Posts Tagged ‘connective’

In which I avoid the phrase “running aMOOC,” address the personal, and serve hotdish.

How do you approach a party where you know few people, if any? Chat with anyone? Loiter near the potted plants? Maybe the hosts can offer some initial introductions, circulate, and foster conversational ease, but they can’t be everywhere at once. They’re not really there to entertain you; instead, the event is simply an end in itself. And there’s almost always food. Maybe the hosts kindly provide snacks, but in Minnesota, it’s often the guests who bring hotdishes.


A variety of party preferences


Inevitably, some people leave the party earlier than others. Some people hang around for the “after party.” Some people gather to play strange instruments in the den. Me? If I have a good conversation somewhere along the line with two or three people, it’s been a successful evening—usually for all three or four of us. Hosts or other guests may choose to drink merrily, play strip poker, or sing with the karaoke machine; if these excitations become expectations, people might be disappointed in me. I understand if they don’t invite me again… but it probably isn’t an event I’d attend again, anyway.

This party-oriented digression is really a follow-up to what I wrote two years ago about my thoughts on participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). While find my thinking at this point is roughly the same, I would offer one newer observation: that a MOOC designation might cause unnecessary concern among new participants and lead to an expectation of differentness or magnitude that distracts from the small, cumulative learning moments that such opportunities create.

I have begun to wonder if a MOOC creates AIA, or Acronym Induced Anxiety. With the MOOC known as PLENK (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) steeped in examination of PLEs and PLNs, maybe the desire to capture complex concepts by catchphrase and abbreviation—the desire to create an identifiable banner around which people might rally– might interfere with the very concepts being promoted. Might these terms be OBN (OverBurdened Nomenclature)? Learning in a massive open online course sounds…big and scary. How about learning as an open, online salon, or an open, online party… with an abundant buffet (on)line? Might take some pressure off of everyone.

In a similar vein of trying to communicate a vision of the MOOC concept, Stephen Downes recently sounded a call that those with experience in these courses/parties/buffests should take responsibility for assisting newer learners, rather than leaving this to the “teachers.” In other words, perhaps, he’d like guests to share more hotdishes.

“…my thinking was that more experienced people should be creating introductory content to help people new to the material… traditional learning … leads to a selfishness in learning, as you are encouraged to focus only on your own learning (even when you are working in groups) and not on helping other people (that’s “teacher’s job”)…”

One thing I know after years of hotdish exposure: they’re not always to everyone’s taste, and nothing distracts from an elegant buffet more than tater-tot topping framed in Corningware. And while I agree that unique understandings contribute to the overall whole, given the bountiful smorgasboard available to everyone in PLENK, I’m not inclined to presume I have any recipe of helpfulness in this environment that others cannot– or perhaps would better– arrive at on their own, following paths that are more meaningful to them and their own circumstances. In understanding various communication styles, it has been helpful for me to recognize that an expression of concern or frustration or confusion or annoyance is not (necessarily) the same as a request for help. And often as not, one person’s “helpfulness” can be another’s “interference.”


Choosing a personally meaningful path to learning


Along the lines of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before assisting others, I’m pretty sure that an emphasis on one’s own learning is not really an obstruction to helping others’ learning. Far from the idea that “personal learning” or a personal focus embodies a selfish approach to learning (since this seems to be the underlying concern), the “personal” in learning for me recognizes, among other things, the imperative of taking personal responsibility for learning, as opposed to externalizing the responsibility for learning (or the blame for not learning) to a course, an institution, a delivery style, a system, another person, or even a network.

I agree that this should not result in focused development of “my” learning, and my learning only, forever and ever. I would, however, gently observe that just because learners’ outreach and artifacts are not visible in one community or network at a given time does not mean they do not exist in another. Quid pro quo is a problematic calculation in a temporally and geographically dispersed and diverse world (and in recognizing the diverse agendas brought to a MOOC), and technology is not always the answer. Additionally, I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (True,”ROI” or “assessment” folks aren’t going to find enough nourishment here.)

In this potluck environment, I do think a note of caution is needed here. I have been concerned when ideas about support and connection and openness and separateness and independence and learning that is personal (in any context) are placed into boxes of mutual exclusiveness or opposition. While the approaches of mapped, quantitative, “show me the openness” social connections are considered to be social visions based in positive community development and generosity, I could also see the elevation of these values as an effort to address fears about loneliness or isolation. In a related vein, I am concerned that too great an emphasis on the communal and a rejection of the personal and the idea of the independent self in connective learning may not respect developmental processes, including those related to adult learning. While it is not necessary to swallow such concepts wholesale, I would be reluctant to ignore theories related to individuation and psychological differentiation, and am led to wonder if the insistently communal prevents us or allows us to avoid peeking into the conceptual existential abyss of aloneness – a process which has been posited as a necessity for adult maturation. I continue to consider whether or how connective learning theory might need to recognize quieter and qualitative connective intimacy (or resonance) and self-efficacy.


