Connectivism- Does it support our students?

First, what is Connectivism? It is an idea that, although suffers some detractors, may basically be considered a learning theory that says the sum of our learning is related to and dependent upon sources from which a learner may obtain knowledge, or skills. These are all related to one another in a network of connections made by the learner. As the learner matures, the number of connections made increase, and their potential learning power expands exponentially with each connection within the network.

In simpler metaphorical terms:

A person moves to a new town. They meet a resident who has lived in the town a long time. An association is made. The resident helps the newcomer to associate themselves with a large number of people in the new town. The newcomer now has all the previous associations in their former town, and is expanding their network daily in the new town.

If one simply substitutes the words “new learning” for the word “resident” and “people” above, and “town” is substituted for “big idea,” although it is a slightly clumsy comparison, this is a reasonable simulation.

It reads like this:

A person moves to a big idea. They meet a new learning who has lived in the big idea a long time. An association is made. The new learning helps the newcomer to associate themselves with a large number of new learnings in the big idea. The newcomer now has all the previous associations in their former big ideas, and is expanding their network daily in the new big idea.

That seems to make sense in general, but, does Connectivism support our students?

I’m taking a look at a section of a Wiki by some colleagues of mine in Group B presented dealing with the ideas of Connectivism. They put forth the idea that Connectivism does not support students. Their stance was mostly centered on a idea that one of the creators of the idea of Connectivism offered in a 2005 writing. George Siemens said, “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.”

In some ways, the knowledge we will learn is more important than the knowledge we already have acquired. It’s the new, the novel, the latest and greatest, and as a learner, it is what we are struggling to master most today. I think that this statement about our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow presents a tough buy-in. How are we really certain that what we choose to learn is what we will need to know tomorrow? Who is the oracle of what will be important tomorrow?

A change in the statement to, “Our ability to learn what is interesting and relevant to us today will fuel our passion about learning more tomorrow,” would be something more palatable to most.

If we use another metaphor, that knowledge is like a currency, no banker will ever tell you the money you will make is more important than the money you already have invested. The implication in Connectivism here is that the money already made is worth less than the money made today. The knowledge we have, like currency invested, is earning—and I love the double entendre that this makes—interest. It is helping to build more learning within our minds and even fueling our creativity to produce new ideas.

What good line of reasoning does it allow a teacher to make if we tell our students that the learning they do today is going to be less valuable tomorrow? As a student I hear, “I’m learning something that’s becoming worthless by the minute? No, thanks.” Most students will take issue with such a line of thinking and apathy will spread like wildfire.

In his blog post, “Critical Review of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age” Kevin Stranack included a section “Applications in the Classroom,” where in the 2nd paragraph he describes and reinforces the arguments I made above. Here is the line I think brings it home:

“Perhaps the most controversial aspects are its [Connectivism’s] insistence that the network is more important than the content, that knowledge is a process rather than an artifact, and that knowledge can reside in appliances or other people, and be retrieved as needed rather than incorporated into an individual’s memory.”

Siemens references also a “pipe that is more important than what’s inside it” to make this point. Pragmatically, I don’t know anyone who cares more about the pipes in their homes than the water that runs out of the faucets. If you don’t think that’s true, ask someone whose street is for some reason not getting water and they are mid-shower. Their pipes are now full of air! They’ll most likely be hysterical about needing the water, not extolling the virtues of their pipes!

Conclusion

In general, I support the idea of Connectivism without buying into it wholesale. As educators, like investment advisers, we are trying to help students gather together an investment portfolio that will pay dividends for life. Our students are not well served by the idea that they can discredit the learning “in the bank” as less valuable than the new learning. It is our job as educators to help them take in the new learning, and compare it with the learning to which they have already assigned value and make a judgment either student and teacher together, or eventually as an individual on their own as to what is valuable, and enriches their lives and what, in the end is less valuable than what’s already “in the bank.”

Siemens, G. (2005, January 01). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Kevin Stranack. Critical View of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Information retrieved from: August 2012.
http://stranack.ca/2012/08/16/critical-review-of-connectivism-a-learning-theory-for-the-digital-age/

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