Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Connectivism and Transculturality

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 16, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, May 16, 2010.

Transcript of my talk delivered to Telefónica Foundation, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

One. Communities as Networks

As you can see we are broadcasting live to a worldwide audience of 27 people. We're just sort of messing around here. This is totally impromptu, I didn't advertise this or anything. This is the sort of concept I want to talk about today, doing this kind of thing.

Alejandro mentioned edupunk in his introduction. You know, it's this whole idea of "doing it yourself" and making it happen for yourself rather than depending on organizers or others to do it for you. And we sort of asked, a little bit, whether we were allowed to do this sort of thing, but we just found an ambient wireless connection in the room, I determined very quickly that it was a very good connection, I was very happy about that, and so consequently I figured, "Great! We'll live stream it. Why not?" And we'll record the video, and I'm also recording the audio, and we're recording the Spanish translation in the back of the room there, and so, we're creating learning objects on the fly.

And this is an important fundamental lesson, because, you know, the topic of the talk is culturality, and connectivism. I don't talk about culturality a lot, and I think maybe I should talk about it a bit more. But I think the first and most important less of culture is that it belongs to the people, it belongs to us, it is what we make it, and we have tools now more than ever than we did in the past to make culture.

When we think about culture and when we think about things like community or nationality or even language and linguistic groups like we do a lot in my own country we tend to think of these things as undivided wholes, of instances of commonality, where everybody is the same in some sort of central essential way. Think about the nationalism of being English or French or whatever, the idea is that all the English people have to share the same sort of English cultural values, all the French people share slightly different cultural values.

But you know, when you look at these elements of culture, and you study these elements of culture, you find that culture does not break down into this nice, neat set of groups and categories. Look at this network up here on the screen. This is a network of western European languages. And the main thing you should see, and this is something you know already, is that all these languages are related to each other and they all derive from versions of each other. This is only a very partial chart of these language, and really, if you were going to draw a full chart of these languages, this is just the derivation of different languages from their sources, but if you were to map the influence from one language to another language to another language you would get a very complex diagram.

And in fact, the culture of any individual person is composed not of metallic-like elemental forms of being indivisible and separate and pure. The culture of any individual, any person you care to name, all of you, myself, Alejandro, the people at the back of the room, the guy recording the video, this culture is a mixture of all cultures, each to a different degree, and all these cultures are related to each other the way the words in a language are related to each other. And this is true not just of language but of culture generally.

I love this diagram. This is one of my favourite diagrams in the entire world. It's almost impossible to read. On the slide it comes out a bit better. All of those dots, each dot represents a scholarly domain. Philosophy is there, we've got child psychology over here, we've got anthropology, archaeology, up there we've got electro-chemistry, polymers, organic chemistry, down here in the green we've got psychology - this is a map, on the screen (if you look at the slides later you'll see there are little white lines connecting all these dots) is a huge network, and this is an actual representation of papers in one discipline that cite or refer to papers in another discipline.

When we think of a domain or discipline like psychology, say, or geography, our first instinct is to think of it like a culture or a nationality, you know, like you or me, we're inclined to say, "Those geographers, they're a strange bunch." Or "Engineers can't be trusted." Right? But really, when you look at the composition of these disciplines, they are composed of links to the other.

So culture and discipline and a wide variety of social and community phenomena like that are based not in some sort of essential nature of being, but rather based in connections with other entities of a similar type. They're clusters located within a network rather than stand-along "we are all united" kind of groups. And it's an interesting picture, and I think it's an important picture, because this runs directly contrary to the sort of nationalism or regionalism or communitarianism that you might see depicted in your newspaper and used for not-so-savory political purposes. We are more alike than we are different from other cultures. And the things that divide us really can be defined through these links. If we understand that our culture, that our nationality, our language, that our domains or disciplines, are clusters in a network then we think of these things differently.

I have a diagram in Spanish, how about that? I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this, you can come back to the slides and find this, but this is a diagram I created in New Zealand and I originally created it in English and then it was kindly translated for me into Spanish (and also he made it look a lot nicer, the writing is a lot nicer). And what I want to do with this diagram is to draw what I think is a fundamental distinction. Now this distinction is not unique to me, I did not invent this distinction, I've just drawn it out, and tried to clarify it, for my own thinking. And it's not necessarily The Way of the World, it's just a way of looking at these sorts of issues.