Like all learners, adults have developmental and affective–dare one say "personal"– learning needs


(As a side note: George Siemens observed in an Elluminate session last week that advances in neuroscience are providing groundbreaking new understandings about learning psychology. Much of this work addresses so-called “abnormal” mental functions in learning and decision-making, but this work, Rifkin notwithstanding, is relatively new – and is controversial–  in its approach to empathy, mindfulness, and other tenets of the humanistic psychology referenced here.)

Ultimately, I believe the concepts of support, connection, independence and the personal are not so much ends of spectrums or dichotomies as they are ingredients in the worldview stew of complexity and ambiguity we are attempting to pin down (perhaps too narrowly?) through the alphabet soup of learning referenced above.

By the same token, since we all have different seats around the living room, I can see where a host might see the benefit of more or different fare to expand the party buffet and atmosphere. So I will share here three recipes I have used in my learning– MOOC or no MOOC– that have provided some nourishment.


A playful mindset has been a pretty important element not only for its own sake and for enhancing learning in unconventional ways, but also as a way of leavening some of the deeper and darker considerations that learning about learning brings forth.

What’s your problem?

I find myself inclined to look at new ideas not as a totally separate land, as a topic to be mastered, or as a simple disciplinary expansion, but as a set of concepts and approaches to be sorted through, applied, adapted and/or discarded in order to solve a problem. Indeed, without the existence of a problem, conundrum, issue, or puzzlement to apply new learning to, I’m not sure I’d see the point in pursuing a MOOC—or any course, for that matter.

This might sound like a slippery slope to anti-intellectualism—bypassing learning for learning’s sake, and all that—but as far as I’m concerned, life’s busy and I’ve got important things to do—including nurturing others in learning. In this context, I’m willing to entertain all ideas, no matter how initially bizarre, as long as I can ultimately subject them to a rather ruthless evaluation of what works at this moment in time for a given set of particular circumstances. That I am also filing away ideas that don’t work for future reference, knowing that time and circumstances change, is both a bonus and an essential part of any creative process, contributing to the incubation of further ideas.


Incubation doesn't create a lot of "artifacts"


And, should it be helpful to other learners, I will defend the quiet and slow process of incubation as a known and legitimate stage of learning, intuition and creativity. (I suspect that creativity and wisdom are potentially states that both result from and go beyond connective learning, but that’s a different conversation.) While I cannot guarantee that the bigger and less easily captured/more complex/ill-defined/wicked any given problem is, the more incubation it takes, I do know that producing artifacts for the short term can take away time from the longer-term processes related to creative development. (See also: “one good thought a week.”)

And to the immediate objections that a “problem” not discussed in an open environment is cutting off its nose to spite its face, let me counter that complex, creative and even social problem solving draws on elements well beyond the metrics of sharing and connecting. I don’t think that sophisticated thinkers in this area are claiming otherwise, but I do think we have a gap in how this is being communicated to broader publics. I’d suggest that any complex problem includes the qualitative, the affective and even the psychological within a community, and that process evaluations based on openness/not open or connected/insufficiently connected are overly-simplistic measures when working with human beings.

Working in translation

A third approach I take to learning is related to the first in instigating a problem scenario, and is an oldie-but-goodie: make a commitment to communicate or “teach” what I’m learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean hashing out my developing view of the fine points among the like-minded or similarly curious within the MOOC. Rather, testing and translating new concepts among more diverse and less familiar communities and contexts offers a different set of emergent challenges. Yes, few of us are “experts” in the acronymic concepts here. But I’ve found no better reality check than taking even the basics to the local street corner.

While I appreciate the idea of learning from the modeling of masters and in conversation with similar peers, I also find much of my learning occurs in trying to understand others’ not-understanding, and in trying articulate my understandings in the face of reasonable skepticism (but preferably stopping well short of evangelism). Relocating to another’s viewpoint, adopting the beginner’s mind, and working to understand how and why people think about, believe, and react affectively to new ideas helps me understand what essential elements or worldviews might inhibit or incapacitate shifting conceptions of learning, and perhaps to discover some unexpected conceptual compatibility.

That said, discussing my learning in relation to others’ learning efforts and conversations in any detail offers an ongoing ethical conundrum, inherent in the ambiguous dance of qualitative, participant-observer situations. So ultimately, I do more listening at parties than talking. As noted in a previous post, this “silence” is not necessarily demonstrating a lack of participation or support.

