Attacks on connectivism

What is it about connectivism that stirs up such strong emotion?

In my experience it has now been strongly attacked in public at least twice – the first during CCK08 by Catherine Fitzpatrick – who voiced her objections in no uncertain terms and more recently by Marielle Lange in Wikipedia. Perhaps the interesting thing about both these instances is that they end up as personal attacks on Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Why?

The objections revolve around the claim that connectivism is a new learning theory.

Marielle Lange levels these criticisms at this claim:

  • Connectivism is a hoax
  • There is nothing new in connectivism
  • The claims have never been published by a refereed journal
  • The claims are unwarranted and unsupported by evidence
  • The claims amount to intellectual dishonesty
  • They don’t make any new or original contribution to learning
  • They don’t make any new or original contribution to pedagogy

And then for some reason that I don’t understand she seems to take real exception to the fact that Stephen Downes does not have a PhD, that much of his and George Siemens’ work is published in blogs and that the article – Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age – has been published in a not-for-profit journal.

In a recent Elluminate session, Stephen Downes discussed the status of connectivism as a theory –

For him connectivism is an empirical theory intended to describe how learning occurs. It is based on observations and evidence from a variety of related empirical theories. Four theories which he claims support connectivism are connectionism, in computer science, associationism in philosophy and psychology, graph theory in mathematics and social network theory. Connectivism is a theory about pedagogy to describe how we can apply what we know about how networks learn to learning. Connectivism doesn’t have a message; it is not a belief or a political movement. Connectivism doesn’t argue; it describes – describes the world as we see it and explains why we are developing e-learning as a distributed and networked process.

Lange and Fitzpatrick are not alone in criticising Downes’ and Siemens’ claims for connectivism. I don’t even think they are alone in descending into personal attacks, although I don’t think these help their cause, because they get carried away and then lose their credibility, e.g. Lange writes:

The acclaim they receive typically comes from classroom teachers who are unfamiliar with the pre-existing theories. Unfamiliar with the vast amount of literature on the web covering the same issues a lot more ably. Let’s face it. The “theory of Connectivism” was published as a blog post! It was later published by Educause, a non profit organisation. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Connectivism)

It is fairly easy to demolish this paragraph. First, teachers, in order to be teachers, are trained, and that training involves a study of learning theories, although they might not be familiar with the vast amount of literature on the web – but that does not make them incapable of critically evaluating new ideas. Second, the fact that the ‘theory of connectivism was published as a blog post’ is part of the whole point about it all. Downes and Siemens are trying to establish a new way of thinking about education and research, which questions and destabilises traditional ways of working. Posting to blogs, and the belief in peer review (as happens in Wikipedia) is a deliberate and conscious strategy. How better to test out their ideas? Publishing in Educause was also part of this strategy.

Of course a claim for a new learning theory will have to be critically analysed, tested and discussed – I doubt anyone disputes that and some articles are beginning to come through which do just this.

Bell, F. (2010) Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and Actor Network theory – http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/PDFs/Bell.pdf

Kop, R. & Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523/1103

Verhagen, P. (2006) Connectivism: A new learning theory? http://elearning.surf.nl/e-learning/english/3793

And there will be more – it is early days as far as connectivism is concerned. It is also possible – if following Downes’ and Siemens’ work to see their ideas and explanations developing as time progresses. Surely establishing a learning theory is a long-term and dynamic process, but the starting point is to make the claim. If it is ultimately thrown over – let’s hope it is on the basis of evidence rather than personal attacks.

Finally the focus on whether connectivism is a theory or not detracts from what for me are the more important questions raised by Downes and Siemens and these are:

  • How is technology changing the way we think and learn?
  • How is technology changing the way we teach?
  • Do we need to challenge traditional ways of working in education?

Whilst there have been published research papers which address these questions most are published in closed journals. The work that Downes and Siemens do differs in its openness; this means that they are more subject to criticism and attack, but also that their work is more accessible to a wider audience – and there is evidence that the audience is wide.

CCK11 Learner autonomy

In reflecting on my participation in the open connectivism courses (CCk08, CCK09), I realise that I am more interested in these than the other open courses on offer at the moment, because whilst they require technology to run, they are not so much about technology as about how learners learn and how teachers need to develop to help learners to learn in this fast moving digital age. Currently, my interest is in learner autonomy. What does this mean? Stephen has written a blog post about this, which I really need to get my head round.

Three things have cropped up in the last week, which have refocused my attention on learner autonomy.

