About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Learning Theories: In support of Connectivism

I was first introduced to the idea of Connectivism through an online conference hosted by George Sieman's group at the University of Manitoba. Over the last 2 years, my thoughts have changed, (as have George's and others)as the theory evolves. This fall, I dropped in and was a lurker to the Connectivism course offered by the University of Manitoba, which helped me to clarify both what I like about the theory and some of the short comings.

Connectivism as a learning theory

I initially embraced Connectism as an extension of Constructivism, not really seeing it as a new learning theory. However, as I continue to integrate social networking tools into my teaching, analyze what skills my students need for the 21st Century, and redesign my instructional design to help address these needs, I have begun to see the difference between the two theories. I now see that there is a difference in understanding of learning (and facilitating learning).

This became especially evident as I began to revise my courses for this semester. I am teaching a course I have taught in one format or another for 15 years now, Speech Composition and Presentation. What has changed is the fact that many of my students in their future careers will not have immediate contact with their audience (primary or secondary). This is very important to public speaking, as face to face contact with the full audience means that you can adjust your message, style, language, even body language based on the audience feedback (verbal or non-verbal). However, more and more "public speaking" for organizations is including video clips (i.e. on YouTube) or pod casts. As a result, speakers need to find new ways to get feedback including comments and networking with potential audiences.

What this means for my instruction is that I need to teach my students how to create these feedback channels (networking) and how to deal with the more individualized needs assessment for their audience. No longer can speakers lump an audience together and assess their needs as a whole. There is much more segmentation and students need to understand the impact their message has on not just the listener, but that listener's network. Secondary audience analysis becomes even more important (as ideas can then be transferred through the network).

Research support in distinguishing the two theories

My current research on distributed groups in an organization is leaning towards support (I am just in the preliminary analysis stage) supporting George's contention that there is a difference in learning in the new networked environment which Constructivism does not support.

Individuals in a distributed group are members of various networks. Each of their networks provide different pieces of information and ways of negotiating meaning. Language, processes, and definition of "knowledge" varies between networks. However, a distributed group then creates its own "language", processes, and understanding of knowledge to be used within that network. These new understandings then have an impact on the other networks. In some cases, new language, processes, and understanding is transferred to members' other networks. But more often than not, a new negotiation of language, processes, and knowledge is the result of a member's interaction with the distributed group.

While constructivism and cognitive learning theories address the individual's learning, they do not address the group level learning and transfer/negotiation of understanding. As a result, connectivism seems to give a better explanation of the "group level" or organizational learning that goes on. It addresses the individual, group, and individual/group dynamic.

Culture and the Politics of Networks

Over the last two years, there has been something about the theory, however, that bothered me. As I begin to do my analysis, I feel I have put my finger on the major short coming of the theory as it exists today. Connectivism is grounded in systems and chaos theories. I find that these theories try to take the "personal" or "values" out of the approach. However, as humans, all of us are influenced by politics and culture.

Any one involved in curriculum develop understands that curriculum choices are dependent upon what those in power (whether it be professional leaders, instructors, governmental leaders, society, or policy makers) feel is important to know. Often, this is dependent upon their epistemology. Epistemology can be defined as, "An area of philosophical study that focuses on our understanding of knowledge. Epistemology asks questions about what is true and false, and what constitutes valid “information”. A key question of epistemology is whether information is absolute or relative, reflecting a tension between the “scientific method” and “social constructivism”." In other words, "knowledge" is a complex system that is dependent upon values, negotiation of meaning, patterns of behavior, and even recognition of stimuli. "Snow" and what constitutes snow will differ in the English speaking world depending on what part of the world you live in. (I use this as an example as we currently have "snow", "sleet", and "freezing rain" this morning). In my part of the country, it is important to know the difference as it will have an impact on a person's safety. But it is not important for someone in Florida to know this. This is one reason why curriculum in the US is diverse from state to state.

Epistemology is based on culture (patterns of behavior). Culture has an impact on the values of knowledge, interaction, network creation, even the difference between group and individual. The politics of a network adds to the complexity of epistemology. I am finding that power structures within networks help to establish which knowledge is considered important and which is considered irrelevant. Competing definitions between networks causes tension between networks and within intersecting networks (as with distributed groups). How these tensions are resolved (or not) will impact learning.

What's next?

As a result, in order for connectivism to be a viable learning theory, it is important that the impact of politics and culture be integrated into the theory. Specifically, the following questions need to be asked:

1) How are networks constructed? What are the power structures within networks? How are connection established? What factors (cultural and political) influence the construction of a learning network?
2) Are there differences between "engineered" networks (in which a network, such as a distributed group, is created for a specific purpose) and organic network (in which connections are established due to need or common interests without any outside help)? How is meaning negotiated in each, are patterns of behavior established, and is the network maintained?
3) How can these networks be leveraged to facilitate learning? How should instruction be designed to address the political and cultural factors that effect learning due to the networked/connectedness environment? What skills do students need to learn in a connected environment?

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