And to return to the OBN of the MOOC: as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t really mattered if the party is massive or not. If the party is small, I may have more conversations as those fewer people maneuver around the room, but might find less resonance as the array of ideas and expression is usually quantitatively smaller. Among bigger events, it’s always entertaining to hear the range of conversation, and the statistical chances of finding resonance are often higher, but it takes time and persistence to filter through the ambient noise… or to adequately sample the buffet.

So, whether PLE, PLN or OBN, here’s my hotdish buffet approach to a MOOC like PLENK:


Work a puzzle…


…and party on.


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In which I follow up on the exhortation to “just connect” by noting an additional approach to connective learning.

“Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution, taking it even one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. It is activated from and organizes what I call “divinely superfluous neurons.” These are neural connections that don’t seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization…

"...don't seem to have an immediate function..."

In playing we foster the creation of those new circuits and test them by running signals through them. Because play is a nonessential activity, this testing is done safely, when survival is not at stake….

Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s counterpart. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it. As we grow older, we are taught that learning should be serious, that subjects are complicated. These serious subjects take serious study, we are told, and play only trivializes them… [But] sometimes the best way to get a feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it…

"... we are taught that learning must be serious..."

When play arises out of innate motivations it is also likely timed to occur when we are primed for the most synaptic neural growth. That is when we are embracing the issues that grab us most, the ones we may not even be able to voice logically…

Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties… Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play…

"... stepping out of a normal routine..."

The world needs play because it enables each person to live a good life…”

From: Brown, Stuart and Vaughn, Christopher (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

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In which I consider for myself, at a great length, an unwieldy mass of  raw, cooked, and half-baked idea relating to learning, invisibility and silence… ironically with lots of pictures and an alarming amount of purple-patched prose.

It is an hour past sunrise on this August morning, and I am enjoying the green-scented breeze, the full summer flush of the potted pink impatiens, and the neighborhood’s awakening cicadas. I have settled at the table on our do-it-yourself–to-save-construction-costs second-story deck. Eight years ago, in our most advanced and now-appreciated act of home improvement ever, we mounted the modest twelve by twelve cedar platform just below the outstretched branches of aging, rather unkempt maple and elm trees, framed and anchored on two sides by the ell of our periwinkle Cape Cod’s body and the house-garage breezeway link that extols its 1954 construction. (I hereby admit a reluctance to commit the recommended grown-up acts of pruning and trimming the long limbs nodding overhead, unwilling to let the dreamy tree-house atmosphere and welcome shade fall victim to such mundane maintenance.)

Limbs overhead

It is from this location that, weather and familial circumstances permitting, I commit what an anthropologically-or ethnographically-minded observer might call my first identifiable act of overt personal learning for the day. In the absence of such specifically trained observers (although several other observers, witnesses, participants and/or spectators appear and disappear during the day’s flux), I suppose I am uniquely situated to depict – several years of action research being the ongoing modus operandi –the nature and reverberations of these endeavors.

I do so somewhat cautiously and with great ambiguity, aware that a love-affair backlash seems to be brewing in the tiny, somewhat lonely and amorphous culture  (all highly interpretive words, to be sure) that has embraced the terms personal learning network and personal learning environment… terms now undergoing some scrutiny. I have always found myself uneasy with these phrases, or perhaps with the often techno-cultural-progressive rhetoric that frames them, and have rarely used them raw or straight out of the package, finding myself instead only able to employ in all sincerity the first two-thirds of these phrases, “personal” and “learning.”

These words, in currant parlance, resonate, whereas the implications and assumptions of the terms personal learning network (defined broadly as people connected through communication, and conceptually linked to connective learning) and personal learning environment (insofar as this has consistently been defined as a set of technologically-based tools and programs with which one surrounds oneself and uses to create and connect to the aforementioned network) have left me wary, and, on many days, weary. I also wonder if terms which were coined essentially as Bateson’s  “knots in a handkerchief,” a place marker or temporary terminology to talk about things which are still fuzzy in concept, have become rapidly cemented as absolute ideas with presumably clear definition (perhaps to the dismay of the very originators of the terms).

