Thought experiment on social networked learning (Connectivism)

I’m working on an article on the discussion around connectivism over the last six years. A key problem that arises with criticism about connectivism, and I think the efforts of proponents to explain it, centre on dramatically different views of ontology, epistemology, and language. In some areas – such as when people ask “how is this different from social constructivism”- it appears that some view differences as trivial. In other areas – such as when people begin to contrast distributed knowledge and social learning networks in relation to the existing education system – it appears that differences are enormous.

I’ve been grappling with a thought experiment that might help to clarify differences and provide a platform with which to think about learning and knowledge. Zombies and other planets are well explored thought-experiment models, likely because they allow the thinker to jettison some of the assumptions that are inherent when thinking about entities that have real world presence. By moving to other planets, or stripping the cognitive capacity of zombies, we are better able to isolate the phenomenon that we want to consider. Here is my current version of a connectivist thought experiment – I appreciate any feedback, questions, disagreements, withering critiques:

We travel to a different planet (Planet Connecton). The ecosystem is similar to what we experience on earth, so we are free to move about and explore. During our exploration, we encounter a human-like species. As we observe their interactions with others, we quickly notice a distinct difference: as each “person” communicates, a cloud appears above their heads. In this cloud we see explicitly their knowledge. The knowledge we observe is networked, so we see real-time changes to their knowledge patterns as they read, learn, and as they interact with others. When they express an idea to a fellow Connectite, we can observe how their thoughts begin to form, which areas of expertise they draw from, which contrary ideas they briefly entertain in an attempt to communicate…but then decide to dismiss. Even more fascinating, we are able to see how a new concept that they learn is broken down into a neural (biological) network. Different conceptual and neural networks are constantly activated and suppressed depending on the context or situation of learning/interaction. We also see how clouds between individuals connect. For example, if one Connectite tries to solve a problem, we observe cross-cloud connections as different levels of skill and knowledge are required for different tasks. Even the simplest task requires the activation of connections to the clouds of others and even objects. These objects can be seen as equivalent to our cognitive objects – books, papers, Google.

We observe one individual reading a book on biology (at roughly the equivalent of an earth-based under graduate degree). As she (sure, gender still exists here) reads about DNA, we begin to see isolated nodes – the fragments of knowledge – appear in the network within her thought cloud. Some of these nodes are quickly connected to existing conceptual patterns. Some nodes, those that don’t readily “cohere” or “resonate” with the existing knowledge of the learner, remain isolated or at best have simple, weak connections. Were we to observe this learner for a period of time, we could see various nodes cohering and strengthening in prominence and, in other cases, weakening and fading, as the learner moves between different subject areas or connects with other learners. Knowledge growth is constant in all domains of her personal and professional life.

As visitors to this planet, we are able to observe every aspect of knowledge and learning through the formation of connections – at the neural, social/object/external, and conceptual substrates. We see the interplay of a social interaction that influences new neural connections, which in turn update and readjust the conceptual understanding of individuals. Surprisingly, the rich, advanced, and varied knowledge of this species can be thoroughly explained through the connection clouds.

We’re a bit surprised because what we’ve learned about, well, learning and knowledge, on earth is so much more complex – theories of intricate details about motivation, images, emotions, and so on. On seeing the Connectites interact, the simplicity of connection-based learning and knowledge push many of our earth-based theories to the outer edges of relevance. Instead of starting with learning at different stages (institution, individual, organization) or seeing numerous views of learning (social, constructivist, cognitivist, situative), we break from our insistence of complicated explanations to complex phenomenon and collapse down to connections as the basic unit for understanding knowledge and the process of learning. The elements that impact connection-forming in the process of learning – such as emotions, pervious experience, and motivation – are not nodes within the connection clouds. Instead, they are enablers or influencing elements that impact whether or not a connection will form or the way in which that connection will resonate with the rest of the network.


What more do we need for a theory of learning and knowledge than what we observed in our interactions with people on Connecton? What can’t we explain with this model?

Secondly, what questions and reservations do you have about this model?

13 Responses to “Thought experiment on social networked learning (Connectivism)”

  1. Karyn Romeis says:

    But George, surely there would be only *one* cloud of knowledge, hanging over the whole planet? And each individual would connect to only part of it. And then, as they spoke to other individuals, they would gain access to the parts to which that individual was connected. The refining, updating and rejecting would go on as you described.

  2. Hello George, being convinced that learning starts wherever paople sense some curiosity, I feel your metaphore -if I may call it such- covers the way I think people learn. Can one learn without connecting? There has to be resonance, don’t you think so? Is it possible to make people see this ‘philosophy’ goes around a lot of problems? Is it iterative learning? I hope that the iterative experience of educators -being confronted with the way students use social networking for learning- brings them to the conclusion that knowledge construction is taking place. Isn’t that what our western civilization needs most, regarding glabally shifting economic power?
    How nice it would be if we could be able to accept the process without denying the necessity of following it and making it visible in our education system?