1.       One of my sons is doing a music technology degree. He has just entered the second year and was excited because the course outline stipulated that he could choose a module to work on and choose a group to work in. He wanted to do a video/music module and wanted to work in a group of three. As it turned out this year two key lecturers have gone on sabbatical and one has left – so the students (for administrative purposes and logistical reasons) have been told which module they must do and the working group has been reduced from three to two. I can see why the University has had to do this, but I do wonder about the reality of student autonomy. This is a mild way of saying that I feel quite cross about it. After all his fees are huge and this is his once chance. He had already worked out what his video/music project would be – was motivated and keen to start. Now he has to do a module he is not so interested in, simply because the University allowed two lecturers to have a sabbatical at the same time. But presumably the lecturers must also have autonomy – so if everyone has choice over what to do when they want to do it, how do we deal with the inevitable conflicts?

2.       I have been invited to be an External Advisor for a University post-graduate course which is being revalidated. To my delight I read that the new post-graduate course will put a heavy emphasis on student autonomy – but then I read that this is interpreted as self-assessment, peer-assessment and reflective learning. Whilst all these contribute to student autonomy, I see students’ control over their own learning as being the most crucial element. Now I’m wondering whether this is possible in Higher Education – or to what extent it is possible. I need to think more about this and will be interested to hear what the tutor team has to say when the validation panel meets.

3.       A feature of the CCK11 course is that there is no central meeting place. Past courses have had Moodle discussion forums – but this course is taking a true distributed learning approach . This is going to be very interesting in terms of learner autonomy. Will participants be able to cope with this? Will they find each other? Will they be able to have ‘meaningful’ conversations? How will they forge connections? Will they like/value/appreciate the amount of autonomy that has been built into the course design? This will be a real test of whether learner participants can handle the level of autonomy on offer.

So for CCK11 – I will be observing/participating (probably more observing than participating) with a view to understanding more about learner autonomy.

Open courses in January 2011

The net seems awash with open courses at the moment. Three have captured my attention are:

Learning and Knowledge Analytics (LAK11)

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11)

Digital Storytelling (ds106)

Digital storytelling is already in its second week, but as Jim Groom (convenor) has pointed out it has been anticipated and discussed for many more weeks. It is fun just to look at the assignments that have already been submitted – a wonderful example of the talent and creativity that can be tapped into on the net and also a wonderful example of the four key activities of connectivist teaching and learning in action, i.e. aggregation,  remixing, repurposing and feed forward. There has been quite a lot of work on Digital Storytelling here in the UK and a few years ago I attended a Digital Storytelling course at the University of Gloucestershire here in the UK, where the focus at the time was on using digital storytelling to enhance students’ learning and reflection – a different focus to Jim Groom’s course where the learning objectives are:

  • Develop skills in using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression
  • Frame a digital identity wherein you become both a practitioner in and interrogator of various new modes of networking
  • Critically examine the digital landscape of communication technologies as emergent narrative forms and genres

Information about the work in the UK can be found at the following sites:

I will be interested to find out more about ‘why’ people have signed up for Jim Groom’s course and whether people will ‘stay’ the course.  I expect it will be a lot of hard work.

Learning and Knowledge Analytics has also been going a week and got off to a good start with a lot of participants signed up and plenty of discussion. The first week’s invited speaker – John Fritz – gave a really thought provoking talk. Over 90 people attended this.  John started his talk with a slide providing us with a vision of the future of academic analytics, which listed the possible stages of the use of analytics as:

  1. Extraction and reporting
  2. Analysis and monitoring
  3. ‘What if’ scenarios
  4. Predictive modelling and simulation
  5. Automatic triggers and alerts

He asked us what our institutions are already doing and most were at the 1-3 levels. This reminded me of a JISC programme that I worked on last year – Institutional Innovation – where one of the projects was collecting data to ensure e that they could monitor student progress, catch potential drop-outs early, intervene and thus ensure student progress and retention. This was the Mining Course Management Systems project at Thames Valley University. The question that was raised for me by John Fritz’s talk and by the projects that I have worked with in the JISC Institutional Innovation programme was who controls the data – so  – do the students get to analyse the data or see the results of the data analysis? What voice do they have over how the data is interpreted and what interventions will be made – given that they will be the recipients? Interesting!

