Stephen Downes, one of the originators of the first Massive Open Online Course and co-created together with George Siemens the learning paradigma of connectivism.

Stephen Downes, The Locus of Value in Learning Innovation

Stephen Downes works with the Digital Technologies Research Centre at the National Research Council of Canada specializing in new instructional media and personal learning technology. He is one of the originators of the first Massive Open Online Course, has published frequently about online and networked learning, has authored learning management and content syndication software, and is the author of the widely read e-learning newsletter OLDaily. Through a thirty-year career Downes has contributed pioneering work in the fields of online learning games, learning objects and metadata, podcasting, open educational resources. Today he is developing gRSShopper, a personal learning environment, offering a course on new e-learning technologies, and supporting research and development in the use of distributed ledger technology in learning applications. He is a popular keynote speaker and has spoken in three dozen countries on six continents.

What is “Learning Innovation” (= Innovation in Learning) for you?

Innovation, as opposed to change, is typically defined with respect to an end goal, and is marked by progression toward that goal. Innovation isn’t simply the development of something new, it’s the development of something new that creates value. Typically, value is represented in financial terms – an innovation generates revenue or reduces costs – and these in turn are typically represented in terms of customer needs, defined as that which they would be willing to pay for. But I think of innovation more broadly, where value is defined not merely by willingness to pay, but in terms of social good, such as the advancement of cultural diversity, or the promotion of individual agency, or the generation of openness and inclusiveness.

So, innovation in learning speaks to these types of value in a learning context. My own focus has been on the promotion of learner agency, such that change in learning (in learning technology, say, or pedagogy, or infrastructure) enables a person to define and successfully pursue his or her own learning without the need for or dependence upon agents or agencies that may substitute their own interests in place of those of the learner.

Of course, each person has their own objectives they may wish to pursue; some of these may involve securing an income and a place in society, but they may also include personal development and definition, including cultural and political development, expression and voice, and the space to realize their fullest potential, whatever that may happen to be.

Of course there is no direct line that can be drawn from a specific innovation in learning – a new piece of technology, say, or a new teaching strategy – and so the concept of learning innovation requires at a minimum some understanding of the relation between these and learning outcomes where, again, outcomes are represented as value for the learner (as opposed to a proxy, such as grades). In my own work I’ve framed these as network competencies (a), digital literacies (b), and core values (c). Insofar as the development of new technologies and processes advance the learner along any of these dimensions, it could be said to be innovative to that extent.
(a) aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward
(b) syntax, semantics, context, use, cognition, change
(c) autonomy, diversity, openness, interactivity

I would like to deepen the aspect of “network competence”, as this is a term that is currently used very often. What exactly do you mean by network competence? Can they be encouraged and what would be an example?

There are two ways to characterize network competencies, which I’ll call here ‘macro’ and ‘micro’.
From the micro perspective, ‘network competence’ refers to the idea of ‘being a node in a network’. This is a bit different from, say, ‘being a team player’ or ‘being a cog in the machine’. In all three cases, you are a part of the whole, but in the case of the network, the role you play is not externally defined, but rather, created by means of your interaction and communication with other members of the network.

This is where ‘aggregate, remix, repurpose, and feed forward’ come in. This is a way of representing the activities of a node in a network (you’ll find similar versions of the same concert throughout the literature). It’s the idea of gathering input, working with that input, and creating an output. Your ‘role’ is to perform these tasks autonomously. It is by your unique perspective that you add value to the whole.

So, there are skills implicated in all of these activities. For example, you can aggregate more or less well. For example, if you just sit there and wait for experiences to come to you, you may have a very narrow field of vision. However, if you are active and seek out multiple perspectives, you have a wider view. These sorts of skills can be translated into very concrete skills sets, such as ‘active listening’.

From the macro perspective, ‘network competence’ refers to the idea of being able to recognize and comprehend network phenomena. Network phenomena are the result of complex interactions between numerous individual entities each acting independently (as opposed so a mass movement that is directed by a single cause or force or leadership). This breaks down into two parts: first, recognizing that something is a network phenomenon, and second, being able to comprehend that phenomenon for the purposes of (say) predicting outcomes or making plans.

Consider, for example, a flock of birds flying in the sky moving this way and that. We understand that this is a network phenomenon when we realize that there is no one bird that is directing the flock; each bird makes its own decision about where to fly. At the same time, we can recognize patterns in the flock – avoiding danger, reacting to the wind, seeking a place to land, and so on – that describe the behavior collectively even though it was not directed (nor possibly even realized) by any single one of them. Being able to recognize the patterns of behavior in a network is an example of a macro network competence.

