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Connectivism Blog

Connectivism is a learning theory for the digital age.

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December 2007 Archives

December 8, 2007

Digital Citizenship and the Zen of Letting Things Unfold

The edublogspace has become, in a period of about five years, an effective forum of debate and arbiter of important ideas. Occasionally, someone will post a concept that resonates with others and a period of hyper-evaluation and critique ensues. Alec Couros wrote a post of this nature recently: Understanding Digital Citizenship. He broadly explores definitions of citizenship, provides examples of why it is important, and concludes with an appropriate sense of uncertainty on what it means to be an online citizen.
His post was then picked up by numerous bloggers:

  • Tom Hoffman (I've been enjoying his reflections over the last few months) states: "literacy" + "safety " + "etiquette" + "learning strategies" + "networking" does not equal "citizenship."
  • Stephen Downes references his article from 1997: "If a defining characteristic of a nation is that it embraces diversity of opinion, then you cannot define membership in that nation according to the opinions held by its citizens."
  • Will Richardson, in The Kids are All Right, says: "And at the end of the day, if we really want to help our kids become good citizens themselves, the best we can do is to use our own minds well and model our own participation wherever and whenever we can."
  • Alec responds in Criticisms and Conversations: "It matters that there are passionate educators out there who will inspire their students to think critically about the messages and content they receive. It matters that those educators will empower youth to becomes socially responsible by encouraging, creating and sustaining all that is good in the world."

With these comments as a backdrop, I encountered a post on the dismal state of youth media consumption: "So what do I find objectionable? How about spending nearly 7 years of eight hour days watching TV? and nearly 3 years of eight hour days playing video games, and an equal number of years of eight hour days talking on the telephone. I believe that the statistics…13 years of eight hour days spent watching, gaming, and talking on the phone… are appalling!". I then encounter Vicki Davis' emphasis on more focused action and less apathy needed on the part of educators in promoting digital citizenship.

This latter exchange builds on a growing sense of unease I have with proclamations of educational reform and a heightened sense of our role within it. The conference circuit abounds with "we should all blog, use a wiki, create a podcast" and so on. The message: if your students don't blog, use social media, develop new literacies, understand citizenship, our society will no longer be competitive as the {insert country or region of choice} overtakes us and we all work at fast-food restaurants. The fear of no longer being competitive is a natural concern. And yet something of this makes me uncomfortable. Partly it is the internal grubbing most educators exhibit: we are (or the system is) never good enough and must constantly function from a stance of dissatisfaction...we desire to challenge status quo. We desire to change the system.

This mindset comes from a traditional view of control. We feel that we can manage and influence reality to do our bidding. We strongly value the humanist mindset of personal control, power, and capacity to impact change. The hope and desire to influence the world are valuable traits. But limits exist. I can get up in the morning and make personal changes: less coffee, more fruit, go for a run (not today, it's -30 outside in Manitoba). This personal control cannot be exerted on the larger structure of society. Society is made up of many individuals each making their own choices and pursuing their own directions. Centrally planned curriculum and policy-based change do not appear to have the depth of influence they have had in the past.

Instead, as educators, we must increasingly recognize that it's not all under our control. Yes, we should act within our sphere of influence. But we should also acknowledge that things will unfold as they unfold. Very few of us anticipated - even 10 years ago - the increasingly decentralized educational world we have today. Sure, we talked about learner-centered education. But dialogue and reality were far apart. I see more individual optimism in educators today than I can ever recall. Educators have the tools of transformation at their finger tips - blogs, wikis, podcasts, global connections, and so on. It's liberating and it's powerful. Yet it's not ours to control and direct.

Those who lament the shortcomings of education - very real shortcomings, I might add - overlook the inevitable progression occurring. I would suggest that what many educators are lamenting is not the direction of society (for we can hardly understand its current direction) but rather the potential loss of traditional schooling as we know it. And the loss of traditional schooling means we also lose our ability to control and influence. This means, much to our chagrin, that it is our students who will be defining digital skills and literacies. Our students will be defining citizenship. Our role becomes more of fostering, facilitating, directing the formation of connections between people and ideas, and far less about directing.

It comes down to trust. Do we trust our students have the same desire for a better world that we, and every generation before us, has had? Do we trust in human ingenuity? Do we trust in the human spirit to rise up in the face of vileness, oppression, and moral weakness? Our desire to control provides us with at best an illusion of our own importance. We need to reduce our teacherly roles and embrace the "rise of everyone". Do we still hold and pursue high standards, seeking to promote critical thinking, citizenship, ethics, and other foundations of a civil society? Of course. We must act within our sphere of control and influence. But we must also acknowledge that the world is becoming a very different place governed by very different rule and roles.

