Posts Tagged ‘emergence’

In which I might be onto something, and in which I make an initial stab at trying to pin it down.

I’ve been journeying rather far from home for quite some time to explore a strange but compelling land where “learning” and “technology” and “education” and “change”… and people… seem to converge.

I travel with biases. We all view the world through personally honed lenses, ground through psychological inclinations, experiences, academic training, etc.

And so I find I’ve begun to frame/articulate what I (think I) have been seeing in those travelled lands as something familiar, something with similarities to the land in which I generally reside as an observer and participant of culture.

"Carved by the hired hand on the farm."

Folklorist Henry Glassie writes about art and culture:

“We have drowned ourselves so thoroughly in our own tradition that we casually mistake its intricate artifice for natural process.”

I suggest that this applies to learning as well. And when stripped or relieved of all the imposed mechanics and quantifying measurements and manufacturing goals of “modern” education, the iterative processes and communicative acts and products of learning are, in essence, forms of creative expression.*  **

To justify this explanation, I am tempted to take a pretty big detour—one that explains the territory of folklore (from whence, in part, I come)  to the legions who are baffled by the very idea… but that’s what links are for, aren’t they?

So, moving on…

One form of creative expression familiar to most people, and perhaps therefore easy to understand, is the creation of objects—of craft. I use this word a bit hesitantly, but trust it will serve simply as a relevant and “graspable” example of creative expression and not bring forth too many biases. (Paula Owen notes: “The ambiguity of the word ‘craft’ is troublesome because for the majority of people it connotes hobby-level kitsch, which nullifies significant achievements and ideas. It is [also] troublesome because many young artists have grown up in a world of cultural fusion and no longer find the classification relevant.”)

Nonetheless, for the sake of example: in creating—crafting—a quilt, or a chair, or a “found object” sculpture, the creator employs a wide variety of decision-making process, all of which vary in emphasis and importance due to the complexities of the interrelationships between the choices.

  • A craftsperson has choices of materials, of tools, of subject matter.
  • A craftsperson makes choices about how much to adhere to a tradition, and how much to vary or innovate within and beyond it.
  • A craftsperson works with varying sources of information and inspiration, in different contexts of time and space, with differing demands and responses from one or more audiences.

This sounds to me much like the options available to learners today, for those who choose to choose.

Along the same lines, E.M. Fleming suggests that material culture (i.e. artifacts, such as craft objects) can be analyzed through developing understandings of an object’s:

  • history
  • material
  • construction
  • design
  • and function.

At the parade. Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

I would suggest that in working to understand others’ learning and resulting communicative products (especially as they develop outside formal educational boundaries), these are equally useful lenses.

A further thought is that by understanding how creative expression such as craft functions, we can also understand the potential of, as well as current resistance to, viewing learning as a creative process. For example:

  • Craft as a process of creative expression creates its own emergent structures of authority or non-authority; learning can be formal, informal, non-formal…. (Perhaps so subtle as to be “invisible.”) Mentorship, apprenticeship, being “raised in the tradition,” formal instruction—all are viable processes. Choices regarding this are frequently the province of the creator.
  • Creative expression is an emergent, “design as you go” process (one of bricolage, as Graham Atwell has pointed out in his explorations of personal learning); one which is multi-directional. Henry Glassie writes: “The process is a common one, known to every cook and carpenter. It is a matter of reorganizing materials. As more and more that matters is pulled into the process…it gathers more into itself and so gains the strength to reach out more broadly…” This pulling and reaching supports both tradition and innovation.
  • Craft expressions are best understood as processes and products of the interplay among the intent (motives and motivation) of the creator, her community, and other context, rather than as “masterpieces” of an individual artist/genius working in splendid isolation.

