Sunday, April 4, 2010

Connectivism in my life

This week, Walden's graduate course on learning theories asks us to consider Siemens's theory of connectivism, which broadly states that learning is affected by those we meet and work with as much as by our own experiences. We are asked to respond publicly to some discussion questions and, in so doing, refine our own thinking.

Therefore, O members of my learning network: please respond to my ideas here. Help me process and interact with what I know, and share your knowledge with me. Thanks!

How has your network changed the way you learn?

Thinking back on it, I've always relied on a network for learning. As a kid, I was always snagging books from the school library, and trips to bookstores were big days because many of my interests weren't represented by the local libraries. Quite early, I absorbed the lesson not to believe everything I read, and I came to view reading as a useful tool for figuring out the truth.

"Figuring out the truth": that's important. Back in school, it often seemed that my teachers thought complexity was undesirable. The textbook says that the Civil War was fought primarily because of disagreements about slavery, so it must be true. Therefore, we'll go with the idea that slavery was the motivation behind that whole period of American history, and we'll sweep industrialization, cultural differences, and divergent opinions about the nature of a federal government under the rug. School often showed me the world in a sanitized Burger King package with all the mud wiped off.

Maybe it was because I grew up as the child of a lawyer, but I never saw things as being that simple. I learned from my dad that even "the law" is often unclear--there are always new situations for which no specific law exists, so lawyers are trained to find a way through those thickets. As I see it, the truth of the world tends to emerge from the murky depths of conflicting information, and there is rarely any confirmation that we've gotten it right. The world exists, unsanitized and covered in mud, and that's how we have to deal with it.

In that context, networks are incredibly valuable because they point toward truth. Networks help us to find inconsistencies within arguments, and they show us ideas we might never have considered. The networks help us to think better, although they shouldn't be allowed to think for us. When lots of different parts of our network agree on something, it cues us to consider it. Where they disagree, that's a sign too. A wide network of learning sources is better than a narrow one for the same reason that academic papers are better-respected when they include substantial literature review than when they don't: breadth signals careful attention.

I first started using computer networks in the late 1980s, back when AOL, bulletin board systems, gopher, and MUDs were all the rage. Those networks exposed me to all kinds of ideas--and people--I wouldn't have otherwise encountered for years. The rise of the Web kicked it into higher gear by making it even easier to research ideas.

I would say that I owe a huge part of my intellectual development to the internet, both because of the data sources it exposes and because of the personal communications it facilitates.

Which digital tools best facilitate learning for you?

My two biggest digital tools are Google and Wikipedia. Both are wide-ranging, available 24/7, and free. When a new concept comes up, I'll often check to see if there's a Wikipedia article on it, read it, and then Google some related terms if I'm interested in learning more.

My strategies change depending on what I'm planning to do with the information, too. If I'm researching something for work or academia, I slant more toward the formal, authoritative resources--partly because of their greater accountability but also because I don't usually need broad overviews when I'm researching something for work or school. I do not consider Wikipedia authoritative, because anyone can modify it, but I do find it valuable for getting a quick overview of a topic.

I strongly dislike tools that require me to install additional software, since I've been a Linux user for years and many of them insist on Windows. I'm also very skeptical of sites that require me to register and log in--privacy issues and simple internet-laziness lead me to move on.

I bought a BlackBerry phone about a year ago, and it's been incredibly valuable to me--but not for the reasons people suggested. People told me it would replace my computer, would make it easy to browse the Web from everywhere, and so on. But in reality, Verizon's 3G network is very slow in northern New York (sometimes Google's homepage takes more than a minute to load), and I can type orders of magnitude faster on a computer keyboard than on the BlackBerry. But the BlackBerry really shines in two areas: controlling my schedule and clearing my mind.

I have my BlackBerry calendar connected up to my Google Calendar, which means that whenever I add appointments on my phone they sync up with Google--and vice versa. When it's time for an appointment, my phone buzzes at me. This is old technology, but it's very easy to use, and it has made my life a great deal simpler. My job life requires a great deal of flexibility--I'm never doing the same task two days in a row--which means that I rarely have any sense of routine. The BlackBerry keeps track of the immovable commitments in my life.

