Vygotsky divides the idea of development into two developmental levels: a potential developmental level and a completed developmental level. Starting at the potential developmental level a learner can begin to complete a task with assistance; then at the completed developmental level the learner can complete the task autonomously. Between these two barriers is created a Zone where the task is completed with decreasingly less assistance. Since Vygotsky’s time, his works and the ZPD itself has sparked grander theories and applications. The model goes something like this: Information in the form of a skill, concept, idea, etc. is initiated, passes through the ZPD propelled by autonomy, and eventually leads to internalization, causing development.
Using this model as a backdrop, in Connectivism what is developed?
The term ‘development’ includes an encapsulated process that has the ability to grow and change over time, compared to what it once was. In ZPD for child developmental (Vygotsky’s initial application), the human child is the one that grows – and there are similar answers for other types of learning as seen through the ensuing constructivist theories: the human learner develops some skill or part of them self. This is problematic for Connectivism because of the idea of Internalization. A learner is said to have internalized information from the environment when they are able to complete a task without assistance or, autonomously. In Connectivism, internalization of information itself is not always the goal…it is beside the point.
For this reason, in Connectivism the ideas of initiating and passing through the zone don’t make very much sense. A better image is to say that connections are established and exist. A connection sets up information access between the two barriers of the zone, yet really includes no strict implication of directional movement or even point of exchange. They set up the ways of learning, for example internalizing, then from the point of establishment connections develop over time, becoming an encapsulated processes in themselves. The potentials of learning are constantly being set, adapting to environments, interacting with other connections, being neglected or overused; they learn and develop, not directly related to content between potential and completed development levels, but according to their own intentions. They are at an incidental level compared to the system of representation which uses the connections.
In Vygotsky’s version of the ZPD, the process of passing through is the change that is considered learning, and this ‘awakens’ development. However, there is a another, non-socially based change that he touches on, and this is the selection of what will begin to pass through the ZPD towards internalization. As potentials are set, the selection is determined by what has already been internalized, a process originating in that completed developmental level of the individual. What a person can already do dictates what is selected into doing with assistance. And, generally, this makes sense – if I can ride a bike then a skill like poping-a-wheelie might be next on the agenda because the wheelie trick now gives me a bigger thrill, or now makes me stand out as cooler among the other bike riders, or something. Out of all the things that I can possible initiate, popping-a-wheelie increases in value once I learn to ride a bike. For Connectivism, it is the same. What is valued in establishing and maintaining connections depends on information that has already been valued.
The process of valuing information doesn’t change when the model moves from ZPD theory to Connectivism theory, only the focus of internalization dries up. Vygotsky was concerned mainly with the internalizing and not with the selecting, in part, because of his context. In considering foundational Child Development it isn’t really worthwhile to put too much focus on learning that isn’t internalized, because much of what happens in that realm is kind of necessarily internalized simply to function as individuals. Connectivism, on the other hand, can put a highly weighted focus on the selection of information because distributed content has reached levels that would now make distributed content in Vygotsky’s day seem negligible by comparison. Potential development levels are now filled with abundant amounts of information, creating ecologies unique to each individual, placing individual existence among a unity of the senses not comparable to anything since numerous generations prior to the electronic age. One implication of this awareness shift is the ability to grow much more refined, personalized and successful educational networks than ever before. A further implication is the increasing importance of learner autonomy concepts. Rather than having authorities, or blanket design decide our means of information intake, learners themselves can and need to grow and develop or consciously delegate command of their own connections that set the potentials of what they want to learn.
McLuhan often wrote of this shift from the fragmented senses of print-culture past to the resonant ‘unified field’ psyche that electric technology has brought. The digital age has accelerated this shift, or as he often calls it, a recreation of the mental processes of primitive man. Imagine how the introduction of print changed the frequency and location of information access: first there is instantaneous, face-to-face spoken word, then print comes along to initially allow a much slower access. From that point, each new innovation in distributed content (better paper, written language, telegraph, radio, etc) improved information access bit by bit, not by replacing the old but by adding to the available modes of frequencies and placements. With regards to communication technology, a spectrum of time and place has been filling in since that initial fragmentation. Nowadays, the finer points on the spectrum are being filled in, with innovations as distinct in frequencies as the difference between Twitter and Instant Chat.
I’m not sure the human psyche is destined to return to that mental process of primitive man, though, at least not in educational matters. By recognizing our connections and trying to make them grow into more successful networks based on what we want to learn and based on the affordances of various potential connections, Connectivism can be an answer to the consistent warnings of McLuhan. Making connections, valuing information, and pedagogy may indeed have always been a part of intentional learning, but to dismiss a theory simply because of this is a failure to ask the right questions. Why do these things seem more important now? Why are they overflowing into learner autonomy? What environmental affordances have changed? As we start to leave behind this transition era of education, into where the spectrum of communication surrounds us with a field of potential options, it would be a shame to lose the gifts of deliberation and thought that print-based communication has awoken in humans. Learners can use skills like reflection and the thinking through of thoughts, long-term discourse, and waiting……considering, fragmenting. These skills were a necessity before, but in post-literacy days they are powerful options as learners are less at the mercy of their availability.