George Siemens Gets Connected

Chris Bolin for The Chronicle

George Siemens cites his Mennonite upbringing as inspiration for his theories about how knowledge can be distributed in networks, whether small religious communities or MOOCs.
January 13, 2014

When George Siemens was in the seventh grade, in the early 1980s, he committed what his parents believed to be a sin: He used a computer.

It was a Commodore PET, a precursor of the personal computers that would soon reshape the world and everything in it. To his parents, conservative Mennonites, the computer was akin to a false idol. They held that technology—and higher education, for that matter—steered people away from God.

But Mr. Siemens had made his choice. And decades later—in 2008, when he was a researcher at the University of Manitoba—he helped invent the massive open online course, or MOOC.

In the hands of other academics at better-known institutions, MOOCs evolved into something much different from Mr. Siemens's original vision. Since 2011, when two Stanford University professors attracted 160,000 students to their free online course on artificial intelligence, university leaders and faculty members around the world have been under pressure to decide whether to hop aboard the MOOC train or lie down on the tracks in protest. But solid, scholarly information about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs has been scarce.

Now the most powerful private foundation in education wants Mr. Siemens to help usher the conversation into a more enlightened phase.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year committed more than $800,000 toward the MOOC Research Initiative. The goal was to get researchers to bring hard data to bear on specific questions about what this new breed of online course might be good for.

The foundation put Mr. Siemens in charge of the project. After years of being confined to the footnotes of the MOOC movement, the father of the first massive open online course has been given a hand in directing its future.

Then again, Mr. Siemens knows better than to think parents can control their offspring.

For the first six years of his life, George Siemens did not have access to electricity, let alone a computer. He grew up on a farm in the Chihuahua state of Mexico. His parents grew corn and soybeans, living "basically a hand-to-mouth existence," according to Henry Siemens, George's older brother.

It was an education controversy that had driven the Siemens family to Mexico years earlier. George's great-grandparents were German Mennonites who settled in Canada in the early 20th century after fleeing Europe in search of more religious freedom.

But when the Canadian government wanted them to send their kids to public schools, the family moved again—this time to a Mennonite village in rural Mexico. The residents spoke a German dialect and got around by horse and buggy. The world was as small and closed as they wanted it to be.

For George, whose later interest in openness and networks led him to the initial experiment with the MOOC form, farm life provided an early frame for how knowledge works under extremely limiting circumstances.

"Our community was without paved roads and electricity and its many associated benefits," George later wrote of his early childhood. "News and information didn't travel very quickly."

It was the mid-1970s, and the outside world was accelerating toward globalization. Some families in the Mennonite community had diesel generators that they used to power radios for several hours each week; the adults would gather and listen to news broadcasts. They would sometimes discuss the news later, in the Siemens home, by the flickering light of an oil lamp.

George was too young to understand much of what was said. But he was discovering something that would inform his ideas about how education should work in a larger, faster, more connected world: Learning is not just about the content of a lesson. It is about belonging to a community.

"While modern networks of electricity, news, information, roads, and technology were largely nonexistent in this setting, the spirit these networks serve for me today already existed," he wrote.

"It was the spirit of being human. Of connecting."

Mr. Siemens, now 43, still has a boyish look about him, with eager blue eyes, a mop of curly auburn hair, and a stocky frame containing a seemingly endless supply of energy.

He did not starting learning English until he was 6, but he speaks with no discernible accent and, in fact, seems to overcompensate by enunciating his words with unusual precision. A prolific blogger and public speaker, he tends to talk in long paragraphs that are thoughtful, if not entirely improvised—one effect of having reflected repeatedly on most questions you might ask him about his work and background.

As part of the MOOC Research Initiative, Mr. Siemens arranged a conference in early December near the University of Texas at Arlington, where he will begin working this spring after several years as an assistant professor at Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada. We met the night before the conference and headed to a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner. We promptly got lost.

The challenge put Mr. Siemens in an analytical mood. While I cursed the navigation app on my iPhone for leading us astray, he gave an impromptu lecture on how the proliferation of technology tools as "sensemaking agents" has led people to understand their environments in a way that is broader but more abstract.

"In the absence of data," he said, "sometimes you just have to drive around for a while to figure out where you are."

