Is this course chaotic or complex?

George has a great way of making what could be very confusing, easier to understand. He also manages to do this with concise papers. His Complexity, Chaos and Emergence paper is an example of this.

There is also an interesting post on  Patrick McAndrew’s Padded Thoughts blog about chaos in relation to learning.

George has posted two questions in the Moodle Forum this week

  1. In what way is learning chaotic?
  2. In what way is learning complex?

He defines chaotic learning as learning that happens within a bounded and predictable frame. So if we think about teaching physics, for example – we know what is the curriculum and we know that the expected outcome is that people will, by the end of the course, have learned the content of the curriculum. But we cannot predict how people will learn this curriculum. So we know the big picture of the curriculum, but the learning processes that go on within the curriculum are unpredictable and chaotic.

In complex learning there is no agreement about what the big picture is. There might be several views of it, but no consensus. So in the case of the physics course, there is no agreed curriculum and no agreed outcomes. There can be many surprises and examples of emergent learning. However, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be an ordered investigation into the area of knowledge being studied.

Is this course chaotic or complex? I would say it is more complex than chaotic. We are not sure where we are going to end up, but we have a semi-organised way of discussing the content.

Taking stock

My understanding is that by ‘connectivism’ we mean that knowledge is distributed across a network and that learning is the ability to access that knowledge through navigating the connections in the network. I think that’s the essence of it.

This assumes that we know what knowledge means, which is in doubt judging by the forum discussions. I can see that there is information in the network. It only becomes knowledge for me when I can make sense of it. That whole discussion in the Moodle forums around externalisation left me floundering.

Is connectivism a new learning theory? To answer this we need to agree what we mean by learning theory. From the 78 posts in the Moodle forum it appears that this is also a difficult task and there is little agreement. Personally I like the explanation provided by Stephen Hawking and quoted on Wikipedia but this relates to science so I’m not sure how helpful it is in relation to connectivism? I think connectivism provides a framework in which to think about learning, but whether this makes it a theory or not I wouldn’t like to say.

In addition I couldn’t possibly say whether connectivism is  a ‘new’  learning theory without knowing a lot more about existing learning theories and it seems to me that that could be a life-time’s work. I think you could say it’s a new perspective on learning – but does that make it a theory? So – all in all –  yes – the concept of theory may be distracting (to answer the assignment question , which incidentally I am not doing).

What are the strengths? Does connectivism resonate with your learning experiences? If so, how?


As a practical way of working/ learning, connectivism clearly makes sense in many ways. Technology is developing fast and the world is becoming a ‘smaller’ place. It’s quick and easy to connect with people from all over the world – although we shouldn’t assume that this is the case everywhere, see Frances Bell’s post (See- Re: What happened to you in the history of the social web? – Saturday, 4 October 2008, 08:54 AM) in the Moodle forum and Maru’s post on her blog. For those who do have access to the web, there is a whole world of information to tap into. The skill needed is in knowing how to do this, how to select the information we need and how to assimilate the information. I know that I can ‘google’ any information I need. I know I can also access networks for any information I need. However, accessing information doesn’t equal learning.


What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?


I can’t comment on weaknesses, but I can comment on where connectivism doesn’t resonate with my learning experience – and that is in personal contact. On this course I have made an attempt to ‘connect’. I skim read the Moodle forums – but I  ‘feel’ little connection there, either with the ideas being discussed or with the people. I read a number of blogs, and whilst many posts resonate with my own experience, I have only made very loose connections with people who have either commented on my blog or where I have commented. Connecting through blogs is a slow and laborious business. Blogs were not designed for this. Where I feel more connected is in the synchronous Elluminate and Ustream sessions. There I get some sense of who is on this course and I think that I learn most through these sessions. I can connect more easily with the ideas. But this is the most traditional aspect of the course in terms of teaching and learning, i.e. ‘the lecture’ for ‘the group’. So what does that say about learning in networks, or to qualify – ‘my’ learning in networks?


So is connectivism any more than a by-product of advancing technologies? To me it is obvious that there is just too much information accessible by too many to continue with an education system which relies on ‘the teacher’ to be the source of knowledge. The role of the teacher will have to change and is already changing in many cases – but to what? And if there continues to be a role for teachers, then since teacher and learner are linked, the role of the learner will also change. The inverse will also be the case in that changing learners will necessitate changing teaching. So my outstanding questions are around this relationship.

So, what have been the key learning points for me so far:

1. It is possible to have an open access course for 2000+ participants, provided you have one or more people to manage the technology

2. That Blogs are not good for conversation (I only didn’t know this because I have never tried it before – it never occurred to me that anyone would want to do this. In the past, I have always used blogs for personal reflection.)

