us understand the world around us.

Depending on whom you ask, this contrasts starkly with the traditional concept of knowledge acquisition – the very concept upon which much of our public education system (and even higher education) was founded, and indeed, much of what "counts" as learning is still predicated. Lost in this greater debate are two cultural artifacts that have been co-opted to represent a picture of these conflicting ideas: books and the Internet.

Dr. Weinberger would have been hard pressed to find a more stinging metaphor to relate to an auditorium of school teachers and librarians. And for sure, there is still an ongoing crisis of digital education inequity happening across many communities in our country. But ultimately, I believe the point that Dr. Weinberger was attempting to drive home was that, because of the Internet, our society is now better endowed with resources that would help serve to democratize learning and education. What is holding that process back is not books themselves, but our collective idea of what counts as knowledge. 

As a learning tool, the Internet is poised to help us deconstruct that collective idea, and reconstruct a new concept of what is important to learn (e.g., content versus process), and how that learning can be achieved. Books are an essential part of school-based learning, but if we choose to accept Dr. Weinberger's argument, we may open ourselves to potentially more innovative and disruptive ways of teaching and learning.

Nicholas Wilson
Academic Technology and Digital Media Specialist (Upper School)