Friday, January 13, 2006

pipe more important than contents

Interview with George Siemens, author of the Connectivism learning theory.

People often ask, "How does technology influence learning?". George reverses this question and asks: "How does learning influence technology?" What he means is that sometimes the technology to achieve something has been around for a while but the social demand has not yet arisen for it to take off in a big way. He provides the example of VOIP as a technology that had been around for ages before it actually became popular.

My comment: I can think of other examples: blogs, in fact the ability to write to the web was built in from the start but only recently has become popular.

Teemu Arina, the interviewer, suggests to George that "the pipe is more important than the content of the pipe" and draw a comparison here with the description of the internet popularised by Doc Searls and David Weinberger as the world of ends, the value grows at the edges, not in the pipe.

George agrees. Some things need to be centralised, eg. accounting, but learning is a strongly networked process. Learning aggregates concepts and many of these concepts are not necessarily internalised immediately. In learning institutions some things need to be centralised (eg. student registration) but the important parts of learning require interaction, exploration and creation are best decentralised.

My comment: I think that lecture mode can be important and useful in some situations. I'd prefer to describe it as a dialectic or continuum with lecture at one end and exploration / creation at the other. Both can be important. Educators need to walk the walk along this continuum.

Also at some stage the internalised concepts are very important. Good learners have better internalised concepts than poor learners.

In contrast to content driven courses a new alternative approach is to provide the tools required for connection and dialogue (blogs, wikis, podcasts etc.) and the learners will discover a lot of the content for themselves.

George goes on to elaborate on the changes in leaners that he has observed at Red River College where he works as an instructor in a laptop programme:
  • they are older, making a transition to a second or third career
  • that the relevant life or half life of knowledge or content is shrinking (very true, I think)
  • informal learning experiences are becoming more important - later he said 80% of our learning arises informally - an argument in favour of the idea that the course / content based model is becoming outdated
George quickly defines:
  • behaviourism: goal is to just change behaviour, don't know or care what is inside the learner
  • cognitivism: inputs may be held in short term or long term memory ( don't get?)
  • social constructivism: learning is a dialogue, learners are not empty vessels, they construct their own meaning
He then says that these theories, "come from an era when technology was not of a factor"

My comment: I hope he meant to say here, "less of a factor", rather than "not a factor." I get the feeling that George is dismissing earlier theories too much. I like his connectivism theory but would like to see it connected to the other theories, not cut off from them.

Something else he said which is intriguing: "Learning is a meta skill which is applied before someone begins to learn" (!?)

His connectivism theory grew out of a study of social networks, complexity theory, pattern recognition ("shown to be not constructivist") and self organisation.

Often learning can reside outside of ourselves. The pipe is more important than what is in the pipe. Don't attempt to build silos of knowledge, rather build pipelines of knowledge. When researching seek out different and contrasting opinions.

Connected specialisation means doing one thing and doing it very well. This can apply to both people specialist and to software (eg. skype does one thing well). Trust is a factor here, we need to trust that a particular group / person / piece of software is, in fact, expert. But in the face of the knowledge explosion we have to acknowledge that we can't be expert in everything and so have to develop more reliable ways to open ourselves up to the knowledge of experts.

The discussion moved onto social software. George pointed out that when we tag in delicious, furl or flickr then the meta data is being applied by the end user, not by the initial creator of the article or picture. The learner is driving this process, knowledge is being decentralised.

George mentions the O'Reilly infoware model, where the information that accumulates on a site (eg. amazon has thousands of readers reviews) becomes more important than the software that runs the site. He constrasts this with a content driven, closed broadcast system and sees the former as the harbinger of modern learning.

Towards the end he refers to the growing gap between the technological savvy and those who are not keeping up with technology. He is hopeful that this problem will be overcome by the technology becoming simpler and easier to learn and that this is already happening. eg. RSS feeds are much simpler than previous aggregators.

My summary: I agree with the general thesis that the pipe, being connected, is becoming more important than the content. I agree that the half life of knowledge is declining and that more and more learning is informal. These changes are corroding schools. Students are different from before and bored with lecture mode. Nevertheless, I'd see the theory of connectivism as sitting alongside the other learning theories, not taking their place.


Blogger botts said...

Trust is a factor here, we need to trust that a particular group / person / piece of software is, in fact, expert. But in the face of the knowledge explosion we have to acknowledge that we can't be expert in everything and so have to develop more reliable ways to open ourselves up to the knowledge of experts.

and so perhaps one of the new areas of expertise is going to be that of the 'connectivist'. one who specialises in helping people understand how to better become connected. i believe this is going to be the new face of education.

as more and more "experts" create content, the challenge is to find that content and apply it to our learning needs. it also means that as teachers we no longer need to be the creators of all of our content - or even the selectors of textbooks. rather, i can teach my students how to become more successfully connected in this 'user creates' world and to therefore increase their capacity for lifelong learning.

have a great day

bottsplace at westnet dot com do au

12:21 PM  

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