3. That forums are subject to ‘trolls’ (I realise that I have been very fortunate in my prior online learning not to have experience of this)

4. That networks don’t support the affective elements of learning (this is obvious, but I have not been involved in any networks before)

5. That for me, the affective elements of learning are very important

6. When the Moodle server is down you can’t find the links for your post!

7. That it’s possible to spend a lot of time not getting very far despite having made efforts to connect! 🙂


Emotion and networked learning

There is a lot of research (from John Dewey onwards and probably even before) about the relationship between emotion and learning. The centrality of emotion to the process of learning is recognised. So it’s not surprising that so much emotion is evident in this course. What is surprising for me is the intensity of the emotion, far higher than I have ever experienced online before, and the amount of negative emotion – again much more than I have experienced before. I think there could be an interesting research study on the role of emotion in relation to learning in this course/network and why such intense emotions have been elicited.

Like some others I have been reading and watching activity in the forums. Keith Lyons has a great post on his blog – swimming with dolphins, sharks and dead people is such a good metaphor for what’s going on. The trouble is that when you’re all in the water together, its the sharks that you keep your eye on, because despite Stephen’s reassurance that blogs provide calmer, safer waters for swimming in, the sharks do make occasional forays into the blogs, where they can do a ‘hit and run’ more easily than in the forums.

To be honest, I haven’t been aware of many dolphins. It all feels very intense, both in the forums and in the blogs. Where are the laughs? I did mention in a previous post that I thought a ‘Help’ forum might be useful for the ‘technologically challenged’. Maybe we also need a ‘Cafe’ – a purely social space or something equivalent. But I suspect that a ‘Cafe’ or even a ‘Help’ forum is more of a course component than a network component.

This thinking about emotion and learning was prompted by Ailsa’s post. One of her sentences brought me up sharp – ‘Staying silent with bullies, condones the activity.’  From my teaching days I know how hard it is to deal with bullies – a veritable minefield. For a start it’s difficult to define ‘bullying’ – but given that I have been thinking a lot about issues such as Netiquette in relation to this course, Ailsa’s post made me think again about the responsibilities we have to each other in a learning network. Do we have any? Can this be overlooked in a network? It is certainly not normally overlooked in a course or in a community, where the role of emotion in learning and the relationship between learning and emotion and how they shape each other is acknowledged and resulting issues addressed.

My feeling is that it’s in these sorts of issues that connectivism differs from other theories of learning, but I need to do much more reading and thinking before I can articulate this clearly.

The purpose of the forest

I’m still trying to get my head around what it is about connectivism as a learning theory that is different. Can’t put my finger on it, but something seems to be missing. I think its something to do with the status of people as individuals in the learning process and to do with learning as a social process that happens between people as individuals – and probably also something to do with identity (identity of the individual and of the network).

Stephen really likes the forest metaphor. He likes to see the network as a whole and doesn’t think that any individual tree within the forest has individual significance. Learning is a property of networks rather than something you get from networks. Stephen is interested in how networks as a whole learn.

George on the other hand sees learning as coming through a network and sees the individual trees. He sees the connections between individuals as being more significant than the whole.

I may have completely misunderstood this (despite listening to the Ustream session twice ;-)) – in which case apologies to GS and SD.  But whether or not we view learning from the perspective of the forest as a whole or from the perspective of individual trees within the forest seems to me immaterial if we haven’t identified a purpose for the learning. So asking the question what is the purpose of the forest – we could get the answers – to provide oxgen, or a wood supply, or a picnic area, or to prevent soil erosion etc? Determing the purpose will determine the learning itself, whether it be at neuronal, conceptual or social levels – and whether it be for the forest as a whole or for individual trees.

There has to be some ‘meaning’ in all this.  I don’t think I’ll get my head round this until I have more idea about how a learning theory of connectivism might be applied in practice. At the moment it’s all too abstract.

This is a thinking aloud post!

Can’t see the wood for the trees!

Well, we’re moving on to Week 2 and I haven’t even got ‘What is connectivism?’ sorted yet. I was beginning to despair but have just come across this – posted in one of the forums and probably elsewhere – An interview with George Siemens on Connectivism

So here are my notes and some questions:

The learning process is being changed by what we’re able to do with technology. We can create and share more. We can do this with people at a distance who we don’t meet. The starting point for learning is the connection – which opens the door – so the act of learning depends on the ability to navigate these networks. Our knowledge is networked. Technology opens the door further. Not much to argue with here.

Connectivism didn’t start from nothing, but is a natural progression from existing theories. Nor here.

In connectivism the emphasis is on the connection, either at conceptual level, neural level or social level.

Would it be fair to say that there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the social level?

So how do we use this theory in education?

1. We need to encourage openness – a capacity for communicating with others, a willingness to share and externalise ourselves. I don’t see this as being very different to the communities of practice ideas. What happens to introverts in connectivism?

