Ownership of Learning 2.0

While writing this I became aware — rather serendipitously I might say — of a soon-to-be-released mobile app that seems to have some similar thinking behind it. Tappestry‘s interface has very creative representations of the types of relationships between events, resources, people and ideas that make up an experience. Float Mobile Learning will reveal Tappestry at their Mobile Learning Symposium, so I’ll say no more!

Opportunity + support + resources + access

When it comes to the guitar, I’ve been in charge of my own learning since I was 9 years old. I remember what intrigued or engaged me, where I got “stuck,” and what I did to get unstuck. Reflecting on those things and taking stock of them has become a huge part of my pedagogy, both overtly and subconsciously. As an “electronic education specialist” I now spend a lot of time thinking about learning activities that are to be delivered electronically, so the questions often include, “Sure, but what does that look like as a Web page?” I quickly conclude that “page” is an inadequate description of what we’re doing. ELearning is an application; more and more, whether consciously or not, we’re thinking of lesson plans and units as “apps.”

The tangible and the intangible

My mother took a few lessons and bought a book of campfire songs with chord symbols above the words. I watched her practice, and when she put the guitar away I took it back out and learned to do what I’d been watching. I already knew the songs to sing them, there were ample pictures and explanation in the book. Mine was already a musical and creative household and at age 9 I’d already had formal instruction on trombone (could read bass clef, sort of), and about two months of piano lessons. The first thing I did when I’d learned 5 guitar chords was to write 2 songs. I knew at 9 that I wanted to play trombone so I could be like my dad, I didn’t really want to play piano as much as I thought I did when I was 8 — and that I wanted to play guitar so I could write songs and express my views on the world. Having as much fun as The Monkees did every Saturday morning was right up there, too. The motivation was intrinsic. There was quite a bit already in place that shaped my learning, but I (my choices) made it happen the way it did.

Musical learning is full of plateaus, and tenacity is just one attribute a learner requires to cross such thresholds. I became acutely aware of this fact of learning at age 14 at a community picnic. As I had started doing a couple years earlier, I found out where the older boys were hanging out playing guitars and I overcame my shyness enough to drop a hint I knew a few chords. These boys were playing lead patterns and actually “jamming” — literally making stuff up out of their heads, taking turns playing solos while everyone else held the chords, and as I watched it was sinking in that they were just playing patterns they already knew, and just switching up here and there to fit whatever else was going on. Suddenly something happened that had never happened before — one of them handed me a guitar and said, “so let’s see what you can do.” I then jammed for 10 minutes over the chords of “Leaving on A Jet Plane” doing what I’d just seen them doing, using what I wouldn’t know for 5 more years was called a “two octave A minor pentatonic” scale. Fear of failure was right up there. The motivation was intrinsic. There was quite a bit already in place that shaped my learning, but I made it happen the way it did.

Within weeks I was hanging out with those guys (and eventually at least two girls) and I learned what else they did to get ideas and patterns to jam… copying licks off records by ear. You could even play a 45 at 33 rpm to figure out some of the faster bits. No one had formally showed me ear-training nor had I heard the phrase, but I learned that singing the solo first helped me get my fingers on the right notes and I would hum songs in my head while walking or grocery shopping then put the records on at home — if the key didn’t match I’d be livid with myself.

I didn’t reach another plateau for four more years. At 18, living on my own at last, I decided I wanted to play jazz, and therefor I needed to take lessons from a jazz guitar player. But the teacher I found in Dorion, PQ in 1978 turned out to be classically trained. He played some Fernando Sor and then a bit of the Rodrigo concerto and I changed my mind on the spot. I finally learned to read treble clef. I took classical guitar lessons for almost 2 years, but as I got a grasp on what scales and chords were all about I also started learning jazz. The motivation was intrinsic. There was quite a bit already in place that shaped my learning, and once again I made it happen in the way it did.

Eventually I studied music at college and university, travelled with rock bands, taught privately, taught middle school band… and I always feel I’m the learner. With learning the guitar I feel the ownership factor very strongly, and I appreciate what an important part of it that is. When I now consider technology and social networks I ask, do web applications, including “mashups” of applications, [and mobile apps for both phones and tablets] offer new ways to describe, chronicle, even archive experiences and the conditions — boundaries and context if you will — that also shape and influence the experience, or may be prerequisite to a desired outcome? Do they offer new ways for learners to take ownership?

So exactly what was in place, and how can we describe, document and collect it? Would doing so benefit my pedagogy?

My musical learning story soon spans 12 years. Learning never ends. Plateaus may feel stagnant, but I think they’re more like the calm before a storm. Threshold concepts have been compared to a ‘rite of passage.’ (Meyer & Land, 2006) I don’t think such concepts fall in one’s lap. I think that, given motivation (I believe extrinsic also works, but in most cases intrinsic works better), the learner seeks out the resources and support they need to cross that threshold. I think a goal of education can be to kick start that leap.

There are at least 8 characteristics of threshold concepts, and I recognize them all in my musical education. Although I’d never have labelled it discursive the realization that music theory is nothing but a common language, and that the things I initially feared (and shunned) as “The Rules” were really nothing but best practices, reverse engineered from exemplars like Palestrina and then described in that common language, was for me a huge insight into what learning really entails, what knowledge really is, and how we create it.

