Late last week, I threw out a question to Gary Stager on Twitter: “when a constructivist constructs knowledge, where does it reside physically/biologically?”. Gary replied with something along the lines of “we don’t know and I don’t care. I can teach well without knowing the details of how the mind works”. Fair enough. Different educators adopt different approaches in order to makesense of the teaching and learning process. I’m trying to define it from the perspective of how our mind works. Gary is – in true constructionist form (and I don’t mean that negatively!) – is focused more on the practical results and activities.
Gary then asked a critical question: what is the unique idea in connectivism? The response takes a bit longer than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, so I’ll tackle it here.
First, a new idea is often an old idea in today’s context. For example, what is the new idea in constructivism? That people construct their own knowledge? Or the social, situated nature of learning? Or that knowledge is not something that exists outside of a knower? (i.e. there is no “there” out there). Obviously each of those concepts can easily be traced to numerous philosophers. The ideas have existed in various forms over 2000 years ago. What is new with constructivism today is that these principles are being (have been) coupled with existing calls for educational reform by individuals such as Spencer, Dewey, and Piaget. See Kieran Eagan’s book Getting it Wrong from the Beginning for a more detailed exploration. But it is more than just the shift in policy and calls for increased learner control. Constructivism made sense in that it rode on the cultural trends and philosophical viewpoints of the day. As authority in society shifted, Truth was questioned, post-modernism flourished, and our understanding of diverse cultures and ways of knowing increased, it only seemed natural that cognitivism and behaviourism took a back seat. What is new in constructivism, and please provide commentary if you disagree, is that it combined existing ideas into a framework that resonated with the needs and trends of the current era.
In this regard, connectivism also shares in bringing to the forefront ideas of philosophers and theorists from previous generations. Much of what is unique is the particular combination and integration of ideas that reflect the broader societal and information-based trends. But I do think there are unique ideas in connectivism.
Before I get into those, however, I’ll address some of the existing theory that serves as the fertile soil of connectivism (and, I think, to a large degree constructivism).
From whence does connectivism originate?
All ideas have a heritage. All concepts have roots. A few related to connectivism:
1. Tools augment our ability to interact with each other and to act. Tools are extensions of humanity, increasing our ability to externalize our thinking into forms that we can share with others. Language is an example. Activity theory provides a basis in this regard. So does the socio-cultural work of Vygotsky. Gibson’s notion of affordances of tools, while based in his research on perception, also serves a role in validating tool use. And how could we leave Wittgenstein’s notion of negotiated understanding out of a language discussion? Similarly, tools are “carriers of patterns of previous reasoning” (Pea) and reflect some type of ideology. This view is also prominent in Postman’s assertion that all technology carries an ideology.
2. Contextual/situated nature of learning. Situated learning draws from the work of Lave and Wenger, though, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Papert’s emphasis on active doing fits this at least partly.
3. Social learning theory. Here we can draw from Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy, Bruner, Vygotsky, and others.
4. Epistemological views: all learning theory is rooted in epistemology (even though von Glaserfeld declares we are in a post-epistemological era, suggesting that providing a theory of knowledge is exactly what constructivism cannot do). As an epistemological basis for connectivism, I’ve found Stephen Downes’ work on connective knowledge valuable. More recently, Dave Cormier has been advancing the concept of rhizomatic knowledge and community as curriculum.
5. Concept of mind. The notion of mind is enormously complex. We encounter a unique blend of philosophers, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligence in this area such as Churchlands, Papert & Minsky, McClelland & Rumelhart, Clark (embodied cognition), Spivey, and more. Mind is seen – too varying degrees – as embodied and distributed across numerous devices, relationships and artifacts. Hutchins popularized the notion in his text on Distributed Cognition. These concepts are also reflected in Weicks’ papers on heedful interrelating. Salomon’s edited text on Distributed Cognitions extends these ideas into an educational context.
6. We also find a compatible view of connectivism in the work of new media theorists such as McLuhan, exploring the impact of technology on what it means to be a human. The impact of technology on humanity will continue to grow in greater prominence as we are increasingly able to augment human cognitive functioning through pharmaceuticals and the future promise of embedded chips.
7. We also find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complextiy and systems-based thinking. For example, Mason, Davis, and others, recently published a series of articles on the impact of complexity theory on the enterprise of education. Individuals like Barnnett suggest it should more accurately be called “supercomplexity” as we are not able to even begin to understand the directions things will take in the future.
8. Network theory. Sociologists, mathematicians, and physicists have spent several decades defining networks and network attributes. We are able to define key network structures, manner of behaviour, and flow of information. Concepts like small worlds, power laws, hubs, structural holes, and weak/strong ties are common in literature. Educational focus of networks comes from work by Starr-Roxanne Hiltz, Chris Jones, Martin de Laat, and others. Networks are prominent in all aspects of society, not just education. This prominence is partly due to the recognizable metaphor of the internet…but networks have always existed. As Barabasi states, networks are everywhere. We just need an eye for them.
The Unique Ideas in Connectivism
If those elements form the basis of connectivism – and to varying degrees share in the heritage of constructivism and cognitivism – what is it that’s unique about connectivism. As a starter to the discussion, and one that will be a critical focus in our fall course, I’ll suggest the following:
1. Connectivism is the application of network principles to define both knowledge and the process of learning. Knowledge is defined as a particular pattern of relationships and learning is defined as the creation of new connections and patterns as well as the ability to maneuver around existing networks/patterns.
2. Connectivism addresses the principles of learning at numerous levels – biological/neural, conceptual, and social/external. This is a key concept that I’ll be writing about more during the online course. What I’m saying with connectivism (and I think Stephen would share this) is that the same structure of learning that creates neural connections can be found in how we link ideas and in how we connect to people and information sources. One scepter to rule them all.
3. Connectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge. Our knowledge resides in the connections we form – where to other people or to information sources such as databases. Additionally, technology plays a key role of 1) cognitive grunt work in creating and displaying patterns, 2) extending and enhancing our cognitive ability, 3) holding information in ready access form (for example, search engines, semantic structures, etc). We see the beginning of this concept in tool-based discussions of Activity Theory. Connectivism acknowledges the prominence of tools as a mediating object in our activity system, but then extends it by suggesting that technology plays a central role in our distribution of identity, cognition, and thereby, knowledge.
4. Context. While other theories pay partial attention to context, connectivism recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and connections based on context. As such, it becomes increasingly vital that we focus not on pre-made or pre-defined knowledge, but on our interactions with each other, and the context in which those interactions arise. The context brings as much to a space of knowledge connection/exchange as do the parties involved in the exchange.
5. Understanding. Coherence. Sensemaking. Meaning. These elements are prominent in constructivism, to a lessor extent cognitivism, and not at all in behaviourism. But in connectivism, we argue that the rapid flow and abundance of information raises these elements to critical importance. As stated at the start of this post, constructivism found it’s roots of growth in the social reform-based climate and post-modern era. Connectivism finds its roots in the climate of abundance, rapid change, diverse information sources and perspectives, and the critical need to find a way to filter and make sense of the chaos. As such, the networked centrality of connectivism permits a scaling of both abundance and diversity. The information climate of continual and ongoing change raises the importance of being continually current. As Anderson has stated, “more is different”. The “more” of information and technology today, and the need to stay current, forms the climate that gives roots to connectivism.
This is simply a starting point of a discussion. I don’t know if I’ve fully managed to address Gary Stager’s question. I’d appreciate reactions or comments to the above ideas.