Saturday, March 16, 2013

The massive rhizome, #etmooc

To my mind, one of the most positive and encouraging aspects of connectivist MOOCs is the way they change the roles of teacher and student and, thus, the relationship between the two. cMOOCs embody what we mean when we glibly say that teachers should become the guide on the side, curators of information and knowledge, or guides to the context of information and not the content. There must be a number of reasons for this turn in cMOOCs, but two things impress me just now: transfer of information and local causality.

Traditional pedagogical practice has been grounded in the notion of education as a transfer of information: that a teacher, by transferring information, causes learning in students and that this is appropriate. I have argued against this teacher-centric, information-transfer concept of education in numerous other posts, agreeing with those such as Stephen Downes who insist that education is not a process of transferring information from the teacher's mind to the students' minds. There is no transfer of information, no nugget that leaves the teacher's mind to lodge itself in the students' minds. At best, speaking of a transfer of information from teacher to student is a fiction, a stubborn anachronism, a common and convenient manner of misspeaking similar to saying the sun rises, when we know that the Sun is not rising but the Earth is turning, as Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus (6). Downes gives a much more thorough explanation of why this concept of information transer is wrong, and you should follow the link above to read all about it.

However, my reading of Nicolescu's Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002) is revealing to me another problematic assumption underlying traditional education: local causality, which is closely related to the notion of information transfer, by the way. Traditionally, we assume that if a student learns something, then that learning must surely have been caused by someone or something in close proximity, most likely the teacher, but perhaps a book or even an online lesson. This is far too narrow a view of causality that excludes some of the best learning that takes place in a cMOOC.

Early in Manifesto, Nicolescu says that to comprehend the quantum world, we must expand our concept of reality to accommodate quantum weirdness. This means in part that we must expand our concept of causality beyond the merely local to the global. Nicolescu says it better:
Quantum non-separability casts no doubt on causality itself but only on one of its forms: local causality. It does not cast doubt on scientific objectivity, but only on one of its forms: classical objectivity, which is based on the belief that there can be no connection present other than the local. The existence of nonlocal correlations enlarges the field of truth, of Reality. Quantum non-separability tells us that in this world, at least at a certain level, there is a coherence, a unity of laws that insure the evolution of the totality of natural systems. (12)
I want to explore the notion that cMOOCs allow for the existence of nonlocal correlations that enlarge the field of education, but first, keep in mind that this is an exploration—I really don't know where this will go—and I am not denying local causality. Rather, I'm following Nicolescu's example and trying to expand the field of education.

One of the true instructional values of MOOCs lies in their enormous size, which provides an effect similar to that of the enormous number of neurons in the human brain. Our individual neurons share much in common with those of mice, so that the electro-chemical processes are quite similar. This means that the local causality in our brains is pretty much like the local causality in a mouse's brain: stimulus comes in, neuron fires, other neurons fire in response, and eventually the mouse or human makes some response to the stimulus. Local causality explains this rather complicated, but not complex, chain of events. This sequence is merely complicated because, given the time and equipment, we can trace the entire event from stimulus through to response, thus accounting for the response. And by the way, this complicated chain of events appears to explain much about how much of the world works, about why our leg jumps when a hammer strikes our knee or our mouth salivates when we see a cookie. We can quite reliably say that the hammer strike causes our leg to jump. However, these merely complicated chains of causes and effects do not appear sufficient to account for consciousness. They may be necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As I understand it, that humans have a different level of consciousness than mice arises, in part, from a critical number of neurons (I don't know the critical number, if there is just one) which allows for more complex interactions with the external world, more complex patterns and interactions within the internal processes and patterns, and for the evolution of the totality of [the] natural system. It seems to me, more neurons afford a greater pull from the system which enlarges the simple stimulus-response mechanism to a different, more complex level of reality: consciousness. When we have enough neurons working in sufficiently complex patterns, then consciousness emerges. It is pulled, or globally caused, by the overall system itself. Local causality (the push of neurons firing) is not sufficient to explain consciousness. We need a global cause (the pull of a global structure) to make consciousness work, to make it emerge.

