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Stochastic Learning Objectives, Stochastic Outcomes, and Online Learners

Noam Chomsky, exposing insights admittedly not purely his own but rather present in centuries of educational theory, told the students and faculty at Arizona State University that if we knew what the outcomes were before we started teaching, it would not be education. Education, he says, is joint discovery that happens among teachers and learners. He stops short of saying what it actually is when we do know precisely what the learning objectives are- but it’s not hard to guess. Mager has made a career of instructional performance objectives. Standards and school districts spend countless hours debating performance objectives. But at what point should the learner move from instruction, to education? I think there is a midpoint, and I call that point stochastic learning objectives.

Jackson Pollock's

Stochastic Art by Jackson Pollock, education often follows this theory of “create the environment and the result will come.”

Stochastic Learning Objectives are a set of competencies or knowledge items that we hope learners with come to in the process of learning, but our instruction is not measured or focused on any single one. Rather, the instructional design is aimed at building a context where the learning of these are likely to occur. A sequence is not dictated, nor are the items contingent upon one another. This same approach is taken in a number of fields. Jackson Pollack is often credited as being a founder of stochastic art– at some point the process will come upon the aesthetically pleasing image (see public domain image to the left). A great example is the use of the word “notion” in PhD programs. In lay speech we find the term “idea” quite often, but when we switch to academic discourse, ideas seem to be replaced with notions. I would guess that notions are less rigid that ideas, but honestly, I would be hard pressed to say anything about “notion” other than academics seems to have about as many notions as everyone else has ideas. Notion is a wonderful example because while I find that graduates of PhD programs have notions, and others have ideas, I have never heard of any course or advisory bullet point directed at teaching PhD students to have notions, not ideas. In fact, it is ludicrous to think of it. Stochastic outcomes are quite common in discourse learning; at least I have had that notion for the past few years, previously I only had ideas.

But at-a-distance learners are challenged with this type of bridge between instruction and education. Clear performance objectives and lots of support via examples and supplemental material are common recommendations for online and at-a-distance designs, but instructional designs that lack an element of exploration will stop short of education, stuck in instruction. No amount of supplemental material will prepare learners for some of the learning needed for instructional to become education. The example of “notion” in PhD programs is typical for discourse learning, but other examples abound in other areas as well. For example, a recent activity I assigned asked for learners to collaborate via a wiki. A specific learner, through no fault of her own, experienced some of the less attractive attributes of wiki collaboration, namely her work being saved just moments prior to another student’s saving a different version of the wiki page- effectively deleting her entire contribution. A second experience revolved around incompatibility issues that resulted in her screen showing something completely different from the wiki saved on the server. Both of these experiences strike me as valuable lessons to learn about wikis. While both possible situations could have been included somewhere in the literature I gave learners about using wikis, no amount of preparation can lead someone to recognition these are negative attributes of wikis when one is in the driver’s seat. These must be experienced for the concept to be learned. As a teacher, while I did not intend for students to delete one another’s work, and made some comments hoping to avoid these experiences, I did want learners to learn both the positives and negatives of the wiki. I don’t know how effective my explanation of this was for the learner who experiences the anger of “saving” only to find garble return on the screen. At-a-distance learners are focused, so when the technology fails them, even if the result is solid stochastic objective learning, it’s not easy. They like their learning to be broken up and dished out one concept at a time.

The term itself comes from discussions around my dissertation with two of my four advisers. Elizabeth Boling and Ted Frick both identified that I was trying to teach stochasticly before I did. Teaching discourses, the gateway into communities of practice, is so much the air I breathe that I failed to even recognize how it is different from teaching concepts and procedures.  In truth, they were the first to put the terms together, not me. Incidentally, if you would like to stop education altogether, skip instruction, and go directly to the conferring of degrees, Craig Nakashian offers degrees at a significant discount – 50$ for another PhD was a bargain I thought, until I heard the catch. He includes a gentle disclaimed that the degree in conferred without reference to education or instruction. Curiously, Nakashian’s perspective jives well with Chomsky’s, “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what we discover.”


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