Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism


I have recently been exploring Iain McGilchrist’s ground-breaking work on the divided brain (see The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World), with a view to learning more about the implications of this work for education.

This interest was sparked by hearing McGilchrist say, on a course I attended earlier this year (see Field & Field website), that there are no static and separate things, but instead there are relationships and patterns. I wrote about this at the time – see (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/there-are-no-things-there-are-patterns/). Even though the word ‘education’ does not appear in the index of McGilchrist’s remarkable book, how can the idea of ‘there are no things’ not have implications for education?

At the end of August, I received a number of comments on my blog from Gary Goldberg, with many lines of thought and threads to follow. Central amongst these was the idea that edusemiotics is relevant to an exploration of the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education.

This is an area completely new to me and having started to explore it, I find there is an extensive body of scholarly work associated with it. It will take me a while to get to grips with this and I do not intend to try and cover it here. Instead, I will share my initial understanding of what is edusemiotics and how it might relate to McGilchrist’s work. I will also mention Stephen Downes’ work on connectivism, since this is a new learning theory which seems pertinent here.

Semiotics is the study of signs, such as in body language, rituals, linguistics, media and advertising. Edusemiotics is the study of signs + learning theory + education. It is a process which draws on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (semiology) and Charles Sander Peirce (semiotics) to defy Cartesian substance dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s work on signs is also significant here, but I have yet to follow this up.

Edusemiotics takes a holistic approach to education, decrying fragmentation and subject/object dualism. It posits that since we use signs to interact with the world, then it follows that signs shape our experience, and human experience is an interpretive structure mediated by signs. Everything is in relation to everything else. ‘As signs connect and become transformed in ever-changing contexts, new signs are created as part of an ongoing open-ended process of interpretation, growth and development.’ (Semetsky & Stables, 2014, p.10).

The edusemiotics argument is that if knowledge is constructed through our ongoing interaction with signs and the world, then knowledge cannot be out there waiting to be found; education must be a process of continuous inquiry; it cannot be reduced to right or wrong answers. A priori learning objectives, measurement and assessment make no sense from this perspective.

An edusemiotics approach to education therefore focuses on significance and meaning rather than ‘true facts’ and content. It is a process and is about interactions and relations ‘between students and teachers, between people and their environments, between ourselves and others, and between elements of that which is to be learned, understood through various relational perspectives’ (Deely & Semetsky, 2017).

The presence of paradox is also a distinguishing feature of edusemiotics. Iain McGilchrist has a lot to say about paradox (see p. 137-140, The Master and his Emissary). For example on p.134 of his book he writes:

‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis. .. This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge comes into being.’

Related to this is Charles Sander Peirce’s work on vagueness and intrinsic uncertainty, although McGilchrist does not reference Peirce in his book. (Again, I have only, as yet, touched on Peirce’s ideas).

The significance of paradox is related to the question of fixity. As McGilchrist says, if there are no things and everything is uncertain and changing, at what point can you say you know something; at what point can a few grains of sand be described as a heap of sand and which grain of sand makes the difference? I have written about this before (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/exploring-the-divided-brain-time-space-and-reality/). This of course relates to our understanding of the structure of reality in relation to time, but more importantly to our understanding that everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary).

Deely & Semetsky (2017, p.209) have written that:

The holistic perspective taken by edusemiotics entails several distinctive characteristics including:

  • the relational ethics;
  • the role of experience as exceeding its ‘private’ dimension;
  • emphasis on interpretations surpassing factual ‘evidence’;
  • a conception of language understood broadly in terms of dynamic structures related to the regimes of signs exceeding linguistic representations; embodied cognition;
  • and the importance of self-formation as a lifelong process, thus having implications for education throughout the lifespan, inclusive of children and adults.

It is clear even from this brief introduction to edusemiotics, that whilst it does not explicitly inform McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, it does share some similar thinking, principally in the idea that ‘knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing’. Interestingly these are the words that Stephen Downes uses to explain connectivism (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653).

It also shares the right hemisphere’s ‘take’ on the nature of knowledge, that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘other’, not fixed or certain; it depends on ‘betweenness’ and the coming together of wholes. ‘Knowledge and perception and therefore experience, exist only in the relations ‘between’ things, i.e. in the knowledge of distinction and the experience of difference.’ (p. 94-97, The Master and his Emissary).

