We are all Located in the Same Universe!

“Togetherness” is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. “Togetherness,” apparently a spiritual resource of the new suburbs, works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart. (p63)

I can’t help but think of Connectivism when I read the above quote. My image of the popular interpretation of the theory is similar to this description of “togetherness”, based around the concept that All things are Connected. In this way, it’s not so much a theory as it is just a description of some ideology, one that comes off a bit cult-like at times, unfortunately.

When All things are Connected then Nothing is Connected – this is simply an observation of the default, the base. Stating that All things are Connected is just another way of pointing out that we are all located in the same universe.

Clearly, some things are more connected than others. This is true for the weather – the number of clouds in the sky is more connected to an afternoon thunderstorm than the color of my hat – and it is also true for education and learning.

Painting an abstract picture of ‘connectedness’ may be useful for popularizing the idea, but in practice it is a very shallow approach to intentional learning. Perhaps as Jacobs mentions, it creates an ultimate ideal that unless action is directed towards this ideal, said action is frowned upon, not reinforced, unvalued. Learners are felt to be forced to choose between being a part of the mighty connection of all things, or nothing.

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?

A City Sidewalk Itself is Nothing

A city sidewalk itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. (p29)

A connection is an abstraction, a representation of the intermediary space between two encapsulated wholes where they can mingle symbiotically. Using a theory of Connectivism, if it is to be useful, will help educators (including autonomous learners) build successful networks out of the available mediums that surround.

Connnectivism as a representation of representations.

Assigned Readings and Privilege

The issue of course design and assigned readings has been occupying my deeper thoughts recently. At the start of my current course there was some talk about it, and this blog post by Kate Bowles from a few days ago has fueled some of my ideas. Kate suggests a great idea for students at the start of any given course to provide individually contextual resources in lieu of providing introductions. It’s an especially nice idea because the act of “introducing yourself” is kind of embedded in participants’ description of their context and in their contribution of resources that are meaningful to them. However, I don’t see the innovation of participant contributed resources as being mutually exclusive to instructor provided resources. It would be unwise to do away assigned readings.

Perhaps there’s not some great anti-course-readings movement out there that’s sweeping across education. But, like I said, the idea got me thinking, and I do think there’s a few important points to be made about why course readings are not evil, and how perhaps they can be salvaged while educators bring in much needed learner contribution. If assigned readings are better understood maybe it will lead to better use.

Kate describes course readings in terms of a habitual sign of expertise, and points out the risk of focusing “our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others”. These are valid points if we’re going to view the learner ↔ teacher relationship as human to human. I suggest, that with the presence of the term ‘expert’, the relationship here is primarily human to body-of-knowledge.

Now, keep in mind that non-human entities have agency and can learn. They are encapsulated processes in themselves. And, a body of knowledge is one such encapsulated process.

Bodies of Knowledge, or Topics, consist of experience (change in experience, actually, and thus I still prefer the term ‘value’, but…matters for another post), including expert decisions about how to represent that topic. Selected readings are one of the ways that learners access a body of knowledge. This may come off as habitual, as chances are assigned readings will reflect long-standing, basic information about that subject area – cores tend to be much less dynamic than fringes. To me, assigned readings are not like replicating one person’s expertise, or signing a contract (grading and measuring learning certainly are), it’s more like establishing a relationship with a body of knowledge. When an instructor decides some readings for a course they are executing that body of knowledge, representing it through the course readings for learners to initiate a relationship with.

When entities undergo relationship, it is never fully nor exhaustive. We have to encounter other entities in some way. And, to be sure, if course readings are the only way learners relate to a topic, then it’s probably a limited way to experience a topic. They’ll only experience the basics, being out of touch with the current environment. This holds true for the opposite, though – the absence of expert input will leave participants only exposed to novice contributions. They’ll experience only the contextual side, developing a mere surface appreciation for the topic. The better questions in this case are how to use various types of readings and how learners are prepared to encounter these readings (ie: how secondary schools prepare students to handle information). In including the potential for both sides, the problem of assigned readings can thus be addressed depending on what best suits the specific course.

