In his 2005 essay Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, George Siemens concludes with a bold assertion that "The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe." He goes on to clarify what he means, saying that "our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. … As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses." This is one of the most contentious statements in the essay. I work with college faculty to help them integrate electronic writing into their classes, and I use Connectivism as the pedagogical framework for our discussions. When we read this essay, most of my faculty balk at the idea that a conduit to new information is more important than the information they are giving their students today.
I, too, have worried with this statement, but I think I am beginning to come to terms with it, though perhaps not in the sense that Mr. Siemens suggests. In Edgar Morin's discussion of why we need to develop complex thought, he says that "the intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system [emphasis mine]. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically" (11). I think Morin's thoughts about the constitutive nature of connections is relevant to Connectivism.
Pipe is a somewhat unfortunate term as it suggests a mere conduit through which the thing of real value passes, be it water, gas, or knowledge, and this metaphor reinforces our notion that knowledge is a chunk of something that we teachers have and that passes through a pipe (lecture, discussion, textbook, demonstration, etc.) to the students who want that particular chunk. This is not quite right. The pipe does not transfer the knowledge, the pipe is the knowledge. Rather, let me change terms: the connection does not transfer the knowledge, the connection is the knowledge. The connection is constitutive of the knowledge. A connection is not a benign conduit through which knowledge passes undisturbed from Point A, the teacher, to Point B, the student.
How is this so? I think what we are learning about brain activity can help clarify this constitutive nature of connections. A single thought, a single chunk of knowledge, is not a little kernel existing somewhere in our heads; rather, it is a pattern of neurons all firing in unison. Each neuron — which could be called a pipe — transmits an electro-chemical signal to the other neurons in the pattern, but it is not a benign pipe through which a thought moves. It isn't really a pipe, either. Rather, each neuron is constitutive of the thought. All the connections (pipes) firing in harmony are constitutive of the thought, and without them all, then it's a different thought.
If we make a fractal leap up the scale from neurons in a brain to students in a classroom (an admittedly risky leap), then we see that the connections within the classroom are, in fact, constitutive of the learning. Without the connections, the pattern — firing from the teacher's brain to the whiteboard demonstration and then to the students' brains and back again — would be broken. No pattern of connections = no learning.
This patterning of connections helps to explain why different students learn different things from the same lesson. The different patterns of light, sound, energy, and everything else between each student and the white board and the incredibly different patterns in their respective brains creates different patterns of meaning for each student. Most patterns, or understandings, are just subtly different, while some are radically different. It should be amazing that any two students form the same knowledge, and it is not at all surprising that most of them don't. And as we also know from brain research, these knowledge patterns have to be reinforced again and again to gain any traction in our minds, but the patterns are never exactly the same. Actually, some recent research suggests that we learn better if we change places each time we study a particular lesson. The shift in pattern seems to help abstract the learning, or reinforce the general pattern.
The connection, then, isn't just more important than the knowledge. It is the knowledge.