Connectivism and Open Education

Ramon Llull's Tree of Science from L'arbre de ciènciaVahid Masrour sent out a link to our Open Education MOOC this morning to Mark Weller’s “Openness and Education: a beginner’s guide” and it got me to thinking a lot about Connectivism. Connectivism is the learning theory founded and championed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. There are a number of components of that theory that I think are important to the discussion of open education. I list some of Siemens’ principles of Connectivism below (my comments in italics):

  • Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
    This should be the very spirit of openness – seeking the diversity of opinion – Alexander von Humboldt once wrote that “truth rests in a diversity of opinions.”
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
    This is something that we must do – learning is an activity – not a passive reception of information – or the mere existence of information. Possession of a textbook, OER or not does not mean I will learn from it. 
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
    This is particularly important as we face unprecedented information over-load, a crisis in information management, and a deficit of critical thinking. 
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
    Notice that again, this is something that the student does. It might be modeled by the instructor, but the principle demonstrates great faith in student agency. 
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
    I see connections here to the benefits of OER – with OER we are able to crowd-source the creation and updating of knowledge without having to wait for the two-year publication cycle for corrections to textbooks. 

I am one of those who come to open education through the humanities. I still see it through that lens. I don’t see it through the technology lens even though George Siemens once called it “a learning theory for the digital age.” I think it is that, but I think what makes it a viable theory and a useful tool is that it answers questions and solves problems that go far beyond the “digital age.” I think that the conversations we are having around Open Education are important. For myself, Connectivism is the pedagogy of Open Education – it has all the requirements for a theory that not only addresses how learning occurs, but it accurately describes what happens in an open learning environment (facilitation, student agency, creating teaching and learning community, etc.). I don’t agree (or maybe understand) every part of this theory. I never liked “learning may reside in non-human appliances” when the very definition of “learning” requires a person to do the learning, but never mind that for now.

One of the things that Education Theory is really bad at is accounting for how people learned, taught, or organized information in the past. When read books about how people are supposed to learn, I always think back to Chaucer’s time and wonder how he became so educated in a day when pedagogues literally beat information into students. Despite the educational theories of the day, Chaucer managed to learn.

I read some criticism somewhere of Connectivism once that made the ludicrous claim that unless Connectivism could account for every sphere of human life, it couldn’t account for any of it. This is a standard that no theory is subjected to – certainly not a scientific one. No scientific theory would be foolish enough to make that claim. Theories are informed by facts, hypotheses, and experiment – not by claims to have answered the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything. As soon as you have a brilliant mind like Whitehead come out with the Principia Mathematica who proves once and for all that there is an ultimate system of math, you have an equally brilliant mind like Gödel come along in the next generation and prove that any “mathematical system” has to be either incomplete or inconsistent. And despite this, my High School still insisted that I learn the stuff.

While working in the K-12 schools and studying Education for my masters degree, Constructivism was the main theory du jour. In a nut shell, Constructivism says that learning is socially constructed and that folks learn by applying past experience to new knowledge. I still have a lot of respect for it as it addressed many issues in education I was encountering at the time. It also helped shape early online learning experiences. But like most theories, there are some limitations. There are forms of learning and experience that learning theories can account for, but they usually fall short with the mechanisms or tools of learning. The invention of writing, universal literacy, and cheap paper were huge technical innovations that spread information and learning. Unfortunately, Stanford had not been invented yet so there was no one around to finally codify, once and for all, how learning took place in the human mind back then. There has to be a huge connection between the technologies of information and how we communicate as a species, but I have not found a learning theory that accounts for that. But that understanding, making those connections, is one of the things that the Humanities does really well. Lets take one tool or mechanism for learning; something as simple as concept maps.

Concept maps were an important part of my work as a developmental education instructor and are important in my work as an adult basic education instructor today. My students use them as a way to start their drafts of papers, to make connections between ideas and situations we are studying (history of Afghanistan, for instance), and I also use them as a way for students to build presentations. The concept map was also extensively used in the course “Connectivism, and Connective Knowledge” taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. They were used there to demonstrate knowledge of connectivism as both a formative and summative assessment. So are concept maps new? Are they “the digital age”? Of course not, artistic representations of branching and connected information are a human archetype – it is hard-wired into how we think. I used to give a presentation on concept maps that would annoy the hell out of traditional education researchers because the only evidence I gave was artistic evidence and proximity data (if two things or words are close together in context, they must share a similar meaning). The presentation began with a series of images to give the workshop participants the sense of the breadth and scope of the use of the image of the visual branching of information.

The point of the presentation is that through all time and across all cultures, there has been some kind of external, connected expression of what we know. Manuel Lima in his “The Book of Trees” does a great job of expressing this.

My point with all of this is that Connectivism is a viable learning theory because it addresses not only the Digital Age but the past as well. I think it fits in with the spirit and goals of Open Education and should be looked at seriously by any one interested in Open Education.

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One Response to Connectivism and Open Education

  1. Pingback: #openedMOOC Week 5: Research on OER Impact and Effectiveness – Jenny Connected

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