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A teacher’s perspective on creativity and learning – by Martin Owen

November 14th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

I would be delighted to host guest entries on the Wales Wide Web. I forgot to ask. But Martin Owen has emailed me saying: “I have been minded to write some things about 1994 for some time and I was prompted to write this. I think it might belong on Pontydysgu.” It certainly does, Martin. And I am honoured. Martin was one of the people who first got me hooked on technology and learning. you can read it here now. When I get the research pages sorted I will also add it there.

“I write this from a teacher’s perspective. I may write the story from a learner’s perspective later. It is a response to Graham’s piece of Nov 9th about the death of VLE’s.

This is a heresy in some circles – repositories of learning materials are not what the world needs. The idea that a teacher needs a mound of other people’s worksheets or powerpointlesses or yet –SCORM/IMS Learning Design structured learning objects is a figment of the imagination of deranged computer scientists and people who need tidy desks to remember where they put things.

I will say that having good access to some neat stuff (like a well drawn diagram of  Fleming’s Left Hand Rule which I found in seconds on Wikipedia) and sharing that knowledge with others is incredibly useful.

What was true in 1994 – when I first wrote a successful grant proposal for social media in education – is true now. Sharing and borrowing is what we need to facilitate. Sharing and borrowing are social actions. They involve reciprocity and interaction between the people who share and borrow. It comes with knowledge that the people are the source and people are the receivers of this stuff and that is quite a different mindset to the notion of a repository. They are verbs associated with communities. They come with conversations.

It is increasingly easy to find stuff and publish stuff in ways they can be found. The repository is the internet and search engines are pretty dam powerful. They both become much more powerful when people are trading ideas around what is there.

My first attempt at a “virtual learning platform” was an open access room in my University that was open ‘til late. It had 12 networked MacPlus with some networked hard drives (G. Sidhu is the unsung hero of modern computing for developing AppleTalk) with the best peripherals and software tools I could afford (Scanners etc). People met, people talked, people traded, people created together. My second attempt added FirstClass to this – which coupled with putting 56 computers into the schools where my pre-service trainee teachers were learning to teach. I learned from this.

One thing I learned is that teaching and sharing on line is not straight-forward. People who were starting using the internet for learning just then where doing things like putting up some text and the telling students to “discuss and respond” in some associated forum. The kid who was going to do well usually wrote a convincing response and the best the rest could do would be to say “me-too” or “flame”. Instruction to students needed to be structured in ways that allowed multiple responses and required students to think about how they would involve others in their learning. It needed to be like the open access room where there was borrowing, sharing and mutual support. I have some  historic advice on this.

The online environment we started to build as a European Framework 4 Telematics project REM was about a multi-media learning network (we were not building platforms or repositories- we were building tools for a learning network – a different mind-set). It had means to share and discuss resources and to build collaborative learning in a virtual resource rich environment. As with all too many projects the files now rest on an old hard disk with files dated December 2000 – the end of funding.

There was a tension in the development I am only just fully coming to understand. There was some feeling amongst the project workers that there was “a” workflow through which we would drive people. We adopted a model from a paper by Lehrer et  et al . This was constructivist in its intent – however I do not think that the authors intended it to be as hard wired as a workflow as our designs might have made it.  I think design and learning are not one-way flows or on a single track. Human activity is capable of managing multiple tracks – and prefers it that way – that is to say learning is managed by the learner – learning management is not imposed or assumed by the system. As an aside, my colleagues who promoted this system initially (with my full agreement) went on to be leading proponents of IMS Learning Design. I think at a micro level it is clearly the job of a tutor to direct attention to what is salient and more importantly provide formative feedback to students on their learning. I am far from convinced that there is a set of recipes, templates or algorithms that are the formula for teaching and learning success. I appreciate that has been a holy grail for learning technology. My 36 year career in learning technology has been littered with such visions from   Skinner  onwards. I think humans are much too good at learning to be constrained by such tracks.  I even proposed an   educational modeling language  based on conversations and meaning making (as per  Nonaka) myself.

I   do think that some of the ideas expressed about the teaching of creativity in design by  Richard Kimbell at London Goldsmiths – who proposes phases like having ideas, developing ides and testing ideas without suggesting that students might not be doing all three in some sense at any time – although design will tend to go in a general direction if it is to be completed.

But getting back to the main thread of thought. In our second phase of development of this learning network tools we engaged with a BIG international bank. What was learned from talking to their training management was that they had  profound understanding of learning in their company, that development of staff was multi-dimensional: company process knowledge; knowledge of the industry’s facts and concepts (legal frameworks, economics etc) ; generic knowledge (IT skills) and interpersonal skills and so on. Using a standardised controlled vocabulary to describe their resources or most of the wrappings of systems like SCORM did not begin to address the richness of training they needed to deliver. However they were very systematic in profiling employees, their employees career trajectories, and equally profiling the needs and skills that the company required to function as a business. They recognized they needed systems of mentoring, instruction, community building, reward-giving, need-identification, ambition fulfilling . They had their own dynamic mappings of conversations, resources and learning pathways. The pathways were never straight.

Here is a simple case example. An employee was newly charged with writing a quarterly report that demanded skills in spreadsheets and charts he had not previously had. Normal processes would have had them identify and external course provider and sent the employee out for a day at some high-cost and loss of his labour for that day. A modern trend might have been the provision of one of the many dull online courses there are in the subject. However the company had tagged or profiled one of its employees with “Excel expert” and “mentoring” attributes. The company demonstrated that having someone show you the ropes to get going and being there to help when you get stuck is quite and efficient way of learning to use software – and in the process two people were having their career developed and a community of practice was being augmented.

When Graham Attwell writes about social media tools connected together to make learning are   better than VLEs  we should think about that social process of learning and teaching. Sure we can probably do them better with loosely coupled tools but I can still make cock-ups. The way we plumb things together is significant and needs to map onto the activity system or be part of the transformation of an activity system. That is a new skill – however we are fortunate in that the tool-bag is fairly bulging with opportunity and we can add, remove, augment or find scope for new invention. We can build many tailored systems for sharing and reciprocity that are true to the context in which they work. One size, one platform, one standard does not fit all.

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