What if Google disappeared? An educational view.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a participant at SITE 2012 about our 21st Century Educators program, and how we have a lot of the content of the program in Google apps. We are using Blackboard (and also Moodle) for the content home base, but the activities happen through Google apps.

So, I was asked, “What happens then if Google servers go down?”. Aren’t you afraid of that?

To a question like this, it would be easy to answer something like If Google goes down, well, most likely something more drastic has happened in the Web anyways, or, Which one do you think is more secure; Google servers or your small organization’s servers? Which one has more professional people checking all the time that everything goes well and develops? Which one has their share prices to watch and keep their shareholders happy (which is a big carrot to make sure everything goes well)?

But I did not, and do not, want to use these arguments, as it goes around the thing that is actually important: What is learning and where it happens?

When you combine the idea that we all actually learn different things all the time (this is an undeniable fact), with the fact that the half life of knowledge is very fast, you understand that rigid static repositories are in many ways history. But I do not want to use this as an argument either.

But, what I would like the people to understand is, that at least in our context (faculty development of teaching in higher education), the activities that take place, are more important, not the content (which sometimes for example acts as a spark to engage an inquiry around a topic).

The activities itself, at least we would like to see them doing it, change the behavior from perceiving information as something to be merely consumed and “learned” to something actively questioned and developed progressively forwards. If we want innovation in any field, no matter if it is education or developing cars, this is simply behavior that we need, and it can’t be learned otherwise than doing it from the start.

The Web is full of new research, ideas; content as such. It is abundant and we should question it all. We are never going to run out of it. Because of that, we don’t need a place to organize that, as such. The Web is the place. So the problem of Google going down, is not important in that sense.

Also, if we think about social media, what does it do best? One of its most important affordance is acting as a tool for people to interact and collaborate. And when you genuinely interact with people, you interact with yourself. You learn.

If Google goes down permanently, yes, some history of the activities, i.e. interactions, might be lost. But you are still in yourself. And if we want to continue interacting through the Web, we merely change the tools or the platform.

Still in many conversations, it is an ignored fact, that for example Facebook started as a tool through which students interacted with each other. Not “just” for fun, but also for learning. A lot of, I’d almost say, zero sum research is conducted to “find” this same fact that community and trust are the cornerstones of online collaborative learning. We should not break something as natural as that with badly designed LMS’s or most importantly, inefficient pedagogical methods. Unfortunately a lot of formal education does just that.

So what happens if Google just disappears? Something that has always happened, I think: We evolve and move on. The world and the Web is a learning environment in itself. Tools and learning activities are not the same thing.

More interesting ideas around this conversation for example in Teemu Arina’s post “Cloud Learning as Universal Primary Education”.

Google+ – A Big Buzz About Nothing?

I don’t usually write those kinds of “social media posts” where I ponder what some services might or might not do for us, but now that I’ve been using Google+ in a couple of authentic e-learning cases, I have to reflect it a little bit.

Everyone is currently discussing and writing about what happens between Google+ and Facebook, often going to the level of which one is better, who will dominate and yadda yadda yadda. This isn’t one of those posts.

When I started to experiment with Google+, still that time in its beta, I also thought a bit “So are they trying to swallow the market share from Facebook, or what is this?”

Now I don’t actually care too much about that. Through the eyes of authentic e-learning theory supported by open social media technologies, Google is really building something potentially remarkable with affordance we are just beginning to undersand, and also, at least I, is beginning to adore. And for me, that is way more interesting than just mere commercial dominance for the digital consumer souls. Here’s why.

I’ve been experimenting with Google+ & other Google Apps in my Master of Instructional Design & Technology studies and in an online collaborative teacher training programme. These both programmes have their backgrounds in authentic e-learning and social learning theories, and are using open social media services instead of just services clearly defined as VLEs (Virtual learning environments) e.g. Moodle or Blackboard Learning System. Although these are also in use, still have their place and are not totally forgotten.

I’m not sure if I can be explicit enough to describe what potential, or like I already stated affordance, lies in Google+ and using it in the authentic learning context, but there indeed is a huge one. But we also need to better understand and internalize the pedagogy needed for these service to live up to their potential.

As without people and the right kind of learning process to guide their way, these tools achieve nothing or at least much less. Using some of the older models of teaching, where teacher is the center of excellence, cripples the use of these tools and using them becomes just something cosmetic, not something revolutionizing.

Here’s some of the affordances of Google+, Google Apps & their integration that I feel are really worth mentioning after using them in learning.

You have the so called social layer, people interacting more informally, in this case supported by Google+. I feel many people don’t truly understand how important the informal interaction layer actually is. It helps the people to become a group, or a team. This is crucial in social learning process to start to happen.

Creating Circles of specific people, like your learning group or class, helps you easily post topics that may interest just them, or ask for help from those in your team. In a way these are very simple things, but psychologically, very important. It shifts the learning and the responsibility more to the learners, perfects their collaboration and stimulates their creativity when they are working together.

Hangout with extras, more advanced version of Hangout feature in Google+ which is still a bit under construction, is finally something you can use for collaborative video conferencing, to share your screen & write documents together in or from Google Docs (you can even start new ones straight from the Hangout). So everything’s in the same place. The usability of Hangout is simple enough and overall works quite well. If this feature evolves further, it could be a good alternative to challenge Adobe Connect and others.

These are just a couple of interesting features I feel are worth mentioning in this time when Google+ has been publicly open only a short period of time. Of course there are still gaps with Google’s attempt to integrate, well, just about everything. For example Blogger is a bit stiff and I’ve had to deal with many frustrated people trying to get its registration process to work seamlessly. But clearly, they are building an interesting ecosystem of services which can definitely be used together with suitable learning process.

And this what is happening is very important: When we have something where we have the social layer to easily interact and communicate with other people, the ease to create, collaborate and share, streamlined usability and learner centered approach from the get-go (as these are our own profiles through which we do things), we are a huge step forwards of a true 21st century learning environment, to use globally.

The learning environment isn’t just some class or the organizational VLE anymore, but everywhere you can find something to learn. The mental learning environment isn’t “on” only when you sleep in the class or interact with a learning management system. It’s where you create it.