Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Connectivism and its Critics: What Connectivism Is Not

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 10, 2008

Posted to the CCK08 Blog, September 10, 2008.

There are some arguments that argue, essentially, that the model we are demonstrating here would not work in a traditional academic environment.

- Lemire
- Fitzpatrick
- Kashdan

These arguments, it seems to me, are circular. They defend the current practice by the current practice.

Yes, we know that in schools and universities students are led through a formalized and designed instructional process. We understand that some students prefer it that way, that some academics are more comfortable with the format, that most institutions require the practice.

But none of this proves that the current practice is *better* that what is being described and demonstrated here. Our argument, which will be unfolded through the twelve weeks of this course, is that connectivism is at least as well justified and well reasoned as current practice. And the practice, demonstrated through this course, shows that it works.

Right now we are engaged in the process of defining what connectivism is. Perhaps it may be relevant for a moment to say what it is not.

George Siemens offers a useful chart comparing Connectivism with some other theories.

From this, we can see that, according to connectivism:

- learning occurs as a distributed process in a network, based on recognizing and interpreting patterns

- the learning process is influenced by the diversity of the network, strength of the ties

- memory consists of adaptive patterns of connectivity representative of current state

- transfer occurs through a process of connecting

- bets for complex learning, learning in rapidly changing domains

Now I would add to or clarify each of these points (that would be another paper. For example, I would say that the learning process is influenced by the four elements of the semantic condition (diversity, autonomy, openness, connectedness), that while memory is adaptive, it is not (necessarily) representative, and that learning, on this theory, isn't ‘transferred', but grown anew by each learner.)

But despite these clarifications, we can see pretty easily from this description what connectivism is not (and, more importantly, what it is not intended to be):

- learning it is not structured, controlled or processed. Learning is not produced (solely or reliably) through some set of pedagogical, behavioral, or cognitive processes.

- learners are not managed through some sort of motivating process, and the amount of learning is not (solely or reliably) influenced by motivating behaviours (such as reward and punishment, say, or social engagement)

- learners do not form memories through the storage of ‘facts' or other propositional entities, and learning is not (solely or reliably) composed of mechanisms of ‘remembering' or storing such facts

- learners do not ‘acquire' of ‘receive' knowledge; learning is not a process of ‘transfer' at all, much less a transfer than can be caused or created by a single identifiable donor

- learning is not the acquisition of simple and durable ‘truths'; learners are they are expected to be able to manage complex and rapidly changing environment

The reason I take some pains here to describe what connectivism is not is that it should now be clear that none of these constitutes an argument against connectivism.

In one critique, for example, we read "I think this open ended process can lead to some educational chaos and we need to be careful of that." (Kashan)

As we have seen in this course, the connectivist approach can pretty reliably lead to chaos. But this is because we believe that learning it is not structured, controlled or processed. And we expect students to be able to manage complex and rapidly changing environment – in other words, to be able to manage through just the sort of chaos we are creating.

Saying that "can lead to some educational chaos" is therefore not a criticism of connectivism.

To be sure, educational chaos does not work well in traditional learning and existing academic institutions. So much the worse (we say) for traditional learning and existing academic institutions.

One might ask, then, what we expect traditional learning and existing academic institutions to look like in a connectivist world. Well, some of that was touched on in my presentation to eFest (to be posted later) this week.

The model of learning we have offered through this course intersects with the traditional model at least through the definition and provision of assignments for evaluation. These, which are openly defined (everybody can see them), are applied to students who have registered for the course for grading and credit.

We have already spoken with some students about applying the learning done in this course for credit elsewhere. If, say, a person in another country completes our assignments, and they are graded by a professor in some other institution, then that is just fine with us, and has served our interest of providing more open access to education.

There is no reason for the *delivery* of instruction (whatever form it may take) to be conjoined with the more formal and institutionally-based *assessment* of instruction. Which means that we can offer an open, potentially chaotic, potentially diverse, approach to learning, and at the same time employ such a process to support learning in traditional institutions.

As George has said, we are doing for the delivery of instruction what MIT OpenCourseWare has done for content. We have opened it up, and made it something that is not only not institutionally bound, but something that is, to a large degree, created and owned by the learners engaged in this instructional process.

There is nothing in traditional institutions – except, perhaps, policy – that prevents this model from working. The criticisms of this model that are based on pragmatics and practicality are not sound. They achieve their effectiveness only by assuming what they seek to prove.

Engagement with, and opposition to, the process described by connectivism will have to take place at a deeper level. Critics will need to show why a linear, orderly process is the only way to learn, to show why learners should be compelled, and then motivated, to follow a particular program of studies.

We are prepared to engage in such discussions.

But a discussion rooted in the traditional institution must allow and acknowledge that connectivism, if adopted, would change existing institutions, and to base its reasoning in the desirability or the effectiveness of such changes, and not merely the fact that they haven't happened yet.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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