#PLENK2010 The Elements of a Network Learning and Development Platform: A Beginning

I’ll begin today by summarizing my last post, orient this post toward an educational view and consider what it might mean in terms of the practical elements of a network learning platform.

Summary of My Last Post

When we look at our everyday activities and the communities where those activities are embedded, what becomes important in enabling our actions is not rarified decontextualized content knowledge, but rather the knowledge and understandings that are fashioned between us.  We are shedding the industrial era hierarchal rule based structures because they no longer fit the complexity we face, a complexity that now require collaborative ways of working.  We are also switching from a focus on the prediction and control of behavior to the joint pursuit of emergent practices and from what is the case on the ground, to what values we ought to pursue on behalf of our customers.  Learning in this view does not have a measurable essence, but it can have a use, which can become meaningful when it enables joint action.  It’s an approach to Dewey’s learning by doing that centers cognition in collaboration.

The Practical Side

Time to get concrete.  How do you help people not only learn, but also develop their capabilities?  Previous educational world-views are looking unsustainable and it’s only increasing given the trends toward what David Jones calls The Commodification of Knowledge.

(The) fundamental problem that I see in this (commodification) response is a limited and incorrect view of higher education.  . . . It’s a market driven, techo-rational approach that assumes a traditional analyse, design, implement, evaluate cycle that fails to understand the full complexity of what is required and the changing nature of surrounding environment.  . . . It assumes that there are people who are smart enough to predict what “consumers” will want from the University.

This is similar to the problem of push as described by Hagel, Brown & Davison (henceforth HBD) and their answer to my question is similar to David’s suggestion: Focus on what you do well, build a learning network around that, and allow the emergent practice to grow. Sounds like a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) supported practice.

So what are the elements on which to build a high functioning PLE?  What do you need to develop and grow your practice?

Need # 1 The Network(s)

Build a diverse, visionary and engaged learning network.  HBD suggests that you find the smartest people in your field (what you do well) to include in your network.  Get into their networks, learn what problems they’re attempting to solve (presumably the same problems you are or will encounter) and work jointly on solving them.  The time to build that network is now.  It’s too late to start when a pressing need arises.  I think there needs to be sufficient similarity to allow connections to form in any network, but there is also a need for diversity.  Achieving high levels of both is an important goal.

Need # 2 – The Environment

You can not predict where the next important idea or resource will come from in HBD’s world of “pull” learning; serendipity plays a great role.  This means that your daily environment is almost as important as any wider, but occasional network.  This fits in with an idea (mostly from Richard Florida) that we want to be in diverse, vibrant and exciting environments.  This isn’t pie in the sky thinking.  If you’re in a field that needs innovation (and what field doesn’t today) a diverse, vibrant and exciting environment is a worthwhile business investment.

Need # 3 – A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course)

I see this concept serving many more and differing goals than is possible in a traditional course.  At one level it is a people curator, a natural network supporting device.  It’s is likely where the “smartest people in the room” will be (except that in a world ruled by serendipity, many people may become the smartest person at one time or another).  It is a place where the field leaders can connect with people and network their leadership role without becoming overwhelmed by the demands of the network (at least I hope the leadership in this course would concur).  People involved will have many differing goals, but I think that a MOOC will be most beneficial when it is understood as something larger in purpose and more connected with the world and with people’s everyday activities than a traditional educational course.  There may also be other forms in the future that fulfill a similar role, but this seems like a good start in defining a network learning platform.

Need # 4 – Access to a Network Weaver

A Network Weaver is

(S)omeone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Network Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.

There are many potential roles in a network, but one of the most valuable may be that of a connection propagator in a fluid network that is able to change with the needs of its members.

Not a Need, but maybe an adjunct: The Un-conference

An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered on a theme or purpose. . . . (and that tries) to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees and sponsored presentations.

I’m looking at the concept of the un-conference as networked, distributed and collaborative open research.  More focused and directed than other network forms, but one that may help to round out the different types of network learning and development platforms that serve important purposes in people’s practices.

This is Only a Beginning

This is a beginning list and I would welcome any additions and ideas.  I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’m strongly interested in better understanding this project we’re involved in as a new type of learning and development platform.  Comments encouraged!

#PLENK2010 Networks as Joint Social Spaces: A Foundation for Pedagogy

I. The Pragmatic Philosophy Part

According to Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, words are instruments of meaning, but that meaning is only realized in the context of their use, not from any kind of essence.  (See my previous post for direct quotes and a fuller treatment)  I believe this radical pragmatic concept also applies to logos – understood here as language, conversation, proposition, principle, reason, analogy, etc. . . , and I would include knowledge.  That is, knowledge is only fully understood and becomes meaningful in the context of its use and in its position between speakers.

