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Taste and fear of structured learning

The_ScreamMost of my learning over the past quite a few years has been through on-line interaction with fellow travellers on this road through life, well, that or frantically scanning “help” files to find the magic bullet that will solve my problem.

I guess the big difference between the two is that in that latter case, I am all too conscious of the specific learning need and simply want a solution that will meet that need from the procedural “How do I …?” or “Where do I …?” Google searches are similarly focused – “Where can I find information about … ?”

In the case of interaction with colleagues the learning can be a bit more fluid. “I wonder if she can give me a few insights into the best ways to use …?” That sort of thing.

In most cases, the learning objective is pretty clear and self-defined and yet the learning process is correspondingly informal and even random.

I’m about to start (today) on a learning process for which I have no specific objectives other than to see what I learn and to make the most of what comes out of it. That’s a pretty informal objective. There are many who would argue that it is not really an objective at all, (not at all SMART) – more a general aim. Informal as that aim may be, the learning process will be the most structured that I have undertaken in quite a while.

Stephen Downes and George Siemens (see blogroll) are leading a course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge which is described as massive, open and on-line which will run for the next twelve weeks with possibly a couple of thousand participants around the world.

Although I actively promote connective learning and knowledge through the use of tools such as Moodle, the prospect of such a potentially huge undertaking is a somewhat daunting. For one thing, I am not at all sure that I will be able to find the time to do the process justice. I am incredibly busy this year and have a mass of deadlines stacking up in the period leading to the end of the year. My podcast (Suffolk and Cool) is taking off and demanding more of my time to deal with increased connections with musicians and listeners. The course introduction makes it clear that I should expect the programme to be confusing and overwhelming because more material and connections will be offered than I can realistically hope to keep up with. But that is precisely the challenge of much on-line learning today. The “drinking from the fire-hose” analogy may be overused, but that is because it is very effective in describing the sheer volume of good information that is available. Learning to cope with both confusion and being overwhelmed sounds very useful.

OK, so there’s learning objective number one:

to become more capable and confident in selecting just the most valuable items and streams to work with, to become discerning and able to identify those which best suit my needs and stylistic preferences. The objective is learning, not a sense of achievement from having read all the words.

I have been following Stephen and George at varying distances for at least a couple of years and have huge admiration for their thinking and articulation of the ideas they develop. They are among my most trusted sources. That bit is easy, I know I want to engage with what they have to say, because I know it will offer an excellent return on my investment of time. But Stephen and George are “only” the leaders of this course. Interaction will primarily be with others.

But what about the other participants in the course? I don’t yet know who they are, what they have to say, how open they are to exploring issues that most of us don’t yet have our heads around. I fear that most may be from a purely academic background, concerned with learning as an end in itself, whereas my history is in applied, work-based learning where the learning is only the starting point to developing understanding, fluency and mastery of skills. So maybe there’s objective number two:

to be open to connective working with people from apparently incompatible backgrounds, to monitor the productiveness of that working and to be prepared to cut the losses if it isn’t delivering what I need. “A proper selfishness.”

I know that I will be tempted to branch off into all sorts of interesting areas and discussions because that is what the best of learning really is, taking delight in wandering off the most direct path to explore the twists and potential of the by-ways, to make the connections with fellow participants as real as possible, to develop empathy, understanding and friendship. That is where the real buzz is but it may not be totally compatible with efficient learning. Uncomfortable as it may be, I may have to make that my third objective:

to maintain focus on the content of the course rather than exploring all the fascinating branches that connecting with people offers.

I suppose that leads, via a fairly circuitous route to a final and most challenging objective which is:

to ensure that by the end of the twelve weeks, I am keeping my head above water on the course and that I am learning about the processes and mechanisms of connectivism and connective knowledge through their practical application

At this stage, I am uncertain about how well equipped I am to “stay the course” but I’m sure that if I can do so, the rewards will be significant. Now where’s that reading list …

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