With these compound terms I have been instinctively inclined to hesitate, drawing meditative breaths, perhaps here and now fatally throwing myself off my quiet and tentative perch in the bandwagon in order to better examine the juxtaposition of apparent and entrenched tradition against prospective and prescriptive innovation from many perspectives. Here I draw on ethnographic, anthropologic and even historiographic perspectives:

“…the moment a professional historian picks up a page, he or she begins taking a sophisticated series of steps that are almost completely unknown to the novice learner. When presented with a document, [they] …began by looking at the bottom of the page in search of information about the author and the nature of the source that would help situate the text within some larger context. But this was only the most obvious of the steps that the experts went through, as they treated texts as complex “rhetorical acts” whose basic nature had to be reconstructed. The historians zigzagged from one text to another in order to make explicit the motivations of the authors, to relate the text to its historical context, to explore the connotations of the words used to describe events, and even to construct a “mock reader” who fell into the rhetorical traps set by the “mock author” who was posited as creator of the text…. the historians read the texts like prosecuting attorneys…”

A series of steps

The paradoxical quest for a significant narrative

As an outcome of this type of deep questioning, I view with particular concern a perceptible shift from descriptive approaches for personal and connective learning permutations to prescriptive ones. Current skirmishes aside, I am finding that the “texts” of personal learning networks and environments, often embedded within “social learning” and connective advocacy, have become their own gospel and cause for hallelujahs, rather than objects of judicious theological study.

It is also here that I wonder if  complaints about change (change is not happening fast enough, at great enough magnitude, at pervasive enough levels of acceptance) are related to a focus on overly large scales of “measurement” and observation. Is the eagerness to formulate grand narratives of change, to identify unifying broad themes and approaches and perhaps even to view one’s life work as a vanguard of a movement also a certain type of… assumptiveness? (Manifest destiny, anyone?) Does the current preoccupation with evaluating and praising “change leadership” perhaps fail to recognize quietly authentic action? (To create an omelet of change, one needs to break a few eggy rules. Advertising this becomes… counterproductive.) And to what degree are people still in the grip of the very learning they expect to change?

“Howard Gardner…  suggested a few areas where such early patterns of social learning might create …[mental models] such as the expectation that history is organized according to narrative patterns that make a certain kind of moral sense, that events have a single cause, and that general stereotypes can be applied to entire classes of people.”

Some days, when early morning on the deck is already burdened with heavy, humid air and the sulk of coming storms, the combative question of whether there is a hegemonic flavor to the essentially progressive narrative that underlies educational technology and related learning roils on the horizon.

Metaphor made literal: clouds on the horizon

In observing and engaging in efforts to communicate about connective/personal/social learning networks and environments, I tap into an intuitive sense that such connective features might already exist in many places, invisible and undiscussed. I speculate whether it is not a lack of understanding by those not convinced, but rather an issue of approach, or perhaps one of insufficiently connective conceptual language, that might be getting in the way of understanding and encouraging learning in ways that are  (I say while wearing my activist’s hat) essential for survival. In understanding personal learning landscapes, I suspect there is much left uninvestigated, much that is invisible in the efforts to effect change. Ann Oakley notes:

Some issues on which research reports usually do not comment are: social/personal characteristics of those doing the interviewing; interviewees’ feelings about being interviewed and about the interview; interviewers’ feelings about interviewees; and quality of interviewer- interviewee interaction; hospitality offered by interviewees to interviewers; attempts to interviewees to use interviewers as sources of information; and the extension of interviewer-interviewee encounters into more broadly-based social relationships.”

This passage points out the many layers of understanding and, as I see it, learning potentials rendered invisible by standard practices of social sciences. Without understandings of the existing relationships (connections) and personal choices within each person’s complex context, I wonder if connective and personal learning, which are consistently framed within the social science practices of education, run the risk of becoming (ironically) yet another set of externally applied, generically defined learning expectations.

Local landscapes, domestic details, and sense of place

Fortunately, the antidote that prevents this from becoming a paralyzing concern is a daily life that inevitably reflects connective learning embedded in personal contexts, and it is here that I return to the dappled sunlight on the blue-and white checkered tablecloth, a second cup of coffee lapping at the rim of a slender porcelain cup. Personal learning does not appear here as an environment or network imposed or exposed, but rather as emergent activities and occasional performances, ones which I create and improvise. Yes, these are peripherally enabled through an environment in the sense of objects/tools surrounding me, but even more they are crafted and created through and by an environment of multi-sensate and multi-dimensional immersion.

The terms environment, landscape and geography occupy similar connotative space, with varied implications. While my initial preference is for the immersive term “environment,” it has been perhaps irretrievably usurped in relation to personal learning, and so landscape and geography remain more viable terms in attempting to communicate the descriptive essence of personal learning.

In the efforts to capture the apparently fundamental aspects of personal learning, we are often urged to build or reflect upon “our network,” or to construct a “mind map” of the digital tools we use the create a web or network of communicative/learning opportunities. This is helpful in a rudimentary fashion, but I suggest the significance of personal learning is not due to the collection of tools or a grouping of people which allows us to engage, but because it allows us to develop our “sense of self” within a developing “sense of place.” Sense of place, suggests geographer Kent Ryden, is “that complex of meaning that gives a landscape its significance in the eyes of the people who inhabit it, marking it off from the surrounding terra incognita… the sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative…”  (This idea of geography or location is reflected in the concept of online visitors and residents, whereby each group has different agendas, senses of place, and levels of habitation and habituation.)

