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WE/ME in epedagogy design » Blog Archive » Connectivism and paradigmatic shifts

Wey-Han Tan

Connectivism and paradigmatic shifts

I think there is indeed a ‘demand’ for a new learning paradigma, as it was with behaviourism, cognitivism or constructivism. Technical progress and emergence of medial formats call for some generic term to cognitively and linguistically bundle and handle this plethora of phenomena (add a grain of sarcasm plus a dip of melancholy here, especially concerning the notion of a ‘paradigmatic shift’).
There’s a definitve lack of fitting expressions of what is going on, having led to an explosion of “e”s, “2.0”s, of a turn to hawaian and kisuaheli in webspeak.

Unfortunately, from my point of view – as a sympathiser of radical constructivism – there’s no ‘neutral’ scientific theory of learning, since every learning theory, every teaching methodology has and will always be tainted by the socio-political and the technical reality of its time, as well as by the imagined utopia of its developers and practitioniers.

For this, I was very interested in George Siemens’ presentation of his proposed ‘learning theory for the digital age’, as much for it’s theoretical foundation as for its epistemological tilt.
By reading his text “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age” (2004), three key topics arose which I had hoped would lead to a lively and critical discussion:
A perceived objectivistic turn, the allocated role of technology, and the supposed new way organisations learn.

Unfortunately, only the first one got some attention, since the time for discussion – 11 minutes (!) to discuss a ‘paradigmatic shift’ – was much too short.

So, my first question about the objectivistic turn was as follows:

“(…) chaos states that the meaning exists – the learner’s challenge is to recognize the patterns which appear to be hidden.” (Siemens 2004)
Connectivism seems to be a rather profound return to an objectivistic concept of knowledge, meaning knowledge can be discovered, instead of being constructed, in the informational noise of networks.
Is this epistemological turn one out of necessesity, to ease the plight and responsibility of the learner/searcher in a chaotic flood of information – one of constructicism’s grave weaknesses? Or does connectivism restricts the discovery to certain areas, where a well-defined outcome at the end can be expected, or is wished for (i.e. formal education, commercial transactions, hard sciences etc.)?
What is the role of digital mechanisms – like search algorithms, knowledge agents, or datamining processes – in discovering ‘the’ meaning, compared to the role of humans? How does a connectivistic paradigma thus change our view on truth, identity and the real?

Owen Kelly greatly helped in asking further questions also concerning the connectivistic handling of culturally independent, objective truths, as did Arie Noordzij, who mentioned Paul Feyerabend’s theories on scientific methodology and progress.
Some outcomes crossed my mind before the discusssion, and I was hoping for a clarification by Siemens:

1.) It’s Siemens’ personal, and therefore intangible position on objective truth, which he had worked into his theories, maybe to counter some deficits in former theories. For example constructivism can’t deliver the learner from irritation and aporia, a serious drawback in the face of an exponential growing dataverse. Although a turn to objectivism is thus understandable, this is from my point of view quite disputable, maybe even risky, at least in the humanities.
After Siemens remarks on discussing objective and subjective truths, this seems to me to be the most likely explanation, because “This discussion leads us away from the path of happiness.” (Siemens).
At some point of the discussion, it reminded me on a very influential political speech from 2002 – though not by Siemens – where there was stated: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place.”

2.) It’s a result of a rationalistic and teleological view on the subject of a digitally networked society, a turning to the heyday of cybernetics and information theory, when it was proposed that not only communications, but also ethics could – and should – be expressed in mathematical formulas, to find the one common ground of action every rational human would share. This would seem to be on the one hand a bit old-fashioned, but on the other hand quite viable for a “learning theory for the digital age” when viewed from the actual biologistic turn learning theories are taking (see Christoph Bardtke’s lecture on Manfred Spitzer’s neurochemical/neurophysiological approach).
Personally, I’m a huge fan of the concept of a technological singularity, as Vernor Vinge described it, though it seems to conflict with some of the base tenets of radical constrcutivism.
I ruled this out, since Siemens stressed the importance of human diversity too much for this option, though I can’t be entirely sure.

3.) It’s a near-religious belief of ‘the truth’ being buried in the white noise of networking, to be found by digital means. This is an interesting idea I think William Gibson first turned up with in his Neuromancer Trilogy, where there are several people (for example Gentry) who try to find a godlike Gestalt in the background noise of the cyberspace; a kind of modernized version of the cabbalistic art of Gematria.
This would have been an idea very exciting to discuss in it’s shrewdness, but was certainly out of question.

I’d liked to have the remaining two topics seen discussed, but the time was just too short:

About the role of new technology:

“Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments. These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology.” (Siemens 2004)
Does the relationship between digital processes and human cognition differ from what has been proposed by the ‘cybernetic turn’ in the 70ies? Back then, individual, social, and technical ‘cognitive’ processes were seen as compatible, interconnectible and utopically symbiotic, too.
Is the main difference to cybernetics/cognitivism the letting be of individual human cognition to be fuzzy – and then to harvest this fuzzyness statistically by digital means to find meaning?

About the idea of learning organisations:

“These theories (note: behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism) do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations.” (Siemens 2004)
How do digitally organized groups and communities ‘learn’? Is the process the same – but faster – as the one called tradition and transmission, meaning evolutive mutation and selection of social knowledge over time?
Is the digitally organized form of social knowledge the key difference to a constructivist viewpoint that learning is embedded in and situative to a culture (for example Brown et al. (1989), „Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning“), which stores it ‘knowledge’ in form of narratives, habitus, architecture etc.?

I hope these questions will pop up sometimes in our future discussions or lectures.

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