Resurrecting “Disconnectivism”

18 11 2009

Aside from exploring the “content” of the CCK09 course (including content generated by the instructors and by the “student” community) related to the theory and pedagogy/androgogy of connectivism, the aspect of the experience that I have enjoyed most is seeing how participants are mixing and matching various online tools to create mashed up learning environments uniquely suited to their learning preferences, professional roles, lifestyles, aesthetic sensibilities, and technological comfort levels.  I have certainly appropriated bits and pieces of what I have seen into my own strategies for gathering and filtering pieces of the distributed conversation and archiving and organizing the key ideas, pithy quotes, and big questions I want to be able to recall and reuse in the future.  I know I have become a better online, semi-independent learner as a result.  Not only do I know more “stuff” than I did at the beginning of the course, I feel smarter because I’ve improved the part of my brain that is outside of my skull.

Unfortunately, this experience has also dramatically increased my sense of frustration with the dominant view of technology in K-12 education in Ohio (my state.)

Earlier today, I read Antonio Fini’s paper summarizing responses to a survey he conducted with 2008 CCK MOOC participants, which, in part, explores the online tools used by CCK08 participants and their perceptions of the value of those tools in the learning process.  While virtually all of the survey participants reported using the “official” tools of the course (Moodle, the Daily e-mail newsletter, and Elluminate) to some degree, almost all participants also reported using at least one (and usually several) tools that were not required to access the content specified on the syllabus or follow the instructors.  These tools included social networking sites like Ning, LinkedIn, and Facebook, blogging tools like WordPress, virtual environments like Second Life, and Twitter for “backchannel” communications, brief comments, and resource sharing.  Additionally, content aggregation tools (e.g. PageFlakes and RSS) and social bookmarking and link sharing tools like Twine and Diigo were key elements for several participants.

What frustrates me going back and forth between my CCK09 experience and my “day job” in public schools is being made acutely aware every day of the power of social learning technologies in the course and then going back into systems where most of these technologies are not merely “unfamiliar” to learners, but preemptively blocked or banned, and actively demonized, by educators, many with (ironic?) titles like “Instructional Technology Supervisor.”

For example:

  • I recently participated in a conference on STEM education — held at a technology education center — where virtually every social networking site, social bookmarking tool, video portal, and even Google Sites were blocked.
  • In 2007, the state’s largest professional association for teachers issued guidance to members advising them not to join or cancel their accounts with Facebook and MySpace.  Many districts also ban or discourage educators communicating with students via cell phone, text message or Twitter.
  • The state school boards association advises against using social networking sites for K-12 educational purposes while simultaneously posting links on the front page of the organization’s website directing visitors to follow it on Twitter or become a fan on its Facebook page.  (As of today, the association has only four fans — possibly because most of their would-be audience either can’t access Facebook or is afraid to make their presence on the social network known to school officials.)  I attended their state conference recently where the keynote speaker, a purported expert on creativity, spent a good part of his presentation comparing the growth of social networks and mobile computing via cell phone and iPod to the growth of the Borg from Star Trek, destroying relationships, subjugating people to machines, and crushing the individualism of poor ignorant students too naive to comprehend the dark powers of the network.
  • Poorly informed fear-mongering in local media produces knee-jerk reactions of many K-12 educators only compounds the problem.  Lauren Angelone nicely catalogs the lopsided “discourse” in the non-debate over school policies and reactions to technology in this blog post and highlights the growing chasm between views of technology between K-12 and higher education with examples from her e-mail inbox.

A term that emerged briefly in CCK08 (and which I stumbled across in some curious Googling) which I think fits my day job universe much of the time is “disconnectivism.”  I’m going to repurpose the word, though, to describe the opposing force to Downes’ and Siemens’ thinking to help bring (sarcastic) clarity to the debate.

To compare and contrast:

  • Where connectivism proposes that learning occurs through interaction, disconnectivism holds that learning occurs in isolation (and MUST be assessed this way.)
  • Where connectivism suggests “freedom” involves being able to construct and choose your own community, disconnectivism argues that that freedom is actually a threat to community (which must be defined by place and demographics.)
  • Where connectivism sees a student’s  ability to create and customize networked learning environments to connect with external sources of information, expertise, and mentorship as an expression of individualism and indicator of learner self-efficacy, disconnectivism sees these personal learning environments as debilitating for students (as they should learn “on their own” and do “for themselves”) and, sometimes, as an affront to the profession of teaching.  Where connectivism proposes that knowledge largely lies in network connections, disconnectivism is skeptical, asserting that while some knowledge may exist “out there,” so too does grave danger which must be avoided (kind of like starving to avoid the potential risk of choking inherent in eating food.)

Unfortunately, right now, it looks like the disconnectivists are winning the K-12 debate.  However, there’s still hope for a come-from-behind shift.  After all, connectivists can use tools to organize themselves that the disconnectivists are afraid to touch.  Connectivists can collaborate 24/7.  Connectivists can get smarter faster.