And yes, there is certainly an awareness of narrative related to personal learning in the nascent personal learning culture. But it seems often to be an awareness imbued with an agenda, one intended to prove the rightness of the learning environment phenomena. Personal anecdotes are informative, but are not proof of rightness for all, and I worry that some efforts confuse the two. Behaviorist cheerleading also disturbs my ethnographic sensibilities, when narratives of shared place and experience are invited based on attitudinal agreement, whereby small but visible groups define the sense of space for others. Instead, I wonder if it would be equally productive to foster gradually accrued understandings (though not “definition”) through astute observation and listening by and to individuals and their own coalescing and competing (even interwoven) existing place narratives in spaces in which they feel most comfortable.

I envision personal learning as growing from the local, the small things forgotten, the minutia of daily life. These things are, I would posit, the very essence of personal learning, much as history is comprised of the amassed flow of uncounted, unidentified and yet undiscovered individuals, in spite of work which frames it in terms of leadership, power and those people, places and things easily and widely documented.

Maps with meaning

And so, for example, fighting a bit with the gentle breeze and finding the coffee suitably cooled, I spread before me an oddly obsolete personal learning device, the daily print edition of the local newspaper. There would be those witnessing this act who would, I suspect, jump to conclusions about absent RSS feeds, about my technological know-how, about hardware have and have-nots. A curious ethnographer would soon elicit the information that even with laptop and iphone immediately at hand, and ready recognition that the very same articles are available without cost on those devices, and sophisticated information abundance coping and flow mechanisms, I still continue to subscribe, with admitted environmental qualms, to dead tree deliveries. I posit that the “whys” in this scenario offer one set of examples about the complex and often ambiguous processes that support personal learning on the personal level. But first my coffee needs cream, and the sun is penetrating the leafy branches, which means I need a hat.

In documenting geography and landscapes, much as we have been asked to document our personal learning networks and environments, one turns to graphic representations, largely maps and charts and neatly packaged videos. In a world just coming to terms with the renewed idea that learning is not just a matter of manipulating text and language, the less-verbal pictorial representations are indeed a welcome expansion.  But, as Ryden notes…

“While the modern map is a marvel of efficient geographical communication… in other important ways it does not tell us very much as all…. I spent nine years of my childhood among these hills, houses, rivers, and lanes. The map tells me where certain hills are, but I retain in my legs the physical memory of what it feels like for a child to climb them. It tells me where certain buildings are, but I know what they look like inside and out—and not just as a photograph freezes an image, but what they look like at different times of the day and year. I … remember what I did in those buildings… [maps convert] a complex geographical reality into a purified objet of aesthetic contemplation. The map pays no heed to the ambiguities of that shifting, amorphous zone where land meets sea; it states firm conclusions in sharply etched lines and bright cartographic blues and greens… it compresses that landscape’s ambiguities into an arbitrary and simple flatness- it is all surface, lacking depth… The map has nothing to so with the quality and character of human existence as it is lived and felt on the surfaces that it describes…”

"A feeling in the legs"

It strikes me that descriptions of personal learning networks and environments are often as similarly sterile as the modern map, or obedient recitations of latitude and longitude. I wonder if descriptions and instruction intended to support personal learning to this point are absent the acknowledgement or discussion of precisely this “feeling in the legs.” Yes, “you have to do it to get it” is a popular phrase. But while encouraging participation, it also implies that unless the learner is engaged in the “it”  (blogging, podcasting, writing a wiki, joining a Ning group) identified by the speaker,  “it” is not right. This phrase further tangles with chicken-and-egg learning dilemmas, suggesting the act of doing will inspire the feeling the speaker wishes the other to achieve, rather than working toward a feeling of emerging or connected rightness to inspire a selected act.

I would posit that many people already have a feeling in the legs regarding their own learning, but that we have not supported a culture that allows this to become a legitimate and valued part of a map, or learning landscape. While maps in the pre-satellite image world were created by individuals, and for centuries were idiosyncratic and artistic representations of and by their creators, they have long since been consistently stripped of personal and lived reflections.  How many of our current learning maps, whether curriculum guides or and mind maps of personal learning environments, are reflections that, as Ryden says, “inspire imagination, emotion and words,” or any type of “poetic creativity?”

Folklorists, ethnographers and the like value maps, but learn to see them not as an end in themselves, but largely as one of many potential scaffolds for understanding lived experience; experience they seek themselves in attempting to comprehend to map, and also experience they seek to understand by listening to others inhabiting the map space.