But from what I have read so far (admittedly little), edusemiotics neither goes as far as connectivism, which rejects cognitivist and constructivist theories of learning as being grounded in language and logic (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653), nor as far as McGilchrist who emphasises language as being rooted in the body (p.118).

Downes writes:

In a representational system, you have a thing, a physical symbol, that stands in a one-to-one relationship with something: a bit of knowledge, an ‘understanding’, something that is learned, etc. In representational theories, we talk about the creation (‘making’ or ‘building’) and transferring of these bits of knowledge. This is understood as a process that parallels (or in unsophisticated theories, is) the creation and transferring of symbolic entities.

As Richard Parmentier writes: …  representation lies at the heart of the sign processes

But Downes also writes:

Connectivism is not a representational theory. It does not postulate the existence of physical symbols standing in a representational relationship to bits of knowledge or understandings. Indeed, it denies that there are bits of knowledge or understanding, much less that they can be created, represented or transferred.  

So edusemiotics, whilst sharing some of the pedagogical aspirations of connectivism, differs quite significantly in philosophy.

And McGilchrist writes of the left hemisphere as the hemisphere of representation, in which signs are substituted for experience (p.70). Whilst edusemiotics is discussed in terms of embodied cognition, I wonder about the tension between a discipline which studies signs, which are designed ‘to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of language as far as possible from the trammels of the body and of the physical world [they describe] (p.119 The Master and his Emissary), and a holistic, embodied approach to education.

It seems to me that edusemiotics shares some of the characteristics of connectivism and some of McGilchrist’s philosophical ideas, but the differences between edusemiotics and Downes’ and McGilchrist’s work are significant enough to ultimately affect philosophical and pedagogical approaches to education, making edusemiotics, connectivism and the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education incompatible.

References

Thanks to Gary Goldberg for prompting this post and to Matthias Melcher for discussion about the content.

Source of image: https://vanseodesign.com/web-design/semiotics-signifier-signified/

Engestrom, Wenger and Emergent Learning

In a recent great discussion in CPsquare about the changing role of the learning facilitator, Brenda Kaulback posted this video of Yrjo Engestrom being interviewed about his work by Chris Jones

This reminded me of the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg 2010, when Engestrom gave a combined keynote (fishbowl style) with Etienne Wenger (See Part 2 flash format).

In revisiting these videos, I have been struck by how much they both have to say about emergent learning, but in different terms.

Engestrom talks about emergent learning in terms of ‘expansive learning’.  At the Networked Learning Conference here are some of the things he said:

‘Learning has to deal increasingly with situations in which the outcomes of learning are not known ahead of time.’

‘Standard learning theories fail to explain processes where learning in radically transformed’.

‘Expansive learning is learning what is not yet there. The object of activity is qualitatively transformed so as to open up a horizon of wider possibilities and new actions.’

Engestrom describes how Gregory Bateson  distinguished learning as

  • Learning 1 – non-conscious, tacit
  • Learning 2 – learning the rules of the game
  • Learning 3 – expansive learning – questioning and deviance, but often thwarted or oppressed, marginalized or silenced. (Watch the video with Chris Jones for details)

For Etienne Wenger, identity in communities of practice, lies at the heart of all learning, i.e. social learning and so a learner needs to be able to learn in a landscape of practices.

‘Each practice in a landscape of practice has some claim to competence/knowledgeability’.

‘Your identity becomes a lived reflection of the landscape as you travel through the world.’

‘Interesting learning (happens) in the interaction between landscapes.’

For me these ideas from Wenger and Engestrom suggest that we cannot predict what that learning might be, so in that sense it will be emergent.

Engestrom also talks about boundary crossing as being risky but important for learning.

‘Working at these boundaries (between multidisciplinary disciplines) can be risky because (you) may end up in no man’s land’ – or as we have discussed in relation to Footprints of Emergence, ‘falling off the edge’ of the learning landscape.

Engestrom says that Level 3 learning  requires very special support and nurturing and like Etienne he talks about having ‘to pay special attention to issues of creating communities within networks’.

All this has implications for designing for emergent learning, although neither Engestrom nor Wenger explicitly mention emergent learning.

