A new book on building communities for learning

February 18, 2024
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I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked up Dave Cormier’s Learning in a Time of Abundance: The Community Is the Curriculum. I knew Cormier’s work from his prolific blogging and focus on the intersection of technology and learning, but I didn’t know what to make of the intersection of “abundance” and “community” and how these two principles would combine. What I experienced is one of the most provocative books on pedagogy I’ve read in a long time. I asked Dave if he’d answer some of my questions.


John Warner: It’s interesting to me that you’ve framed the book around the notion of an “abundant” world, a word with positive connotations. Some people would (and have) described the world of a populace hyperconnected via the internet as a fire hose of sewage. Why abundance?

Dave Cormier: “Abundance” is a word I’ve been playing with for a dozen or so years now, following Martin Weller’s publication of A Pedagogy of Abundance in 2011 and Erik Duval’s presentation at Change11. I think it’s a useful word to think about. When you have an abundance, you have more than you need. On the surface, this can be excellent. There is a sense, sometimes, that a time of abundance alleviates the need for us to take care of the thing that is abundant. When things are scarce, we care for them, we have time to devote to each thing, both because we have to in order to conserve it, but also because we only have so many things to worry about. The two states, scarcity and abundance, often require very different skills.

One of the examples I use in the book is how you might act differently whether there is an abundance of food or not at a party that you might be attending. If there’s a scarcity of food, you might want to count the number of people at the party, figure out what a fair amount might be and then eat accordingly. You might decide that as you just had lunch, you don’t need to have a snack. You might rush to the snack table to get food before it’s all gone. In a situation where there’s an abundance of food, your considerations might be more about how much you should really eat and less about how that fits in with everyone else. You can take your time, maybe have a chat before you head to the snacks. This kind of abundance is what Glen G. Eye would call “material abundance,” so it’s not exactly the same as information abundance, but I still think it holds up as an example.

When we look at information abundance (as we currently have it), we don’t have to do the work that used to be associated with finding information. That’s awesome when the information we’re finding is a recipe or 65 percent of 300. And therein lies the trap. For those things that have multiple “just fine” answers or really clear single answers, this abundance is great. Watch Sal Khan’s video about gen AI and look at the examples he’s excited about. Math problems. Computer coding. What Gatsby sees in the middle distance.

Contrast that with a “should” question. Should I eat carbs? Should I get an electric car? Should I vote for whomever? Shoulds are hard in abundance. There’s way more information than you need, and it is very, very cheap for people to try and trick you. We need the kind of research skills that Michael Caulfield talks about in his book Verified. And we need a different set of skills to figure out what we value. To help us address the shoulds of our generation.

Q: As you point out in the book, even abundance can be overwhelming. Just because there’s lots of potentially enriching experiences out there doesn’t mean we can properly take advantage of them.

A: I think one of the most misunderstood challenges faced by students growing up in this time and place is their relationship to choice. They have to make so many choices for so many things. Social media brings social issues to them so much quicker. Popular things can cycle from cool to well-known to outdated in the span of a week. It used to take me hours to figure out the words to a song or to find a magazine that talked about my favorite musician—for them it’s the click of a button. Their information-acquisition process is fundamentally different than ours was, and their schools are basically the same as they were 30 years ago. We are trying to help them deal with abundance problems with scarcity tools.

Also, the abundance tools that are out there are excellent at making those choices for you. If you want to understand a 15-year-old, ask (politely) to watch Reels with them. These are short videos that have been customized, day after day, month after month, to provide the exact content that the child is interested in. Almost every video is selected, amongst a huge abundance of content, based on their previous viewing choices. What choice could they make on their own that could possibly compete with that? How can the outdated skills we teach for information consumption deal with something so customized and appealing?

Q: I sometimes lose track of the exact time certain notions about what students were facing occurred to me, but at least 15 years ago, maybe longer, I started to notice that students were struggling with developing what I think of as “agency,” seizing the reins of their own work and responsibilities and directing their efforts towards their own goals. They seemed—to my mind—extremely deferential to the system and its authorities as to what was good and worth doing. This really showed up in the feedback they sought on their writing. I feel like this has intensified over time. Of course, abundance could be playing a role here, too. Too much choice is not necessarily a good thing.

A: There’s always a danger when looking at “kids these days” of falling into the trap that has plagued us for millennia—we always believe the newer generation is not living up to the standards of the previous generation. But I, like you, think there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think it’s only with students. It used to be difficult to find answers. The effort made in finding them served for some modicum of humility, maybe, but more importantly, it served to bring you countless other points of context that helped inform what you had learned. Not because we wanted all that extra context—we had no choice. Now our searches go directly to an answer. No process needed.

I’ve been discussing with students, recently, how they search for citations on papers. When I was first in university in the early ’90s, I had to scour a library for citations. I also learned, very quickly, that it was much easier to follow the citations to the paper I was writing than it was to come up with an idea and try and cite it. The student process I keep discovering now is

  1. Decide on my argument
  2. Search for a citation by keyword (maybe in Google Scholar)
  3. CTRL+F within the document
  4. Copy and paste a citation that supports my position

No need to read the paper. No further readings to read or process. But, more importantly, no need to consider the argument that I’m making. I’m not following the research; I read the rubric and make sure I find out what you the teacher want, and then I’m forcing the research to follow my argument. With the amazing abundance of research out there, you can, often, find a citation to support almost any position. Click. Click. Done. I think this has a huge impact on our relationship with our students—they don’t need to do the hard work of thinking about research and only need us for the rubric.

