Harnessing the Power of YouTube for Distributed Cognition

I’ve been learning a lot about knowledge communities – including Reciprocal Teaching – (Ann Brown, Anne Marie Palincsar), collaborative knowledge construction (Marlene Scardamalia, Carl Bereiter), and distributed learning (Yvonne Rogers, Michael Cole & Yrjo Engestrom).  However, when I think of “the tubes” (i.e. YouTube, SchoolTube, TeacherTube) and all the learning opportunities they have to offer via traditional transmission instructional strategies – the very strategies we are desperately trying to steer away from – I find myself at a crossroads.  The examples of YouTube learning below have absolutely ZERO aspects of community knowledge creation other than YouTube’s role as video tutorial repository.  Granted, YouTube does allow for the posting of comments for each video, but I have yet to see this feature being used in a way that remotely resembles a community discourse with the goal of deeper understanding.  What follows are some examples of the learning power of YouTube.

Khan Academy
Not sure if anyone has heard of the Khan Academy?  Salman Khan, who quit his job in finance, runs this non-profit educational organization out of a closet in his home.  He regularly creates tutorial videos about an astounding number of science and math topics, and posts them to YouTube.  Here’s a chemistry video about the atom, proton, neutron, and electron:

Common Craft
Then there’s Common Craft, who makes wonderful videos to explain various technologies (e.g. wikis, blogs, augmented reality, etc.).  Here’s Common Craft’s YouTube channel.  Their latest video is about augmented reality:

My 8-Year-Old Nephew
Just to illustrate my classmate, Maria’s, point about the power and appeal of YouTube, I’d like to use my 8-year-old nephew as an example.  Aside from a few ukelele classes he got at his after school program, he has taught himself how to play the ukelele and the guitar by surfing YouTube.  YouTube has fed his motivation to learn both these instruments so much, that he now creates his own ukelele songs (sometimes with accompanying lyrics).  He also gets his parents to take him to local open mic events at least once a week so that he can perform his music.  Furthermore, he gets his mom to video-record his performances so that they can be uploaded to YouTube.  Makes me wonder what he’ll do at age 10.  Here’s my nephew’s YouTube channel if you’re interested.  My favourite song is “I Don’t Know” – hysterical!!!

YouTube for Knowledge Communities & Distributed Cognition?
Contrary to everything I’m learning in graduate school about learning, YouTube, for the most part delivers knowledge in the most pedagogically traditional way.  There is no knowledge community discourse, no distributed cognition, no acknowledgement/accommodation of individual learning styles…it is simply transmission teaching in a digital medium!  Yet, it’s undeniable that such instructional YouTube videos have learning value.  So how might we better use YouTube to enhance learning, promote distributed cognition, and foster knowledge communities?

My first thought is to make better use of the YouTube’s commenting functionality, and use this as a community discussion forum.  However, I think it is better to establish an online learning environment on some other platform, and refer to specific YouTube video resources as the need arises.  This way, the instructor has more tools to work with, in terms of creating an effective online learning environment.  Furthermore, the instructor and participants (through their virtual social presence) may have a clearer picture of how the community’s cognition is distributed and therefore take reasonable actions in their responses to focus on topics/directions that suit the group’s needs.

Case Study Approach
A more concrete strategy to ensure distributed cognition and distributed problem solving within a knowledge community would be to design a specific and authentic problem to be solved by the group as a whole.  Some of my classmates have suggested the case-study method to achieve this.

Knowledge Community & Inquiry (KCI)
Another framework that comes to mind is Knowledge Community and Inquiry (KCI).  The theoretical tradition of classrooms as knowledge communities (Brown & Campione, 1996; Scardamaila & Bereiter, 1999; Hakkarainen, 2004), engages students with a sense of “collective cognitive responsibility” for continuous community knowledge advancement (Scardamalia, 2002).  KCI is a recent effort within this tradition espoused by James D. Slotta and his colleagues (e.g., Slotta & Peters, 2008; Peters & Slotta, 2010). KCI engages the students and teacher as a knowledge community, building a cooperative “knowledge base” that serves as a resource in scaffolded inquiry activities designed to target specific learning goals.  I believe KCI can be a powerful approach to focusing a knowledge community’s distributed cognition on the collaborative inquiry and problem solving.

Video Games & Augmented Reality As Situated Learning Spaces

Quest To Learn is a 1-year old public middle school in New York City based on a curriculum of educational video gaming and digital media.

“Games as learning spaces” – learning at Quest to Learn is structured in a game-like way. Students modify and create video games to demonstrate their learning, and assume defined roles during this process. “Systems thinking” is the theoretical framework on which the school’s methodology is based.