Among the difficulties:

  • The idealized perfection of uniformity promoted by mass production. (Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century was in many ways anti-factory-production, but its adherents were not necessarily anti-technology, nor were they opposed to efficiency in production.)
  • A cultural bias devoted to promoting the supposed moral superiority of “high art” and assumptions (indoctrination?) of an “educated elite” about the presumed, innate, and absolute “quality” of such art over craft.
  • Tacit and explicit lack of respect for cultures and communities which bring craft expressions into being; whether cause or effect, craft is associated with populations which have been marginalized, particularly based on gender and race. These populations and their creative expressions have been called “naive” and even “unschooled.”
  • A cultural view that suggests domains reflecting Cartesian worldviews– math and science, for example– are more valuable (economically, politically…) and worthy of transmission than domains of craft/creative expression. (I do not claim that math or science is purely Cartesian nor that these pursuits are not creative. Nor do I mean that learning within these realms cannot result from learning as a result of the same choices of creative process noted above—only that this is currently not/rarely the case.)

Presently I’m feeling a bit like a hunter who has stalked prey across unfamiliar stretches of savannah, wrestled it to the ground in a bruising but respectful battle, and is now dragging the bounty back to the comforting campfires of home, a dietary enrichment for the tribe…

Or, potentially a little less bloody in extended metaphor, here’s where I seem to be travelling now: through a messy roundabout of learning, education, technology and the enticing potential of “hand-crafted learning.”

* Please, please, please do not read this as “students should do a project/learn some stuff and write a song about it.”

** This observation is distilled from a multi-page rambling I’ve been stuck on for a couple of months, one which inspired me to post an equally distilled summary comment recently on Dave Cormier’s blog discussing factory education– an important “getting over the hump” step to this post, for the record of those who are tracking connective processes 🙂

Works consulted:

M. Anna and Owen, Paula. Objects and Meaning. New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Scarecrow Press (October 2005).

Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams (February 1, 1995).

Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. American Association for State & Local History (June 1982).

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Utah State University Press (May 1, 1996).


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In which I explore the rudiments of a concept and reflect on connective knowledge through listening…

There’s slow food. Slow travel. Slow blogging. I’m a fan across the board. So it’s no wonder, then, that I’m also inclined toward what I’ve decided to call “slow listening.”

Someone I’d consider an internationally known “slow listener,” Studs Terkel, died last month. The Washington Post reported:

Terkel was an artist of conversation who once described his work as “listening to what people tell me.” He was unusually skilled at drawing out his subjects, who told him about their dreams and memories, their fears, frustrations and anxieties, the condition of their lives….

Despite his national celebrity status, his presence as an interviewer was barely discernible in most of his books. Like a psychoanalyst, he allowed his subjects to talk freely, with minimal questioning.

Anyone listening?

Anyone listening?

I still remember finding Terkel’s books in a small back room of the junior high library, and realizing we were probably being duped in history class with the incessant focus on military battles and famous people/men and grand pronouncements.

This encounter with Terkel, among other things, led me toward the small and local in studies and research, and to the use of oral interviews (i.e. oral histories) as a technique and a resource. I never fail to hear at least one fascinating concept, colorful adventure, or something deeply personal. Skin a skunk caught in the trapline on your walk to school? Apparently the teacher sends you home, right away. Need to smuggle liquor from Canada across border during Prohibition? It helps if you know a train conductor. Painful memories? Those shall remain private today.

Researchers have a deep appreciation for people who are willing to share so much of themselves in relation to someone else’s goals. But interviewing isn’t just about people “telling you stuff” and then writing things up. Interviewing in this context is also about listening carefully and deeply and repeatedly. This is how I define slow listening, and this is really hard work. As the Associated Press reported about Terkel:

For his oral histories, Terkel interviewed his subjects on tape, then transcribed and sifted. “What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands,” he wrote in his memoir. “Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust.”

While I was drafting this post, one of the people I follow on Twitter noted that teaching, lecturing, writing etc., were easy, but face to face encounters with new people were exhausting. I identified completely. Because broadcasting, while “work,” is not nearly as exhausting or time-consuming as listening slowly… as sifting through the “ore.” And doing both at the same time? Almost impossible, even according to brain research.

Much of the listening I do nowadays is channeled through online environments, but the effects and affects are often the same. The whirl and world of online information is like one big, never-ending interview. It requires huge amounts of sifting. Some sifting can be achieved technologically, but some still must be done cognitively… through listening. And, for it to be of value to me, through listening slowly.

