In this 2018 episode of the ‘Meet The Education Researcher’ podcast, Neil Selwyn spoke with George Siemens about his work around e-learning, connectivist learning, and his new work around AI and the complexity of learning. This remains the most down-loaded episode of the podcast, so we felt it appropriate to provide a full text transcription of the interview (nb. his has been edited lightly for clarity)

Q: Now let’s start with big picture stuff. Beyond any specific topics and questions, what is your work really about?  What are the big questions, the big issues that you’re addressing?

A: Probably the biggest question I’m interested in is ‘what does it mean to be human in a digital age?’, and looking at that question specifically from a learning and a knowledge development angle.

Q: So, where does that take you?  Asking ‘what does it mean to be human in a digital age?’ could take you in a million different directions – what is it about learning and being human that you are interested in?

A: I think the focus is really about understanding how the learning process is changing, how the nature of knowledge is changing and evolving in very practical ways that might expand out. For example, when we talk about learning in teams – when we use media as an aid to that learning process, it becomes an enabler.  But I believe we’re moving to a space where the technology itself will be a co-agent, not simply an enabler.  And all of a sudden when we talk about something like distributed cognition, we’re talking about me, you, a few other colleagues, and an algorithm, and a robot.  

So, we have this socio-technical distributed learning model. And so the question then becomes, how do we prepare for that?  How do we prepare for when we are hearing that AI is going to take over many of the cognitive tasks that professionals like doctors and people in industry such as the stock market or even financial analysts or lawyers? If an AI model can outperform the capabilities of human beings, what’s left for us?  A critical question for me around ‘what does it mean to be human?’ is what that digital, technical, distributed, form of intelligence looks like, and how do we prepare learners to be participants in that?

Q: So you’re not talking about using technology to do the same old things, you’re not talking about using technology to do things that are completely kind of unimaginable at the moment.  So these are very future-facing issues?

A: Yeah – it is hard to imagine, but it’s technology as an agent, rather than as an enabler.  Because we’re so used to saying that technology is ‘just a tool’, but there’s a lot of things that get dragged in when we bring a tool in. This is very much that same model that we face in a corporate environment, a learning environment, or a in a healthcare system. It’s not just the doctor interacting with me, she’s interacting with an algorithm … and so how do you start to think about that? If that’s how we’re going to build knowledge in the future, how do we prepare learners to participate in that? 

I think much of my argument lately has been, as we turn to ‘21st century skills’, ‘soft skills’, ‘non-cognitive skills’ – I mean there’s so many words, pick a term –  it’s really about these being attributes of who we are rather than what we know. Because technology can, in theory, always out-know us.

Q: Hence the focus on ‘what does it mean to be human?’  These are huge issues – what’s your modus operandi for actually addressing these questions? You don’t seem to be a person that’s happy just to get a little research grant, write a few papers.  You seem to work at scale and at speed?

A: It’s a terrific question, and very hard to answer.  To think about some of the projects we’re working on now – we have an NSF grant together with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon where we’re looking at the ways in which large scale communication influences how we build knowledge together.  But that doesn’t emphasise the technology as much. We finished a project recently  with Gates Funding brought together about eight different universities across the US and three different states – California, Georgia and Arkansas – and the goal of that project was to really understand how we move research, and some of the things we were just talking about, into practice in a classroom.  

But even then, the questions ultimately become systemic in a lot of ways. So, this is the problem that’s so challenging.  We have a university system that was created to serve the needs of a particular era. And in a very Vygotskyan sense, we build artefacts that carry with them the culture, the context, and the sociality of a particular era.  Now all of a sudden we’re here and we’re saying we can do very different things with technology, but we have a system where we’re still squeezing the technology into it. And often you need to let your mind run a little bit and say what if we didn’t have any of those legacy constraints?  What if we didn’t have courses?  How would we teach?  What if we didn’t have the current faculty/student model, how would we teach?  You know, some people have played with this – your good old radicals like Illich and Freire and others have talked about what this might look like.  But we’re getting some very unique technological affordances that are largely under-deployed in practical learning settings.

Q: So in some ways you’re looking to rebuild or re-imagine education systems, and so you’re getting industry grants and setting up labs and thinking on a really big scale?