Likewise, thousands of students working together can globally cause us learn in ways that a single teacher cannot locally cause.

I think we intuitively know this to be true, but our classical science is not geared to address it. Classical science, as Nicolescu says, relies almost totally on local causality. And as both Nicolescu and Morin have noted, classical science has been wildly successful for the past few centuries. It is a very difficult paradigm to challenge—just as the paradigms developed by Aristotle and Ptolemy were difficult to challenge. Eventually, though reality gets in the way, and as Nicolescu says, whatever our religious or philosophical convictions, we must "bow to experimental evidence and theoretical self-consistency" (16). Quantum mechanics demands more than local causality to account for the entities and events we now observe in our particle accelerators. Just as local causality is too narrow to account for the structures and properties of the Univers, it is too narrow to account for education. We need to incorporate global causality, and cMOOCs do just that, I think.

cMOOCs are not alone or even first in recognizing and utilizing global causality. Rousseau had problems with the mechanistic universe of Newton and Descartes, and then Jung had his notion of the collective unconscious, but if Nicolescu is correct, then quantum physics has made the expansion beyond local causality unavoidable. The concept of global causality seems to me to be everywhere. I recently listened to a Big Ideas lecture from psychologist Marc Fournier entitled Domination and Depression, in which Prof. Fournier demonstrated to my satisfaction that people will assume a role and place within a group that is a function of the group (global causality) rather than any given individual (local causality). When we like this kind of group causality, we call it a supportive community, and when we don't like it, we call it peer pressure. Either way, the cause of one's place in a community is a function of global causality rather than merely local causality.

Even more relevant, my ETMOOC friend Christina Hendricks has just posted about the effects of the pull (global causality) on an individual when they open themselves to a large community. She speaks of the effects on her own behavior, and she quotes David Wiley who describes some of the effects of making his own courses more open to a larger community:
  • He required that all students’ written work must be made public on the course blog. One result of this was that Stephen Downes–a prominent Canadian researcher, blogger, cMOOC facilitator, and editor the popular newsletter OLDaily (online learning daily)–had read some of the work and highlighted a few posts, sending them out to thousands of his followers in the OLDaily newsletter. Wiley noted that the following week, much of the students’ writing got longer, better, and more thoughtful. Such improvement came much better this way than just encouraging students to write more carefully and address issues more deeply through the instructor’s comments.
  • He wrote up a script for a fake sitcom (situation comedy) tv show, to show differing viewpoints on opening up “learning objects” (what are now called open educational resources, I think). He put this up on a course wiki, and some of the graduate students in the course started writing in new characters in order to give even more perspectives. They hadn’t asked or said they were going to do it, but just did. This was, he stated in the talk, a great way to get students involved in creating learning materials for the course itself.
The student writing became better not simply because of local causes from the teacher, but also because of global causes from the wider group (Stephen Downes in this case, who seems to be a general purpose, global cause of things). The graduate students expanded the sitcom with new characters, even though they were not locally caused to do so by the instructor. Rather, they were responding to the pull of the group, a global cause. I should note that Christina sees both a positive and negative side to this global influence: an entity within the group can be encouraged to excel creatively or it can be forced into conformity. I, however, am not sure that these opposing functions are problematic. I think our brains have both creative and conformative global tendencies, and it is the dialogical tension between these two contradictory impulses that makes the brain a functioning unity. I don't see these two different impulses as a problem, but as a source of the dynamism required for a useful and productive mind. It's the tension between conformity and creativity that makes a brain work, even though sometimes we all are too conformist or too creative and disruptive for a given situation.

cMOOCs are much more open to this global causality, and the people who like cMOOCs the most appear to be responding to this global causality. They like it. I like it. It is by far the most rewarding aspect of all the cMOOCs that I have taken.

I do not yet know enough about global causality and the logic of the included middle. Paul Ghils has suggested that I read Howard Kainz's Paradox, Dialectic and system.a Contemporary reconstruction of Hegelian problematic. I intend to do so, and maybe then, I will be more articulate and clear. In the meantime, I will continue playing in cMOOCs. I like the lunar pull of global causality.

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