Sunday, May 17, 2009

PS 6/09: Learning from LATINA

Filed under: blogging, education, LATINA, web 2.0 — plinius @ 12:02 pm

student_teachingFriday May 15 was the last day of LATINA Spring.

We started with an intensive first week early in February, continued with a second week in mid-March, and finished in mid-May. The picture on the right shows one of our students, Andras Molnar from Hungary, giving a lesson – we call them learning events – on the subject of microblogging. Clicking on the picture takes you to flickr, with additional snapshots from the last day of the course – courtesy of Aslak Ormestad.

What did I learn from LATINA Spring?

The LATINA courses are experiments in digital learning. We try to find ways of learning and teaching – or simply working – that take the web and its resources for granted.

Industrial and pre-industrial metods of learning and teaching presuppose a shortage of knowledge. The teachers function as guardians and repositories of  relevant knowledge. The students should come with their small  buckets to gather facts and insights from the big buckets of  the teachers (to use a Chinese metaphor). Teaching is knowledge transfer – from the haves to the have-nots, so to speak.

That model is now unravelling.

Prefigurative culture

Journalists looking for “the big scoop” are outnumbered by myriads of bloggers and amateur photographers. Doctors now meet patients who are more expert than the experts – on their own diseases. My good colleague Vibeke Bjarnø, who shared the teaching with me during the third week, brought along two school girls. They had a week off from school to experience  the world of “real” work.

One of the tasks Vibeke gave them (outside LATINA) was to teach PowerPoint – to some of the Oslo University college staff – that teach future teachers …

… the development of a prefigurative culture will depend on the existence of a continuing dialogue in which the young, free to act on their own initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. Then the older generation will have access to new experiential knowledge, without which no meaningful plans can be made (Mead, Margaret,  1970)

The web replaces scarcity with abundance. In a digital world, the forms of learning and teaching start from abundance.

Today’s teachers still take the Gutenberg galaxy for granted. We grew up with print. Books shaped our view of the world.  Knowledge is primarily knowledge on paper.

The printed word defines the rules. Other media supplement paper. TV and radio, CDs and DVDs – even the World Wide Web – are add-ons and also-runs.

Students born after 1990 were “born digital”. The have grown up in a different galaxy – far, far away –  where reading, writing and acting coexist on the web. The digital natives are invading the Norwegian school system, which struggles mightily to adapt. They are starting to arrive in higher education. The trickle will soon be a flood.

Designer and architect

I see LATINA as a bridge – one of many – between the old world and the new. Digital learning and teaching is not a supplement to traditional classes: it is replacing a traditional paradigm with a new grammar of schooling. The new is not a ready-made model, with knowledge neatly bundled into packages, but a way of working. The digital environment overflows with texts and media.

Students move to the centre of the class. The teacher’s task does not become easier than before. She has to become a designer and architect of group processes rather than director and authority. The teacher can be resource rather than source.

Changing professional habits is hard. Many teachers are trying – as the lively discussions at the Norwegian Del&Bruk network shows. In LATINA, teachers and participants (who may well be teachers at home) work with the same tools in the same open web environment. Everybody involved is exposed to the others and to the world.

For a blogger, that is the normal state of affairs. For “industrial” teachers and students this openness challenges deep habits of control. The first phase of digitalization in schools and higher education has been based on closed learning management systems. Your work is not visible unless you choose to publish – which very few do. At LATINA we believe in the opposite approach – defining web publication as the default.

That also means to redefine publication. We do not wait for perfection, whatever that might be.  Web documents pass through many stages – and we accept beta versions as valid output – in order to learn.  Going public is a way of sharing, of getting feedback, of co-production – and is a natural consequence of the web itself. When publishing is costless – and adds to the flow of creativity – we might as well share our stuff with the rest of the world.




Margaret Mead was an anthropologist, explorer and teacher, who spent most of her life studying and documenting the tribes of New Guinea. …

She was able to watch, over the course of nearly 5 decades of direct involvement, as these tribes changed rapidly through the many stages of development (not necessarily implying progress) that other nations had taken a few centuries to do. … her division of different cultures into three main types is helpful. She used the concept of a figurative ability (to imagine and extrapolate) to demonstrate this development. There are three stages: (1) postfigurative, (2) cofigurative, and (3) prefigurative.

“A postfigurative culture is one in which change is so slow and imperceptible that grandparents, holding newborn grandchildren in their arms, cannot conceive of any other future for the children than their own past lives. The past of the adults is the future of each new generation” (Mead 1970:1). …

“A cofigurative culture is one in which the prevailing model for members of the society is the behavior of their contemporaries…. In a society in which the only model was a cofigurative one, old and young alike would assume that it was ‘natural’ for the behaviour of each new generation to differ from that of the preceding generation.

In all cofigurative cultures the elders are still dominant in the sense that they set the style and define the limits within which cofiguration is expressed in the behaviour of the young” (Mead 1970:25). Mead goes on to identify times when cofiguration will be dominant. The main cause is a substantial and sudden change in culture, such as with immigration, causing the experiences of the young to be very different from those of the old (cf. 1970:29).

Prefigurative culture is the current dominant paradigm in the world:

“We are now entering a period, new in history, in which the young are taking on new authority in their prefigurative apprehension of the still unknown future” (Mead 1970:1). Mead anticipated the prefigurative culture, identifying much of the globalised world as being cofigurative at her time of writing. Yet, she was never able to truly define what a prefigurative culture would look like – possibly this is the whole point.

From a cofigurative viewpoint, a prefigurative culture is incomprehensible. She did, however, accurately describe the conditions under which a prefigurative culture would arise:

“Today, nowhere in the world are there elders who know what the children know, no matter how remote and simple the societies are in which the children live. In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up within a cultural system. Today there are none” (1970:60f.).



The education  technology landscape is best characterized by monolithic, enterprise technology silos with rigid, often impenetrable walls.

Course management systems (CMSs), for example, are generally “all-or-nothing” propositions for institutions, teachers, and students. That is, even if you use an open source CMS like Moodle, you are (without significant customization) bound to use Moodle’s content publishing tool, Moodle’s quiz tool, Moodle’s gradebook, etc.

Moreover, the CMS paradigm itself, tied as it is to semester calendars and time-bounded learning experiences (courses), severely limits learning continuity and persistence. Teachers and students are not free to choose the right / best / preferred tool for each teaching or learning activity they undertake, thus creating a technology paradigm that artificially limits possibilities and forecloses optimal teaching and learning choices.

The monolithic and rigid nature of today’s learning tools and content mirrors the way content has traditionally been made available to faculty and students—books and other resources (including online courses) have generally been all-or-nothing, take-them-or-leave them propositions. A similar business model was prevalent in pre-Internet days, resulting in CD-ROM databases that were more expensive than many potential consumers could afford. One analysis compared this marketing approach to a public water distribution system that would require selling the whole reservoir to each household rather than placing a meter at individual homes.

New approaches to content distribution, however, particularly the OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Open Educational Resource (OER) movements, promise to make a vast array of content open to instructors and students to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.




  1. Where’s the Innovation?


    Comment by plinius — Wednesday, May 20, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  2. […] 6/09. Learning from LATINA. From shortage to surplus of […]

    Pingback by P 69/11: Twenty questions « Plinius — Saturday, November 19, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

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