A long overdue conversation on Connectivism

Closing in on a year ago, I took a course through Athabasca on the Foundations of Adult Education. I took a comparative look at Connectivism (especially the work of George Siemens) and Critical Pedagogy (especially the work of Paulo Friere) and George was gracious enough to attend an online presentation I hosted. His openness and accessibility continue to astound me, and at the conclusion of the course I pulled a move that seems to be working its way into a pattern – I got scared. I knew that in order to complete my work in the course, I would need to post my essay – raw, messy and living as it was. Instead, I quit visiting my blog and just put the whole thing out of my mind. This term I am in Alec Couros’ ECI831 course and in order to use this space, I must take the chance and put myself out there. The post is long, and I would really recommend visiting George’s sites, but here it is.

Connectivism and Critical Pedagogy:
Connections and Critical Divergences

During my undergraduate semester in Cuba, I was introduced to the tragic history of Chile. Through Isabelle Allende’s beautifully crafted narrative The House of the Spirits (1985), and a critical reading of the history of Latin America (Galeano, 1997), I came to understand the reality of living in an oppressive regime that has no respect for human life and dignity. What struck me the most was the systematic capture and slaughter of the country’s educated peoples. The Pinochet regime rightfully identified the country’s thinkers as threats to the coup against the democratically elected socialist party led by Salvador Allende. As I presented this wrenching history to my classmates, I emphasized that in our own oil-rich province of Alberta, a similar attack would spell the execution of the liberal thinkers of our campus, the imprisonment of our brightest students, and the closure of our post-secondary institution. I emphasized that Chile, too, was a democratic country with an educated population that was no more prone to this type of anarchy than our own country. Chile had simply attracted the wrong type of attention with their choice of a populist government founded on a platform of egalitarian socialism. Reading this history affected me greatly. Though I had spent numerous class hours questioning the dominant hyper-capitalist paradigm, until that point I had not seen myself and my studies as a threat to the status quo. The excruciating history of the Chilean people awakened me to the power of education, and the threat it poses to those who would be served by the perpetuation of inequality, prejudice, hatred and war in our society.

My interest in adult education stems from this formative experience and my course expectations, research interests, and program assignments follow this fundamental drive toward a liberating education. I hope to perpetuate a model of education that seeks to transition students into autonomous and critical beings who have the tools to engage in meaningful dialogue about the direction of our society. Throughout the semester in MDDE 611, I have been exposed to a variety of divergent thoughts on the purpose and process of adult education. Being an online university student, I have focused much of my studies on George Siemens’ and Stephen Downes’ theory of connectivism, a new theory that seeks to address developments in teaching and learning in the digital age. While this theory has been instrumental in my development over the past year, I fear that a closer examination of connectivism through the lens of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, has, for me, left connectivism lacking. I will outline the similarities between the two theories before discussing the essential contributions that critical pedagogy makes to connectivism.

Connections
Over the past six years, connectivism has developed as a learning theory that addresses the challenges and opportunities of the Internet age. The explosion of information, proliferation of digital devices, and the burgeoning world of social media have transformed how individuals interact with data, the world, and each other. Seeking to provide educators with theoretical tools to address this rapidly shifting landscape, connectivism appropriates aspects of established learning theories and elaborates upon them in the context of twenty-first century learning. While much of the literature focuses on comparisons with behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructionism (Kopp and Hill, 2008), the language of connectivism suggests a degree of integration with the tenets of critical pedagogy rather than, as Donaldo Macedo argues, an outright “omission” of Freire’s convictions (as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 16). Arguably the strongest comparisons between connectivism and critical pedagogy lie in the nature of knowledge, the importance of dialogue, and the significance of interdisciplinary studies.

