Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Connectivist DNA: Epistemology #cck12

I started this post weeks ago, but life happened. I want to continue talking about defining Connectivism.

So if we are to avoid a definition of Connectivism that disjoins the theory from similar theories and from the rest of the world and reduces the theory to a handful of essential characteristics how should we proceed? Morin says that we proceed by "distinction, conjunction, and implication" (51). I guess that clarifies things. Let's see.

We distinguish Connectivism as a theory about education without separating it from other such theories about education and without separating it from the very thing that it seeks to illuminate: Education. We look for both the particular starting point of Connectivism and the connections that Connectivism affords us (connections should be easy for a Connectivist theory). The starting point is the DNA; the connections are the flows of energy, matter, organization, and information between Connectivism and its eco-system. Thus, we distinguish Connectivism from Cognitivism, say, but we do not disjoin it from Cognitivism. Rather, we include in our definition the flows of energy between the two. Likewise, we look for the flows of energy and information between Connectivism and all those who have explored it and between the theory and the actual practice of Education. We also include our own DNA and the DNA of others who are exploring Connectivism. We assume, then, that Connectivism is defined by the dialogue, the unresolved tension and interplay, between its DNA and its eco-system. Connectivism is what emerges within this dialogue. This is a start.

For me, the first bit of Connectivist DNA is found in its epistemology. This is not a casual choice, but one that reflects my interest in rhetoric, my own intellectual DNA. In his book Rhetoric and Reality (1987), James Berlin says that the rhetorics of the 20th century can be defined by their epistemologies. In fine Cartesian fashion, he disjoins the three main strains of 20th century rhetoric and reduces each to a central tenet about how knowledge is generated and propagated. I have an interest, then, in what a Connectivist, or rhizomatic, rhetoric might look like, so I want to follow Berlin's lead—if not his methodology—and begin with epistemology. Given that Education is all about the generation and propagation of knowledge, epistemology has much to recommend it as a starting point.

So what is the epistemological DNA that Connectivism brings to the eco-system? Both Downes and Siemens write about knowledge, but I'm drawn first to Downes' 2005 article An Introduction to Connective Knowledge, mostly because I'm familiar with it, but also because it has received significant reading from others and, finally, because I just reread it. For me, this article makes about as clear and concise a statement about knowledge as an article can make when it says that "Knowledge is a network phenomenon, to 'know' something is to be organized in a certain way, to exhibit patterns of connectivity. To 'learn' is to acquire certain patterns. This is as true for a community as it is for an individual."

At the heart of Connectivism, then, is this idea that knowledge is not some thing, like a nugget, that we can pass among ourselves and reduce to a nifty definition. Knowledge is not a nugget that resides either in objective, external things or in a subjective, internal mind. Rather, knowledge is a function of complex networks. Knowledge is the pattern of dynamic connections among various nodes regardless of whether the nodes are neurons in an individual brain, people within an individual community, communities within an individual society, or societies within an epoch. Knowledge is what emerges from the patterns of interactions of millions of individual neurons functioning according to their own rules of behavior and in response to the rules of the clusters of neurons they have joined or found themselves grouped with. Knowledge on a different scale is what emerges from the patterns of interactions of millions of individual people according to their own rules of behavior and in response to the rules of the clusters of people they have joined or found themselves grouped with. While the specific mechanisms and rules may vary from node to node and scale to scale, the pattern seems remarkably consistent: meaning and knowledge emerge from the unresolved, dynamic interplay between an individual node and its network/s of other nodes.

This view of knowledge seems to me to be different from that of other educational theories. Behaviorism, as I understand it, appears to place meaning and knowledge firmly in the objective, external world of observable, measurable behaviors, and it focuses on developing those behaviors. Cognitivism, on the other hand, places meaning and knowledge in the subjective, internal world of the mind, however defined, and it focuses on developing those cognitive skills and resources. As I understand constructivism, it places meaning and knowledge in the interaction of the individual mind with reality. Social constructivism expands the concept by adding the social group to the mix so that meaning and knowledge is created by the individual in her interaction both with reality and the group. Social constructivism, then, focuses on developing those interactions among the individual, the group, and reality. This approaches, perhaps even implies, a network structure, but I don't know that it requires it.

I am aware that my statements about the above theories are gross reductions that distort the ideas of some brilliant thinkers, and I do not want to suggest that those theories and thinkers do not have tremendous value in helping us understand knowledge and how people learn. I am least fond of behaviorism, but that line of thought has generated true insight into humanity and education. They have all contributed, but I do want to say that I think we can see and understand things differently by starting from the view that knowledge is a function of complex networks, as Connectivism does. And I think that particular starting point is part of the DNA of Connectivism, but not core to the other theories, not even social constructivism. I think one can be a social constructivist without a commitment to knowledge as a function of networks. I know that one can be a behaviorist or a cognitivist without any consideration of networks. I don't think one can be a Connectivist without that very commitment.

So what do we gain by saying that knowledge is a function of networks? If we climb this particular mountain, then what do we see that we didn't see from the other peaks? What can we connect to from this starting point that we could not connect to so easily from the other starting points? I want to explore that.
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