Monday, April 28, 2014

Why Connectivism is a Learning Theory

Domains of major fields of physics
Domains of major fields of physics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
David Wiley recently made a comment on his blog, in response to a very succinct posting by Stephen Downes, that the learning theory Connectivism, though he is sympathetic to it, was incomplete. I am not sure what to make of that. I understand David's point that terms need to be carefully defined. A solid theory needs operationally defined key terms. But I am not sure that Connectivism is really incomplete. There are a lot of great theories out there that work well and are very useful but are not "complete" in every sense. Einstein thought that his theories of relativity would lead to a Universal Field theory and because his work does not account sufficiently for quantum mechanics, in that sense his theory is incomplete. But it is still quite useful and irreplaceable in many fields of study and in practical application.

When Einstein first published his theory it had to go through years of refinement and testing. That is the process. There are still things being worked out with Darwin's Theory of Evolution but the days of wondering if it is valid are long behind us. It has been proven, observed, and tested. There are still evolutionary mechanisms to be worked out and the history of evolution will take more field work.

Looking at the history of theories, I am beginning to think that the discipline a given theory arises from is often the one least capable of evaluating it. But that is where all of the experimental and observational evidence is going to come from. Most of the criticisms I have read of Connectivism boil down to the new theory is not like the old theories. A theory is meant to provide a conceptual framework for viewing and understanding phenomena. As an instructional designer, I have a purely practical approach. I am only interested in a theory's usefulness, but for me, a theory must
  • account for current theories (either through refutation or inclusion)? A theory shouldn't just account for a given phenomena, it should do so in some measurably better way (more complete, elegant, etc.).
  • sufficiently explain where we are now.
  • make predictions. Any theory that can't predict anything is basically a conjecture at best.
  • be subject to testing. Here I would emphasize that the theory should change what we do based on experiment and empirical data.  
In my experience, Connectivism has met those four conditions. Those shouldn't be the only ones but as an instructional designer, the theory accounts for current issues in my work in ways that other theories do not. 
Stephen Downes speaking at D2L09.One of the problems of learning theory is that it is usually an interpretation of learning based on a psychological school of thought, sociology, or philosophy. It would be difficult for learning theory not to come from those disciplines, but learning theory seems to get stuck because while the derivative disciplines may have moved on, the learning theory often does not because educators are not participating or doing research in the parent disciplines.

New theories come about when the current theories no longer account for new information or phenomena. This is what made Connectivism particularly important to my work. The theory was created by Stephen Downed and George Siemens (Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age) at the same time that networks and social media were impacting education in some profound ways. Some of the phenomena that Connectivism accounts for are phenomena that many educators fight against: online classes, social media,  MOOCs, student-driven learning, etc. Connectivism for these instructors will never be a valid theory because they will never be comfortable with some of the implications of the theory: it would represent a profound change in their world view that they are not ready to accept. Connectivism is a learning theory because it accounts for the changes we are seeing in our society and in education in ways that the older theories cannot. Even social constructivists have a hard time wrapping their minds around social networks.

With that said, I am no ideologue either. I have my own bones to pick with Connectivism. It is still unclear to me how learning "may reside in a non-human appliance." It should either be the case or not. My definition of learning requires someone to actually do the learning. I see non-human appliances storing information, processing information, even mimicking pattern-making (chess computers). I don't understand how learning resides there. That is my "why a duck?" moment with the theory. It also feels like a left over principle from another theory that is not necessary for Connectivism to be a strong theory on its own.

But Connectivism is not just an explanatory or descriptive theory. As an instructional designer, I can use it to help analyze the success and failure of a particular course. So how would I test it? There are a number of ways. First, we build a course design rubric based on the tenets of Connectivism, and compare the success and retention rates, and course satisfaction (for students and teachers). Second, we repeat the experiment, and share the finding so others can reproduce the results.

The jury is still out for Connectivism. This is as it should be! The jury should always be out for all theories if we are going to engage in the scientific method and reason together. 
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Connectivism - The First 2000 Years

English: picture of 18th century english Tatle...
I would like to highly recommend a book I am currently reading to educators interested in Connectivism. It is called Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2000 Thousand Years by Tom Standage, the digital editor at the Economist. The point of the book is that social media is not a new phenomena but it is something that we have been engaging in for millennia and that it is part of being human. The book is interesting, well-researched and brings pieces of history that have been floating freely in your head together in some unusual and useful ways. He ties how we used to communicate with everything from cuneiform tablets, pottery shards and graffiti together with Twitter, email and Facebook. Some of those themes are discussed were discussed here in postings about the Silk Road as a network, The Republic of Letters, and other postings. I have also written here about Connectivism being "nothing new" and, for me, that is a great compliment to a theory - it means that we can use the theory not only to account for where we are now and where we are going, but also use it to analyze where we have been.