It took some wandering before Mr. Siemens found his calling as an academic technologist.

One day, in high school, George decided he wanted to be a doctor, says Henry Siemens. So he studied Gray's Anatomy for weeks, copying the diagrams into his own notebook.

"Then he woke up one morning and decided he didn't want to be a doctor and put it down and moved on to something else," his brother says.

His undergraduate studies were, in his own words, "a bit scattered." He earned the most of his college credits at the University of Manitoba but also took courses from Briercrest College and Seminary, a Christian institution in Saskatchewan.

Through Briercrest, Mr. Siemens had his first experience with distance education: He took a Greek-language course that involved studying pronunciation from cassette tapes that came in the mail.

He took courses in management leadership and accounting through Certified Management Accountants, a professional society. He and his brother ran a few restaurants together.

When he was 28, he went on a religious retreat. "If you're always moving away from something, you'll be lost," Mr. Siemens remembers a priest telling him. "Always be moving toward something." Eventually he went back to school and earned a doctorate at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, where he studied "wayfinding and sensemaking" in complex information systems.

Mr. Siemens says he does not like to spend more than two or three years on a project. Some researchers hold on too tightly to their legacies, he says, which is a good way to ensure that a project will die once the researcher is gone.

"If you care about it," he tells me, "you should make it something that can outlast you, that people can make their own."

When George was 6, his parents moved the family back to Canada, where they settled in a town in Manitoba called Morden. There, his desire to connect to the wider world would lead him to seek a different kind of freedom than his forebears had sought in Mexico.

Farming had proven financially untenable for George's parents, but they carried their disdain for the trappings of modern society to Morden, where they worked at a poultry slaughterhouse. There were no televisions, radios, or newspapers in the Siemens home.

The future pioneer of open learning made his early forays into contemporary media in secret. He kept a copy of Love at First Sting, a record by the heavy-metal band the Scorpions, hidden from his parents. And then there was his affair with the Commodore PET.

Despite their distrust of secular culture, George's parents allowed him and his five siblings to attend public school. George was bright and a voracious reader, but in the classroom he was disruptive. "He was always very stubborn," says Henry Siemens. "He knew what he wanted."

One thing George Siemens wanted was to go to high school. His parents wanted otherwise. Their view was, "Once you got to a certain level in school, you entered the world of evil," George recalls. "There was this sense that if you get too educated, you've started to deny God's presence in your life."

He had watched his parents pressure Henry, who is two years older, into dropping out after eighth grade. Henry went to work at the slaughterhouse. "George was very emphatic that that wasn't going to be him," his brother says.

Henry, too, aspired to more than a life of piety and manual labor. Together the brothers wore down their parents, who eventually allowed both boys to attend high school. Their four younger sisters would also go to high school. Henry Siemens now owns a media-marketing business in Manitoba.

"George is a fairly strong-willed person," he says. "That kind of emboldens everybody else as well."

In 2008, Mr. Siemens ran the first MOOC with Stephen Downes, a researcher with the National Research Council of Canada. They were soon joined by David Cormier, an instructional technologist at the University of Prince Edward Island.

That course looked a lot different than today's MOOCs: The Canadian technologists did not teach the course so much as facilitate it. The idea was to supply the students with the basic framework for the course and then lead from behind. The students were not confined to a prescribed online learning platform; they were encouraged to figure out what environment suited them. Some Spanish-speaking students even created places in Second Life, a virtual world, where they could hold discussions in their own language.

The course, called "Connectivism and Connectivist Knowledge," ending up attracting about 2,300 nonpaying, noncredit students in addition to the 25 who took it for credit through the University of Manitoba.

It was not "massive" by the standard of today's MOOCs, but Mr. Siemens was not especially interested in scale. He was more interested in connections.

That first MOOC was an attempt to teach and simultaneously put into practice a learning theory, connectivism, that Mr. Siemens had developed several years earlier. The basic idea of connectivism is that knowledge is something that does not reside in a person's head, but rather is distributed throughout networks. In other words, knowledge is not just the contents of my brain; it is also the apps on my iPhone, the people in my address book, and the websites in my browser.

"Most learning needs today are becoming too complex to be addressed 'in our heads,'" Mr. Siemens wrote in a 2008 blog post. "We need to rely on a network of people (and, increasingly, technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use. The network becomes the learning."

