Knowledge is everywhere. In a mobile phone, a fitness tracker and our brains. Not a science fiction film but the learning theory of connectivism.
Recently over a coffee a friend of mine proclaimed: “Did you know that 15% of Beatles hits had weather in their title?”.
“No”, I and another friend responded. Now, this was a challenge laid down to us Beatles fans. Right, so obviously we have ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘Good Day’s Sunshine’. Hmmmm, but that’s nowhere near 15%. Leave it with us and we’ll come back to you. The debate continued in a WhatsApp group.
To spoil the fun I Googled “Beatles songs weather” which sent me directly to a Telegraph story reporting the research findings of pop music referencing weather. The key point here is referencing the weather in any part of the song (not the title) and it’s actually 16% of Beatles songs. In the past the debate could have gone on longer or we would have got bored and accepted the incorrect statement as the truth.
We are connected to a network: friends, colleagues, TV, advert bill boards, newspapers, magazines, internet devices – huge amounts of knowledge. A key aspect of the theory of connectivism is that knowledge doesn’t just live in human minds but also in physical nodes of a network. It sounds a bit science fiction when we say that knowledge can reside outside of ourselves but this can be seen in many aspects of everyday life. How reliant are you on a quick internet search or a quick message to someone to ask a question? YouTube contains a huge amount of self help from DIY fixes to meditation. That connection is broadening with the internet of things which takes the connection away from devices with screens to everyday things such as doorbells and fridges – they are learning.
The idea of an algorithm replacing a knowledge worker or a robot building a car is becoming more and more real. Will a robot take your job? can tell you how long you have to make plans for that new career. Karl Marx called this phenomenon, the general intellect. He said that nature does not create the robots and computer software to remove jobs, it is human endeavour. When these machines have been created, knowledge can reside within them and be part of society. We are one of many nodes in the knowledge network.
What does this mean for educators?
In 2004, George Siemens described Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age. As we’ve seen, this is powerful stuff and a revolution in becoming connected to massive amounts of knowledge. Siemens puts his theory of connectivism alongside the traditional behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism.
Behaviourism says that all learning must be viewed externally, ignoring any cognition that happens when learning occurs. Cognitivism describes how information and knowledge pass through the senses and into working memory and (sometimes) into long term memory. Learning from a constructivist perspective says that knowledge is built by the individual with internal schema which link together and interact with existing knowledge as the individual attempts to make knowledge meaningful to them.
So then, it appears that connectivism can work alongside any of these learning theories. One thing it does appear to ignore or maybe is not concerned with is how deep the learning is for humans in the network. For example, the behaviourists will say that they can see that learning has occured, it is objective. The cognitivists can explore how learning goes into working memory and for whatever reason disappears or gets embedded into long term memory. This may be supported by networked knowledge in that it is freely available and does not have to go through the process of ‘cognition’. The constructivists can say that new knowledge has interacted with previous knowledge to make new knowledge or to create new understandings of the world. Does connectivism mean that we simply know where knowledge is and we have the ability to go the correct node in the knowledge network?
Here, Bloom’s Taxonomy may be able to help. From a purely connectivist perspective we use all of the nodes in our connected network of knowledge to ‘remember’. Behaviourists, cognitivists and constructionivists could all say that they are going much further ‘up’ the taxonomy to have a deeper, richer use of knowledge. Does this then mean that constructivism doesn’t sit as an equal of the other models but could underpin them all?
This is certainly hugely powerful for informal learning. There should however be caution when designing formal learning from just a connectivist approach. If you are looking at encouraging the application and understanding of knowledge it may be that more interaction and using of networked knowledge is required. Connectivism certainly cannot be ignored when our Twitter and Facebook feeds are throwing endless amounts of data at us and students are Googling terms used in lectures in real time.
It maybe useful to distinguish the types of learner that we are promoting a connectivist model towards. Learners who are experienced in a particular domain can pull knowledge from a variety of sources to interact with existing schema. Having some domain knowledge already allows them to create the interaction independently. We can distinguish learners who are novices in a new domain of knowledge. These learners do not have the base level of knowledge and schema connections to use the connected network. They may need a little help to begin with, often termed, scaffolding. The forming of a base knowledge along with some critical thinking should allow learners to take advantage and use large the large amounts of knowledge from all over the network.
Critical thinking and evaluation of the validity of the node is vital to learners in the network. Was it weather in Beatles song titles or in the song itself? I’ll get on the WhatsApp group and Google…