The highlight of the day, for me, was the opportunity to be a learner in a room of incredibly passionate and bright people. The typical rhetoric of educational reform was largely missing, with only the occasional references to softball items like NCLB, standardized testing, and industrial models of education. As a whole, I found the day to be a refreshing affirmation of the ideals of education, the value of committed and passionate educators, and the opportunities and affordances new technologies enable.
A rough summary of my talk:
[I took a slight detour at the start to respond to Jeff Jarvis' focus of education to mimic corporate models and respond to corporate needs. At least one person found this to be inappropriate, though as I read his reaction, I find he's talking about a different talk and a different person. Wish I could have been there to hear that talk . My primary assertion was that education requires the greatest opportunity for connection-forming and connectedness. Corporations have a sharp focus on revenue generation and profit-making, which by nature of this focus, constrains the array of potential connections in learning, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the corporate model in education].
Collapsing to Connections: reducing learning and knowledge to a unit of change
…a small world of confined information connections
Space influences permissible connections.
I was born in Mexico, in a small Amish-like community south of El Paso/Jaurez. While not geographically distant, the community represents a time shift of several centuries. I spent the first six years of my life in a society very different from what I have known since. Today, I live in Canada – proud home of gold-medal winning men’s and women’s hockey team.
I grew up in a small clustered community, largely devoid of external connections. Our community was without paved roads and electricity and many associated benefits. News and information traveled primarily through social systems..
I recall evenings sitting around an oil-lamp, listening to the conversations of adults. Even though I had only an anemic cognitive awareness of what was being discussed, I could share emotions. Joy. Fear. Anxiety. Laughter. Belongingness.
It was a good feeling to be sitting in the peripheral world of adults – a small social system for sharing ideas, feelings, and world events. The memory of the oil lamp is to this day revived in certain settings and by certain smells. The flickering shadows cast on walls, moving almost rhythmically with the tone and energy of the conversation. It provided a sense of the world as knowable, as predictable, and as structured.
This safe, structured reality shaped the types of connections that were possible to individuals. This environment was a fabrication of, and for that matter, a poor introduction to, the larger world. The social system provided safety, but simultaneously, fostered erroneous views of how the external view.
The flow of information was wonderful – tightly clustered social network. The validation of the accuracy of that information, however, was somewhat lacking.
Defined by connections
A community or group is defined by its connections – how people are connected to each other and to the world outside. Relationships aare tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone. Social circles, church, school are all part of our social networks, providing a shaping influence on possible connections we draw between concepts, information sources, world views, and even other people.
But the question arises as to who is able to define suitability of connections. In my youth, who determined that we could connect certain religious concepts to our use of agriculture equipment? Who decided that certain physical diseases were worthy of medical treatment? But mental illnesses were not medical issues, viewed instead as the world of spiritual agents?
When connections calcify and become dogma and rigid structure, they fail to represent the chaotic and continually shifting world outside.
To map at least partly to reality – the rapidly shifting world of education, commerce, and science – we require innovation and creativity; both of which are fundamentally about drawing novel connections. While growing up, a false boundary was drawn around what was knowable. As a result, all aspects of life were shaped by the known connections: cause/effect, identity/government, etc. The network – tightly nit and highly exclusionary – was the measure of our society. We could grow no more than the freedom of connectedness that we permitted through our social systems and norms. The soft comforting appeal of safety and security, to the exclusion of progress and accurate interpretations of the world around, was too strong a pull to ignore. The connections we form are, for us, reality.
Increasing information accuracy, decreasing social spaces
When my family moved to Canada in the late 70’s, the cognitive network established in Mexico prevailed. Yes, the setting had changed – sand and cactus were replaced by farmland and snow. The oil lamp no longer attended animated conversations. Instead a chandelier above the dining room table provided a uniformity of light. Social conversations, though not accentuated with dancing shadows and the scent of kerosene, still formed the basis for coming to know and coming to understand the world.
But the school system started to disrupt my notion of information accuracy. Unfortunately, in order to access more accurate information, and exposure to scientific thinking, I had to sacrifice the soft social structure that shaped who I was as a person, rather than only what I knew. The education system started to serve the role of filtering and shaping of ideas that had previously occurred through conversation in a trusted small group around a table.
Social and information systems in conflict
The primary information network for most people is tightly integrated with their social network. Cognitive engagement can be invigorating intellectually when information and system systems are aligned.
The solutions we need to address societies biggest problems – warming, population growth, poverty – will be found through serendipity, through chaotic connections, through unexpected connections. Complex networks with mesh-like cross-disciplinary interactions provide the needed cognitive capacity to address these problems.
Delcious, Myspace, Facebook, ustream, Ning, blogs, podcasts, and Twitter represent an acceleration of information and an integration with social systems. These tools permit socialization at a scale that matches traditional small groups and communities. Emerging technology offers a “binding back” to our social, networked, small-group past: a past centered on the social sharing of information and making sense of the world together.
