This post is a commentary on reading What Connectivism is (Downes 2007) as preparation for designing a course outline along connectivist principles.
Although I have blogged previously on connectivism, I still find it tricky to understand what it means in terms of what knowledge looks like in a connectivist course is (even whether there is a course) and how it is a different approach from a Community of Practice or social learning approach, that also focusses on a network and community. Having read Stephen Downes’s article (a number of times), I pulled out some quotes that might shed light on the pedagogy for designing a connectivist course .
First, let’s start with a definition:
“connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”
OK, so this suggests that we shouldn’t aim to construct knowledge but that we should construct networks and navigate them.
Downes reinforces this:
“Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience”
So this sounds like the knowledge is only apparent when the networks are in place, as the learning is creating the networks. This implies that individuals have to give and share in a network. If they don’t share (network), no one will know/learn as there won’t be actions or experience to learn from.
Now, to me this also sounds like Community of Practice approach to learning where actions and experience will vary from expert to novice. But connectivism is more limited than a CoP, where in a CoP purpose (intention) is both participation and reification to a specific goal (Wenger, 1998). Here is what Downes says (my emphasis):
“[Connectivism] it is not more than the process of making connections. That’s why learning is at once so simple it seems it should be easily explained and so complex that it seems to defy explanation (cf. Hume on this). How can learning – something so basic that infants and animals can do it – defy explanation? As soon as you make learning an intentional process (that is, a process that involves the deliberate creation of a representation) you have made these simple cases difficult, if not impossible, to understand.”
Continuing this vein of how connectivism is different is his assertion:
“see, that’s the difference between a cognitivist theory and a connectionist theory. The cognitivist thinks deeply by reasoning through a long sequence of steps. The non-cognitivist thinks deeply by ‘seeing’ more intricate and more subtle patterns. It is a matter of recognition rather than inference.”
So what this might be saying that knowledge is being able to recognise that at that moment, from the patterns that exist right there, you can recognise what something is and (presumably) what there is to do about it (knowledge). Again, it is being in the moment rather than evaluating/analysing from what you know (long sequence of steps).
OK, so I understand that learning is only about the process of making connections. So, how do you make those connections? Here’s a clue:
“the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways”
Again, this sounds like a Community of Practice – participation and learning is about growth and development of an identity (rather than acquiring knowledge). However, there is a difference between this and a CoP approach – there is no transfer of knowledge from expert to novice. Knowledge is not an acquired thing – it is just the network. The knowledge is the network. The pedagogy for a connectivist approach therefore
“seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)).”
Well that’s a relief. There are roles for a teacher and learner. So a connectivist approach in a course would involve practices with a teacher having certain roles and a learner having certain roles. What might those practices be? They are practices that enable the network to come into being.
Let’s consider the teacher’s role. The teacher ‘models and demonstrates’. I am not sure what this really means if it is NOT meant to be behaviourist (here is how to do something – now do it), so it is more likely to be practices on how to build the network, or actually just building the network. Such practices might be through aggregating, asking questions, blogging, bringing together experts, and curating resources in the way Change MOOC was run. The modelling and demonstrating means that that learners are then able to do the same and interact with peers. Learners add to the construction of the network through practices such as discussions, blogging, building artefacts and collaborative writing, reflecting on their learning as they do so.
It would appear that in the course of such practice and reflection, students are likely to make representations of knowledge – but according to Downes (which I admit I have probably imperfectly understood), the representation is not independent of the network, so it exists only in the point in time as part of the network. It may no longer be knowledge another day.
Right, I’m nearly at the end now. In case the reader is somewhat lost, Downes has some comforting words:
“So there’s a certain sense, I think, in which the understandings of previous theories will not translate well into connectivism, for after all, even basic words and concepts acquire new meaning when viewed from the connectivist perspective.”
So we might not even have the shared language of previous learning theory to describe connectivism! That makes it tricky to devise a framework for learning design. Still what I have gleaned from this reading is that a connectivist pedagogy for course design should support practices that construct the network, with a role for teachers and learners.
Downes, S. (2007) ‘What connectivism is’, Half an Hour, 3 February [online]. Available at
Wenger, E (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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