II. The Biological View

Organisms interact and adapt to their environments through structural coupling (Recurrent interactions leading to a congruence between systems.), with other organisms through social coupling, and with other humans through linguistic coupling in a process of co-ontogenic (co-developmental) coupling (Maturana & Varela). Taking place in social network spaces, it explains our psychic experience as:

. . . the semiotic expression of the contact between the organism and the outside environment.  That is why the inner psyche is not analyzable as a thing but can only be understood and interpreted as a sign. (Volosinov as quoted in Shotter)

Furthermore, this sign is not in the head of an individual, but in the network that is the social space for creating joint expression and experience.  Our psyche is not in us, but is distributed throughout our cultural historical background and in our shared social spaces.

In this way, we are just like words, we develop (ontogeny) and are defined through our associations with others.

Because, who we ‘are’ between ‘us’, determines who and what we are to ‘our world’, (and who) and what ‘our world’ is to us. . . . And who we are to each other is up to us to care about. That is why it matters. (Shotter p. 206)

III. A similar critique of Education

Learning does not have a meaning that can be measured by a certification or a test of its essence, but it can have a use and it can take on meaning through the process of joint action.  Consider this description taken from Steven Johnson’s  Where Good Ideas Come From

  • A new idea is a new network of neurons firing in the brain.
  • But most such ideas are only partial.  They become complete when we work on them jointly with others.
  • The process of linguistic coupling extends and completes our new neuronal networks and joins them with other new neuronal networks.  These semiotic actions, when at their best, can seem mysterious or even divine in their function.

For something seems to be at work in the activities between people.  The activities are not just repetitive, they grow, they develop, they are creative, they make history; . . .  A ‘double divinity’ seems to be hidden in our joint actions; a ‘creator’ and a ‘judges’ that resides in the sensus communes, that is, ‘in’ its shared ways of ‘seeing sense’ and ‘making sense’. (Shotter, p.205)

IV. So – With a Full Understanding of the Importance of Networks and Community;

What Would Education Look Like?

I’ll answer this question by looking at some vision of education in my next post.

#PLENK2010 – Theory, Validity and Relativism

Thanks George; a good question I’ve been pondering for a couple days.

First issue; I’ll try to get to a better understanding of how I use of the term belief.  I’m thinking pragmatically here about how I act in most everyday situations, not in an idealized logical theoretical way.  In this context, I use the term belief not as an ill-formed or unsubstantiated theory, but more as a gestalt of everything I know that relates to the context in which I’m about to act.  Some of that may be informed by knowing that we’re not even conscious of drawing upon at the time we’re deciding and acting.  (Thinking of JG’s reference to intuition.)  I think that well founded theories are important, and hopefully, we get them into our gestalt beliefs in a way that will influence our actions to advance whatever practice we are engaged in.

Second issue, I’ll try to get at the relativism issue implied by your question.  Even though I love discussing theory, my primary concern has always been with practice.  (You might say, Phronesis informed by Pragmatism.)  Where I think Boghossian is arguing from first principles to achieve a version of a valid philosophical theory, I’m attempting to achieve the best practice possible by combining the best of all concepts and theories, as I understand them, that can move me towards that best practice.  I need well founded theories, but I’m interested in them in instrumental ways.  Now, that does lead me toward a relativist’s path, but I don’t argue for relativist first principles.  Not all viewpoints are equal and our arguments can be substantiated, but there are limitations to our thinking and knowing that should also be acknowledged.  I favored Joseph Margolis‘ explanation in grad school and I’ll go back to that now.

(According to Wikipedia) Margolis lists 5 themes in philosophy that have been gathering momentum since the time of Kant. (Emphasis added)

  1. Reality is cognitively intransparent. That is, everything we say about the world must pass through our conceptual schemes and the limits of our language, hence there is no way of knowing whether what we say “corresponds” to what there is; what the world is like independent of our investigating it;
  2. The structure of reality and the structure of thought are symbiotized. That is, there is no way of knowing how much of the apparent intelligibility of the world is a contribution of the mind and how much the world itself contributes to that seeming intelligibility;
  3. Thinking has a history. That is, all we take to be universal, rational, logical, necessary, right behaviour, laws of nature, and so on, are changing artifacts of the historical existence of different societies and societal groups. All are open to change and all are the sites of hegemonic struggle;
  4. The structure of thinking is preformed. That is, our thinking is formed by the enculturing process by which human babies become adults. The infant begins in a holistic space which is immediately parsed according to the norms and conduct and language she is brought up in. By taking part in the process, we alter it, alter ourselves, and alter the conditions for the next generation;
  5. Human culture, including human beings, are socially constructed or socially constituted. That is, they have no natures, but are (referentially) or have (predicatively) histories, narratized careers.

