Stephen Downes – learning is distributed

I saw Stephen Downes present on Monday afternoon at Wesley College here in Melbourne. As I anticipated, it was an interesting and informative presentation focused on the importance of recognising that learning has become distributed. The message was that learning consists of interacting in communities of practice; we want students to engage with learning communities from an early age so they know how to navigate them, giving them the ability to take charge of their learning. 

You’ll get no argument from me in regards to that message. My engagement in these networks has led to enormous personal and professional growth. The challenge that exists is how to convince other teachers to join the show and then how we transfer this to the students we teach. I feel like I’m working towards the realisation of this for my students in as much as I’m testing out the formation of an internal learning community with our Yr 9 Ning. The sheer fact that I recognise that I need to find ways to extend the reach of my students by having them write in a hypertext environment puts me one step ahead of most I’d think.  I still have to work towards the realisation of that.

 I asked Stephen, “How do we scale teacher involvement”. His reply was model and demonstrate. I’m not entirely sure that the audience on Monday night were ready for the message. Stephen spoke about the formation of learning networks from an intellectual standpoint and I’m not sure that the audience came away realising that he was talking about the formation of human connections and not computer hardware connections. Perhaps modelling and demonstrating what one of these networks looks like would have been a wise move to get the audience understanding where he was coming from.

It was Stephen’s birthday and thanks to a Twitter connection I managed to go the dinner after the talk. At the end of the evening one of the people there asked me if I’d managed to get my work done during the presentation as I’d had my laptop out. When I explained that I’d been sending out tweets via Twitter about the presentation she was amazed. It brought home to me how many people really have little idea of these means of communication and just how much work needs to be done to help people gain an understanding of learning communities and the power of sharing ideas and insights.

Model and demonstrate. Let’s all remember that message and keep at it!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

13 Replies to “Stephen Downes – learning is distributed”

  1. Thanks for the connection with Stephen Downes and his work. As someone coming into the “education” field late — a journalist for 32 years — I have been amazed by students’ natural tendency to build community: They WANT to help each other, learn from each other and share with each other. Our main student site,, actually is suffering because we can’t give them enough… and our school sites (multi-site configurations off have shown that students even within a classroom connect to each other in ways they never did before.
    In part because of work you are doing, we are now seeking connections for students around the world … schools or groups that would want to interact with kids here.
    But the reality is, of course, that we still have many school systems who block many useful sites, make it extremely difficult for teachers to sign their students up on Web community sites or blogging sites and who are afraid of the Web.
    Anyway, thanks for this summary and for pointing out Stephen’s work.
    geoff gevalt

    1. Thanks for the comment Geoff. I think you’re right; young people do want to form communities and build connections. I do too; in fact, i would have when I was younger had these tools been available! Perhaps many of us would have, but we were limited by the technology of our age. I hope to see some of the young people you speak of in Working together 2 make a difference.

  2. I’m afraid blocking of sites impedes networking progress not only for students, but for teachers as well.

    Isn’t it interesting that those unfamiliar with backchannel conference participation (understandably) see it as rudeness or uninvolvement? When in fact it’s a higher level of involvement and instantaneous networking. Thanks for a great post as usual, Jenny.

  3. Tsheko,
    I agree with your point on how blocking impedes teachers as well. Case in point: We helped a Spanish language teacher with a project she had planned on Fashion. The idea, of course, was to get the kids to bring in visual images — and sound and music — into a Spanish language writing block on fashion, how that fits into their world, their impressions, etc. So we gave her an idea of using — a wonderful Web collage service. She loved it and built her whole plan around it. When I arrived at the class, she was panicked because the site was blocked. She applied to the Committee of Three to have the site unblocked (I had to vouch for its usefulness) and they approved the following week.
    Good turn on the story: The kids are producing some amazing things, drawing from images from all over their world AND countries that speak Spanish.

    But that is representative, I think, of where a lot of U.S. public education is at: Create the rule — and that prevents problems; Create the standards — and that will give you a goal to shoot for. Along the way, creativity and engagement are lost. Gross simplification, I realize, but true nonetheless.

  4. Jennylu,

    Thanks for your reply. Coincident to our connecting was the deadline for one of our weekly prompts: “Africa.” One of the students posted her entry on as a piece of creative writing spurred on by her class report on Darfur and Rwanda. That has led to a discussion on the site and an earnest desire to do something. The kids are unsure what, and we are thrashing about, so if you have any ideas or links, we’re all ears.

    In my mind, I’d love to connect these kids with students in Africa and to get them to tell each other stories about their lives.

    We are also working with a group right here in Vermont that works with kids who recently came here from Sudan and Somalia. Our plan is to bring Vermont kids and these new Vermont kids together for some digital storytelling projects. Once we have brought the kids together and they have worked out a plan, we will jump onto Working Together 2.0 for help, advice and to keep folks posted on what we do.

    1. @Geoff. I’m looking forward to seeing those digital stories appear on the site Geoff. A really great initiative to build connections within your community. Perhaps you could take a look at what we are doing with Daraja Academy in Kenya and get involved somehow. This is a school set up by an American couple to give impoverished Kenyan girls an opportunity to obtain a secondary education. As our connections there grow we are hoping to be able to exchange stories and possibly assist these girls with their learning.

  5. Jenny,
    I had to laugh at your comment – “one of the people there asked me if I’d managed to get my work done during the presentation”. One of the first things I do when we have a presenter for PD is to use the laptop to try to learn a little bit more about who they are and what they’ve done but I am conscious that people assume I am ‘getting work done’, after all, that’s what they’re doing.
    I presented for the first time the other day and half expected to see a few laptops out but found myself disappointed when I didn’t see one. People are simply not aware of the power of these communities or even that they exist. Hopefully, after presenting on how to get connected, there are a few more teachers who are ‘aware’ and engage more with each other via these networks.
    Andrew J

    1. @Andrew. We just have to keep plugging on. I think when you immerse yourself you sometimes lose sight of the fact that most of the world isn’t on the same wavelength. It’s important we keep this in mind and make it accessible and interesting for teachers we have the opportunity to present to.

Leave a Reply to ggevalt Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: