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Wandering Ants and the Destruction of Boundaries

world ant farm.jpg
One of the most moving museum exhibits I ever saw was Yukinori Yanagi’s The World Flag Ant Farm, which consists of interconnecting boxes filled with sand in the pattern of national flags in which ants travel, transporting food and sand. The ant farms, on display a couple of years ago at the Tate Modern in London, were intriguing because of the increased realization, as one moved closer, of how they were made, aided by a description on the wall. Those wandering ants could be viewed as destroyers of boundaries, a metaphor I find appropriate for e-learning.
Online learning at its worst boxes a student in, if you will forgive the allusion, to a prescribed path. But more and more often I come across educational innovations that allow students to find their own path. While this happens readily in informal learning, it is heartening to see this more in formal learning as well. The use of technologies that lower the boundaries for content creation, for instance, allow students more room to create and participate themselves, instead of being constrained by what the teacher does. A teacher can also be like the description on the wall, offering an in-depth explanation when needed. And as a teacher myself, I thrive on the sparks of excitement from a student who has new ideas or who clearly understands and applies a new concept.

6 Responses

  1. Lisa,
    Congrats, I think this blog will be great, really looking forward to it.
    In terms of your first post, I have to agree that poor online learning can box in the learner and, quite possibly be a worse experience than poor in-class learning. I think the frustration of online learners can be high at times.
    However, as instructional designers we have the ability to create effective elearning that leads the learners toward resources.
    We can also design instruction that provides the learners with the confidence, motivation and enthusiasm to explore those resources and intelligently reflect upon what they have learned. Good design allows this to happen.
    Karl

  2. Apropos to your comment, " educational innovations that allow students to find their own path " there is a wonderful arts educator Maxine Greene who has written about the responsibility of teachers to help students "release their imagination. " She writes, we (as educators) " ought to provoke heightened sense of agency in those we teach, empower them to pursue their freedom and perhaps transform to some degree their lived worlds. " Whether in a classroom or online, teachers that engage students, facilitate student exploration and discovery and creation, and provide guidance where necessary create the most successful learning experiences.

  3. In a sense students will always find their own paths: all we can do is exert some influence, for better or worse. So the ant analogy holds up well. But I think online learning at its worst also boxes students *out*! It can leave them with a permanent distaste for either the subject or the delivery channel.

  4. As a learning designer, I tend to work with the principle of being transparent about content and learning opportunities with a recommended path and timeline, so that there is an effort to �learn and move together in a group� in a structured program. �Wandering out of the boundaries� to take a look outside should be encouraged. The classroom is not the only place to learn. Classroom teacher and classmates are not the only people we can learn from. There are situations outside where real authentic activities are happening. Learning outside the boundaries and from outside the boundaries provide different perspectives to the subject matter.
    I like wandering ants �. but please come back and share with us what you see outside!

  5. I agree that content and structure should be transparent to avoid incoherence and a confusing learner journey, but as well as recommending a learning path and timeline, as learning designers we can also invite learners to undertake diagnostics that indicate preferred areas for development over others.
    This doesn’t solve the issue of ‘boxing the learner in’, but it can make the learner’s journey more personalised – arguably a strength that online learning can have over large group sessions.
    It’s up to us to treat content – within these personalised learning routes – that ‘releases the imagination’ and invigorates ‘confidence, motivation and enthusiasm’ (to paraphrase our esteemed colleagues above).

  6. I especially like the following: “Online learning at its worst boxes a student in, if you will forgive the allusion, to a prescribed path. But more and more often I come across educational innovations that allow students to find their own path. While this happens readily in informal learning, it is heartening to see this more in formal learning as well. The use of technologies that lower the boundaries for content creation, for instance, allow students more room to create and participate themselves, instead of being constrained by what the teacher does. A teacher can also be like the description on the wall, offering an in-depth explanation when needed. And as a teacher myself, I thrive on the sparks of excitement from a student who has new ideas or who clearly understands and applies a new concept.”
    This is so true, that’s why I am always concerned about cookie cutter courses. You are so right,
    students thrive best, when they are allowed to explore and grow.