It’s hardly easy to be softly hard – freedom and control in learning spaces


Terry Anderson and Jon Dron gave an excellent and highly entertaining keynote at the Networked Learning conference this week. They focused on their concept of the four generations of Distance Education pedagogies. They describe this work in more detail in a special issue of IRRODL on connectivism. Here are my notes from the session.


  • The nature of technologies and pedagogies
  • Reviewing generations of DE and pedagogy
  • Aligning them with groups, sets and nets (Dron and Anderson, 2007)
  • Case study using Athabasca’s landing ELGG installation

Here are the slides for Jon and Terry’s session

It’s hardly easy to be softly hard: freedom and control in learning spaces

View more presentations from jondron


Generations of distance learning pedagogies (open/closes, hard/soft)

  • Instructivist – self-paced, individual study, etc.
  • Social constructivist – groups, classes, etc.
  • Connectivist –  networks, MOOCs, etc
  • Holist – sets and collectives


P1. The next generation learning evolves form and with past generations

P2. Different structures/pedagogies/technologies wth different affordance and degrees of hardness affect our use. McClunan

Learning as a Dance (Anderson 2008) Technologies set the beat and the timing, pedagogy defines the moves.


The orchestration of phenomena to some use (Arthur, 2009).

Assemblies of hard and soft components. Technologies exist in relation to get other. Technologies are assemblies.

Pedagogies are among the soft components of all learning technologies.

A pen can be used for an infinite number of pedagogies.

Writing and reading are technologies, as is language.




The adjacent possible

Flexibility and freedom


Orchestration of phenomena by humans

Path dependencies

Freedom from error


Orchestration of phenomena embedded

The different is the degree of human involvement. Soft is hard (its difficult), Hard is easy.  Soft technologies enable us to be creative.

Behavioural/Cognitive Pedagogies – Instructivist

Tell ‘em what your going to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em and tell ‘em what you told them – Direct Instruction movement (ISD).

Enhanced by the cognitive revolution – chunking, cognitive load, working memory, multiple representations, split-attention effect, variability effect, Sorden 2005 – multi-media effect. Greeno, Collins and Resnick, 1996

Behaviorist /Cognitive thinking – knowledge as a thing, context free, can be transmitted, logically coherent, readily defined through closed systems with discernable relationships between input and output

Technologies – videos, lectures, text books, video and audio broadcast, course packages. Knewton – continous adpativity

Social focus of ist generation – individual learner

Instructivist freedoms – subject, delegability (choosing to choose), technology, approach (how – pedagogy process), sociability, pace, time and location. M. Paulsen

Future of 1st generation

OERU, limitless, very low cost content, challenges of accreditation, The (forever?) just around the corner, ‘learner adaptation’ technologies.

The great courses content, interactive MIT courses, value of courses is dropping.

Give aways – Issues in Distance Education series – Seven books available.

Second generation DE – social constructivist pedagogy

Continuum conversation with the external world and tis artefacts with oneself and with other learners and teachers

Groups as the social unit of SC pedagogy

Why groups? Students who learner in small groups demonstrate greater academic achievement Springer Stanne and Donovan 1999 p. 42

Problems with groups: Restriction in time, space , pace and relationship, not open, Confined by the leaders expectation, usually isolated from the authentic world of practice, low tolerance of differences, Bron 2005 Group think, Cousin and Deepwell 2005, Poor preparation for LLL beyond the course, unscalable.

Group model – membership and exclusion, closed, Hierarchies of control, focus on collaboration and shared purpose, teachers – guides.

Freedoms for control of learning are different

Trusts both opens and constrains. Typically a structure process. But: opportunities for negotiation of control, shifting boundaries, diversity valorized, big issue – getting it just right for everyone (assessment?)

Third generation – connectivist pedagogy

Learning is building capacity. Emergent, distributed and diverse, chaotic, fragmented, non-sequential and contexualised. Connected knowledge. Barth 2004. Knowledge is defined by its creation through activities – accessing information, evaluation, filtering, conveying ides. Burt 2005 Brockerage and closure.

Networks celebrate and stimulate cognitive diversity. Arises when have diff types of info and knowledge perspectives, diff ways of viewing the world, diff ways of categorizing a problem, heuristics yielding diff ways of solving problems

Fisher 2009

Technologies – networks, bottom-up, open, inclusive, focus on individual and connections, teachers – role models and co-travelers,

People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at greater risk of having good ideas’ (Burt)

The network is not an analogy of how we think, it is how we think Siemens

Much more connectivist freedoms

MOOCs aren’t courses, they are opportunities for learning, learner has a lot of individual freedom and control

Limitless assembly, limitless choice, limitless dialogue, but too soft.

Connectivism is the pedagogy of infinity

But do learning networks really work? Network ghost towns, build it and they may come or not

Weinberger’s new book ‘Too big to know’ Fear of open spaces, Internet is what you get when everyone is a curator and everything is linked. Very disruptive. Lost is social space!

Choice! = control Its not just about networks

Set model

Cooperation, anonymity, focus on filtering and selection, hashtag is about sets, tags and categorization, teachers: analysers, curators and publishers, analytics, collectives. Pinterest.

Nets (MOOCs, blogs, LinkedIn, social networks), groups (classes, LMS, tutorial groups) and sets (Wikipedia, twitter, pinterest, google search) are different

4th generation of learning pedagogy

Reducing choices to only those choices that learners want or need to make. People need to make meaningful choices.

1st – 4th generation from closed to open, from hard to soft!

Holist freedoms have a high degree of control over the different aspects of learning.

How holist? Plenty, openness (resources, people), soft and malleable systems, feedback loops, stigmery, social navigations, sociability, adaptive hypermedia, collaborative filtering, learning and process analytics, hard when wanted, soft when not, Structure and infrastructure.

The collective – emergent structure, individual behaviour. Etc. The Matthew effect the richer get richer, following the wrong trails, cold start problems, context separation, mob stupidity.

Testing these theories out at Athabasca. The landing platform – ELGG. It’s a walled garden. A private space for AU but has windows. User controlled creative space, Boutique social system. Networking, blogging, photos, microblogging, polls calendars, groups, etc., differentiating and merging world from school, form fun. ! It’s a soft space. It malleable space.

Multiple rationales. Have nets, sets and groups within this landing platform.

Popular activities – blogs, files, wire posts, bookmarks, discussion topics, wiki, photo page. It’s not a product it’s a process. Tara Fenwick – opening up small spaces within what exists. Current user bas 3250 users (out of 42000 people).


Dron, J. and T. Anderson (2007). Collectives, networks and groups in social software for e-Learning. Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education Quebec. Retrieved Feb. 16: 2008.