Defending Connectivism

Chris Swimmer, a fellow student in Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale, recently wrote a great piece on some of the pitfalls of connectivism, as we experience it in this course.  If you’re reading this and aren’t part of the course, our class follows a connectivist model, in which students contribute different things and take away different things, depending on their skill sets and interests.  In theory, the differentiation strips away much of the “busy work” that people often experience in formal education, and what’s left is a community of students whose collaboration mirrors that of “real-world” workplaces.  (You can read more in-depth about culture and connectivism here.)

I wanted to respond to Chris’s comments not because I disagree, but because I think they highlight an important element of many HGSE courses that focus on new (or unfamiliar) pedagogies, and I’m trying to make sense of the purpose behind it as well.

Chris refers to “meta-learning,” which I take to mean that Massive, among other classes, focuses on an alternative method for learning (and teaching), and does so by implementing that same method.  In Massive, that method is connectivism.  In Karen Brennan’s class, Designing for Learning by Creating, it’s constructionism.  In Tina Grotzer’s Applying Cognitive Science to Learning and Teaching, it’s Deeper Learning/Teaching for Understanding framework.  All of these HGSE courses teach deep, powerful concepts that build upon how I–and I’d imagine, most people–envision education, and they “walk the walk.”  So yes, definitely meta-learning.

Chris also admits that connectivism, because of its loose structure, doesn’t hold him accountable.  He potentially does less work than he might in a normal class with stricter standards.  I, too, have worried about this–and I’ve talked to a fair number of students in Justin’s class, Karen Brennan’s class and other classes who feel the same way about constructivist-heavy classes.  Chris mentions the importance of learning within a familiar framework; these methods of learning are unfamiliar, so using them right away is risky.

But when I think about learning environments that have worked best for me, they are the ones that nicely balance theory and practice.  I don’t truly subscribe to any specific way of learning something, but after I hear about a new idea, I generally like to see it in action, and interact with it.  My guess is that most of us do.

And that’s why I like Massive as a model of a connectivist course, although I also feel less pushed to produce than I might in a traditional setting.  I am interacting with connectivism as I write this post, and I’m constantly challenged to question my assumptions about what makes “good education.”  The jury is still out, but I’m glad to have the space to reflect as a sceptic of new methods.  (Paradoxically, if I decided that a didactic, lecture-based class was better than a connectivist class, and I found that out through taking a connectivist class… wouldn’t that realization mean that it was deeply important to take the connectivist class?)

So Chris, I agree entirely with you, but I’d also imagine that neither of us would be writing these posts if we weren’t feeling pushed to engage critically.  Deciding that you don’t thrive in a connectivist class by taking a connectivist class is, I guess, meta-learning!

Connectivism, Enculturation, Potlucks

Stephen Downes (2011) offered a massive open online course (MOOC) to teach–or, rather, to facilitate–learning about connectivism.  (Connectivism is, to put it crudely, the notion that learning takes place when a learner constructs information from a variety of sources and does something with it.)  Without further introduction, I’ll dive right in and start connecting/constructing/etc.

Whether or not you are optimistic about online learning, deepening students’ understandings of content seems to me a pretty non-controversial learning goal.  Downes’ course does a number of novel things to promote deeper learning, which I believe can be transferred to most learning settings–although it certainly has a benefit in massive learning environments.  I’ll focus on two here.


Downes’ MOOC is a network of experts and aspiring experts.  Instead of having any specific, prescribed knowledge that learners must acquire, the course depends on learners bringing problems and learning goals to the table, and working with others to develop an understanding.  Consequently, learners are immersed in meaningful work, which mirrors the culture of a professional community.  As Downes says: “to learn physics, in other words, you join a community of physicists, practice physics, and thereby become like a physicist.”

J. S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid (1989) use the term “enculturation” for this concept of learning by “becoming.”  They also articulate the type of enculturation that happens in the classroom: “…much of what is learned in school may apply only to the ersatz activity, if it was learned through such activity…  The idea that most school activity exists in a culture of its own is central to understanding many of the difficulties of learning in school” (1989).  Students, then, become excellent at “doing school” but sink in the “real world.”  Downes, along with Brown, Collins and Duguid, all subscribe to the same core principle of instructional design: it needs to be real.

Choosing Your Own Adventure

The second important feature of Downes’ course is the acknowledgement (celebration, even) of everybody participating in different ways.  This, of course, means that learning outcomes are going to be different for every person… but again, that’s the way communities of professionals work, so for the sake of authenticity (see above), a diversity of participation makes total sense.  To quote Downes, “The whole point of offering a course at all is to provide a starting point, to provide a variety of things to read, watch or play with” (2011).

It was hard initially for me to grasp the concept of different learning outcomes for different people.  As a former teacher, my reaction is “how will I find the time to assess students if learning looks different for each of them?”  Then I remembered the part of classroom learning that I hated: I didn’t have opportunity to take ownership over what I learned, and so I didn’t want to participate.  And isn’t that why “mastery assessments” were implemented in the first place?  Because we don’t trust students to take the initiative to learn on their own?  The more we let go of standardization–the more we think of “teaching” as providing a set of tools to “read, watch or play with”–we can begin to trust students to create and find meaning in their learning, and assessment becomes secondary.

Justin Reich, in the MOOC spirit, referred to his class at HGSE as a potluck; we all bring a dish to the table.  I might also emphasize: we all take a different plate away that best fits our taste, and that’s why it tastes so good.  (Maybe he said that too, and I was just too engaged with other course material to listen.)

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