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'Connectivism' and Connective Knowledge

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On Jan. 17 George Siemens and I will launch the third offering of our online course called 'Connectivism and Connective Knowledge' -- or CCK11. We use the term 'connectivism' to describe a network-based pedagogy. The course itself uses connectivist principles and is therefore an instantiation of the philosophy of teaching and learning we both espouse.

If you're interested, you can register here: http://cck11.mooc.ca The course is a MOOC -- a massive open online course. What this means is, first, that it may be massive. Our first offering attracted 2200 people, our second about 700 people. Other MOOC-style courses we've offered have also been massive. PLENK 2010, for example, which we offered last fall, attracted 1700 people.

It also means, second, that the course is free and open. There are no fees, no barriers of any kind, to participation. We encourage people to register so they receive the course newsletter, but it's not required. Everything is freely available online and people can browse to their heart's content. Participants contribute as much or as little as they like.

The way CCK11 is set up is that we've defined a twelve-week course of readings. We (George and I) have also committed to twice-weekly online seminars, some of which will feature guests, others of which will be the two of us and any participants who have something to add. We do not require that people study the readings; these are optional (in a connectivist course, everything is optional). Rather, what we are saying through this structure is that we -- George and I -- will be studying these materials. And people are welcome to come along for the ride.

What is important about a connectivist course, after all, is not the course content. Oh, sure, there is some content -- you can't have a conversation without it -- but the content isn't the important thing. It serves merely as a catalyst, a mechanism for getting our projects, discussions and interactions off the ground. It may be useful to some people, but it isn't the end product, and goodness knows we don't want people memorizing it.

Let me explain why we take this approach and what connectivism is. At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication.

What we learn, what we know -- these are literally the connections we form between neurons as a result of experience. The brain is composed of 100 billion neurons, and these form some 100 trillion connections and it is these connections that constitute everything we know, everything we believe, everything we imagine. And while it is convenient to talk as though knowledge and beliefs are composed of sentences and concepts that we somehow acquire and store, it is more accurate -- and pedagogically more useful -- to treat learning as the formation of connections.

Of course, all this is the subject of the course. We'll be talking about connectivism a lot more, explaining and defending the theory, and talking about how it influences how we should talk about, provide and structure education.

From the perspective of the course, what it means is that the process of taking the course is itself much more important than the content participants may happen to learn in the course. The idea of a connectivist course is that a learner is immersed within a community of practitioners and introduced to ways of doing the sorts of things practitioners do, and through that practice, becomes more similar in act, thought and values to members of that community. To learn physics, in other words, you join a community of physicists, practice physics, and thereby become like a physicist.

Again, it is tempting to say that there are certain things that people learn when they become physicists, that there is some content that is essential to being a physicists. But this is misleading and wrong. A description of the content is, at the very best, an abstraction of the much more complex set of practices, attitudes and beliefs common among physicists. Because it is an abstraction, such a description cannot be accurate, and may actually mislead people about what being a physicist actually entails. A person who merely knew the content supposedly taught and tested for at a physics academy would feel grossly out of place in a gathering of physicists. It's like knowing the words but not knowing the tune.

So what a connectivist course becomes is a community of educators attempting to learn how it is that they learn, with the objective of allowing them to be able to help other people learn. We are all educators, or at least, learning to be educators, creating and promoting the (connective) practice of education by actually practicing it.

In practice (and remember, this is just an abstraction, not a definition; just a starting point, and not 'content' to be remembered) connectivist teaching and learning consists of four major sorts of activities:

1. Aggregation

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. There is a lot of content associated with the course, everything from relatively basic instruction to arguments and discussions to high-level interviews with experts in the field.

The course is supported with a daily newsletter, which highlights some of this content. The newsletter is created fresh each day -- it is not prepared content. So delivery may vary. It is composed not only of recommended readings but also articles, videos and recordings made by course facilitators, blog posts, images, videos and other recordings made by course participants, collected tweets from Twitter, bookmarks from Delicious, discussion posts, and whatever else we can think of.

The idea of the newsletter is to aggregate everything that's out there related to the course. This is necessary because the course (like the discipline it models) is distributed. People create content on their own blogs, photo accounts or messaging services. The newsletter is one way of bringing these materials together for easy access. Participants are not expected to read and watch everything. Even the facilitators cannot do that.

Indeed, what we have experienced after delivering a half dozen MOOCs is that we have to tell people at the start of the course to pick and choose what they will read, watch or participate in. Again and again, we have to stress that there is no central content to the course, that each person creates their own perspective on the material by selecting what seems important to them, and that it is these different perspectives that form the basis for the interesting conversations and activities that follow.