Freire is critical of what he calls the “banking concept of education” (2000, p. 72,) in which the teacher simply deposits knowledge into the heads of students for later withdraw in order to perform on exams. This gifting of education, founded on the oppressive notion that the teacher is a being who possesses valid knowledge while the student is an individual who is void of the same, sets a false image that “reality [is] motionless, static, compartmentalized and predictable” (Freire, 2000, p. 71). Authentic educational interactions help reveal that “reality is really a process” (Freire, 2000, p. 75), and students and teachers are “jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire, 2000, p. 80). Similarly, Siemens is critical of the post-Gutenberg “representations of knowledge [that] provide a false sense of certainty and ascribe static attributes [to] knowledge” (2006b, p. 11). Downes posits knowledge as “emergent from [a] set of connections” (2008); it is non-propositional and cannot be pinned down in words, sentences or concepts, but emerges between two learning entities (defined as “anything consisting of a set of connections”(2008)). This view of knowledge indicates the impossibility of a “transfer theory… [or] even a transaction theory of learning” (Downes, 2008). “In connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge” (Kopp and Hill, 2008, p. 7), rather “knowledge is grown” (Downes, 2008) or nurtured through the process of connection. This organic view of knowledge condemns the tendency to “approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things” (Freire, 2000, p. 77), and promotes a holistic view of knowledge-in-the-world. This existential view of knowledge as dynamic and context-specific positions connectivism and critical pedagogy among the humanist approaches to education. Recognizing each individual as a “Subject who acts upon and transforms his world” (Freire, 2000, p. 32), both theories suggest knowledge reflexivity, whereby an individual interacting with the world simultaneously creates and consumes information, changing both the whole of knowledge and the self. For this reason, the relationship between two entities is central to the learning process, as unique knowledge has the potential to emerge from each new teacher-student and student-teacher connection.

Dialogue, connection, or interchange is at the heart of both of these theories. For Freire, to “engage in dialogue [means to] recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing” (2000, p. 17). By entering into non-oppressive dialogue, an individual approaches the possibility of comprehending authentic knowledge, that is, the knowledge that is situational and dynamic. “Authentic thinking… thinking about reality… [takes place] only in communication” (Freire, 2000, p. 77) and leads individuals to “overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations”” (Freire, 2000, p. 99). These limit-situations occur when an individual bumps into the frontier of perceived reality. This frontier, fortified by oppressive and static views of knowledge, is decoded in dialogue, revealing “[its] true nature as [a] concrete historical dimension of a given reality” (Freire, 2000, p. 99). This exposure “stimulates the appearance of a new perception and the development of new knowledge” (Freire, 2000, p. 115), freeing the individual to explore beyond the frontier and into authentic existence. While Freire’s philosophy is forty years old, education systems have been slow to recognize the fundamental need for the dialogical model in education. “The emphasis of object over process” (Siemens, 2006b, p. 11) ensures that students only encounter a “codification of knowledge at a point in time” (Siemens, 2006b, p. 12). Presenting knowledge “artefacts” (Siemens, 2006b, p. 11) in “communiqués” (Freire, 2000, p. 115) sustains oppressive systems in which the “professor is the one who has knowledge and to whom [students] should listen” (Freire, 2000, p. 63). From its inception, connectivism has attempted to negate this object-centered approach to knowledge, going as far as to say that if connections between entities (be they devices, publications, neurons, people or communities) are pipes and the information is what passes through the pipes, then the existence of “the pipe is more important than the content within the pipe” (Siemens, 2004, Conclusion ¶1). This radical commitment to conversation supports “problem-posing education [that] regards dialogue as indispensible to the act of cognition which unveils reality” (Freire, 2000, p. 83). While Siemens asserts this primacy based on the practical need to be able to know, Freire’s emphasis rests in “man’s ontological vocation… to be a Subject” (Freire, 2000, p. 32). In both theories, however, it is this very subjectivity that lends validity to the centrality of dialogue. “The dialogical I… knows that it is precisely the thou (“not-I”) which has called forth his or her own existence… [and] in the dialectic of these relationships… Subjects meet to name the world” (Freire, 2000, p. 167). In other words, connections forged between two subjective entities not only hold the potential to reveal the shifting nature of reality, but to create knowledge by naming and re-naming reality using language conducive to exploring the authentic humanity of the subjects. Fundamental to this authentic exchange is “love, humility, and faith” (Freire, 2000, p. 93). A “horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence” (Freire, 2000, p. 93), cannot be built on arrogance. While connectivism shies away from the revolutionary language of love, it recognizes the need for “checks and balances, not hierarchical structures” (Siemens, 2006a, p. 22) to establish trust within the system.