On the left we have 'groups', and this is your traditional nationalistic "we are all the same" kind of definition of community, and on the right we have 'networks', and this is what I believe is a more appropriate, more reflective, more realistic description of culture and community. There are different dimensions across these, and I identify four major ones, which I'll talk about briefly in the next few slides.

Two. Four Dimensions of Networks

The first major dimension is diversity. And, one of the major things that I've inherited from my culture in Canada is a desire for diversity, and this is a value that has been deliberately shared and talked about and created and generated across Canada, and I've always felt and always believed that you need a mixture of materials, you need a collection of different perspectives, different points of view, in order to come to any new understanding.

Think of a conversation. Think of a discussion you have back and forth with your friends. And probably in that discussion you will create new knowledge, right? And that's the whole idea of having such a discussion. But suppose you knew exactly the same things as your friend. What would you and your friend talk about? You know all the same things. You think all the same things. You know, one person would say something, blah blah blah, "Yeah, I know that," blah blah blah, "Yeah, I knew that."

You need to have different perspectives and points of view even to have a conversation, much less to create a community or to create new knowledge. [Here I'm thinking of Dretske] Diversity is essential to community. So what's important about a community is not the way everybody is the same. What's important about a community is the way everybody is different, and able to connect to each other.

Good communities are open. Closed systems, closed communities become stagnant. [Here I'm thinking of Marquez] Imagine if nobody was allowed to come in or out of the city, even a big city like Buenos Aires. Eventually you would lock out or freeze up the source of new ideas. It would become like an echo chamber. The system becomes clogged with the "creative product" of its members.

Communities have to be open, they have to have some source of new material coming in, whether its raw material, resources, ideas, etc., and then they have to have some place where they can send their creative product, the things that they make, the ideas that they have. Openness is essential to community. But again, with this traditional kind of 'group identity' kind of description of culture, there's this inclination or desire to close off a culture from the rest of the world. When you do that, you become like North Korea. You become isolated, you become unable to cope with even your own internal society.

A third criterion that distinguishes a community defines as a network from a community defined as a group is autonomy. And what that means is that each of the members of that community are working toward their own sense of values, their own sense of purpose, their own goals or endeavours. Now that does not mean there cannot be a common purpose. People can choose to work together. What it does mean is that a common purpose or a common goal does not define the community.

And, you know, we have various people from corporations here, one of the first things corporations like to do is create a "vision statement" and then a strategic plan, etc., that everybody in the corporation will line up behind. But this is actually kind of an artificial reality, a fantasyland, because if we think about any corporation that we know of, all of the people at the corporation are working at the corporation for different reasons. They're not all lined up behind the vision statement and strategic plan. I don't wake up in the morning thinking "I want to increase the effectiveness and foster productivity of the customer base." Nobody does that. It's like, "I need to get some milk." And that's why I got up today. And to get some milk I have to go work, I won't get milk, I won't get paid, otherwise. So, it's better to recognize that, better to understand that even a cohesive organization like a corporation is not united behind a single goal, but rather, is a collection of autonomous but cooperating individuals.

And that's the key. We talk, we hear a lot about collaboration. But I like to distinguish collaboration from cooperation. Cooperation is an exchange of mutual value between autonomous individuals, rather than collaboration, where the two individuals subsume themselves under a single common goal. Now, again, there is room for voluntary collaboration. I'm not eliminating it out the scope of the world. But collaboration, working together, does not define community. Community is based on each of us following our own way. As Star Trek would say it, "Infinite diversity in infinite combinations." Or as John Stuart Mill would say, "Each person pursuing his or her own good in his or her own way."

Finally, the fourth major dimension distinguishing a network-based community from a group-based community is interactivity. And this is a bit tricky. But this is a concept that's going to underlie a lot of the rest of this talk. So I want to draw it out a little bit.

Now, there are different ways we can think of the way ideas are created and spread through a community. One way is what we might call the 'broadcast method', and here's how it works: I have an idea, say, "the Earth is square" (it doesn't have to be a true idea, it can be any idea) and what I say is "the Earth is square" and then I say it to you, and so you in the front row, you all say it, and you agree, "the Earth is square", and you say it, and you pass it on, and soon, everybody in the room is saying "the Earth is square." So what is happening here is that the idea of one individual has been propagated through he group and has become part of the group's knowledge.