What are your challenges and goals – strategies / projects and programs in the field of learning and working?

At this moment in time (and it is important to understand that these constantly change in nature and form) I would characterize the challenges along two axes: first, in our understanding of the nature of knowledge itself, and therefore of learning; and second, in our understanding of the ownership of learning (or, to reference the first part of this interview, the locus of value).

I have in the past characterized knowledge as ‘recognition’, and what this means is that having knowledge means being in a state (specifically: a specific organizational state, or network) such that specific experiences prompt a characteristic (or ‘learned’) set of cognitive and (sometimes) physical responses. This set of responses is called ‘recognition’, and it’s the feeling we all have of seeing something familiar, and hence, knowing what to do. The key hear is that knowledge is a state, a physical state or neural state, and that learning therefore is the set of practices and experiences that lead to being in that state. Why is this important, and how does it create challenges and goals? Well, a physical or neural state can’t be ‘transferred’ from an expert to a non-expert, no more than an athlete can transfer his or her strength and abilities to a novice. Thus, understanding of learning, and of value in learning, as being based on (say) the acquisition of some body of ‘content’ is misleading and wrong. One may as well say that a student has ‘learned basketball’ merely by learning the rules! In fact, the rules are the least important part of basketball; we can easily imagine equally challenging and entertaining activities with a completely different set of rules.

So a significant amount of my own work has been an effort to shift the emphasis in learning, and learning technology specifically, from a pure content orientation (exemplified by learning objects, content repositories, course management systems, etc.) to one based around the creation of environments and experiences that enable people to develop and grow their own capacities in their own ways. Sometimes this manifests in very specific ways, such as the advocacy and development of open-ended systems over branching scenarios, and in other cases it manifests very broadly, as in the development of the connectivist MOOC (d).

With respect to the ownership of learning, I have sought over the years to place it (and therefore, the locus of value) firmly in the domain of the learner. To be clear, this is not an advocacy of some sort of atomistic or individualistic model of society. But there is, first, an ethical dimension, and second, a social dimension, which both explain and contextualize the placing of ownership of learning in this way.

The ethical dimension is that the system of education ought to be first and foremost for the benefit of the individual learner. Or, to put the same point a different way, the first principle of any educator ought to be, “do no harm”. And just as it would be ethically irresponsible to sacrifice individual health for (say) social or economic gain, the same ought to apply in education. If education does not bring value to the individual learner, then it is not in fact education; it is mind control, or propaganda, or indoctrination, or some such thing.
The social dimension is that, just as it benefits a society to be composed of healthy individuals, and just as a society is weakened by the burden of the ill-health of its citizens, so also is this the case for education, and for the same reasons. Healthy people can manage their own lives, create value for themselves through production and work, and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The same is true for educated people. Societies function most fruitfully when individuals interact autonomously as self-sufficient agents, rather than as dependent and docile masses.

Many of the challenges and projects related to the issue of ownership can be classified under the heading of open learning, which has several dimensions: open pedagogy, open educational resources, open access, open assessment, and more. Issues also rise with respect to the design of educational systems and educational technology, where the locus of value is deemed to be the institution, or the technology company, or the advertiser, or even the corporation or government. There is a constant challenge between ‘innovation’ that benefits the learner, and ‘innovation’ that benefits some other people or institutions.
Notes: (d) Massive Open Online Course

You point out that the main focus is on creating open learning environments and opportunities for learning experiences. However, this approach is often difficult in companies because it is less tangible than implementing a learning management system and rolling out entire learning media libraries. How can top management be convinced that creating learning environments and experiences is more effective than simply rolling out learning content?

As always with questions like this, a lot depends on the managers in question.

The first question is, what would constitute ‘effective’ in their eyes? This depends on what they are seeking to accomplish when they are rolling out learning content. Often the goal is not to actually promote learning but rather to demonstrate regulatory compliance or satisfy a similar sort of demand with minimal effort. Or rather than address actual training needs, the intent may be to ensure that employees receive a specific message. There is not a lot that can be done to convince management in cases like these, because effective learning is not the desired outcome.

A second question to ask is, what would convince them? This poses several challenges. On the one hand, managers may not be well-versed in educational theory and more likely to refer to case studies, management consultants, and the business press. On the other hand, the case for things like open learning environments and opportunities for learning experiences is not straightforwardly scientific. This is especially the case when value is defined by the learner, rather than the company, and may vary from person to person.

So, I think that the best approach would be to emphasize the development of the capacity to learn, rather than the attainment of any specific learning, on the part of the employee. Then the argument can be relatively clear: the best evidence that someone has become capable of learning new things as needed is that they have learned new things. This in turn is demonstrated in the employee’s increasing capacity – perhaps a greater range of skills, perhaps a greater depth or efficiency in a particular skill. This will vary from employee to employee.