William Dutton presents the emergence of everyone as the new fifth estate (.pdf). The fifth estate is a "new form of social accountability" that emerges through the growth of the internet, social media, and personal control offered to average people through participative web technologies. He contrasts this with the traditional estates: clergy, nobility, commons, and the fourth estate of the press and mass media. The fifth estate is a new structure of checks and balances enabling greater accountability in all sectors of society. And simultaneously, this new estate has the capacity to police itself and direct its own activities. Schools too slow to reform? No problem. Other avenues are emerging (ask the news, music, and traditional media how well it works to stand still in a changing world).

I am certainly not suggesting that we ignore the need for substantial change or that we let everything "just emerge". I'm suggesting that we function within our sphere of influence. Politicians will make policies that change the shape of schools. We will want to be involved in that discussion. But don’t mistake having the discussion as either politicians or educators having control. Many of us will spend our time trying to innovate in the classroom using social media. And learners - members of the fifth estate - will go about reshaping their own world that may or may not bear any resemblance to ours. They may augment our current institutions. Or they may abolish them completely. Our task is to allow things to unfold as they - former learners turned citizens - would have them. As voices that will be "from the past" we have an obligation to present the ideals that have formed the foundation of our society. The past, after all, informs and shapes the future. As Harvard's new program in general education emphasizes (.pdf): learners must "understand themselves as products of—and participants in—traditions of art, ideas, and values."

I heartily embrace the important conversations occurring. The ideas that Alec expressed resonated with many bloggers. The ensuing discussion was (and is) valuable. And yet, the learner's voice is not heard. Which is rather unfortunate. We are conflating our current control of the structures of education with control of learners and their needs and interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the internet has taught us anything, it is that control rests in the aggregate of the many, not in the position of the few.

December 16, 2007

Didactics of Microlearning

I find informal publishing in blogs and online articles more rewarding than traditional publishing processes. The feedback on what I write informally is more immediate and, as a result, plays a greater role in the subsequent formation of ideas. Writing a journal article, book, or book chapter, is concerned with presenting what one knows. Writing in informal spaces (such as a blog) is concerned with inviting others to join in an exploration of understanding a phenomenon not yet fully known. I know that simplifies things, but it largely expresses my frustration with the formality of traditional publishing (plus it can take 12-24 months to get a book chapter or journal article published and even longer for a book, which means that at the point of publication, the world may be a very different place than at the point of writing).

However, I have increasingly encountered comments from masters students who require information from the traditional pipeline of journals and books (I addressed this in my post on privileged peer review). While the original article on connectivsm was self-published on my elearnspace site, it was peer reviewed and also published in International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning (Stephen Downes, an editor with the journal, put forward the request to formally publish). Stephen also explored the epistemological concepts of connectivism in his article (presented to ITForum - a most respectable peer-review avenue) on Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. To say connectivism is without a peer review base is simply wrong.

The requests from students and some educators for a more traditional peer review channel for exploring connectivism and related principles, emphasized the need for not exclusively relying on informal publication. As a result, over the last year in particular, I've focused more on journal articles and book chapters for publishing. Most recently, I contributed a chapter (Connectivism: Creating a Learning Ecology in Distributed Environments) to Theo Hug's book Didactics of Microlearning (why can't they make it easy to buy the book?? It's an obscure process and requires fluency in German). Part of the intent is to enlarge the scope of conversation on changes occurring to learning, technologies, and relationships of power in democratic information creation and exchange. It matters little what theory or view of learning we eventually settle on to describe these changes. What matters most, at this stage, is that we are having a conversation that explores the depth and breadth of change. And that is why I find the growing numbers of academic bloggers encouraging. We are seeing a blurring of formal and informal. Which requires bloggers to be prepared to publish more substantial works (yes, in journals) and academics to engage in the conversational flow happening online.

A great example of this formal-informal influence is found in the opening chapter of Didactics of Microlearning (Outline of a Microlearning Agenda) where Theo Hug and Norm Friesen interact extensively with Stephen Downes' work. Blogging, as evidenced here and in increasing numbers of publications (journals and books), appears to has formed its own identity. In many cases, a blog post is a suitable reference. The change in what determines value in contrast to a journal is significant. In a blog, the source of authority comes from the voice of the author as determined over many months/years of posting and sharing ideas with the larger community. In a journal, authority comes from the reputation of the journal and the value of the peer review process. I would not rate one approach to authority determination above the other. I think they can both co-exist, developing and extending the other.

February 2008

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