Connectiwhat?

I’ll admit it. I’m scared. Lately, I have been reading a lot about how technology is affecting our world, and truthfully, it scares me. Now, I know that that might sound a little strange. After all, what is there to be scared of? Technology allows me to do a lot of things that were never possible just a short time ago. I can Skype with my parents back in Canada when I am feeling homesick, I can catch up on the world news using an app on my iPhone when I find myself bored and sandwiched between a bunch of Japanese salary men on the train, I can look in the fridge and immediately find a recipe online that uses the ingredients I have on hand…. Technology is great! So, why am I scared? Well, the truth is, I am scared because if our world is changing, then that means that the job market is changing, and that means that education needs to change in order to prepare the future generations for said job market, and well…. I am a teacher. Thus, I need to change. And frankly, change is scary!Sometimes I simply feel overwhelmed by it all.

As educators, most of us are somewhat familiar with the three major learning theories –  behaviouralism, cognitivism, and constructivism. These theories attempt to explain how human beings learn and gain knowledge.

The problem is that our world is changing, and all of these theories emerged before technology had a significant impact on education. Today, whether we like it or not, technology is having a significant impact on what is happening in our classrooms. Even if we tried to keep technology out of things and continued to teach without using technology, we would not be able to stop our students from accessing it and using it to work on our coursework outside our classroom.

Because of the great impact that technology is having on learning, some learned people argue that there needs to be a new theory on learning. A new theory that is gaining a lot of ground is called “connectivism”.

In a Wikipedia entry, called Connectivism, Micah White and Tom Whyte say that “Connectivism proposes that learning and knowledge exists within networks. The basis of this learning theory shares beliefs with Vygotsky’s Activity Theory and Social Constructivism, in that through interaction, social activity and collaboration learning occurs”.

Not too long ago, if you needed to know something, you would ask a teacher or find a book on the topic. You had to seek out information. In today’s world, however, you can find heaps of information in no time just by typing a few words into a search engine. The sheer amount of knowledge available to us humans has been growing at an exponential rate. George Siemens, in his article called Connectivism, quotes Gonzalez as saying “Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD).” And this quote was from 2004.

In the same article, Seimens identifies some significant trends in learning:

  • Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.
  • Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.
  • Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.
  • Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.
  • The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.
  • Many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology.
  • Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).

He continues by saying “In today’s environment, action is often needed without personal learning – that is, we need to act by drawing information outside of our primary knowledge. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill.” Basically, in today’s world, to be successful, humans do not need to have a bunch of knowledge in their own heads. What they need to be able to do is find the information they need to address a task, analyze it, synthesize it, and apply it.

We must “form connections between sources of information, and thereby create useful information patterns” to acquire learning in today’s world that is so replete with knowledge.
In conclusion, Siemans says that “our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today”. And that when knowledge is needed, the ability to “plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.” Basically, the theory of connectivism acknowledges that learning is not longer an “individualistic activity” and it provides us with “insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.”

Confused yet? This is not easy stuff to digest. The diagram below offers a rudimentary visual of what connectivism theory is suggesting.
Source: http://sites.wiki.ubc.ca/etec510/Connectivism

For teachers, this can be scary stuff. It is much easier for us to teach students the lower order skills on Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding. The higher order skills of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating take more work and frankly are a bit more messy. It’s far easier to plan lessons and create assessments that ask students to simply know things. Assessments of these skills often have clear right and wrong answers. In today’s world, however,  “Learning is a knowledge creation process…not only knowledge consumption” and “learning tools and design methodologies should seek to capitalize on this trait of learning”(Connectivism.ca). Therefore, teachers must think more about designing lessons and assessments that stress these higher order skills.

