Monday, February 07, 2011

Where the wild things are: Connectivism, CCK2011#

This unpolished rant was brought on by wikipedias flame wars on connectivism as well as by Latour's and Law's discussions as to whether Actor-network theory is a theory or not.

I always thought philosophy and theory were a matter of scale; the one grander, more over reaching, and the other more grounded, more empirically tested. That the philosophy required internal consistencies a complex arrangements of how the world is seen and constructed and so can make meaning of the world.

Isn't philosophising about what ontologies, epistemologies,are? what is knowledge and how is it known...and in talking philosophy down to earth, what produces the 'good life' which is essentially contestable? While theorizing is more grounded in day to day practicalities?

Kurt Lewin suggests there is nothing so practical as a good theory.
So a theory gets tested in empirical research, in application, in my view it is not necessarily predictive, though this is the stance of 'scientific method' that it be repeatable and so provide consistency... case studies too can provide more and less support, more or less weakening of a theory.

In philosophising a good philosophy, paraphrasing John Dewey (1958) in Experience and Nature:

“Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life experiences, render them more significant, more luminous to us, or make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering experiences more opaque than they were before?”

So I'm thinking ANT is philosophy. And at its finest :)
Its descriptive, and there are empirical accounts
But its not predictive.
It does not over-reach itself.
It illuminates knowing this also creates shadows: a self-conscious theory.
But importantly it meets Dewey's account for being fruitful, for creating the conditions of also knowing that things might be otherwise.

For connectivism, it's still establishing its clarity, its alignments, its contradictions, its loves and betrayals. But theory does not come into the world brand spanking new ready to go...its a little unfair to treat it in the same ways one might treat an adult or a teenager, when its still toddling. And a toddlers survival is not just about it's own robustness, it's also about the readiness of others to engage in more and less supportive ways.

Law in a sociology of monsters describes the newness of things also, citing a story
I said 'I think they might also be called "hopeful monsters".'
She said' What are hopeful monsters?'
I said 'They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it's not known if the environment is quite ready for them.' Nicolas Mosley, Hopeful Monsters, p.71

So let us not forget readiness is a distributed state also. A networked proviso.

I now turn to how criticism might be enhanced taking a relational approach.
Latour suggests in doing research one should always be respectful of one's informants/participants/people we work with...and as much as reasonably possible:
Always assume people are right, even if you have to stretch the point a bit. A simple rule, my dear pupil when you're studying a project. You put yourself at the peak of enthusiasm, at the apex, the point when the thing is irresistible. (p.36)
No reason we should not be so generous to newer theorists and theories in the making. They are not attempts to deceive.

And like Donna Haraway, to say, from a distance, that one knows better, is to see everything from nowhere as one's own situated knowledge is not acknowledged but treated as a gospel truism. Some reflective work on one's own positioning and how one positions others in the network might be useful here. A network is not a hierachy. There is no one at the top with a supreme world-view, instead accepted wisdom (knowledge) is also made and distributed on a network.

I take an ANT stance with this, being connected means being in relationship, so what would happen were the question treated relationally? In considering critique instead of criticisms, if instead of thinking is this good/bad/right/wrong we were instead to consider, what does this bring to the relationships with others (human or otherwise): then not only might it illuminate, and render less opaque as Dewey would ask, but perhaps we might also ask in what ways might that which is looked at, as well as the theorizing undertaken, be otherwise?

The following is a beautiful piece of prose on the type of criticism yearned for by one philosopher, from an anonymous interview titled the masked philosopher:
"I cant help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life: it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind,, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes- all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I'd like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightening of possible storms."

The masked philosopher was Foucault 1994, p. 326

To yearn for such criticism is to yearn for engagement, to enquire, and not to close down, but to foster connections...such that new learning might occur.

I don't know if i believe in connectivism as a new theory of learning, but what i do know is a connected world makes learning occur in ways that would previously have been very difficult. Technologies bring about new ways of being in relationship, and no learning is possible without relating.

