CCK09 begins

Steven Downes and George Siemens’ online course ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ has started its 2009 run. The introductory video is online here. Week 1 readings here.

Although it has only just started, I already have doubts about whether I’ll be able to keep involved with this over the semester – I’ve had to take on a new course (that I’m teaching) at very short notice, I have some work travel, and a bunch of extra deadlines already looming.

My position going into the course is that I have some issues with Connectivism – though I doubt I’ll make it through all this week’s reading list. I did review Stephen Downes description of Connectivism, where he also responds to some comments and critique from Tony Forster and Bill Kerr.

My initial thoughts below…

My feeling is that Connectivism is a somewhat forced attempt to combine two very different and distinct things – the neural processes involved in individual learning, and community processes involved in learning within groups/communities.

At one level we have a highly reductionist view – its all about the neural connections, how brains work at this low level. At the other level its about how people interact and make connections with other people. And entirely removed from this is any acceptance of higher level models or theories of how individuals may learn. Because brains have neurons, not models, explanations of learning that invoke mental models are rejected:

And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks.

Well, individual people can learn without networks of other people (though trial and error, dogged persistence, observation, etc.) – so perhaps networks of people can be considered an epiphenomena of individual learning – it does not appear to be descriptive (and is clearly not essential) to how an individual learns.

Meanwhile, I don’t quite understand why we need to reject the emergent ephiphenomena around individual learning – theories derived from thinking about how mental models (for example) are formed are not just useful for thinking about how learning occurs, they can lead to ways to improve teaching and learning facilitation. If we restrict our thinking to be just about how networks of neurons learn then we seem to lose an awful lot.

Meanwhile, if we consider emergent phenomena more generally we can argue out that medicine is a form of applied biology, biological systems are emergent, and dependent on, underlying chemistry. Behaviour of molecules and atoms themselves may be more accurately described through physics. Layer upon layer of emergence and epiphenomena are at work here. Doctors do learn about biology and chemistry, to a degree, but their expertise is focussed at the level of phenomena with which they are primarily concerned: the health of the individual.

If we accept the strong claims of Connectivism do we not also make the case for denying Psychology as a field of study? Stop studying human behaviour at the individual level, because it’s all epiphenomena and get with Congitive Neuroscience and focus our study exclusively on the neurons, because that is where it’s really happening?

I accept that this may be a gross misreading, but hey, as I said at the beginning I haven’t finished the recommended reading yet ;-)

9 thoughts on “CCK09 begins

  1. Daniel Livingstone

    Comments on my own post…

    Connectivism is a theory of learning that very deliberately looks at networks. Networks of neurons, concepts and learners. So it attempts to cover learning at very different levels, but always looking at the networks.
    How ‘concepts’ can be accepted as a level of abstraction when mental models, logic and propositional knowledge cannot is something I don’t quite get though.
    What if I’m trying to learn propositional logic? ;-)

  2. George Siemens

    Hi Daniel,

    You’re right in the statement that learning (at various levels) always draws on the network structure. In essence, connnectivism attempts to describe how/why connections form and the attributes they exhibit. Neural and social networks have been discussed at length in various fields: AI, connectionism, sociology, physics, etc. But, as you note in your original post, the neural and social (I would add external, because some of our information networks include technological devices, not social connections – i.e. google is a node. as is Delicious. Skype. Twitter. A library. A book. An article) networks fail to address the “how” of learning. In this regard, I’ve come to emphasize conceptual dimensions of learning.

    For example, words and language are shaped by use and context. Some – such as Chomsky – have argued for some type of universal grammar. Others – Wittgentstein – argue for language as a function of use. More recently, Pinker has argued that language is thought and action (i.e. subclass structures that influence use – a middle ground of sorts between Chomsky/Wittgenstein). Or, what about the experience of learning math? or physics? I learned by encountering concepts and connecting them in different ways. In fact, I’d go so far as to state that our understanding is related to how we have connected concepts. An expert has a more nuanced conceptual network – she understands how the introduction of a new element influences what already exists. A psychologist has an easier time learning a new theory of motivation than does a farmer. Why? The existing state of understanding (patterns of connections between concepts/ideas) is more developed in the psychologist in relation to psychological concepts. The farmer, in contrast, will better understand new fertilizers or the impact of weather on particular crops (where to irrigate and when).

    To return to the three dimensions of connectivism: the neural dimension informs us of what is happening biologically. The external/social level informs us about what is happening in terms of social/technological interaction. The conceptual level then refers to “learning”…and, unfortunately, this is an area that is still rather underdeveloped…

    Hope that clarifies my stance…

  3. Frances Bell

    This is bizarre, reading your post whilst listening to it being discussed on this recording
    I share your discomfort on the conflation of neural and social networks. From my participation in CCK08, it became clear to me that connectivism is interpreted differently by its advocates and even its creators. One thing that fascinated me was to look at connectivism itself as a knowledge network – how does it form and decay? see

  4. Fleep Tuque

    I remember this being a big topic of discussion in last year’s class, too – is it really a theory at all or just a refinement of existing theories or just utter claptrap?

    I found it much more helpful to just think about the concepts as they were being presented and not worry about the “political” aspects of whether or not connectivism is a theory on par with constructivism etc. because the network lens of analysis seemed useful to me at both the individual (how the brain functions) and the group level (how communities of learners function).

    Will be interested in hearing your thoughts as the class goes on and don’t worry too much about “keeping up” with everything, do what you can when you’re really in the mood for it and you’ll hopefully enjoy it as much as I did. :)

  5. Daniel Livingstone

    Apologies for taking too long to approve the comments above – I didn’t get the usual email notifications from WordPress. Most unusual.

    Now just to find time to reflect on these comments and comment back :-)

  6. Bill Kerr

    Link to the paper I presented to a conference that George Siemens organised in 2007: challenge to connectivism

    “I’d like to look at the notion of radical discontinuity, that there is radical discontinuity happening in some domains but possible not in others:
    - new tools, web apps YES
    - new learning environments – augmented conversation, communication and collaboration YES
    - new curriculum NOT YET?
    - New epistemology – I can’t see it
    - new political awareness – I think that’s needed, that a lot of the blockage is at that level”

    I also summarised parts of Andy Clark’s book “Being There” at that time as evidence that there were other existing theories of distributed cognition around and so we didn’t need a new one: enactivism (scroll down for book summary notes)

  7. Daniel Livingstone

    Thanks Bill,

    As I’ve noted several times, Ive not managed to cover the full and complete reading list given in week one – but I did note that your paper was referenced… so George and Stephen certainly seem to be taking critique on board. To what degree they have successfully addressed the critique I am not sure – I’ll have a lot more reading to do :-)

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