This has been a particular issue for me as I try to mesh my understanding of connective learning with others’ understandings. In particular, I “hear” an underlying popular assumption that connectivism can be “measured” or detected by language-based exchanges between people. How many blog responses, how many Twitter followers, how great the conference attendance, how numerous the posts?  

Connecting socially, listening slowly.

Connecting socially, listening slowly, or both?

I keep coming back to George Siemens’ description of three facets of connectivism. Social connections are one type, and biological/neurological and conceptual are other types. These layers or facets seem important in understanding listening. Certainly there is an overt social act involved in “active” listening, where the speaker talks and values the attentiveness of the listener, and the listener elicits and appreciates the sharing of the speaker.

But an understanding of slow listening seems to relate more to the conceptual and even neurological facets of connectivism. For me, slow listening is a major tool in the development of insight and intuition.

When I began working online in small venues a while back, I thought that it was the relative newness of the digital experience that made it seem “off.” Through slow listening, I realized that I was frequently encountering explicit and tacit statements that said lurkers must step forward or they were cheating the group, that we should share raw thoughts as they pop into our heads for the sake of knowledge production, that we must connect socially and emotionally. It turns out these things go against some very situated inclinations that I have as an introvert, a learner, and a modeler (be it as a parent, a professional or an educator).

Listening, and, hopefully, listening well, comprises a large part of what I have been able to contribute to past ventures. (Yes, “listening” to dead people included.) After a “long” while in digital terms, discussing what I have heard, or what can be interpreted or inferred from what I have heard, is another part. 

It takes time to listen to a range of voices, or to one voice with enough thoroughness, to adequately discern the emergence of broader contexts or messages. At the same time, listening is not all about words; it’s about subtexts and gestures and tone of voice and style and behavior and immediate context. This is what makes listening, whether in person, online, or in multimedia environments, so intense. Many times these non-verbal things contradict the actual words. But these intersections are where the insights are the greatest and, sometimes, where the most internally consistent patterns are discovered. Additionally, slow listening is not a single act; it’s a cumulative process, one in which premature statements are simply not valid, because patterns and themes are not yet apparent.

But many days, my processes for listening and sifting seems to run up against a culture that promotes and even demands high-speed, high volume transparency and production. There are days when I wonder if this culture is suggesting that if the development of my thoughts can’t be documented and updated like a Wikipedia page, I’m not “participating.” 

The “contribute more and quickly” phenomenon may be an issue of perception. But even so, it feels a bit like living in a foreign country (or eating at McDonalds). I can adapt for a while to the understanding that, for many in this country, immediate transparency and visible mutual reciprocity is the measurement of validity. But “home” for me is where validity is conceptually cumulative and tested over time. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive views, but they do not always align on a temporal and affective plane.

This perceived push for rapid disclosure and exchange is not necessarily an unusual phenomenon in a world where an estimated 60% to 75 % of the population is considered “extroverted.”  Seeing this iterated in the online environment doesn’t really come as a surprise, either. But it does, perhaps, have some implications for the ideas of “community” that are being considered, studied, defined and sometimes even prescribed for online life.

Yep... slow listening.

Yep... slow listening.

Does this mean it’s OK  to “just” listen slowly and never let people know what I’m thinking? Well, sure, it’s “OK.”  But this doesn’t do any good for causes and ideas that are important for slow listeners. Advocacy of slow listening does not imply advocacy of doing nothing else. I would say that slow listeners are busy and contribute in their own ways, on their own time… but we need to know we’re not going to be meeting some widely assumed hallmarks of community or participation, and sometimes this will have a cost.

There’s no real resolution to this post. It may serve, perhaps, as an explanation of one particular flavor of brain. And maybe one could draw some practical or cautionary conclusions about the “implementation” or “use” of connectivism as an educational or community framework. Certainly, community building, on or offline, is a worthy endeavor. But requiring or tacitly expecting overt social connections and behaviors (whether as posts or conversations or anything else, especially at a certain volume or rate) seems to neglect two-thirds of connectivist theory. And I can guarantee that this won’t bring out the best in those strange, slow listeners.

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In which there are musings about poultry.

I was spectating the other day at a theater workshop. The participants started by deciding to “act like a chicken.” Then someone suggested they channel their movements as they “thought like a chicken.”