There are some implications of eliminating assigned readings as a policy:

  • Something about it just seems illogical – I want to hear what the expert has to say, especially if I’m paying for some course and, presumably, paying for access to such a person’s time. In my experience, more often than not in a class where instructor presence is particularity low (which also seems to be more often than not these days) one or two students will begin to dominate forums with resources, notes and discussion topics. Expert dominance is traded for a limited number of participant dominance.
  • To strictly get rid of assigned readings enforces a Human Privileged view of learning. This may not be so bad in itself, but it does raise some concerns. Non-human entities can lean – Can they, should they be ‘educated’? That is to say, do they have intentions? Is this the same as having agency? If topics are merely at the controls of human learners, suppressing and allowing how the different sides of them that are allowed to relate, it can call into question the very idea of non-human entities being able to learn. The definition of ‘learn’ would become wide enough to simply use the word ‘change’.
  • Bodies of Knowledge don’t only serve educational purposes. They serve practice. Often instructors’ lives overlap between educators of the field and participants in the field. To expect that the instructor should participate in the field from an educational perspective will shape the view of that body of knowledge in an Educational Privileged way. With practice less represented, the change in experience at the core of any topic will be more difficult to observe. It means distorting a topic because we want novices to learn in a specified way. At the very least, we have to be aware of this and be sure that this is how we want to collect and gather information for future generations.
  • The structure of relation doesn’t seem to fit other emerging theories. As learners, do we want to change our environment or change ourselves? To fight our environment, or to live within it? Both are useful in different situations, but maybe this is the point…when we declare something off-limits it removes the ability to use it situationally, or to connect in such a way. We start to see and expect other objects, entities and resources as having to adapt to us, the human, rather than us existing ecologically within our environment. I realize that this is all quite theoretical, and I don’t mean to present it so dramatically, but I do think it matters.
  • This issue is an example of a common occurrence in the way educational change is proceeding recently – too often rejecting the past, rather than realizing that traditional education wasn’t bad in itself, it was just limited. It couldn’t adapt to the need of so many new situations and new technological affordances. Education doesn’t need to throw away past practice, it needs to and has been adding to it greatly. We’re capable of a liberation of education here & now, not a shift. Don’t throw away stuff, we may need it. It’s all about Education from Situation.

Using Vygotsky to Understand Connectivism: Proximity and Duration

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.

What does a Connection do?

I just read a post at elearnspace that poses the question “What do Connections do?” answering it with “Connections are individual units of control – networks are the larger patterns that those connections create.” This got me wondering what is the difference between the question “What do Connections do?” and “What does a Connection do?” I guess the first question (with the ‘s’) is almost like asking “What is the result of a series of connections”, to which the answer is stated that they are the control points that create a network or a pattern. Something like “they control”, isn’t a sufficient answer to the second question (without the ‘s’)…just as if I’m introduced to some fantastic futuristic apparatus somewhere and I ask what to do with it, and get the reply that I should control it.

How? In what way?

So, this led me to wonder what would be the difference between saying “Connections are individual units of control” vs “Connections are individual units of choice”. I haven’t gotten far with this one direclty, but I have a feeling that it may be related to that distinction between learning and education that I always come back to in my thinking – the idea of intention. (intention vs incidental, if you like).

I don’t really know much about the example given in the post, Pearson and Udacity. But can infer some of the meaning from what is written. Looking at it from the opinion of the post, I can understand where the word ‘control’ would come in; from what I gather it is based on assumptions about what Udacity is and should continue or not continue to be, what they have had to give up, and who is making those decisions. Looking at it from a point farther removed, that either doesn’t or can’t make such assumptions, makes the idea of ‘control’ better stated as ‘choice’. From this more distant point, a way to answer what a connection does is to say that it eliminates a duality.

In the example given, Udacity, because of a connection, has the opportunity to take aspects that were not a part of itself before the connection, and use these aspects to branch forward with them. Now, to say they should or they shouldn’t, or that it’s a good or a bad thing, I really have no idea; that seems to be a major point of the post at elearnspace. That’s not my concern here, though. I’m looking at the question(s) about a connection. And, this is a valid viewpoint that can exist at this scope of objectiveness; at the point of connection, even.