Finally to Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11). Despite the fact that I have already attended CCK08 and been aware of CCK09, I think that this is the one that I will be following the most closely, although perhaps still from a distance.  As a learner, it suits me better to be on the edge. Stephen Downes and George Siemens have urged us to ‘share with others’.  I have thought about this. Do I do this or not?  Well – I have to say – not very publicly – although I do have a few people with whom I feel very connected and with whom I have some deep ‘back-channel’ conversations/discussions (which have now resulted in 4 research papers/projects). These have all resulted from CCK08.  I do blog from time to time which I regard as my ‘wider sharing’, but it is the closer connections that I really value. So I am looking forward to CCK11 once again – but I will be keeping an eye on Digital Storytelling and Learning Analytics – for interest and from the perspective of being interested in how people learn in open courses.

Connectivism principles and course design

There seem to be an increasing number of attempts to design courses based on connectivism principles. In my last post I wrote

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course.

I stand by this statement, but the fact is that I am often (as an education consultant) contracted to write online ‘courses’ within traditional settings, i.e. Universities. In my most recent contract I have explicitly tried, within the constraints that come from working in a traditional educational setting to apply the principles of connectivism to the course design, i.e. openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy. This is what I have learned.

Openness

We have to decide what we mean by this. Do we mean open as in free course to the whole world? I think most Universities would need a lot of convincing to do this. I would like to know more about how Universities that have done it (e.g. University of Regina and University of Athabasca, USA) have rationalised their costs? What is in it for them? I can see that the recent PLENK course has generated a lot of research. I suppose an open course could also help to market a University – but for Universities which are already high in the rankings what would be the benefit of an ‘open course’?

I do not think that the course I have written will be opened to the whole world. Apart from anything else I personally do not have the required reputation or academic standing – but I think it could be opened to the whole University – staff and students – as professional development. But, in my mind, this does not fulfil the connectivism principle of openness.

If by ‘open’ we mean, transparency in what we are doing and open sharing of resources – yes we can encourage that in the course design – but we cannot enforce it without cutting across the principle of autonomy. And if the course is not open to the world, then the principle of ‘openness’ is compromised from the word go.

Diversity

We definitely need this for a rich learning environment. In a MOOC this is a given – but how do we get this in a small course of say 20 participants. I think diversity of resources (in the sense of variety) is possible however small the number of participants, but diversity in relation to participants is obviously limited by smaller numbers. On the other hand we have seen time and again that MOOC participants are easily overwhelmed by the diversity on offer. So is it possible to build the principle of diversity into an online course which is not a MOOC? Yes I think so. It might come in terms of the student group (e.g. the course might be for international participants), but if not then we can design for diversity in learning environments and resources. Not the wide diversity offered by a MOOC, but still diversity. So it seems that diversity can exist along a continuum of less to more diverse. Openness can also exist on this continuum, but it can also be one or the other, i.e. open or closed.

Connectedness/Interaction

At the heart of this lies a belief in social learning. I have thought about this in past, but have been thinking about it a lot in the past few days following Heli’s recommendation in a comment on my last post to view Dr. Brene Brown’s video, where Brene Brown extols the virtue of connectivity. This prompted me to send it to a friend who I highly respect for her ability to ‘think outside the box’. She dismissed it. Her view is that ‘connectivity’ is just one strategy for learning.  Those that choose not to engage in online social networking have a different strategy. This was a wake up call for me. It reminded me that not everyone believes in social learning and that I must be prepared for this in my course design.  So what have I done?  I have built in an introduction to a lot of different technologies (with thanks to Alec Couros for his idea of providing open course participants with tutorials). I have also encouraged people to ‘connect’ where, when, how and with whom they wish, using whichever technology they wish (a la Stephen Downes and George Siemens in their MOOCs), but I have also realised that if the course participants choose not to be connected  or interact with others, then that must be their choice. And this leads me to autonomy.

Autonomy

In designing my course I have realised that when Stephen Downes presented the principles of connectivism as openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy, he presented them as equals on a level playing field – but I can now see that autonomy ‘rules’.  This determines how open and how connected  learners are and how much advantage they wish to take of diversity.

It also brings a course designer right up against traditional hierarchies, because autonomy means that learners can choose where, when, how, what and with whom to learn – a real challenge for a traditional educational system, particularly if assessment comes into the mix.

In the course I have designed I have tried to be true to the principle of learner autonomy. I have provided suggestions for activities, discussions, readings and assessments – i.e. I have provided learners with some structure – my structure- but have also made it clear that participants can choose whether or not to engage with any of this.  In doing this I am wondering whether I am abdicating responsibility. I have a friend whose PhD is focussing on why so many of her post graduate learners have the attitude ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ (Carmen also has some interesting thoughts about this in a comment on my last blog post) – and I’m wondering if this will be the reaction to the course I have designed – and it if it is, what I will do about it. So I am aware that by pinning my colours to the ‘autonomy’ mast, I could well end up with a course that appears to fail.

