#dlda Reflections on George Siemen’s Adelaide Masterclass

Melanie, Me, Alli and George Siements
Melanie Worrall of Klevar, Me, Allison Miller of Vanguard Visions and George Siemens (Klevar is co-directed by Melanie and my husband Paul Johnson)

George Siemens is one of those names in education that just keep popping up for me. I first heard of him in 2006, at Education.au’s Global Summit on Education in Sydney and came away thinking what a thoughtful, humorous, passionate man he was and I’ve followed his work with interest.

When MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) came about in 2008, I was too involved with other things to take part but followed their progress with interest as I very much subscribe to the notion that knowledge should be free – curation, assessment and feedback is the value-add that institutions can and should provide.

Last week I got to attend a Master Class from George, who together with other Canadian educators I follow (they punch above their weight in that cold country of theirs) pioneered the use and study of MOOCs.

He talked Complexity in Education and Participatory Pedagogy.

First up – complexity.

He stressed it was important to understand complexity and networks as underpinning attributes of society, science and education and used charts graphing the history of philosophy and the nodes/influencers and connections. He showed another with the connections between different branches of research and study. All to stress the fact that complexity is about interconnectedness and variables. If one variable changes – everything is affected. A system with multiple interactive systems and nodes will influence each other and the system as a whole.

Complicated systems are about every piece having a place and there being one right way to put things together.

Along the way he threw it out there that making things simple for students to understand was a lousy goal in educational design and facilitation. The goal should be to help learners see complexity and relationships between ideas, systems, people.

He later mentioned that experts work in patterns whereas novices think sequentially – which for me ties into this a bit, but more on that later…

He then discussed that higher education has historically responded to the technology of an era. He mentioned the book “Reinventing Knowledge” that explores how key learning institutions from monasteries to libraries to universities to laboratories have shaped and channelled knowledge for Western societies.

He gave an example: apparently Plato disliked reading and writing because he felt that the lack of dialogic interaction would lead to a lack of understanding of the knowledge being imparted.

The structure of information today gives us insight to structure of knowledge institutions going forward – because of the impact of tech on knowledge institutions.

An interesting point was about trends being reflections of what is happening. For instance, Facebook is a reflection of change- not a trend or change in and of itself. MOOCs are another example of this. George stressed that we need to look at the substantive stuff underneath – not the reflection or outcome. Don’t chase the pretty shiny outcropping!

MOOCs can have tens of thousands of students in them – Coursera has 260 thousand students who have registered. George has overseen a class with 3,500 students. But of course he doesn’t teach and mark them all and Dunbars law is that groups tend to break down into subgroupings until you get about 150 people in each subgroup.

He then shared a great quote from the Australia-New Zealand 2010 Horizon Report: “In today’s networked world, learners are placing greater value on knowing where to find information than on knowing the information themselves.”

As you learn, you develop a digital identity and gravitate to the tools you like

Learners, because of the fact they’ve been taught to learn Pavlovian style, will have few issues you want to pay attention to when designing online spaces:

  • Be aware of wayfinding activities when log into course. Students are visually disrupted when students log into course. Students don’t have physical, visual clues online. Students don’t have a set way when engaging with digital spaces. Design of the entry space is very important and should be simple and uncluttered. Use language that makes sense.

However, then you have two types of learners to design for if you want to build digital literacy and online learning skills:

  • Self-regulated learners (competent/skilled) – learn more when there are loose structures. 
  • Unconfident learners – learn less with unsettled/disoriented structure.

One possible solution in Moodle came from the very clever Natalie Denmeade who explains she uses conditional activities (you must do something before you can see something else) in Moodle to solve this. She has set up a course so that by default there are few instructions and tutorials – so as to keep it uncluttered and allow more advanced students to have a reasonable challenge. She then invites those who may be less confident to click in a tick box – which then reveals instructions and links to tutorials.

You need to consider the balance between structure and control when trying to build digital literacy skills. If you present a highly structured environment with little student control, students will not build digital literacy skills to the same extent as if you give them control.

He suggests that just as with LLN, you defined the digital literacy skills you wish to build in learners and break it down into competencies, then introduce them gradually to scaffold ala Vygotsky, Zone of Proximal Development, etc.

The idea occurs to me that pre and post course benchmarking of knowledge and skills would be useful and that I should take some of the questions from the pre-course survey and put them in the post-course survey.