In an odd twist, technology has become social. Technology – the dehumanizing agent of technique that Ellul warned about – is the nexus point for quality information flow (fast networks) and socialization (humanness)
Confinement of connections – which influence social cohesion and knowledge growth – are also a core problem in classrooms and education.
The beauty of chaos, of serendipitous encounters, of information clashing with information – is too often subverted to rule, to structure so that it can be better controlled.
We are our networks
The connections we participate in form our identities. We – you, I – know what our networks know.
Every expression is a point of connection
Every moment of transparent learning is a moment of teaching others
When we make our learning transparent, we become teachers.
Connections are all…
Fragmented information is woven and remade through global social interactions.
The breakdown of distance and the growth of the speed at which information flows in our networks, is fortunately balanced by the rise of tools enabling social connectedness.
We don’t, after all, make sense of our complex world as individuals. We make sense through connections…and these connections create our identity and help us to find our sense of belonging and our sense of humanity.
Unfortunately, the return to sociality has not yet made its impact in education. Classrooms have become micro-communes – closed, clustered, and controlled.
Who permits which questions? Who controls the permissible space in which connections can be formed?
Fragmentation shatters traditional structure. It’s easy to fragment information and conversations. The difficulty arises when we try and weave it into a coherent narrative.
Our society talks too much about networks – the key point of focus should really be on connections. Networks, after all, are only a pattern of connections. What we most need is a unit of change that is under the control of individuals. A social network analysis reveals gaps, network structure, and information flow. This is valuable information for management and policy makers. It is weak as a system of personal control and contribution.
When we collapse learning and knowledge to connections, we affirm individual agency. In discussions of educational reform, it’s time to start thinking about appropriate points of focus and units of change. This is why I find much of the discussion of networks misleading. We can’t influence network development without paying attention to individual connections. And yet, surprisingly, very few conversations in educational reform are focusing on connections.
The very lessons of connect forming that we want our kids to know, also serve us in our exploration of the future of education. For example, which pieces of the future of education puzzle will we put together? How will we connect them? How will we weight evidence? How will we weight social elements?
A failure to connect
The Christmas day bomber, terrorist activities, and the financial meltdown share a common problem: information was there, but it wasn’t connected. Undiscovered public knowledge (Swanson), emphasizes the cost of information that is available, but isn’t connected.
Private Universe – a video documentary of Harvard grads, alumni, and faculty being largely unable to detail why we have seasons. Their views/assumptions were not shared and therefore shaped, guided, by social discourse and expert knowledge. The issue is one of conceptual failure – the inability on the part of individuals to share and shape their understanding of a subject through discourse with others. Erroneous or errant connections are pruned through social discourse.
The scientific method offers a response to faulty connections, offering a long history of creating a transparent structure whereby connections are validated and evaluated. What is permissible to be connected? Why? What are other views? At its core, the scientific method is a structured mode of analyzing the validity of connections between entities, correlation, and cause and effect.
Educators have the obligation to stitch together social and information systems, based on the smallest unit of change – namely, connections.
What does this look like in practice??
Connectivist Model of Learning is one that Stephen Downes and I have utilized since 2008 in CCK08, CCK09, and will be using in CK10 later this year. Dave Cormier and I will be offering a similar open version of Future Trends in Education course starting in April, 2010.
In these courses, our focus has been (will be) to disrupt the traditional concept of a course and the relationship between educator, learner, and content. Rather than the educator creating a narrative of coherence through a discipline, learners do this as part of peer participative pedagogical practice (Peter Piper picked…). The experience of wayfinding and sensemaking is shaped by social and technological connections. The educator still has a role, but one that is altered by the corresponding control shift to learners.
When we distribute control, we also distribute responsibility. We can no longer blame others for systems that are not functioning well. We can’t blame schools. We can’t blame government. Or even corporations. We need to take up the responsibility trail that is created by control distribution.
Finding the smallest unit of change on which to build is important. Richard Feynman has stated “everything is made of atoms” as the single most important scientific knowledge we possess. While atoms have since been reduced to smaller and smaller entities, the concept of individual units of construction for the physical world is still consequential. I propose a similar collapsing to connections in education. We will only understand what we need to do with education and reform if we recognize the element of construction of the entire system.
What would a world of learning look like if it were based on a granular unit of change – like connections – instead of large impenetrable concept like “accountability”, “school reform”. How can we structure educational reform in such a manner that anyone can participate?
The big battles of history around democracy, individual rights, fairness, and equality are now being fought in the digital world. Technology is philosophy. Technology is ideology. The choices programmers make in software, or legislators make in copyright, give boundaries to permissible connection. Clustered, isolated information systems – such as I experienced in Mexico – are incapable of adapting and reacting to the external world. To collapse education, knowledge, teaching, and learning to connections is to give individuals the control and freedom needed to effectively change education.
And to change education is to change society.
A quick note of thanks to TEDxNYED organizers (Dave Bill lists the organizers in the Thank You section of this post) – it was a wonderful learning experience.