Friday, June 24, 2016

Project Based Learning: Recursion with the Past and Present

Recursion with the Past and Present

Recursion is a  common dynamic across living systems.  Patterns that repeat and repeat, but are never exactly the same can be seen in biology and physics as well as in themes and style across literature, national histories and our individual lives. "Reinvention" is recursion, sometimes sans a salute to precedent.

Whereas individual fields of study may address their respective subjects in similar ways, they do repeat and repeat in ways that are similar and yet not quite the same. Indeed, scholars do "reinvent" the wheels of thought as a matter of professional practice. These dynamics are precisely how we assimilate and internalize new ideas and ways of doing things, to paraphrase Jean Piaget, how we make ideas our own. However, "reinvention" also illustrates our reluctance to "travel cross country" to other disciplines, fields of study and practice as Alfred North Whitehead puts it.  "Reinvention" with a nod to those who have come before is a principle of sound scholarship. However, our digital environment is stretching our egos further.... as we have access to so many addressing the very same questions and subjects of inquiry simultaneously.

The case in point I have in mind is the emerging interest in project based learning among online learning MOOCs and not for profit, social change oriented trainings.

There are rich online resources pertaining to the constructivist rationale and philosophy of PBL as well as elaborate guides for designing and integrating PBL into face2face, blended and online only curricula.  For example,

Interestingly, most if not all of the PBL sites have been formulated for and by K12 educators, and teachers of teachers with wide experience in what works to engage young people in learning and discovery.  Imagine the implications if post-secondary faculty and social change not-for-profits were to acknowledge the work of K12 educators!  Since we are in the realm of imagination, think about the stratified world of occupations and fields of study at stake in this challenge to business as usual in the use of what has gone before....or what is ongoing!

In the spirit of PBL self-discovery, conduct your own web search for PBL for step by step guides to what it is, best practices and research pertaining to pre and post-secondary schooling.

What is new to you about PBL? What about PBL challenges your current teaching methods? Are you interested in learning more about PBL? 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Learning Readiness as Self-organizational Fitness

As a political activist I frequently contemplate how activist organizations pursue strategies over long periods of time, even when the situations they seek to rectify or reform become increasingly dire.   One key to the puzzle is the dynamic of self-organization, a phenomenon of complex adaptive systems. Applied to social experience, self-organization is expressed through the tenacious integration of individual capacities with social organizational needs.

Here’s the conundrum in personal terms.  You have a leadership role in an advocacy organization that engages your talents and gives you great satisfaction…. Your colleagues appreciate your contributions, you receive recognition for your work, either through gratifying personal relationships and/or monetary compensation and your efforts are your personal, intellectual, political and/or spiritual investments in what you believe. 

In these circumstances there are limited if any incentives for you or the organization to change course…even if the strategies are not bringing about the change envisioned in the mission.  This example of self-organization resonates with Einstein’s remark, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results….”

Self-organization is the sine qua non of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’  The challenge is where to find the levers to reconfigure the parts that a newly formed whole can emerge.

Under what conditions can the values, interests and skills of individual participants be tapped to contribute to a modified vision, new set of strategies and/or a different tactical approach? Or, at what point do reflection and discomfort among participants provide the stimulus for rethinking organizational direction? And, how open are participants to acknowledging that what they know best is not good enough and to unlearning what they know best as they learn new best ways?

Bifurcation points and gaps are concepts from complex systems theory that depict moments where a system is hovering between directions, where the current situation is not tenable, but a new direction or configuration has yet to emerge.  Our capacity for self-reflection enables us to be both witness and participant in these adaptive processes.

The symmetry of individual reflection and personal challenge with organizational effectiveness is a common experience in tumultuous times.  Bifurcation points, individual and organizational, social and cultural are moments of intense ambiguity, ambivalence, uncertainty, anxiety and fear. In such times we are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and easy answers to assuage the discomfort of knowing the status quo is not holding and where we are going is not clear and pretty much beyond our control.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

MOOCs for Learning and Mobilizing


  • Globalized schooling expands the opportunity for global action research and discovery. 
  • Digital tools and social media are making documentation of social behavior, political movements, and scientific discovery part of everyday life.   
  • Nano technologies are developing to track all sorts of social and biological phenomena as evidence of learning and the impact of social interventions.  
  • Online learning platforms and mobile technologies are transferable to social action research and opportunities to expand the reach of economic and political change projects. 
  • New career paths at all levels of education will emerge for guiding the critical use of these tools, fields of study and age integrated courses where credit and not for credit students study side by side are likely to proliferate. Or, at least that is a best case scenario since the technologies remain more or less ideologically neutral.