However….

So far I have never worked on a course that has failed. I think this is because I and my colleagues work very hard to keep our students on board – but this brings me back to the ‘autonomy rules’ thought. If we do this – i.e. work hard to keep students on board, chase them, provide them with resources etc. are we diminishing their autonomy? At what point along the autonomy continuum of less autonomy to more autonomy should a teacher/tutor sit? What is our responsibility in relation to autonomy? I have written my course, but I don’t yet have a clear answer to this question.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m off to enjoy it.

All the best for 2011 to anyone who ventures here 🙂

What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

This was a question asked by George Siemens on his blog and discussed by George, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom in an open Elluminate session (around 45 attendees in all) on 20th Dec.

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course. Why? Because a course implies assessment. As soon assessment enters the equation, then autonomy – the key principle of connectivism – is lost.

That’s not to say that within traditionally assessed courses we cannot – as course designers – consider more deeply the implications of designing our courses to increase the possibility of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectedness. But within the traditional system of accreditation and validation there are considerable constraints on what we can achieve. Anyone who is paying for a course – open or not – is going to have expectations of what they get for their money and that usually means, in my experience,  of the level of tutoring/facilitation they receive.

So the question of  ‘What is wrong with MOOCs?’  has to be considered in terms of whether the course is accredited or not. The answer to the question for each is different. For the accredited course there has already been much research on what makes for a good online course and what makes for good online facilitation. Of course – the ‘massive’ part of MOOC means that the facilitators’ role has to be reconsidered. Alec Couros realised this when he asked for volunteer mentors.

But for an unaccredited course – and I much prefer Jim Groom’s idea that we should be thinking in terms of online learning ‘events’ rather than courses  – then , in my view, the responsibility lies with the learner and the whole ethos and ethics of the ‘event’ changes. As an aside – a question that has occurred to me is how is an ‘event’ different from a conference? There have been many successful online conferences, but I do not see an event based on MOOC principles as being the same thing as a conference. If the ‘event’ is ‘not for credit’, I cannot see much wrong with the way in which they have been designed to date. Whilst there are things we might not like and also contradictions in the way in which the basic principles of open courses can be interpreted (see Mackness, et al – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC), the responsibility for learning is ultimately down to the learner.

What I am currently finding interesting is how difficult it is to apply, in practice, the principles of connectivism  – which I see to be the principles of open courses (autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness) in the traditional settings in which most of us educators probably find ourselves.  I strongly believe in these principles, but find when I try to apply them to course design that they are subject to many constraints, not only externally but also internally, i.e. constraints from my own thinking. If I am honest, it is more difficult to truly change my own practice than I would have thought, whatever my changing beliefs. One of the constraints I encounter – which I think has been raised by Lisa Lane in her blog  – is in the teaching of skills. In the MOOCs I have attended (CCK08, Critical Literacies, PLENK) , the course content, i.e. what we are expected to learn has been loose and within the remit of own ideas and thinking. We have been encouraged to navigate our own way through these ideas and follow our own interests and paths of learning. If we learn skills along the way that is a bonus – but they have not been explicitly taught and they have not been a focus of the course content.

But what if the learning of a skill is the focus of the course – in my case  – the courses I tutor on are for participants who want to learn the skills of e-moderation/facilitation.  Then – whichever way I look at it – however much choice is designed into the course – ultimately the success of the course relies on whether the participants can demonstrate the skills of e-moderation/e-facilitation. And for this they need to be pointed to some activities in which they can demonstrate this. As I write this, I wonder if this is true, but my experience to date is – that it is.

So – to come back to the question of what is wrong with MOOCs – my summary answer would be – not a lot so long as they stick to the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness outlined by Stephen Downes.  It is sticking to and interpreting these principles for different contexts that is the difficult bit.

In defense of lurking

A couple of days ago George Siemens made a post to his Elearnspace blog in which he strongly criticised lurkers as follows:

Creation, collaboration, and sharing are the true value points of a PLN. It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/12/01/my-personal-learning-network-is-the-most-awesomest-thing-ever/

What George has written seems to me to be a complete contradiction of what I perceive open learning networks or courses to be all about. Stephen Downes has outlined the principles of learning in networks as being openness, connectivity, diversity and autonomy. For me, autonomy lies at the heart of how this works, and has been central to the success of the open courses I have so far attended (PLENK, CCKO8 and CritLit). In other words, a key principle is that we have the choice of how connected, open, interactive or participative we want to be. We can therefore choose to lurk. Actually, I dislike that derogatory term ‘lurking’ and prefer to recognise that in any course, online or f2f, we will have active participants, but also those whose learning preference is to ‘read’ or ‘observe’.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state.

