Eating Your Own Dog Food

Eating your own dog food is the practice of testing out the product you’re selling by actually using it. It’s unclear how literal the phrase’s origins are, but we do know it was popularized by developers at Microsoft Harrison, W. (2006). Eating Your Own Dog FoodIEEE Software23(3), 5–7.. Having spent the last 15 years of my career developing digital learning environments, pursuing an MEd online represented a bit of “dogfooding” for me. In this inaugural post, I want to share some of what I’ve learned about learning online in the last two years. In particular I want to share some of the emerging models of online, networked learning and some key obstacles to their success. In the process, my reasons for starting this blog should also become clear. But let’s start at the start.

Why pursue an MEd?

Having worked with eLearning startups for the last 15 years, I had become too aware of the fact that the guiding metaphors for product development were the classroom, the lecture hall and the traditional roles of teachers and students. We were performing what Clay Shirky has referred to as a “digital facelift” – we were idealizing our past experiences and embracing all the trappings of a new media without thinking through how its new affordances would come to demand new practices Campbell, G. (2009). A personal cyberinfrastructure. Educause Review44(5), 58–59.. Ed tech developers and entrepreneurs are not alone in thinking that, having spent most of their lives in education systems, they understand how the process is meant to work. Unfortunately, we were inadvertently limiting the power of our products by not asking whether the metaphors we were using were still appropriate. The recent massive open online course (MOOC) hype reflects how deeply we have ingrained the notion that “instruction” means “lecture”.

In order to better understand learning theory I enrolled in the Master’s of Education, Distance Education at the Center for Distance Education (CDE) at Athabasca University (AU). I was already using the research coming out of the CDE, and the program was offered online, meaning I would get a chance to use tools similar to the ones I’ve built.

Why Distance Education?

One reason distance education (DE) in particular, has so much to contribute to the field of ed tech is that DE researchers have been exploring the relationship between education and technology for nearly a hundred years. The distance between teacher and student has always been bridged by technology. Terry Anderson and Jon Dron (whose excellent book Teaching Crowds is the latest of many to be made freely available by AU press) earlier described how DE has moved through three distinct generations. Each generation has been tightly linked to the technologies of the day Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning12(3), 80–97.. It is helpful to keep in mind the two metaphors for learning – acquisition and participation – raised by Anna Sfard when exploring the evolution of DE Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just oneEducational Researcher27(2), 4–13..

The first, behaviorist-cognitivist era of DE was based on the metaphor of learning as acquisition. Instruction was the transfer of information from the expert to the novice, mediated primarily via mailed books, with little or no interaction between fellow students. Next came the constructivist era. Constructivists, such as Piaget and Vygotsky, argued learners participate actively in the construction of knowledge. They saw learning as the result of interaction with the environment and society in which the learner was based. This interaction was enabled by emerging information and communication technologies from phones to faxes, teleconferencing, video-conferencing and eventually, to computer-mediated communication.

Finally, Dron & Anderson describe the emerging connectivist generation of DE. Having previously shifted from transmission to construction, the metaphor has now become one of connection. Informed by advances in neuroscience, network theory and the study of complex systems, knowledge creation is seen as the formation of connections, whether between neurons in a mind, or people in a network. In the current connectivist era, the sheer abundance of content and connectivity enable dramatically different forms of instruction. The massive open online courses (MOOCs) that became front-page news in 2012 would have been impossible in any previous generation of DE.


Connected Learning

George Siemens described connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.. Given the ever-decreasing useful life of knowledge, knowing how to learn has become a critical skill. The discontinuity between educational and professional lives is no longer realistic; people need lifelong learning instead of pre-career learning. One key difference between constructivism and connectivism is that learning is now conceptualized as extending beyond the body. For example, information storage and retrieval now extend beyond a transfer between working and long-term memory, to include knowledge storage outside of the body. Stephen Downes, connectivism’s other key architect, has described how connective knowledge, in contrast to qualitative or quantitative knowledge, can be distributed among individuals throughout networks Downes, S. (2007). An introduction to connective knowledge. In Paper presented at the International Conference on Media, knowledge & education—exploring new spaces, relations and dynamics in digital media ecologies.. Some knowledge cannot be acquired. It must be accessed via participation.

Connectivism brings technology directly into learning theory. Informed by the theories of chaos and complex systems, connectivists suggest organization can emerge from anarchy providing the system allows the flow of information and the interaction of actors with each other and the environment. Two main implications arise from this line of thinking. The first is that the way we currently teach students could be improved. If the useful life of knowledge is shrinking, learners need the ability to self-direct their continued, lifelong learning to keep current. Any institution claiming to prepare students for life beyond the classroom or lecture hall needs to attend to these skills and make room for their practice.  The second, more radical implication, is that education does not need to be provided by a formal learning institution Downes, S. (2010, October 18). A World to Change.. The university’s monopoly on knowledge, expertise and instruction has eroded Weller, M. (2011). A pedagogy of abundanceRevista Española de Pedagogía, 223–235.. The knowledge and expertise previously concentrated in universities is now more widely accessible.

