An interview with George Siemens: Changes in learning at work

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THINK!George Siemens is a well-known theorist on the changing nature of learning in a digitally-based society. Ahead of his keynote presentation at the Learning Technologies Conference 2009, he talks exclusively to Annie Hayes about his life and work.

Siemens is the author of a widely-cited article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and the book Knowing Knowledge - an exploration of the impact of the changed context and characteristics of knowledge.

But before he began his career in academia he was a restaurant owner with seven outlets and it was his fascination with training what he dubs 'a transient population' that initially sparked his interest in the changing nature of learning in a digitally-based society.

Photo of George Siemens"I've done a lot of work with higher education over the last few years and there needs to be a total re-think about what needs to be taught. "

"You're perpetually training in the restaurant business and it struck me that you needed a systemised approach to do it. At the time the computer was starting to grow in popularity as a means of training employees. When I left to move into academia the background I'd gleaned in using the internet transitioned very well."

Whats new about technology?
Over the last 12 years, Siemens, who was born in Mexico and currently lives and works in Canada, has been involved in higher education and in particular technology. His first foray into how technology changes the learning relationship occurred whilst working at Red River College, Canada in the late 90s. "Every student received a laptop – what we noticed was that they weren't being used for new things but were being used for duplication."

Since then, Siemens has moved onto work as the associate director in the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba, where he has been experimenting with different pedagogical approaches - including improving engagement with learners.

"In early 2000, well before the term Web 2.0 came into use, we witnessed the changing relationship between our faculty members and the learners. We found that once the students had access to resources online the framework we (the teachers) had created for them to learn in was less critical," says Siemens who explains that students became involved in other collaborative suites. "This gave them the opportunity to make personal choices and so we saw a power shift. That cycle continued with students slowly becoming more responsible for running their own learning.

"We've got to stop looking at the nature of the content and actual method of what we’re doing and look at the systems structure to deal with what is needed wherever learners are."

Technological evolution
"Over the last three years whilst at the University of Manitoba I've been looking at different technologies and how they impact institutions and society as a whole at a time when the tools of control are distributed freely," says Siemens who tells me that he has done a lot of work with the faculties gaining a better grasp of what technology is and how it is evolving.

"Whilst ICT has been around for the last 20 to 30 years it still has had a fairly small influence (in education) but we're just starting to see its social implications," says Siemens.

And the changes in the distribution and access to learning has far-reaching consequences, says Siemens who believes that it has changed the entire framework of learning and development beyond recognition: "Across society there is an expectation of autonomy and control. If I go and get a newspaper, for example, I'm reading what someone thinks it's important for (us) to know but students can now go outside the framework the teacher has created.

"Everyone now has access to information. It changes how companies broadcast their messages and it’s partly formed by their engagement with the audience."

Siemens believes that in response to this, training and development departments need to be more flexible and adaptive: "Instead of training people in advance of their needs we need to look at engaging them. There's greater transparency in the training process, you can craft in part the learning through the dialogue with the employee/student." In Siemens view what this equates to is making training and learning centrally aligned to tie in with not only the learning and development strategy but also the PR message it is giving."

"it's a great time to be in this field. There's lots of opportunity to manage potential well and to play critical roles"

What next?
So what's next for Siemens' work and career? "I'm going to be looking at what training and development departments should look like when the tools of creating content are greater than ever before, and also how change happens in organisations. I've done a lot of work with higher education over the last few years and there needs to be a total re-think about what needs to be taught. We've got to stop looking at the nature of the content and actual method of what we're doing and look at the systems structure to deal with what is needed wherever learners are."

A great thinker, Siemens naturally takes much influence from reading: "Even though I have issues with what I read, I spend a lot of time doing it – it helps me to get a better grasp of change cycles, particularly from what we can learn from history. For example (the shift of power from) Greece to Macedonia."

But it's not just literature and academia that has shaped his thinking but also the world of modern jargon of new buzzwords and concepts - such as Web 2.0 - and Siemens admits that the mix of influence has an ebb and flow about it which is also shaped by his general enthusiasm for the subject he has dedicated his career to: "From my perspective it's a great time to be in this field. There's lots of opportunity to manage potential well and to play critical roles and I’m optimistic about making an impact on the productivity of organisations from what we learn too."

Siemens will be speaking at the opening address of the Learning Technologies Conference 2009 being held from 28-29 January, 2009 at Olympia, London. For more information see: www.learningtechnologies.co.uk

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