What next? A young participant assumed a temporary meditational pose. “BE the chicken,” she said.

Is it just me, or does it seem like being part of a “network,” calling something a “network,” and “implementing networked (or connective) learning” are getting to be downright fashionable activities?  Networks are, dare I say, trendy.

Am I a chicken?

Am I a chicken?

But just calling something a network — or a group, for that matter — doesn’t make it so. So I find Stephen Downes’ distinctions between networks and groups to be helpful in supporting reflective practice. While I accept the idea that clear lines might not exist in the messy real world, I do think entities display tendencies toward one set of characteristics or another. And I suspect that these terms, even when viewed away from academic definitions, create sets of expectations about affect, structure, and process.

My travels in the edublogosphere suggest we might be in an era when entities with clear in-group/out-group behaviors and a whole lot of walls are sending a few brave members out the door and over the moat to capture the network flag. They then drag it back into the castle, slam the drawbridge up, and start using the new standard (pun, sorry) as a tablecloth.

I can’t help but think that when we get entities with various levels of understanding calling themselves networks or promoting network idea(l)s, but acting like groups (or vice versa), there’s going to be some unfortunate confusion and potential social/cultural/personal fallout.

I am also wary of the idea that entities currently displaying primarily group characteristics and behaviors are going to be able to alter themselves (I hesitate to use the word evolve…) to support and display network properties without, however unintentionally, subverting the useful distinctions between these two terms.

Certainly, not all entities think that a network(ed) state of being is desirable, so wanting to be seen as a network is a non-issue for them. And I don’t mean to set up a false group-network rivalry or dichotomy. And yes, too much idealism or insistence on blind consistency (not to mention dogma of any flavor) can ruin many a reasonable real-world compromise.

But still, I occasionally observe that some groups are so entrenched in their groupness that they cannot even identify themselves as such, leading to a bit of an identity crisis.

Being the chicken

Being the chicken

The group-network distinctions, even if they are ultimately fuzzy on the ground, seem particularly critical as people think about how connectivism relates to educational practice. I am intuitively puzzled by the idea that connectivism can be “implemented” or “applied” in some mechanistic fashion. Top-down mechanisms are useful for group education processes, but seem antithetical to networked learning, based as it is in emergence. I suspect that a learning network’s openness, diversity, autonomy and connectiveness create responsibilities in learning and education that might defy “application.”

To summarize my musings (you were wondering, weren’t you?): Is it enough to call ourselves chickens? To try and act like a chicken? To deliberately think like a chicken for ten minutes on Tuesday? Or is transformation achieved (if that is the goal) only if we ARE the chicken?

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In which a metaphor gets stretched to the breaking point and the need for autotelism is implied.

Stephen Downes made a comment in passing during last Wednesday morning’s Elluminate session on Connective Knowledge that caught my attention– something to the effect that the course had elicited more emotion than one would ever expect a course in this topic to generate.

For me, this is no surprise at all, because the nature of open learning means that things are not scripted. Traditional roles have not been cast and emoting all over the place is a consequence of this. (Authoritarianism has its downside, but does keep public hand–and neck–wringing to a minimum.)

Gladiators in the arena

Gladiators in the arena

This “course” leaves a lot of room for stumbling around on the stage; there are lots of actors in search of a script here. We seem to range from those wanting Shakespeare in the original to those who are primed for half-hour episodes of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” (And maybe a few think gladiators in the arena provide the best entertainment.)

I’d say that in CCK08, or in an age of open education, we’re in a show that’s more like all improv, all the time.

After a lifetime of working from a script, as most of us have chosen or theoretically have been required to do, improv is a pretty big leap. We’re not going to be very good at it until we’ve done it for a while. And recent mainstream culture hasn’t been very accommodating toward improvisational creativity (or learning), either. Improvisation tends to take refuge in the margins, on small stages and in jazz or performance art. Improvisation, at least within a group, is not in sync with a culture that is essentially competitive. Group improv is not even collaborative endeavor, either; it is a cooperative one.

This is not Kumbayah around the campfire. Cooperation is hard work, needing to accommodate a lot of variables and nuances and drawing on a range of cognitive and emotional skills.