None of this will be directly reflected in the bottom line, at least, not immediately. And the relation between greater skills and greater performance will depend on additional factors, such as the employer’s capacity to adapt staffing models to match new skills and capacities, or to create room in projects for employees to develop project-specific skills as needed, thus leveraging the employee’s greater ability to learn. Examples would need to be built into cases, and these cases would need to depend on a logic model that takes into account these factors for the specific context of that particular workplace.

And it still might not convince management, because it’s not a simple solution to a complex problem. At a certain point, management cannot be convinced, which is why I am always careful to caution people that they themselves need to take charge of their learning and development, and no not merely wait until conditions are favorable in the workplace. Because they might never be.

What do companies, organizations and educational institutions have to do to implement learning innovations?

The proper understanding of this question is to ask, “what do individual learners have to be able to do in order to advance their own learning,” and then to ask, “what do companies, organizations and educational institutions have to do in order to support this?”

Often this means that companies, organizations and educational institutions will have to reframe their own understanding of themselves.

To take a simple example, take the case of a company. On a typical balance sheet, employees represent an expense, and money spent on employees (including on employee training and development) considered a liability, rather than a benefit. Thus, at the outset, employees represent negative value to a company, and these must be offset by positive value, represented by the money spent by customers on goods and services provided by the company. This situation exists because the purpose of the company (and hence, or all employee work, including employee training and development) is to maximize wealth for the owner or shareholder.

Similar stories could be told about the relation between learners and other organizations and educational institutions, even governments.

If we realign our understanding of value, however, the story we tell about a company changes. With the new story, the money spent on employees (including on employee training and development) is considered a benefit, in other words, as a positive outcome of company activity. The more the company can support its employees’ own growth and development, the more valuable the company becomes to the employees. (Ultimately, in a more radical realization of this same scenario, there is the understanding that all people – both those formerly known as the ‘customer’ and those formerly known as the ‘employee’ – are intended to benefit from association with the company).

The focus, therefore, of corporate, institutional and organizational learning should be based on the principle of support and enablement, rather than restriction and requirement.

I’ve sometimes captured this distinction in the distinction between personalized and personal learning. In personalized learning, institutions typically begin with a body of content that is to be mastered, represented as an ideal learning outcome, against which the learner will be tested or assessed before a certificate or credential is granted; personalization in this scenario amounts to offering (slightly) different ways of achieving institutionally-defined outcomes.

Personal learning, by contrast, begins with a definition by the learner of some task or objective they would like to complete, with the achievement of that task supported by their ability to draw upon help and resources from an educational institution, where the successful outcome is realized in the completion of that task to the satisfaction of the learner.

From the perspective of the companies, organizations and educational institutions, the implementation of learning innovations is tantamount to identifying and leveraging those tools, techniques and processes that most fully support learners (whether they be students, employees, citizens or members) and the reduction of those tools, techniques and processes that manage or control learners.

What challenges are you currently facing (both enjoyable and strenuous)? What do you want to deal with in the coming years?

My greatest personal challenge is the definition of both personal and professional relevance. As I approach the latter half of my career, I am drawn in two directions: learning more and staying current in an increasingly complex and changing environment; and consolidating what I have already learned, sharing my knowledge and experience, and focusing less on the future and more on the present moment. Both are precious to me, and I am loathed to lessen my attention to either.

My most recent work has been the ‘E-Learning 3.0’ course I offered, which focuses on recent advances in distributed and decentralized systems and technologies. So, I’ve been looking into cloud technologies, data and resources, identity systems, consensus and community, and experience and agency. Each of the nine modules in the course stretched my knowledge and understanding, requiring me to immerse myself into completely new communities and environments – the open data community, for example, blockchain networks, or the system of badges and certificates.

The challenge, for me, is in seeing how all these parts fit together, or being relevant in any of them (when today each now represents a lifetime’s work to master). I want to see and work with all the details of each, because that’s the only way to truly know it, but I don’t want to completely lose myself in any of them, because (as always) my own personal skill lies in seeing and comprehending the larger picture. The result is (and I wonder if this doesn’t happen to everyone) my own knowledge has become too complex for me to understand.

Dear Stephen, thank you very much for your insights and for sharing your experiences.

Stephen Downes, Keynote Swiss eLearning Conference 2011.

Dieses Interview erschien zuerst in dem Sammelband "10 Jahre Learning Innovation Conference - 22 Interviews". Hrsg. von Alexander Petsch und Dr. Daniel Stoller Schai, HRM Research Institute 2019.

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