Now, you can see the limitation of that. It means that we, as a group, cannot know more than any individual can know. Right? Because the idea has to be formed in my head, in my mind first, or maybe in one of yours (it depends on how democratic we are), but still, it's the same kind of thing, it's formed in my head and then spread to each of you. In philosophy we would call this as well a 'fallacy of composition', making the properties of the group the same as the properties of the individual. The idea (had by) the group would be the idea (had by) one of the individuals.

This is how groups operate. This is how systems based on identity and conformity operate. But they have this upper structural limitation.

Now, imagine we wanted to have a really complex idea. A really complex kind of knowledge. Well, we can't do it the way I've just described because it's the sort of knowledge that's going to go beyond what I could have from my one perspective or my one point of view. It goes beyond what can be known by one person. I'll give an example: flying an airplane from Toronto to Buenos Aires. You might thing, "Oh yeah sure, that's no problem, anybody could do that, right?" Well, let's make it a big airplane. Let's make it a 747. That's a big airplane.

Think of that concept. Think of the knowledge it takes to do that. Could that knowledge be contained by any one individual? Clearly not. What we need to do is to create a mechanism where the knowledge is not contained by any one person but rather as they say 'emerges' from the interactions among the people. So we'll all have our own bit of knowledge, or own perspective, on how to fly this airplane. Somebody is the pilot, somebody is the co-pilot, somebody is the navigator, somebody is the flight attendant, somebody makes the tires the plane lands on, somebody builds the windscreen, somebody washes the windscreen, somebody serves vodka to the first class passengers, water to the rest, and somebody sits in the control tower and manages the plane traffic, and there's the guy who, when the plane's coming in, waves his hands and says "park here!" It takes all of these different perspectives, different bits of knowledge, to create the social knowledge of how to fly this airplane.

There's a wide variety of knowledge like that. And it's important to understand that it's not simply a joining of individual knowledge, it's rather new knowledge that did not exist and could not exist from many individual perspective. It's, as I said, emergent knowledge. I'll talk a little bit about that as the talk progresses. But essentially the idea of emergent knowledge is that it is the pattern that is created by a set of interconnected entities. So, this knowledge, because it is a pattern, does not exist 'in itself', it has to be recognized by a viewer.

Yesterday I was talking about how 'knowing' is 'recognizing'. This is what this is. Look at, for example, your television. Think about watching a program on your television. And you see a picture of Richard Nixon on your television. You all know who Richard Nixon is, right? Oh, it doesn't matter. Well - it does matter. Really, what you're looking at is a whole bunch of pixels. Little dots on the screen. The reason why you recognize a picture of Richard Nixon is because they're organized in a certain way. No individual pixel has a picture of Richard Nixon, in fact, it couldn't. Couldn't possibly. Because a pixel can only have three or four values of colour. And what is important is not only the organization, but you need to recognize that, yes, this is in fact Richard Nixon. If you did not know who Richard Nixon was then when you look at the pixels it's just some guy who looks a little nervous. And if you were an alien from outer space you might not even recognize that this is a human. So, this is the sort of thing. The image of Richard Nixon 'emerges' from the pixels. Our knowledge of how to fly a 747 'emerges' from individual knowledge. But this knowledge does not exist in itself; it has to be recognized as existing.

So that's what I mean by interactivity. When I say 'interactivity' I say the knowledge in the community is created by the interaction of the members of the community rather than created in one person and then spread through the community.

Three. Two Kinds of Knowledge

Now, the theory of connectivist teaching and learning is based on two ideas. First of all, the idea that the human brain is a network, just like the networks I've described. It's a whole bunch of individual entities, neurons, connected with each other. And knowledge in the human brain emerges from these connections. And then the second idea is that our communities, our sociality, our culturality, again is created through these connections. So the way we have cultural identity, the way we have language and science and research and reasoning in our society generally is the same mechanism as the way we have knowledge individually or personally.

It's the same system, we're using the same system, the same logic, the same sort of idea. And when you think about it, that has to be the case. Think about a neuron, just for a second. Neurons are really stupid. All a neuron can do is receive an electrochemical potential and then decide whether or not it's going to fire, and, well, that's the life of a neuron. It doesn't know why it's firing, it has no idea about the world, or even the neurons next to it, all it knows is that if it gets enough signals coming in, it's going to fire. And, over time, depending on the signals that come in, it might form connections with other neurons. But it just does that because of physics and chemistry, it doesn't 'want' to form connections, it just does form connections, it's just a matter of biology, that's it.

