The Transparent Toaster: The Formal/Informal Learning Dilemma Heats Up

You take something that is creative and open-ended – quests, videos, blog posts, play – and because it needs to be measured, participants are given common and clearly defined ‘objectives’ to aim for. And steadily and surely the fun and creativity are squeezed out of it.   — Evaluating My Blog thread, Stephen Downes, Nov. 2010

What I’m wrestling with is the goal of blogging which I think could be very enjoyable and yet when the rules of academia are applied, it could become a chore which goes against this. — Evaluating My Blog thread, Doug Peterson, Nov. 2010

Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh! The formal/informal learning dilemma is driving me crazy, Doug. — Evaluating My Blog thread, Cris Crissman, Nov. 2010

Doug Peterson and I had what for me was an interesting tête-à-tête last week about evaluating blogging.  He shared a list of what blogging is and isn’t (from Will Richardson’s book)  that an enterprising teacher is using to develop a scope and sequence for blogging. Doug quoted Stephen Downes who had scoffed at the list and wrote:  “For the record, the things she says are not blogging, are blogging.”

Doug goes on to describe his own blogging and self-assesses as to how often he rates lower and higher on the blog scale.  He concludes by asking:  “If the goal of blogging is to start or continue the discussion, shouldn’t the level of engagement that results be the ultimate assessment tool?”

I love it when a good question brings us back around to previously-asked good question.  It’s reminiscent of the T. S. Eliot quote:   “We shall not cease from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started.”  We had quite an interesting discussion in PLENK2010 during Week 3, I think,  about goals/outcomes (Stephen’s OLDaily)  Both Sean and I reasoned with Stephen that the outcomes were important but they should be the students’.

But is that possible in a university course with a course curricula approved by the NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education)?

How can an instructor reconcile the need to satisfy university requirements with the higher calling of creating the conditions for graduate students to learn the value of becoming autonomous, adaptive, and creative learners?  If we can’t break the authoritarian hold that institutions have on formal learning then how can we ever hope to stop the vicious cycle of top-down, teacher-directed, one-size-strangles-all education?  We need a new virtuous cycle of teachers experiencing network learning in all of its glory of autonomy, adaptability, creativity, and collaboration so that they can pass along that model to their students.

This is where the transparent toaster comes in.  If you check out the description of the transparent toaster, you’ll see that it’s an innovation complete but for the simple complication that “at this time, it isn’t fully functional, but they’re working on it.”  That’s how I feel about the formal course design that captures the attributes of informal learning.  You know, the OOCC (open online) credit course.  Or is that an oxymoron?


PLENK 2010 guest speaker, Maria Andersen, proposed a fascinating alternative education system called Socrait with an expanding series of questions to guide learning and accreditation for that learning.   Rather than questions, I’d like to see ePortfolios or an better term, dossiers, that are developed according to the learner’s specs.  Individuals would grow up with formal learning’s responsibility to ensure that they have a successful PLE that they are continually evolving.  In some ways, assessing someone’s success at using her PLE to learn and create would be more effective than standardized testing of content knowledge.  When a learner wants to learn something, they propose a course of study under the mentorship of a learning professional.  The learner adds the resources, tools, communities, networks (Scott Wilson’s definition of PLE) necessary to be successful and blogs throughout the process so further mentoring and input from her PLE is possible.  Then the learning project culminates with the production of an artifact.  The learner self-assesses her learning according to her outcomes and the fortuitous unanticipated learning along the journey.  Then the artifact is shared with the network and becomes a permanent part of the dossier.

In our PLENK 2010 session with Sebastian Fiedler, Stephen asked for a definition of autonomy and several of us agreed that the PhD should be the model of the autonomous learner.  My transparent toaster or formal/informal learning plan  sounds a lot like Lisa Chamberlain’s open PhD or one considered by Leigh Blackall.  I learned of Blackall’s concept when Dave Cormier (Nov. 5, 2010) tweeted: “Seriously considering hopping on the @leighblackall open PhD bus. http://bit.ly/9B60kz might provide much needed focus to my work.”

Just read scandalously enlightening “The Shadow Scholar” and how an obviously talented young writer was turned away by his university when he suggested an independent study to help him edit and publish a novel he had written.  Count him as one would-be autonomous learner squashed by the system.  He may have gone on to become a successful novelist rather than an “academic mercenary” paid to help students cheat.

The transparent toaster also works as a metaphor for how teachers can’t seem to trust that students are learning if we can’t watch the process.  There’s much to be said for formative assessment and the wise teacher would build in opportunities for student reflection and mentoring but we shouldn’t feel that we must always direct the learning process and keep close reigns on it.  We are talking about creating autonomous learners and we may not see evidence of their success until they’ve worked through the process to share artifacts of their learning.  Mentoring is the most exciting aspect of my teaching and learning to be a patient, nurturing mentor a lifelong quest.

I’m grappling with evolving my online/inworld course in learning through literature with young adults for the spring semester. The most recent designed courses at our university utilize Moodle only as a home base, a launching pad (as Steve suggests), from which a variety of Web 2.0/social media tools are used. It’s true that these are instructor-chosen tools though (JG Chesney raised this interesting question in the Week 9 PLENK discussion) — selected because they best enable the course design elements to succeed as the instructor imagines. We’ve actually shared this model in a presentation archived online — The Zen Garden Approach to Course Design: Creating Balance Through Social Media and the accompanying wiki (Presentation was made in Second Life which afforded some cool set design and costuming).

PLENK 2010 is helping me see possibilities for creating the conditions for my students to more fully develop their PLEs within the context of learning about young adult literature. It will be a real balancing act, but I hope to provide a basic structure with only the Moodle required for one-time check-in and a simple wiki as a home base. All of the other tools, except for an occasional communal VoiceThread and our YouTube bookcast channel will be personal choice. I hope to pull students into Twitter (and avoid Glen’s “creepy treehouse effect”) but will attempt to accomplish it much as I was pulled in through PLENK 2010. Now I have “Twitty-fits” on a regular basis and just got retweeted by the BBC (huge fan so big rush) so I’m hooked.

We also discussed in the Week 10 PLENK Elluminate session with Sebastian Fiedler that both students and teachers who push the boundaries of the institution’s limits on autonomy may feel some “shocks.”  Learning and teaching at their best have always been subversive activities and it may well be that the real change comes in the aftershocks once the original big rumble is heard and felt.

Next post:  More on the right to blog . . .

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About criscrissman

so serious about really blogging this time
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One Response to The Transparent Toaster: The Formal/Informal Learning Dilemma Heats Up

  1. Pingback: Hands Off My Blog: Affirming the Right to Blog | Virtually Foolproof

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