I am not the only teacher out there realizing that change in education is needed. I work with a guy named Mitch Norris. In his recent post called Connectivism and 21st Century Education he said that in light of the connectivism theory, us educators should think more carefully about the tests and quizzes we are giving. We should not just assess knowledge, but instead assess higher order thinking skills. We need to start “designing tests that have students access the information and synthesize it or use it to create their own products”. Basically, we should be assessing “how well a student can learn as opposed to how much students know”. Norris goes on to talk about A Google a Day which “tests very specific skills and lateral thinking as opposed to recall of information”. When you visit the site, you are presented with a question that you must answer by searching Google. The catch is that the answers to these questions require fairly advanced search skills. I tried the site myself and was given the following question – You are a light-skinned European and have brown eyes. Your spouse is a light-skinned Nordic with brown eyes. What color eyes will your baby be born with?  I was able to find some pretty good information by doing a few quite specific searches, but in the end I did not get the correct answer. Perhaps I, like my students, need to work on improving my higher order skills as well.

It is clear that today’s teachers need to rethink the way they have been doing things in the classroom. One teacher who is really thinking outside the box is Aaron Sams. In my last post, I talked about watching a video in which Sams presented the ‘Flipped Classroom model’. After years of working with the flipped classroom model, Sams is now taking it to the next level. Sams says that when planning, teachers should not shoot for the middle, but instead, design their lessons for the fringes – the low end and the high end. He says, if you design for the fringe, everyone benefits. He now tries to give kids multiple ways to learn something and multiple ways to prove that they have learned it. He provides his students with an objective, and if they want to learn the objective some other way than his videos and activities – they can look for the answers themselves. For example, they can Google it, read the textbook, or watch someone else’s video. This is a good example of differentiation in practice, as Sams provides the resources that the kids need to arrive at the answer, but he does not hold the brightest kids back from doing their own thing.

He also has begun to give “Open Internet” tests. Basically, when it is test time, he allows his students to have access to the Internet. He decided to do this after discovering Wolfram Alpha, a website that does computations for you. So, if your Math homework consists simply of basic problems to be solved, Wolfram Alpha can do it for you. So Sams started asking himself, Just what do my students really actually needed to know off the tops of their heads? He is not sure of the answer yet, so he is trying the “Open Internet” testing in order to find out. Of course, his students think it’s great. After all, they think they can just find all the answers to the test on the ‘Net. But Sams isn’t just asking them simple fact questions that sites like Google and Wolfram Alpha can give you the answers for, and he reminds his students that they have to know what they are looking for.

Recently, I watched a fantastic video, which made me feel a bit better. The video is of a presentation given by Dan Pink called Drive.  In the video, Pink talks about our drives as humans. He says that we have biological drives. For example, when we feel hungry, we are driven to find something to eat. Unlike animals, however, humans are more complex than that. We also respond to rewards and punishments. We are driven to achieve rewards for our behaviours and deterred from doing certain things because of punishments. Humans are more complex than this second drive too though; we have a third drive. Pink says we also do things because we find them interesting and/or inherently gratifying, because we get better at them, because they make a contribution, and because they are part of a larger purpose. Basically, humans like to learn.

Pink is right. Humans do like to learn. I am not taking this Coetail class because is satisfies one of my biological urges. I am also not taking this Coetail class because I will punished if I do not. In fact, I could argue that taking this Coetail course is punishment, especially since I have been working on writing this post for many hours. LOL. Sure, I may get paid a little more by my school when I complete this course, but the monetary payoff, in the short term anyway, is so small that it is negligible. It is that third drive that Pink talks about that is pushing me through this course. I want to learn. I want to grow. I find this interesting. I want to be a better teacher.

So, that said, I will try to put my fears aside and embrace this idea of connectivism. The seeds of change have been firmly planted in my head, and I am now thinking more and more each day about what I can do to make my classroom a place where more connected learning takes place.