So, neurons are really stupid. If all you could think of was what one of your neurons could contain, you could not even get out of bed in the morning. You'd be lying there in bed, "dut-dut-dut-dut... dut-dut-dut-dut." Because that's all a neuron can do. So our knowledge, our intelligence, must be based on something emergent from the connective activity of many individual neurons, can't be based on the content of a neuron, has to be based on the pattern of connectivity of these neurons.

We replicate that in connectivist teaching. We form a network in which individuals act as though they were neurons. And what they are trying to do in this network is to receive signals, process signals, send signals, and connect with other people. Very simple activities. That's the key. Because... well, anyhow... (it's really easy to get off track in one of these talks because there's always a reason, and I can follow the train of reasoning, and we go back to, like, you know, anyhow, "first there's a hydrogen atom", and you know, anyhow." [here I'm thinking of Minsky]

Here's what a connectivist course looks like. It's also what a personal learning environment looks like. A personal learning environment is the environment you would use to learn in a connectivist manner. Here's you, at the centre, it's represented in this case by Elgg because the people from Elgg created this diagram, it's a version of the diagram created by Scott Wilson, and then you at the centre are connected to all kinds of different things, different people, different applications online. You're connected to social networking, you're connected to communities, you're connected to your own files, to search, to weblogging, and so on. All kinds of different services.

You should think of it as you being connected to other people. And everything else is just physics and biology, mechanisms for you to send messages to other people and other people to send messages to you. It's a big communications network. That's what a connectivist course is.

Now, remember how I distinguished between groups and networks. There is a corresponding difference between two types of knowledge. There is the traditional type of knowledge that people have always tried to teach you in a classroom, and then there is this new, network type of knowledge that I have been talking about.

Think about the kind of knowledge that even today people think you should be learning in schools. It's static. They want to teach people basic first principles, foundational knowledge, stuff that doesn't change. "Two plus two equals four." Make that the knowledge that you learn. It's declarative. It's kind of a hard concept, but what I mean is, it is a set of propositions. Or, a set of statements of fact. So, the idea here of this kind of knowledge is that, when you learn, learning is the accumulation or or collecting of a set of facts. As Wittegenstein in his earlier, incorrect, days, said, "The world is a totality of facts." And the educational version would be, "an education is a totality of facts." That's the old way of looking at education.

And then it's authority based. The idea is, the contents of one person's mind will be sent to other people. "I know that the world is a square, and I will teach you and you and you that 'the world is a square'." That's the old way of looking at knowledge. That's the way of looking at knowledge where the idea of teaching is to make everybody the same. But that's not productive of community. In fact, it's destructive of community. It makes communities stagnate and die rather than grow and prosper.

So, I'm more interested in another kind of knowledge, which is 'knowledge in the network'. Knowledge in the network has, well, many properties, but these three properties are pretty key.

First of all, it's dynamic. What we mean by that is, it's always changing. What was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow, what was true tomorrow may not be true the next day. Even if there are underlying facts of the matter, even if two plus two is always equal to four, it's not always relevant. It might not always matter. There are always facts out there in the world, the world may not be a totality of facts, but it has a lot of them, but these facts come in and out of relevance, come in and out of prominence. So even if there are unchanging parts of the world, our relationship to these things changes.

Knowledge is also what we call tacit. Or non-declarative. The idea of tacit knowledge is an idea from Michael Polanyi, and a way of describing it is, 'ineffable'. It's knowledge that quite literally cannot be represented in words. Because we do not have sentences in the brain. We may think in sentences, or we may think in the experience of reading or hearing sentences, but remember, we just agreed earlier, we have neurons in the brain, and that our knowledge is composed of connections between these neurons. These connections are not sentences. These connections are distributed across tens of thousands, millions, of neurons. And the kind of knowledge that we can have is much more complex, much more multi-faceted, much more - ah, I'm searching for a word - much more whatever than we can express in a sentence. (Voice: "Kaleidoscopic.") Kaleidoscopic. Yeah. That's a good word.

Think of - what was the example I had yesterday? - you can sit there all day and talk about how to do something and ... well, there's all kinds of examples. 'Riding a bicycle' is an example Polanyi used. I can sit here all day and describe to you how to ride a bicycle, but really, riding a bicycle is something you have to learn by getting on the bicycle and riding it. Because the language that I use to describe how to ride a bicycle does not completely describe how to ride a bicycle.