As I ponder about situated cognition (i.e. learning is inseparable from doing), it seems to me that educational video gaming and creation is the ultimate situatedness for learners – short of immersing them in real domain under study!  What I find particularly interesting, is that these students are potentially simultaneously being immersed in 2 cultures – the culture of the subject area content which the video game addresses, and the culture of gamers and gamer creators.  Thus achieving “double situatedness” (if these is such a term)!

My classmate, Jillian A. writes:  “The theory of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) states that  a newcomer to a community plays an authentic role (or set of roles) on the ‘periphery’ of community activity, participating ‘in the actual practice of an  expert, but only to a limited degree and with limited responsibility for the ultimate  product as a whole’ (Lave & Wenger, 1990; p. 14)”.  So while these learners may be on the periphery of the subject matter community for which they are creating their video games, their game modification and creation processes place them at the very centre of the gaming community.

Dr. Jennifer Jenson and Dr. Suzanne de Castell have done a lot of research on educational gaming.  Recalling a paper I read of theirs last year, I remember their distinction between “as if” and “just like”.  I believe they were arguing that while simulations gave learners an experience “as if” they were completing an authentic task in a given subject domain, educational video games could give learners an experience “just like” they were doing the real thing.  The “just like” experience was deemed a more effective learning experience.  I’ll have to dig up that paper…

An incredible development in the gaming world – Project Natal’s “Milo” – has exciting implications for further and deeper situatedness that promises to blur the line between the virtual and real world:

Pranav Mistry of MIT has created SixthSense technology, using gestures and digital media to further blur the distinction between the physical and the virtual world:

If situatedness closely approximates reality, would this necessarily lead to deeper and more meaningful learning? Why or why not?

I will continue to think about this.  My initial thoughts are that the more the situated learning context approximates a realistic context of the domain of study, the deeper and more meaningful the learning will be.  This may be due to a heightened sensory experience afforded by the technology contributing to the realism of the learning context.

SMART Board + Science = Situated Cognition Knowledge Community Wiki?

I recently ran a F2F workshop for elementary preservice science teachers to introduce them to SMART Boards and to get them thinking about how best to use this technology with students to enhance science teaching and learning.  As a way to organize activity centres, I created a wiki.

For 1 hour, the preservice teachers, in groups of 4, worked through 4 activity centres:  SB1, SB2, SB3, and SB4.  Each “SB” wikipage followed the “5E’s” science instructional model:  engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate.  This was a deliberate attempt to model how the 5E’s could be used to frame a lesson, since they would soon be learning about the 5E’s instructional model in their science education class.

I took a Piagetian approach – having students work on their own, then with a partner, and finally within a group of 4 preservice teachers.  Thus progressing from invidividual to socialized thought.  As the students worked through the tasks outlined on the various SB wikipages, they often had online videos that they could view on their own.  They were instructed to complete the “explore” tasks in pairs and also to “extend and evaluate” their new learnings by discussing within their group of 4 to connect these learnings with science teaching strategies.  “Homework” consists of adding these connections to the wikipages’ “extend and evaluate” sections, and asynchronous discussions about this may take place via the discussion forum accessible by clicking on the “Discussion” tab at the top of every wikipage.

The F2F portion of the class went extremely well.  The preservice teachers were immersed in the SMART Board material presented, and as I was dropping in on their conversations, I could tell that they were looking at these resources through the lens of science educators.  Did I succeed in situating them in context of teachers considering how best to use a technology for science education?  I think so!  They have until December 9, 2010 to complete their homework, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this community will take shape online.

Piaget, Vygotsky, Situated Cognition Vs. Mitra’s SOLE & Granny Clouds

I’ve been reading about social and cultural influences on learning, as well as Situated Learning:

Piaget, Vygotsky, Situated Cognition
Where Piaget asserted that children developed from the individual to the socialized (i.e. nonverbal autistic thought –> egocentric thought & speech –> logical thinking & socialized speech), Vygotsky argued that children developed from the socialized to the individual (i.e. social –> egocentric –> inner speech).

In situated cognition theory, activity and situations are integral to cognition and learning.

Vygotsky’s developmental theory and Situated Cognition theory can indeed work in tandem!  These theories imply that:

  1. Learners need to be situated within a collaborative learning context so they may co-investigate socially, eventually leading to internalized learning for each individual.
  2. These co-investigation activities must be authentic tasks, situated within the context of the subject domain of study, such that learners see themselves as practitioners of that domain.

Both #1 & #2 can be done face-to-face (F2F) or online, but I always think that a blended model (e.g., F2F + online) works best.

Mitra’s SOLE and Granny Clouds
Having read about Piaget and Vygotsky’s somewhat opposite theories of child development, it has made me give more thought to Sugata Mitra’s TED talk about The Child-Driven Education:

The idea that children will collaboratively learn with digital tools they’ve never used, heard of, or seen before; inspite of purposeful lack of instruction and scaffolding – is evidence to me that collaborative learning is natural to the human condition.  This is incredibly profound!  Furthermore, Sugata Mitra’s work seems to support Vygotsky’s developmental theory, rather than Piaget’s; as it seems that the children in his studies developed their skills and knowledge socially before the new knowledge became internalized within each individual child.

In his TED talk, Mitra mentions 2 quotes from Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, that I find very profound:
“A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.”
“If children have interest, then education happens.”

The second half of this TED talk is particularly intriguing.  Sugata Mitra’s work on Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLE) and the Granny Cloud.  He informally organized children into small groups and gave each group a set of questions, as well as the freedom to access the internet with 1 laptop,  discuss amongst their group, drop in on other groups, and no other scaffolding.  He’s found that such informal groupings and vague scaffolding sets the stage for children to self-organize as a learning community, producing deep learning.  His Granny Cloud work involved 200 volunteer English grandmothers who regularly taught English to children in India via Skype.

Mitra Vs. Situated Cognition
Mitra’s SOLE work is in sharp contrast to my classmates’ (Scott J.’s KEC note #1286 and Chad L.’s KEC note #1310) and my own thinking (KEC note #1404), that collaboration skills need to be explicitly taught.  In Mitra’s SOLE work, this is clearly not the case!  Is it possible, that by explicitly teaching collaboration, we stifle the degree to which children can collaborate effectively and learn deeply?  It also interesting to note the absence of any situatedness in Mitra’s SOLE work.  In fact, all of the learning tasks that he presented to various populations of children in various countries (India, Italy, England) were intentionally out of context and in some cases, not even in a language that the children knew!  Perhaps then, situated cognition is not a necessary component of effective/deep learning, merely an enhancing component?

Mitra’s speculation:  “Education is a self organising system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon…”.  He estimates that it will take 5 years and under $1 million to prove this experimentally, and that’s what he intends to do.  Mitra’s theory is a direct contradiction to Brown, Collins, and Duguid’s “cognitive apprenticeship” model (1989), where learning is embedded in activity and deliberate use is made of the social and physical context to immerse learners in the culture of the knowledge domain under study.  The one idea that Mitra’s work and the Cognitive Apprenticeship model have in common is that learning is supported by collaborative social interaction and social construction of knowledge.  As previously noted, Mitra’s work also contradicts the notion of “situated cognition“, in which activity and situations are integral to cognition and learning.

So who’s right?  There seems to be supporting evidence for all arguments!  Perhaps it’s a question of efficiency.  If we leave learners to collaboratively self-organize, they will learn deeply if given enough time.  If we situate (via cognitive apprenticeship) and scaffold learners’ collaborative learning, they will learn deeply, perhaps in less time?

Finally, Mitra emphasizes that the future of educational change is “A question of attitude, not technology”, and breaks down “The Arithmetic of Change” for us:
1 billion children
100 million mediators
10 million SOLEs
$180 billion
10 years

This indeed is an exciting and optimistic outlook for education!  Perhaps there is hope yet of rocketing the education dinosaur into the 21st century…

Note:  Sugata Mitra’s papers regarding the studies he mentioned in his TED talk can be found here (UTORid needed).

Let the Learning Begin!

This learning journal is part of an assignment for my CTL1608 graduate course, “Constructive Learning & Design of Online Environments”, with Dr. Clare Brett at OISE/UT.  Although I’ve taken courses about constructivist learning and computer-mediated learning, I have yet to take a course about the design of online environments (presumably for the enhancement of learning).

The course began a week ago, and I’m already 1 week behind due to my mad scramble to compile my Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship application – a futile exercise, I know (since the odds are so low), but still a worthwhile learning experience in my opinion.  Next on my list are the SSHRC and OGS scholarship applications.

I’m intentionally beginning this learning journal before I’ve done any of the course readings because I’m curious to see how my perspectives will change as I progress through this course for the next 3 months!

What I know…
…about learning…
Constructivist learning is an active and social process by which learners engage with new concepts and with co-learners, to actively construct knowledge and understanding of the topic of study.  This is achieved through the active collaboration of learners during tasks and discussions to arrive at a shared understanding of the concept/topic of study.  Learners must have access to prior learning as they also engage in a continuous cycle of new knowledge creation and reflection.  Reflection not only informs new knowledge creation, but also helps learners to develop awareness of their own metacognition.  Learners must be able to personally connect with the material, and I believe that learning is enhanced if the learner also develops an emotional connection with the material, or with the learning process itself in their interactions with their co-learners.  Thus the learning must occur in an authentic and relevant context.  This aligns with my personal philosophy of learning, in large part because I am heavily influenced by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter’s work on constructivist knowledge building.

