Thursday, May 7, 2009

1.1.2: Concerns with connectivism

I had written this as a part of a journal submission that was declined by peer reviewers (one said, "Yes! We need this!" the other, it needed too much rework...) and my research time is now fully concerned with E-Primer 5. Someone requested a look at my thoughts on connectivism (also discussed in the eBCNZer blog) - so, here is an extract from a failed journal article which started as a book chapter (the book itself was never launched). In context, this extract is part of a challenge to Web 2.0 as a viable basis for formal education. Sorry to use the Brighouse quote yet again...

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.

2 comments:

Anamaria Camargo said...

Hi, Mark.
After rereading Siemen’s Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age and reading your post, some pieces of my fragmented knowledge about the topic started falling into place. Your post helped me put words to some of the blanks in my understanding of the theory. This doesn’t mean I found the answers, but I found the questions:
Simens says, “Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.”
• What does “the majority of our learning mean”? Does any kind of learning count?
• Can surface and deep learning about different topics take place through both formal and informal ways?
• Or does informal learning methods favour the acquisition of some kinds of learning (possibly more practical and immediately applicable to work) than others?
• Does the learning acquired informally and formally have the same weight in terms of equipping a person/a people with the tools to fully participate in life and affect current reality?

“Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.”
• Is learning for work related activities seen as the main reason to learn?
• Is Connectivism then a learning strategy for self-training?

“Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).”
• What happens if after identifying where to find an answer to a problem, I can’t make sense of the information I find?
• What if the information one acquires through networking fails to connect with his/her existing (and possibly limited) knowledge?
• How does one lacking networking literacy or maturity learn?

“The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins.”
• How does one acquire this meta-skill?

Siemens asks, “How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?”
If I understand correctly, according to Connectivism, in the absence of complete understanding, one needs to rely on networking to learn for the needed performance.
• Does Connectivism explain how to do this in the absence of any understanding at all?
• Does Connectivism alone explain the acquisition of the skill of pattern recognition?

“Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill”
• Again, does Connectivism alone explain the acquisition of this core skill?

One of the principles of Connectivism states that the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Along the same lines, Downes says in An introduction to Connective Knowledge, “the observation of sets of connections between entities depends a great deal on what we already believe. That is why we see swans in clouds or faces on Mars when, manifestly, there are none. We have brought our prior knowledge of connected entities to bear on our interpretations of these phenomena. As Hume would say, our 'perception' of a causal relationship between two events is more a matter of 'custom and habit' than it is of observation.”
• If the ability to see connections depends on our prior knowledge, what happens to those with little knowledge, either because they are too cognitively immature or because their exposure to varied and accurate information was too limited? How do they learn?
• How does Connectivism explain learning in children?
• Wouldn’t this mean that to an uneducated person, learning would be extremely limited?
• Is Connectivism a learning theory exclusive of educated adults?
I suppose that’s enough for now .
Thanks for the great post.

Nichthus said...

Hi Anamaria,

Glad all of this has you thinking about questions. Answers are, invariably, easy; it is in the questions that we find an education!

Here are some thoughts.

Siemens says, “Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.”

I think George is right here. But the implications of this statement are important. Sleep does not take up most of our day - but it is still rather important. While formal education may not be the 'majority' of our learning, does it still have an important part to play? I think, absolutely. And, I also think that deep learning can take place through informal ways. After all, I am certain that you are thinking deeply about the issues raised in this and other blogs - a sure sign that informal learning can be deep. However let's be clear on a few things. Firstly, both of us are qualified at MA level in e-learning/distance education. That's significant, because we have the tools in place to have a meaningful exchange at this level; we know enough to participate in a conversation about the subject because we are already orientated to it and know its key themes. Secondly, we view ourselves as professionals. Some of this blogging is done in my research time; I am, in part, paid to maintain my level of expertise. Again, this is a valuable part of the formal education system. I would also suggest that informal learning tends to be more akin to the 'everyday knowledge' Laurillard writes about in contrast to 'academic knowledge'. This is, of course, a generalisation but I think a fair one. All learning, Mezirow would suggest, is transformative. Formal education is potentially more objectively transformative.

“Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.”

True enough again. But what type of 'learning' is envisaged here? Pragmatic? Conceptual? Learning that helps you in your world, or learning that helps to re-imagine it? Again these are not dichotomies, but they do make a point. 'Learning' is a generic term. What does George mean by 'learning' here? Would you ever be exposed to the ideas of Aristotle, Planck, Kant, Neitzche, Goethe; the poetry of Coleridge, Brooke or Owen through work-related activities? Are these, then, less valuable because of that? Should we distinguish between 'learning' how to use a mobile phone and 'learning' how More's Utopia critiques social systems? Your question, "Is learning for work related activities seen as the main reason to learn?" hits it on the head I think. If the answer is 'yes', well, that's enough to discount connectivism for me in terms of formal education.

“Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).”

Your questions here are spot on.

“The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins.”

Your question: How does one acquire this meta-skill? My response: Through education ;o) This comes back to my lawyers example. They have been educated in such a way that the meta-skill is developed in them. Connectivism simply can't stand alone as a viable alternative to formal education because of the very question you've posed. One of your later quesiotns also touches on this: "If the ability to see connections depends on our prior knowledge, what happens to those with little knowledge, either because they are too cognitively immature or because their exposure to varied and accurate information was too limited? How do they learn?" Precisely Brighouse's point.

In the end, I think you're coming to the same conclusion that I have. Connectivism explains professional learning between people participating in an informed conversation. Anything beyond that is either wishful thinking or ignorant of the realities of scaffolded learning.

You might also find Neil Postman's chapters "The typographic mind" and "The peek-a-boo world" interetsing, from Amusing ourselves to death.

Thanks Anamaria, trust all is well with you!

Mark.