And so while we’re all practicing, there undoubtedly will be some bloopers that would be bleeped in prime time.

A second implication of the search for a script, or at least some stage direction, also piqued my curiosity. My initial thought was that if any group was ready to tackle undefined scenes from a hat, it would be the one attracted to the implications of connectivism and open learning. Then again, many very good improv actors are not formally trained in theater, but that’s a different conversation.

a network oxymoron, or one more open learning challenge?

Clustering sheep: a network oxymoron, or simply one more open learning challenge?

It is true that improv is not quite the wildly uncontrolled activity that it may sometimes appear to be. There are conventions (listening, connecting ideas, even– especially– the weird ones, and scaffolding each other toward the emergent “end of the story”) that have to be respected by improvisational players in order for them to succeed at this business of play. To belabor the point: improv is not “a play” managed by a director; it’s “playing” that emerges from each individual actor’s locus of control, imagination, and creativity.

Open learning, like CCK08, offers a backstage filled with props, a really (really) big studio space, and some rehearsal time, all of which, my actor friends assure me, are usually very hard to come by. The search for a director and a script… well, I can’t help but think this part isn’t really about the show.

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Whereby I commit logical fallacies, reference ideas far outside my area of expertise, exhibit ignorance of many aspects of connectivist theory, place groups, communities and networks in a single bag, and potentially annoy a number of people.  In other words… thinking out loud. 

Whenever something new and cool and incredibly smart floats across the computer screen or appears materially at our gadget-enhanced home, there is a standard response for paying homage to this new incarnation of genius: 

“Ooh, shiiiny…” 

I admit to being just as easily distracted by shiny objects as any other not-quite early adopter. But there’s also always a little voice in the back of my brain reminding me that some covetable, shiny objects are made in China, with all the attendant issues, or that sixty-seven other people who have come up with something similar won’t get credit, because this one has a sleeker interface.

And so I have spent some time wondering how much connectivism is really shiny, and what this means for the folks in China, so to speak. 

Oversimplification is one of the dangers in trying to capture new information of this complexity. And yet I find I need to make some generalizations to myself as I try to situate this new knowledge. So I plead for tolerance as I think out loud here, particularly as I try to grasp the implications of viewing technology as integral to connectivist theory, and understanding connectivism as a network-only theory.

Clustering nodes doing their thing

Clustering nodes doing their thing

Flash one: The idea that knowledge lies in the network, that learning is the negotiation of a network resulting in change, sounds a lot like the idea of emergence that I’ve encountered elsewhere. Folklore analyses, for example, posit that storytelling in the context of performance exhibits emergent knowledge/understanding, where (off the top of my head) the “nodes” that inform this understanding could be defined as including the text, the teller, kinesic elements, ritual elements, the audience as a collective and as individual members, the setting, and the pulls of cultural tradition and personal and group innovation. It is within/out of the multiple channels involved in “telling” that the story informs.

Flash two: In a paper on “Collaborative ways of knowing,” addressing adult learning, Randee Lipson Lawrence and Craig A. Mealman note that: “Africentric and feminist pedagogies as well as Native American traditions place high value on collective knowledge through the sharing of rich stories and the cultivation of relationships.”

Flash three: Mary Field Belenky’s A Tradition that Has No Name  discusses how women develop their learning and their “voices” by being “connected knowers,” defined as those who engage with dialogue, role-taking, and contextual analyses (sounding a lot like networked learning?), with a heavy dose of constructivist meaning-making. And this jumped out: “Connected knowers focus on what is coming into being…” It also notes: “A leadership [learning] tradition rooted in maternal practice and maternal thinking [“connected knowing”] has gone unnamed… [D]evelopmentally focused leadership is seldom acknowledged, [whereas] leadership organized around paternal metaphors has been meticulously recorded…”

On one hand, these ideas are out of context for connectivism; even their authors may argue this. And clearly, labeling something with “connect + suffix” doesn’t mean it’s related to connectivism as a theory. And collaborative and collective is not the same as connective. And, yes, these descriptions are arguably applicable to communities and groups, and not, based on course definitions, networks.

