Activating Latent Knowledge Capacity

Last week, we wrapped up another successful Learning Analytics Summer Institute at Harvard. The recordings of most of the talks and panels can be found here. Since we were already in town, Dragan Gasevic and I were invited by edX to give a talk to their staff and member institutions (we are running a course on edX in fall on Data, Analytics, & Learning).

The focus for the talk at edX, slides below, was to try and get at what is wrong with MOOCs and education in general. To answer the challenge of “what is wrong with education” it’s helpful to step back a bit and consider two challenges.

1. We aren’t connecting

Historically, society has created knowledge institutions that mirror what is done with information in a particular era – see McNeely & Wolverton. In this line of reasoning, we can best understand the future of education by understanding what is being done with information today. After about a decade of experience with web 2.0, social media, participative technologies, it’s not unreasonable to state that at least a segment of society today recognizes information as multi-authored, participative, distributed, and networked.

In education, many of us have been advocating for networked learning (or as Stephen Downes and I have been articulating it, connectivism). Academic conferences and even the K-12 space has turned to networks as a way to describe what learning is and how it happens. The one draw back to networked learning is that while we have managed to advance conversation on the fragmentation of learning so that it is not a cohesive whole created solely by the instructor, we have not yet advanced the process of centring or stitching together fragmented parts into cohesive wholes for individuals. Some rudimentary progress includes the use of #hashtags to stitch together distributed conversations but this only provides a one medium aggregation. The best implemented model for pulling together multi-platform conversations that I’ve seen to date is Downes’ gRSShopper. That leaves us at a difficult point educationally. Progress has been made on pulling centralized information elements apart (this is particularly evident in media with newspapers or TV news programs – I get the majority of my news in bits and pieces through a mess of different tools and sites), but we haven’t yet developed the technologies that will allow pulling things back together into coherent, personally owned, wholes.

This is no small challenge. In many ways, this is where computing was in two separate phases: pre-Microsoft Office and pre-Facebook. I remember when I used to work with distinct software tools like Quattro and WordPerfect (before they were owned by one company). Moving data between different software was a pain. MS came along and blessed society with Office – an integrated suite. It pulled together what I used to do in several different tools. Facebook plays a similar integrative role for participative technologies. For people who had been blogging since late 1990′s or early 2000′s, Facebook wasn’t of much value. Between flickr,, blogs, RSS readers, and wikis, we were living the distributed, networked, learning dream. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of society wants to deal with a range of 10 different tools. Ease of use and low-barrier to entry rules the day. Facebook allowed anyone to start sharing images, ideas, and form social networks and to do so in a single tool with similar functionality across different activities. My social network used to consist of the people in my RSS reader. Facebook made connecting easy and they were rewarded as a billion+ people joined. The key lesson here is that integrative technologies, in spite of the current app trend, draw greater numbers of users than single functionality tools.

The importance of integrative toolsets for learners cannot be overlooked. It is unreasonable to expect a learner to care about the same issues that an instructor of a participatory course cares about. While concerns of access, participation, and equity might be important to me, a learner may well enter a course with the primary goal of learning a skill or concept. My values may not be her values.

2. Latent Capacity

Technology cannot be reduced to a single narrative or outcome. While “web 2.0″, as a term, symbolized participation and collaboration, it is really a multi-narrative strand where some people were enabled and others were shut out, some were given a platform and others lost a platform, some connected with their readers/fans and others were exposed as [insert label] to their fans/readers. There are many narratives to describe the tools that today define how people interact. I have been grappling with understanding the prominent or even dominant impact of technology – i.e. what is one aspect of technology that is most pronounced and most misunderstood? Keeping in mind that a single narrative has shortcomings, I’ll argue that activation of latent capacity is the driving element of every successful technology of the past 15 years. Uber uses latent car capacity. Airbnb, latent physical space capacity. Twitter/Facebook, activate multiple latent capacities: sharing, social connections, and images. The Arab Spring, now sadly turned into a rather harsh winter, and Occupy Wall Street activate the latent power capacity of individuals. A system of control and oppression can be challenged when people take up their power, their voice.

In education exists the most substantive latent capacity in society. A classroom consists of 30 (or sometimes 300) people listening to a teacher teach. The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

Personal Knowledge Graph

To address these shortcomings, I’ve been arguing for the development of something like a Personal Knowledge Graph (PKG). The main idea is that learners need a way to express and articulate what they know. This can be done through someone explicitly stating “I know this” or it could be mined or inferred. Learners need to own their PKG but it should be shareable with schools, companies, and peers.

Once we know what people know, we have a chance to activate latent knowledge through social and technological approaches. The work that Dragan Gasevic has done with his doctoral students indicates that learners begin to use hashtags as a cognitive agent. In some cases, a hashtag becomes a more important agent than a faculty member. In other instances, recommender systems could connect individuals who have complimentary and/or opposing knowledge graphs. This leads to new pedagogical models and changing roles for universities, notably a transition from spraying the same content to all learners to a more nuanced (knowledge gap filling?) approach.

Education is approaching where the web was in mid-2000′s – a growing range of technologies providing certain opportunities for learning and interaction, but largely fragmented. Education is waiting for it’s latent capacity activating tool, or at minimum, a means of giving each learner the ability to stitch together a coherent interpretation of a knowledge domain. Of course we need feedback loops and systems of recognition. It is not enough that I state I know something. Peers, faculty, and employers should be able to comment on my claims and I should be able to provide evidence. When I do not understand a concept correctly, there should be processes for correction.

If, when, education begins to focus on activating the knowledge of individuals rather than primarily focusing on single point knowledge pontification, new concerns will arise. For example, how can creativity be encouraged when learners receive personalized content addressing knowledge gaps? What happens to formal assessment? What role does expertise play in a room of 100 knowledgeable people? The transitions underway in society, in knowledge, and in universities, are long term and won’t be played out in the next few years. It’s a decades long transition. But it is important to begin challenging legacy assumptions and start considering, however imperfect our ability to see it today, what an education system looks like when we activate latent capacities of all participants.

This was written by gsiemens. Posted on Saturday, July 5, 2014, at 12:53 pm.


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