Screams, Choice and Starting Points

There’s a great pair of blog posts up last week about MOOCs and Connectivism. In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice (Brennan) articulates possible gaps in connectivist thinking. Connectivism and the Primal Scream (Downes) points out some of what the initial article missed. Here are some thoughts on what I see as the pivotal points:

The distinction between Everyday Learning and Intentional Learning is important

There are different senses of learning, as Downes brings up, but I think he goes back and forth between these different types of learning too freely. Everyday Learning is constant – as I walk I learn how far away the floor is from my foot at any given instance. There’s an automaticity involved with everyday learning that isn’t necessarily present in intentional learning. Connectivism seems to focus on this type of everyday learning, and tries to view intentional learning through this lens…not mostly, but fully.

Motivation can work in two directions

It is possible for educators and course design to be demotivating. I’ve experienced this in all types of courses: traditional, MOOCs, connectivist designed courses and even self-directed learning. If a cMOOC has a characteristic that is demotivating for novices, then this is a problem. Or, at the least, it is worth making explicit. It goes beyond a themselves/us tension.

Connectivist approaches focus on multi-literacy

You can probably substitute all sorts of terms here: digital literacies, critical literacies, connectivist literacies, transactional distance, learning skills, whatever – a consideration for how different mediums translate messages will widen a learner’s potential learning. This is the aspect of connectivism I find the most useful and engaging. It’s why I use my time to think and write about connectivism. It’s why I believe connectivism matters.

The Development and Assumption of Learner Autonomy

Brennan makes the case that connectivism assumes a certain set of literacies/learner skills present in the learners to begin with. Downes states that connectivist approaches are able to develop these skills as literacies. Conversely, what I think Downes argues (I could be wrong) is a bit different. He uses the phrase “at some point” a few times in talking about the development of learner autonomy skills, and I get the feeling that this “some point” is supposed to have taken place in a learner prior to starting any connectivist designed course or cMOOC.

With talk of networks and/or communities there will often be a tension between the community perspective and the perspective of the individual components that make up that community. In case you haven’t read much about connectivism before, it has a strong bias towards community perspectives. In practice, connectivism doesn’t design for individual needs, individual prior learning, or individual learner skills. It designs from the community perspectives of these things.

Take the “google” and “cites” examples, for example. With respect to being a city, what matters is the more generalized activity such as proximity, zoning, maybe size, how it impacts traffic, property taxes, etc. To the individual, the use of the building is not primarily to recognize a city – shopping for a the perfect present for your aunt at various high end stores, mailing it at the post office on the, and buying gas on the way home is a process with different intentions. The buildings at the community perspective are much more interchangeable than at the individual perspective. This is the same with google. Although both purposes are present, the google community matters much more to google than it does to me when I use my gmail as part of a series of steps to set up a meeting with someone.

Literacies and Values

With the concept of literacy, a comparison to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) course design is worthwhile – both EFL and connectivism focus on a type of literacy for adult learners. EFL instructional design devotes a major chunk of course time to the use and practice of language. This is consistent with a connectivist approach that privileges experience. In EFL, though, there also includes a wide variety of well researched methods to support such language practice – as all language teachers can tell you: it’s possible to practice harmful language habits, habits that will reduce language skills and meaning transmission.

Language teachers will also tell you, I’m sure, that if you employ use and practice with a beginner level learner in the same way as with an Intermediate or Advanced learner, you’ll lose that learner quickly. A beginner level student simply doesn’t have the fluency skills to keep up with intermediate or advanced language use.

Krashen_on_YoutubeTo be sure, there are some approaches to language learning (ESL, in this case) that guide language acquisition with no or minimal structure (see Krashen). And, it is widely accepted that immersion in a language is one of the best ways to learn that language. Not everyone can afford to move to the country of their target language, however, and not everyone wants to. And those who do so starting from a beginner level, will more than likely go through an extremely difficult initial period of several months immersed in their target language. This is in large part to the difference in automaticity or speed between their level and the level of their environment. Immersion a great way to learn language, but be sure that the people who do stick with it through the rough entry will usually have a great deal of emotional, motivational and situational support.

For digital literacies, not everyone who wants to become multi-literate can afford time to be immersed in digital environments for large amounts of the day, becoming highly networked people. Not everyone wants to. In the same way that language literacies, print or oral, aren’t fully and completely obvious to those who grew up with them as dominant communications, neither might digital literacies be obvious to those who use them simply by immersing themselves in connections.

One of the few lingering pieces of structure in connectivist course design, perhaps left over from traditional education, might be the most needless and yet the most harmful in bringing novices into a beneficial connectivist style of learning: the weekly schedule. Without support, content novices or digital literacy novices might not be able to keep the pace in the same way that beginner language learners are lost in authentic target language use.