Common Themes

Community organizing and mobilization for social change have much in common with strategies for effective instruction. Theories and research pertaining to communication and learning are applicable to social action research and political advocacy.  In each case similar principles for student and citizen engagement pertain and in each case telecommunications, social media and nano technology are driving convergence between research and action, theory and practice. The convergence resides in the affordance of rapid feedback and real time documentation.

Imagine a Massive Open Online Course on Adaptations with Climate Change that integrates project based learning and student collaboration to collect data and explore the implications of different interventions for changes in daily life.  Students from urban and rural areas in countries across the globe work with others in close proximity and/or at a distance to frame a project around a particular research question or social intervention.  The content of the course can provide relevant prior research and knowledge and the primary instructor(s) from multiple disciplines, with a cadre of mentors or coaches, can guide and provide rapid feedback to students engaged in “authentic” problems emergent in their “own” contexts.  Here the work of Mike Cole, et al (
on situated learning and ecological validity are rich resources for understanding the effectiveness of the student projects generated within local contexts.

 Accelerated Change

  • Nano technologies that enable seamless collection of video and audio data as well as devices to detect physiological changes under different levels of stress can provide a panoramic scope hitherto unavailable for field research.
  • Global accessibility to the data can accelerate rates of change across settings and provide clues to pitfalls and risks associated with a spectrum of interventions.  
  • The feasibility of adaptive interventions to effect expected and unexpected outcomes can be assessed quickly and perhaps in time to prevent catastrophe.

Volatility in the Academic Workplace: Challenges of Online Learning

Digital media and global telecommunications are driving new forms of schooling at every level of education across age cohorts. Competency rather than “seat time” is becoming the standard for assessment and achievement.  The American Council on Education recently announced that four Coursera courses are worthy of college credit if anti-cheating measures are enforced.  (,0,573675.story)

In 1999 I wrote that like workers in many fields, academics worried whether their skills would be needed and whether their best would be good enough for the emerging world of digital media and telecommunications. (Knowledge in a Learning Universe: Collaborative, Recursive, and Digital)  Today, globalized higher education is upon us and professional anxieties are experienced as personal emergencies about career and livelihood.  The future contours of higher education institutions are unclear as the job insecurities of faculty and administrators coexist with the challenges to business models and historical claims of the academy to exclusive rights to generate and husband “knowledge.” Faculty resistance to online innovations is frequently expressed in terms of concerns for accountability and student access to faculty. These are often the same faculty who lecture to hundreds of students in a large hall and defer to teaching assistants to carry on direct conversations with students.

The debut of MOOCs such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity presents new opportunities and challenges for students, institutions, and faculty. Global access to courses taught by faculty at one university and accessible to students at other institutions creates opportunities for institutions to target funds for focus on particular fields at the same time such “sharing” obviously threatens jobs, career paths and many if not most of the conventional values and norms of autonomous liberal arts colleges and universities. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Teaching: An Invitation to a Conversation

What is knowledge construction? Who does it? How do we know it when we see it? How do we promote excellence and critical thinking? What are the roles and responsibility of educators when so much information is available on the Internet and there is so much rapid change?

These are the questions before educators at all levels of schooling and across disciplines and professions. Today, it is digital media, telecommunications and the Internet that are major drivers of change and reconsideration of the answers to these questions.

I use metaphors and principles of complex systems theory to talk about disciplines, fields of study, as conversations and to talk about the roles of faculty and students in the construction of knowledge with technology.

So, let us think of any discipline, field of study or professional practice as a continuous conversation among those who wrote and taught in the past with those who teach, conduct research and write in the present, and students….those who are currently learning the vocabulary and habits of mind of any given field of study or profession.

In this scheme, the role of educators is to INVITE STUDENTS TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION. And, just as we use the tools of grammar and definitions to learn language, we provide students with discipline specific concepts and vocabularies for them to practice the new habits of mind to express their perceptions and experiences.

In this scheme, educators are guides on the side, rather than sages on the stage, where we co-learn with our students. For if we value and expect students to take the conversation seriously, we need to take them seriously as participants in the conversation. Students CONTRIBUTE TO THE CONVERSATION and CONSTRUCT NEW KNOWLEDGE.

As educators we become witnesses to the evolution and emergence of worlds created by NEW LEARNERS who bring their energy and experiences to a field of study or body of knowledge, and then recreate it in ways that make sense to them, within their world(s).

As the pace of Internet driven change accelerates educators are hard-pressed to convene and sustain the conversations with waves of learners more experienced with digital technologies. We and our knowledge base are on a treadmill, moving at speeds we have not set.

Coming next: What happens to excellence, critical thinking and quality scholarship in this scheme?