Monday, July 11, 2011

Connecting with Connectivism

If Wikipedia is to be believed, connectivism “is a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual.”

Tyler’s made it our challenge to get to know connectivism on a personal basis and consider how we might revise (again, no wholeseale revisions, just tweaking) our teaching approach.

I don’t like to rely on Wikipedia for a definition, but at least Wikipedia offers a clear one. George Siemens, in “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” offers a choppy definition of connectivism, one that occurs “within nebulous environments of shifting core elements,” much as he describes the learning process: “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories.”

So I have to break down his definition:

Chaos he defines as “The breakdown of predictability, evidenced in complicated arrangements that initially defy order.”

Network he defines as “connections between entities.”

Complexity he defines as, well, he doesn’t really define it.

And finally, he defines self-organization as “spontaneous formation of well organized structures, patterns, or behaviors, from random initial conditions.”

So if I understand his terms correctly, he believes connectivism is learning defined by the breakdown of predictability that is navigated through connections between entities – and those entities can include the self, peers, instructors, and the knowledge that exists in the world rather than in the head of the individual – who spontaneously (and in some cases collectively) form a well-organized structure from the random collection of knowledge and entities they encounter.

I admit to a few assumptions and assimilations going into that redefinition, as I am in fact applying connectivism in trying to synthesize a definition of the term that I can understand. I also throw in an implied definition of complexity, which Siemens leaves undefined.

As I read more about connectivism, two things immediately come to mind.

First, is Nicholas Carr’s infamous 2008 piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” as printed in the July/August edition of The Atlantic magazine. In his article, Carr laments (to much criticism and scorn, I admit, though much of that criticism is short-sighted) that the growing reliance on information outside our heads – absent a deep synthesis of said information – is not, for many of us, converting that information into knowledge. He writes:
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).
Carr concedes that the Internet is likely to have as profoundly positive effects on knowledge and ideas as did the written word and the printing press, saying, “[Y]es, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” What he laments is that the “efficiency and immediacy” of information we find on the net – and anywhere outside our own skulls – “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, [developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf] says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

Of course, we’re all “mere decoders” of information until we have read and acted upon that information enough that it becomes internal – I can’t call ‘stuff’ that exists outside my own head “knowledge” because, to me, knowledge implies that I understand the information I am taking in.

That brings up the second thing that came to mind as I read about connectivism.

I’m currently reading “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes. In this book, Rhodes follows the development of the hydrogen bomb in the United States and the Soviet Union in the years immediately following World War II. Interestingly, Rhodes chooses to begin the story with an in-depth analysis of how the Soviet Union used intellectual theft of American and British atomic bomb and nuclear reactor theory and development to supplement its own research efforts. The Russian atomic theorists eagerly read and absorbed what the nation’s spies were feeding them. But to ensure that the information they were being fed was correct (both theoretically and correct by way of not being misleading because the United States knew they were being spied on and thus were feeding the spies incorrect information), they had to test every theory, every equation, ever assumption that came their way. They did indeed exist in a connectivist world, navigating through connections between entities who spontaneously (and in some cases collectively) form a well-organized structure from the random collection of knowledge and entities they encounter.

So it is not, as Siemens says, “the pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.” Whether we get information from the Internet, from books, from the written word, or whether we acquire our information through legal channels or through intellectual theft (though here, ethics come into play, but that is not part of this discussion) it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we act upon the information we receive, and how we synthesize that information into knowledge. We can mindlessly continue to consume information and have our brains function on only a rudimentary level as we read, knowing full well that since that information exists out there, somewhere we can almost immediately find it again, that retaining that information or synthesizing it beyond the point that the assignment we needed it for is complete as Carr fears, or we can, as the Russians did, use connectivist ideals to acquire information but then rigorously test it and convert it from information to knowledge. Both of these approaches can exist within the networks, organizations, and institutions that Siemens believes are powerful repositories of knowledge – but until the individual realizes, as Siemens points out, that he or she is the starting point of connectivism, all those connections, that information outside the head, mean absolutely nothing.

It is not, either, as Siemens says, that “we can not longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act.” If the individual, residing within a network where connections to information exist aplenty, does nothing to activate those connections and to convert that information into knowledge, it is the fault of the individual, not of the network, the information, nor of the conduit by which those networks or information are provided.

That is what I need to change in my teaching approach: Activating that individual responsibility to go beyond what is the bare-bones necessity. I’ve seen some of my students exercise that ability – I did nothing to ignite it in them; they have done so previously, and are thus reaping the benefits of working within their small FDENG101 networks to complete their group assignments this week. Others, however, have not had that individual to connectivist spark ignited, and are floundering. They have floundered all along, not taking advantage of the connections they can have with their peers in class. Perhaps I have failed them in not helping them find that spark that moves them from the individual to the connectivist.

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