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August 23, 2005

Contexts, boundaries, asymmetry

Stephen Downes replied to my post on contexts and makes an interesting comment about the nature of the conversational context problem.

"Thus, he sees it as a boundary problem. But I don't accept that contention - why does there need to be agreement on what counts as part of the conversation? I see it as a linking problem - if we can create links between one resource and the next, we can each of us construct our own version of the conversation, based on our own point of view"

This observation is correct: for the majority of cases, we don't need to agree a context at all - a conversation is created simply by linking together resources ("conversation is merely a relation between components which results in homeostasis in the ensemble" as one of my colleagues quoted at me from Maturana recently). However, in the special case of a teacher-initiated conversation (the topic of my post), there is a need to create an initial agreement based on the topic and the participants; unlike the kind of conversation we're having, a course usually starts with the students having no knowledge of who else is taking it.

Once a participant has received an initial context, they can alter it to suit their view of the conversation, adding and dropping references to resources as they wish. A context in this case has asymmetric properties - there is no guarantee that all the participants see the context as having the same boundaries (or the same composition of participants).

This is one of the things I think is exciting about this area, and what moves it outside the "control culture" that permeates the traditional LMS. It also contradicts the Conversational Framework model of learning, where the teacher creates and manages a "micro world" within which the student can act. With asymmetric context, the "micro world" is only the same as the teacher's conception of it at the instant of transmission; beyond that point, it is no longer the teacher's "micro world", but the learner's.

So, consider "agreeing the context" in my earlier post as talking about initial scene-setting by the teacher, rather than creating an immutable boundary for the subsequent conversation. The latter is really more like what a forum does, or an LMS.


Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking University Teaching - a framework for the effective use of educational technology, London: Routledge.

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