Recently, and not so recently, Downes has commented on the use of the word value. I think this sheds light on connectivism in practice and its structure-phobic overcompensation. Because one side of the word is associated with money, numbers and information measurements, the entire sense of the word is rejected. And with good intention, I would say. It’s unfortunate that the world is obsessed with money and standardized measures, and unfortunate that more people don’t see this as the social disease that it is.

values as perspective

But, there is a more neutral sense of the word value that conveys position, point, form and representation. Value can be a snapshot or a pause at position and time, not to judge good or bad, but to reflect and make decisions based on where we’ve been and how we want to develop from that position on. It is the ability to inflict change in experience. Change in experience, not simply experience, is what differentiates individuals and is what learners can aspire to have control over. Contextually literate people will be able to attempt control at a speed that won’t disrupt ongoing experience significantly, for many instances. For beginners or novices, this will be less and it will be a skill they need help internalizing. The gap is emergent, it’s a distinction not a degree.

I want to bring value into the world. To me, this has to include thinking, choosing, trying different things, and becoming a more refined individual. This happens through attempted control over our experiences. How people judge or rate that experience is often beside the point.

The gap in connectivist logic, to state what Brennan says in a different way, is that structure is experience gathered, and when we shun structure all-together we make it difficult for individuals to learn how to use a community’s experience.  

At some point educators have to trust learners. They have to let themselves be resources, having faith that students will see their course design, their opinions, that students will see them as suggestion and not obligation. If the Learner Autonomy “some point” is assumed before a course starts, shouldn’t this one be as well?


7 thoughts on “Screams, Choice and Starting Points

  1. Hi,

    and thanks for the thoughtful response. It’s always interesting, and here enlightening, to have a synthesis of your own work, and a crit, to read. Thanks for that, and for the careful thought you’ve put in.

    My rambling answer to Downes’ reply is here

    I think Downes response to my article, was, in many ways, a response to a different set of points. And, at times, offbeam. His comparison of his ability to differentiate trees from crows as a reply to the genuine difficulty involved in threading your way through an information rich multiplatform environment as a novice, for example. He seems to suggest I argue that people should rely on educators, and only educators for their self confidence, and that considering a person to be a novice, in any manner, past the age of ten is insulting.

    He doesn’t, really, mention novices – the main point of my article – until about two thirds the way in. And it’s a brief engagement. And his defence is, mainly, I think, a defence of Connectivism as a theory in general, and not one that takes novices as a specific context. My article is a poor platform from which to launch into a more general discussion, defence, or assassination of Connectivism, due to it’s narrow focus.

    My article wasn’t intended to fill in these more general gaps, and some have read it as a more general criticism than it is. And some of the gaps Stephen fills in are not really gaps in the article. They are, at times, componenets of some other discussion.

    I find Connectivism.s approach to Literacies/Digital Literacy interesting. But, then, I’m an educator, with pretty good metacognitive and learning strategies, and a lot of experience of online resource sifting. I’ve no doubt Connectivism appeals to, and facilitates the development of lots of people like and unlike me.

    Downes never states that Connectivism helps novices develop these literacies. His work largely ignores novice users, and Connectivism makes the assumption, explicitly, that the users will already be digitally literate in the modes and mechanics courses require. Your take on “at some point” is probably about right. Connectivism, as a theory, is not interested in developing the base literacies. It assumes you have quite a significant set already in place ( technical skill, the ability to navigate multiple simultaneous streams, the ability to evaluate sources on the fly and the set of outsorcing skills and assumptions this implies, and pretty good metacognitive strategies too).

    Connectivism as a practice, is now tending to do more here. Centralised seminars help, peer help forums are giving mixed results, howtos being bundled in with intro webpages of welcome emails. People are being given advice, and having paths suggested. Tognazzini has good advice here, give your novices clear paths, and allow your experts to go offroad. Individual practitioners are fitting their MOOCs to more mirror the reality they are encountering.

    Much like Unguided Constructivists began to provide scaffolding, guidance and instruction
    in their classes as a response to watching their novices drown. We’re educators. We specialise in knowing when to hold someones hands, and when to push them off the cliff.


  2. Thanks for the comment, I agree that Stephen wasn’t replying directly to your arguments, but I do think your article is a fine place to bring discussion about connectivism on a grander scale. Part of what the theory needs now is a look into to some of the finer details of its implications, which will have large effects on how people use it. Any discussion of this type has to always be backdropped by some of the more basic characteristics of the theory and with respect to how its practiced by its champions.

    Stephen does write about ideals and ideal situation much of the time, so I didn’t read as much into the 10-year-old point in the way that you did. If I had to guess, this point comes from the change in brain plasticity in humans at this age, and probably from a lot of misconceptions about connectivism.

    As educators with developed metacognitive and learning strategies, an online learning experience, it’s often difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of the learner who doesn’t possess these qualities. I’m glad you’re looking at this and seem mindful of it with respect to connectivism.

    I do think you’re right, too, that connectivism is practice seems to be doing more. But, it would help were this made explicit – in the same way that it’s accepted that people need to learn the finer skills of writing and literary devices even when they already know how to read and write.

    The difference with your last point about constructivim is that there is no built in rejection of educator led scaffolding, guidance and instruction in constuctivism like there seems to be in connectivism.


  3. Looks like we have a lot of common ground here.

    And, perhaps, a common idea of the project as it is ongoing – tinkering, meaningfully, with the theory, is an ongoing necessity for the practice, and that, exactly as you say, it needs to be made explicit. I think that’s a good way of expressing it.


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