Yesterday, Stephen Downes replied to my most recent post on educational pattern languages:
Michael Feldstein is on the right track, mostly, with his exploration of the applicability of pettern language to learning. In this brief item, he asks, “Can we deduce sort of generative grammar of educational experience that enables us to string together these building blocks into ‘sentences’ of educational experience that are complete in both the functional and the humanistic sense?” And I respond – where was it written that language must be composed of building blocks strung together?
The glib answer would be “Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, Noam Chomsky, 1967.” (I happen to live with a linguist, in addition to having taken more than a few linguistics courses myself.) But as I say, that would be the glib answer, because I’ve read enough of Stephen’s work to know that his position on learning objects is considerably more sophisticated than saying “Sorry, no such thing.” To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what Stephen’s objection is here, but I do have a suspicion, and it has to do with some ideas he laid out in his paper “Design Standards and Re-usability”.
The main argument he makes is a subtle one which I’m not going to attempt to boil down to a summary here, but the end result is that he claims that, when shooting for re-usability, we generally have to choose between re-using content and re-using learning design:
As some commentators have already noted, we are beginning to see less and less talk of re-use in online learning. Indeed, as Patrick Lambe suggested in an entirely different context, what we are after is not reusable objects, but disposable ones. This, it seems to me, is the approach favoured by more and more institutions and corporations, as they begin to look at an instructional design system, not as a means of reusing objects, but as a means of producing them to be used once, then discarded.
In my own work, I have embraced the other horn of the dilemma. That is, I believe that – for reasons of cost and accessibilty – reusability is still an attainable goal. However, it means that, in order to achieve this goal, the idea of reusable learning design must be jettisoned. So, in a sense, what I am arguing for is disposable design, that can be created once, as needed, and then discarded, never to be used again.
I agree with Stephen that there is a fundamental tension between content re-use and learning design (or experience) re-use. But I disagree with what I take to be his belief that it is a fundamentally unresolvable tension. And I strongly disagree with his reasons for preferring the content re-use approach over the experience re-use approach:
Such an approach to the dilemma, of course, shoots an arrow straight into the heart of the discipline known as instructional design. It suggests that, at some fundamental level, instructional design is not about considering different ways of presenting different types of materials, and different uses to which these materials may be put, in order to foster learning. It is not like presenting a series of instructions to teachers (now some people may say that this was the case all along, to which I must ask, what is the IMS Learning Design specification, then, if not that).
In my view, the difference between the two horns of the dilemma is the difference between writing a play and creating a game. It is the difference between telling people what to do and when to do it, and creating an environment where people decide for themselves what to do and when to do it. It is the difference between requiring a director and requiring a coach. It is the difference between giving a person directions to the Forum and giving them a map of the city and letting them choose their own route.
I don’t think this analogy works. In particular, I don’t think that providing a learning design is like writing a play. I think it’s more like writing the conditions for an improv skit: “OK, actor number one, you are angry at actor number two for something he did yesterday and you think he should know what you’re angry at him for. Actor number two, you have no idea that actor number one has been angry. Your job is to figure out what he’s angry at you for.” We give much of the structure of the interchange but almost no content. It is a game; it’s just a different kind of game.
(Stephen’s analogy may be a correct characterization of the way learning design is articulated in the IMS standards; I haven’t looked at them closely enough or thought about them deeply enough to have an opinion on that. Regardless, I don’t think the analogy holds for every articulation of learning design, or even every reasonable, non-trivial articulation of learning design.)
To return to the language analogy, I believe that the rules for re-using experience patterns and the rules for re-using content are respectively analogous to the rules of syntax and semantics. Semantics tell us how words fit together to convey meaning. It’s possible to have a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically meaningless, e.g., “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Likewise, we can string together chunks of content with a set of learning objectives up front, some exposition, a re-inforcing excercise, and a test, but if the learning objectives are about A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the re-inforcing exercise is about the laws of thermodynamics, we don’t have a meaningful course on our hands. Syntax, on the other hand, tells us how words may and may not be strung together in virtue of certain structural properties largely independently of their meaning. For example, it is grammatical to transform the echo question
You know who?
into the question
Who do you know?
by virtue of a rule of universal grammar called “Wh-movement”. However, it is not grammatical in English or in any other known human language to transform the echo question
You know the man who saw who?
into the question
Who do you know the man who saw?
even though there is no logical or semantic reason why that transformation shouldn’t work. This has nothing to do with the meaning of the individual words; it’s structural. Likewise, you can’t put the re-inforcement exercise before the content has been introduced. This has nothing to do with the content of the individual learning moments; it’s a structural limitation related to how we learn. Interestingly, you can put a test before the introduction of the course, and the pre-test may have the identical content as the post-test. You can even use it to create a loop where the students go through arbitrarily many re-inforcement exercises (from zero to infinity) depending on how well they score on each iteration of the test. In other words, the grammar of educational experience is generative in the sense that one element can be used to create an infinite number of distinct “courses” (where each course represents a complete start-to-finish sequence of learning objects, including how many times the student loops through re-inforcement exercises).
My own issue with the way that learning sequencing is typically approached is not that they try to do it but rather that they approach it prescriptively rather than descriptively. I think we still have way too little explicit knowledge about how humans do sequence meaningful learning experiences to write a useful metadata language that circumstscribes (and therefore prescribes) how they should. This is why I like the pattern language approach; Christopher Alexander approaches architecture first and foremost as a study of anthropology. He asks the question, “What can we deduce about the natural preferences that humans have for architecture based on successful examples that we see in the world?” This is a study that needs to be undertaken seriously for long periods of time before you can reduce what is known to, say, the vocabulary of an XML dialect. I think we need to wiki this stuff for a long time yet before we’ll be ready to build our LearningSequenceOMatic machine.