Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Value of Connectivism and CCK11

In one of our past Elluminate sessions in CCK11, George Siemens mentioned a book by Olaf Sporns called Networks of the Brain (2011). Something about the book piqued my interest, so I'm reading it now. The book addresses the question "What can network science tell us about the brain" (1), and I confess up front that I do not have either the scientific or mathematical backgrounds to follow all of Prof. Sporns' arguments, but as with most conversations that I engage, I'm reading it through the foggy windows of my own interests and biases, so it is still worthwhile.

I'm interested in the book because connectivity and complexity are at the heart of how Sporns is attempting to understand the brain. He says in his Introduction that science in general is informed by the perspective of complex networks:
Increasingly, science is concerned with the structure, behavior, and evolution of complex systems such as cells, brains, ecosystems, societies, or the global economy. To understand these systems, we require not only knowledge of elementary system components but also knowledge of the ways in which these components interact and the emergent properties of their interactions. … All such complex systems display characteristic diverse and organized patterns [which are] the outcome of highly structured and selective coupling between elements, achieved through an intricate web of connectivity (1).
As I have mentioned in an earlier post, Edgar Morin says that this emergence of complex network thinking is a third great paradigm in the development of science, the first being the static, mechanistic universe of Newton and the second being the declining universe of thermodynamics. I hear Sporns agreeing with Morin that the idea of complex networks is radically changing the way that scientists explore and describe (or map, to use Deleuze and Guattari's term) reality. If this is the case, then it seems to me that Connectivism, and the discussion emerging about that concept, is a response to this new and emerging way of viewing the world. Connectivism is an attempt to move beyond the reductionism of Cartesian dualism (despite all its marvelous successes) to a richer, more complex understanding.

What does this mean for education? I am not so well read in educational theory as to say reliably, but lack of knowledge does not appear to be a strong deterrent, so I'll make a few observations, hoping that others better informed will correct me. The other three major strains of educational theory—behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism—appear to me to focus primarily on the individual. In those theories, knowledge is something in an individual brain or mind or both. Learning is something that happens in that same individual, discrete mind, whether we think of the mind as an inscrutable black box (as in behaviorism) or a translucent computational device (as in cognitivism). Knowledge and learning, then, belong to the individual student and are observable, measurable, and describable only in terms of that individual student. This attitude is reflected in our grading economy, which insists upon an inviolable and sacred correspondence between 1 student and 1 grade. As everyone knows, group grades suck.

This reductionism is precisely what Connectivim tries to overcome, while at the same time respecting the truly impressive achievements of the reductionist theories. Reductionist theories and the schools built upon them largely favor "only knowledge of elementary system components," or the individual student; whereas Connectivism attempts to add "knowledge of the ways in which these components interact and the emergent properties of their interactions." Connectivism does not deny that knowledge and learning occur in individual students; rather, it counters the diminutive and reductionist idea that knowledge and learning occur only in individual students. Connectivism says for me that knowledge and learning are most properly understood in terms of individual students and the interactions of students with their ecosystems and the emergent properties of all that dynamic interaction. This is a radical difference in understanding, a precipitous difference. Really. A school built on Connectivism will not function or look like existing schools.

Now, I am not suggesting that Connectivism has invented complexity or networking theory, nor am I suggesting that cognitivists and constructivists are total reductionists with no understanding of complexity and networking structures. Even as unread as I am, I can think of scholars such as Wenger who have incorporated the interactions within groups into their ideas about education. I'm speaking in this post on a very general level, fully aware that most anyone who reads this could think of numerous scholars from the other camps who have already anticipated many of the insights of Connectivism. I am in no way suggesting that Connectivism is totally new. I'm not sure that a totally new idea has ever existed, and largely, I regard any complaint by curmudgeons that this idea or that theory is not new to be a red herring. Who cares? Rather, I want to ask if an idea or theory is useful.

Connectivism is useful for me. It gives me a conversational space within which to connect with and engage others who are examining and thinking—in light of complex, networked systems—about how we humans create and share knowledge.

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