Critical Literacies and Connectivism


Originally posted on Half an Hour, July 5, 2010.

Although it is still fashionable to deny that Connectivism is a 'theory', properly so-called, I prefer to frame my thinking about learning in terms of Connectivism because I have not encountered an alternative approach that draws out what seems to me to be essential with the same degree of precision and clarity.

As I have said before, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. To learn, therefore, is not to acquire a set of facts or propositions. It is, rather, to grow and develop. The outcome of learning is the learner, not some body of knowledge that has been learned.

I have in the past spoken quite a bit about the mechanisms that form associations, and therefore, create connections between nodes in a network. When I talk about Hebbian associationism, Back-Propagation, or Boltzmann mechanisms, I am talking about what happens inside a network that creates connections between one and another individual node.

This sort of learning is happening every minute of every day in every person alive today. Human brains are learning systems, they are collections of neurons that form connections, reform those connections, and form them again. This property of the brain is known as plasticity, and is what allows us to learn anything at all. And because we are all, to more or less a degree, plastic, we are all always learning.

The central question in education has always been, not how to get people to learn, but how to get people to learn certain things. Education, as opposed to learning, is distinctively outcome-based. We think of learning therefore in terms of the body of knowledge to be learned, whatever that may be, because this body of knowledge was included in the definition of the original problem education was trying to solve.

One way of characterizing different types of learning is in terms of this body of knowledge. I have written on and off about the concept of 'personal learning'. One way to think of personal learning is to understand it as an organization of learning such that the body of knowledge to be learned is defined by the learner, rather than by some external agency such as a parent, teacher, employer or institution.

This is very different from personalized learning. In this, the body of knowledge (and instructional design, and assessment mechanism) may be defined by an external agency. The learning becomes personalized because it has been shaped, localized or otherwise adapted to the person. But the genesis is still in some external agency, and even to some extent the customization of the learning material is attended to by the external agency. In personalized learning, the learner could, in principle, be passive, while in personal learning, it is not possible for the learner to remain passive.

But when we define learning as a body of knowledge, it is difficult to grasp the concept of personal learning because, by definition, the learner is not yet in possession of that knowledge. How then could the learner possibly shape his or her learning? The learning would necessarily have to be shaped by some person (or mechanism) that is already knowledgeable (or imbued with the knowledge) relevant to that domain. So learning always requires, in addition to the learner, some external agent (a teacher, or instructor) that manages the learning.

But in fact, we - as personal learners - do not characterize what we want to learn as some body of knowledge (except perhaps in the grosses of possible terms). We do not articulate the principles we want to remember, the elements of the taxonomies we want to understand, the operations or algorithms we hope to carry out, or even the motor skills we hope to be able to grasp. Rather, we state what we want to learn in very broad terms. "I want to be a physicist," we might say. Or, "I want to learn how to make bread." Not a word about Planck's constant or kneading - these are things we will encounter in our studies, not what we want to accomplish at the outset.

What we are describing is - in effect - what we want to become, not a set of facts that we want to remember or skills that we want to acquire. We want not just to know how to strum and pluck, but rather, to be a guitar player. While a person who is designing guitar lessons and scheduling practice sessions may break down the subject into specific sets of facts and competencies, the person who is creating a personal learning plan is thinking in terms of very different outcomes, picturing themselves as guitar players, imaging themselves, as they have seen others, effortlessly playing whatever tune comes to mind.


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