Thursday, October 7, 2010

Complexity and Personal Learning Environments

In a recent post to Dave's Educational Blog, Dave Cormier made a number of comments about MOOCs (massively open online courses) in general, #PLENK2010 in particular, and personal learning networks/environments. Most of what he had to say was, as usual, quite insightful and very much in line with the way I tend to think about these issues, but he expressed a rather forceful caveat about the phrase personal learning environment (PLE). In short, he does not like its potential emphasis on the personal, or individual learner distinct from the group. He says:
It is easy to see the transition to PLE as the ‘rebel yell’ of education. The splitter leaving the fold to strike out on their own to a place where they can make their own decisions, commune with knowledge on their own terms, thank you very much, and not be under the evil yoke of a power mongering educator and not have to suffer the ignominy of working in groups with other classmates. The lone learning warrior, learning on their own, without guidance. It is an easy vision to have as the discussion around PLEs is often put in opposition to LMSs and this often degenerates to “institution bad, learn on your own”. While this is a very interesting debate, it is not the same as the debate around learners managing their own learning content.

I see learning as a social activity. I don’t care if you’re engaging with dead white men in a book, it’s still a conversation. (albeit one sided in that case) The problem with the PLE (when contrasted with the LMS) is that it can easily move the focus to THE LEARNER and not THE LEARNERS. In this way the move from LMS to PLE can be seen as a move from with people, to without people. We don’t learn much alone. We need to keep the focus of the discussion on the disaggregation of power, not the disaggregation of people.
I appreciate his concern that the debate around this phrase "can easily move the focus to THE LEARNER and not THE LEARNERS' and his conviction that "we don't learn much alone," though I worry that he overstates his case. I think most educators recognize "the lone learning warrior" as a romantic myth somewhat akin to the myth of the starving poet, scribbling away in his lonely garret overlooking the smokey rooftops of Paris, plumbing the depths of the human soul in a fearless and solitary obscurity. If such creatures exist, then they are such black swans as to be outside the theories of either learning or writing. They are gunslingers, high plains drifters, steppenwolves, and like black swans, we cannot account for them.

Dave is right that we do not learn much alone, at least not until we have gained sufficient learning apparatus and context (language, heuristics, concepts, worldview, etc) from our group that we can begin to make some discoveries on our own, and even then, we almost always take this somewhat solitary learning back to the group for verification and validation. However, I think his efforts to avoid defining learning as primarily the work of an individual (the personal in personal learning environment) has blinded him to the rich and complex potential of the phrase personal learning environment, and I'd like to offer an alternative reading that explores that complexity and avoids reducing learning to the exercise of a single, solitary, individual mind. My discussion here is informed by Edgar Morin's short book On Complexity (2008), and I am perhaps as much trying to understand Morin as I am trying to illuminate personal learning environments. Complexity has its rewards.

If I understand Dave correctly, then he is arguing against the tendency to reduce learning to the exercise of a solitary brain. This tendency is shared by many learning theories which view learning as something that happens within each individual. Behaviorism focuses on the change in the behavior of the individual, and even social constructivism places learning in the minds of the individuals of the social group.  Most learning theories tend to see learning as some operation an individual mind performs on the external world of objects, internalizing ideas, concepts, behaviors, or patterns that existed independently in the objective world. These theories, in turn, are institutionalized in an educational system that issues individual grades to individual students, and those educational institutions are couched in a culture that preaches and rewards individual achievement, as if Bill Gates alone was Microsoft.

If Edgar Morin is correct, then this tendency to reductionism is part of a scientific habit of mind, or paradigm, that we have inherited from Descartes. "Descartes formulated this master paradigm of Western civilization by disjoining the thinking subject … and the thing being thought of … and by positing 'clear and distinct' ideas as principles of reality" (3). Science has bought into this paradigm of simplicity, and the results have been stunning, in all the connotations of that word. As Morin says: "This paradigm has dominated the adventure of Western thought since the seventeenth century. It has without doubt allowed for very great progress in scientific knowledge and in philosophical reflection. Its ultimately noxious consequences did not begin to become clear until the twentieth century" (3).

For Morin, this reductionist tendency works in two ways, both quite familiar to us today: we either reduce reality to a collection of discrete parts, logically arranged, and logically interacting (scientists do this) or we reduce reality to a unified New Age Whole, Gaia, the Force, God, or the Big Soup (spiritualists do this). In terms of personal learning networks, we either reduce learning to the personal and lose sight of the network, or we reduce learning to the network and lose sight of the personal. For most of us, reality is either/or: either all interacting parts (a unified field theory) or one big, vibrating w/hole (a different unified field theory). A thing is either this or that, but not both; either here or there, but not both.

