Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

September 14, 2008

The History Problem

Filed under: Responses,Week 2 — Lisa M Lane @ 3:17 pm

In discussing Dreyfus as part of Connectivism: Learning Theory or Pastime of the Self-Amused?, Siemens notes that to “assess a concept, in absence of the context of occurrence…is to largely ignore the process aspect of learning and focus instead only on the product aspect”.

And yet the discussion of connectivism itself seems somewhat confined to modern learning theorists (most of the sources are within the last several years, with the exception of Wittgenstein). A much larger historical context is necessary for the process of learning this topic (connectivism) to stay in focus.

This historical perspective is either missing or faulty. For example:

“The more rapidly knowledge develops the less likely it will be that we will possess all knowledge internally.” (p.37), and for this reason we need networks to keep learning. And yet, no one has every carried all his/her knowledge internally. This is why we have bookshelves at home, libraries to visit, newspapers, friends to write to, people to consult, and individual specialties in science, medicine, law. The huge amount of information may or may not be expanding (a subject for another post), but it’s always been huge, which is why Aristotle created categories.

“In eras of religious focus, the development of morals provided the foundation of learning”, then the industrial era “shifted the educational focus to preparing individuals to function in work environments”. But the first goal did not disappear with the second. And the “internet era” similar does not reject either goal. Siemens must know this, because a few sentences later he says the needs of society include “the quest to become better people”. This is a moral goal, it always has been, and networks have existed for centuries in an effort to achieve it.

There has always been a “virtual world”, a life of the mind. It has been shared through letters, books, pamphlets, even before printing made its accessibility so much better. On the internet, everyone fancies himself a More or an Erasmus. The networks of the Sanhedrin during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the Abbasid Caliphate state-sponsored scholars of the 9th century, and those of medieval scholars (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are the predecessors of the networks that expanded even more with global trade, networks that during the Enlightenment expanded knowledge enormously in politics, philosophy, practical subjects, and social sciences. All this was not only before the internet, it was before the typewriter.

If “too many educators fail to understand how technology is changed society”, then I am one of those educators. Like the copying of manuscripts, the printing press, and the Telex machine, the development of technology represents an ongoing cultural goal to spread information, and social connections are a side effect. This is true of the computers and the internet, set up to process information but later becoming a means of social connection.

Part of the problem is in the limited understanding of such previous information technologies and their context. In the section on Language and Learning, Siemens characterizes text as a static format, a more formalized version of the oral cutlure that came before. First, oral culture was not freewheeling. Without the recording properties of written text, oral cultures possessed expansive memories. Modern literate societies don’t even realize how much the preliterate memory can hold in verbatim form (though you can try by reading your three -year-old a 20-item shopping list and asking for recall.) Hours of songs and stories could be repeated verbatim after being heard once — oral culture had its own “static” forms, as adaptable to new conditions as any printed text in its second “edition”. Next, Gutenberg wasn’t transitioning from “the previous dialogue or vocal base (Socrates, Plato, religious leaders)”. The press was a continuation of centuries of communicating through writing. If it expanded anything, it was visual communication, because block printing enabled illustrations to be part of the book, for little extra cost. Diagrams aren’t textual. So oral culture is more static than presented, and text-based culture more flexible and visual.

Books (particularly in revised editions), newspaper articles, journals, saved letters, have for centuries created a conversation on every conceivable topic. Whether such communications were formal or informal, they have created and preserved knowledge networks. What’s different about the internet is not the content, but the increased accessibility for both readers and writers (a similar expansion to Gutenberg’s), the existence of a medium that can accept other media (movies, audio, animation), the increased opportunity to interact with models sans laboraties, and the speed of the communications. These do indeed need to be considered, as they do have an impact on society. But while they are exponential increases, they are increases in aspects that have already existed for centuries. I don’t buy that our world has changed “fundamentally”, and have seen no proof for the assertion that [web] technology-augmented learning “permits the assimilation and expression of knowledge elements in a manner than enables understanding not possible without technology”. Deep understanding, even of extremely complex issues, has been happening for a long time.

Historical perspective also prevents us getting overly enamored of the internet age, where communications are, after all, based on electrically-powered connections. Siemens suggests that society is moving away from basic skills (his example is operating a forklift). The “shift to higher-level models of learning” may not be necessary or appropriate for everyone. I have an image of a post-apocalyptic world, or even one where electricity is priced out, and no one who knows how to survive without a computer.



