An update on my view of Connectivism (CCK08)

During my last post I realized that I needed to update my view on this theory.  Constructivism is a sound theory on human learning except for one thing, it really didn’t change practice all that much.  Its central insight (especially in the Vygotskian version) is that learning and knowledge are social, but that insight changed very little in educational practice where it should have turned practice on its head.  I have come to believe that this is because there was no adequate model of social learning.  Even Vygotskian ideas like the ZPD (zone of proximal development) limits the social model to teacher to student or peer to peer interactions.  Connectivism provides an adequate social model as a wide network.  This is a true social model that shows how learning is expanded by expanding one’s network.

Learning Needs Social Innovation, not just Technical Innovation

Reading about e-learning and social media, I get the feeling that people are trying to solve learning issues with technical applications.  While I believe that technology is a key enabler, learning is social at its core.  That means social innovation should come first.  Social media can be a great enabler, if its application is designed to facilitate interaction where social change has already taken place or at least where the ground is fertile for social change.

Here’s an example:

An individualistic idea of schooling led to a university model where people went to school to get knowledge into their heads and then went out into the world to practice and use that knowledge.  But not only is learning not anywhere near finished when you leave school, to be successful in practice many people need to learn everyday.  In short, the learning is never done!

Yes, we need knowledge from schools, but even more important we need a learning network.  This was my take-away from last falls connectivism course (CCK08).  Providing students with a network of knowers is more important than providing them with knowledge.  While many professors may maintain contact with graduates, what is needed is more.  It’s the expectation that graduates will leave school with a strong learning and practice network that includes strong bond to ties graduates back to their original contexts of learning and to ties schools to rich fields of practice and practitioners.  It’s a two way street.  Now in this type of context, social media can be a real enabler because it is focused on facilitating dynamic social innovation.

Response to Stephen Downes: Free the Facts!

Stephen Downes’ OL Weekly last Friday (1-24) contained a bit of a rant on Karl Popper this week.  It was an aside under the heading Free the Facts!  (Free the Fact (the article) advocates open access to research journals, a very worthy cause, but SD took exception to the view of science expressed.)  I disagree totally.  

I admit that Popper, like many philosophers, tends to be obtuse; writing more for other philosophers not scientists or the public.  But, I believe the gist of his argument (at least for scientists) is that: you can’t support a theory or proposition based solely on one or two studies.   You can prove that you specific proposition is false (at least usually with 95% certainly), but you can never be certain that your proposition really captured the actual cause in the correct fashion.  Many studies seem to act as if confirmation is true, but confirming propositional claims is a complex and broad-based task.  Confirmation should be based on bodies of work not individual studies.  It can also be supported with effect sizes in meta-analysis, with power reporting and with validation studies. (See Brualdi, 99, for a complete idea of what the concept of validity can entail.)

This viewpoint does many the translation of research to practice difficult, but it really was easy, we would have solved most of our pressing problems long ago.  Assuming an easy confirmation process is not helpful.  It makes the process even longer and erodes confidence in research efficacy.  (Think fashion in educational research as one example.)

Back to work, Wrapping up and Moving on

After a lengthy period I’m indeed ready again to commit some time to blogging.  First, wrapping up my thoughts on CCK08.  Though I haven’t published, I have read and given thought to this topic.   

My overall conclusion is that there is very little found in connectivism that adds or transforms constructivism as a theory of learning.   Therefore, to call connectivism a theory of learning is a bit confusing for me.  

I feel that the primarily learning problems that need to be addressed today have more to do with pedagogy: how do we establish learning relationships with our networks and with ourselves?  How do we deal with the amount of important information available?  To put it another way, conceptual changes are not needed in understanding how we learn, changes are needed in how the interaction is established and maintained between the student and the other.  (I admit that I am way beyond tradition pedagogy.  But, I feel that any constructivist pedagogy must go way beyond traditional pedagogy.) 

Pedagogy is changing in 4 different ways and I don’t think the field has a handle in how to keep up with this change.

  • In the past, the other that I spoke of most often was a teacher.  Now that other is more likely to be a network of people.  
  • In the past, the interactions occurred at very specific times.  Now the timing of these interactions can be ubiquitous.
  • In the past, master – apprentice relationships were common.  Now we find many situations where no one has any ready made answers and there are few or no authorities.
  • In the past, the curriculum was set by others.  Now it is likely to be one’s own responsibility.

These are all huge learning issues that are related to pedagogy.  The term “personal learning environments” has becoming a frequent topic.  It implies a library like connection that we carry around with us.  For me though, the difficult problem is not with setting up my own physical or virtual learning environment so much as it is establishing a personal pedagogical space: how do I go about structuring my learning actions; how can I structure my learning journey in this new networked age.  

My constructivist mentors: Dewey, Vygotsky, Mead and many others still structure my thinking about the structural necessities of learning: the need for scaffolding, the need to connect learning and doing or the need to learn within social spaces.  But, the needs now are: how do I find scaffolding without authority, how do I connect learning and doing when I don’t know what to do, how do I connect with people in networks with the same intensity and authenticity of classrooms and traditional mentor / teachers?  These are my bigger questions right now.

Support for Connectivism, with a Hope and a Small Critique

1. Why I differ from Kerr and support a distinctive theory of connectivism.

I will start by expressing another perspective on my comment that artifacts (like technologically enabled networks) reflect back on and change the practitioners who use them.  Vygotsky’s daughter, Gina, made the following statement regarding the dialectic her father perceived between theory and practice.  

“He made science with his hands.  Vygotsky’s theory was fruitful because it arose from the demands of practice, and practice was fruitful because it was grounded in deeply considered theory” (Remedial and Special Ed Vol 20, p.330-332)

Discussions surrounding the googlization or the dumbing down of people, information overload and the depth of thought in blog entries; all these issues indicate that networks are changing people practices and are asking us to adapt and change as humans.  This reality expresses the demands of practice from which learning theories must lead and to which constructivism must adapt.  I see the possibility of connectivism making this adaption.

My hope for the continued development of connectivism

I believe that connectivism will reflect the demands of practice discussed above, although I have not seen evidence that it is doing this yet, and I think there is room for growth.  My hope is that a sense of mind, a core constructivist principle, will be maintained as history shows this is an important perspective.  Let me start with a historical account of learning theory adapted from Bruner’s Acts of Meaning (1990).  He, like William James, considers psychology to be a science of the mind.  Both William James and Wilhelm Wundt (referring here to Wundts book Volkerpsychologie, not his work in physiological psychology) advocated for a non-reductionist study of mind, but progress in this direction was averted by the behaviorists with their grounding in positivist objectivism.  Jerome Burner participated in the cognitive revolution with the goal of reintroducing mind to psychology.  He recounts how a focus on computation again moved mind to the background, bringing back many of the same limitations that caused behaviorism to wain.  If was this caused a shift to constructivism.

In believe that connectivism can best continue by extending constructivist principles into new challenges, new practices, and new theoretical understandings.  But, there is ample opportunity to focus to much on nodes and information to the neglect of mind once again.  If that happens, history will repeat itself again with a turn from connectivism, back to some form of constructivism.  Some day neurology or philosophical associationism may progress to the point that a science of the mind will no longer be needed.  Some people in Wundt’s day believed that, but I believe that even today, that day is still very far in the future.

A small critique of some graphics

The use of some matrix type graphics is not always meaningful to me.  In many cases a dichotomy is drawn that over simplifies and covers nuanced differences.  In the case of learning theories a concept map may be more informative to show historical development as well as concept breaks and similarities.  This is a small matter with primarily a pedagogical goal for addressing people who are not well grounded in the history of learning theory.