And then, finally, knowledge in the network is constructed. I should probably not say 'constructed' so much as 'grown'. Knowledge in the network results from the entities in the network interacting with each other and new connections being formed. In the human mind, knowledge is created when we create connections between neurons, one neuron to another. Socially, social knowledge, that is created when we connect individuals, one individual to another individual.

Four. Learning is not Social

So here we are, here's our personal learning environment, each one of these is one of these. So this - these things - are connected to one another in this network. We can also think of each one of these as a different person or we can also thing of each one of these as ways that you yourself are connecting to the network. It's complex, right? It's not simple.

But the main thing we have here is we have individuals that are connected to each other through a variety of technologies. That's the main thing to think of here. So, what happens when we think about teaching and learning in this sort of network is that the role of teachers and learners is to participate in the workings of this network. That is the activity that we are undertaking. And one of the things you should notice is almost in the way I'm describing this, the activity of teachers becomes the same as the activity of students. They're not two separate activities. They merge, they become one and the same activity.

OK, now, so I've mapped out this discussion. You've probably seen elements of this discussion in a lot of the other stuff that you've seen or read. The next step that most people take, including I might add George Siemens and others, is to say, "OK, we've described networks, we've described social networks, all learning is social, therefore we're going to talk about social learning. And so our theory of learning will be a description of learning in social networks."

Now this is a turn that I do not take. This is a way that my approach to learning in networks is different or distinct from other people's. Where other people go, at this point, is one of a number of different directions, and I've listed a few here:

- There's the old behaviourist or instructivist method of transmitting knowledge, Skinner and all of those guys, Gilbert Ryle 'The Concept of Mind', the whole host of them where learning is behaving. There was a comment in my blog just the other day, it begins, "Well we can agree that we know someone has learned when they are behaving a certain way," and I though, "Oh yeah right, here we go again."

- Other people have become more advanced, and we have Moore, for example, M.G. Moore bases his theory of learning very much on information theory. It's interesting, my background is in philosophy and science, not educational theory, so I approach Moore late in life. I read Moore, and my reaction was, "this is a checksum network." This is sending a signal, sending back a confirmation, and so on. Moore's theory is actually based on a protocol for information and communication. It's pretty useful as far as that goes, but it's an externalist-based social learning kind of theory.

- Then you get more complex, more interesting forms of social learning, social constructivistm from Vytgotsky and others, problem-based learning [here I am thinking of David Jonassen] , and I could go on. These are all the fairly standard theories of learning that everybody learns when they study education or learn about pedagogy.

I do not go in this direction.

Let's think about this 'social learning'. Think about where the models of knowledge and learning are coming from. Well, we have externally based definitions or community-based definitions. Learning objectives will be defined by the community. What counts as a body of knowledge will be defined by the community. The processes are externally-based. The processes of learning are going to be defined by the community. They're all 'activities', 'conversations', 'interactions', 'communications'. Everything's happening external to the person. We have external systems. We define learning in terms of classes. Even in terms of networks, groups, collaborations. All kinds of things that are happening outside the individual person. And, of course, evaluation is by somebody external to you, an examiner or something like that.

It's as though the entire process of learning happens in the society, in the community, and nothing happens in your head. And that just seems wrong to me. Because throughout this talk I've been careful to distinguish between the knowledge in our head, that is formed by connections of neurons, and the knowledge in society, that is formed by connections of people. And the learning that happens in our head does not consist of connections between people. The connections between people is the learning society or a community as a whole does.

The learning that we do as individuals is different from that. It is the growing of connections in our own mind. Very different. Social knowledge - the knowledge of a society, the knowledge of a culture, the knowledge of a community - is not the same as personal knowledge. Social knowledge emerged from the connections created by many individual persons. Two distinct things. They're related. They're connected. But they're not the same.

So we have different kinds of learning, different kinds of knowledge management. 'Personal knowledge management' is 'learning', 'social knowledge management' might be 'research' or 'social learning' or something like that.

So the key thing that I want to underline here, that makes my approach to education a bit distinct from other people's is that the product of the educational system is not a social outcome. And it's interesting because when you think about how people define what the objectives of an educational system ought to be, they are so often social and cultural objectives. "We want everyone to know our underlying social values, we want everyone to know mathematics, we want everyone to be able to take part in the creation of a jumbo jet that flies from New York to Buenos Aires." They're all socially defined.