…about the role of the teacher…
As for the role of the teacher in all this?  The teacher is seen more as a facilitator than the gatekeeper of knowledge, as in more traditional school settings.  My favourite metaphor for this is that the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage”, but rather, the “guide on the side”.  I wish I knew where this metaphor came from, but it is so widely used in education and training, that it’s now been incorporated into the common rhetoric of both fields.  Personally, I think that there are still situations in which direct teacher instruction is warranted, but let it be only 50% (preferably much less) of instructional time!  As the facilitator of a constructivist learning environment, the teacher guides students gently to keep them from straying too far off their focus, and to prompt/question them when necessary to nudge them towards deeper inquiry and understanding.  The teacher is teaching students how to learn, rather than teaching them what to learn (i.e. the content).

…about online learning environments…
From a constructivist standpoint, an online learning environment should have the following functionality:

  • asynchronous threaded discussion:  so that learners may use this forum to exchange, share, analyze, and build upon each other’s ideas, and information gleaned form external resources.  This also allows learners to access these vital discussions at anytime from anywhere, thus the learning never has to stop.
  • synchronous chat:  so that learners can collaborate in real time to discuss ideas, share/analyze data/information, and perhaps work with each other to plan how they will complete their collaborative learning tasks
  • permanent record of prior learning:  so that learners may revisit their prior learning and reflect upon “where they’ve been”, compare/contrast this with “where they’re at”, which may inform them about “where they’re going”
From my own observations and experiences as an online learner, I think the following should be considered when designing an online learning environment:
  • simplicity:  a simple interface with lots of white/blank space and minimal text is attractive to the eye.  Whenever possible, replace text links with icon links.
  • 2 (ok, maybe 3) clicks deep:  the learner should never have to click more than 2 or 3 levels deep to access the webpage they’re looking for.
  • multi-media:  the social presence of the instructor and students directly correlates with students perception of course effectiveness.  Hence, the environment should allow users to easily interact with each other via self-made video- and/or audio-recordings.  A bonus would be to allow real-time video and/or audio chat.  This also addresses differentiated instruction, in which personal learning preferences/styles are taken into account.
  • gallery:  a webspace where learners can share and celebrate their “final” products/demonstrations of learning.  The gallery should also allow for peer review of work, much like how YouTube has a “Comments”section below the posted video.
  • assessment:  Having used Knowledge Forum (KF) with grade 6, 8, and 12 students; I know how much learners appreciate KF’s built-in assessment tools which can tell users how many notes students have posted and read, note reading and response interaction patterns among a class, and individual student progress in vocabulary growth.  Not only did these tools inform learners of their own progress, but these tools also served as a motivational force!  Furthermore, these tools help the teacher form a “big picture” understanding of the online class’ dynamics and can quickly inform the teacher about students who may need a little more support and guidance.
  • virtual world:  this is my personal bias.  I can’t understand why video games and digitally animated films can look so incredibly beautiful and yet, online learning environments do not.  No wonder students love to spend time playing video games!  Who wouldn’t want to stay in such a graphically stimulating environment?  It would be wonderful if an online learning environment had the look and feel of a virtual world, without having to move an avatar – I am quick to throw the latter point out there because I’ve experienced how frustrating this can be (e.g. Second Life).
Here are some online learning sites that I’ve created for various workshops and tutorials within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), but they are not what I would consider “constructivist”:
  • TDSB Blogging with Blogger:  an online tutorial about how to use Blogger to create a class blog
  • Podcasting & Vodcasting for Learning:  an online tutorial about how to create a class podcast/vodcast using Blogger
  • Dare 2 Dream:  Spirit of Dr. King:  created for Black History Month (2008) for use in elementary classrooms for the NE1 family schools in the TDSB.  Goal was to highlight leadership and spur students to think about how they might take up a leadership role to work towards improved equity in their community
My favourite classroom blog/podcast is done by a TDSB teacher named Chris Borges, called Mr. Borges & the Blog Squad.  Although I have used PBwiki and Wikispaces in the past, I don’t have any classroom examples to share.
What I Want to Learn…
  • what the “experts” have to say about good design of online learning environments
  • see examples of well-designed online learning environments
  • what aspects of online learning environment design make it “constructivist”
  • how to seemlessly integrate mobile learning (m-learning) with a constructivist online learning environment