Connectivism suggests that we get knowledge from those that we are connected to. Next month, I am going to try to put a lot of what I have been learning about technology and education into practice and design a new unit of study. The unit is going to involve the creation of a documentary. I know very little about this and need more knowledge before I embark on the unit. Before I even read about connectivism, I was already thinking about how I could reach out to the educational community for ideas, examples, and advice. Over the Christmas holidays, I plan to put out calls for help and advice on my Facebook and Twitter pages and on some of the blogs that I follow. I also plan to mine my Google Reader for ideas and relevant articles. Furthermore, I am going to do some specific Internet searches for sample units that can guide me as I create my own. I will accessing my PLN and the wealth of knowledge available to me on the Internet, basically doing what Seimans described earlier – drawing information from outside of my primary knowledge, synthesizing, and looking for connections and patterns.

What is becoming more and more clear to me is that educators need to be teaching students how to live successfully in this connected world. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I tutor a student who has some learning difficulties. The biggest thing I have been working with her lately on is how to access the kind of information she needs to complete her assignments. For example, recently she was writing a paper on Cleopatra. Immediately after receiving the assignment, she went to Google, typed in Cleopatra, and came up with just under 50 million results in. 0.12 seconds. Then she started to read, one article at a time. It was painful to watch, so I quickly intervened. I asked her what she needed to know about Cleopatra. She hadn’t even thought about what the assignment was asking her to do before she had accessed Google. I told her that she should really needed to learn to do something I call “search smart”. In today’s world, with all the information that is so readily available to us, we must learn how to find the information that we need. This experience that I had with one of my students provided me with a window into some of the issues that the other students are having with finding the information they need to complete tasks. I am sure it is not just this one girl who is struggling with finding information and living in this very connected world. The take away from this is that I, along with the other teachers in my school, need to be doing more to teach students how to “search smart”, make connections, and manage information in order to develop knowledge and understanding.

Resources:
MisterNorris Connectivism
Connectivism – Wikipedia entry
Information Growing Exponentially
The Speed of Information

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4 Responses to Connectiwhat?

  1. Hi Mary,

    I’m always impressed with your posts; it’s so obvious that you’ve really thought your topic through and done thorough research. I’m always sure you’ll be sharing great links. (That’s what’s missing from a lot of my posts. I often forget where I read something because I can’t write my posts until I’ve percolated those ideas for a while.)

    Halleluiah to the ‘search smart’ strategy. We all need to help students with that one. I used to think that librarians taught this skill as part of their curriculum – and I’m sure many do – but I think we shouldn’t rely on that. I also think we get so excited when we launch a new project that we overlook the skills – the very necessary ‘off the curriculum unit’ skills – that our students will desperately need, like ‘smart search’, paraphrasing, or note taking.

    I was struck by Aaron Sams comment that you quoted “when planning, teachers should not shoot for the middle, but instead, design their lessons for the fringes – the low end and the high end. He says, if you design for the fringe, everyone benefits” because I had just read another post a few days ago where the author was saying something like “nothing wrong with aiming for the middle”. Of course, you know I can’t remember where I read that. Too much content, too little time.

  2. Avatar of Daniel Bench Daniel Bench says:

    Reading your summation of Connectivism is quite gratifying for me. The past month, or so, I have been trying to wrap my head around this theory of knowledge and learning. I am starting to see the wisdom in the idea that knowledge is in the network, and that individuals are only able to digest parts of this knowledge. Stephan Downes, a close cohort of Siemens, gave a great analogy of connectivism in relation to knowledge. He likens connective knowledge to a flying 747. No one individual can explain how this huge structure flies. Sure certain people, like the engineers, might have more knowledge than others, but even the engineers can’t tell you how the different parts are made or how the economics work to make this type of flight fiscally viable. However, the planes are still in the air and all the knowledge has been in some way laced together to produce this plane’s ability to fly and keep flying. This plane, in a way, represents the physical connections that contain the whole knowledge. The connections, how they relate to each other, and what emerges from them are the knowledge. It is scary, but also freeing, to think that know one can own complete knowledge; we must rely on others.