But learning is in fact a personal outcome, not a social outcome. It (defining learning as a social outcome) is like having the picture of Richard Nixon tell the pixels what they ought to be.

Five. Learning a Discipline

So how does this work? Here's the picture of connectivism my way (I think George (Siemens) is still working on this - I don't think he disagrees but I don't know if he agrees).

So, what have we got? We have a social network. We have a personal learning environment. We're all connected. We're having communications back and forth. We're receiving content, signals, input, we're manipulating it, we're creating it, we're sending messages to all the other people who are our friends, we're working in the social network.

But we're using the social network to create in ourselves a neural network. It's just like exercising with a bar-bell. [Picking up an object] Pretend this is a bar-bell, so I'm exercising - I don't want to become one of these, that would be ridiculous. But I use this in order to develop the muscle.

So I use something external to myself in order to develop an internal capacity. There needs to be some kind of consistency - a barbell has to be something I can lift and hold. The external properties - the gravity, the weight of the barbell, are important to the formation of the muscle. But they are not the same (as the muscle).

Personal knowledge consists of neural connections, not social connections. Very important. The reason why this is important is because when we understand personal knowledge as neural connections, then personal knowledge does not consist of the artifacts that we use to describe social knowledge. The artifact that we use to describe social knowledge might be 'a sentence', "Paris is the capital of France." But personally, in our own mind, in our own neural network, it might look like that (see diagram). And this is not simply the representation "Paris is the capital of France," it's also the representation "Cows are brown." And it's also the representation, "water is wet."

What's happening here, there are two things happening here. First, this is non-propositional, non-sentential, non-explicit. It's tacit. It's ineffable. There are no words here. Second, it is distributed. There's no particular place that corresponds to the knowledge that 'Paris is the capital of France.' And this knowledge is embedded with other knowledge that semantically is not even related to it.

It results in funny things. It means that, if I tell you, "My dog is white," your understanding of Paris changes a little bit. You wonder, "how does that make any sense," well, your understanding of 'dog' is in here, and your understanding of 'Paris' is in here, and if I change your understanding of dog, I change your understanding of Paris a bit.

That's what we mean by 'complex'. You can't do just the simple cause-effect kind of thing. When you have complex knowledge you have situations like this where you can't just get at one element of knowledge in isolation from all the rest (This makes a total mash - as an aside - a total mash of traditional education research).

It's the difference between 'knowing that' "Paris is the capital of France" or even 'knowing how' to do something, and what it feels like to know the capital of France. When you think about that - you all know the capital of France, right? (Well you must, I've told it to you three or four times already; if you've forgotten it, now you're in deep trouble.) But there's a difference between 'knowing' this, as a fact, and knowing what it feels like to get the answer right when somebody asks you, "what is the capital of France?" And it's this feeling, this overall, this full-mind kind of sensation, that is the actual knowledge. The sentence "Paris is the capital of France" is just the social artifact that we produce. It's public knowledge, it's social knowledge, but it's not personal knowledge.

Learning a discipline, like geography, or psychology, or any of these things, is a total state. It's a transformation of the self from somebody who was not a geographer to somebody who is a geographer. It's not a collection of individual bits of knowledge, it's a process of becoming something. We grow our internal state in such a way that at the end of that growth we're able to say, "I'm a philosopher." Or a geographer. Or whatever.

The question is, how do we know? Typically, we give people tests. We ask them for social artifacts. We ask them for very simple propositional social artifacts. Write a sentence. Answer a question. Create an essay. (Solve a problem.) Real simple. And there's there's all kinds of ways for a person to correctly produce the social artifact without actually having become the thing that we're trying to become. People who are good on tests (can be) bad at a profession; I'm sure you've seen that.

Learning to become a geographer (or a philosopher, or whatever) occurs not by presenting people with a set of facts but by immersing themselves in the discipline. By joining the community of geographers or the community of philosophers and taking part in the wide range of interactions typical of that community. It's like learning a language. I can sit there and describe all the elements of learning Spanish but really to learn the language you need to get into the language community and actually speak the language. And that's how you learn the nuances of the language, the subtleties of pronunciation, the appropriateness of certain words at certain times, and so on.