This is where things get really exciting. Given the proper skills and support, could learners connect with the content and people needed to learn outside of a formal institution? A quality post-secondary education, notoriously resistant to scaling and facing continuous defunding, remains an expensive privilege. Could an alternative model based on connectivist / networked practices be used to dramatically expand access to education?

Enabling New Practices with Existing Technologies

Throughout the coursework, I had been keeping an eye out for niches where technology could be used to improve learning effectiveness or efficiency. Now, as I’ve completed the coursework and transitioned into my research, my thinking has changed. Innovative ideas with experimental support have repeatedly been mothballed, not because of a lack of enabling technology, but because of opposition to the changes to practice needed to make them work. In the 1960s, Fred Keller described a new model for instruction called the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) Keller, F. S. (1968). Good-bye, teacher… Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis1(1), 79–89. . He suggested students should progress at their own pace through a modularized content base with frequent immediate feedback. Despite experimental support demonstrating PSI’s potential as an improvement over the traditional lecture, PSI failed to move from the fringes to mainstream practice Grant, L. K., & Spencer, R. E. (2003). The Personalized System of Instruction: Review and Applications to Distance Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning4(2).. A similar pattern has been seen with other innovations. Will novel practices based on connectivist theory suffer a similar fate? How does connectivist theory inform practice? Is it compatible with existing practices?

Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) provided an early attempt to put connectivist theory into practice. In 2008, Siemens and Downes delivered the first cMOOC, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. This “course”, offered to 25 students at the University of Manitoba and another 2200 non-credit students online, challenged the roles of student and instructor, as well as the definition of the course. Although there was an editable syllabus, student-created content was aggregated and became part of the course’s readings. Students were creating their “textbook” through their reflections on the initial syllabus.

With a teacher-student ratio of 1:1100, much of the responsibility for providing feedback had to be transferred from the instructors to the students. The “course” was designed to bring the roles of student and teacher closer together, seeing both instead as participants. The challenge to the fixed term nature of a course was made more explicit in a subsequent cMOOC, Change MOOC, delivered in 2011. The facilitators, Downes, Siemens & Cormier, advised participants that the course “can last as long as you want it to” How This Course Works. (n.d.).. Participants were learning how to engage in networked learning that is not bound by the formal enrolment or fixed terms of a traditional course. Digital Storytelling 106, a course offered by the University of Mary Washington, is similarly (and I’d say very successfully) pushing the boundaries of the course and challenging the established roles of students and teachers Levine, A. (2013). ds106: Not a Course, Not Like Any MOOC. EDUCAUSE Review48(1)..

The technologies used included blogs, microblogs, RSS aggregation, email and social networking and bookmarking sites. Though constantly evolving, these are fairly mature technologies. New practices, not technologies, were required to enable the connectivist pedagogy. Cormier noted the indefatigable efforts of Siemens and Downes to connect with their 2200 students Cormier, D. (2008, October 2). The CCK08 MOOC – Connectivism course, 1/4 way | Dave’s Educational Blog.. These efforts matter. Students report dissatisfaction when there is no feedback or response to their blog posts Fournier, H., Kop, R., & Durand, G. (2014). Challenges to research in MOOCsJournal of Online Learning & Teaching10(1).. This Herculean effort to prime the pump is unsustainable. Are participants willing to shoulder some of the load currently carried by instructors?

The success of this new model doesn’t only hinge on the instructors’ efforts – student participation is essential. Success depends on embracing a new culture that will be foreign to most if not all learners. It depends on embracing participation over acquisition. After the completion of Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge (PLENK), the third MOOC run by Siemens & Downes, Siemens published a post challenging students to avoid a selfish view of the personal learning environments and networks created during the course Siemens, G. (2010, December 1). My Personal Learning Network is the most awesomest thing ever!!. He challenged the value of legitimate peripheral participation, and equated lurking with taking: “these networks function on a gift-economy basis … once the sharing stops, the network collapses”.

I’m going to avoid getting any deeper into exploring the challenges of embracing connectivist theory in formal institutions. The key point is that education institutions have time and again failed to adopt innovations that require changes to practice. There’s been a great discussion of why this is the case recently (see Phil Hill’s post for a good entry point). New practices are needed more than new technologies. There remains a bias towards technologies that necessitate the minimum amount of organizational change thus limiting their effectiveness Bates, T. (2015, January 26). Why organisational issues are critical for media selection. .

Why Start Blogging?

We have the theoretical and technological tools needed to enable a new model of learning that could potentially dramatically expand access. Students pursuing formal education need to learn how to build and navigate these networks to stay current. As I start my research exploring the success of efforts to encourage networked learning in formal institutions, I’ve realized I need to eat my own dog food once more. I’ve also realized that in addition to building social capital and providing a structured opportunity for reflection, I’m engaging in the very practices I’m studying. I’m leaving breadcrumbs for others to follow. I’m creating a platform to interact with peers. By participating, I’m taking a small step towards helping to enable a new model for education.


    About Jeff Pinto

    Educational Technology consultant, developer and researcher.

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