Monday, March 14, 2005

I learn, you learn, we learn... it learns?

I mentioned Conectivism at the end of a previous post. I had literally just come across it and stuck it in to see if it would generate a response. I was intrigued by the idea, but didn't have time to think about it fully. Well I've thought about it, I've read a bit more and here's what I think so far...

First impressions were favourable, but as I read over George Siemens' article on Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, I was slightly concerned that there seemed to be a blurring of the distinction between learning and knowledge. Occasionally I wondered if it was even knowledge perhaps information or just data would describe what was being referred to as learning. Rovy F. Branon picked up on this in his blog article "Connectivism" Interesting, Not Sure It's a Learning Theory. George Siemens tried to defend his position in a subsequent blog: Learning - Actuated knowledge? I'm not sure that the defence is entirely satisfactory, but I'm not sure that the criticism is fully justified either. As you can see, I'm still in two minds myself. I remain a Constructivist at heart.

One of the my sticking points is, can an organisation learn? I think I'm coming around to this, but I'm still not 100% convinced. There has been another report recently that has dealt with the concept of institutional racism. If an organisation can be racist, it doesn't seem unreasonable that it can be said to learn. This is perhaps easier to understand if you take George’s definition of learning as "actionable knowledge". For example, you could say an organisation has learned that it is not appropriate to sack women who become pregnant if their policies, procedures and practices all work together to ensure that it doesn't happen, but that it hasn't learned if the policies and procedures are in place but pregnant women are effectively dismissed anyway. (Perhaps not a brilliant example, but it kind of makes sense to me.)

I also like the idea of the complexity of problems requiring a network of people with different skills to come together to solve it. The network of people can learn to solve the problem in a way (or a time frame) that couldn't be achieved by the individuals working alone. Is it fair to say that the network has learned? If you accept the definition of learning as "actionable knowledge" then perhaps… but I can't help but think it might be easier to assume that it is the individuals in the network who have learned to exploit each others learning in order to achieve a common goal.

If I am uncomfortable with aspects of his theory, why do I keep wrestling with it? Well, there are bits I really like. For example, I think we have not yet fully taken on how much technology has changed learning and teaching and especially how much it should change assessment. Our assessment models are still largely based on checking how much children can memorise and then regurgitate in a written exam. In an age of ubiquitous computing power, when vast stores of information can be accessed more or less when ever we want, is this a sensible assessment model? I suspect not! I often quote a survey I read about a few years ago. Unfortunately I don't remember much about this survey and so inevitably make up the statistics. If anyone out there can point me to the report I half remember I'd be very grateful. Essentially this survey asked business leaders, "How much of the information that you need to do your day-to-day job do you keep in your head and how much is stored elsewhere?" The reply was that (made up statistic warning... but I the basic point is right) about 80% was in their head and 20% was stored elsewhere. The same question was asked years later and the proportion had switched (again made up statistic warning...) and only 20% of what they needed day-to-day was in their head. I wonder what the proportion would be today?

I've gone on too long again. To conclude, I really like the phrase that George uses, "Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed)". I like that people are seriously considering how technology is impacting on learning and teaching. I like the way that Connectivism is taking a hard look at the social learning environment that networks, the Web, Wikis, blog, etc. help create. But is it learning? I still think Constructivism best describes it - it’s about what happens internally in the learner as they construct their own understanding. Is Connectivism then about supporting this learning process? About the scholarship that leads to learning? About the networks that encourage and enable this learning process? Or is it just learning? Is George right? I don’t know yet, but I'm continuing to wrestle with it.

What do you think? Can you think of examples where the learning is in the network rather than the individuals?

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