Friday, November 27, 2009

On connectivism

Steve Downes' notions of connected learning is of course not new. He himself has been introducing the basic premise for many years now. Further, Illich (I argue) described it without reference to Neuroscience, or the Internet and its billions of artifacts and technical channels that gave it light. Bill Kerr and others argued that Connectivism is a method within the learning theory of Social Constructivism - I think I agree with this argument, but obviously if Connectivism is a method then it is one with an encompassing and complicated understanding, with plenty of evidence to consider. Whether or not it is a "valid" learning theory really doesn't matter. Learning theories themselves are poorly understood and practically useless to us anyway.

What is obviously new, and where all parties would probably agree, is that Internet technologies are becoming socially accepted and widely used. The result of this wide adoption and popular use gives us, among many other things, a tangible glimpse of recorded informal research and learning. The potential uses of this evidence has implications for formalised education - if only in considering how we view and potentially measure learning, but more hopefully - how it might bring about entirely new educational services, or give much more weight to existing ones such as recognition of prior learning, and open access education.

Education is culturally disconnected
Unfortunately, we in the education sector (including Downes), have not yet made enough sense of this vast and quickly changing array of behavioral changes through popular media. Not even the marketeers have worked it out yet - but they're getting close.

I've been watching the Youtube search feed on Social Media for about a year now and notice that more and more marketing and publicity services are dominating the subject.. educational voices are almost nowhere to be seen anymore, but for Michael Wesch. I agree with Sierra, education should look to marketing literature and practices, as they will likely inform our own motives better than educational theories will.
Here is my Youtube playlist on Social Media.

Further to the idea that education is absent, the Wikipedia article for Social Media had no reference to education until just now - when I added two links to compensate. The See Also section (a good indicator of the interest groups that are perceived to be associated with the concept) is dominated by media and marketing concepts. I added the links to the Connectivism and Networked Learning pages... my point here though is, am I the only one thinking about this!? Clearly I'm the only Wikipedia editor who is...

This absence of a relationship between education and 2 of the top 10 most used information sources is worrying but not-at-all surprising. There has been a long and barren relationship between education and popular culture for over a century now. Education has been absent from reality for as long as I've been a part of it and today is no different - even when Social Media has direct associations to the rhetoric of educational practice.

The challenge I think, is to educationally consider the culture being recorded in these mediascapes, in such a way so as to ask let alone answer more than the obvious questions. The obvious (and pointless) questions are "how can we use these tools to do what we're doing more effectively?" Questions like this miss the bigger issue. In depth engagement with social media seems to lead many educators to the question, "is what I am doing even relevant anymore? what is my new relationship to this culture - if it becomes dominant in my society?" Journalism has asked itself, the entertainment industry has asked itself, the retail sector has itself, the government arena is asking itself, why not the education sector? So far, too few of us are asking these questions, fewer still are exploring answers.

But can we find and measure learning evidence in Social Media that is disciplined enough to warrant such serious rethinking in our institutionalised practices? Given that the work we do is economically protected and market regulated, what will the motivation be for asking such a question?

Where to begin?
Take the institution to the media, don't try and bring the media into the institution.

We (inside the institutions) need to go into social media and networked spaces to find out how it works and what our relationship to it might be. This means having an account on Wikipedia, Youtube, Slideshare, Twitter, uStream and Blogger or Wordpress and engaging with the networks there and at least finding a synergy. From a management perspective we should stop setting up internal systems that duplicate these cultural mediascapes, and sidetrack our engagement by catering to irrelevant institutional concerns. If the only reason you're using a Learning Management System is to easily manage assessment and feedback, then you're not asking a relevant question. If you haven't stopped to think if an "ePortfilio" service isn't already being offered in the "gift economy" market, then you're not asking if there is even a need beyond our institutional assessment methods. Is there really any benefit to having an internal blogging system beyond brand awareness? Same for a social networking system, or a wiki etc? What do we gain by having our own small and inadequate versions of the wider space? Why do we persist using password protected networks and Wifi? Do we even need a physical and centralised learning space apart from some specialised and technical facilities?

