Stephen Downes in Melbourne


Why did I go to a professional event on the first day of my Easter holidays? Two words: Stephen Downes.

Stephen started by prompting reflection:

Reflect on how you learn in your job today?
How do you learn to use new technology and keep up with events and announcements? How do you learn new policies and procedures?

Then he made an interesting, perhaps controversial, comment. He said
there’s a distinction between the way we learn and the way learning is taking place in universities, etc.

What does that mean?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, my first-year uni son has confirmed for me that he learns in the same way that I did 30 years ago. Lectures and tutorials. Online forum? No. Sharing notes in Google docs? No. Creation of personal learning network using RSS, Delicious or Diigo, or Twitter. Absolutely not.

I know that some tertiary institutions are more progressive with online learning, but these are not the established, traditional ones so sure of their reputation that they forfeit self-assessment. Maybe I’m being unkind. After all, they provide experts. One expert per subject. Are the students learning how to learn in a global context where experts are scattered?

Stephen says we need interactivity in our learning; we need to learn from people. Instead of relying on traditional models of learning, we need to build our own interaction network, placing ourselves, not the content, at the centre.

I’m thinking about secondary school students. A teacher picks the content which is the agenda for learning. What about the interests, the passion of the individual student that could drive authentic learning? Isn’t there room for passion-driven learning in our curriculum?

Stephen says to employ a wide range of technologies to build our network. We need to pick and choose the technologies that are most comfortable to us. Pull is better than push, we should be able to choose our sources. He tells us to speak in our own voice and listen for authenticity; share our knowledge and our experiences, opinions.
We need to make networked learning a habit and a priority. He said someone had coined the phrase ‘interaction is like breathing for the brain’. If interaction isn’t provided, we have to make it ourselves, for example, if we’re at a lecture like this, we should blog it. Hence this post.

Stephen sees information and knowledge as people-centred. That is, we should bring knowledge in, but also translate it into our own way of seeing the world, and then share it, creating a network for people to remix in their own way. This is one of my favourite new concepts of knowledge – it evolves depending on who does what with it; we’re all unique, and so is our take on knowledge.

But how do we control knowledge as we pull it in? We simplify it, and summarise it in our own words, using our own vocabulary. Make it relevant to us, take what’s important to us now. Shouldn’t students be taught to learn this way?

And then it really got interesting. Stephen said, it’s better to shun formal lectures (certain irony here) in favour of informal learning, eg. the Google Reader approach to learning; learning from people we’ve decided we want to speak to us.

And what about this: Do connect to your work at home and on vacation but feel free to sleep at the office; most work environments are dysfunctional;your learning takes place when it takes place. Your best time might not be 9 to 5; ideas and learning happen when they happen.

And here’s one for those of you who, like myself, often feel overwhelmed by the flood of knowledge they’ve pulled down on themselves. You don’t want to assimilate all that knowledge. Let go, it will come back if it’s important; information is a flow, not a collection of objects.

Self-directed learning is a theme with Stephen. You and nobody else is reponsible for your own learning. These principles ought to inform how we teach as well as how we learn, and that’s what connectivism and Learning 2.0 is all about. Self-directed learning rejects passivity, so get up and walk out if what you’re hearing doesn’t interest you. Be pro-active; take responsibility for learning.

There’s a lot more to Stephen’s talk than I’ve managed to outline here. This will do from me.

Have a look at the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Online Course. created by Stephen and George Siemens.

If I had to say one thing that I came out thinking about today, it would have to be that learning is personal, and that we must be pro-active about finding, organising and creating our own knowledge, about what we learn and who we learn from. And in this way, if we learn transparently, we model learning for our students.


Filed under 21st century learning, learning, network literacy, teachers, teaching, technology, Web 2.0

15 responses to “Stephen Downes in Melbourne

  1. Marie Saligner

    Another great post Tania. Thanks for sharing these very interesting thoughts and questions that are so relevant to all of us – student and teacher alike.

  2. Rhondda

    Thanks for sharing this Tania. I am quite jealous that you spent a morning listening to this very eloquent speaker. I love the way hw thinks and although I read his blog, the old f2f interaction is still more inspiring. Ireally like his ideas and believe that more of the people involved in education should be listening, especially those involved in policy amking. They seem to be so out-of-touch with the realities of todays learners.

  3. I followed your link from Jennylu…. This is a wonderful post and have bookmarked it. As a 57-year-old balding, bearded ex-journalist who has decided to jump off a cliff and work with kids through a new nonprofit, I appreciate your words more than you can imagine.

