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Learning as Artifact Creation

Digitization is deceptive in that the deep impact isn’t readily observable. Remember when MOOCs were going to transform higher education? Or when personalized learning was going to do away with instructors? Going back about a century ago, audio, then video, was also going to disrupt education. All of these trends have been window dressing – a facade more reflective of the interests of those who advocate for them rather than a substantive departure from established norms.

Yet, change is happening, often under the radar of enthusiasts because it’s harder to sell a technology product or draw clicks to a website when being nuanced and contextual. Education is an idea/information-based process. How information is accessed, created, and shared is revealing about the future of learning. Essentially, follow information in order to understand the future of higher education. Today, information is networked and digital. University transformation and proposed innovation should align to this reality to have a broad impact – notably on student learning and the development of knowledge in society.

In 2004, I tried to respond to the network/digitization alpha trend by describing the new actions and experiences that were available to learners: Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. This article and work with Stephen Downes formed subsequent development of MOOCs and learning analytics.

Connectivism was presented as a theory that described how learning happened in networks, complex ambiguous information spaces, digital environments, and the increased opportunities of the participative web. Unfortunately, much of that theory remains undeveloped. Details regarding cognitive processes, teacher actions, learner mindsets, design models, and social interaction remain rudimentary. I’m confident that these will be developed over time, but progress has been slow. As a result, connectivism is something people cite rather than engage and develop into a more complex theory or framework of learning. But, whether connectivism or by some other name, a social networked model of learning is our future.

Enter the artifact…

One aspect of connectivism that has great potential for development is the role of the artifact in learning. With CCK08, we found fascinating activities arising due to student created artifacts. One student creates an image to detail the architecture of the course. Another updates it and adds to it. Another comes by and critiques it. The artifact serves as a social learning object. This process reflects my earlier point: big trends unfold behind the scenes over time and in education, they map and mirror to what people do with information that is digital and networked.

Here’s an example: Education over the past several centuries has been defined by the centrality of the instructor and the actions of a learner in relationship to what the instructor knows. There have always been voices that challenged this model – Dewey, Illich, Freire, Montessori – but the system of learning that defines our society is modeled on the assumption of learners needing to duplicate what instructors already know. Learning artifacts – a paper or a test – were largely held between the instructor and student. Group work and class presentations brought others into the relationship, but the message was still clear: the instructor and the content were central, all else was held in their orbit.

Then the internet happened. And later the web. Small groups of people could share without a mediator. You didn’t need a publisher to blast your thoughts to a bulletin board. Yahoo groups, Friendster, and other early social software didn’t fully live up to the vision of the mesh, but they enabled communication. Content creation was still largely the domain of experts or people in positions of control. Britannica and newspapers were still gatekeepers. Then, the late 1990′s rolled around and Blogger made self-publishing reasonably accessible to anyone.

We could now create artifacts, not only talk about them.

A stunning period web innovation occurred between 2000-2005: delicious, myspace, many blog platforms, flickr, wikis, etc. The gates were opened and everyone was a content creator and everything was subject to user creation. Everything was a possible social artifact. Take and share a picture. Post your thoughts on a blog. Tag and share valuable resources. The web had its velveteen rabbit moment and became real to people who had previously been unable to easy share their creative artifacts. Eventually we were blessed with the ugly stepchildren of this movement (Twitter, Facebook) that enabled flow of creative artifacts but in themselves where not primarily generative technologies.

Educationally, this provided new opportunities for students. That class lecture that didn’t make sense? There is a better resource online. That stats textbook that is confusing? There is a MOOC for that. Don’t like a class? Tell the web. Don’t like your instructor? Tell the web (rate my prof). Have an important thought to share? Upload a video to youtube. An awesome song? Upload. Share. A terrific painting you’ve been working on? Upload. Share.

Consider the impact of these opportunities on education and how poorly the higher education system has responded. Consider our curriculum as a self-contained coherent resource. The goal of education? Teach this container to the students. What happens when you add artifact creation? The entire curriculum can shift. If I lecture on the development of open learning and open source technologies, I’m presenting my voice, my priorities, my values. If someone comes along and says “what about the power structure and the bias that underpins this content”? Bam. It’s a new course. Someone creates a video reacting to a lecture I delivered? Bam. It’s a new course. This doesn’t always happen on grand scales. Often the artifact has a limited impact – a brief detour in a new conversation and learning direction for students. The aggregate of these artifacts is significant because it places students in a new mindset, one defined by personal autonomy and agency.

All of this is obvious. It’s mainly about the permissions that technology enables: namely, to write ourselves and our values into any curriculum and learning interaction. The impact that this has on the learning experience is not well understood. We have theories of community (community of inquiry, community of practice). We have many theories of content and content interaction (including transactional distance). There is something about the artifact that is unique in its ability to make every learner a teacher, every contribution a redirection of learning, every interaction a reaction and augmentation.

In one of our LINK grants we currently exploring the power of artifacts as redirective entities (an NSF grant titled COCOA). How does creating a blog post, video, or meme contribute to enlarging the curriculum? How do artifacts contribute to, and take away from, the course content? What is a well-designed artifact? What causes resonance between learner resources being shared and students that respond to those resources?


  1. Mike Jones wrote:

    “Unfortunately, much of that theory remains undeveloped.”

    Reminds me of what Dostoevsky said:

    “There is nothing easier than lopping off heads and nothing harder than the development of ideas.”
    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Saturday, September 16, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  2. David C McGeary wrote:

    Very interesting reading!

    As it relates to your LINK grant, is there a need to consider the willingness of the community of learners to actively engage the artifacts and, perhaps more importantly, allow some flexibility in their personal values? I definitely see the potential for transformation here, but I am stuck when trying to figure out how to work with student groups to actively change the curriculum responsively (if that makes any sense).

    Monday, September 25, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink