Are the basics of instructional design changing?

Stephen Downes answers “Yes!” in a piece that builds on his earlier post where he asked “Is online learning a distinct paradigm?” The core of his argument is about the nature of knowledge and related theories of learning. He takes apart the behaviourist and constructivist ends of the familiar spectrum. These few paragraphs provide some sampling of his line of argument:

When I see people use a phrase like ‘construct meaning’, it is, to me, quite literally meaningless. Meaningless not merely because no process of construction occurs (the acquisition of memory, etc., is an associative process, a natural function of the brain, rather than an intentional process), but because meaning is quite literally not something that can be constructed at all, no more than (say) we can construct ‘distance’ or ‘school spirit’. The meaning, quite literally, does not exist in the mind; saying that we are ‘constructing’ meaning is to (illicitly) appeal to a folk psychological theory of mind, whether we intend to or not.

Two major sets of affordances offered in online learning are not found in traditional learning. First, online, communication occurs not through a channel, but through a network. And second, communication flows not merely through a passive medium but through a computational environment. Online learning embodies these affordances, and that they constitute a part of what is meant by online learning; this is what I demonstrated with reference to my 1998 paper.

In the earlier theory, there is a direct causal connection between states of affairs in the communicating entities; it is, therefore, a causal theory. But in the latter theory, there is no direct causal connection; it is what would be called (in the parlance of the new theory) an emergentist theory (that is, it is based on emergence, not causality).

The theory of distributed representation has a profound implication for pedagogy, as it suggests that learning (and teaching, such as it is) is not a process of communication, but rather, a process of immersion. Put loosely, it suggests the idea of teaching not by telling or even demonstrating but rather through the creation (or identification) of an environment into which a learner may be immersed.

It’s not difficult to see connections to other recent material from Downes, the Jay Cross material on Workflow Learning and the growing interest in mLearning. I’ll need time to digest this and its implications for our regular teaching.