  1. Hi Lisa, thanks for your comments.

    I think we are now at that point where people in developed worlds would not know how to survive without computers. Everything relies on computers – trains, flights, banking, agriculture (I have a brother-in-law who farms – very high tech – from GPS to soil analysis). We are past the stage of surviving without computers, unless we live in underdeveloped countries.

    WRT history, we are currently working on an open course with Rick Schwier on the history of educational technology. I agree that we need to honour history and see the long term trends. And the trends are less about technology and more about three elements: 1) our ability to create and share content, 2) our ability to dialogue globally outside of geographical limitations, 3) our ability to experience a different reality than the one presented to us physically. Blogs, wikis, etc. are simply the current instantiation of longer term change trends. It is dangerous (is futile a better word?) to build an education system on Web 2.0. We need to see the larger long term trends and base our decisions on that.

    Deep understanding – yes, it has been happening in the context of each generation. But to deeply understand how to build and fly and airplane, or similar complex task, is not possible outside of a networked, technologically mediated process. As stated, it is on this premise (changed contexts) that I’m suggesting education needs to change.


    Comment by George Siemens — September 15, 2008 @ 6:22 am

  2. Thank you. This is a really intriguing post. For me it helps to challenge the idea that we are seeing entirely new phenomena in learning. Whilst I am happy to grant that the technologies we use are new, I am have less certainty in saying that people the physical “in-brain” processes are changing.

    I believe that we need to cut away some of the hype around this theory to understand it properly. And “newness” is part of the hype.

    Comment by Rozp — September 15, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  3. I’m glad to see you make a sensible critique of Connectivism given its context — lots and lots of bloggers and twitterers who aren’t knowledgeable about past history and the history of media and who make lots of facile comparisons. There isn’t a forums that goes by without someone banging on “the Luddites” without any actual awareness of what they were or stood for or their social predicament with their livlihood threatened. I think Clay Shirky is guilty of this sort of popularism of hastily-contrived historical analogies really stretched thin to wrap around new media analogies with claims like “the gin carts of the Industrial Revolution” or how social media “takes up the time people used to watch TV” (it more often takes up the time they should be working or sleeping).

    I think it’s especially important that you’ve introduced moderation into the idea of one phase not dying off instantly before the next comes. It’s not as if somehow Gutenberg comes along and the Catholic Church is destroyed (that’s how Shirky will tell the story); it persists, and of course, made use of Gutenberg to print indulgances and many other things to keep its power and status.It’s not as if each new media clears away from the stage all previous media, like the record player you don’t use anymore to play a 33 1/3. Newspapers still matter a lot, they affect elections still, they have been ported wholesale into online publications that still follow newspaper tropes like “letters to the editor” separate from mere blog comments.

    I especially think historical relevance has to be brought forward on the ideas that George is putting out on texts and knowledge. He seems to be suggesting these are endlessly mutable. Of course an awful lot goes on in a society to create and maintain something like “the Ten Commandments” or “The Bible” or “Hammurabi’s code” or “the U.S. Constitution” or even just “Zagat”. Surely George isn’t suggesting that networks should constantly diminish and erode and rewrite these texts — or is he going to be like Shirky saying Tolstoy’s War and Peace “doesn’t matter” and “is boring” and “irrelevant” because nobody needs it, they can go read a Wikipedia about Russia, or about life on Russian estates in the 19th century.

    It’s one thing to describe the destructive process that have been encouraged by bad educational theories inflicted on the young since the 1960s; it’s another to prescribe them for further destruction.

    Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — September 15, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  4. Thanks for that thought-provoking post Lisa. I agree that the historical context is an antidote to the “it’s all new and wonderful” argument.
    A quote I use on my work web site is “Every utopian prophet of cyberspace needs a cold shower.”
    C. Nelson, in Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action and the Virtual University
    C. Werry, M. Mowbray, Eds. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2001).
    We also can benefit from looking more broadly at other theories and studies (e.g. Actor Network Theory). To me an educational theory is useful if it can help us understand what we are doing and have done, the better to make (imperfect) plans for future actions. We need theories that help us recognise the opportunities and threats of technologies that are all around us, some of which we may choose to use.

    Comment by Frances Bell — September 16, 2008 @ 12:37 am

  5. […] this sort of knowledge that fuels the discussion about carrying it externally or internally – as in Lisa’s excellent reminding of intellectual history – or in technological […]

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    Pingback by x28’s new Blog » Blog Archive » [CCK08] Definitions — September 17, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

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