Finally, the significance of interdisciplinarity is suggested in each theory through the integrative views of “thematic investigation” (Freire, 2000, p. 107) and “pattern recognition” (Siemens, 2004, Connectivism ¶ 8). Thematic investigation is the process by which individuals in dialogue begin to explore the context of their reality, constantly looking to the interaction among various themes to explain the existence of their limit-situations. The truth of such themes lies not in their existence as objective entities, but as circumstances that are occurring as they are being investigated. As such, Freire says, people must be included in an investigation of their own themes in order to “strive towards awareness of reality and towards self-awareness” (Freire, 2000, p. 107). This integration is key to counter the divided order the oppressor creates in order to fragment and rule the people. By promoting a “focalized view of problems rather than… seeing them as dimensions of a totality” (Freire, 2000, p. 141) individuals are prevented from identifying the overarching patterns contributing to inequality. While connectivism does not suggest an overarching theme of exploitation, it does emphasize the importance of recognizing larger patterns in order to make choices when all information is not present. With so much information available in our contemporary world, and the increasing pace at which individuals are expected to act, “the ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill” (Siemens, 2004, Limitation ¶ 2). Of course, the more nuanced the understanding of the patterns or themes, the more integrative it is possible to be. Both theories identify this meta-cognitive skill as essential to navigating the shifting process of reality.

Critical Divergences
As the landscape of our world continues to change, there is a notion that today’s students are part of a “post-ideological generation” (Kanalley, 2010, video), and that the discourse of critical pedagogy is no longer applicable. While the use of critical pedagogy has secured space for feminism, queer studies, racial studies and identity studies, the omission of Freire’s philosophy from educational curricula suggests that we have already passed through our liberation “phase” and now deserve to enjoy the comfortable life we have forged with our brief idealism. If the recent protests in London demanding reasonable access to education (Kanalley, 2010) are any indication of the oppressive relations at play in our society, critical pedagogy is still applicable, and we cannot simply assume that learning theories that house emergent knowledge, dialogical models, and interdisciplinary tendencies are enough to compel students to think critically about their world. In order to find equitable solutions to the problems we face, educators must accept the impossibility of neutrality and address one of the most important questions they can ask themselves: what type of people do I hope my students become?

Freire’s stance is very clear. He passionately quotes humanist philosopher, Erich Fromm, iterating that the value of a liberating education is “not merely for freedom from hunger… [but]
…freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine… It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be love of life, but love of death” (Freire, 2000, p. 68).
Automatons love death simply because “oppression is domesticating” (Freire, 2000, p. 51). It is something you can bank on (literally); it requires little or no effort, and if you are not at the absolute bottom, it is easy to be satisfied with a mostly comfortable, semi-static reality. In the Western world, this mostly-comfortable state is considerably padded with distractions meant to amuse the population into upholding the status quo. The automatons “do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves… they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have” (Freire, 2000, p. 59). The escape from this life of death is found in a radical commitment to “confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled… [and not be] afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them” (Freire, 2000, p. 39). It is through this very communion and commitment that the individual has the potential to begin the process of living an authentic, chaotic, changing, and challenging human life.

Ten years ago when he wrote the introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Macedo stressed that “it is an enormous mistake, if not academic dishonesty, to pretend that we now live in a classless world” (as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 13). While the proponents of connectivism would never make such a claim, the shallow treatment of the question “who are the new oppressed?” (Siemens, 2006a, p. 64) suggests that connectivism is not concerned with the polarized planet we occupy. Speaking of the oppressed as “those without access to tools of global conversation [and] those without skills to contribute to global conversations” (Siemens, 2006a, p. 64) is a “linguistic distortion that disfigures [the] reality” (Macedo as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 21) of global hunger, poverty and oppression. By “refusing to link experiences to the politics of culture and critical democracy, [Siemens and Downes] reduce their pedagogy to a form of middle-class narcissism” (Macedo as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 18), a notion perpetuated by the quick abandonment of concern for the oppressed in favour of developing our own “capacity for ongoing learning and functioning” (Siemens, 2006a, p. 66). While the theory emphasizes the importance of connections and dialogue, the actual content of that dialogue is not seen as important, whereas Macedo reminds us that “dialogue is never an end in itself but a means to develop a better comprehension about the object of knowledge” (as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 18). Without a call to transform reality, the dialogue of connectivism is relegated to “idle chatter, [to] verbalism” (Freire, 2000, p. 87).

