Making learning visible and connectivism

I’ve stepped out of the twitter conversations a bit, or a lot, and f I haven’t done as much reading and following along with the conversation as I would like, so apologies to the #rhizo14 community. I read Simon’s blog post “Enabling the Future” and it is beautifully written, which is to say, it takes the reader down a path that might be shared by many potential learners who sit before you if you are a teacher in a formal classroom, or who sit beside you if they are a fellow learner in a fellow classroom, and they haven’t bought into the value of sitting with their hands folded waiting amongst three hours of class time for the 10 minutes that really connects them to the learning. They are not interested in having knowledge transmitted– they want to be part of learning experiences that engage them in the world. I particularly love this aspect of the description, though:

I was fortunate to have done my early teaching in a progressive language school which allowed me sufficient freedom to deal with all sorts of uncertainty. I learnt the eclectic way: teaching blind and sighted students together, teaching, around 1992, an evolving group of mixed-level unemployed learners. Learners would arrive at different times, with completely different backgrounds, objectives,  levels. Frankly the idea of people turning up ‘mid-course’ was my normality, similarly the idea of community being the curriculum.

The bold above is my emphasis. Certainly, having learners physically arrive in a classroom at different points in a curricular progression is challenging to manage, but when the learning target is language, even if all the learners started the first day with the same lesson, they would all start with different skills and prerequisite knowledge anyway. It’s always been funny to me that we assume that by having the shared learning experience together, we somehow level the playing field. What I’m saying is the attitude represented above is helpful in any learning environment.

Also, the pedagogical orientation matches the subject area: Language must be learned by interacting with a community. It’s an ideal match for a loose pedagogical construct that values the contributions of learners and strives to meet everyone where they are at when they enter the community. The only way to gain communicative competence in a language classroom is through interacting with others. Still a constant influx and outflow of learners is very challenging. I’ve also taught in this sort of language-learning environment as well, and it was ok, but I always felt that everyone learned in spite of the chaos.

What about other areas of study, though? What about science, where concepts are necessarily sequenced and expertise wouldn’t typically be encountered through daily interactions with others. Some people can be really motivated by being in an environment that stretches them, whereas others might be intimidated by this and feel overwhelmed and choose to be disengaged rather than “fail.” An advantage that most educators prefer about a required set of shared experiences is that it gives some control over the “inputs”– we can say that we specific video clips together and engaged in 10 hours of discussion together and read xyz pages of text as a requirement. However, even with similar inputs, the outcomes could vary significantly, so why is everyone so confident in the value of a shared experience in terms of its production of outcomes, rather than its creation of a set of shared inputs?

I think the reason why is nicely summarized in the comments of Stephen Downes’ recent post Theories Related to Connectivism:

In transmission theories, learning is taught. In construction theories, a learning environment is created, and learning is created by the students.

If we focus on the inputs, we can control the process– “learning is taught.” For educators who are constructivist, but concerned with contact hours, I would ask why? Why wouldn’t the focus be on outcomes and having students demonstrate their learning?

This also leads me to a question about connectivism. Connectivism is a relatively new term, coined to describe how learning is constructed in a social network. Social network analysis has its first origins in the late 19th century, but with  digital application in the 20th century. Digital artifacts and new methods to make visible connections and learning artifacts. Should an element of connectivism be that a learning environment is created and learning is created and made visible by the students? Is there an element of connectivism that is tied to showing and demonstrating the connections and construction of knowledge, which is increasingly facilitated by digital tools?

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