Interview with George Siemens, University of Manitoba Learning Technologies Centre, Canada


We need a new narrative for understanding learning, suggest George Siemens. In his vision of the future, learners are part of – not only recipients of – information, knowledge, learning and teaching. The well-known Canadian eLearning expert will open eLearning Africa 2008 with a keynote presentation. Siemens is one of the most innovative thinkers in the fields of learning and technology. His work is focussed on theoretical aspects of learning, knowledge management and the implementation of technology in education and training. We had the chance to interview George Siemens before the conference.

eLA: What are the biggest changes in terms of the availability of knowledge in recent years? Are we currently entering a new era in education?

George Siemens: The biggest change we are currently experiencing with availability of information today is the sheer quantity. We have new opportunities to interact with and create information. We also have new opportunities to connect with others in the process of disseminating existing information. The ease of access offered by the Internet and open educational resources initiatives indicate only the beginning stages of an information crisis. Abundance raises the importance of sense-making. The last several decades of technology-development have been focussed on improving access to information and on interacting with others around information. The next stage of development will centre on using technology as a resource to increase our capacity to cope with and make sense of the constantly shifting and rapidly developing climate. This complex information climate is compounded by two factors: 1) our increased understanding of problems facing not just one country or region, but all of humanity (economy and ecology); and 2) development of global markets and economies, increasing the ease of capital and resources to shift to new areas of opportunity, instead of being limited by traditional geographical constraints.

To address these challenges, societies need to rely increasingly on the educational sector. Re-skilling a society, developing a region or even country, embracing new markets and the advancement of national economies find their roots in education. We are now entering a new era of education where the ability to offer high-quality learning to diverse, dispersed regions is possible. Vision and will, not only economics, are now primary inhibitors to education systems that remain underdeveloped.

eLA: In which ways is our “old” model of education limiting for future developments? What are the major misunderstandings these days when it comes to learning?

George Siemens: To slightly paraphrase Roy Pea, our technology and models of learning carry “patterns of previous reasoning”. In many instances, educators are confined by how we have viewed information, learning, knowledge and teaching in the past. New technologies and processes are often applied to replace (or augment) existing approaches, rather than to alter the entire act and process of teaching. The structure of our educational institutions – particularly in how they serve, or fail to serve, non-traditional learners – has been the focus of much discussion by theorists such as Freire, Illich and Papert. We are faced with a rare opportunity: to rethink and redesign education to serve and include all learners. This opportunity is created by two significant trends:

  1. A conceptual shift in how we view learning. Learning is increasingly seen as comprising social, contextual and situated perspectives. The social dimension of learning is certainly not new, as it has been advocated by Vygotsky, Bandura and others for almost a century. Within education today, however, these concepts are not merely receiving theoretical acknowledgement, but are now actively implemented at classroom and system-wide levels.
  2. A technological shift in how we interact with information and each other. The development of technology has reduced access barriers, enabling individuals from around the world to access information and each other with far greater ease than possible even five or ten years ago.

To realise the transformative potential of education in a global environment requires educators and corporate managers to rethink the entire process of teaching and learning, determine which elements need to be eliminated as they bear too strongly the mindsets of the past, and decide which elements need to be preserved.

At the broadest level, learning today is seen increasingly under the umbrella of constructivism and, more recently, networked learning or “connectivism”. With connectivism in particular, I’ve tried to emphasise the value of networks in influencing how we learn. Specifically, knowledge is a function of how we have connected information and come to understand it in certain contexts. Knowledge is, literally, in the connections. Learning, then, is the ability to form these networks and connect new information (in context) to existing knowledge. How we are connected to others and to information is a vital indicator of our ability to stay current and adjust as environments change.

eLA: You propose a new narrative for understanding learning. What would it look like?

George Siemens: The new narrative I propose is that of “being a part of”. This isn’t a new narrative in the history of humanity, but it is a new narrative when seen from under the shadow of today’s education system. Creating new content and information has always been largely communal. Ideas and stories were passed and shared from one generation to the next, allowing listeners to see themselves and their heritage in the long trajectory of their culture and, more broadly, history.

But as schools and universities – as we see them today – became prominent, the learner was removed as an active participant in the stories of culture and knowledge. Instead, the teacher assumed the role of expert and the student one of subservience. This model would have seemed ludicrous to great teachers such as Socrates and Plato. Learning, in their eyes, was a process of engagement, dialogue, and debate, not a model of transferring and duplicating.

We now stand, however, at an inflection point. As stated, acknowledgment of the conceptual underpinning of social views of learning is increasingly acknowledged, and increased access to information opens new doors. Learning today, I would argue, can be addressed through a narrative of belonging, of “being a part of”. Learners have the ability to create, co-create, and re-create content. Learners have opportunities to participate in global conversations and to directly access expertise. Learners once again belong in the dialogue, creation, and exchange of knowledge. This belonging – locally and globally – is the framework that should drive our consideration of education.

eLA: In regard to Africa, where do you see significant opportunities and challenges for the Continent in relation to recent changes and developments in education?

George Siemens: Education is one of the most productive ways of moving a society forwards by many different metrics, perhaps most notably, in terms of quality of life. As barriers and limitations to education are reduced – through initiatives such as open educational resources and fairly inexpensive information communication technologies – opportunities to provide education to a broader audience are increased. The growth of the information-based economy theoretically creates a new space where geographical location plays a less critical role. The industrial revolution was often confined to a certain geography, often due to access to natural resources or a skilled labour force. While these elements still exist, they are less pronounced in their influence on information-intensive economies. The challenge facing countries in Africa is to build a skill base where the population can participate in this new economy. While barriers still exist in re-skilling a population, they are much lower than they have been at any time in the past.

A second challenge exists to ensure that cultures are not co-opted. Technology is not neutral. It is embedded with cultural viewpoints and ideologies. As countries in Africa begin to adopt different technologies and open educational resources, a key consideration arises as to how these will be utilised as a means to preserve, not overwrite, existing cultures. To this end, it becomes critical that African countries are not only consumers and importers of information and technology but also producers and exporters.

eLA: What is your vision for the future of learning and education, especially regarding Africa?

George Siemens: My vision of the future is one where learners are a part of – not only recipients of – information, knowledge, learning and teaching. It makes little sense for someone outside of Africa to promote their vision for the Continent. What is most important, in my eyes, is that Africa is able to define its own vision and future direction. As stated, the importance of considering a narrative of “being a part of” involves more than Africa participating in the information economy as defined by other countries or continents. Being a part of involves the creation of a personal identity, preserving existing cultures and being a contributor.

But it’s difficult to define a vision, as we are in a complex environment with many rapid and jointly-influencing changes. At best, we can outline a framework to guide the discussion of a vision. The framework itself should be defined by the qualities already listed: open, democratic, culturally distinct and defined by participation of all members. What is most important at this stage is fostering dialogue that will lead to the creation of a vision and strategies that attend to the unique needs of each country or region. Loose, informal collaboration on a global scale can certainly serve this process, as long as it does not overwhelm the needs of the individual region.

eLA: Mr Siemens, many thanks for your time.


More information:
George Siemens’ blog: www.elearnspace.org


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