Monday, October 06, 2008

Connectivism: Learning Theory or Learning Modality?

Connectivism is one of the latest and important steps in the evolution in thinking about teaching and learning. The ideas in Connectivism account for the changes in teaching and learning that have occurred since the expansion of network culture. We live in a new world of connections: cell phones, texting, Facebook, MySpace, computers, and other developments in technology have changed the way people learn and think. The research shows that students who are able to create networks tend to more successful. According to Barnes and Mattson, more and more Fortune 500 companies are using social media in one form or another to conduct business. Change is occurring at a rapidly increasing pace and there are no signs that it is going to slow down anytime soon.

But is it really a learning theory? One could argue that Connectivism is a learning modality. My main critique of Connectivism is that Connectivism runs the risk of being a return to cognitivism where we become more concerned with an information processing model of the brain that does not adequetely address the complex social and psychological relationships involved in teaching and learning. There is already a body of research into learning modalities that has been tested in the classroom. A simple definition of learning modalities is given by Hutinger who says that learning modalities refers to how learners process and retain information. That doesn’t mean Connectivism can’t be other things than a learning modality as well, but we do well to remember Wittgenstein when he said “it is not a question of whether or not there is life after death but what problem this actually solves.” In other words, what problems does Connectivism being a learning modality actually address? If it is a learning modality:

• It is something that can be assessed like other learning modalities.
• We can then design a Connectivist rubric for learning objects or assignments.
• We can identify it as a new dominant modality on a cultural level. (We went from oral, to written, to Connectivist culture ala McLuhan.)

Does it need to be an epistemology? What if someone harnesses electricity to create light? Does the invention of the light bulb require Thomas Edison to know how photons work? When engineers landed astronauts on the moon, they relied more on Newton than on Einstein although the latter’s theory of gravity is more accurate.

I am impressed with what we can do with Connectivism and how it can shape pedagogy – I don’t know if it can answer the deepest underpinnings of human consciousness. Or let me put it this way, maybe it doesn’t need to yet. If it is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, then let the research be done and then the declarations made. If one has a theory of being, one can then extrapolate an ethical theory from that theory of being. The question right now should be to ask if that is really the best use of Connectivism. Is that the most significant application of this theory? According to Dorin, et al as quoted in Mergal:

• A theory provides a general explanation for observations made over time.
• A theory explains and predicts behavior.
• A theory can never be established beyond all doubt.
• A theory may be modified.
• Theories seldom have to be thrown out completely if thoroughly tested but sometimes a theory may be widely accepted for a long time and later disproved.

To really test this as a theory, we need a clear statement of the unique claims of connectivism, we need to back up the claims of Connectivism with research that will demonstrate its observations and predictions, it needs to suggest a direction of on-going research, and its proponents must be willing to modify the the theory.

Theorists should be comfortable with the questioning their theories. That is part of the scientific process. And that process has to be valued more than the theory. Some people are of a temperament as such that when they are handed magnets and wire, they build a motor; others contemplate the quantum mysteries of the nuclear forces, neither are right or wrong. I am comfortable not knowing – I won’t stay in that position, but finding the answers is not the most important thing when we are in the stage of discovery where we are really first learning what the questions are.

Works Cited:
Barnes, Nora Gainem & Mattson, Eric. (2007) Social Media in the Inc. 500. University of Mass.

Connecting the Corporate Dots. (2006). Knowledge@Wharton.

Huttinger, Patricia. (2001). Learning Modalities: Pathways to Effective Learning. PBS Teachers.

Mergel, Brenda.(1998) Instructional Design & Learning Theory. University of Saskatchewan.

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