I just enrolled in DS106 .  And I’m asking myself what it means to be in a course that “has no centre”. Good question. I think the place to start reflecting on that question is with the word “course” itself which, to me, conjures up all sorts of deeply embedded notions about education. As always, I resort to metaphor to help me shed light.

I do a lot of canoeing and the word “course” reminds me of the word “portage”,  a word I’ve thought  about a lot over the years. A course is like a portage, a path (link?) between two places (nodes?).   Generally, it is clear of debris, often well-trodden, sometimes being a path worn from repetitive use over thousands of years. Humans like to travel on the paths of folks before them.  A “course” as we typically conceive of it in classroom learning seems the same. A well laid out path, cleared by others, taken by others, with a clear beginning and end. Like a portage, it is often the shortest, easiest route between two places. Now, sometimes on a canoe trip, particularly if one travels into “wilder” territory, the portages have been reclaimed by nature, if there at all. And faced with having to travel between one lake and another, the canoeist is compelled to forge their own path through the bush – the dreaded “bush whack”. If anybody has ever tried to push their way through an alder thicket with a ninety pound canoe on their shoulders, you know what it means to spend hours scouring the shoreline for any signs of a path through the bush, anything to avoid the bushwhack.  But sometimes it’s the only option and people get out of the canoes, subdued, don their burdens and plunge into the bush, each one crashing their own route, looking for signs of light (stigmergy), of clear going, a wandering band of travellers, heading in the same direction but each finding their own way. Cursing a lot as they go, wondering why they aren’t playing golf somewhere. Viewed from above, the resulting picture of the trails left behind would be more fractal than linear.

So, maybe the word “course” just doesn’t fit this open, decentralized context of learning. It’s more a bushwhack than a path – not so much “centre-less” as pathless. Confronted with that, I’m given to that same queasy feeling, a kind of learning vertigo, I get when there’s no portage. So indoctrinated am I into having the path laid out for me in my formal learning experiences, I’m disoriented by the absence of that. I’m very much a novice learner in this experience and what’s missing for me still are the tools and competencies (machetes?) necessary to become a full participant in this learning community or subculture.  I think of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s “situated learning” and communities of practice. Because I’m keenly interested and engaged by this approach to learning, see its great potential, and want to offer it to students in my midst, I think about this question: what are the enabling conditions that facilitate  fruitful participation and membership in a decentralized learning community such as this, and what role does the teacher play in creating those conditions? It’s not a new question. Teachers have been asking themselves that forever – how to strike that balance between structure and dialogue, creating constraints that enable learning, “…establishing a balance between sufficient organization to orient learners’ actions and sufficient openness to allow for the varieties of experience, ability and interest represented in any classroom” (Brent Davis).

I feel like I’m in the early stages of the “connectivist learning experience” described by Pettenati and Cicognini (2007) – somewhere between the “awareness and receptivity” stage and the “connection forming and selection filtering” stage – not yet a “visible node” that comes from the following stage “contribution and Involvement”.    Hard to say. Part of that progression has to do with being public and prolific and being very aware of a kind of burden to be “useful” to other members of the group.  Another participant mentioned the need to filter and find what’s useful in the forest of information, referring to the “blind leading the blind” phenomenon – nothing worse than following a fellow bushwhacker into an impenetrable bog. On the other hand, discoveries are often made that way.

Learning as bushwhack.

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