In my presentation for this class, I came to the conclusion that the a-ethical primacy of the connection was balanced by the implication that any new node or learning entity was crucial to the network. In his criticism of connectivism, Mejias considers “nodocentrism,” or the “assertion that only nodes need to be mapped, explained or accounted for” as exclusionary of that which “animates the network,” namely the “paranode” (Mejias, 2010, p. 612) or that which exists between nodes. Mejias argues that the exclusion of the paranode from representations of connectivism not only presents a false conception of reality, but also negates the important role the paranode plays in providing exciting energy for the network. This denial of the paranodal contribution, coupled with the disregard for disparate access not only to the tools and skills of global conversation, but also to the privileged positions within the connected world (Mejias, 2010), leaves great space for connectivism to be employed by oppressive forces that wish to perpetuate the exploitative systems of society.

Process and Development
With such strong criticisms that strike to the core of my beliefs about what education can and should do, must I abandon connectivism as a theory beyond repair? Certainly if Siemens and Downes were philosophers from a bygone age, I would close this book and put it back on the shelf, but connectivism is a theory in development, and the process of defining it, according to its very tenets, will never come to a definitive close. As with the postmodern milieu from which it came, connectivism lends itself not only to interpretation, but also to re-creation, mash-up, appropriation and dialogue. It seeks to “describe, not define knowledge” (Siemens, 2006, p. iv), and in that description, Siemens and Downes have left significant space for participation. In his book Knowing Knowledge (2006), Siemens “intentionally left thoughts unstructured and unconnected, allowing readers to create their own connections… duplicat[ing] knowledge in form, not only content” (Siemens, 2006, p. vii). While this presentation of incomplete and shifting knowledge is not revolutionary (Freire himself recognized that for authentic change to occur “conviction cannot be packaged and sold” (Freire, 2000, p. 67) in the form of a book with his name on the cover), the tools available to host such a conversation lend a validity to Siemens and Downes’ process that has never been experienced before. Through the various online networks they inhabit, these two scholars are readily accessible and “rarely resist… email or Skype requests to dialogue” (Siemens, 2006b, p. 5). Far from mere lip service, alongside the launch of his book Knowing Knowledge, Siemens launched a Wiki site devoted to dialogue around the claims of connectivism (Knowing Knowledge, 2010). I have even engaged Siemens in dialogue on Twitter and in an Elluminate presentation for this course. This behaviour of radical commitment to dialogue is not exclusive to the theory architects, but seems to be the norm for those engaged in discussions around connectivism. A quick scan of those in Siemens and Downes’ largely transparent online network reveals open-education courses, and open content being the norm in this educational landscape. Facilitating process-driven views of reality, creating space for individuals to participate, and graciously amplifying voices of those entering the network, those in Siemens and Downes’ network exemplify praxis within the online world.

While this access to theory architects and an educated community familiar with the concepts of connectivism certainly inspires a “fear of freedom” (Freire, 2000, p. 36), I would be resorting to mere verbalism if I were to refrain from posting this paper online in order to seek dialogue on the criticisms I have launched. In Siemens’ words, I must “abandon notions of perfection to attempt online dialogue… [and put myself out there] – warts, poor sentence structure, quickly jotted thoughts, embarrassingly simple viewpoints” (Siemens, 2006, p. iii) and all.

References
Allende, I. (1985). The house of the spirits. New York: Bantam.
Downes, S. (2008, September 6) What is connectivism? Retrieved from: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/688902.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (30th Anniversary Edition) New York: Continuum.
Galeano, E. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Kanalley, C. (2010, December 10) 15-year-old protester goes off on British establishment. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/10/15yearold-goes-off-on-bri_n_795180.html.
Knowing Knowledge (2010). Retrieved from the Knowing Knowledge Wiki: http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/KnowingKnowledge/index.php/Main_Page.
Kop, R. and Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9:3. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523/1103.
Mejias, U. (2010). The limits of networks as models for organizing the social. New Media & Society, 12(4) 603-617. Doi: 10.1177/1461444809341392.
Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. Elearnspace. Retrieved from: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm.
Siemens. G. (2006a). Knowing knowledge. Retrieved from: http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2006/11/08/knowing-knowlege-book/.
Siemens, G. (2006b, November 12). Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime of the self-amused? [word document] Retrieved from : http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm.