#PLENK2010 Research, technology and networks

The guest speaker for the second week of the PLENK course has been Martin Weller – what a treat!  The link to the recording of his Elluminate presentation is here

Basically – his talk was about how depressed he is that research is not ‘keeping up with the times’ in terms of advances in technology and networked learning. I am a new researcher – but I can so completely relate to this.

So what did he say? These are the key points as I interpreted him –

  • researchers are not making full use of the new technologies available to them
  • they are risk averse and work in ‘traditional’ mode
  • they work in small personal contexts, often with the same groups of people and do not make use of network possibilities
  • they don’t like the spontaneity of blogs
  • they are conservative and cautious

Why are they like this? Because they may not have tenure and therefore have to ‘fit in’ with University requirements. If you want tenure you are encouraged to be traditional and are therefore less likely to be innovative or take risks. Research is about ‘control’ – particularly for scientists seeking predictive models, whereas the very nature of working in Web 2 is the exact opposite. We don’t know what will happen in Web 2.0. It is unpredictable.

Martin then went on to discuss the changing nature of research as evidenced by the number of people who are publishing in blogs , experimenting as they go along, turning to people in the network for peer review.  However, there are difficulties with this as I have already posted here following a discussion with Matthias.

What I found particularly interesting in Martin’s presentation is that it was directly relevant to how I have recently been working. I am a new researcher. My first two papers were both published following the traditional pattern.

1. K. Guldberg, J. Mackness (2009) Foundations of communities of practice: enablers and barriers to participation. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning

2. Rhona Sharpe, Jenny Mackness (2010)Evaluating the development of a community of e-learning researchers: from short-term funding to sustainability International Journal of Web Based Communities 6 (2) p. 148

These two papers are in closed journals. The second has received one expression of interest via email. The first has received about 15 expressions of interest via email.

Following participation in CCK08 John Mak, Roy Williams and I published two papers in the open environment of the Networked Learning Conference. We had also published drafts of the papers in the CCK09 Moodle site before submitting them to the Networked Learning Conference. This felt much more like an ‘open’ process.

Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC John Mak, Sui, Fai, Roy Williams, Jenny Mackness (2010) Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg p. 275

The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC Jenny Mackness, John Mak, Sui, Fai, Roy Williams (2010)Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg p. 266-274

Presenting these papers at the Networked Learning conference was disappointing from my perspective, but George and Stephen invited us to present the Ideals and Reality paper again in an Elluminate session and that was much more rewarding. We were able to ‘talk’ to more people and this made the research seem more worthwhile.

Recently, I have gone one step further with Matthias Melcher, in working for many weeks/months on a paper on e-resonance and simply publishing it here on this blog – but the process we worked through was not open to all.

The points that have arisen for me in all this are:

1. If we want research to be open there are two stages to consider – the actual researching and then the publishing.
2. Being ‘open’ at the researching stage might invalidate the research. There are difficulties associated with confidentiality and ‘ownership’ of ideas and writing.
3. Open publishing also brings its difficulties. How can the work be measured/peer reviewed?

I suppose all this brings in to question what we understand by research. There was discussion in the Elluminate ‘chat’ about the boundaries between learning and research becoming blurred and Stephen posted that ‘Learning = Research’. I thought at the time that this depends on how you define research. Who is it for? What is it for? How will the ‘network’ influence research and will research be able to influence the network?

I really enjoyed Martin’s talk, but I was left wondering whether we had really got to grips with how research will be influenced by networked learning and Web 2.0.  My experience is that there are still an awful lot of people in HE (where a lot of research currently happens) who are working in institutions with high research ratings, with outstanding publications records, but who are not connected on the Web in the sense that we have been talking about. This indicates that good research has been and continues to be published without the Web or being networked. I think we need to think more/be more explicit about what might be lost by giving up this ‘traditional’ system and more explicit about what we can gain by being more ‘innovative’.

I thought Martin could perhaps have been more explicit about why his really good presentation was relevant to a PLENK course.

Elluminate v. Networked Learning Conference

Heli has made yet another interesting post in her blog reflecting on the CCK08 experience following our Elluminate session yesterday in which George Siemens kindly invited us to share our research paper – The ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC.

The link to the recording of this session is here – http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/07/05/elluminate-vs-networked-learning-conference/

After my Networked Learning Conference hiatus (as a friend has called it) I really had no expectations that anyone would attend the Elluminate session, especially since it was only advertised a day or so before (although George and Stephen do have huge networks and just a word from them can make all the difference) – I emailed Roy and John saying that I thought we would be speaking to ourselves!