It's expressed functionally, rather than cognitively. "Can you act as a geographer in a network of geographers?" Or you can start to ask the question, "If you were to stand there in a group of physicists and talk about physics to them, would you stand out as someone who didn't know what they were talking about? Or would they all accept you as a physicist?" It's that kind of thing. It's not, "Can you state a whole bunch of facts related to geography?" Or it's like teaching. "If you stood at the front of a room and started teaching, and other people who were teachers were watching you, would they accept that you knew what you were doing, or would they say, 'this person is not a teacher, they have no idea what they're doing?'"

You see how the community recognizes whether or not a person is a teacher, whether or not a person is a geographer. It's like seeing that pattern, that complex pattern of associated behaviours, actions, reactions, inclinations and all of the rest. They are recognized as being such-and-such a kind of person.

That's why, when it really becomes important that somebody know what they do, we don't just give them a test. Airline pilots, right? We don't give them a true-false quiz, and then let them fly an airplane. We don't let them write an essay answer, and then fly an airplane. We put them in a simulator. We immerse them, and we actually put them in a real airplane, without passengers, and see if they can fly the airplane. Similarly with doctors. We don't just take a doctor straight from a test to the operating room. They have to go through a long internship where other doctors look at them, watch all the different things that they do, and recognize, "Yes, this person is a doctor."

In other words, we evaluate whether a person has developed the appropriate neural network, the appropriate personal knowledge, by their performance overall in a community, in a network. (Only a network can evaluate a network!) It's not the specific bits of performance - and this is one of the reasons why I'm worried about competencies, I'm worried about breaking things down into more and more precisely defined disciplines - it's not the little bits of knowledge that we might have, it's how they function when immersed into the environment.

How do you know that a person can swim? They can tell you everything they know about swimming, but you don't know that they can swim until you put them in the water and see whether they sink or not. That's the deciding factor. And when you put them in the water, anybody can tell, right? "Oh yeah, that person's swimming." Or, "oh yeah, that person's drowning." Doesn't matter whether they passed the test.

Personal knowledge is not social knowledge. It does not consist of social artifacts. It is not constructed the way we construct a sentence. It is not built the way we build a house. It is not organized the way we organize a society. It is grown the way we grow a muscle. And so the method, the activity of learning, is appropriate to that kind of knowledge.

Standing there, even like I'm doing here, and spouting a bunch of facts at people doesn't produce personal knowledge. It might produce little bits of social artifacts that they may or may not remember, but it's not going to produce the knowledge.

The very best you can do is to induce, or stimulate, some kind of thinking. I can't take a sentence and put it in your head. Not possible. Even though I may look like I'm really trying to do that right now, and you notice how I'm even leaning forward, and trying to push it into your head, it's not happening. You're all reacting in your own individual and unique way - some of you are smiling, some of you are laughing, some of you are at the back are shaking your head, you know, that's OK - and I can't put my knowledge in you, all i can do is give you various stimulations that get you thinking.

But it's just a part of your overall social experience, and it's your overall social experience that will produce the knowledge. What we're doing here is a part of the practice of a discipline as a whole, and by participating in that discipline we're becoming a little bit more able to work in that discipline.

So, the way to think of a personal learning environment, in this context, is as an exercise machine, a way to immerse yourself in a community and work with the community, to get yourself into the community and practising with the community. If you wanted to become a geographer you would use your personal learning environment and connect to the community of geographers. You wouldn't sign up for a geography class - well, you might, but that wouldn't be your education - your education would be to start listening to and watching geographers, and then sort of tentatively at first, and then more and more, to practise doing the things that geographers do.

You could learn philosophy in the same way, and in fact, this is what we do in philosophy, that's why philosophy is so cool, in philosophy nobody spouts a bunch of facts at you and expects anyone to believe it. The whole act of philosophy is doubting what you're told. But what happens is that we as philosophers immerse ourselves in this environment and put ourselves into proximity with other philosophers and argue back and forth like crazy, usually over copious quantities of beer (because that's what philosophers do, which is why their lives are so short) and gradually, gradually, you become more and more capable of being a philosopher, more and more adept at the practices, the method of speaking, the language, the jargon, the world view, the way of thinking, all these things, of the community of philosophers.

And not only that, you will actually become through that process an empiricist, or a rationalist, or a realist. You'll actually become affiliated with a subdomain and become a part of a community, become a part of a culture or a society within philosophy by gradually developing a greater affinity for that group, rather than becoming more and more like members of that group. And it's not like they told you "You will be a realist." It's you determining your own path, your own direction, first, to become a philosopher, and then, to become a realist (which I would never do).