  3. Rodd Lucier says:

    You’ve described a world that is highly visual, and yet, I can’t get past the idea that all that knowledge in the cloud is… TEXT. I see words floating in clouds above the heads of the Connectons. I guess that says something about the way I (or we) are so language based in our learning, and I can’t help but wonder, aren’t emotions also learned to some degree? Maybe there ought to be a sub-network of emotional connection that is layered upon the connected text bubbles that I see?

    I’d love to see a cartoon or doctored photo, that would help readers to visualize this thought experiment in a richer way. Maybe some of the bubbles will be clogged with inane YouTube videos, that are shared amongst the network as a virus that inhibits the use of knowledge generation as imagined by Clay Shirky?

  4. Nick Kearney says:

    The problem with this thought experiment is that as soon as you start to pursue the idea, you get fog: the cloud extends, endlessly connects and the image blurs to grey.
    The sentence “in this cloud we see explicitly their knowledge” is deeply problematic, if we can “see” it “expliciitly” what stops us photographing it and transmitting it.
    The problem is that you are trying to simplify something that is not simplifiable. If you reduce knowledge to connections it swiftly becomes meaningless; what is the distinction for example between noticing the way a beetle moves dung across a floor, or talking to a friend about the way it moves across that floor, or measuring the way it moves across that floor or filming it and posting that, or writing a paper, or listening to a TED Talk about it. Each of these may give rise to new connections, but the differences between the kinds of connection, and the nature of the knowledge that may emerge is vital. Calling them all connections throws little light on the subject.
    Furthermore, if connections are the “basic unit for understanding knowledge and the process of learning”, then the difference between this and transmission is moot. Transmission involves the idea of transfer of a “nugget”, connectivism still sees a “nugget”, but it calls it a node, and instead of transfer of the nugget a bridge is formed (built?) to that nugget. But it is still about nuggets.
    Knowledge is not about nuggets. It is more complex than that. What matters is how we form the connections, whether we do it actively or passively. to what extent we consciously or unconsciously construct the relationships and associations that you call connections, the ways in which social interactions with others form part of the process, how these connections are stored (within our minds or externally) and how groups of people and individuals understand and interpret these connections to themselves and to each other.
    You say that the elements that impact connection-forming in the process of learning – such as emotions, previous experience, and motivation – are not nodes within the connection clouds. I agree they are not nodes within, they are the clouds, and they are integral to the nature of knowledge. And they make the whole picture as complex as always. It is complex because knowledge is situated. It depends on perspective and context. Learning is about navigating the perspectives and contexts of a given community with increasing autonomy.
    The nodes, if they exist, are endlessly dissolving and resolving, the connections are endlessly forming, and what is important is not the connection, the bridge or the node, but the ways, contexts, conditions in which they form, coalesce, emerge or disappear. Or are constructed. That is where the learning is.

  5. Joshua Baskin says:

    Just a short comment from a grade six New York State teacher who is committed to digital delivery of instruction and e-learning and who has training in philosophy: This is less epistemology than it is a powerful metaphor on the order of that in Plato’s Symposium or in The Republic. It’s a powerful heuristic metaphor. But it is not, I think, descriptively rich as a theory of knowledge…. I need to think more about this and get back to you..May I invite you to join/view my wiki–HumanitiesDigitalClassroom?

  6. JoseAngel says:

    I agree this is a suggestive metaphor for knowledge-making and analysis. This Cloud of connections makes me think of what ancient idealist philosophers called the Collective Soul of the world, or Logos – the Word. Actually, one way to approach this connecting is through language. Language is, in a way, that cloud of ideas hanging over our heads, and linking to similar clouds in other heads. Hence I think this issue has been profitable dealt with within from the point of view of linguistics, of semiotics, of discourse studies… What is a discourse formation, a discipline, if not that aggregated cloud of connections congealed from many individual acts of communication, which draw from it and refer to it in a back-and-forth hermeneutic feedback? In my own cloud, this Connection dream connects with the Conversations and Discourses theorized by such analysts as James Paul Gee, in AN INTRODUCTION TO DISCOURSE ANALYSIS. You might want to check that one out to pursue some directions of your idea, or perhaps of mine. I insist your allegory of a connected world is plastic and suggestive, one can’t keep it from generating ideas in other clouds. Since we are at it, it makes me think as well in the direction of other connections —always connect— such as the connection between INTERTEXTUALITY and HYPERTEXTUALITY, both of them connective concepts in their own right. I wrote a paper on that which might interest you, “Linkterature: From Word to Web”, – And your SF fantasy of a hyper-connected world brought to mind another paper on the utopia, or dystopia, of universal connectiveness, in “An Apocalypse of Total Communication”, here: – And the brain. The brain is a great maker of connections, most connections in the world are connections in the brain. Which reminds me– I’m writing from the Ramón y Cajal mansion at Zaragoza — since we’re freely associating about neural connectivity. This one’s about connections in the brain, but it’s in Spanish, another connective universe: “Internalized interaction: The Specular Development of Language and the Symbolic Order” – Believe it or not, they are all connected to your Cloud of Knowing!