    I think teachers should realy start viewing the process of learning as connecting to the network/repository of valid knowledge. Open internet tests seem to be a way to encourage this. Quite frankly, I am 13 years removed from my last high school test; I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Should I make the test the ends to itself for my students? Do they really need to know how to take a test in a problem solving world? Wouldn’t it be better to help them form patterns of thought that will help them know how to look for the answers and solutions to the test. Perhaps, what is needed for the classroom is a shift to the idea that my subject/course is a community of practice. As the teacher, I could construct the classroom in a way that connects the students to the sources of knowledge and to each other, so as the class unfolds the content and skills, I can guide and shape the learners patterns of making sense through the use of technology and well-placed resources. Not only this, but I become part of the network, and a fellow learner in the process. Perhaps, we as teachers just need to be a rung (a very supportive one) in the scaffolding latter supporting the students development in their interests and life long learning skills.

    Students still need to be exposed to the various academic disciplines, so they might find those things that interest and spur their passion. If we as educators equip them along the way with the current and future connective practices and tools, they will become quite a resourceful, useful, innovative node within the networks they find themselves connected to.

    Thanks for the post…your ideas have helped me process and digest a little more of the connective theory.

  3. Avatar of Daniel Bench Daniel Bench says:

    Reading your summation of Connectivism is quite gratifying for me. The past month, or so, I have been trying to wrap my head around this theory of knowledge and learning. I am starting to see the wisdom in the idea that knowledge is in the network, and that individuals are only able to digest parts of this knowledge. Stephan Downes, a close cohort of Siemens, gave a great analogy of connectivism in relation to knowledge. He likens connective knowledge to a flying 747. No one individual can explain how this huge structure flies. Sure certain people, like the engineers, might have more knowledge than others, but even the engineers can’t tell you how the different parts are made or how the economics work to make this type of flight fiscally viable. However, the planes are still in the air and all the knowledge has been in some way laced together to produce this plane’s ability to fly and keep flying. This plane, in a way, represents the physical connections that contain the whole knowledge. The connections, how they relate to each other, and what emerges from them are the knowledge. It is scary, but also freeing, to think that know one can own complete knowledge; we must rely on others.

    I think teachers should really start viewing the process of learning as connecting to the network/repository of valid knowledge. Open internet tests seem to be a way to encourage this. Quite frankly, I am 13 years removed from my last high school test; I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Should I make the test the ends to itself for my students? Do they really need to know how to take a test in a problem solving world? Wouldn’t it be better to help them form patterns of thought that will help them know how to look for the answers and solutions to the test. Perhaps, what is needed for the classroom is a shift to the idea that my subject/course is a community of practice. As the teacher, I could construct the classroom in a way that connects the students to the sources of knowledge and to each other, so as the class unfolds the content and skills, I can guide and shape the learners patterns of making sense through the use of technology and well-placed resources. Not only this, but I become part of the network, and a fellow learner in the process. Perhaps, we as teachers just need to be a rung (a very supportive one) in the scaffolding latter supporting the students development in their interests and life long learning skills.

    Students still need to be exposed to the various academic disciplines, so they might find those things that interest and spur their passion. If we as educators equip them along the way with the current and future connective practices and tools, they will become quite a resourceful, useful, innovative node within the networks they find themselves connected to.

    Thanks for the post…your ideas have helped me process and digest a little more of the connective theory.

  4. Avatar of abryrne abryrne says:

    Thanks for the post! I enjoyed it! Also, you got me thinking a lot about assessment. As you said, when you’re teaching something that’s low on Bloom’s, assessment is very straightforward. But as you pointed out, knowledge-level questions are not all that important, given the technology we have. So problem number one is that we need to have ways of adequately assessing our students’ abilities to comprehend, apply, analyze, and synthesize, which requires the use of more and better rubrics. This brings up problem number two, which is the pace at which content changes. As we move into those higher-order thinking activities, we tend to use the rubric approach. But using a rubric implies that you know what mastery in that particular topic looks like. If the available information and technology is improving every day, then you may not have the entire picture.

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