Which leads to the second virtue: clearing my mind. I no longer have to pay as much attention to my schedule, because a computer does it for me. As long as I'm diligent about putting new appointments in, everything works out. I was worried about server failures at first, but (knock on wood) they haven't been a problem. I can scan my email from my phone, which allows me to manage incoming data and responsibilities; I usually respond later, when I'm at my computer. I write down ideas and tasks in the To Do list, which frees me from remembering them.

My technology allows me to offload a lot of that memory stuff onto systems that are intentionally designed for it, which seems to leave the rest of my brain more available for actual thinking.

How do you gain new knowledge when you have questions?

I investigate, either through Internet-based research as I previously mentioned or by asking people I know. Often I take a number of different approaches, looking for patterns in the answers.

One major change in my investigation strategy comes thanks to the internet: I almost always do investigate questions that interest me, because the research tools are so easy. In the days of paper encyclopedias and physical libraries, there were many questions that I never bothered tracking down because I didn't have time. These days, I'll open up a browser window, do some initial searching, and save the window for later use.

In what ways does your personal learning network support or refute the central tenets of connectivism?

I'm taking my list of central tenets from George Siemens (2005), since his paper sparked the debate about connectivism. Before I begin, let me say this: it is hard to disagree with connectivism because its precepts are so broad and so difficult to test. Much of connectivist theory seems, well, obvious--in part because Siemens blurs the line between learning-as-process and learning-as-possession. Consider these different meanings of 'learning' and you'll get a sense of the difference: "We are learning about cognition" vs. "He has a lot of learning behind that folksy fa├žade".

Siemens argues that learning "can reside outside of ourselves", and his theories hold to the idea that learning ("defined as actionable knowledge") inheres in networks rather than individuals. I think I agree, but there's a logical end-point that connectivism doesn't explain: if my knowledge is stored in my networks, how do my networks store it? In their networks? Okay, then how do their networks store it? In the end, it's turtles all the way down. To me, this means that connectivism is incomplete as a learning theory--which is fine. We just need to keep track of those other theories too.

Here's a point-by-point analysis of Siemens's principles of connectivism:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions. Absolutely. This perfectly describes my habit of soliciting diverse information sources and then processing their outputs.

Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. Yes, although I'm not sure what defines "specialized", and "information sources" needs to be very general. I'm not sure how Siemens would, for example, explain how a deaf-blind person could learn to walk or speak. What nodes and information sources was Helen Keller connecting, given that she lacked the sensory inputs most of us rely on for information processing? But for me, this point works: I go looking for specialized sources when I want to learn something new.

Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Agreed, although the learning/knowledge line is blurry again. When I use Audacity to record audio files, this seems to indicate that I have "learned" all about Fast Fourier Transforms, sampling rates, bit depths, etc., and that seems a bit far-fetched. I am able to use the capabilities of those appliances, but I'm not sure it counts as learning.

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. My habit of using the internet is a good example of this. As long as I know how to use Google and Wikipedia, I can learn a lot about completely new topics. This does presuppose a certain amount of existing knowledge, though.

Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. Agreed. I do not learn from connections I don't use. However, I can learn in an episodic manner by re-connecting with stale parts of my network, and I then gain access to their new learning. So I agree that it's important to maintain connections, but I don't think I permanently lose "learning" if a connection drifts--only if I cannot re-establish contact when needed.

Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Absolutely. There's a new distinction between the ability to recall information and the ability to process it. One of the things my colleagues like about me is my ability to find connections between disparate ideas.

Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. I'm not sure how to argue this one. I love learning about archaic things, so I often learn--through my connections--about knowledge that is no longer accurate or up-to-date. I'm not sure how to refute or confirm this.

Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision. How can I argue against the idea that the world, and our interactions with it, changes? I am typing on a laptop computer connected wirelessly to an internet website--something my grandparents never imagined they would see. I agree that the way we interpret information depends on our context and beliefs about the world, and I do believe that we learn by making decisions and living with the results--that's behaviorism at work.

I think connectivism is an interesting idea, although I find some of its concepts "fuzzy" enough that I'm not quite sure what they mean. I find Siemens's ideas about information flow within organizations fascinating, and I plan to track down his references and see what they have to say. In that sense, I am learning from his personal learning network. Food for thought.


Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved 4 April 2010, from

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, Retrieved 4 April 2010, from

My learning network (click to view full-size):

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