What can a web application offer that traditional documents can’t (or don’t)?

(just a few ideas to start)

  • aggregation
    • one-stop-shop
    • portal
  • user interface
    • on-demand (what you need, when you need it)
    • metaphorical
  • dissemination/communication
    • share
    • consult
    • collaborate

Aggregation. Educators eagerly discovering the pedagogical uses of Twitter, Google Docs, Blogger, Edomo, Prezi, YouTube, authentic projects, flipped classrooms, and whatever Top 10 “must-have” apps arrived in their email this morning may already be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. How do self-identifying technophiles excite others in an organization about expanding their repertoire to include technology when it seems to complicate everything even more? I choose to have this self-contained, self-administered web site that includes my own WordPress installation so that I can collect things and try things. There was quite a bit already in place that made that the right choice for me, and one of the things I hope to accomplish with it is to make it a place that empowers others to make that choice.

User interface. When a traditional document makes an argument using a graphic or table sometimes we have to turn pages to find it, or sometimes it’s not relevant to our immediate need and we don’t even look at it. In application we can hide it and make it appear if/when we want it. User interfaces often rely heavily on metaphors, for example the “progress meter” that displays the completed percentage of a download. I’m talking about reverse engineering an experience to learn from it, so my progress meter starts at 100% and tries to work backwards. Perhaps I need a slider, not a meter.

Dissemination/communication. If the application is on the Web and already lives in a Web browser it can acquire new resources, update existing data and communicate with other applications on the fly.

Then what does an experience look like …in a web app?

I don’t think you can avoid temporal references… learning takes place over time and some things must be done in order, but depending on what you know already your order doesn’t have to be the same someone else follows. Sure you can start any instruction manual in the middle if you choose, but electronic menus make this much easier. Resources can be presented in proximity to the information or task they support. How do we describe experiences? Well, we can use words, pictures, other media, objects… but if there’s no order or sense of relationships between such items and the things they describe then it becomes hard for the next learner to make a meaning of the experience that’s relevant to them, or perhaps even to see the potential to make meaning.

Example idea map

An idea map rendered to the Web by Compendium. Each icon has a meaning, as do the coloured linking arrows; when you put your pointer over one you get more information about it.

Idea mapping software (such as Compendium, which I’ve written about) has explored ways to diagram and display relationships between ideas and resources. Mobile and User-Interface JavaScript libraries such as jQueryMobile, jQuery-UI, Yahoo User Interface (YUI) are becoming quite mature and are now well supported by forums and tutorial offerings. I’ve not yet figured out how to accurately draw arrows between objects on a Web page and keep them connected, but I suspect HTML5 canvas and SVG can make that easier than last time I tried. Systems like this often use a consistent icon set to differentiate. You can make them small and attach rollovers, as I’ve done throughout this blog, but rollovers can get messy and annoying (I always try to include an option to turn them off). [The sneak preview of Tappestry reminded me that layers are an important tool, as Google Maps has also established better than almost anyone.] Accessibility and usability aspects of all these potential solutions must not be ignored.

Tracking, recording, reporting

Tracking, recording, and reporting are perhaps key elements that separate “formal” learning from informal. In the digital world the need for these elements has resulted in the LMS. Think Moodle. The need to reuse learning material across multiple LMSes resulted in SCORM, a method of packaging entire courses in a compressed archive to be uncompressed and integrated on other SCORM-aware systems.

SCORM is evolving, and that evolution has been dubbed Project Tin Can. The metaphor behind the name us two tin cans connected by string. The Tin Can API defines not another learning management system, but a learning record store (LRS) (and perhaps “learning reporting service?”). It’s built on basic, human-brain-friendly sentence structure: Actor, verb, object; “I did something.” I urge you all to find out more about Project Tin Can.

My organization produces learning materials about our work, for the public to access from our site, but we don’t do formal online learning. My initial interest in Tin Can is to create a JSON web service to enable others to use our materials in more formal settings. I’m not going to attempt to explain that here and now for the uninitiated, but I’ll be blogging about it in the months ahead. I expect it won’t be long before PHP and JavaScript libraries appear that will make it possible to include the reporting abilities of Tin Can into all kinds of sites and projects: “I downloaded a zucchini muffin recipe” But the imagination is an amazing thing. With QR codes and cell phone cameras (or..?) might my oven be configured to report “Richard baked zucchini muffins?” “Richard’s family scored the muffins 9 out of 10?”

We’re just starting to get an idea of what technology-enhanced learning will look like in a few years. I’m confident it will look like much more than a Web page or even an interactive Flash module. I hope it can look more like me learning guitar, but with fewer years and miles between the events, other actors, resources, and inspirations.


UCL Department of Electronic And Electrical Engineering (© 1999-2011 UCL), Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development; A short introduction and bibliography [Website, UK, “Last update: 17 May 2012” retrieved 28 May 2012] www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2006) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Issues of liminality, in Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (eds.), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, London and New York: Routledge, pp 19-3

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