Epistemological problems I: In search of a theory
Epistemological questions relate to what it means to know, and how knowledge is acquired. Theories such as behaviourism, constructivism and social constructivism are attempts to describe how people assimilate information into knowledge and develop perspectives that make sense of reality. Someone with a behaviourist perspective (who sees a direct connection between stimuli and response) will see didactic teaching as highly effective, whereas social constructivists (who see value in sharing understanding interpersonally from different perspectives) would probably rather see learners debating and sharing experiences. Web 2.0-based advocates tend not to consider these epistemological platforms. Instead ‘connectivism’, a theory proposed by Siemens (2004, 2006), is popularly cited as a more appropriate way of describing what it means to know and learn in a connected world. It is important here to explore how connectivism departs from other epistemological theories.
In connectivism, learning is said to take place across a network rather than within an individual. The departure of connectivism from other epistemologies is not that it assumes learning to be complex or that knowledge is dynamic or that understanding is personalized (these are also characteristic of social constructivism). The key difference is that in connectivism knowing where and knowing who are more important than knowing what and knowing how, because our “information rich world requires the ability to first determine what is important, and then how to stay connected and informed as information changes” (Siemens 2006, p. 32).
Connectivism is readily descriptive of learning in professional contexts. Lawyers don’t memorise legislation, but they know where to find the answers they need and who to talk to if they can’t find answers or need another opinion. However lawyers are already educated people. In order to determine what is important, lawyers must first know what they are looking for and how it will benefit them. While it is true that they must keep in touch with the ever-dynamic use of particular forms of legislation and keep apace with legal precedent, they do so within a particular conceptual framework. Missing from the connectivism assertion is an adequate appreciation of the underlying knowledge-base and filtering processes lawyers must already possess within themselves in order to meaningfully take advantage of the knowledge networks they draw from. Lawyers know what the legal system is about, and how it works because they have been trained into the system. To benefit from knowing where and knowing who, you must first have developed a coherent framework of what and how. It is precisely this that formal education seeks to provide its apprentices with. In his commentary Brighouse (2006) puts it plainly:
the critical thinking skills involved in autonomy can neither be developed nor exercised without the ease of access to a considerable amount of information which is provided only by having learned and internalized it… the idea that [students] might develop the more complex skills of reasoning about information without having a good deal of it instantly available is silly (pp. 23-24).
Connectivism is a wonderful means of describing the ways in which professionals and organizations tend to learn. However it is concerning that the theory might be cited as evidence that the knowing what and knowing how emphases of formal education should be displaced. The development of critical thinking and autonomous learning skills drawing on where and who (including the ability to meaningfully contribute to a connected world) relies on a coherent platform of pre-requisite, internalized knowledge – the how and what.