A: Yes – that is exactly the goal. I’ll give you one example – and this is something that a colleague, Dragan Gasevic and I have been working on for a number of years – and it’s this idea of a ‘personal learning graph’. Because so much of what we do educationally centres on curriculum – we develop curriculum, and the curriculum is what faculty are experts in.  So we pull together all these resources and this content that we think students need to know, and we give it to the students.  We don’t know how the students sitting in the seats in front of us know. Or the students sitting halfway down, or the students sitting at the back of the classroom. As a teacher I don’t know what she knows, I don’t know what he knows. And so instead, I focus on my curriculum and on my content, but it’s a tremendously inefficient way to teach. Especially in an age where university educators are no longer are the ones that restrict access to knowledge. Because now I can talk about a statistical concept in a classroom, and the student can go take a MOOC on the same topic that evening through EdX from the person at Berkley that developed the particular analytics method that we just talked about in classroom.

So suddenly students have far greater agency, far greater control. And so the ‘personal learning graph’ idea is about starting with understanding our students, and what they’ve learned formally and informally.  So it starts with a personal learning graph, where we being to know our students in a more systemic way.  It then moves into breaking our curriculum down into something that in the US we call ‘competencies’ – something at an outcomes or at a granular level that’s not at the broader course level.  And if we can then track these competencies when people work in industry, live their lives, become parents, learn new skills … if we could take what they’re doing in those different environments and write that to a student’s personal learning graph, and then assess that learning graph against curriculum in a particular university, then we’d be able to tell a student at any point in their academic career – ‘you’re 62 per cent of your way to being a psychologist’, ‘you’re 30 per cent of your way to being a botanist’, ‘you’re 42 per cent of your way to being a chemist’.  And that would give people choices that acknowledge that we don’t need you to fit in to our boxes … our boxes have to react to your learning graph.

Q: So this idea of agency, giving individuals ‘choice’ – I’m really interested in what the politics are behind all of this? What values and ideals are you trying to pursue through all this work?

A: On some levels it’s really about the centering capabilities of technology, and it has a twofold attribute.  On the one hand, networks always break things down in to smaller pieces.  So, we saw this back in the days of Napster – and it was a case of an album became a song.  And more recently we see a book – a textbook can become just an individual PDF chapter download, or it can become a 10 minute YouTube lecture by the faculty member that wrote the text.  And so networks break things down, but fundamentally learning is a coherence-generating process – which means when I learn something, what I’m essentially doing is creating a network of how the pieces fit together for me conceptually. 

And so in a situation like that, I think the challenges (or the opportunities) that we face, involve looking at how networks alter much of our relationships.  And so agency is the central attribute, because now I can decide what I need to do. I don’t need to rely on someone else. So to evoke a Kantian notion of enlightenment – this is the ability to do for yourself what others have done for you previously. And I think when we talk about enlightenment from a learning perspective it’s the same thing. It’s about you being able to do for yourself what a teacher or faculty member had to do for you in the past.  

Q: And so returning to this idea of networks – you focus a lot on openness and open networks. So what does ‘open’ mean to you?

A: In both a network sense and in a learning sense, ‘openness’ means essentially that we have the ability to connect our pieces of learning from different spaces of life into a central profile or a central ‘personal learning graph’ as I mentioned. Openness means that we have ready access to expertise to validate the learning that we have.  Openness means that we can get a hold of content and educational resources. So take MOOCs for example – and I know they currently have a bad name – but what MOOCs represent is more consequential than what they are in a university environment right now.  And what they represent, I think is the university grappling with ways to incorporate digital technologies into how we teach and learn, and how the relationships with the student and the teacher and the institution and even corporate environments are changed.  So ‘openness’ is essentially the ability for us to create new futures that are not constrained by the legacies of the systems.

Q: Now I was going to ask you about MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. I don’t want to get into the backstory of it all – I’m not really interested in the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. But, you are personally known as one of the instigators of the MOOC.  What’s your personal experience of the rise of MOOCs? Looking at it from the outside, it seems that it just rapidly spun out of control and was this mad moment.  I mean what was it like being on the inside?

A: It was fascinating in a number of ways. So first of all, look at MOOCs and the impact that they’ve had.  Consider how many universities play in the MOOC space – right now I believe it’s about 120 million students globally if you bring in the students that have registered for Chinese MOOCs.  We’ve had billions of dollars globally invested, either directly in terms of hard cash from venture capital and universities investing, and a lot of soft dollars invested by faculty time and resources put in.  So I think it’s fascinating to see that one of the universities’ first big attempts to grapple with technologies actually ended-up reflecting much of the existing course structure.  We still use courses, we still have the faculty expert, and a lot of students still want to pay and get certificate recognition.  So that part surprised me a little bit.  