2. Remixing

The next step is to draw connections. The idea is to associate the materials (or parts of the materials) with each other, and with materials from elsewhere. There are different ways to associate materials -- typically we look for some sort of commonality, such as a term, reference, topic or category. Sometimes we look for a fit, as though one thing follows from another. There are no rules to association, and part of learning is to get a feel for what goes with what.

The main point here is to encourage people to keep track of this. We suggest that they keep records on their computers of all the documents they've accessed, perhaps with summaries or evaluations of the material. Or, better yet, they can keep a record online somewhere. That way they will be able to share their content with other people.

In the course we make some specific suggestions:

  • Create a blog with Blogger. Go to http://www.blogger.com and create a new blog. Or, if you already have a blog, you can use your existing blog. You can also use Wordpress (http://www.wordpress.com) or any other blogging service. Each time you access some content, create a blog post.
  • Create an account with del.icio.us and create a new entry for each piece of content you access.
  • Take part in an online discussion. You can, for example, join a Google group and exchange thoughts with other course participants, or use the discussion forum provided in the course's online environment.
  • Tweet about the item in Twitter. If you have a Twitter account, post something about the content you've accessed.
  • Anything else: you can use any other service on the internet -- Flickr, Second Life, Yahoo Groups, Facebook, YouTube, anything! use your existing accounts
if you want or create a new one especially for this course. The choice is completely yours.

3. Repurposing

We don't want participants to simply repeat what other people have said. Learning is not simply a process of reception and filtering. It is important to create something, to actively participate in the discipline. This is probably the hardest part of the process, and not everybody will participate at this level (that said, we remind participants, you get out of the course what you put into it; there's no magic here).

But it is important to remember that creativity does not start from scratch. There is this myth that we stare at a blank sheet of paper, and that ideas then spring out of our heads. But it's just a myth. Nobody every creates something from nothing. That's why we call this section 'repurpose' instead of 'create.' We want to emphasize that we are working with materials, that we are not starting from scratch.

What materials? Why, the materials were aggregated and remixed online. These materials are the bricks and mortar that can be used to compose new thoughts and new understandings of the material. What thoughts? What understanding? Well -- that is the subject of this course. This whole course will be about how to read or watch, understand, and work with the content other people create, and how to create new understandings and knowledge out of them.

Again, the role of the participant isn't to memorize a whole bunch of stuff. Rather, your job is to use the techniques and processes described in the course and just practice with them. We will show you the concept or idea, give examples, use them ourselves, and talk about them in depth. Participants can watch what we do and then practice them themselves.

If you're thinking that this isn't really very new educational theory, you're right. It's as old as the hills, forms the core of the concept we now call 'apprenticeship', and has been formally described most recently as 'constructionism' by the likes of Seymour Papert. What this isn't is a short cut. People learn through practice, and so this practice forms the core of connectivist pedagogy.

4. Feeding Forward

We want participants to share their work with other people in the course, and with the world at large. Now to be clear: participants don't have to share. They can work completely in private, not showing anything to anybody. Sharing is and will always be their choice.

And we know, sharing in public is harder. People can see your mistakes. People can see you try things you're not comfortable with. It's hard, and it's sometimes embarrassing. But it's better. You'll try harder. You'll think more about what you're doing. And you'll get a greater reward -- people will see what you've created and connect on it. Sometimes critically, but often (much more often) with support, help and praise.

Also, people really appreciate it when you share. After all, what you're doing when you share is to create material that other people can learn from. Your sharing creates more content for this course. People appreciate that, you will probably appreciate the content other people in the course share with you.

It's better than some grade or some reward system. As Daniel Pink says in Drive, "Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus... by neglecting the ingredients of genuine motivation -- autonomy, mastery, and purpose -- they limit what each of us can achieve." We want people to share only because they feel they have genuinely created something worth sharing, because they feel they are part of the community and working on something that matters, that is important.

Again, these four points are just an abstraction of a rather more complex process. It's as though we described "living in a community" with these four points. As anyone who actually lives in a community knows, participation and interaction is a lot more complex. There are many more subtle cues and practices that cannot be described in a set of rules and principles, and even if they could, would not apply the same way in every community in any case.

And that's the underlying message of connectivism. It is a pedagogy based on the realization that any knowledge, all knowledge, is like that. Knowledge is not something we can package neatly in a sentence and pass along as though it were a finished product. It is complicated, distributed, mixed with other concepts, looks differently to different people, is inexpressible, tacit, mutually understood but never articulated.

When we focus on the content of a discipline, we miss most of that. We learn the words, but not the dance.