It’s ironic that I spent over £1000 of my own money getting myself to the Networked Learning Conference where we had  just 20 minutes to present our paper, were allowed time for only one question, where the session was attended by less than half the people in yesterday’s Elluminate session and where there was no follow up discussion ….. and yet yesterday for the Elluminate session, I could sit in the comfort of my own home, with a cup of coffee, seated in a comfortable chair, incurring  no additional expense and discuss our research with 40 people! I know which I prefer and I want to thank everyone who attended. There were lots of names that I recognised in the participant list.

I do rather wish I had been a participant in the Elluminate session though. I have never been able to follow the chat and the whiteboard (contrary to popular belief not all women are good at multi-tasking!), so having to focus on speaking and answering George’s questions, meant that I didn’t follow the chat, so I sincerely hope that it didn’t appear that I was ignoring people. Fortunately, Roy and John agreed beforehand that they would keep an eye on the chat. It was unfortunate that Roy’s audio was not working as he would have offered an alternative perspective, as did John through the questions he asked. Just because we worked together for all those months doesn’t mean that we agreed on everything 🙂

Despite the limitations imposed on what I could follow by having to take the microphone, I know there was a lot of chat in the chat room. No-one wanted to take the microphone, apart from John and George, but that didn’t mean that people were ‘silent’. How different from the Networked Learning Conference, where we sat in silence and listened to presentations – although I suppose the equivalent there was that a few people were on Twitter. I don’t know a lot about Twitter, but I doubt it’s the same experience as being involved in a fast moving energetic chat room.

In Elluminate I was aware that whilst I was presenting/speaking, many people, perhaps even the majority were holding conversations of their own, possibly on unrelated subjects. I should imagine that I was only listened to by some of the people for some of the time, but this somehow felt much more satisfactory than my experience at the Networked Learning Conference. In the Elluminate session, people were engaged, active, energetic – there was a palpable ‘buzz’ in the room – or perhaps it was just the buzz of my nervous system jangling 🙂

This experience of presenting in Elluminate has caused me to reflect again on the role of the ‘teacher’ and the extent to which a teacher should intervene or take control in a classroom situation. This appears to be an unresolved dilemma in open courses, particularly massive, open, online courses. As someone said in our research, in these courses, where teachers/instructors necessarily have to take a ‘hands off’ approach because it is simply impossible to interact with each participant in a large open network, there is a tendency for the ‘kids to take control of the classroom’. I think the ‘kids were in control of the classroom’  in the Elluminate session – not complete control because ultimately any one of the moderators could have pulled the plug, but certainly in control of the conversation. This seems to be the accepted norm in online conferencing, so why does it seem more difficult to accept in different educational settings?

Some questions that arise for me in considering the teacher’s changing role are:

  • Does the teacher need to control or direct the conversation/learning? – always, sometimes, never?
  • Is the teacher necessarily the expert in a given learning situation? Who is the expert? How is expertise defined?It’s interesting that the discussion that attracted most interest in the Critical Literacies course was the one on “the evolving definition of ‘expert’ ”.
  • Does the teacher need to intervene in the learning process? When? Why? How much?
  • Is the teacher accountable  for the learner s learning? Always? Sometimes? Never?
  • Does the teacher need to build a relationship with a learner? What might be the ethical consequences of this relationship?

Judging from some of the discussion in the Elluminate session, these questions remain unresolved for teachers moving into massive, open, online learning environments.

Some notes on connectivism

In preparation for the Networked Learning Conference 2010 presentation, I considered the question, ‘Is connectivism a theory’? This was discussed in depth in CCK08 and I seem to remember the discussion becoming increasingly convoluted with no decisions being made. The jury is still out on this question.

For me, the following notes, pulled together from George and Stephen’s blogs and writings – elearnspace , connectivism , halfanhour,  and OLDaily list the points that I need to know and want to remember. There is  a lot more to it than this  and I see these notes as a simple aide-memoire for some of the key ideas.

Notes

 

Connectivism is essentially the assertion that knowledge is networked and distributed and the act of learning is the creation and navigation of networks.

