Meeting the Minds – Dr. George Siemens, Conclusion

Dr. George Siemens is the founder of the theory of connectivism in education. Recently, he kindly consented to be interviewed by Marie Well of The Voice Magazine. Dr. Siemens was happy to provide us with very in-depth answers, and this is conclusion to the three part interview. In case you missed them, you can read the first and second parts in our archives.

Marie Well: What is your particular approach to/philosophy concerning student evaluations?
Dr. George Siemens: That is a great question, but difficult to address. I am interested in authenticity. That’s probably the biggest concept that I would focus on, which is, does the assessment authentically evaluate what the student should know at that point in the course? Now, in some cases, it is not always possible to do that. Years ago, I was at Red River College, and I didn’t like the approach that was being utilized in having students submit a paper, do multiple choice, and so on, so one of the things I added was to do a series of interviews with students to determine just if they understood the course and to ask a series of questions on it.

Unfortunately, although I did go through that process, each interview takes thirty minutes, and all a sudden you have fifteen hours of interview time. It is a more authentic type of learning assessment, but unfortunately, it is time consuming, so you can’t do that if you are teaching multiple courses. That is very difficult to make that kind of activity happen.

From an authenticity perspective, that is most critical: does it really reflect what the student knows? Additionally, are our assessment approaches reliable? Higher education systems are often not structured for someone to do that kind of reasonable analysis of depth of assessment.

Ultimately, the things that I have found most valuable for me to learn and to try to communicate or adopt in the teaching practices are for students. One of the things that is helpful academically is that, as a learner, you don’t forget what that experience is like. To be a regular and consistent learner, you have opportunities to continually engage and to continually learn. When you do that, you remember what it is like being a student?the frustration of a course that is not well designed, or the frustration of an assignment that wasn’t clearly communicated. Once you have that level of experience, it helps you stay grounded when you are teaching. It is almost this idea of the beginner’s mind; where you want to experience the mindset the individuals? had when they were first involved in learning. You want to keep that fresh in your mind by continuing to be a learner and continuing to take courses.

Marie Well: If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the structure or proceedings of Athabasca University, what would it be?
Dr. George Siemens: First of all, I think the challenge is that we are encountering in higher education in general are more and more of these intractable problems?and these are ones where there is not a clear answer. It is best seen as a complex system. A complex system is one that has multiple elements that connect in different ways. You don’t always know the outcome, but if you change one part of the system, there are going to be effects on other parts of the system. The one, single cure-all is almost impossible in a complex environment. Social systems, for example, are inherently complex. That means not taking a particular solution, or one magic wand or silver bullet approach. What we actually need to do in order to be effective is to adopt a multiple lens approach to complex challenges. What has to change, instead, is our mindset with how you engage with complex problems so that you are taking a multidisciplinary, multi-lens approach to a challenge.

One of the most important areas that universities in general should be looking at is “how do you foster creativity and innovation in learners today?” It is easy enough with technology to automate parts of the learning experience or have students watch videos or so on, but it is much more difficult to foster creativity and innovation and passion. It is this idea that has been shared by Stanford 2025 that tries to focus on this topic area of what universities will look like in the future. They have a good statement on the site: “In the future, students will have a mission, not a major.” The idea is, what are you passionate about? What do you care about? What is important to you? What motivates you to be a better person or make the world a better place?

I think that idea of a mission and not a major is one that every university system needs to adopt. The primary way you are able to do that is by reducing the view that a single solution can be found to address complex problems.

Marie Well: How do you engage student motivation in your online classroom environment?
Dr. George Siemens: Motivation is a difficult challenge in any context because we first need to know our students in order to be able to motivate them. Sometimes in the online environment, there are a few barriers that make it perhaps a bit more challenging to get to know some of your students.

Generally, I would suggest that if you have relevant and topical ideas that are communicated to students in such a way that enables them to see themselves in those concepts or ideas, if students see value in something, then they are motivated to do it. Only when we see value and benefit does it become something that is more relevant to us. I think, from that end, my interest at least in things like learner motivation is really more focused on how we can broaden student’s abilities to make something more relevant for themselves.

We can do that through a range of approaches. It could be that we do a better job of adding student control points into the curriculum where they are making decisions rather than just jumping through our hoops that we create as learning designers. We need to make sure that we are communicating in terms of their interests. The impact could be on a number of levels. It could be an impact that happens to that student’s career. You could be able to say if you know this and can do this well, there are career opportunities. Those are some of the ways to drive motivation. Make things relevant to students, but also give students an opportunity to write themselves into the curriculum. That is, to be able to see the outcome of the benefits, the way in which it can make them a better person, and the way it can make the world a better place. You can’t directly motivate someone, but you can set conditions under which people of different attributes will become motivated. Those conditions for creating motivation are what I would like to foster.

Marie Well: Where do you see online technology heading in the distant or near future?
Dr. George Siemens: This is a topic I just finished a paper on with The MOOC Research Initiative that was a grant from the Gates Foundation, lead by Athabasca University. One of the things we looked at was what is the next generation of educational technology. What will technology look like in the future for learning? This gets back to the point I made a little bit earlier that technology, essentially, will reflect the architecture of the Internet and that universities, then, will need to at least adapt to that kind of technology as well. We are going to continue to see, on the one hand, traditional systems of control that the university controls. These are things like management systems, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and those will continue to make an impact for the organizations for learner enrolment and other things. That is the one camp. That will continue to be a factor, but not as prominent as in the past.

The other area of technology will be those that learners have control of. These will be toolsets that the individual student is able to control and to use based on how they want to use it. It is a distributed technology approach where instead of an institution owning our data, owning the technologies that we are using, we instead see that the individual student owns their own activity, owns their own digital identity, and so on. I’d say that is one of the most promising areas of future technology development in the education process that will start to emerge.