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

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…

4 Responses to “It’s not what it is, it’s what it enables”

  1. Excellent.
    In my view, courses of study at their best are always learning environments, designed in both spatial and temporal dimensions. It’s only the industrialized assembly-line (read: easily administered and scaled) model of education that’s obscured this truth. Connectivism reveals something that’s been hidden in plain sight. IMHO.

  2. Laura says:

    Hear, hear! I’m working with my students this semester to get this lesson across. In fact, I’m doing an exercise in class today that tries to demonstrate that it’s the connections that matter, the explorations that matter. I’m trying to get them past the blog as online diary mode and get them to see all the possibilities. It’s hard, but I know from personal experience that it’s really an invigorating way of learning. If I can convince the students, maybe I can convince the faculty.

  3. Connectivism makes sense when living in a world flooded with information. But learning how to find and work with learning communities (or “communities of practice”) takes both luck and skill. Learning that we read differently on the web, and developing the skills of scanning and scavenging (using and being an aggregator) also takes time. Yet both these are foundational for connectivism, IMHO. I think that, sadly, many in our educational system actively avoid sharing and either read in too intense detail or dismiss what they can’t swallow whole. My fear is that the academy will replicate itself, instead of learning/teaching how to connect.

  4. Aaron Nelson says:

    From an ESL teacher in Mexico City,
    Excellent, excellent post.
    You know, I am just stepping into all this: blogs in the classroom, the read/write web, and just exploring the whole “Why?” behind introducing it to students.
    I totally agree with you around moving from what blogs are, to what they enable. I have found myself stuck in this too, having to explain what they are…yet wanting and yearning to jump into all the amazing things they enable: connections. Conversations. Expansion of knowledge and contact etc.
    I would like to thank you for expressing connectivisim in such a newbie friendly way. I found your post to be quite funny as I have been asking those same – painful – questions, and your answers really made sense to me.
    So you see a teacher’s role, as helping students make connections, and be connectors. Helping them become proficient network builders and walkers.
    Learning happens as we connect to new information, and people, and when we have the chance to reflect on these connections and what it means to our world.
    Learning, in connectivism, is centered around the student’s NEEDS and INTERESTS.
    I will be exploring your site more, but I am in the middle of thinking through my own role as a teacher. I would really love to read more about how you see the role of the teacher in a connectivist classroom.