Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Connectives and Collectives: Learning Alone, Together

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 21, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, July 21, 2008.

Summary of George Siemens's opening keynote at the D2L Fusion conference in Memphis. It represents, in my view, a substantial development in his thought.

box - Dabbawala - one who carries the box. This is a network of people who collect and distribute in excess of 200,000 meals a day in Mumbai.

encyclopedia - Wikipedia.

news site - Ohmynews.

marketplace - Seekers, solvers and a marketplace.

MIT Center for Collectove Intelligence: how can people be connected in order to work collectively?

Don't fight the internet. Don't fight human nature.

In most colective and collaborative activities, human nature is overlooked. For example, 'wearesmarter' tried to get people to collaborate to write a textbook. But people don't want to be submerged in a project like that.

The basis os any collective activity is the self.

- the brain is physical and confined; but the mind is flexible, the mind is external (you rely on external thoughts, external reminders). The mind is social.

- The individual mind *must* communicate - to connect, to form relations.

- our ability to speak is in essence a way to externalize the self. Language is a tool to demystify myth - we make it clear and understand.

- at its core, language is a social function (Wittgenstein's box of beetles).

- symbols - 'carriers of previous patterns of reasoning' - reflective of how we thought at one time. Symbols, then, are things we use to externalize ourselves.

Technology as language?

Our concets, then, are help at least partly externally. These are expressed socially, and as socially, are socially shaped. [Image of 'Formula of Concepts'] Example of how we understand the word 'right' in a context. As the context changed the collectively help viewpoint of language, our understanding changed.

Roy Pea: Intelligences are distributed across minds - but also across technologies. Rubber hands (we substitute touch sensation to the rubber hand we see) and bananas (when a monkey eats a banana, or watches another monkey eating a banana, the same area of neurons (mirror neurons) are firing).

Polysensory data: substituting video information with stimulations on teh tongue - we csn replace 'sight' with sensaion. Hence the phenomenon of 'blindsight'. (Paul Bach-y-Rita)

(SD: numerous examples showing the same sort of thing)

We can extend ourselves with tools, with technology, with language, with signals. The mind is enormously robust, enormously plastic.

BUT: our intgration and extension of self involves a preservation of self. (*key point*)

Our notion of self is not just physical, but still also the way we extend ourselves. It isn't created through socialization, but it is shaped, and manifests itself socially.

Connectives maintain an autonomy of self. A mosaic. It's the difference between creating a blog and creating a wiki.

Collectives, hoever, involve a subsumption of self. There is a coercion of a sort. These all involve a complexity of activity that requires the inclusion of many people. Creating an LMS, for example. The identity of many people has been subsumed. In many cases, that's fine, but we need to look at where it's not. Because, after all, innovation is deviation.

We used to assign names to inventions. Bt with contemporary corporatization, we have removed the name from the invention. The iPod should be the 'wePod'. In 75 years, we have gone from the individua to the company to the network as th innovator.

But - this raises issues of freedom and control. At the heart of collaboration and maships and the rest, you are playing with such issues.

Networks can result in complex tasks. Underlying all this is the idea of the network. And the network is based on the idea of the individual.

Look at the continuum of strength by connection: from individual (atoms) to groups (or what Geprge is calling collectives here). Individuals create new ideas, novelty, are diverse. Groups require some sort of normalization, some sort of subsumption of identity.

We need the diversity of opinion. Scott Page: diverse people working together and capitalizing on their indviduality outperform groups of like-minded people.

We say we like diversity, but diversity is a pain. It's the person who says "Wait a miunite, what about...?" who is the pain.

Pedagogical implications:

Three areas of choice:
- degree of agent autonomy
- degree of complexity
- degree of task specialization

When we design learning (and other systems) we have to decide which element to stress. Flying a plane, for example - should we grant the pilot complete autonomy?

These are the three key elements we need to look at when we consider what degree of individual freedom we want. (SD - this is a great point)

Robert Calliou - we need to solve the problem of combining our thinking as individuals to solve the enormous problems - global warming, food shortages, etc...

The impact, thn, starts to be seen in the design o technology. Neil Postman - techn ology has a 'give and take' element. Technology gives, but does it take? Plato: does writing impair our faculty of memory?

The technology we use is embedded with social and political artifacts. But does this hinder technology, or help? It creates a new medium for previously unconnected others to communicate. (haythornewaite)

Downes: to know' something is to be organized in a certain way, to learn is to acquire these particuar organizations.

So - is this learning?
- Core content? Our typical model.
- Core content that is co-created with external experts? That's better.
- Let's also bring in peripheral learners - list members, discussion group members, etc. Creates more diversity of input - we will likely have better quality content.
- Let's distribute the idea of 'faculty' among these diverse groups. Open , external experts, the rest. A very rich, very diverse learning experience.

We have a model where we say that:
- we recognize each learner has to have a unique stance, a unique identity
- we recognize that each learner needs to be connected to others

Vannevar Bush: notion of associative trails of content. They experience content not just how we as experts present it, but from numerous sources, where they jump from one source to another to another - they become critical thinkers.

And we want this, bcausde it isn't the content that makes an education, but rather, th ability to continue to learn more.

Freedom of fragmntation: we used to have our wor presented to us. A newspaper. A book. Today, we have a very fragmented world, where we get our information from many sources. That kind of fragmentation gives us new freedoms and opportunities.

For example: when learning from a tecaher, I wuld typically listen, read sources recommended by, be tested according to, the ideas of the individual who has created the course. A very consolidated whole. But today we have fragmented sources. That allows us to repurpose the ideas.

There is:
- a freedom to fragmentation - to get fragments
- a freedom of fragmentation - to be a fragment - to fragment our own thought in numerous places, sources

(SD: this needs to be clarified)

It's the end of the grand narrative, and the beginning of the personal narative. We create narratives not just persoanly, but in particular contexts.

The downside of fragmentation: overload. Too many sources, too many ideas. Too fragmented, too distributed. So the challenge is now in how to pull things together. Some interesting technologies:

- Twitter - and simple social tools. Gossip and trivial talks is typically viewed as a distraction, but (see Zufecki (Dunbar) 2008 - these are in essence the human version of social grooming in primates.

So, the challenge is: how do we preserve the unique values of connectives and collectives. Eg. how do we retain our ability to focus when, say, reading a book? (I have a rule - read one journal article before reading email).

We need to:
- design for varying levels of connectedness
- value the collective effort (the contribution to the whole) - but - what is the role of the individual in that process? What is the role of the agent?

The need for human sociability outstrips the design of our courses, the design of our institutions. It outstrips the flow of information that goes top to bottom. We need to take into account how the mind can integrate all kionds of sources, with great fluidity. Technology plays a similar role to that of language.

We can really improve the learning of our students if we use D2L effectively. If we encourage them to learn socially, they learn much more than they could from me as a faculty member.

We are now at a point where we ned to say, we now understand enough about the social nature of learning (Vytgotsky, Papert, Seely Brown, Wenger), and we also understand the idea of using technology to connect. We have that unique broth, and we just need to season it. Our institutions are barriers, the design of courses is a barrier.

a box - social and procedural nature of interaction
an encyclopedia - a storehouse
a news site - a flow
a marketplace - a forum of exchange

We need to recognize that 'collective intlligence' is not neutral in and of itself. All of them exist as a network in nature, as a node and a connection. But these all vary in strength and connectedness.

The nature of the connectedness we design into our courses is essentially a power relationship. It is a way of defining who will have what identity, and how. It's why you can't just slap down a wiki and say 'contribute'.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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