    I like best the concept of not worrying about keeping track of everything you run into…. As a journalist, ideas were never my problem. Finding enough time to pursue them all was. My rule was: If an idea floated, jolted, slid, sidled, kerchunked into my brain, I would do my best to embrace it and then forget about it. If it came back, I might actually stop and “noodle.” And then forget about it. If it came back a third time then I’d start writing, getting as much of it down, chasing as many of the tangential ideas as I could. Then I’d set it aside. If I again came back to it, then I’d do a plan and start research and then, see what I had.

    I do think in this twitter-driven world we get breathless for this link, and that piece of information, and this latest thought, and that latest piece of software, without following the many pieces of fine thought you have presented in this blog.

    Thank you for this.

    geoff gevalt

  4. Sounds like you’ve nailed it, Geoff. It seems like you need self-discipline to stop grabbing at everything like a kid in a lolly shop. Or trust, maybe, that if it’s important you’ll recognise it again and pull it in. If you don’t you might end up frantic and superficial. I’m still working on that, as well as the balance. I do think that adjustment is important. You’ve had a lot of exprerience, obviously.

    Sounds like you’re doing something very satisfying. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your ideas.

  5. Well put. What I neglected to mention was that now that I’m 57, my brain doesn’t remember as much and a small part of me worries that a great idea will not return NOT because it wasn’t a great idea but because my tired little synapses are not firing correctly.

    Balance is always difficult. But thanks again for your insight and thoughts and I look forward to your future posts. And if you are in search of a lolly, feel free to experience some of the Vermont students’ work at



  6. FYI, I believe that is the first triple negative sentence I’ve written, accidentally or otherwise.

  7. Hi Tania,
    Usually my ed involvement on the first day of a holiday consists of tidying my room. I think you win by going to listen to Stephen Downes!

    So much of what he says depends on trust. Authorities have to trust the schools, schools have to trust the teachers and teachers have to trust the students… and parents have to trust all of the above! It is so frustrating at times to have all these fantastic ideas outlined and to know that many of them will be stifled by bureaucracy and a fear of trying things differently.

    “Your best time might not be 9 to 5; ideas and learning happen when they happen” — I remember a pupil writing an excellent discursive essay about how unrealistic it was to expect pupils to write (a creative story) on command. She was write. Creativity/learning are not things that can be switched on and off at will, though the entire school structure is based on that premiss…

    As ever with, we are left with more questions…

    (PS: Enjoy the rest of your holiday!)

  8. Thanks for dropping by, Neil.

    I agree with your point about trust, but you just reminded me why so many fantastic ideas are being stifled; trust is a tricky thing. I’ve noticed lately the Australian media bombarding the public about the dangers of the internet; many one-sided presentations. Add that to the fact that most teachers and parents don’t participate in social networking, and you get ‘don’t go to the ends of the earth otherwise you’ll fall off.

    Your point about the unreasonable expectation of expecting creative writing to happen on commmand – sometimes I think, what if teachers were to do what they assigned to students. Then they would have an idea of what is really involved.

    Thanks, I will enjoy the rest of my holidays.

  9. With regards to your thought: “…if teachers were to do what they assigned to students.” I always try to sit their final exams in the allocated time as part of the process of seeing how easy/difficult they are. I’m always horrified at how poor my answers can be when racing against the clock…

  10. Mr. W,

    You raise a great point and I like how you put it. Here in the States, so many school policies are based on worst case scenarios. Web “safety” policies are based on fear — fear of “what if this happens” and “how do we prevent it because we sure don’t want it happening on our watch.” And, as a former longtime journalist I can say that the media has fueled some of these fears with rather narrow coverage of the sensational Web-based horrors.

    And it IS all about trust. We trust kids who use our site. In the last year, we’ve had about 75,000 comments made by kids. We do not moderate. We’ve had maybe 40 or so that we’ve had to take down, but most of those have been just uncivil and the kids have alerted us about them in a nano second.

    And in the sites we build for schools, one of our best teachers does this — she doesn’t start using the sites with her fifth grade students until later in the year when she’s confident the students have built trust with each other. Once their on the site, they write like crazy. It’s amazing. It’s like someone opened a spigot.

    So, as you say, it is all about trust.

    And I guess that’s what we have learned is part of our work — gently coaxing, cajoling, convincing school folks to put a toe in the water, to put an ankle in the water, to, hey what the heck, dive in.

    So we have to spend (waste) time showing administrators the incredible historical material on YouTube. We have to show them incredible applications that engage kids that the students should be allowed to access.

    But you guys are immersed in this. Perhaps there needs to be some uber-marketer brought into the fold to pound on parents, teachers, administrators, school districts that if you don’t engage the students on the Web NOW, if you don’t change your learning model NOW, if you don’t relinquish “control” of learning to the kids NOW, if you don’t give kids more voice NOW, you will turn into toads. Now.

    Sorry. I try not to write after immediate ingestion of coffee, but I failed in that goal today.



