“… learning technology is for me becoming increasingly empty”

Stephen Downes’ Buntine Oration has been referred to many times in many blogs. Presented last month in Australia, Stephen quickly chronicles some of the major themes during his career in learning technology.

I can closely relate to his journey, as I’ve arrived at similar conclusions, via a somewhat different route. I learnt the trade while in the military, which helped me to develop the rigour necessary for large-scale instructional design, and I worked on multi-million dollar projects that could afford the newest learning technologies. I know that bigger is not better.

Stephen covers the early development of web-based learning systems, and the hope that they fostered for a new worldwide, open learning environment. This was quickly co-opted by technology hawkers who moved the new “e-learning” industry to the low hanging fruit of linear courses online, within a proprietary box. For instance, the vision of constructivists like Dave Jonassen, who tried to implement an instructional design model for problem-based learning on the web, never received the support of any major LMS vendors (you know who you are), as they were only interested in selling more licenses. Learning was just the mot du jour to make a buck.

Stephen finishes his essay with a new vision of hope for distributed, collaborative learning. Simple, cheap technologies like blogs and RSS are enabling a decentralised, user-defined learning experience.

You may not have seen some of the things I’ve talked about in this paper, things like learning objects, learning management systems, content packaging, federated search and learning design, but if you haven’t, you will. Soon.And you’ll probably hear about them from a sales representative or network administrator or supervisor (if you hear from your students, it will be about blogs and RSS, iPods and online games, or if they’re honest, file sharing networks).

And if the sales representative comes to you and tries to sell you an LMS or (worse) an LCMS, ask them why you have to pay them so much money for something the web and web browsers do for free.

If the sales representative tries to sell you online course and lessons, ask them whether it supports random access so students can use it when they want, even if they’re not at school, or ask them where you can access the dynamic feed with daily updated content, or how easy it is to place images from the course content in your blog.

If the sales representative tries to sell you learning design, ask for the open ended improv version, the game outliner, the simulation editor. When he shows you the software, ask him where the student content goes in, ask him to show you the blog aggregator.

If you are asked to join a federated search network, ask the providers why are they afraid of the market place, what content are they keeping out, where the third party metadata is.

And when they speak of your students as human resources, knowledge workers, consumers or target markets, ask the sales representative if he remembers when he was a child, his mind a little network, small and fragile, but open and free, an ecosystem ready and wanting to support a jungle of diversity and growth.

The Buntine Oration 2004, presented by Stephen Downes, is an exceptional synthesis of some of the major issues on learning and the web, and a good place to start thinking about tomorrow.

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