Experiencing the map

Complexities of tradition, change, and reading the comics

In the summer, the two teenagers of the house are relatively late risers, but still, I have found that it is best to peruse the newspaper first thing. Otherwise, I find myself negotiating for the front page, a time-consuming endeavor, and can’t track down the features section until much later in the day, usually finding it crumpled, scrambled and half-hidden under the dark blue couch cushions. Worse yet, householders persist in wanting to read amusing cartoon captions and punchlines to me, whereas I prefer to enjoy words and visuals as a single entity as intended by the creator (or at least the Creators Syndicate). The rhythm of my personal newspaper reading is best capped off (and the direness of the previous news sections mitigated) by the unspoiled Reading of the Cartoons.

All these facets of experience are, one could argue, available elsewhere, with technological ease. And while I conceded the inevitability of online newspaper perusal into the future, my current assessment is:

  • The navigation of the online version is cumbersome and oddly linear.
  • Learning serendipity, particularly related to local oddities and grim curiosities often not addressed in even the best of my feeds, is greatly reduced online due to layout constraints.

    Serendipitous print amusements

  • Coffee and keyboards are a dangerous combination, especially on dark, bleary-eyed winter mornings in the depths of Minnesota winter.
  • The printed newspaper serves as an insidious and highly effective gateway drug for accumulating awareness of the surrounding world for younger household members. At the youngest ages, the two pages of comics easily endured banana-mash fingers (pages only improved by the liberal application of crayon). Later, cartoon-peripheral, ambient news awareness emerged since the paper was an item of high portability and great physical endurance, and because it was visually more obvious, tactilely more satisfying and acoustically more intriguing than a Macbook screen.
  • And yes, even though everyone in the house now has methods for tailoring and expanding their news and information processing, the pull of tradition, of messy newspapers first thing in the morning and the “could someone finally put the paper in the recycling” call to prayer in late afternoon are a part of the household routine creating “home.”

I cite this example not in attempt to defend a Luddite approach to the news, or to facilely defend the simple superiority of the old ways, or to deny the wonders of technology. Instead, it is simply to point out that this is but one small and yet extremely complex example of the kinds of preferences and contexts which contribute to the choices, processes and tools for personal learning– learning which is, I would add, never just my own, but is innately connective in facilitating or modeling these things (or serving as a cautionary tale, for that matter) for others.

Newspaper comics as gateway drug to ambient news awareness

Multiply these observations and choices by the almost limitless contextual elements related to the rationales for the construction of my idiosyncratic blogroll, my Google alerts, my Twitter followings, my library browsing, my love-hate relationship with my scanner pen (the very ownership of which reveals my constant negotiation among the printed and digital world), my need to change or eliminate chairs, my selection of conversational (dare one say social learning) partners based on, for a start, quickness of wit and their ability to recognize the difference between useful conversation and what one acerbic sociologist of my acquaintance called “online and offline grooming behaviors masquerading as friendship.” Add to this my weakness for fine-tipped colored Sharpies and the sly use of iMovie 09 sound effects, and the fact that I have an admittedly promiscuous attitude toward novel or high-quality expression, whether “open” and digital or not. In this context, my personal learning and expressions thereof, while meeting some obvious hallmarks of social and connective learning in networks, and while using diverse tools which comprise an “environment,” are best seen as complex tapestries that are not well represented by a map or a network diagram.

Is this complexity and humanness communicated to others in current discussions and descriptions of personal learning environments and networks?

Go left at the fiberglass beaver

To speculate a bit further: if we regard personal learning as a form of geographic exploration within a personally situated and interpreted landscape, I wonder if current efforts to create maps or to identify the large landscape features as guidance systems for others suggest a misleading simplicity.

Instead, I am inclined to map whatever personal learning processes and features (routes/routines; likes and dislikes; fearsome, edge-dwelling dragons) are already part of a personal landscape, but still perhaps invisible because formal (and even personal?) learning cartographers have been taught or inclined to ignore or neutralize these features and interpretations. It would seem more reflective of human experience to ask about existing conceptual maps, which potentially offer views of personal learning already deeply rooted in common behaviors, activities and worldviews. It does not necessarily mean these processes will be polished, ideal, or immediately effective for learning going forward. But they provide a much different framework and/or language in considering if, how or whether learning might occur.

An example aside: our household recently required the services of a lawyer. In subsequent conversation, it turned out that while one member of the household viewed this as hiring someone to review and amend a document, another saw this as hiring someone to protect the interests of the potential document signer. Both things were true and occurred, but the frames of understanding were quite different. It is this expansion of available frames for understanding, rather than rejection of any particular frame, that I am attempting to address here.  A further, landscape-oriented example: When I need directions, I need to hear “slow down when you see the Git-n-Gun and swing a left by the giant fiberglass beaver,” not “go east on Highway 18.” Both pieces of information lead to the same location, but one type of information “works” better for me.