Morin says that both reductions are too simple to account for the complexity of reality. Rather, we need to keep both in mind. We must replace the connectors either/or with and/and/and. To my mind, this line of thinking is strongly reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's complaint against arborescent thinking in A Thousand Plateaus (1987): "One becomes two [Unity and Parts]: whenever we encounter this formula … what we have before us is the most classical and well reflected, oldest, and weariest kind of thought. Nature doesn't work that way" (5). For D&G, reality is a rhizomatic multiplicity, and "multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object or to divide in the subject. … A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions" (8).

Perhaps a simple (too simple) illustration is in order.  I'm an English teacher, so this example comes easily to mind.
Consider the period (punctuation mark) at the end of this sentence --> I made it big and supplied an arrow so that you would notice it; otherwise, you might not. We can address this period as a discrete element of punctuation, a subset of grammar, itself a subset of semantics. It has a name, period, which gives it a unique identity. It has a definition, a role, a verifiable existence. Clearly, a period has scientific meaning as an entity all unto itself. It is an individual.

Yet, all by itself, its meaning is trivial to the point of meaninglessness. On a line by itself, it's just a silly little dot:


Ahh, we say, right! The period means nothing as an individual. Only the whole sentence/paragraph/post/blog (whatever holistic level you wish to use) has meaning. And so we merge the period into the whole, and again we see that it becomes meaningless (it also raises hell with spell check and word wrap):


Obviously, reduction of the period into either scientific objectivism or holistic subjectivism (or any other duality you choose) destroys the meaning of the period. We must see the period as both itself and as a part of the whole. Both these simple views are at times expedient and even enlightening, yet if they become the only approach to the period, then we lose the meaning. In Morin's terms, we lose the complex reality of even something so relatively un-complex (I won't say simple) as a punctuation mark. According to Morin, individuals must have a complex autonomy based on dependence rather than freedom. We must see that the period emerges from the ecosystem of language. Though it draws its energy and structure from printed language as a whole, it must maintain its integrity as a period. It cannot droop into a , or rise into an i. The individual and the whole have a recursive reciprocity that defines them both. The period defines the paragraph, which defines the period, which defines the paragraph, and so on, back and forth.

Brains are like this. They are composed of neurons, all of which must remain individually unique, and yet all of which must be organized into a functioning brain. By itself, a neuron is almost as meaningless as a period, though not as un-complex. And if enough neurons join together into enough brain, then mind or consciousness emerges out of the interplay between micro and macro. This is where the magic happens, and as of yet, we do not have the language that captures this complexity. Still, reducing mind either to the interplay of discrete neurons in the brain or to some cosmic consciousness or Soul misses the complex, concrete reality of mind.

So what does all this have to do with personal learning environment? I'm so glad you asked. I was beginning to think I'd never get there.

Learning as simply a personal activity or as simply a group activity misses the complex reality of learning. Though it can be helpful to look at either the individual or the group, learning is the interplay of the individual with her environment. The individual learns from the environment, and the environment learns from the individual. In the interplay, they shape and reshape each other, learn and relearn from each other, teach and reteach each other.

Thus, as personal learning environment suggests, learning is framed by personal and environment and cannot exist without both. Another way to interpret this phrase is that learning is one of those activities that joins the individual to his environment. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that learning describes a particular kind of interplay, a particular dance, between the individual and the environment. And if that isn't complex enough, then imagine that all six and a half billion humans are all engaged in a similar dance—each with her own nuance, steps, rhythms, intensities, or determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions—world without end, one hell of a whopper rhizome.

The problem, of course, is that we don't have much language yet to talk intelligently about this kind of complexity. Our notions of critical thinking (interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, and so on) are all pretty much individual mental exercises aimed at reducing complexity to simple clarity. We need new ways to examine and think about complex, rhizomatic structures. Morin mentions three ways to think, or principles, that help us approach the complex: a dialogic principle (dia-logic), the principle of organizational recursion, and the holographic principle (by which I think he means what I would call fractal). Deleuze and Guattari mention cartography and decalcomania. I was pleased in our Elluminate session yesterday (Wed, 2010 Oct 06) when George Siemens spoke about mapping learning and knowledge to real life and listed resonance, synchronicity, wayfinding, amplification, and learning/knowledge symmetry aspects of connectivist learning. I don't know if he intends them as critical (or perhaps higher order) thinking skills, but they resonate with me that way. Recognizing and engaging pockets of resonance in an environment seems to be a critical thinking skill needed for mapping the rhizome.

Anyway, I think Cormier would do well to reconsider and find another way to read personal learning environments.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond Keith... I'm going to take your comments off and return the favour. One first glance I think I see what you mean by I want to make sure... Should get a post back to you in a few days.

    Will try to find a quiet place this weekend to piece through what you said here. cheers.