Six. The connectivist Course

Developing personal knowledge is like exercising. Much more like exercising that inputting, absorbing, remembering. Your personal growth, your exercise, develops as a consequence of interactions with the rest of the community. And so we have the connectivist course.

Quote-unquote. It's not really a course. In a connectivist course, like the course that George and I taught, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or like the course that I'm starting in June called Critical Literacies, we don't 'teach' information. We don't 'have content' that we want to pass along. Rather the 'content' of the course is created by the members of the course themselves.

That includes the instructors - it's not like constructivism where the instructor is the 'guide by the side'. None of that. It doesn't work unless the instructors take part too, because if you think about how community works, in a community, like a community of geographers, the alpha geographers are in there slugging it out, and arguing geography back and forth with other geographers, "I can draw better maps than you can, here look..." and then all the other geographers that are less alpha and are learning to be geographers, they're in the same community.

The instructors and the students are in the same place. They're creating the same content, they're working with the same content. In Critical Literacies, I'll be in there creating content, and I'm sure people will read the content I create, but students will be creating content as well. And together, through our individual actions, we create this community, this society or this culture, around the idea of critical literacy.

We don't tell students to perform specific tasks. Rather, they are presented with the things that other people create and they do with them whatever they think is relevant.

Now, what will they do? Now that depends on their experience in the course. It depends on who they're watching, who they're following, who they're using as models or mentors, who they're trying to imitate, or whether they're trying to imitate at all, the idea is that they in their own unique way are working with the content and materials that constitute that discipline.

What will happen a lot of the time, most of the time if you're lucky, is, they will change the discipline. They will add something unique to the discipline that we've never seen before. And the discipline will grow and develop.

You know, a lot of people in different disciplines have their greatest ideas, their unique contributions to a discipline, they originally formed when they were students. All this network stuff that I do originally formed in my own mind when I was a student. I've pursued it ever since. It was as a student, instead of following the typical cognitivist "we have sentences in our brain" line, I went a different direction because I felt that was more appropriate, working with philosophers and educators gradually building my own perspective on the matter.

Typically in a connectivist course a student will do some sort of common activities: reading, posting comments, creating blogging, contributing content to a wiki. They don't have to do this, but empirically, what we observe is that a large number of them do do this. But also, what we have observed empirically through different offerings of connectivist-style courses, is that students will engage in a large and unpredictable set of activities. They may create a map of course participants, they may host a seminar in second life. In the Connectivism course we had three separate Spanish speaking subgroups formed in the course, including the 'Connectivitas', which I thought was kind of cool. And there was Second Life stuff. People created Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, translated stuff, created concept maps, and more.

This is the idea, when you're not located in any particular place, you're not set in any particular environment, when all you have to do to participate in a course is to connect to us, you can use any application, any location, any forum, any way of communicating or working with ideas, and it connects back to the whole, and it adds a uniqueness, your unique perspective, to the whole.

A connectivist course - very important - is not a bunch of people marching lockstep through the same activities. 'learning Design' is anathema to connectivism. It's not everybody doing the same thing. In a connectivist course, everybody does different things.

And there even isn't a sense of 'everybody'. Sometimes people are in the course, sometimes they're not. They may start the course and not finish, they may finish the course without having started it. It doesn't matter.

It's understood, expected, that students will undertake different activities, of different kinds, that their learning will emerge as a product of these activities, and just as importantly, our social understanding of the subject matter will also grow. Again, it's not a static set of course content. Our knowledge of the course content grows every time we offer the course.

So, a connectivist course basically has two major modes:

First of all, the creation of an environment. This is the personal learning environment, an environment that supports or fosters great diversity and autonomy in participation, an environment that is also open - very important, you cannot close a barrier to a connective course, it has to open so people and ideas can flow in and out. And it's based on the idea of interactions between people, and a large and undefinable body of materials.

And then, secondly, in this environment, people do their own things, create interactions with each other, and new and unexpected - typically unexpected - knowledge flows outward as a result.

And so that is the talk that I wanted to offer you today and I think we'll have time for comments and questions, and I hope you and the people who were online and on UStream enjoyed that. But we'll see, we'll see if there's anyone left. 161, yeah.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 1:07 p.m.

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