There are numerous opportunities for changing teaching and learning through the application of connectivist ideas. The most important is the possibility of creating new designs for instruction, designs which create an exploratory environment or “ecology” where networked learning can emerge. As Stephen Downes has implied throughout the class, there is a need to do away with “sameness” or universality in terms of educational goals, assessments, and learning itself. Doing so would take the formality out of “formal” education, transforming it toward an institutionalized version of Jay Cross‘ “informal learning”. These new approaches would naturally reflect many of the global changes taking place in the production and distribution of information and ideas. Such a transformation is currently demonstrated in the decentralizing forces evident in internet sharing, blogging, and artistic creation. It threatens traditional patterns of authority, making it possible even for learners subject to the control of our educational institutions to create their own learning paths.
It is difficult to institute such change in practice for several reasons. One is that a shift to learner-controlled education would require institutions to have a commitment to quality that extends beyond the life-span of the people currently running the institution. People in today’s society are notoriously short-sighted in their goals. Unlike the townfolk who planned the Gothic cathedrals of the 12th and 13th century, current leaders do not view their creations in the longer term — they want results right now. This impatience makes experimentation less likely to receive intellectual or financial support. In addition, the structures controlling education employ people who have a vested interest in using their current skill set, authorized in the form of Ed.D. and Instructional Design degrees. Last, there is the usual resistance to change found in all human societies, from ancient Greek Sophists who hated Socrates, to medieval peasants resisting three-field rotation despite obvious benefits, to Americans persisting in a stultifying two-party political system. Such resistance is completely natural, and the concerns raised by cynics, Luddites and skeptics should be considered as part of the process by which change is created in a thoughtful way.
Such perspectives provide balance to the hype, offsetting the over-enthusiasm which can undermine the creation of a solid foundation for educational transformation.
One concern is computer dependency. Heylighen (2002, 7) notes problems of “inefficiency” in dealing with large amounts of information, but his solutions rely on systems which are at present utterly dependent on fossil-fueled electricity. His claims of the eradication of physical constraints and the “disappearance of distance”, his “ubiquitous electricity network”, are reliant on non-sustainable energy (in the parts of the world where they are even available). Like many other “hype-sters”, Heylighen sidesteps or refuses to deal with the moral implications of changes in society and resource allocation wrought by computerized communication, particularly the internet. Many are doubtful that “networked individualism” (Wellman 2001), although popular at the moment, is an appropriate or desirable substitute for local community ties or face-to-face communications.
Other objections which warrant our attention include:
- the belief that “distributed learning” cannot be assessed, that such learning creates networks but not necessarily knowledge;
- the fear that individual skills will decline, institutionalizing specialization of tasks to the point where few people will know how to chop wood, weave fabric, or cook wholesome meals;
- the concern that individual learners will be motivated only by immediate need, that intellectualism will no longer be an end in itself, that being “educated” will be so personalized as to mean nothing;
- the fact that the current education system is doing what it was designed to do, keeping little learners separate and controlled so that the adults can pursue their money-earning activities, while ensuring a standard of achievement that can guarantee competitive advantage (through degrees and social connections) and enable the next generation to achieve greater status and more possessions than the last.
These voices of resistance should cause innovators to reassess, to develop a value system based on more than freedom, openness and individualism. There should be considerations of social morality, dedication to family, service to society, intellectualism, broad knowledge, and historical foundations.
George Siemens asks, “Can our current world of weak ties and easy connections produce the depth of learning required to meet the complex challenges facing our future?” But does “depth of learning” mean in one small area, or as needed to become a thinking person? And which is necessary for the future? The idea that no one person can build an airplane or master a discipline (Siemen’s Complexity, Chaos and Emergence 2008, p. 2) implies that depth of learning need only include one specific skill (such as the knowledge of how to weld parts of the fuselage) but not depth in overall intellectual habits of mind. If knowledge is fragmented into such small sections, such specific divisions of labor, that assumes a future in which such specialization is needed. This may be a response to the perception that our world is becoming more complex, and that each of us practicing one speciality will combine in an unintentional collective (Dron and Anderson 2007) to get everything done. Certainly there is a perception of such increasing complexity, and increasing “speed”, but it may well be faulty, since most generations note the same thing. As Virgil wrote, “fugit inreparabile tempus”.
Retooling is required for implementing change. Understanding of complex systems, which have always existed, is the umbrella for the skills that are most needed as external control and authority decline. Contemporary examples, such as the unexpectedly quick spread of hoof-and-mouth disease (Seth Bullock 2006) and the lack of coordinated information preceding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Surowiecki 77-78) point toward the weaknesses of decentralized learning in ordinary environments. In education, therefore, certain aspects of learning need to be emphasized in order to change the environment:
- interpretation: the ability to place events, people and objects in a useful context
- metacognition: awareness of ones own intellectual processes and bias
- awareness of the “access trust”: appreciation that channels of information may be controlled by the few
- aggregation: crucial to creating understanding, this aggregation should be intentional (diversity within decision-making groups a la James Surowiecki 2004) as well as emergent (Dron and Anderson 2007)
- ability to operate appropriately in an open environment: a new adaptation of social skills, including:
a. identity construction
b. communication skills
c. wayfinding (Siemens, Instructional Design and Connectivism 2008)
d. recognition and appreciation of diversity
Of these, interpretation has been basic to intellectual endeavor since Peter Abelard (however much he paid for that). Metacognition is becoming more popular, and every revolutionary in history is familiar with the “access trust”. The other two skills (aggregation and the ability to operate appropriately in an open environment) have increased in significance. Understanding and applying these skills, which themselves need to be learned, would provide the necessary underpinnings for successful educational change in the direction suggested by connectivism. Without these skills, and consideration of the well-founded moral and practical concerns of skeptics, new approaches will prove impossible to adopt.