However, to succeed, K-12 connectivists need more support from their allies in higher education and industry — and not just in the form of research and theory development, but in the form of policy advocacy and engagement with popular media to balance the technological horror stories that dominate thinking today with news of success and promising possibilities that go largely uncovered in mass media (which remains the primary source of information and consensus opinion for people not yet participating in social media.)

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Networked Diversity and “Standards” in Education

25 09 2009

After reading the resources on networks following session 2 of CCK09, I am thinking today about the implications of a networked view of learning and knowledge for systems of education.

If knowledge lies in the connections within and among people, then it seems to me that part of the strategy for making smart people has to involve a couple of things we don’t focus much on in our education systems.  (I am in the U.S., but if you’re not, I’d be curious to hear thoughts about whether the following two points are true for your system as well.)

Network Building

First, the education system has to encourage the development of valuable connections between people.  Students should be encouraged to explore ways of working and learning collaboratively.

Unfortunately, despite paying occasional lip service to the value of sharing in kindergarten, our schools seem to look at learning as something that happens within an individual and structures itself accordingly.  (For example, when we want to assess learning, the very first thing we do is isolate students.  We tell them to “clear their desks,” turn off their phones, and get as far away from their “neighbors” as the classroom will allow.  We remind them to put away their own books and notes.  Finally, we tell them not to speak to anyone until the assessment is over.  The message they get is mixed: share your toys, share your cupcakes, but don’t you dare try to  share knowledge.)

We also know that having access to mentors and supportive peers are critical to student success.  Probably everyone reading this who is successful in a profession can think of a few teachers, professors, and mentors who, at critical points, took a moment to provide a key piece of advice on how to enter a new community. (e.g. “These are the kinds of courses admissions officers look for.” “Here is a group who can help you with a scholarship.” “These are some good models to look at on how to write and speak for people in this field.” “Here is an organization that has been helpful to me.  Let me introduce you to a couple of people.” etc.)  We know that this is especially critical for students coming from families in poverty or students who would be first-generation college goers.  Very often, very bright young people slip through the cracks not because they’re lacking in cognitive ability, motivation, or values, but because they don’t have access to sources of knowledgeable support when they need it.  However, we do very little to help students cultivate the networks they will need in the future, and do much to inhibit them.  For example, most schools block access to websites with social elements.  We put in place policies that make it very difficult for students to earn credit outside of traditional classrooms.  In the interests of safety, we do everything possible to limit contact between students and adults and create airtight seals between schools and the communities in which they are situated.

Knowledge Network Diversity

The second issue that we would need to address in our education system under a connectivist construct would be the diversity of the network to which an individual student connects.  Being able to draw on the insights and experiences of others in a network is an essential piece of the puzzle, but it doesn’t get us very far if we can only connect to people only know what we already know and who have had experiences that are almost exactly the same as our own.  We are smarter together if each new person we connect with brings something new to our network.

However, in our education system, we are working toward homogeneity rather than diversity by focusing enormous effort on standardizing learning goals, curriculum, and assessment so as to ensure that all students learn the same things at the same time and are assessed in the same way as everybody else.  This approach would make sense if, at the end of formal schooling, we were sending students off to live and work in isolation.  If, though, our goal is to help students find satisfying places in a society where they will form institutions (colleges, businesses, military service) where they will have to add unique value to a community or organization trying to accomplish things through collective effort, this approach is counterproductive — both for the students as individuals and for the progress of the society as a whole.

Rethinking “Standards” in Education

If we start from the assumption that students are entering a society/community, and that, with globalization and the proliferation of communications technology, that they will be involved in more, larger, and more diverse groups than ever before in history, it would make much more sense to focus educational efforts on (A) making sure that each student can bring unique expertise into the economy and culture, (B) making sure that students knew how to access and derive optimal benefit from networks (this would involve both technological fluency and cultural awareness) and, (C) cultivating values and policies that encourage people to share knowledge, provide mentorship, and extend access to learning networks to the disenfranchised and isolated.

Maybe it is time to reframe the notion of “standards” in education, and move away from the definition of standards as, “discrete things kids should know and be able to do,” to a definition more akin to the one used when we talk about “standards” for the Internet, where “standards” refer to frameworks for facilitating interoperability and sharing across a decentralized, non-hierarchical network.  In other words, rather than focusing on making sure everybody knows the same set of stuff, focus on making sure everybody is able to participate and contribute so that the network itself grows in value and so every individual can benefit from membership while at the same time pursuing personal interests and talents to a degree not possible under the current view of “standards based” reform.

If “none of us is as smart as all of us,” maybe it is time to start thinking about developing the “network” as well as the “nodes” in K-12 education and start actively cultivating diversity in the ecosystem of knowledge.