Is Connectivism a Learning Theory? 6A3

Is Connectivism a Learning Theory?  After reading compelling argument (good job, everyone!) both for and against Connectivism, I think I would have a tough time deciding which viewpoint would be the winner in a debate.  Each perspective has some excellent points.  If I were judging a debate, it might be important to declare a winner.  But I’m not.  And to me, anyway, it isn’t the important question to answer.

Is Connectivism relevant to our teaching practice?  Yes!

Kevin Costley, in “Why Do We Have Theories?” states that there is no completely right theory, that they help us gain meaning to what we see and do and are founded in the cultural values and belief systems of the times in which they were developed. Often, theories may take an extreme stance which helps to differentiate them from other theories. That helps to open discussion and drive research on important issues.  The cultural values of our times certainly are dominated by the networking made possible by the Internet.  I believe that to be the case whether or not any specific classroom, teacher or individual has an online presence or access.

A number of years ago, back in the mid 90’s, I had an opportunity to attend a professional development workshop with Christopher Gates when he was with the National Civic League.  He said that representative democracy was undergoing some major shifts.  In its original conception, citizens elected someone to represent their interests, in essence, giving them a proxy to make the best decisions on the citizens’ behalf.  That worked because the representatives: A) were trusted to understand their constituents and B) had access to more information either due to their education or position.  Gates argued that as our population has grown and become more diversified, we no longer trust that our representatives really know us or our positions anymore and the trust is significantly less.  With better education for all and with so much information so readily available, that is no longer an advantage that elected representatives have over the rest of the citizens.  This diversity and access to information results in many different groups, making achieving a majority a very difficult task.  Therefore, says Gates, there will continue to be more conflict, more contentious elections and more emphasis on stopping something from happening than in moving an agenda forward.  A visionary man, that one.

As I reflect, I can see some similarities in the field of education.  Teachers and especially college professors, used to be the authorities in their classrooms.  Now, as students are more diverse, a process accelerated by the ability to access online education from virtually anywhere in the world, it is easier for them to question whether or not the teacher really understands the world in which the student lives and the relevance of the knowledge.  We all know there are trust issues.  Teachers also used to have more access to knowledge than most people.  While they certainly maintain expertise in a particular field, access to information (and misinformation) has increased drastically.

David Pearce Snyder, a world renown futurist, is another person with whom I have had the honor to work.  In that workshop, we focused on technology and it’s impacts.  Some of that is reflected in his paper “Strategic Context of Education,” especially starting on page 15.  He has studied new technologies over the centuries and says there is a pattern that develops.  First, the technology has to become mature, that is, get beyond the prototypes and beta versions to where it really becomes something new.  The next stage (which overlaps somewhat) is using the new technology to do old tasks faster, more efficient, better.  Where it really has impact, though, is the next stage where it can be used to do fundamentally different things, completely changing our abilities and expectations.  Each of these stages has a learning curve in which it takes awhile to figure out the most effective ways to refine and apply the technology.  Productivity either decreases or stagnates until it gets to the final stage, where it takes a sudden jump.

So what do either of these have to do with Connectivism?

I think that technology has changed our abilities and expectations to do education fundamentally.  Lifelong education isn’t the hobby of the privileged class, it is necessary for everyone.  And it is no longer linear or sequential all the time.  Many of the long existing theories of education are no longer sufficient to account for these changes.  If, as Costley says, a theory helps us make meaning, opens discussion and drives research, I think we can make a case that Connectivism is a learning theory – one that still requires a great deal of research and evaluation, but a theory nevertheless.  In the meantime, I think it provides some excellent food for thought in what good teaching needs to look like in such a system.  If, indeed, there is much misinformation in some of the nodes, how does teaching help students evaluatate that?  Connectivism puts the emphasis on the pipeline of connecting to the nodes – what are the criteria for helping students develop skills to make strong, accurate connections?  To me, these are good questions that Connectivism helps us consider.

Regarding the following arguments:

1.  Not everyone has access to computers or the internet.  This is certainly true, but even for those who don’t, their world has been forever changed by the technology.  Secondly, mobile technology is advancing so rapidly, even in third world countries, mobile phones are becoming ubiquitous, to the point that SMS (texting) can be used to access bank accounts or minutes are being used as currency in come areas (Mobile Money Transfer).  There are many educational efforts looking at mobile phones as a major access point.

2.  “In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms.”  For one thing, this quote assumes that education takes place in a classroom, which is not how Connectivism views education.  David Pearce Snyder would say that part of the reason this might look like it is the case is that education itself is still in a learning curve regarding how to effectively use education to fundamentally do things differently.  Simply having the technology doesn’t do anything.  Using it to do old tasks more efficiently can help in some cases (attendance taking?) but not necessarily make education more effective.  Powerpoint?  basically an automated way to do lectures, which we already know is not the most effective teaching method.  Substituting online videos for teachers?  If that’s all it is happening, it is still not making the most effective use of technology.  How about using an archived video of a Skype interview with a world renown mathematician demonstrating a proof?  Being “penpals” via Twitter, Skype, Facebook, whatever with a class of student who lived through a major event?  Working with a scientist and an international aid agency to help provide safe water to a rural African community?

We will not be going back to a world with less access to information.  Whether you consider Connectivism to be a theory, model or pedagogy and even if you don’t agree with all pieces of it, I think it provides a useful framework from which to explore new avenues in teaching and learning.






Can Skype Change the World? 6C2

So far, I haven’t been able to connect with any of the other three in this class.  Summer is a busy time and the likelihood of being at our computers at the same time across multiple time zones seems to be tough.  However, I have used it before with my colleagues on several occasions.

One of the most fun involved our statewide network of service learning folks.  The day our meeting was scheduled was one of the days I needed to travel home from a training north of the Arctic Circle in Canada.  This was the first meeting with a brandnew state leader, so I didn’t want to miss it.  I was able to free my whole morning, so I asked if it would be possible to join the first part of the meeting via Skype.  They not only connected me through Skype, but also set up a projector so everyone could see and hear clearly.  My training involved service learning as part of the program up there, so I took about half an hour of our meeting to explain some of what the students were doing in service learning and some of the unique situations they faced in such a climate.  I was able to take my computer to the hotel window (which was downtown with a good view of some of the major aspects to show) and not only explain, but show them some of the key characteristics of the Arctic community.  The hotel had both wifi and some historical/cultural exhibits, so I was able to walk down the hall with my netbook camera and show those as well.  I was able to attend my meeting and my colleagues learned about how another culture implements service learning, illustrated in real time!

The training that I did in Canada was for a drug/alcohol prevention program called the Leadership and Resiliency Program, targeting at-risk kids.  It isn’t a curriculum, per se, but a framework that can be adapted to best fit both the resources within any given community and the needs and interests of the students there.  Not having any set curriculum is a real asset in that it makes the program flexible enough to be relevant in many different circumstances and isn’t prescriptive.  It also is one of the most difficult characteristics because it places so much responsibility on the local people who conduct the program to assure fidelity.  There are so many times that it would be beneficial to have a more indepth opportunity to do continuing education and assurances with the various communities, but travel costs are such an expensive burden.  Skype could be a great tool to offer assistance from a distance.  It could also be useful in some peer to peer examples, either with the facilitators of the Leadership and Resiliency Program or with the students enrolled in it.

As a trainer, part of my responsibility is to assure that the participants really understand the framework well enough to be able to implement it effectively and with fidelity.  The training incorporates a great deal of small group work which in many ways are also performance assessments for met to determine whether or not they are on track to be able to do that.  Skype is a tool to be able to see those performance assessments without being in the same room.

There are a number of the reasons that service learning is a key part of the Leadership and Resiliency Program.  It helps students discover talents and passions in a very real and appreciated way.  It helps them see how others cope with adversity – both good and bad examples of that.  It helps them learn to set goals to solve problems, including what additional knowledge or skills they need, how to find the resources to make their project happen, why achieving that goal matters to someone else.  Often, we get locked into the view that the way things are for us are the way things are all over or alternatively, that the grass is greener on the other side.  With Skype, students can begin to build relationships with other students and get a view into a world that is different than their own.  That can open their eyes to broader horizons and new opportunities.  It can also help them to gain a new appreciation and be grateful for some of their own circumstances.  Most importantly, I think, they learn that they matter – they can offer ideas and resources that can contribute to making the world a better place.

Service learning has a growing body of research showing why schools should use this powerful instruction strategy.  Students are more likely to succeed academically, are more engaged in their own education, better understand the relevance of their education and become more involved citizens.  One barrier to service learning is happening in many schools in response to current economics – less field trips and off campus activities.  There are some excellent examples of how Skype has been used to expand the community in which service learning can occur:

Tutoring Afghan students in English

Leveraging Technology to Raise Awareness for World Hunger

Adopt-a-Class to help Gambian girls

I would love to hear your examples or ideas on how to use Skype to help with Service Learining.

Civics in 60 Seconds? 5B3

What role does civil discourse play in our world today?  Our society is so complex these days that it is much more difficult for our leaders to come together and agree on any solution to a problem than it used to be.

Really?  Is it more difficult than taking 13 independent colonies and joining them into one unified country?  With people who have come from many different parts of the world?  And no given rules to follow?

Disagreement has been part of our democracy from the very beginning.  Our founders understood there is strength in diversity and that it’s a GOOD thing to have different perspectives and a certain amount of conflict.  They planned our system of government so it wouldn’t be easy to make changes, so there would have to be debate and compromise.  They understood the difficulty in that so they made rules for themselves to follow as they drafted what was to become our Constitution.  They figured out how to have civil discourse.  Here is a series of three 60 Second Civics Podcasts about Key Challenges facing the United States that help explain how they did it.

60-Second Civics: Episode 923, Part 8: Civil discourse

60-Second Civics: Episode 924, Part 19: A model for civil discourse

60-Second Civics: Episode 925, Part 10: Civil discourse in 1787

There are over 1100 60 Second Civics Podcasts on a wide variety of topics.  The newest include a series on the Framers of the Constitution.  Each podcast has a daily civics quiz question.  They are developed by the Center for Civic Education.

The Center for Civic Education near Los Angeles is one of three partners in the Representative Democracy in America Project.  Other partners include the Center on Congress at Indiana University and the Trust for Representative Democracy at National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.  Each of the partners has developed a range of teaching resources for students in grades 2-12.  The resources range from 30 or 60 second clips to full blown online Virtual Congress.

I serve as Iowa’s coordinator for this project.  Once upon a time we had funding to conduct face to face professional development.  The resources are still all available for free online, so I am writing an online training to help teachers access all these amazing materials and share ideas on how to use them.  The 60 Second Civics podcast series is one resource I definitely want to include in the training because they are so versatile – short, cover tons of different topics and a prewritten quiz question goes with each one.  Teachers can use them as discussion starters, attention getters or in lots of different ways.

I selected this particular set out of the whole list because in the current atmosphere of accusations and partisan politics, I think all of us need to remember that there are ways we can talk about important issues even if we disagree. Our founders knew they would need some rules to follow to keep their conversations and negotiations productive.  Wouldn’t hurt for us to revisit those rules.  Wouldn’t it be great to have our students help remind our current elected officials how to truly engage in civil discourse for the good of the nation?

Today’s Treasure Trove -5A1

I’ve used Flickr before to share photos with friends or with a colleague who needed them for an annual report or slide show. Recently, I had a chance to explore some of their Creative Commons images to use for another project. Today, instead of scurrying through a specific assignment, I took some time to explore some of the offerings in The Commons on Flickr – Wow! I could spend hours looking at the various collections and can think of a ton of ways to use some of them, both professionally and personally.

1. Having just visited Australia and New Zealand in February, I was pleased to see several Australian collections, including those from several places we visited. It will be nice to have a source to “fill in” some of our own photos from there.
2. Some of the roots of my family tree are in the Scottish Highlands. I fell in love with them when I had a chance to visit several years ago. I WILL be going back – perhaps the Scottish photo collections will help me plan my itinerary or even show me some of my homelands.
3. Several years ago, I made a capstone presentation set to music called “I am an Immigrant” for a conference on immigration and new Iowans. It looks at some of the historic issues of immigration as well. I have had many requests to show it again, which was a big surprise. Unfortunately, I used photos from the conference which a) makes it less appealing for a larger audience and b) is difficult to get releases from conference attendees to use their photos in a different way than was originally intended. There are creative commons photos I can substitute and make the program more relevant again.
4. The US National Archives alone could keep me busy for weeks. There is so much we can learn from history, if we just would pay attention! The “Today’s Document” would be a great resource to share with teachers who are trying to help their students understand how to use primary sources..Did you know there’s an app for that (in both iPhone and Android)?  And photos of each document are available to use from Flickr.  I serve as state coordinator for the Representative Democracy in America program and could see that being very useful for some of our teachers.  There are a number of historical photos that would be great to contrast to similar issues we still struggle with today.  For example, there are a number of photos of Japanese Americans in or waiting to be taken to interment camps during the 1940s.  Seeing actual photos of real people helps a paragraph in a history book come alive.  How does that contrast with the way we treat immigrants today?  Especially in light of Arizona’s immigration laws?  It would be a wonderful assignment to have students compare and contrast the eras and the issues.

5.  I do quite a bit of training around child/adolescent development and brain research.  These are areas with huge changes in the last decade, not to mention the last couple of centuries.  I found a number of photos in the US National Archives collection called “History Through the Camera Lens” that include children, some very young, working in difficult labor situations.  One of the first photos I plan to use is the one below, a group of little boys (Newsies) posed on the steps of the US Capital selling their newspapers.  I would use it contrasted with a group of students posed on the Capital steps as part of a local citizenship tour.  The newsies’ photo was taken in 1912, exactly a hundred years ago.  I think this would be a wonderful discussion starter looking at how our attitude toward children in the workplace and our expectations of them in general have changed in the past hundred years.  Having the participants come up with their own contrasting photos illustrating current situations compared to its historical counterpart would be a fascinating assignment.  Students could use Flickr photos or perhaps talk with some of their elderly relatives to get their oral histories or personal photos.  It would be a much more meaningful process than just constructing a T-chart.

Whether I am traveling, researching my own roots, learning about culture (songs, dances, crafts, traditions) or history, I’m most interested in the everyday people, not just the celebrities, kings or generals.  Historic photographs give us a view into that world that nothing else can in quite the same what.  They help us understand the reality of the day.

If you could look at someone’s historic picture book, what would you be interested to see?

Group of newsies selling on capitol steps. Tony, 8 years old, Dan, 9 years old, Joseph, 10 years old, John, 11 years old. Washington, D.C., 04/11/1912

Image from National Archives “History Through the Camera Lens” series of National Child Labor Committee Photographs taken by Lewis Hine, compiled ca 1912 documenting the period 1908-1912.  Taken from

Fordy one – 4D1

This week I’ve done my first real work on a group wiki.  While I have learned quite a bit, there have been some frustrations as well, most specifically T.I.M.E.

Is there a particular example of a classroom wiki which inspired you?

One that I found was called Bungaree History and is an example of an Australian elementary class and the community working together to develop an online history of their township.  It includes memoirs of local citizens from their childhood days, illustrated by the students.  Helping link schools and communities has been a major effort in my career, whether through current events, service learning, shared facilities, future planning, entrepreneurship or history.  This site has some great and very practical examples of how the school and local community are working collaboratively on a project that benefits both.
What was most challenging about creating a wiki together as a group in Activity 4-C-1?

There were a number of challenges this week.  One was knowing where to start, partly because I had never done a wiki before and partly because (it seemed to me) the instructions and expectations for the assignment were scattered throughout the forums, assignment checklist and module descriptions.  No single source had all the information we needed.  The second challenge was time.  On one hand, being able to each work on our own part of the wiki when it worked for us was a very good thing, given everyone’s schedule this week.  On the other hand, the time I had to devote to class the first part of the week was taken up trying to complete the first assignments and figure out the wiki group assignment.  The small group wiki assignment has taken SO much time!  The topic was so broad and vague.  Trying to figure out what to include, how to best refer to sources, how to make it look appealing, how to organize the info was all very overwhelming.  Im sure that part of it is my inexperience.  It isn’t a research paper, it isn’t an opinion blog.  I know what it isn’t, but I didn’t really know what it was supposed to be.
What did you learn from the group wiki project?

One of the most important lessons I learned is that if I’m going to have a group work on a wiki, they need to have a very clear idea of what is expected of them and have it broken down into more detailed steps.  If the key categories are not predetermined, then I will require a planning discussion before the wiki actually begins.  Covey says to “begin with the end in mind”.  I didn’t have a clue what “the end” was really expected to be.  Still don’t.  Perhaps that was part of the point.  I’m a firm believer that too many rules put artificial limits on a student’s creativity.  However, sometimes it is actually easier to be creative when I can be more focused instead of spending so much effort trying to narrow my field of vision to something manageable.

I’ve also been exposed to some great new resources.  Each of us has a little different lens that we used to look at the topic.  Sometimes that took a bit more time to figure out, but nearly always results in new resources, new insights, new appreciation for someone else’s experiences and expertise.
Has your opinion of Wikipedia changed at all this week?

A young friend of mine in the Czech Republic uses Wikipedia much like I use Google – anytime he wants to find out about something Wikipedia is the first place he turns.  That was really my first exposure to it, back in 2008.  I still don’t use it like he does, but find the links to other sources of info very helpful.  Sometimes, depending on the specific question, it is more efficient to go to Wikipedia rather than sift through lots of less relevant links in a Google search.  I am learning to use it more effectively.
Are you encountering resistance to using wikis in your class, either from others or from yourself? If so, how do you plan to respond?

Delicious Service Learning

One of my favorite professional groups of people is a statewide network of folks interested in service learning.  In the past few years, the group has undergone some major leadership changes, growth pains and reorganization.  It includes K-12 teachers and administrators, area and state education staff, college and university representatives, non-profit and community organization leadership.  This is not a group whose members just run into each other at the water cooler or staff meetings.  After our last quarterly meeting, there was a whole flurry of emails to the effect of “Here is the resource I mentioned at our last meeting.”  While the resources are great, they are hiding in lots of places in everyone’s email in-boxes.  Enter the wonders of social bookmarking!  My plan is to use to tag the resources that were emailed and invite other group members to join and use the same tag.  I will also ask them to use the notes box to include ideas or examples of how they might use that particular resource.  It should be a great way to keep a consistent list of resources and share updates between meetings.  Best of all, it will be up to the individual when and how often or intensively they want to use the social bookmarking.

What is the most effective use you have found for social bookmarking sites?