The terms ‘control’ and ‘choice’ are a bit touchy here, but if we believe that learning is not just a human privilege then maybe the word ‘choice’ does have a place from this perspective. Control is a judgment call, choice suggests available options. Thus, choice here might be best understood not as a verb, but as a noun – more like ability. Once that connection creates the ability, whether it is acted on and to what degree or quality isn’t a description of what a connection does. As I’ve written in another place “Connections themselves relate to learning in a binary way: with connections a learner can learn, without connections they cannot.” I also just finished a paper about the influence of Media on Learning, which uses this same idea:

If we consider the pro-influence stance of Kozma for a moment (Kozma, 1994), where media and method are not separate, it is understandable why a 70 year history has produced no compelling evidence: media influence is binary. It either happens along with method or it does not. From this perspective, Clark’s hypothesis is problematic because it is untestable – it is impossible to test a Method via a Media which cannot conduct said Method.

A Connection does many things, eliminating a duality is perhaps the most fascinating, even comprehensive, of them. At the point of connection, the duality is eliminated not in a dialectic way. Rather, a dynamic relationship between two distinctions is created while they remain perfectly opposed and at the connectors’ disposal. From this point of connective ambiguity, many things many happen, involving a dialectic, elimination, unification, control, choosing, or even just indifference. A porch connects the inside of a house with the outside world, and when it drizzles I enjoy the shelter, and when it’s hot and humid I enjoy the slight breeze. It brings together options, ways to experience, that did not have place before that porch was constructed.

Corrective Feedback for Language Learning in Conversation Flow

I was a bit surprised the other day to read (in this article) that strategies for deliberate corrective feedback within conversation for language learning purposes are not well documented. The article focuses on Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) contexts, which would explain part of the reason for a lack of practical advice in the area. However, I would guess that a lot of the strategies from f2f contexts would transfer over into CMC contexts, adjusted for presence and synchronicity.

The development of this skill is fairly important, as I see it. From a Connectivism perspective, this is about trying to accommodate a second connection without dissolving a first connection, where both connections are generally mutually exclusive (a major concern for Connectivism). Conversation exercises tend to focus on fluency skills, while contributing to things like confidence, motivation, lowered anxiety and eventually learner autonomy. Breaking the conversation flow with error correction has a tendency to disrupt all of these targets, which is where the mutually exclusiveness comes from. As a teacher in one of these conversations or discussions, it’s very difficult to let certain mistakes slide in favor of flow.

From an Ecological perspective I think of efficient use of class time and a satisfaction of progression within the learner prevail, although I am still considering this perspective. The bridge between the two perspectives (Connectivism and Ecological Language Learning) is that they both promote learner autonomy. Disruptions in authentic language use happen all the time; and if we treat them as regular, learners can get used to them, improving their ability to weave in and out of target language mindsets easily.

Below is a list of error correction strategies for language learning within a base-connection of conversation. These are gathered from readings and also include my own points. I’ll keep the list open to include all Strategies for Feedback Embedded in Conversation Flow, but try to comment on CMC context where I can. I’ll also update the list via the comments section as I come across or think of additional points.

  • Assessment of Output – This is kind of like to agree or disagree with the truth of what someone says. It seems very easy to do in a conversation, to suggest “truth” with slightness. Example: “That Tome Cruise, She is a great actor.” “Tom Cruise isn’t a woman, he’s a man. Which movies have you seen with him?”
  • Conversation Questions – simple questions that can advance the conversation. Timeliness can be an important factor here, see below.
  • Validation – Just like agreeing. This happens very often in regular native conversation. Unnn-huh….letting people talk, but letting them know you are there.
  • Personal Judgments – affirmative encouragement. Used too much, isn’t very useful, I think. I think they mean of the more agreeing kind, but even disagreeing when it comes to personal opinion can simply state a preference, provide and exchange, without any sort of problems.
  • Non-Target Affectiveness – The use of non-target language to build report and trust.
  • Correction Followed by Simple Question – Whenever I disrupt a conversation flow to explain a reoccurring mistake, to dive back into conversation flow I try to ask an easy and, if I can, lighthearted question.
  • Repetition – Repeating a statement back to the learner, corrected, without pausing very much…but without talking for too much along, is the best way to embed error correction within a group discussion.
  • Take Notes – I often take notes during conversation. It is strange for learners at first, but after a while they get used to it. I comment of the notes at opportune times, or at the end. Ideally, I’ll comment about such observation well after via email, but students aren’t always open to this method so much yet.