What I find more interesting is that I look at MOOCs not as the end – they’re just a process of the university becoming a different system. And there’s been some negative pushback over the last while … I think some faculty were a little bit tired of hearing that MOOCs are going to change the world. They’re quite happy to see MOOCs not changing the world.  But MOOCs were never the thing – it was always a representation of the digital influence on education.  I remember even at the time when MOOCs blew up in 2011 with New York Times and others diving in to it, and it being touted as the best thing ever, and Silicon Valley putting big dollars in to it, and university presidents could get on keynote speaking tours, by saying ‘Yay we’re doing MOOCs’.  Even at that time, I remember writing ‘this isn’t the thing, this is a symptom of the thing’ … if you invest in this without recognising what it represents then you’re wasting your money. You’re going to put in $10million developing MOOCs, but you haven’t re-architected your faculty skill-sets, you haven’t redesigned how you teach learning, you haven’t reassessed instructional and assessment practices, and the list goes on.

Q: So looking back, do you feel kind of proud of starting this all off or have you had your head in your hands thinking ‘oh my God they didn’t get it right’?

A: In a lot of ways, I couldn’t really care less to be honest. One of the things I find in education is that it’s very easy to start getting a little bit of an ego and get tied to an identity, or tied to a concept.  But I think in fairness, if I hadn’t run MOOCs with Stephen Downes then somebody else would have.  You know there’s some inevitability to these things, and I often turn to Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible – once a domain advances to a point then it’s just inevitable that the next thing will happen.  So, it’s nice to say ‘okay yeah, we ran the first MOOC’, but at the end of the day they would have happened regardless.  If you tie your ego to something as reasonably insignificant as a MOOC, then you probably have some bigger identity issues as a whole. 

But I think what MOOCs do represent – and what I certainly encourage faculty to focus on – is that they represent a process of change that is emerging quickly and it’s very important for faculty to be in that conversation. Because if you aren’t in that conversation and if you push it to the side, then others who may have different interests take over, and we’ve seen that already with a lot of start-ups, with a lot of corporate activity in the learning space.  That’s the way it’s going, it’s the digitisation of learning and education.  And I’m a little concerned – and have been for a number of years – that faculty in many cases have marginalised their voice, which often is a societally-enabling voice, and have allowed a number of entities take greater control in the university sector that have very different interests than promoting societal wellbeing.

Q: Yes – it becomes just a bureaucratic structure.  Now I wasn’t going to label you as ‘the MOOC guy’ – MOOCs were very much a feature of the late 2000s …we’re now in the late 2010s, I mean what ideas are currently getting you excited?

A: This is a sloppy concept, and it hasn’t become clear enough to me yet exactly what it is, but I’ll call them ‘being skills’. It’s the one domain that computers can’t quite succeed at yet. And that is a lot of the attributes that you know may end, if we look at human history, in a number of big chunks.  So, one is the ‘physically era’ where we had to work with our hands, we had to dig the earth with our hands. Then we turned over to a period of thousands of years into more of an ‘intellectual era’, where we could start to use books to carry knowledge from person to another or from one generation to another, and then really the internet was still largely a part of that, the intellectual age.  And, depending on how much you believe in the AI machine learning model coming forward,  we’re at a stage now where we’re entering what I would call a ‘being age’, where the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are, so to speak.

For example, nothing is capable of building a Boeing 787. It’s a network of technologies and people – a system that can build a 787.  So the stage of human intelligence we’re in now is around those ‘being’ attributes.  And a lot of these terms, they’re hippy buzzwordy kind of terms – you know ,everything from ‘wellness’ to ‘wellbeing’ to ‘mindfulness’.  But essentially it’s quite possible that maybe we’re going to enter this new explosion of human creativity – where we aren’t focusing just on what are we developing and learning cognitively, but also who are we becoming and what does our ‘becoming’ look like. I think that is one area that has a fair bit of interest.  

I’m also quite interested in systemic change, and I’ve talked a little bit about personal learning graphs. I think if we have personal learning graphs with properly mapped university curricula, with a clear mapping of labour market skills and mindsets, then there are far more effective ways for us to take somebody who’s in the labour market, gets re-skilled due to automation, and needs to get a new degree.  Rather than doing a two years masters, she could finish her masters off in four months, because it takes advantage of what she already knows.  We have to tweak the university system, to enable people to participate in it in such a way that serves the dominant structure of information and society.