My question here would be what is wrong with that? PLN (personal learning network) is by its very name just that – personal. It is not for George Siemens or anyone else to tell me what being connected means in relation to my personal learning.

Lurking=taking.

Not so, or no more so than in collaborative creation and contribution. And just to remember here that Stephen Downes famously said at the ALT conference in 2005 that ‘Collaboration is the joining together of things that do not naturally want to be joined’. So there are two points here. First is that George’s rant against ‘lurking’ is an example of the ‘Tyranny of Participation’, written about by Ferreday and Hodgson and cited by me in a number of posts. Second is that there is no evidence that ‘lurking=taking’. By its very nature we do not know what ‘lurkers’ are doing. They are not present and therefore we have no evidence with which to judge them in this way. The responses to George’s post list many reasons why people might be perceived as ‘lurkers’. From my own experience of working as a tutor on international online courses, I know that participants may not be present for a whole host of reasons including access difficulties, technology difficulties, illness, significant family or work disruptions/distractions and so on. The best they can do in these circumstances is to read or observe. I also know that whilst these people may not be connected and contributing to my course, they are often heavily engaged elsewhere. It is not for me to make judgments about where their priorities lie. They have the autonomy to decide that for themselves.

The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative.

To throw out a comment like this about a well established theory of learning, without any further explanation is not helpful. My interpretation from reading Wenger’s work is that legitimate peripheral participation is about the development of competency and identity within a learning community and the learning trajectories that people follow to achieve this within a social learning situation. It acknowledges that when people join a community (or, I would suggest, even a network), they join at the edge and gradually develop their identity within it. In addition Etienne Wenger’s more recent work has a lot to say about learning on the boundaries of communities. At a recent conference he suggested that this is where there can be the most powerful learning experiences, where people at the edge straddle the boundaries between different communities and can feed information/learning back and forth across these boundaries. This relates also to Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak ties and suggests that far from being negative, legitimate peripheral participation can have positive consequences.

Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. (my bold)

Finally, although I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I do not think ‘should’ is a helpful word in relation to learning. Learning in any environment, network, community, course, classroom, is ideally about negotiation and learner empowerment. This also means allowing people to choose whether and when to interact with other learners, whether to read and observe (lurk) rather than be actively interactive and to decide for themselves what connectivity means to them personally.

Openness and intellectual property

This is just going to be a quick post – just to mark something that happened today and which seems highly significant to me to the whole notion of open learning in open networks – if those networks are related to learning in Higher Education.

Today I attended a meeting in which a PhD student asked a question about the meaning of intellectual property. She was concerned that the data that she was gathering and her decisions about what data to collect for her PhD were based on conversations with her work colleagues – so what could she claim as her own ideas and what should she attribute to others – could she claim anything from a dialogue/discussion as her own?

Evidently it is very important in a PhD viva to be able to substantiate work as original and as your own work.

The student was advised at this point to be extremely careful about attributing work carefully, extremely cautious about openly sharing work in progress or ideas, and to be selfish. This should help to ensure that the PhD is accepted as an original piece of work and in addition this approach would help to ensure that anyone then intending working in Higher Education could build up their reputation in high ranking journals, maintain tenure at the university at which s/he works and not risk having their work and ideas ‘stolen’ by others.

This approach to learning is the antithesis of what I am interested in and how I want to learn – but then I am past retirement age, do not need to secure a career and have nothing to lose in believing that we should openly share.  I must say I found I was able to listen sympathetically to the discussion today, whilst at the same time being ‘sad’ that this non-sharing approach is still being promoted in some areas of Higher Education. It occurred to me that this approach is based on ‘fear’. Fear of not being recognised, fear of having your ideas stolen, fear of not ‘making it’, fear of not ‘fitting in’ etc.

Despite all this, I think it is worth thinking about exactly what we mean by ‘open’ in relation to intellectual property and more broadly – a question that has been concerning me for a while. I can see that for a student/new lecturer who is trying to establish a reputation, they have to make their mark somehow – and how do you do this at the beginning of your career and before you become established, if you give all your work away, and/or allow anyone to use it in any way they wish, especially if, as I was told today, high ranking journals, on which tenure is based, require you to substantiate that your ideas are original.

So where does openness fit into this scenario? Is there a continuum from less open to more open along which we need to appropriately position ourselves according to our specific personal context at any given time?