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2 Responses to “A long overdue conversation on Connectivism”

  1. Debbie Fucoloro Says:

    First of all, I am envious that you are able to communicate with George Siemens and take a course from Alec Couros exploring the topics of Connectivism and the Critical Pedagogy of Paulo Freire, my favorite philosopher. I enjoyed reading your synthesis of Freire’s work and explanation of Connectivism, however, I am not sure I agree with part of your conclusion:

    “By refusing to link experience to the politics of culture and critical democracy, (Siemens and Downes) reduce their pedagogy to a form of middle-class narcissism” (Macedo as cited in Freire, 2000, p. 18), a notion perpetuated by the quick abandonment of concern for the oppressed in favour of developing their own “capacity for ongoing learning and functioning” (Siemens, 2006a, p. 66).”

    I wasn’t aware of the fact that Siemens & Downes ‘refuse to link experience to the politics of culture and critical democracy’ nor that connectivism favors a ‘capacity for ongoing learning and functioning’ over a ‘concern for the oppressed.’ Certainly, connectivism is concerned with how learning occurs within networks and nodes existing in digitally enhanced environments. Does that mean that they ‘favor’ learning and functioning over concern for the oppressed? Does this really reduce connectivism to a form of middle-class narcissism?

    As an educator who connects with other educators in order to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas and information, my practice is transformed through reflection and action (Freire) everyday. Admittedly, this transformation does not necessarily focus on politics or for the concern for the oppressed everyday, but many of the discussions I am able to participate in or observe concern social reconstruction or reform topics on a regular basis.

    I understand what you are doing is comparing connectivism with the critical pedagogy of Freire, and I believe there is much to compare, however, I don’t believe connectivism ever sought to position itself as a social reconstructionist philosophy with respect to politics and concern for the oppressed. I believe connectivism to be aligned with social reconstructionism where digitally mediated education and the reform that needs to take place in our schools to accommodate it is concerned.

    Thank your for providing the opportunity to work through these ideas. Enjoy your studies.

  2. onepercentyellow Says:

    Debbie
    Thanks for your awesome reply! I’m really excited to engage with you on this. While the essay was written nearly a year ago, the questions it poses still chase themselves around my mind.

    As you observed, this paper was a comparison and conversation between Freire and Siemens (with a little Downes thrown in for good measure). At first glance, I felt the two theories to be very closely related (as outlined at the beginning of the paper), but the a-ethical stance of connectivism really struck me as I continued working through the readings.

    Certainly in the actual unfolding of connectivism, we can see the opportunity to discuss values and purposes of education with theory architects, but without access to Siemens and Downes, what do we have in the theory documents that point a reader toward a liberating education? Freire has been criticized for his idealism, but by discussing “man’s ontological vocation to be a subject” there is no doubt where his values were situated. It would take considerable twisting to employ Freire’s theory in an oppressive regime (even a regime led by the oppressed would find this challenging). Connectivism on the other hand, leaves space for the reader/teacher/student to determine what the purpose of education is. While I would like to believe the qualities of connectivism (emergent knowledge, dialogue and interdisciplinary) naturally lead one toward a concept of education for liberation, I must remain skeptical that these themes will emerge without a concerted effort.

    So it’s not so much that Siemens and Downes “refuse” to link connectivism with an active questioning of the systems of oppression in our world, it’s just that they completely omit the conversation. As the living-breathing theory of connectivism continues to develop, I hope folks give voice to the question: “what type of person do I want my students to become?”

    On a further note… this notion of changing the world is problematizing this stance for me. On the one hand, I believe an individual must explore meaning and value on a personal level, but as one who has experience in the world, I cannot help the desire to guide others toward a more sustainable, giving, loving, and joyful means of life. I understand the hands-off approach in wanting someone to develop for him/herself, but I struggle with the impossibility of presenting neutrality. Perhaps wrapped up in this conversation of value-laden vrs. value-free pedagogy is a conversation on what I see as the ridiculous question of professionalism.

    well… how’s that for incomplete thoughts 😉

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