Q: I feel like there’s quite a few mike-drop sentences in the book, and perhaps the first comes at the end of your introduction: “In a world of information scarcity, you can control the definitions of things like learning. I think that time is gone and we’re going to have to adjust.” What’s the journey to first acknowledging and then even embracing this idea?

A: I think that in order to be able to define something, you need to be in charge of it. You need to have some accepted position of power. Think about how the Oxford English Dictionary was first created. They took all the usages of given words from written texts in English that they could find and described the different ways in which the words were used in that writing. Leaving aside the idea that this excludes any word usage by people without the money in the 19th century to write things down, it demonstrates that words actually have different usages and different meanings. After the publication of the dictionary, we increasingly started to believe that those were “true” rather than just a representation of what was happening with the language.

It’s no accident, I think, that many of the examples you’ll see in books that claim to talk about “improving learning” use examples from things like chess and math to explain what they mean. Those examples are easy to talk about. You can win the game. You can get the answer. There’s a great comfort, I think, in believing that all things are either true or they aren’t. Improvements in learning are just people getting the answer to the question quicker/more often.

We use the word “learning” in a bunch of different ways in regular life, though. I can learn that I’m no good. I can learn to ride a bike. I can learn to hear another person’s perspective. I wouldn’t suggest that those three meanings of “learn” could be measured in some standard way—if at all. When you add in the ways in which the internet has created spaces for new voices, for the recording of so many of those voices that would never have made it into the dictionary 150 years ago, those competing meanings are always going to be present. We can only silence them by being very, very loud.

Q: One of the things I most appreciated about your concluding chapter is that you framed dealing with an abundant world through the lens of practices—stuff we have to do (skills), mindsets we should employ (habits of mind), things we need to know (knowledge) and how we should think and feel about this stuff (attitudes). It suggests there’s no solution, no endpoint, just a process we keep working.

A: We don’t have best practices for the world we live in. Though, to be fair, I’m not sure we had terribly good ones for the world we transitioned out of. I think the only thing we can really do is keep deciding what our values are and then move forward from there. It’s hard to decide when all sides of an issue get a voice, however unfairly distributed. We can grow. We can reflect. And we can hear each other. Once you lose that central authority, it gets hard to decide what everyone is supposed to do.

In the book I talk about my father regretting the loss of common sense about the way things need to be done. I think in a world of abundance we’ve lost the ability to find our common more than we’ve lost our sense. Our ways of learning are more about finding the answer rather than trying to work through the ways to understand each other better.

Q: This book originates in the writing you’ve done on your own blog for many, many years. Writing here, I discovered by accident that doing a blog is a good way to gather the material that can turn into a book. In the book you talk about the challenge of translating that writing into this form. What advice do you have for other academics who are considering the same journey?

A: My blog serves two primary purposes for me. It gives me a place to write the things that I am looking to contribute, whether to my students or to a broader community of folks and it also serves as my memory.

Just write. I think my first piece of advice is to write more and often. I use my blog as a way of communicating ideas with the world but also as a way of remembering things. Like you, I discovered by accident that I could pull together the pieces that I wrote on my blog into a book. My first attempt at this was to pull various blog posts that I wrote for my students into a textbook for the course I was teaching. That … didn’t work very well.

Be very firm about your book structure. The biggest mistake I made in writing this was in thinking that I could use the blog posts as parts of the book I was writing. That first draft is sitting forgotten in a doc somewhere. There is a real difference between 55 1,000-word blog posts and a 55,000-word book in terms of structure. I had to create a very solid structure and then write the ideas into them. For me at least, the ideas were developed in the blog, not the words.

Q: Given that one of your main points of inquiry throughout the book is the nature of authority, I was curious about your choice of bio on the back flap of the book. You have a long and varied CV, but in addition to listing your current title of learning specialist at the University of Windsor, the one other tidbit you include is “He is credited with coining the term MOOCs in 2008 to describe the emerging massive open online courses.” What went into that choice? What does it say about how we look at authority in our abundant world?

A: That’s a great question. I’ve always hated doing bios for paid work, a secret that I shared with some folks recently, only to find out that the feeling is pretty common. I’m always caught between trying to give people fair warning of the things I might be saying, wanting to be humble about the work I’m doing and also giving my paying partner what they need to attract people so that they don’t regret asking me in the first place.

I’ve been an alt-academic my whole career. I started writing about education because I was interested in it, not because I needed to for my job or for promotion. I was just curious and, I guess, like to be heard. My bios used to reflect that. I think I had this idea that I needed to make my bio sound all professional. Though, now, after your question, I’m totally reconsidering that. Maybe we’ve always judged authority by our connection to points of power or prestige, whereas I think we should probably be doing it based on our values. Yup. Reconsidering that bio now.

Dave is interested in how technologies change what it means to learn and to have learned. He values care and the emotional perspective of students over whatever content they might acquire. He currently works at the University of Windsor and can be found online at http://davecormier.com. His new book, Learning in a Time of Abundance: the Community Is the Curriculum, is available at Johns Hopkins University Press and other online retailers.



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