I don’t see this as a strong version of relativism that offers no possibility of making arguable judgements (I don’t know where he is now, but back in the 90s Margolis was willing to acknowledge that some of these, especially the social construction parts, could be open to argument).  It’s just that theories, judgements, scientific findings and the like are definitely limited by our cognitive abilities and situatedness.  As an example, one of my favorite topics is validity, which I conceive of as the degree to which evidence and theory support specific practices (I draw this from test validity, not philosophical validity).  You can make a judgement about the objectivity and correctness of a conclusion or test, but no matter how strong the evidence, validity never reaches 100%.  I must posses an openness to look at things in other ways, which also can be stated as, I expect science to progress by giving us better ways of understanding what we once thought differently about.

P.S. I generally thing of theoretical validity as how a theory is substantiated in a general sense.  Usually this will include the requirements of being predictive, descriptive, and testable, but I’ll usually judge that according to the context of my judgement, not in a prescriptive sense.

#PLENK2010 Is There “Meaning” in Connectionism?

In the comparison between connectivism and constructivism I’m searching for a different approach and more clarity.  The topic I will begin with is the place of mind, meaning, and interpretation as it’s found within the cognitive revolution and philosophy; and how these topics relates to connectionism.  Don’t think of this as established thought, but rather as an intellectual expedition trying to follow in the footsteps of some old textual mentors.

Meaning: The Basis of the Cognitive Revolution

Meaning and mind were listed as the central purpose behind the cognitive revolution in an account given by Jerome Bruner in the opening to his book, Acts of Meaning.

That (cognitive) revolution was intended to bring “mind” back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism” (p. 1).  “Its’ aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created  out of their encounters with the world . . . to prompt psychology to join forces with its’ sister interpretive disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (p. 2).  . . . And so today one finds flourishing centers of cultural psychology, cognitive and interpretive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and above all, a thriving worldwide enterprise that occupies itself as never before since Kant with the philosophy of mind and science (p. 3).

He goes on to explain his disappointment with computational models of cognition that were becoming ascendant because he saw them as replacing the construction of meaning with the processing of information, what he calls profoundly different matters.  He even laments the distributed, “bottom up connectionist networks” of his day (1980s) because he saw them as falling into the same sort of problems as the stimulus response models that had no place for mind and meaning.

The Construction of Meaning; not of Knowledge

To be clear, the constructing of knowledge is not the central concern in this version of constructivism, but instead it is with the construction of meaning in dialogical processes that occur within the interactions between people.  Knowledge, like it’s component words, can be thought of as fluid, and can change according to the context.  It was clarified by John Shotter who said in his book Cultural politics of Everyday Life:

The trouble is, in science as in logic (as also in psychology), because we mistakenly “compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules” (Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus, 1953, no. 81), we always think that words must have stable, unequivocal, already determined meanings.  But in the openness of ordinary everyday life, in comparison with the closed world of logic, this is precisely not the case.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings – think of words as instruments for use in the ‘making’ of meanings. . . .  (p.78-79).

Two additional points:

  1. This account is dialogic, but I don’t think it would require representations (Something I believe Stephen strongly does not believe in representation somewhere in the mind).  It draws on prior instrumental learning, but not as representation (as analogous to hard drive storage).  Instead it is instrumental and draws on conversational tools as habits or ways of acting.  It could be thought of in this way – our acting and (dialogical) thinking are becoming more complex, and this results in an increase in knowledge complexity as a byproduct of our thinking and acting.  (I pair dialogue and thinking because most thinking is language dependent and language is always directed toward someone even in the soliloquy of our inner speach.)
  2. It is in this sense that negotiation, as I primarily use it in constructivism, is a negotiation of meaning, not of knowledge or definition.  I think it’s better to think not of an argument or a competition, more as a method of discovery of meaning that occurs in a dialogue between people.  I think of this in two ways.
    1. First, the way in which language is used (acted out) is critical to the establishment of it’s meaning.  Bakhtin used a quote from Dostoevsky to illustrate this where the actors in a dialogue are limited to the same one curse word, but used six times where each word, as is uttered, takes on a different meaning; six different meanings for the same word.  Similar to what Shotter said, the meaning is not in the word but in it’s usage.
    2. Second, in dialogue, once we have spoken, we have to wait to see how our utterance is interpreted by our counter-party before we can go on.  We can speak, but it’s like the meaning is in the hands of our dialogic partner.  I think it’s what Wittgenstein meant when he said that we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

These textual friends are talking about everyday life, not science.  I think their point is that everyday life is the real world and science has its place only in supporting that everyday world.  Too often we try to elevate science beyond its instrumental purpose and think of it as the real world rather than the abstract shadow that it is.

A Temporary Conclusion

So. . . I think maybe that this idea of a meaningful psychology or a meaningful education is compatible with the  type of connectionism we are discussing, but it’s not for me to say, at least not on my own.  If it is, maybe it should prevail over constructionism because it can help us to leave constructionism’s baggage in the past and make a new start.  Anyway looking forward to more conversation next week.