  2. Hi Keith

    I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you are saying. You seem to have missed the stream of situated perspectives of learning that started in the 70s and continued in the 80s and 90s, though, such as community of practice, or social constructivism, which advocate exactly what you would like to see, a bridge between the personal learner and his/her lived-in world including other connections influential in the learning process.

  3. Rita, why do you accuse Keith of having "missed the stream of..."?
    He didn't seem to me to be saying these things never happened - just saying that Dave's criticism of the P in PLE may be overstated because it is understood that they do happen.

    Dave, I am commenting prematurely here because I haven't gone through your post which prompted this. But doesn't the inclusion of a PLN as part of the PLE (or vice versa?) go most of the way to addressing the charge of isolationism?

  4. Hey Alan,

    I'm still mulling over a focused response to this... but my objection may have been overstated in my original comments. What I'm warning against is the possible interpretation of 'Personal' as 'possessive' and the charge that 'we don't need universities anymore'. I'm not saying we necessarily do, but am suggesting that they aren't the same conversation.

    In attempting to make a distinction between those two conversations, I may have overstated the ubiquity of that particular interpretation of personal. Maybe i'll try and write that post now.

  5. Rita, I think the "situated perspectives" that you reference are an important aspect of this conversation, but somewhat tangential to the point that I was trying to make, so they didn't come to mind as I was writing the post, as Alan seems to be suggesting. My point is that we should not ultimately reduce the complexity of reality to either basic particles and their predictable interactions or to a holistic soup. Reductionism, as Morin points out, does have temporary, sometimes practical benefits, but in the end, it blinds us to the richness of life. Life is not either/or; rather, life is this and this and this. (and please, don't take this as an adequate summary of Morin's thought, which is way more complex and rich than presented either in this comment or my original post).

    A person can be a follower of Wenger or Vygotsky, for instance, and still be a reductionist in either of the two senses that Morin references and that I used in my original comments. I think, then, that I'm trying to make a point that precedes any given learning theory. Rather, I'm trying to inform learning theories with an appreciation of complexity.

    Actually, I think that Dave Cormier probably believes somewhat the same as I about complexity. His problem with PLE/Ns is with the tendency by many to reduce a personal learning network to either end of the phrase: to the personal (mostly) or to the network. I share the same concern. I differed from Dave (in a good-natured kind of way) in my willingness to read the phrase personal learning environment in a different sense than he did.

  6. Basicly I agree with you, Keith. And I would add some comments:

    Learning is social. We all learn constantly (by interaction and direct observation or indirect) of the environment (which is complex), although we do not realize us until is produces a stimulous that has proven us that is it so.

    The scientific theory has taught us to reduce the complexity of the environment, through the creation of interchangeable units that we have organized through the fragmentation of knowledge, re-organized and used in function of time, environment, and needs.

    For the Connectivism (which brings together many of the principles of learning theories) this fragmentation is already part of the environment, so no need to refragmentation, only their adequate use it.

    The way to extract the knowledge (PLE) is personal and no one can arrange for us because each one of us learns in their own way and depending on the circumstances.

  7. wow... came back to make a link... and it was already trackbacked. internets are awesome.

  8. Interesting debate here. I think we can agree that learning is too complex an activity to restrict to personal or collective and I like the way the blog post reflects and put it into perspective. I think though as Dave points to in his comments is the notion of role that universities should play in the future. I think social media tools are forcing universities to rethink and reposition the way they operate. This is what I think deserve some attention, thoughts anyone?

  9. LeRoy, you are correct that social media tools are forcing universities to rethink and reposition the way they operate. This is similar to the way that social media tools have forced, for instance, businesses to rethink and reposition, but it is not as well researched. I think one could make a general argument that universities are one of the ultimate expressions of our tendency to fragment and reduce all of life into this discipline or that.

    Many have noted this tendency over the years, but we have yet to find a language or structure to weigh against the overwhelming hierarchy of University (and don't forget that it's the University that pays many of our salaries and that has built much of the knowledge that we all share today).

    I am not speaking against hierarchy, only against hierarchy as the ONLY reality. I'm looking for the rhizomatic structure that ingests the hierarchical University and extends it into … well, into the other rhizomes.

    As I sense in the others in the conversation, I am hopeful that Connectivism and MOOCs are steps toward these larger, more complex heuristics.

  10. It seems to me that we move in and out of social space in a learning environment and that this social space is a combination of personal quiet space where reflection and your unique point of view cooks up something unique and special to offer back to the society that spawned the opportunity. The social dialogue and interaction refines your artifact and perspective through engagement and the quality of your interaction and attitude encourages the society to engage with you. Without the solitary reflection we don't have the independence of thought which prevents herd behavior; without the group dynamic we can easily wander off the trail or re-plow old ground without knowing. I see both elements as necessary to a quality learning environment/network.