How this vision informs instructional design is that we recognize the social dimension of learning and how learning experiences happen in networks. Instructional design and teaching is the facilitation of these networks. The one-way delivery of information is a one sided "conversation" that has some use. I can gather information through reading a book or hearing a lecture, but I learn when I discuss it, through writing, talking, meeting others (in whatever medium) and make connections.
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Monday, April 21, 2014

Scientific Discovery and the Creative Commons

Tim Spuck's students discuss their search for ...
Tim Spuck's students discuss their search for T Tauri stars with renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Astronomical Society conference in January 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a recent episode of Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of the dissemination of scientific ideas and publishing as part of the scientific method: "Science requires openness to flourish: our understanding of nature belongs to the world." Ironically, in the same week, I visited our university library to discuss how the College of eLearning and Extended Ed could support their work and one of the librarians told me that they had to drop the journal Nature because it is too expensive. For our little institution it would be over 10k a year for the basic journal - forget about specialty journals. The old model of publishing hampers scientific progress! It certainly limits the examination and testing of ideas to only the colleges that can afford those particular journals. What happens to us if the genius that will cure cancer can only afford a state college? Or is in another country? How much do we lose when the responses, counter-arguments, and reproduction of experiments can only come from a particularly privileged perspective? We all benefit from diverse points for view, including the original investigators. Yes, I would like it if some alumni were able to pool their resources and get us a subscription to Nature and its associated journals. But I would like it even more if more journals followed a Creative Commons model and opened research up to everyone. I loved what the Creative Commons website has to say about this:
The more we understand about science and its complexities, the more important it is for scientific data to be shared openly. It’s not useful to have ten different labs doing the same research and not sharing their results; likewise, we’re much more likely to be able to pinpoint diseases if we have genomic data from a large pool of individuals. Since 2004, we’ve been focusing our efforts to expand the use of Creative Commons licenses to scientific and technical research. (Emphasis my own.)
There are new models of scientific publishing that include openness. Even Nature is taking advantage of open licenses in a limited way.

Another exciting development is the Directory of Open Access Journals which searches 5,622 journals at the full-text article level.

Everyone benefits from open access to data and information. Lets serve the research, not the business models. As the Berlin Declaration on Open Access puts it open access scientific literature should be publicly available, free of charge, and on the Internet "so that those who are interested can read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, refer to and, in any other conceivable legal way, use full texts without encountering any financial, legal or technical barriers other than those associated with Internet access itself."
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Friday, April 11, 2014

Connectivism, Neuroscience, and Education

English: Human brain.
I have never been comfortable with proclamations by educators or scientists (and yes, there is a difference) about how the brain works. The logical fallacy goes something like this: "we have isolated a mechanism in the brain, learning takes place in the brain; therefore, we now know how learning works." Whenever a psychologist says something smug like "the brain doesn't work that way" (around 1:21), I want to pull my hair out. The latest theories about how the brain supposedly works also include huge gaps in our understanding of how the brain supposedly works and plenty of lines of research that may one day soon give us a more complete picture of how the brain supposedly works. The idea is that if we know how the brain is supposed to work, then we will somehow know how we learn. There are so many layers here though that it seems to be an impossible task. First, it assumes a purely mechanistic view of the mind and learning. Not that we have to get metaphysical, but this could be something that is so complicated that thinking of the mind as a flow chart or a network may not even scratch the surface of what is really happening. When educators talk about what neuroscience has to say about learning, we have to remember that neuroscientists aren't even sure what neuroscience has to say about neuroscience. It is a difficult field because each year brings in a new raft of technologies that reveals more and more about the physical properties, chemical reactions, and neural connections in the brain. But I think there is some promising work in neuroscience that we should be keeping an eye on as educators. One of the more interesting lines of research includes the mathematical models around "deep learning." I think this is finally getting at the complexity necessary to account for the complexity of thinking, language, and learning.

Deutsch: Phrenologie
I think there are some promising avenues of discovery in the work of Gary Marcus that could one day help address how we learn. Gary Marcus describes deep learning this way: "Instead of linear logic, deep learning is based on theories of how the human brain works. The program is made of tangled layers of interconnected nodes. It learns by rearranging connections between nodes after each new experience." In other words, the brain is not seen as a series of connected flowcharts but as intersecting nets of connections that create patterns.

Additionally, Geoffrey Hinton describes the brain as a holograph. Daniela Hernandez writes about Hinton in Wired saying that "Hinton was fascinated by the idea that the brain stores memories in much the same way. Rather than keeping them in a single location, it spreads them across its enormous network of neurons."What I like about Hinton is that he says that his work involves creating computer models of intelligence and he seems to avoid the heavy handed proclamations of discovering how learning works. His work discusses "machine learning" which is an entirely different concept. I think it is very important to remember that we are talking about models and not "how the brain works." The networks involved in learning are even more complex than his model because our layers include language, behavior, culture, society, etc. Never mind the chemical and quantum connections in the brain. It is just possible that one day Hinton's work can speak to the complexity of the interplay of all of those networks and their seemingly infinite interrelations.

How does this shape my practice as an educator? I teach workshops on concept mapping and have used concept mapping in my classes, not because I feel that they somehow mimic the way the brain learns but because it is an engaging learning and teaching method that provides opportunities to utilize visual and kinesthetic learning modalities as well as using critical analysis. In other words, it is a method of teaching and learning that engages multiple ways of knowing. And it may also be a good metaphor for how learning may occour in networks, including neural networks. I have seen this discussion around the learning theory, Connectivism. I think we could go into any learning theory and use it, somewhat clumsily, as a way to discuss how learning arises out of the formation and interplay of network, but fortunately George Seimens and Stephen Downes have done a better job with their work around Connectivism.
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Friday, April 04, 2014

Reports on the Death of the Book are Greatly Exaggerated

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
I was at a poetry reading at the library a while back and one of the poets had a poem about how lost in cyberspace everyone is and the implication was that he was seeing the end of print culture and the book. Never mind that there was not an empty seat in the house to hear a poetry reading on a Thursday night! But there we have it - technology is phasing out the book. But it is just changing media. We don't need hand copied books either. More and more books are being written electronically and read on electronic devices. This isn't news. What is funny is to watch people with one foot in the old paradigm trying to make sense of the new. This includes myself. I have always thought of books as something that I had to own. They are objects to be held and even if they are not held in my hand, they must be contained in something that I own!  I had a funny thing happen the other day. I was downloading an ebook onto my iPad and I got an error message that said my iPad was full. I was incredulous. How could this happen? I have 16 gigabytes of space! I went through Kindle and iBook to take a look at what happened. I downloaded a lot of books. My electronic book shelves had swelled to the autodidactic, polymathic, bibliomaniacal proportions that my home bookshelves used to have. I got onto a vintage, historic cookbook jag and that cost me some room. I have the Washington DC Cookbook from the turn of the century which allowed me to send my actual hard copy to my Best Man, Steve Boutchyard, who is currently in culinary school. But I also have a copy of Beeton's and numerous others. I had the complete works of Poe; a raft of Elizabethan playwrights that are not Shakespeare as well as the complete works of the Bard; numerous volumes of Balzac; a complete library of philosophical works; everything related to Art History that is free in iTunes and Google Books that is downloadable and the list goes on. And so here I am, just like I was in the 80s, before I had a computer, with book shelf issues. I have noticed an uptick in people talking about classic literature and I think it is because so much of it is freely available in accessible formats via places like I also have a couple of ebooks that I actually bought that I am reading with no small amount of irony: I am reading an electronic book about a physical archive where the author is able to convey in deeply poetic detail what it is like to work with the physical texts that go back hundreds of years in the Paris police archives.

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...I still own a lot of physical books, but not nearly as much as I used to since the dawn of the internet. I love a good physical copy of a book as much as anyone: there are some books that I have that are gorgeous old books with fine bindings, thick paper that has the wire ridges where the paper dried on a screen, and beautiful fonts that press deeply into the paper. They have a texture and presence that you can't get from an etext. That said, I was looking for a book on Ausonius on line today and I found what I was looking for on Amazon and the physical book was going for $540. And you can bet they are not being as thoughtful about design and fonts as they once were. Needless to day, the electronic version of an equivalent text from Google Books at no cost will suffice.

In the late 90s, I thought that there would be no limit to the amount of books I could put on a computer. So how I could eat up 16 gigs is just incredible; a bit is the smallest unit - a 1 or a 0, on or off, a byte is 8 bits which make a single character, 10 to 15 bytes go into a sentence, and a megabyte is 1,048,576 bytes, and a gigabyte is a 1000 megabytes. And I had 16 of those! If you are using an Apple or Android product, you probably already know about the iBook and Google Book apps, but there are other sources of free books. If you want to fill up your iPad or eReader quickly with free books I would suggest spending a rainy afternoon browsing:

  2. The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania
  3. The Internet Archive's Digital Books Collections
  4. Forgotten Books  
  5. The Sacred Text Archive
  6. World Digital Library
  8. Libravox - free audio books

On top of all of that, there are the numerous texbooks that are licensed with the "Creative Commons" license that you can download through various repositories like the Open Textbook Library and College Open Textbooks. There, I just exploded your iPad!
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