Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Making Connections to Connectivism

The more I read Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb,” the more I realize the education al philosophy of connectivism plays a critical role in how we advance our individual knowledge by connecting it to the interests, vocations, and knowledge resident in others.

I just read this passage, detailing how mathematicians Stanislav Ulam and John von Neumann connected their varied knowledge of the problems of thermonuclear physics and the development of the first electronic computer to solve certain problems:
The Hungarian-born mathematician embraced [ENIAC] and the concept of the machine, and soon abstracted from its crude vacuum-tube technology a logical system for manipulating and processing information, mathematical or otherwise. [Mathematician and computer designer Herman] Goldstine believes von Neumann’s 101-page draft report, written that final winter and spring of the war, was “the most important document ever written on computing and computers.” The ENIAC as the Moore School group had designed it had to be prepared for each new problem by physically rearranging its circuit wires, plugging and unplugging what looked like old-fashioned telephone switchboards. In his draft report, von Neumann formulated for the first time the idea of a store operating program – and defined in the process the basic organization of the digital computer.
Von Neumann and Ulam knew scientists at Los Alamos had a problem on their hands in that current mechanical computers could make the computations necessary to design a thermonuclear weapon (and, potentially, hot-fusion electricity generation) but only at a slow rate that would take years. But when von Neumann and Ulam met Goldstine and heard about ENIAC, the connections they made brought them a leap forward in completing their computations.

Connectivism – when the connections are done properly – results in a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts. Two plus two can equal four, or twenty, or ten thousand. As a teacher, I can facilitate the making of connections, be they connections to people, to authors, to concepts. But then it’s up to the student to recognize the value of the connection and to implement it – we have to be programmed to connect, just like the whie cells in our brains have to be programmed to connect, in order to take advantage of the knowledge or information possessed by the other.

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