If a small percentage of staff in an educational institution achieved status on social media sites, that would be evidence of a readiness to discuss a relationship I think. Status such as Wikiversity Custodian or Wikipedia Administrator, or 200 thousand views on Youtube or 50 thousand views on Slideshare, or to have had a hand in creating a featured book in Wikibooks, or article in Wikipedia. If a number of people had such involvement then I think we'd be in a position to discuss a new research and educational relationship with our society in the wake of a Socialised Media culture. Until then we are merely as critically engaged as the common consumer, ignorant of the depths and personal customisations, illiterate on the workings of a larger picture. The path to achieving such incite does not involve the time spent humouring internal systems that do little more than interact with 15-300 participants motivated by fees and assessment.

I find Ask Ninja's video What is Podcasting persistently relevant to this vision:

I first used Ask Ninja's video in the post What would it be like to be the rain, where I describe what a socially networked researcher and educator might be like.

The key idea in these references is for an academic to set up a social media presence that affords people an opportunity to consider their work and expertise along side all other interests they may have. The academic's work is positioned so as to offer people a seamless transition between their everyday life, and their interest or motivation to learn from or with the academic. It is easy to do in a social media setting. I think once you do this, you start to wondering how much might be possible like this in "real" life. Setting up our own sites and password protected networks is just kidding ourselves, and misunderstanding the flows of information and knowledge in this culture.
If just a few of use can find that sweet spot of seemless transition, then we can reveal to people (as Wesch does) what they may have not recognised before, that they are closer than they think to the accreditation we offer, or have a significant interest in the subject, or are indeed capable of sitting the assessment, or simply finding a quick and true answer to a small question at a particular moment. If that doesn't motivate institutional change, then I suppose we'll have to just wait for the market demands growing along these lines.
This shift is going to take 10-15 years in 3 stages.

1st is the era in which we in formal education learn to use these spaces with authentic expertise and to demonstrate its disciplined use (3-5years). The struggle here is in the distraction of those woefully inadequate internal systems we keep setting up.

2nd is to show people who have the innate ability (net gens due in our undergrad courses in the next 3 years) that they don't have to play our institutionalized routine if they can remaster their own media worlds to disciplined study and learning (another 3-5 years for that to bed down).

3rd era begins when our society is more fully connected (2/3rds instead of the 1/3rd it is now), and begins to appreciate these alternative pathways to educational credential - even comes to expect it in some quarters. A measure of success in this will be when people not formally engaged in university education start following friends or family online, or by engaging as informal "students" themselves.
All this assumes we - the educational institutions, remain the gatekeepers to class and income.


Tomaz Lasic said...

(Another) good piece Leigh, food for thought, as the cliche goes...

I have particularly connected with the idea of education being increasingly culturally irrelevant. My mantra to education stakeholders [gotta love the lingo] from kids to superintendents has been, and not without some heated arguments, that education is folding on itself as a technical pursuit constantly 'administered (to)', tweaked and 'perfected' to ... cultural irrelevance. "We'll get the sucker right one day, don't matter if it's out of whack with the world we REALLY live in." Education is (sadly, at least to me) not seen primarily as a deeply shifting cultural enterprise.

I do think though that we are looking through the rosy, 'best case' scenarios a little when it comes to future, education and its merger with (social) media spaces.

Democratisation, producer/consumer shifts -> shifts in power, primacy of stimulation, engagement, 'stream' etc. etc. can be fickly beasts. Educators are sometimes a bit slow to react not only because of professional arthritis gathered through the centuries of classroom ed. but because they/we 'just haven't quite figured it out" how it's going to work" with people who are put in our care and for whom we as educators care deeply (I know I do) - the kids!

We are at the incredibly exciting juncture in this whole shebang of education, yes. I think you are quite prescient in the 3 stages too (time will tell but I'm with you there !) but let us for start see, as you suggest, education as part of culture, not as separate from it. We need a good hard look and conversation about relevance yes, but we need the diversity of voices in it. That's just a wonderfully, frustratingly human thing to do.



Minhaaj said...

Wonderful second part. Seperation of institution with learning and your famous King is dead, Long live the King metaphor are identical. Although first part of your post came as a joke to me. Why would you discuss something as hilarious as connectivism to relate to your discussion about decentralization of education. I would of all was atleast surprised by you considering that pack of disconnected verbosity called connectivism :)