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.

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.

Is lurking ever indefensible?

I have been thinking about this question since my last post. I notice that discussion on George’s blog has ceased and he has moved on, but the PLENK2010 NRC research team are continuing to pursue the question through two online surveys – one for active participants and one for self-confessed lurkers. The problem is that I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’ issue. More I see ‘active’ and ‘lurking’ as being on either end of a continuum, along which we will move in either direction, depending on the circumstances.

Another difficulty I have with the surveys is that the researchers have already defined what they mean by ‘lurker’ and ‘active participant’, whereas I feel that the discussions that have been taking place have shown that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these terms mean. For example they state that ….

In this context, active participation includes contributions to discussion forums in the course Moodle, blogs, twitter, social networking sites, and in the production of artifacts …

I myself did not contribute to the Moodle discussion forums, Twitter, social networking site or the production of artefacts in PLENK2010, but I did blog – so does that make me an active participant? Lurking is defined by the NRC researchers in this context as

‘passive attention, silent participation, and/or self-directed learning.’

To some extent I did all of these – so does that make me a lurker?

For me it might have been more interesting to learn whether people consider themselves to be ‘lurkers’ and the reasons for their self-judgement and whether or not they can justify their online behaviour, which brings me back to the title of this post – Is lurking ever indefensible?

After much thought since my last post, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question has to be ‘No’ – i.e. lurking can always be defended. Why do I think this? Because I believe that learning should be in the control of the learner, which includes a choice of whether to lurk or not – although as a teacher of young children and adults I would always want to point out to lurkers the possible consequences of their choices and actions.

However, as we have seen from George Siemens’ blog post, active participants can find lurkers very irritating, particularly if assessment is involved. In response to my last post ‘In defense of lurking’ , Eduardo asked how we should assess lurkers’ participation. The bigger question for me is – should we assess participation? This has always been difficult, particularly where collaborative assessed group work is concerned – but if we believe that learners should have control over their own learning, why should we force them to work in groups for an assessment when they might prefer to work alone? Why can’t we give them the choice? So my answer would be that we don’t have to assess participation. Assessment should focus on the outcome which meets the learning objective. How learners want to arrive at that outcome should be up to them. As Heli points out in her comment on my last blog post, there are many reasons why people choose to participate in the way in which do and they must be allowed to find their own way.

I think this whole issue of whether or not we should tolerate ‘lurking’ comes very much down to issues of control. This is so ingrained as a teaching behaviour that it is very difficult for teachers to let go of or even fully recognise. Ultimately, lurkers may threaten a teacher’s authority and control. Is this the real issue rather than the lurking per se?

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.

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.

Where do you put your attention?

In thinking about why I am attending this Critical Literacies course, at a time when I should probably be focussing elsewhere, I realised that one reason is that I would like to know more about how to manage learning in an online networked environment. Sometimes, it hits me hard that I am seriously short of the necessary skills!

I mentioned this to a friend who suggested that I access this link – http://blip.tv/play/AYGSj3IC

This is a longish presentation by Howard Rheingold, who has a lot to say about 21st century literacies but principally about where you put your attention. I would agree that this is a critical literacy.

Also relevant to this is a post that George Siemens has made on his blog today. ‘Does the internet make you dumber/smarter?’ because I think it’s not just a question of ‘where you put your attention’, but ‘how you put your attention’ and I suppose that is what a lot of this course is about.