Dewey, J. (1958). Experience and nature. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Michel Foucault, interviewed anonymously in Le Monde by Christian Delacampagne, April 6–7, 1980; reprinted in M. Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (ed. Paul Rabinow, tr. Robert Hurley et al.), The New Press, New York, 1994.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3), 575-599.
Latour, B. (1996). Aramis: Or the love of technology (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Law, J. (Ed.). (1991). A sociology of monsters: Essays on power, technology and domination. London, England: Routledge. Retrieved from,+technology+and+domination&source=bl&ots=PN2gGPt9al&sig=Y1kZy4EfVYcqKssYcB-J9L5zZ_8&hl=en&ei=XRHKTPfyJYfcvwPyl5nWDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false


  1. Your view on status of connectivism as a theory I do agree on. Real theory in a scientific meaning does not exist in education, but that is not a problem. We teach and educate without a theory in a scientific Popperian) sense. Connectivism is a way of describing education and learning that makes one think and inspires to learn and teach. (my blogpost on metaphor or theory

  2. I must admit I have read some of the connectivism scribbles online and yep - take the ANT view and ask what is goin on here? It may end up being DNA-like (i.e. no one subscribes initially) but all you can do is trace the associations, the performances.

  3. Hi Ailsa,
    I am glad to learn your views about ANT and Connectivism. Your quote: "Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I'd like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination." resonated with my experience. Criticism is like a double edged sword, it could be disruptive or destructive to relationship, if delivered with an inappropriate tone. However, it could also spark new understanding of each others, when done in a constructive manner, which would enlighten us to reflect more deeply about our relationship with others, and thus gain a better insight into all those thoeries with multiple perspectives. May be it is a matter of interpetation and perspective amongst people when it comes to all learning theories of our time. Don't we all have our own preferences of learning, and autonomy in choosing what suits us best in our life? Thanks Ailsa for your great insights.

  4. Connectivism is a hopeful monster. I like that.

    Personally, I think that the meaning of theory is much less narrowly defined than assumed in this post.

    I appreciate the comment about 'not intents to deceive'. If I have to explain the status of connectivism as a theory, so far as I am concerned, it would be something like "the best explanation I have of what it is that I'm up to with all these experiments in networking and learning."

    People always assume that theory guides practice. I am not so sanguine as to believe that proactice is so well informed. Me, I like to try things, and if they work (or if I think they work), try to figure out why.

  5. p.s. sorry about the typos. I'm a terrible typist, & if I'm in a hurry lack the patience to go back and correct the inevitable mistakes. I do know how to spell those words, really.

  6. Hi Ailsa - I enjoyed this - thank you! There's some lovely gems in here to pick up and explore further.

    I originally trained as a biology teacher, where a 'theory' was an educated guess at an explanation for an absolute truth. Now I teach pedagogic theory, which I see as a different animal entirely. I find myself describing theories such as actor-network theory, activity theory, threshold concepts, social constructivism, etc as interchangeable lenses with which to look at problems and issues. As with an SLR camera, we can carry a bundle of different lenses and filters around with us and use whichever produces a satisfying or appropriate result for any particular situation or context. The important thing with this is that, as with photography, there is no right answer - no 'absolute truth'.

    I often advise my students that if the word 'theory' causes problems or dischord, to just avoid using it, and use a word that feels right to them.

  7. Hi Ailsa, the elegance of your approach reminds me of the Ezra Pound line: "there will come no more those gentlemen with beautiful manners". There are clearly still people out there who care about 'beautiful manners'.


    In a much more modest attempt to respond to Foucault's dream, I added a bit to the debate on connectivism in wikipedia, as follows:

    "This debate is instructive. But more so about wikipedia, and the threshold, or boundaries of what 'is' and what is not appropriate for wikipedia than about learning (unfortunately). Connectivism is a useful description of a social phenomenon - it pulls together things like crowd sourcing, networked learning, distributed learning, etc. But it is not a theory of learning, maybe a framework for conducting, designing, or even managing learning, but a theory of learning, no.

    So ...

    Surely wikipedia includes useful (yes) and new descriptions of social phenomena? In which case, the more interesting debate is whether connectivism can be defined much more broadly than just 'learning' - so it might be useful to talk of a 'connectivist society', or a 'connectivist social/ political/ 'revolutionary' movement'. This might or might not include activities which are centred around 'learning'.

    However ... If the wikipedia entry takes the form of "x is a theory", then the criteria are more rigorous, so why not change the wikipedia entry to: "Connectivism. Connectivism is a concept that describes a set of social activities which are characterised by a, b an c"? Its the theoretical aspirations (unwarranted and unjustified in my view) that stick in the craw, and muddy the water in an otherwise very interesting debate about how we can describe what's going on out there".