2. We need to think of the act of learning as the formation of a connection and so encourage our students to see that

  • the world is highly complex and we don’t know the outcomes of learning
  • we need to be adaptive to stay current and informed
  • we need to give students links to networks and help them to navigate networks – this is probably harder than you would think
  • we need to help students become critical thinkers – an old chestnut and not easy
  • diversity of networks is needed and students need to learn what’s worth connecting to and what’s not – another tricky one
  • we should bring in experts from all round the world; use resources that have been created by others
  • the curriculum can’t be defined in advance; we don’t know what the students know and therefore we need a participatory pedagogy – negotiating the curriculum – the most interesting one for me and one that I have tried to implement in the past

The idea of a negotiated curriculum has around for a while, but the stumbling block in education is always assessment. Ultimately a lot of what is mentioned above is constrained by assessment.

Discussion via Ustream (120908)

This was more enjoyable and productive than the Elluminate meeting earlier in the week.  I attended both simply out of curiosity about how the technology works, particularly the Ustream session – since I haven’t attended one of these before.

I nearly abandoned the Elluminate meeting in the middle. I’m afraid I got bored. There was a lot of background ‘chatter’ and we never seemed to get to anything substantial to talk about. I haven’t yet worked out how to get hold of the microphone and am not even sure that I would want to.

The difficulty I have with Elluminate and Ustream and similar audio/video sessions is that I can’t cope with the chatting/drawing etc. that goes on at the same time as the speaker. In the Elluminate session the chat was simply that – chat – so it was fairly easy to ignore, but in the Ustream discussion there were parallel conversations going on. I know the youth of today are supposed to be able to do about 10 things at once, but I can’t. I need to be able to focus, concentrate, listen and channel my thinking, to learn. So I focussed on the speakers, but there was also interesting stuff going on in the chat and I felt I was probably missing something. I do take my own notes at the same time though, so I am doing 3 things at once – reading, writing and listening – I just can’t read, listen and write in two places at the same time!

Three key points for me in the Ustream session.

1. The skeptic thread. I was interested that this was raised at the beginning of the session and I think the view was suggested that vigorous debate could be offputting, i.e. might be preventing some people from engaging in discussion forums. This possibility is worthy of further discussion (although I didn’t think the Ustream session was the place for it) and I might come back to this in another post.

2. There was brief mention of the relationship between connectivism and communities of practice. Either SD or GS said that a community is really a certain type of network with a particular shape that restricts certain types of activities and enables others. (Presumably we’ll be talking about types of networks later on in the course). I’ll probably come back to the relationship with communities of practice. I think I have read somewhere that Etienne Wenger thinks there is a distinction between networks and communities, but I’ll have to find my reference and check it. I know that EW thinks that it doesn’t matter what you call a CoP and SD also said this. In his words – a CoP is a place where learners can see practice modelled and demonstrated. According to SD words don’t have fixed meanings.

3. I did ask a question in this session  – ‘Could they comment on how the theory of connectivism could be applied to children’s learning?’ My question got lost in the chat, but someone else must have asked something similar as GS started talking about K12 children. I didn’t find the answers here very satisfactory. It was suggested that some contexts such as young children’s classroom need more structured learning and SD suggested that the connectivism theory needs to explain how cats learn. I’m not sure how serious this was, but I would say ‘yes it probably does’, just as it probably needs to be able to be able to say something about how young children learn. Piaget, Dewey and Vygotsky all had something to say about children’s learning and Skinner and Pavolv worked with animals. If I’m going to make sense of connectivism as a learning theory, I need to be able to be clear in my own mind about how I would practically apply it in a classroom with any age of learner.

So some questions arising for me out of this session are:

  • Do learners who can multi-task have the edge when thinking about connectivism, or will this multi-tasking lead to learning being spread more thinly and possibly being more superficial?
  • Does online discussion lead to lack of rigorous debate, criticism and challenge?
  • What is the difference between a community of practice and a network?
  • How can the theory of connectivism be applied to children’s learning?

What’s the unique idea in connectivism

An interesting and helpful presentation by gsiemens.  Key points for me

  • constructivism doesn’t quite fit the bill any more in providing a theory for learning (I’ll have to think about this)
  • connectivism may more accurately describe learning in the 21st century
  • learning can now be thought of as forming new networks. In the past education has viewed knowledge as pieces of a puzzle which have a place. In connectivism, there’s no place, we don’t know what’s going on and we are learning in a complex chaotic environment. This fits with always having told my students that learning is messy
  • learning can be seen as being networked on 3 levels – biological/neurons, conceptual/related ideas, social/human dialogue

So, now knowing this, what would I change in the way in which I currently teach and learn. Don’t know yet.