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.






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