Liveblog — CALRG reading group on ‘Connectivism’

This week in CALRG, we discussed George Siemen’s paper Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age (available online here). Below is a liveblog of our discussion on the topic, with each bullet point representing one idea that was shared by someone present. As this was written on the fly, please excuse any typos.

  • This paper was chosen because it’s important to think about what we mean by ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ — this paper is a fuzzy starting point on thinking about the topic
  • Idea in this paper: current ideas about learning don’t cover everything that happens in that process, and it’s worth thinking about how we learn in networks
  • Summary from PhD student discussion: On the whole, we were quite critical. Is Connectivism truly a learning theory? Or is it more of a pedagogy? Perhaps a pedagogical approach to online learning?
  • Siemens argues that learning may reside in non-human applications: is that learning or knowledge? Can this knowledge be accessed because first learning about the system happened through ‘formal’ or ‘traditional’ teaching
  • Examples: Amazon recommendation system, Dewey decimal system. Both are bodies of knowledge, but are they that only when you actually use them to access knowledge? How can it be ‘learning’ until it goes into action? If we all forgot how to use the Dewey decimal system, is that still knowledge?
  • Academic application of Connectivism in cMoocs, which had many limitations. They were assuming that learners have the skills to make sense of the chaos that results from a lack of scaffolding, which has many challenges.
  • Teacher top down models of teaching vs more networked styles of learning — when is what appropriate?  Connectivism is something that makes sense at the PhD level, but didn’t we go through a lot of direct instruction to get to this point? Is there a ticket to entry to get into a Connectivist environment? If you throw a bunch of children into this environment, it probably wouldn’t lead to the same goals as direct instruction.
  • cMOOCs don’t start off with goals, which is why people drop off. 
  • I start out with loose goals when I take cMOOCs, but the goals come out of the conversation. You’re there for the ideas that come from the network, rather than the formal content.
  • This paper seems to borrow from sociocultural theory, but is calling it something different. 
  • How do people feel about the connections between information and knowledge? When does information become knowledge? Knowledge is something you’ve internalised and that you can share. Information is just out there, whereas knowledge can be checked and used. 
  • Connectivism is an alternative to behaviouralism, playing on the gaps around those concepts. This paper is just sketching a territory. 
  • There’s an issue with learning no longer being internal in this paper — there’s something in making connections and creating meaning in the information. 
  • Need to see the paper for what it is — rejecting other -isms and coming up with something in its place. In a way, there’s nothing wrong with this, but you need to underpin that and build a foundation under it. In this early paper, there are parts that have been missed (example: Dewey). Quite a lot can be used as a basis for understanding a new type of learning, but there’s a lot to build on. Right now, it’s a little bit proto-theory. It’s interesting in the air where it currently is, but needs to be brought down to the ground. There are ways it needs to be taken forward to become a genuine theory of learning.
  • Do you think it could ever be predictive? That’s a good test.
  • It could, they attempted to test it through cMOOCs, which showed there are benefits as well as limitations. Now, we need to learn from those successes and failures, then go back to the theory
  • Before, we thought of learning theory as how it happens in our brains and learning internally. The notion that actually it could be held externally in some way, how could that be? Ex: reading group builds knowledge and takes those ideas away from our internal conceptions. Perhaps if we video recorded it and came back in a year, would the video hold knowledge on the outside as an entity itself?
  • So is this a capturing of shared knowledge? What about evidence of learning? — a video doesn’t prove that anyone learned anything from the discussion or by watching the video 
  • If the learning is held inside your head, that brings us back to the previous theories. The change is within you, not external to you.
  • Does a new theory mean that the old ones are not valid? Academic politics lead to a need to make your own brand, but as a researcher can you put that to one side and consider whether other theories apply in other situations? 
  • Diversity of opinions is an important idea — and working in a network forces it to come out of one’s head. It’s a richer bank as a group than in an individual head.
  • This paper relates to radical systems or radical constructivism — learning doesn’t reside in an individual, it’s in their relationship with others. As a system, we are developing knowledge in this reading group. It may be captured inside our head, but it’s the system that has come to understand it.  
  • In our example today, this means that it’s CALRG as an organisation that’s learning through this discussion, and people within CALRG are contributing to that learning. This idea relates to and builds on lots of theories (conversation theory, etc), and Connectivism highlights how that works on a global system like the internet. Ex: Wikipedia is a learning system. It’s evolving and changing by the interactions of those who read and contribute. Think of it as an evolving knowledge system, not a combo of individual brains.
  • Can you say that about the whole internet? 
  • There are some elements that are missing in order to say that, like a shared language and working towards a collective goal. 
  • There’s a shared language that’s not human (i.e. programming)
  • But not a coherent one to all members, and there is no shared goal
  • There has been a cultural shift to group learning, which the web enables. In this sense, the web itself is learning by us putting things on it.
  • Siemens is arguing there is a step change. We’ve always created tools that help us share, develop and store knowledge: language, meaning systems, books, writing, cassettes, etc. He’s suggesting that there is a step change now, that we had one sort of tools but now we have new tools that enable us to do something different and changes how we think. 
  • I think if the web was a collective process, then that would be true. But the way we use the internet leads to diversity and polarisation, so it is not a collective system of coming to know something.
  • Siemens argues that the pipe is more important than the content within it, and I”m not convinced of that. Example of blood or oxygen needed in an emergency medical situation — sometimes the content within the vessel is very valuable and necessary.
  • I think this is where it gets dangerous — it rejects knowledge and expertise, that connections are more important than what we know. This rejects 3000 years of knowledge building, which isn’t necessary.
  • Siemens argues that knowledge today is less than important that what we need to know tomorrow — surely what we know now, and 3000 years of knowledge before, is also useful
  • This is forgetting what societies need to know about their own histories to move forward
  • There’s an argument here that all knowledge is relative, but surely specific knowledge and skills also serve a role in society. For example, I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a relativist doctor or fly in a plane designed by a relativist engineer.
  • They both have their place in the world — relativists and specialists
  • Some would argue the notion that if the organization or system doesn’t survive, that’s okay because the knowledge is within the person and they will go elsewhere
  • To some extent, this piece starts a conversation, but maybe not at the level we expected. It needs to be explored further — he may not have gone into it as cynically as we are reading it
  • I think the cynicism is deliberate — you can’t create a paper like this in an not-so-deliberate way. 
  • But he did attempted to pull together the literature and has even attempted to test it with cMOOCs, so it’s better off than many theories
  • It says something about how to achieve impact as an academic — most of us wouldn’t get very far by writing this. It would be read by a few people and then hidden away somewhere on the internet. It says something about how you’re connected as an academic, and how you’re using social media and your networks. There’s a lesson there in extending our reach and impact of our work. A thesis itself doesn’t do that, it just sits on a shelf — you have to have ways to get it out there.

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