Archive for September, 2005

It’s not what it is, it’s what it enables

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Let me state the obvious: the real value of blogs and wikis is not the tool itself. It’s what the tool enables. Sadly, many advocates overlook this simple fact.

To continue the over-simplification, it’s the equivalent of viewing a hammer as only a means to hit nails. Obviously that is the task at its most basic. But what does it mean? In the case of the hammer, it means we can build a doghouse, a bookshelf, or a house. Until we look past the task and functionality of a tool – to what the tool enables – we largely miss the beauty of why it’s so useful.

Over the last several years, my most frustrating, repetitive experience, has been talking about blogs (wikis are even worse). Typically, people are stuck on what blogs do, not what they enable. Most common response: “Oh, they’re like an online diary”. Um, ok. But let’s get past that. What do they enable learners to do? They enable learners to connect, to dialogue. “Yeah, but who has the time – who would actually do that? Many of my learners aren’t comfortable posting their thoughts online.” We are all communicators. We’ll communicate when we feel a) we have something to say, b) when we have a tool with which to say it, and c) we have a person(s) with whom to dialogue. I’ve repeated this particularly conversation so often, I feel like Bill Murray in Ground Hog’s Day…apparently I still haven’t perfected the speech – I’m still going through the motions.

My speech on connectivism is just as rough. Here’s how it goes:
Person: That’s an interesting name, what does it mean?
Me: Well, basically, connectivism is an attempt to try and explain how learning happens in a digital era. We are using different tools in a different knowledge climate than existed at the turn of the century when most learning theories were conceived.
Person: So, how does it work?
Me: The concept centers on a person’s ability to create his or her own personal learning network. Rather than learning only through courses, we learn by creating and forming connections to information and people. The sources we select are dynamic. When they change, our whole network gets smarter.
Person: Oh, so it’s like constructivism.
Me (deep, pained breath (I should record this part of the conversation)): Actually, constructivism is based one of three dominant epistemological assumptions stating that knowledge is constructed by the learner (the other two being: 1) objectivism – knowledge is objective and knowable through experience, and 2) pragmatism – knowledge is negotiated through experience and thinking). Rapidly evolving knowledge (such as we encounter today) places too much strain on the learner under these models. Instead we need to offload many tasks onto a network – so that we play the role of an aggregator. We are continually connecting…but we are not always constructing. In this regard, constructivism is quite unlike connectivism (though in fairness, they share some attributes).
Person: What does that mean to courses or education the way it is today?
Me: If implemented, connectivism should change much of how we educate learners – both in public and corporate education. Courses, programs, and knowledge fields are re-shaped to permit learners to form connections based on interest and need.
Person: Hmm…I don’t think that would work. Learners need direction and guidance. It’s too “loosey goosey”.
Me: It appears that way, but the designer includes required competencies in the creation of the learning ecology. Instead of designing courses, we need to design learning environments.
blah, blah, blah. On it goes. We never really get to what connectivism means in a learner climate…we typically stay stuck on what it is…

Teaching Connectivism

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Teaching Connectivism: “My personal knowledge is really a network of correspondences and connections. I learn by interacting with a huge network of individuals and learning objects (some are available online, some offline).”

What’s wrong with established theories of learning?

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

I was involved in a recent conversation where an individual asked for clarification on about whether connectivism was an actual learning theory…or if it was more a radical re-conceptualization of how learning happens in today’s digital environment. I chose the safe answer and stated that I intended it to be both.

To elaborate, I’ll use context to refer to the new environment in which learning is happening (and in turn impacts any theory of learning) and method to refer to a new way, or metaphor, of learning.

Our changing learning context is axiomatic. We see it in any form of information – from newspapers to radio to TV to the internet. Everything is going digital. The end user is gaining control, elements are decentralizing, connections are being formed between formerly disparate resources and fields of information, knowledge is developing rapidly, and everything seems to be “speeding up”. It’s critical that learning theories adequately meet the challenges of this environment. Regardless of how we perceive knowledge and learning (i.e. is it objective? interpreted? subjective?), our theories have to account for the environment in which learning will happen. The learning must link to real life. All three dominant learning theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism) provide some value at this level, as long as they are able to adjust to the new information context. Connectivism is, in this sense, at least partly an attempt to conceptualize learning as a function of a new context.

Connectivism’s relevance increases when we consider a new method (or metaphor) of learning. The achilles heel of existing theories rests in the pace of knowledge growth. All existing theories place processing (or interpretation) of information squarely on the individual doing the learning. This model works well if the knowledge flow is moderate. A constructivist, for example, can process, interpret, and derive personal meaning from different information formats…as long as the flow doesn’t overwhelm the learner. What happens, however, when information is more of a deluge than a trickle? What happens when information flows too fast for processing or interpreting?

Once knowledge/information flow becomes too rapid and complex, we need to conceptualize a learning model that allows individuals to learn and function in spite of the pace and flow. A network model of learning (an attribute of connectivism) offloads some of the processing and interpreting functions of knowledge flow to nodes within a learning network. Instead of the learning having to evaluate and process every piece of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes (people and content). The learner aggregates relevant nodes…and relies on each individual node to provide needed knowledge. The act of learning is offloaded onto the network itself – i.e. the network is the learning. This view of learning scales well with continued complexity and pace of knoweldge development.