Education, then, is "a connection-forming process," in which "we augment our capacity to know more" by adding nodes to our personal networks and learning how to use them properly.

The idea behind the first MOOC was not to make credentialing more efficient, says Mr. Siemens. It was to make online instruction dovetail with the way people actually learn and solve problems in the modern world. He and his colleagues wanted "to give learners the competence to interact with messy, ambiguous contexts," he wrote, "and to collaboratively make sense of that space."

"Connectivism and Connectivist Knowledge" inspired a number of similar open courses in Canada and a few in the United States. Mr. Siemens and his colleagues have become a minor celebrities in some academic circles. At a cocktail hour here in Arlington, one conference attendee said that when she first met Mr. Siemens, it was "like meeting Julia Roberts."

In the larger conversation about how online might change higher education, however, the connectivist MOOCs have remained on the margins. The Stanford professors, with their astronomical registration figures and futuristic grading techniques, had better luck capturing the imagination of the mainstream press.

One of those professors, Sebastian Thrun, used the spotlight to make several bold proclamations about the future of higher education in light of MOOCs. In November, after Mr. Thrun started backtracking, Mr. Siemens slammed him. "No one will do more damage to MOOCs as a concept than Thrun now that he realizes how unfounded his statements actually were," he wrote on his blog at the time.

The Gates foundation and George Siemens make an unlikely alliance. The foundation has spent nearly $500-million toward getting more students to finish their degrees, among other things, and while massive open online courses may have a role to play, Mr. Siemens is a relic from a time before MOOCs became reoriented to scale and economics.

But Mr. Siemens does not dislike edX and Coursera, purveyors of the newer, more massive MOOCs. He says he is impressed by their reach, especially overseas. The connectivism scholar likes talking about theory, but more than that he wants to make a difference. "If you're sitting there with your MOOCs theories," he says, "and then there are these people at Coursera who are literally changing people's lives, there has to be some boundary on your personal rhetoric."

As for the Gates foundation, Mr. Siemens is aware that some academics are dubious of its motives. He published the complex process for selecting the winning research proposals on the MOOC Research Initiative's website, "so they don't just jump to conclusions about a bunch of shady stuff going on."

Some studies will examine specific teaching techniques for open courses, while others will focus on larger questions, such as whether succeeding in MOOCs can increase people's economic mobility. The best of the studies will be peer-reviewed and published in the spring.

The December conference here in Arlington, meanwhile, was about making connections. Mr. Downes and Mr. Cormier were there, alongside representatives of Coursera and edX.

The Gates foundation has been accused of trying to reduce teaching and learning to a series of measurable inputs and outputs, and the latter-day MOOC providers share the foundation's orientation toward promoting technology that can affect tens of thousands of students with a single nudge.

Mr. Siemens's connectivist friends think differently about education. "For me, we can't even talk like that," Mr. Cormier tells me. "It's messy, and it's always going to be messy, and those sort of clean lines are not even something we should strive for."

Predictably, the two camps entered and exited the conference with unresolved differences of opinion about how the ideal MOOC should run.

But squaring the past with the present has never been Mr. Siemens's goal. He simply wants to expose both sides to different ways of imagining the future. The Mennonite technologist put his faith into networks a long time ago.

Mr. Siemens does not fault his parents for trying to steer him away from what would become his life's work. Their views on technology have become more flexible in recent years, he says. His father now drives a truck for a living, and recently got an iPhone.

"My parents did the absolute best that they could with what they had been taught," he says. Besides, other parts of his heritage—such as the instruction to serve others rather than try to convert them—has stuck. Mr. Siemens says he still identifies as Mennonite.

When I ask about his family, his gaze softens. Mr. Siemens has three children. His older daughter, who is 19, has taken MOOCs from Coursera and edX. He thinks she would enjoy a connectivist MOOC, but he is not about to try to make her take one.

His 15-year-old daughter, he confesses, would hate taking a connectivist MOOC, where the role of the teacher is to blend into the scenery. "She loves a good teacher," says Mr. Siemens.

"I've been working with her to say, 'Knowledge is ambiguous, you have to be able to understand that what the teacher tells you is a guidepost, a framework for you to develop your thinking,'" he says. "But, ah, no."