In the article, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, George Siemens asserts that “as knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.” In other words, the knowledge that we are able to come by in a spontaneous manner is paramount to the knowledge that we own at any given moment. The ability to quickly glean useful, reliable information is a clear priority in the 21st century. The creation of a network is crucial in the set-up of being able to access knowledge tomorrow that one doesn’t even know is needed today. A robust network of numerous connections serves to strengthen the knowledge base at our fingertips.
In the 21st century the ways in which we are connected are ever-changing. These connections take the notion of “six degrees of separation” to a new level. In fact, through various social networking models, we may actually be decreasing the number of steps (or clicks) between individuals.
According to a study of 5.2 billion such relationships by social media monitoring firm Sysomos, the average distance on Twitter is 4.67. On average, about 50% of people on Twitter are only four steps away from each other, while nearly everyone is five steps away.
In another work, researchers have shown that the average distance of 1,500 random users in Twitter is 3.435. They calculated the distance between each pair of users using all the active users in Twitter.
It is through these varying degrees of separation that we establish requisite connections to knowledge, knowledge that we don’t even know we will need. Therefore, when we are confronted with a situation that requires knowledge that we do not possess, we can activate our connections via Twitter and other social media sites. We drop our pebble in hopes that it will create a ripple in the sea of users. When the correct series of connections are made, the knowledge that we seek will eventually flow back to us to answer our questions and to increase our knowledge.
Awareness vs. Unawareness
As educators, we often anticipate the needs of students. In turn, educational leaders also anticipate the needs of teachers by anticipating what they will need to know in order to facilitate student learning. Student skills and teacher skills are greatly impacted by anticipating the knowledge necessary to learn or strengthen a new concept. Such a process is facilitated when supports are provided in order to scaffold the development of key learnings. This is of particular importance at the introductory stages of new concepts. As learners demonstrate increasing levels of competence, the supports become fewer and less necessary. Growing skills that build towards mastery can make scaffolding a clear cut activity.
Perhaps a key new skill is the ability to engage in, what I will call, “anticipation scaffolding.” Since, according to Siemens, “our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today,” it may be advantageous to create a systematic series of steps to anticipate what we don’t know. As Siemens points out “when knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.” So, it is through established social network connections that we can most easily practice anticipation scaffolding by accessing and growing a knowledge base before we even know that we will need it.
The initial stage of anticipation scaffolding is the ability to recognize what we need to know. In general, this is relatively easy. I know that I don’t need to know the particulars of string theory. The day-to-day flow of both my personal and professional lives will not be affected due to my ignorance of this topic. On the other hand, there are many things that I do need to know in order to be successful in the various facets of my professional life as a curriculum coordinator. The knowledge that I need shifts depending on the curriculum project that I am working on. Most recently I have needed to know and understand the steps of Backward Design planning, current standards in Physical Education, and how to establish student outcomes as they relate to Mathematics curriculum. All of this needed knowledge, once identified, was easy to find using various social network connections including Google, Twitter, and real world colleagues.
The next stage of anticipation scaffolding is the ability to recognize what we don’t know. But how can we recognize what we don’t know? Perhaps using diverse social networking connections can help us to recognize what we don’t know. Information aggregators such as Google Reader and Netvibes allow the creation of a knowledge base of our choosing by subscribing to blogs. These blog collections are always available and regularly updated. Through reading blogs of our choosing, our knowledge base increases. In addition, personalized magazine applications like Zite and interest-based web surfing applications like StumbleUpon increase exposure to new and unfamiliar ideas. Each exposure to a new idea is a support in the scaffolding of the knowledge that we do not possess, of the many things that we do not know. One seemingly insignificant reference today could be the springboard that directs/supports what we need to know tomorrow. This exposure to knowledge becomes the anticipation scaffolding of tomorrow’s learning.
Once what we don’t know is recognized, then we can choose to act on and grow what we are learning. We may find that the “connections created with unusual nodes support and intensify existing large effort activities.” This idea underscores the importance of establishing diversity in our connections to increase exposure to knowledge that we are able to access during the process of anticipation scaffolding.