Connectivism and the modern learner
This got me thinking… I don’t know anything about connectivism!
So after several hours of unenlightened googling, I decided to bite the bullet, go back to first principles and read George Siemens’ seminal paper, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.
Siemens describes connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organisation theories”.
While chaos may appear a random mess at first glance, the theory holds that order does in fact exist.
So if we view chaos through the lens of Network Theory, we see the universe as a massive, complex network. While the millions of nodes may appear disparate and unrelated, they are all indeed connected (however indirectly).
The point for the learner is whether you can recognise the underlying pattern. Meaning already exists in the world… but can you see it? Mother Nature hasn’t drawn any lines for you: you have to join the dots yourself.
Learning in the digital age
Siemens bills connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”.
The amount of knowledge in the world is growing exponentially – and to make matters worse, it’s superseding itself quicker than ever before. So while it’s one thing to join the dots, new dots are popping up all over the place!
In this context, the idea of connectivism re-defines what it means to “learn”.
These days, we can’t know it all. There’s simply too much to internalise and it changes too quickly. Instead, we need to exploit technology to extend our knowledge beyond our own brains.
Specifically, we need to connect to sources of information, and to form connections between them. In other words, we need to recognise meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information. This is the new process of “learning”.
In a sense, connectivism is about self-organising our personal learning networks. We don’t have all knowledge in our heads right now, nor do we necessarily want it. Most of it is hosted elsewhere, but through judicious networking we assume it as our own. In this way, we have access to it whenever we need it.
In fact, Siemens maintains that “the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”. I interpret this to mean that as time goes by, new knowledge becomes more relevant in the real world, while existing knowledge becomes obsolete. Therefore we need to maintain our connections to the new knowledge.
That’s why connectivism focuses on the sources of information, rather than on the information itself. Information comes and goes, but the source of the information will always provide you with the latest and greatest. (That’s the idea, anyway.)
Hence, connectivism represents a major shift in instructional design. Rather than continually feeding learners static information, we need to support their evolution in becoming their own personal knowledge managers.
The hornet’s nest
I must admit that I struggled with some of the basic concepts when I first read Siemens’ paper, and I found the lack of practical examples frustrating. A part of me found solace when I realised that others with impressive academic credentials were also questioning various aspects of the theory.
However, I accept Siemens’ subsequent point that the discourse since his article was published has helped to create a context of understanding. As I have not participated in those discussions, I shall try to limit my own “unsubstantiated philosophising”.
It seems to me that the academic argy bargy has focussed on the epistemology of connectivism.
The constructivist approach to learning, for example, can still involve the same sources of information as the connectivist approach; so the argument isn’t about how or where the learner accesses information, but what they do with it in order to “learn”.
As far as I can gather, no one’s arguing about the pedagogy of connectivism.
It’s universally accepted that the practice of learning has changed in the modern world. To keep up to speed in the knowledge economy, we need to connect to sources of new information. These days we have many excellent tools to do just that, and the modern learner is using them.
So regardless of our theoretical biases, connectivism informs us that we need to supplement the learner’s “know-how” and “know-what” with “know-where”.
One of the ways we can apply connectivism in the corporate sector is by enriching our employees’ PLEs with relevant, high-quality sources of new information. Consider the following:
- Create a social bookmarking account to share useful websites.
- Recommend news feeds, podcasts, blogs and discussion forums.
- Use Twitter and Facebook to foster social/professional networking.
- Maintain wikis as JIT knowledge repositories.
- Promote industry conferences and other external events.
But facilitating connections to good sources of new information is only part of the solution. The learners also need to form the connections between them to drive self-organisation.
Context setting is particularly important. Don’t just insert a simple hyperlink to an information set: explain its purpose. For example, “this website contains full-text copies of the legislation that governs the financial services industry”; “this wiki hosts our product information”; “this news feed informs you of our daily interest rates”.
Let the learners know that they don’t need to remember every clause of every act of law; nor do they need to learn the obscure details of every product the company sells; nor do they need to memorise the company’s interest rates, which are prone to change anyway.
However, they do need to know where to get this information when they need it.
Finally, connectivism demands some serious meta-learning skills.
Not only must learners identify and self-organise sources of information in the wider world, but they must also continually evaluate the contents. The digital age has set off an avalanche of information: learners need to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t.
To support the development of connectivist meta-learning skills, consider the following:
- Encourage your learners to find further sources of information for themselves.
- Encourage them to share these sources with their colleagues via Web 2.0, and to explain their relevance.
- Run exercises or workshops to develop their content evaluation skills.
- Provide case studies illustrating how new information has affected existing situations in the real world.
Our role, therefore, is not only to assist our colleagues in sourcing new information, but also in managing it effectively. Only then can they become self-directed, self-regulated and, ultimately, self-made in the knowledge economy.