 

George claims it is a theory on the basis of 5 criteria for deciding whether something is a theory – http://docs.google.com/View?docid=anw8wkk6fjc_14gpbqc2dt

  1. How does learning occur?
  2. What factors influence learning?
  3. What is the role of memory?
  4. How does transfer occur?
  5. What types of learning are best explained by this theory?

George has compared connectivism to Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. Connectivism builds on these theories. He and Stephen write about connectivism as follows:

Connectivism recognises that:

  • Learning is distributed across a network
  • Leaning is a network phenomenon, influenced and aided by socialisation and technology
  • Learning is socially and technologically enhanced
  • Learning involves recognising and interpreting patterns
  • Learning is influenced by diversity, strength of ties and context of occurrence
  • Knowledge growth exceeds our ability to cope; quantity and complexity of information available is overwhelming
  • Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today
  • Learning is the act of recognising patterns shaped by complex networks (internally as neural networks and externally as social networks
  • Essentially our need to derive and express meaning, gain and share knowledge, requires externalisation

Stephen has written about connectivism as follows:

  • ‘Knowledge is distributed across a network of connections’
  • ”To learn is acquire certain patterns’
  • ‘Learning is the ability to construct and traverse connections’

Connectivism also:

  • accounts for continual expansion and creation of knowledge which existing theories do not
  • emphasises the primacy of connection;  all learning starts with a connection;  we need to understand how and why connections are formed

Critiques of connectivism have been that it is

  • unsubstantiated philosophising
  • unnecessary

Matthias has an interesting perspective on this. If I have interpreted him correctly he believes that – it is not useful to think of connectivism in terms of theory – it is too complex and better thought of in terms of relationships – not what it is, but how it is related to/connected to. Traditional criteria for defining a theory are too narrow. See his blog post made during CCK08 – My take on Connectivism – and other posts in his blog

Follow-up on Networked Learning Conference Presentation

Following the presentation of our paper to the Networked Learning Conference 2010, George Siemens has invited us to discuss this further in an Elluminate session, this Friday – July 2nd 11:00 in Toronto – 16:00 in the UK.

These are the details of the paper and a bit of background:

Title: The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a Massive Open Online Course

The three authors, Jenny Mackness, Sui Fai John Mak and Roy Williams attended and met on the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge open online course in 2008, which came to be known as CCK08. The result of our meeting and learning, was a collaborative research project in which we explored learners’ experiences on the course and the implications of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness (the principles of connectivism) for learning and course design. We look forward to sharing this research and discussing emerging issues.

The link for the session is: Link: https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/launch/meeting.jnlp?sid=2008104&password=M.0A68F27C6846C5A75D6F94199C2118

And  here is the link to the prezi we presented at the networked learning conference.

Finally, here is a Handout –  Ideals and Reality Handout 240410 to go with our presentation – it gives a bit more information to takes away.

The Critical Literacies Divide

Living in the Kashmir Himalayas

It’s not good to take 10 days out of the middle of a course – especially if you travel to the other side of the world and enter what feels like ‘a different universe’. Or maybe it is good –  as a reality check – for keeping grounded.

This photo – which I took last week on a trekking holiday in the Kashmir Himalayas – shows a family in front of their home.  As I passed, the woman was washing her clothes in a mountain stream. She stopped and gathered her children around her for the photo. I doubt she even knows that the internet exists. There was no internet or mobile phone connection once I arrived in the Himalayas and these families were shepherds living in the accommodation shown in the photo. Their living conditions were harsh by our standards. There was no school for their children although an NGO was working in the area to try and provide a school/education for these children/families. But they were skilled at living in these harsh conditions, at tending their goats and sheep, at ‘reading’ the environment – definitely more skilled than me. They could control their animals, goats, sheep, horses with a whistle, cross a raging torrent of a river by running across a fallen tree, light a fire in pouring rain, produce an amazing cake without an oven, climb mountain slopes as if they were a stroll in the park. They did not ask for money. They did not want to ‘talk’. The only thing they asked us for was medicine. Without basic medical services, the potential of sickness (so possible in these harsh conditions) meant that they would not be able to tend their sheep and goats, or climb the mountains, or raise the minimum income they needed to survive. Critical literacies – if at all on the horizon of these people – would be reading and writing and they would be lucky to access even this.

Charalambos Vrasidas raised this issue in a Hotseat discussion prior to the Networked Learning conference 2010.

Would a critical literacy of our networked world be to remember this digital divide and to try and bridge it?