On the other hand, there is enough overlap here that I can’t escape a sense that these notes reflect some sense of ubiquity for one, or possibly many, features of connectivism, depending on interpretation.  In fact, this “dependent on interpretation” is where I come back to where I started today, and to where I was last week, where technology was identified as a key aspect of the rhizomatic model and connectivist knowledge.

What if the flashes above suggest that a pattern of learning through connecting has been widespread even prior to the existence of technology, but has not been widely named, identified, or acknowledged by the “powers that be?” The above examples apply to populations generally marginalized, and certainly underrepresented in academic spheres that produce taxonomies and formal epistemologies. 

So I have to wonder:  what if it is not that technology has made connectivism possible, but that technology has made connected knowledge visible/palatable/appealing/exciting for a population that was otherwise dismissive of this way of thinking and working?

What if it’s the shiny factor that has brought a rich tradition of knowing and learning into the folds of academe?

I appreciate connectivism in the abstract. I know that it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s a learning theory, not a life philosophy (although I sometimes wonder what the difference is in my own life).  I do not need connectivism to be “all new” (I realize nobody is claiming that it is) to be not only valid, but also extremely valuable in understanding learning.  I recognize the “truths” of connectivism (as I understand it so far) on a daily basis. 

But I wonder if connectivism makes intuitive sense to me not because I’m already living as a node on a network, but because I’ve been socialized as a “connected knower,” and trained in appreciating emergent performance?  Right now, connectivism somehow lacks the “get your hand dirty” aspect of some of my learning — and my children’s learning. It seems focused on the ether. I can’t help but think that I need some “ands” here, some acknowledgment of the connectedness and valid knowledge emerging within communities and groups as described above, to prevent connectivism from being an unfortunately limited worldview.

(The language used to discuss the “connected knowing” of women in-depth is quite emotive, whereas Dave Cormier mentioned in an early session — according to my notes — that “connectivism isn’t really personal.” Some classmates have expressed a discomfort at not feeling “connected” to the class. Is this because they misunderstand connectivism, or because they understand it differently, and therefore place different demands upon it? Or is their desire to be personally connected completely unrelated?)

Uploading to the matrix

Uploading to the matrix

To be clear, I don’t feel that connectivism’s fearless leaders have been in any way dismissive of others; G.S. began his introduction to networks by noting the many types of networks in social systems, for example. But the idea that there will be nuances that separate some networks from other social forms, whereby the multiplier effect of technology is inherent to the definition of the knowing, makes me worry that this will — for some, but certainly not for all — justify or inadvertently support ignoring forms of knowing operating beyond the technological sphere. As there are populations today who are creating knowledge without benefit or use of technology, is their knowledge somehow going to be seen as less valid or valuable? Is technology seen as so ubiquitous that they are they simply encompassed in the idea of “weak ties?” What happens to nodes and learning that won’t/can’t upload to the matrix?

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi suggests there is a difference between “big C’ creativity and “small c” creativity — the difference between earth-shaking innovation and brilliance and daily, small scale problem-solving. He also posits that that Big C work has more impact on society, and I struggle with this assignment of value. But maybe it offers a model for a parallel approach here. Maybe it helps to see connected knowledge developed through network theory and technology as a ‘big C’ thing, and connected knowing developed elsewhere as a “small c” kind of act? … And yet, this type of division is exactly what I’m wrestling with and against.  Connected but non-networked learning is not necessarily an old or outdated model; it still exists, and is still valuable. Maybe Jenny Mackness‘  idea about a “3-D” network depiction might help to integrate the idea of “connected knowing” with “connective knowledge.” And maybe I just need to hear “more cowbell”  on this particular issue, and am running amok, trying to tackle things too fast and too soon.

In any case, questions abound — of the causal relationship between technology and knowing; of the difference between connective knowledge, connected knowledge, and connected knowing; of the role of volition in connectivism; and the role of emotions in “big C” connectivism. And, if we were to make the leap to saying that there are various forms of connected and/or connective knowledge that have existed as a widespread, but heretofore underground or largely unidentified phenomenon, what implications would this have for figuring out how to practice this knowledge generation with learners of all ages and backgrounds? 

Connectivism, so far, is clean. It’s reductively sleek. It is a beautiful machine.

But is it shiny?

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