Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: A new learning theory?

The tenets of Connectivism (George Siemens. December 12, 2004. and Connective Knowledge (Stephen Downes. December 22, 2005., that “knowledge is in the connection” and “the connection is primary” have changed the way I think about my learning ecology, heightening the feeling of responsibility for it and the need for a more involved stewardship to nurture it. To learn, you must sojourn and engage. Though it is not an easy topography to traverse—there are many paths from which to choose, many connections to make, and always doubt, but I believe this realization of personal responsibility to be the key benefit of thinking connectively, chaos emergent, across all disciplines and boundaries.

Over the last twenty years or so, the educational sphere has seen an increasing pressure to shift the direction or directing of a person’s learning from the group to the individual learner. The evolution of the tools we use to communicate and record communication is changing how we think about power and where it resides. (Helen McCarthy, Paul Miller and Paul Skidmore. Eds. 2004. in Demos. Network Logic: Who governs in an interconnected world? p. 20. This change coincides with the growth of computers and networks, culminating in our global communications network, the Internet. Always on, always there, always connected, openly or otherwise. Human-constructed systems of network-connected computers and their capacity for the storage of our collective consciousness have made it possible to access the sum total of what we know and think. From analogue transmission to digital, data is uploaded and embedded in electrified metal, plastic and etched silicon. Knowledge is in the network. Captured memories are downloaded and embedded analogically in energized bone, tissue and blood. Knowledge is in the network. There is much exploration to be done within this new, expanding construct, a virtual collective mindscape of shared thoughts and experiences. For those contributing to and following the discussion around the concepts of Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, this is certainly the case (and it is early days, yet).

I cannot say whether CCK will be recognized as a theory of learning or not. It is a network model dependent on the number of connections it creates and sustains for its power and influence, and it is not within a single person’s purview to sanction its existence. I would suggest that is a network function. I do not believe, though, it is has reached that critical threshold of acceptance required to carry it as a new theory of learning. Too few people have heard the term, have learned it and use it. (Adegh Raeisi. How Long Does It Take a Society to Learn a New Term? From the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. July 28, 2008. or As a methodology for undertaking your personal learning journey, it has much to offer, if only for the level of engagement it demands. In Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, connections are knowledge and all participants in the learning process are encouraged to make connections in order to learn. Creating concept maps helps to describe and shape the development of your personal learning environment and your networks. Forming networks or regions of activity and contributing to the ongoing dialogue are also, required. Understanding and knowledge will grow from those processes, discourses and relationships. They will emerge as patterns, in thought, in behaviour and in influence.

We must be cognizant, too, that the medium of these affordances has negative, as well as positive attributes. Our construct is a two-edged sword. It opens our eyes to conversations and perspectives unimaginable only a few years ago. Anything the human mind is capable of actually conceiving can be and is recreated in the virtuality of cyberspace. As the interfaces evolve to include more connections to our senses, the virtuality emerges as reality. Even now, the engagement of sight and hearing can be over whelming—mesmerizing and hypnotic. Though bounded in expanding computer networks, the horizons are virtually limitless and our imaginations are drawn away, through this new window on our world. But it is a screen, a lens, only accessible to those who can afford the price of a connection, the costs for which are enormous; disconnection, separation, pollution, disease, and over consumption of resources. The connection can become an addict’s needle. Peck, reward, peck, reward, peck, reward; like Skinnerian pigeons. Users become obsessive and compulsive, and the lure of knowing, chancing, and seeking that reward can sunder personalities, families, and communities. Connections propagate like viruses (Dr. Kimberly Young. The Internet – A pathway for networking, connecting and addictions. American Psychological Association, 117th Annual Convention, August 6-9, 2009. and, Kimberly Young, Molly Pistner, James O ’Mara, and Jennifer Buchanan. Cyberdisorders: The mental health concern for the new millennium, CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3(5), 475-479, 2000. Information technology imprints the natural environment with a carbon footprint greater than that of the airline industry (Bill St. Arnaud and Larry Smarr. Cyberinfrastructure in a Carbon-constrained World. Educause Conference, November 4, 2009. And, we still do not know the long-term effects of the radiation we generate in our non-contiguous communications. (Dr. Magda Havas. Biological Effects of Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, In: D. Clements-Croome (Ed.). 2004. Electromagnetic Environments and Health in Buildings. Spon Press, London, 535 pp. Though I understand the need to set some limits to the region of connectivity (it is, after all, about human learning and development), it is a weakness of CCK as a learning theory that it emphasizes the forming of connections and the human-machine-machine-human interaction necessary for network learning, but essentially ignores the impact of that synthetic world where this learning takes place and from which the theory has emerged, on the natural world and our place on it.

While some may see the possible salvation of humanity in this new lebensraum, others see its possible destruction. Is it our saviour or is it a runaway train? Can we sustain the growth? Will six billion people benefit, and benefit equally, from the sheathing of our planet in copper wire, glass fibre and seething waveforms? Seven billion? Nine billion? I live in hope that we can find a balance in our actual and synthesized lives. Finding balance is the imperative. We need to take a long view, a holistic view, and not be entranced by the aural and visual connections made between our head and our computer’s screen a few inches away and not become disconnected from our actual lives through inattention to them.