  7. Joshua Baskin says:

    Two more remarks. First, your Connectite story is more an analogy of the external phenomenology of learning. But that’s as far as it goes. It’s the equivalent of Brentano’s and Husserl’s analogical theory of knowledge, which equates knowing with the intentional act of seeing. Connecting is not knowing in itself. It’s a feature or a condition. So I guess I am saying that you need to describe the conditions of knowledge and understanding. Are you familiar with Bernard Lonergan’s Insight (no offense intended).

    Can you write back please/

  8. Nicola Avery says:

    Nick, I disagree that emotions are clouds – they move through clouds – like lightening (e.g )

    Where I would like it developed further is “we can observe how their thoughts begin to form, which areas of expertise they draw from, which contrary ideas they briefly entertain in an attempt to communicate…but then decide to dismiss”

    This is through observation of their clouds and their interaction with others and then the observer decides that they know something, as in the observer’s knowledge has been changed too. Instead when the visitors arrive on the planet – somehow interaction between their clouds which may form on arrival as well as the people they are observing and how knowledge is then changed. More on how an observer – knows something.

  9. Russell Tail says:

    What a clear demonstration of the whole theory. Gather the knowledge, evaluate it and finally discard the irrelevant.

  10. A few comments mention emotion. The Theory, to be a more complete reflection of human knowledge and understanding, has to include the idea of emotion and should also include the idea of a learned physical skill. How would your thought experiment cope with someone learning how to skate (easy problem) or with someone that experiences a cloud destroying emotional event (more difficult problem)? The connections are not gone, but something in life makes them irrelevant or unecessary – what has happened to that knowledge?

    I am not that educated, but when I read stuff like this I appreciate that it is an attempt to get past the jargon and over complexity that other theories of knowledge develop. But, there is still the academic problem that is here.

    Are you talking about real life knowing? Because real life knowing has strong emotion, a decaying body and something else (spirit maybe) that influences every “connection” with knowledge, other people and the world.
    Are you just talking about the kind of stuff that less than 1% of the human population learns about at graduate school?

    I hear your theory trying to be more real and relevant to all knowledge, and not only academic, but it still is missing something very human, but maybe it is supposed to be about the mostly academic – learning about DNA kind of stuff.

    Which are you striving towards?

  11. Seems to me, the cloud you describe, is culture. Rodd called it TEXT, I go with culture. It includes texts, artifacts, body language, music. What you see in all that portable cloud of culture are the hyperlinks, or hyperculture. The cultural expressions have a recognisable connection with other cultural expressions, as they always have, but sped up and with the digitalised format and the hyperlinking technology.

    This highlights to me that Connectivism is technologically determined as much as everything is culture is, and increases my want to question it as distinct from Social Constructivism. That’s not to say Connectivism isn’t important, it is very important, it is the hyperlink from historical concepts of social constructivsm to modern day.

  12. Ruth Howard says:

    I love that you are offering something still forming, that we can all engage in, mould, rework, pull apart, that’s much more interesting than something complete wrapped up and dished out as knowledge? The thrill of co-discovery- it takes vulnerability and not knowing. Is there an edge where on the one hand let’s keep expanding this and on the other let us reduce it to a quantifiable measurable unit? I love that you expose your process as much as your product.

    The “what’s on this edge”- what don’t I/ we/ they know yet…I sense connection whether through the physical or through thought or emotion as much more a “resonance” and alignment with or a dissonance. I feel the common unit to be therefore vibration. It’s fractal nature means it just
    keeps popping up no matter which matter. It expands infinitely and reduces in the same amount.

    I reckon if you thought in reverse and visited earth you would see mile high
    signals emitted by each and every earthling that were the vibrational cloud
    constructed from thoughts and the emotional responses to past present and
    future visions. Some you could see had physical extrusions formed by this
    very cloud. You would see how earthlings were attracted and repelled as their magnetic clouds pulled in others whose similar vibe affirm their world views giving them proof and enhancing their vibrational pattern further. Looking closer you might even notice that as they believed it so it began to shape in front of them.

    You would be struck how each earthling viewed the world through this
    cloudy lense thinking for all the world that this is the world and laugh at
    the confusion when two dissonant clouds bumped up to remind each that
    (”quit raining on my parade”) they did not have the whole view of the world.
    On that note I cannot view the whole of this tiny box to edit this comment
    in my iPhone! I’m in transit.

    And that those traditionally revered (saints, buddhas, masters, prophets) in earth culture were those who had thrown away all thought and feeling of
    how it should look and become like little children innocent and free to watch
    the thought/feeling cloud parade. The learned unlearners.

    I suspect that the context is the vibrational point of attraction where all things align in that moment ( to others cloud to ones own to the subject mood etc). So vibrational magnetism attraction repellion seem to form the cloud and to be informed by it. Self fulfilling etc.

  13. Ruth Howard says:

    I meant to point to the ‘ learning context ‘ by the above paragraph. The how and why learning connects at that point and not previously in other contexts.