He then moved on to networked learning and getting students to create artefacts. Rather than give them information and then an assignment where they create something – give them something to create first. If you create a course and provide resources and assessments – you are in charge. When students are asked to create and share artefacts – they are in charge and in the process of becoming a “transparent learner” they become teachers.

In order to develop competence, learners need to think in patterns. Experts think in patterns, novices think sequentially. That is why sometimes novices who have just mastered something are better at teaching other novices.

It is also why games and simulations are more powerful for learning than the pattern of knowledge transfer-assignment, read this-assignment, watch this-assignment. Games and simulations teach people to think in patterns. Getting students to create artefacts also helps them to think in patterns.

Immersive, complex learning environments form broader connections in our thinking. Most courses are not designed to facilitate the sharing of sense-making artefacts with others.

What do you build into your courses for students to share their understanding and teach each other?

We had a great conversation around our table on this and about the importance of not focusing on the product, but on the process. Content is a by-product of learning.

Can you get more insight from how well students are learning from what they create than from tests or surveys at the end?

Competorial creativity – about developing your skills as a student to combine ideas and skills in new ways.

Technology is an aid to greater proficiency, however you have to destabilise their worlds. Tell them to follow a tag, follow a group in Diigo – teach them how to find and curate information. They need to see the patterns, learn how to find knowledge and how concepts connect and relate.

You cannot just play to student comfort levels.

Top 10 lists and “best practice” go against the theory of complexity. There are multiple ways of thinking to bring to bear on complex challenges.

We want learners to think, be creative, generate new ideas and information – not jump through hoops. In the video “The Private Universe”, Annenberg media interviews Harvard graduates and asks them “Why do we have seasons?” Hardly any of these bright people got it right. Why?

Consider that our teaching methods surface things that aren’t necessarily valued or made relevant.

Current generation learning tools mirror a priori content. The Next generation tools will mirror the info, power relationships and fluid social structure of networks.

Reeds Law – utility of a network scales exponentially with the overall size of a network. If you have a larger group, can form more sub networks and individual-controlled formations.

When MOOCS are done well – students teach each other. One teacher doesn’t teach the 100k students, you change the format.

What are the principles that influence education in open settings and social networks?

  • · Learner autonomy
  • · Self-organization
  • · Transparent learning= teaching
  • · Participatory pedagogy
  • · Sense-making artefacts
  • · Shareable learning paths

What are students doing in their heads?

It’s about context and intended impact – lectures aren’t evil!

Profiles of Mooc learners? 30 plus, educated. MOOCs are not a competitive, shadow system. It’s where people go to learn things they can’t other places – for instance social network analysis. MOOCs respond to demand more quickly and represent the de-centralisation of knowledge that has been occurring for years.

George then challenged us to consider this:

You’re hearing lots of buzz about big data and analytics in education. How do you learn about it?

How would you do so in 1995?  How would you do it today?

While some of us would research on our own and tap into our existing networks, more and more people are turning to MOOCs.

Students pay for the curation of resources that are vetted regarding a specific domain of information.

Is it more efficient to take a MOOC and get curated resources and feedback versus searching yourself? Curatorial teaching and learning. Bundling what the internet has unbundled.

What about people sharing what they studied to learn a specific skill or to master a particular body of knowledge? Sharing of learning paths will give you curated resources. George’s learning management system platform is based on this.

George’s employer Athabasca University – has an ELGG site called Welcome to the Landing.

This allows them to basically creates a walled garden version of FB as not everyone wants to or has the confidence to interact with social media and social networks. It gives learners control over managing and filtering information.

If structure doesn’t exist a priori, learners need tools to create and share structure.

Question for you: How do you create virtual equivalent of student café online?


  • · Importance of learners creating artefacts that reflect how they view a concept/discipline
  • · Assisting learners to think in networks – relationships between concepts
  • · Teaching and learning in networks
  • · Opening up the classroom- global learner
  • · Exporting not only importing education – where do we find out what is happening in our country?

And for me, these were also big themes:

  • The big emphasis – lens of thought that is more consequential than anything else. If learning treated as opening a door to a corridor, then learners can search for themselves.
  • MOOCS – students validating and challenging ideas, creating learning artefacts, networked teaching models.