In a similar vein, philosopher Gary Comstock (cited by Ryden) points out there is a difference between “places of little sense” and “places of big sense.”

Places of little sense

“Places of little sense, says Comstock, ‘have very much sense; it is just of a modest, local, sort: farmers in orange feed caps discussing whether the girls’ basketball team hadn’t oughta switched to five-player rules, doughnutmakers showing sixteen-year-olds how to boil potatoes to make broth for Paget’s Bakery cinnamon rolls, children encouraged by their parents on Saturday night to layout their Sunday clothes. Such people have a good deal of practical wisdom, knowledge located in bones and bellies.’ The sense of such little, unpretentious places derives from the everyday round of localized experience. It emerges, piecemeal and humble, of custom and conversation. Places of big sense, on the other hand, are characterized by the University of Chicago, where Comstock went to graduate school, where daily conversation is devoted to big ideas and grand abstract theories, a place populated by ‘philosophers spending their lives searching for the key to all moralities, dinner guests telling intimate details about the lives of G. E. Moore and Paul Tillich. There is plenty of knowledge here, of a cerebral sort. Often, the bones are brittle.'”

Tacit and emergent maps

Would inquiries into existing (rather than projected or prescriptive) frames– “little” frames, perhaps– simply uncover what is already known as a personal learning network or environment? If not, what does this suggest about the nature of such networks? Or will they operate as is currently the understanding of “big frames” among network scholars? Will one person’s belief in or understanding of the networked environment be borne out in another’s personal landscape? What would this mean for efforts to deliberately alter learning landscapes on a large scale? And what about the idea that changes on our personal maps (towns damaged by storms or floods, neighbors who move away, road construction that tangles up the fastest route) invoke frustration and even grief?

The point is not to “refudiate” the concepts of networks, or personal learning environments, learning technology, or social learning. It is instead an attempt to expand the focus of conversation and investigation to reflect the intimate, the personal, the domestic aspects of learning that seem invisible in the big thinking language which expresses the desire to propagate change through mechanics, strategy and construction. (Social network “building,” for example.)

Perhaps there would be some benefits in an effort to create a process that recognizes the existing landscapes of personal learning that speak to and with others, including those who are often resistantly overwhelmed by the language of social media, high technology, and information abundance learning.  The idea that today’s personal learning options are new and improved—or even just improved—is not, I suspect, a sufficiently convincing reason for most people to move from the suburbs to a condo with a view of the skyline. Rather than colonizing others’ maps with prebuilt homes, it makes more sense to me to explore any territories that individuals already tacitly, shyly, or even defiantly have mapped and occupied, in order to understand how, or even if, they may link to other places with other senses and sensibilities.

A personal and connective learning landscape offers complex mapping challenges

While I have no patience for the pervasive, impersonal and standardized mapping that is a hallmark of much current formal learning, I worry that viewing an alternative landscape of personal learning as a currently underutilized or unoccupied space, waiting for just the right people and tools to bring forth fertile growth, is equally presumptive. Equally troublesome in these considerations are claims that lack of openness and obvious (publicly visible and “audible”) expression and exchange — public mapping, if you will– correlates with lack of learning. Poet Adrianne Rich wrote:

The technology of silence

The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms

silence not absence

of words or music or even

raw sounds

Silence can be a plan

Rigorously executed

The blueprint to a life

It is a presence

It has a history a form

Do not confuse it

With any kind of absence.

At the end of the day, I often return to my perch on the deck to watch swaths of pink and purpled clouds slip silently over the last glowing efforts of the sun. And here I am led to speculate: what could become of concepts and paradigms related to personal and connective learning if instead of first framing these in terms of power shifts and trying to re-sculpt the landscape with blogs and wikis and the deliberate construction of networks, we began by  recognizing and mapping the personal learning landscapes that we already inhabit, however silently and invisibly?

Works considered

Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an ecology of mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” The American Historical Review October 2004 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/109.4/pace.html&gt; (3 Aug. 2010).

Glenn, Cheryl, Unspoken: a rhetoric of silence. (SIU Press, 2004).

Oakley, Ann, “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms,” in Lincoln, Yvonne and Denzin, Norman K. Turning points in qualitative research: tying knots in a handkerchief. (Rowman Altamira, 2003).

Ryden, Kent C. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing and the Sense of Place (University of Iowa Press, 1993)

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In which I craft a table with wobbly legs.

As connectivism and connective learning gain a wider audience, or at least acknowledgment, I’ve been plagued by the suspicion that, upon first exposure, connectivism is sounding an awful lot like a shaken, not stirred, version of constructivism to a lot of people.