Saturday, September 10th, 2005

In a recent article, I provided the information system that provides the foundation for learning:

  • Data – a raw element or small meaning neutral element
  • Information – data with intelligence applied
  • Knowledge – information in context and internalized
  • Meaning – comprehension of the nuances, value, and implications of knowledge

I have grappled with a suitable definition of learning for quite a while. In the past I’ve stated that learning is actuated or actionable knowledge (i.e. something we can do). I’ve also alluded that learning informs the “softer” elements – beliefs, attitudes, and perspective (which in turn, result in a change in actions). For some reason, these definitions aren’t satisfying. I believe them to be true in most instances, but they don’t appear to completely explain the attempt and focus of learning.

Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the concept of “meaning-making”. In my current taxonomy of what it means to know, I see the sequence mentioned above: data to information to knowledge to meaning. It is one thing to “know something”, but quite another to understand what it means. We may know certain things about a person/organization/country, but to understand what it means (i.e. what are the implications, the probable outcomes, the need for action) requires a higher level of comprehension. (I’m actually feeling a bit hamstrung by the language I’m using – I keep wanting to come back to the concept of “knowing”, which in itself, is a level down from understanding meaning.)

Currently I see learning as the event that happens when we move from knowledge to meaning or sense-making. Knowing something is great. Knowing what it means moves us to a level where we can act – to support, change, redirect, challenge, or whatever. That brings me back full circle to the original definition I had of learning – actuated or actionable knoweldge…but with a greater focus on “what does it mean”. For some reason that still leaves me dissatisfied.

On writing a book (or not)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005

When I first posted my original document on connectivism, I received a fair bit of interest in exploring the concept with publishers. In particular, a senior editor from Pfeiffer contacted me to develop the concept into a book. I responded with a proposal, which went through the publishing grind. I received an email last week expressing the view that connectivism as a concept wouldn’t be of interest within the corporate market…and as a result, they weren’t interested in publishing.

Other than a mildly bruised ego, I found the publishing process quite interesting. Nothing happens quickly in the industry. Had the book been approved, the release date would have run into 2007. Things move too quickly for a book on technology and learning to remain current 1 1/2 years after initial writing.

I’m a bit unsure of next steps. Publishing a book is often (erroneously, I think) perceived as a sign of confirmation of the value of a concept. I’m sure most authors don’t generate revenue from a book in keeping with the time invested. What do I do now? Write the text as e-books? Continue as a sequence of articles? Write it in a wiki? Thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Designing ecosystems versus designing learning

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

Educators are a conflicted group. The intended outcome of our activities is a nebulous concept we define as “learning” (some type of change of state or potential in the learner). We assume that through pushing buttons and pulling levers in an intricate process we call “instruction”, we will be able to “create” learning. The best we have been able to do to date is create a series of guidelines and conditions in which learning might occur. Vygotsky, Bruner, Chickering, Bloom, Gagne, and others have sought to pry open the door of “making learning happen” through checklists and best practices. In the end, most educators will admit that we are really rather clueless about the whole learning thing. And we should be. We have taken the wrong approach. We are trying to achieve a task (learning) with a tool (teaching) in an artificial knowledge construct (courses). It’s all about us.

The term learner-centered has been tossed around over the last decade, but still without significant systemic change in organizations. Our theories are coded in a field called “instructional design”, our technology caries names like “learning/content management systems”, etc. We use “objectives” as the framework for letting learners know what they will learn. Pause and reflect on the whole process. It’s really rather comical.

I’ve ranted about this too often to warrant another mention, but old habits die hard: the more rapidly knowledge develops, the more useless courses become. Courses are a snapshot of knowledge at a certain time – much like a balance sheet reflects the financial health of a corporation. They serve a purpose, but more is needed. Freezing learning in a course makes no sense when learning is dynamic, ongoing, social, complex, and diverse.

If courses and programs are not able to match pace with learners needs, what’s the alternative? My response is fairly simple: networks and ecologies. I’ve written about networks before (here and here), so I won’t go into those details now.

Instead of designing instruction (which we assume will lead to learning), we should be focusing on designing ecologies in which learners can forage for knowledge, information, and derive meaning. What’s the difference between a course and an ecology? A course, as mentioned is static – a frozen representation of knowledge at a certain time. An ecology is dynamic, rich, and continually evolving. The entire system reacts to changes – internal or external. An ecology gives the learner control – allowing her to acquire and explore areas based on self-selected objectives. The designer of the ecology may still include learning objectives, but they will be implicit rather than explicit.

What does this “learning ecology” look like? First, it holds “content” in a manner similar to courses, but the content is not confined and pre-selected by the designer. Instead, the ecology fosters connections to original and knowledge sources, allowing for “currency” (up to date). The ecology fosters rich interaction between disparate fields of information, allowing growth and adaptation of ideas and concepts (i.e. “the verge”). Each participant in the ecology pursues his/her own objectives, but within the organized domain of the knowledge of a particular field (after all, some form of learner competence should emerge as a result of existing in the ecology). Nodes (content and people) and connections are the basic elements of a network. An ecology should permit these networks to develop and flourish without hindrance.

What types of tools are needed for learning ecologies? I’ve beaten this one to death too, but here goes: blogs, wikis, groupware, collaborative tools, any connection-forming tool (Skype, phone, email, face-to-face), RSS, social network tools, etc. We are at a rather exciting time in the history of learning – a time where the learner is poised to take back the learning experience. Experts and gurus still exist within an ecology. The key difference is that they no longer dictate the environment.