In this 2011 video interview on MOOCs between Howard Rheingold and George Siemens, Siemens describes several aspects of his vision for this new learning environment. When Howard asked him about the role of content, Siemens explained that a traditional course places content at the center of the experience, and then there is social interaction around that content. His vision switched that order. Instead, the goal was a social center, and out of that social interaction there would be the creation, sharing and exploration of course content. The course initiators/instructors/facilitators/designers do not select and prescribe all content. The group collectively identifies, curates, and creates the content. Every active participant is a content provider.
Even with this focus, there is basic content at the center, at least located in the title of the course. A word or a title is content, albeit somewhat limited and typically vague. The MOOCs that I’ve seen from Siemens, for example, still have a theme or subject that sets a general direction for the shared inquiry.
Nonetheless, this is qualitatively different from learning experiences in most courses and most learning organizations. Most courses require readings (videos, or other content-oriented media) that are selected in advance by an instructor or course facilitator. Even in this age of standards, learning outcomes and objectives it is common to find instructors who design around texts and pre-selected content rather than designing a course that is shaped around course objectives or desired learning outcomes (which are, in the big picture, a new development). While some trained in instructional design might cringe at putting texts ahead of course objectives, there is nothing inherently less worthy about creating a learning experience that place social interaction, one or more core texts, or a set of learning outcomes at the center. They simply serve different purposes, bringing with them distinct benefits and limitations.
What are the implications for Siemens’s vision of social interaction being the center of a course? According to his comments in the interview, it offers learners a chance to grow into the notion of connected learning. In reference to the type of learning that takes place beyond the classroom, Siemens comments that, “The knowledge that you need is not going to be contained in one individual or one institution. It is going to be distributed, and as a result…we need to design a distributed learning model.”
If we think about the many things that we need and want to learn throughout our lives, it is hard to disagree with Siemens. Yes, when we take a specific class, the process and agenda is often set for us. What about the “syllabi” that we write for ourselves in an ongoing basis, often initiated with a question that we want to answer, a problem that we want to solve, or a skill that we need or want to develop for work or leisure? Could it be that some experiences in social interaction-centered learning environments might help us to learn and refine our abilities to engage in lifelong connected and distributed learning?
This closely connects with my ongoing exploration of self-blended learning, which is essentially a learner-designed distributed learning network that converges different types of learning environments and experiences. It is connected learning by design, but the organic design of the learner, even if the instructor or learning organization does not formally encourage or endorse it.