Complicating matters is the recognition that theories have various instantiations in practice. This is undoubtedly true for constructivism and its formal classroom companion, inquiry learning, especially as this is implemented in its spectrum of shadings (guided inquiry, open inquiry, “Understanding by Design,” project learning, active learning, etc.).

(Is this also true for connectivism? Hard to say, since the idea of connectivism as a “practice,” especially classroom practice, seems to create some cognitive dissonance for me.  But I’ve used the term “connective learning” below as an expression of  the “practice” of connectivism.)

Connectivism, constructivism, behaviorism, humanism and cognitivism have been laid out in a variety of comparative tables.  It is also important to point to Stephen Downes’ assessment that constructivism and connectivism are not the same thing.

[Connectivism] shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Hence people see a relation between connectivism and constructivism or active learning (to name a couple). Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic. Connectivism is, by contrast, ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. It may consist in part of linguistic structures, but it is not essentially based in linguistic structures, and the properties and constraints of linguistic structures are not the properties and constraints of connectivism. In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action. And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks. Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.

That said, constructivism and connectivism are, if certainly not the same, allied in a few significant ways.  One is in their common respect for the learner, and another is in the concept of learner empowerment. Both theories also require, at least to some degree, reconsideration of the traditional conceptions of teaching, of the goals of learning, and of the idea of schools.

So while both theories are a difficult sell in traditional and formal educational settings, I’d posit that constructivism’s relatively long history and basic inroads in education to date offer a credible scaffold for discussing connectivism, and that those who have been able to at least initially incorporate ideas and practice related to constructivism may be best in the position to approach—and personally engage with—connective learning.

A perhaps minor roadblock I’m seeing, however, is that connectivism discussions to date haven’t necessarily used language that is familiar to “on the ground” practitioners, facilitators, teachers, or whatever one may wish to call them. (One exception, perhaps, is Wendy Drexler’s The Networked Student, which offers a contained classroom orientation to connectivism.)

The following rudimentary table makes a run at the language barrier. While there’s going to be some disagreement on how inquiry and connective learning are depicted, it seems to me that the table does reveal just how far connectivism moves the cheese for those working with or toward inquiry. Connectivist thinking, to a greater degree than even “progressive” inquiry approaches, shakes up some deeply entrenched assumptions about education, knowledge, learning, and teaching.

The table is admittedly a stream-of-consciousness mash-up of both theoretical understandings and a sense of how these theories play out on the ground, which is where things get pretty messy and lines get pretty blurry in a hurry. (When working with the infinite variables of learning, purism seems self-defeating…)  A table like this is also only a snapshot in time, as the concepts under consideration are clearly moving targets. (Example: the inclusion of the terms communities and construction/bricolage on the connectivist side of things. These are more a reflection of trends I’m seeing in conversations than any formally definitive element. And trying to use the term “knowledge” correctly?  Yipes.)

Even with these disclaimers, I suspect that the table can also serve as four-way cannon fodder, as both proponents and opponents of both theories will have some objections kind thoughts about how I have chosen to articulate these theories. But still, it seems like an item worth “throwing out there” for further consideration.

Italicized words and concepts are recognized as potentially contentious. Other words and concepts are also undoubtedly contentious, but a fully italicized table seems like overkill.

Inquiry learning Connective learning
Understanding big ideas Understanding fragmented ideas
Depth of understanding Depth/diversity of connections
Question, investigate Converse, immerse, connect
Collaboration (team with shared goals) Cooperation (individuals with aligned interests)
Teacher as facilitator Learner and network as facilitators
Guide on the side/meddler in the middle Modeling, demonstration
Anticipated processes, goals Emergent processes, goals
Understanding, reflection Increasing/improving connections, construction/bricolage
Interdisciplinary Transdisciplinary
Focus on developing “whole” learner (values orientation, socialization) Come as you are/ “knowing to be”
Active/continuous participation Option of legitimate peripheral participation
The practice of experts Distributed expertise, state of expertness
Learner-focused Learner as node, hub, link
Authenticity: Actual and simulated/designed Space: “Real” and “virtual”
Groups and communities Networks, communities
Use of resources beyond classroom Classroom/coursework as one potential resource
Assessment by more knowledgeable other Ongoing assessment through network interaction (via self and others)
Consciously uses “technology” “Technology” is assumed/invisible/ubiquitous
Exploration, discovery, experience “Foraging,” way-finding, pattern recognition, surfing, sensing, experiencing
Encourages relevance, motivation Requires relevance, motivation
Resulting knowledge is new to learner Resulting knowledge is new to all (to network)
Considers content (existing knowledge) in addition to process New knowing emerges from process of network activity
Learning results in knowledge Learning results in/is “being”

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