  11. Pingback: » OLDaily per Stephen Downes, 9 d’abril del 2009 TIC, E/A, FER / PER…:

  12. A great post that has prompted several random thoughts for me. 🙂 Here are two of them …

    1) Formal and informal learning:

    The comment about shunning informal learning took me way back to my own University and Dip. Ed. days. And that’s more years ago than I care to think about. 🙂 Oftentimes I’d find myself in such a deep and meaningful conversation in the coffee lounge or some other equally informal place, that I’d would miss a lecture or tutorial completely.

    And when I reflect on my whole University experience, I know that this informal learning was just as significant – in some ways even more significant – than any of the formal sessions I attended. I wonder how much more I’d have learned if the internet and other forms of social media had been available back then?

    2) Self-directed and interactive learning:

    The vast majority of my own learning journey for a number of years now has been self-directed – through books, the internet and discussion with mentors or those more experienced than I in a particular arena. One example is my work with Appreciative Inquiry (AI). No courses of study were available in Australia when I first began learning about AI. So the internet, books and other AI practitioners around the world were my teachers and companions as I walked the paths of theory and practice.

    Also, a number of years ago, I taught in a secondary school where the curriculum was fully negotiated with students. It was my ‘hearts’ home’ in relation to education, because students were able to take control of and responsibility for their own learning, albeit supported and guided by their teachers.

    Both of these examples involved passion, commitment, and taking responsibility for crafting a very individual learning journey – from both students and teachers (or mentors).

    Your final comment very much resonated for me: “learning is personal, and that we must be pro-active about finding, organising and creating our own knowledge, about what we learn and who we learn from.”

  13. Thanks for your thoughts and examples, Sue. I can relate to them, but it’s only recently when I think about it that I realise how much learning takes place outside of the classroom or the course. And, of course, that it continues.

    I’m interested to hear about the school where curriculum was negotiated with students. Although I love the theory of it, I wonder how it would go in reality, especially when I think about students I’ve known who don’t have direction or particular passion. I suppose that’s where the teacher support and guidance comes in.

  14. The school I mentioned was (and still is) here in Melbourne. It’s a state-funded (ie public) school – part of the state education system, not private/independent.

    Here are a few of the key components of how it worked when I was there:

    – Small school of approx 120 students

    – Prep (5 yrs old) to 12 (18 yrs old) students

    – Negotiated curriculum increasingly implemented – ie greater responsibility as grade level increased

    – Whole-school meeting every morning, chaired and minuted by students. Even the youngest grades, although usually an older ‘buddy’ helped to record the minutes so they were legible later. 🙂

    – Multi-age classes at all levels. Some optional classes might be Grade 5 to Year 12, although others were grouped in ‘closer’ year levels as appropriate/required

    – English, Maths and “Fitness” (sport or other physical activity) were compulsory at all levels. Other subjects (all elective) were chosen to provide a ‘spread’ across learning areas (science, humanities, arts etc)

    – Curriculum based on state-level requirements, with negotiation focused on common tasks that would be completed as well as individual learning goals. In other words, teacher and student would determine together what we needed to complete, how we would achieve that, and how (at the end of the semester) we would demonstrate what had been learned.

    – Reports at end of semester were twofold – teacher assessment and student self-assessment

    The whole approach was an interactive one, with students taking an active part in decision-making at all levels and in relation to all aspects of the school. (Even interview panels for new teacher hires included student members)

    It’s certainly true that students newly arrived at the school – particularly those coming in older year levels – found the change from conventional approaches challenging. It could take some time for them to take up the responsibility for their learning that was expected of them. However they were supported not only by teachers, but also by the example and involvement of other students who had been at the school longer, and were more familiar and confident in the approach.

    Some students who arrived later in their educational life were also sometimes used to the ‘us versus them’ relationship between teachers and students that prevailed in their previous school(s). 🙂 However they learned very quickly – especially from their peers – that the ‘fight or flight’ behaviours they’d previously adopted were neither necessary nor accepted by other students.

    Of course the school wasn’t ‘perfect’ – there were issues that needed to be addressed from time to time with students, teachers, parents etc. And of course some students made greater and faster progress than others in terms of their learning – but then that’s no different from the varied progress made by students in conventional schools.

    And in terms of learning outcomes for students, not only in the academic sense, but also in relation to self-esteem, confidence and life skills, it was definitely a great environment in which to teach – and to learn!

    I was going to say more about what it means to be a teacher in such an environment and some of the challenges of that, but this comment is way too long already! 🙂

    My apologies for the length, but I wanted to provide a few key details in response to your interest in hearing more about the school.

  15. Sue, I appreciate your detailed response, very interesting. Are you able to mention the name of the school? I’m always interested in schools which mix age groups and give learning initiative to students with teacher support. I often wonder how my own boys would have turned out if they’d stayed in a good Montessori school, instead of switching to mainstream.

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