connectivism and connective knowledge

Fri, Jun 12, 2009

I was reading about Connectivism a while ago as I’m interested in how people learn and I know fine well how I learn and I thought it would be fun to apply the theory to my own learning experiences. I also thought it would be interesting to look at both sides of the argument for connectivism, as I’m an associate lecturer and software engineer. I both design and build connected systems and also use them for educating my students.

I’m no eLearning expert, in fact I’m barely a Novice on the Dreyfus Model although I’d prolly put myself in the Expert category in a lot of software development categories, so it’ll be interesting to plod along and try to see it from “the other side of the fence”, although I’m in the position of being on both sides at once!

From what I can gather connectivism is basically plugging oneself into a network and having a rummage around. Rather than attending a traditional lecture and being spoon fed facts which one must regurgitate in order to gain a degree etc, one must push open the digital gates and enter the land of self education. You’re a blank sheet, upon which others will write, reaching you via connections that you build, based on social networking applications and networks. But how do you know what to learn? When you sit in class there’s a set curriculum and your time is planned throughout the academic year. In the Great Rummage, how do you know what to learn? Bill Gates said in The Road Ahead that the information superhighway would allow you to find any piece of information, even if you didn’t know what it was you were looking for. At the time I thought that was an absurd thing to say but now, standing at the gates of the Googleopolis, that is sometimes what happens. You follow links here, links there, you rummage and you find things out. But it’s a terribly inefficient way of “learning”. You end up being sidetracked on your quest for knowledge of Quantum Gravity by puerile YouTubes of teenagers nailing body parts to skateboards and such like. For we are all human. When the going gets tough, we go to YouTube and we end up staying there for days. Imagine this in the context of traditional classroom based learning:

“now class, before we move on to Maxwell’s Equations, here comes the head of dept, who will take off his clothes, stand on the desk and screech like a baboon … Wasn’t that sooo funny? How about we get the dean in too?”.

So there are major differences between the two approaches. One provides a set journey from novice to graduate. The other has no such journey. It’s down to the individual to build connected paths through the digital landscape. The former has quality assurance and progress checks natively built-in. The latter is a free for all. Whereas the classroom is part of a larger academic structure of curricula, verification, validation, feedback and managed progression towards a recognised qualification, the connected idea is just a load of connections between students and their favourite sites.

The bricks and mortar university is the ultimate implementation of single sign-on. You turn up at the door, show your student card (which doubles as a library card) and you get in. To all rooms. For the internet, you are burdened with hundreds of usernames/passwords for all the sites you need to aggregate in order to learn in a connected model. On top of that, you need to learn diverse and ever changing methods of using those usernames and passwords. Shibboleth, OpenID, InfoCards, ad infinitum. Just watching the CCK08 conferences is a pain. They use elluminate which is a fat client that uses Java, which is notoriously badly supported in browsers and once the 5 minute startup is complete the user interface is all over the place and it’s difficult follow the conversations. It’s like waiting patiently in a classroom for the lecturer to sit still and quiet for 5 minutes, staring into space, then talking in short bursts of a few seconds before lapsing into more silence before finally announcing to the class that he’s run out of memory and promptly falls on his face.

Connectivism relies on software. But who educates the people who build the software? If the world only started today, at the present technological level, the quality of social networking applications would be dire, increasing in quality as the, at first crude, communications begat more complex designs as people found each other in the void, collaborated and produced the next generation of applications, which in turn allowed less technical people to communicate and so forth. Thus from a handful of people scratching in the darkness of a digital void, the connected society is founded. We’re there already. We have networks crammed full of social applications and overflowing with information but is it of good enough quality in order to continue the bootstrapping of connected learning? That depends on how you learn.

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