Thursday, January 20, 2011

Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

The suggested reading for the first week contained among other texts an article by George Siemens, one of the course leaders, called "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age".
This sounded, as if it tried to explain what connectivism is all about, so I thought it's a good place to start reading, which I did.

Right at the beginning the article puts connectivism alongside behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Oh wow - this is obiously intended to be a "big theory", competing with the important ones in the field. I'm always a bit wary of another -ism, that wants to substitute everything that has been. It often wastes a lot of energy to show that it is different, thus proving it's right to exist. To do that, it has to overemphasise what is new and neglect similarities, parallels  or indebtedness to other theories. But maybe that's going to be different this time, let's see.

The article states, why a new learning theory is necessary:
  • technology has changed the way we live and learn nowadays
  • the half- worth of knowledge is continually decreasing
  • many people are going to live and work in lots of different contexts and in different fields during their life time
And learning itself must be "a way of being – an ongoing set of attitudes and actions by individuals and groups that they employ to try to keep abreast of the surprising, novel, messy, obtrusive, recurring events…” (Vaull, P.B.: Learning as a Way of Being, 1996, p.42).

If you define learning like that, there is not much difference to living in general or at least it's an occurance that pervades all our lifes all the time, not an isolated activity, that happens at a certain time, at a certain place - a notion I quite like and support.

So, a learning theory that reflects learning in that sense, can't just be a theory of learning in a narrow sense, to a certain extent it must be a "life theory".

And towards the end of the article Siemens states:
"The notion of connectivism has implications in all aspects of life." That ties in with what went before, though in my opinion, it shows that connectivism is not really a learning theory, that is it doesn't try and explain the way human beings learn on am individual level, but more a broad view on how knowledge is produced, developed, changed, in what systems it is stored, what means are best to retrieve it, work with it and so on. But maybe that depends on the definition of learning. Learning in my understanding is still a process referring to an individual. No matter how networked the world is, we live in, there still remains the question, how do I personally learn - or you for that matter... It doesn't happen automatically, I have to develop strategies, find my place in the network, reflect on how I learn best, what I want to learn and so on. Learning in my understanding can also refer to organisations - learning there is very different from individual learning but it still refers to a subject - the organisation in that case. For me that's the decisive point: the notion of learning requires a subject: an individual or an organisation or maybe a family, a town - a community of some kind. Without a subject learning cannot occur, and as far as I can see up to now, that is, where I differ from this article.
It states:
Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.
To me that doesn't make sense: information can be stored in a database, yes - but learning?

But in the end this is not really important - I'm not in need of a learning theory but I'm looking for methods to act and interact in networks and to use them for facilitating learning in individuals and organisations. And here the concept of connectivism looks quite promising. Two quotes from the article, I really liked:

"The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning."

"The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed."

To further explore, how exactly that is going to work, what possibilities there are to implement these principles in a given context and in what way this concept can help to acchieve learning goals  - those are my reasons to further explore "connectivism".

As an aside note regarding the decreasing of the half-worth of knowledge: I read Goethe's Elective Affinities at the moment and one of the characters in there complains: "It is a bad business (...) that we cannot nowadays learn anything that will last a life time. Our forefathers stuck to the teaching they were given when they were young but we have to unlearn everything every five years if we are not to go completely out of fashion."
So the problem is not a new one - the novel is from 1809. Comforting somehow... 

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