Q: So education provision should be lifelong and life wide not this current cookie cutter way of distributing higher education?

A: Exactly and it’s not a new idea. People have been talking about a lot of these concepts for a long time – for decades if not more. I look at mastery learning back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and ‘competency based education’ – there was a lot of discussion going on.  What’s perhaps different today is, that we can actually do it at scale technologically, whereas we couldn’t in the past.

Q: Right, two very quick questions.  I wanted to talk to you about keynotes, you were an frequent international keynote. But you blogged a couple of years ago about the frustrations of keynoting for education audiences, the demand for gurus who can explain everything. You seem to be getting a bit burned out by that?

A: I’m not quite sure how I best word this, but in the education sector we like to have people who have answers.  And I’ve long had the view that networks have the answers.  And so for me it was very frustrating to go to a conference, do a keynote, and try and communicate something, and then have a response and not know what the impact was – not know where it went or what happened with it.  So it was the same thing as the MOOC conversation that we had, whereas if that becomes your identity then it’s actually distracting.  So one professional society I was involved with early on in forming, after I was finished with my servicing as early president, I just made a conscious decision to not attend for a number of years. Simply because there is a desire to have people with answers rather than for us to have conversational engagement as the pathway to answers.  We give certain people too much credit, and not enough to ourselves and to our networks.

Q: And you mentioned before about ego and personality and academia, and it’s very difficult to divorce the idea from the individual?

A: Exactly.

Q: Now the second thing I was interested in was, following you on Twitter, you came across as quite unimpressed by a lot of education research.  Now what is it that really gets your goat when it comes to reading education research?

A: I think education research sits at a really difficult point.  On the one hand it’s pragmatic, and it makes an impact in people’s lives. It’s focused on really important things like equity and fairness, and giving people opportunities that perhaps we didn’t know they weren’t getting because of socioeconomic status, or any number of factors that impact them.  I think what gets my goat educationally, is when activism is passed off as research, but when activism is actually needed. You need to have a focused attempt to change inefficiencies and inequalities and unfairness within a system.  But it does a disservice to what research is – when we begin to become sloppy around what exactly the concept it, or what exactly is the method.

Q: … and the slippage from evidence to, as you say, opinion.

A: I don’t want to get too deep in to some of the philosophical or even the epistemological orientations around it.  But it’s this question of whether all beliefs are valid? Or should we agree that there is a scientific way to look at the world and how the world works, that’s different than from what’s maybe communicated in some spiritual or religious traditions? Should we trust that the model of who humanity is can be better addressed through an evolutionary lens, or do we need to address that through a religious lens?  And I think those are the kinds of questions that, for me – where you begin to move into other epistemologies, but you still want to lay claim to authority with it … or where you in some cases deny the authoritative value of certain mindsets, or methods. I think it’s reasonably fair to say things like the scientific method have changed the quality of life for billions of people.  Whereas today, our generation is living longer by a factor of two than people did even 120 years ago. That didn’t happen by accident – it happened by a sustained application of a method for exploring and understanding knowledge.  So then we have to say, if that’s what research is, then how does that differ from our attempts to generate equity within our society? There is an overlap, there is an interconnection, but I get frustrated when those two are obfuscated.

Q: Now, finally, you are making a move over to the University of South Australia, why do you think so many international EdTech researchers are coming over to Australia? I mean this was a country that was described by one of its own prime ministers as ‘the arse end of the world’. Is it the promise of better coffee? Is it escaping Trump? Why are you coming here?

A: It’s all about the coffee.  No I think you know, a lot of the opportunities here, and I still have you know, I have an appointment with University of Texas ongoing.  But I think a lot of the promise in Australia is there’s a critical cluster of very innovative practices. It’s a university system that values the appeal of international students, international populations. A lot of interesting work happening around all aspects of the student experience, around all aspects of research, and so that’s a big appeal. Obviously the coffee and the beaches help as well.

Q: Yeah, it’s a very polite answer, it’s still a hell of a long way away from anywhere else. Excellent, thanks very much for taking the time to talk George, thanks for stopping by.  I hope your time down under is well spent … good luck!

A: All right, thank you.