Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Response to Fitzpatrick

Here is my response to Catherine Fitzpatrick's lengthy critique of What Connectivism Is. Her comments are in italics.
Here's my problem with your ideology, Stephen, which appears to me to be even more radical than constructivism and tries not only to describe or defend a new epistemology, but appears to disrupt social systems as well, in the name of some putative technocommunism that will reign supreme on the Internet with everybody working for nothing and getting everything for free and living happily ever after.
The theory explicitly attempts to define a new epistemology, that I've described in detail elsewhere.

As for the labels - well, the problem with lables is that they are vague. There are some elements of the theory that you may associate with communism, or radicality. But to infer based on that similarity that the theory is a type of communism, or a type of radicalism, is to substitute nomenclature for argument. It's a shallow form of criticism.
If that seems extreme or a caricature, I can only say that I can read out into the logic of your statements to see how you are destroying the idea of the university established through the ages.
I don't see how it forms the heart of either communism or radicalism to "destroy the idea of the university". But, again, as I've stated elsewhere, I believe that these traditional structures ought to be reformed. I have no difficulty admitting this, and do not consider it to be an objection to my position.
1. The theory might explain *some* types of learning *about some subjects* in *some situations* -- like opensource groups hacking around together on software. But that doesn't mean you can globalize it and make it apply to every single human endeavour. You can't.
This is unclear - is it the job of the theory to explain or is it something that we have to make apply to human endeavours?

Connectivism is, in the first instance, an epistemology and a description of human cognition (that is why we attach 'connective knowledge' to the title of the course). While I think we both would agree that there is an almost infinite variety to human reasoning, it is arguable (and I so argue) that the basic mechanisms are common to all humans.

It would be hard to assert otherwise. Cognition - in every human who has ever lived - takes place in the brain, and the brain is composed of an interconnected set of neurons. Neuroscience has explored the nature of the neurons and their connections, and describe the functioning of the brain in a manner consistent with our theory. That's the global part. But bothy George and I would also argue that, within that framework, there is also a great deal of diversity. This diversity also forms an important part of the theory.

A similar pattern applies to our theory understood as a theory of education and learning (the 'Connectivism' part of the course title). We argue that learning occurs in networks, and therefore, that the properties of successful networks are also the properties of successful learning environments. We don't 'apply' this in any strict sense - we would never force people to be connectivists. Indeed, within the learning environment, we believe there should be diversity; we believe people should be free to choose their own form of learning.

It's kind of like you are saying we are trying to make freedom apply in the educational process. But freedom isn't something one person makes, or applies, to another. It is something each person grasps for him or her self, given the opportunity and the circumstances. We seek only to provide the oppostunity and the circumstances.
a. I still have to pay a college some tuition if I want a degree -- you might think credentialing is all I buy, but I buy knowledge, too, which is not somehow withheld in some grasping and greedy capitalist manner, but simply requires *paying human beings who know, because teaching is work*. Don't you, as a professor, wish to get paid? Maybe tuitions are inflated; maybe more has to be made free -- these are social policies decided in a democratic society, not by technocrats welding theories into "disruptive technologies".
I has responded to the 'existing institutional structure' argument elsewhere.

But I would point out that neither George nor I expect professors (or whatever form instructors take in the future) to go unpaid. We are not arguing for free labour, insofar as labour is required.

But neither do we think that the professor or instructor figure ought to be doing everything that is currently done, and we are not in favour of an educational model that matches one expert to a small, select number of students. We believe that learning should be open, which means changing the nature of professorial work.

If George and I can successfully teach 1900 students, then we should be paid. But we should probably not be paid at the same per-student rate of current professors. Not that either of us couldn't use the million dollars.
b. Certain teaching has to occur with certain life situations that aren't endlessly accessible from people who aren't endlessly available on a 24/7 Internet that is itself a reduced form of connection, whatever its marvels. Let's take nursing a baby, for example, which few realize until they've learned it that it is learned behaviour for both mother and child. There's no substitute for having your mother, or more likely, a very well trained and capable lactation nurse, sit with you and the baby and impart the techniques by demonstration and interaction. It is not merely a job of connection, or "proper connection", latching on. It has to do with experience, storage of concepts and "lore," memorizing technique, many elements that only a literalist and reductivist would parse into endless "connectivity".
I am not an expert in the pedagogy of nursing practices, nor would I claim to be so. But it seems to me that the majority of mothers learned to nurse their children outside a formal educational institution.

And this just is part of the sore idea of connectivism. We certainly agree that some types of learning involve close personal connections between individuals. We encourage that. What we disagree with is the idea that only formal learning environments and qualified professionals can offer such connections. Learning, as often as not, takes place on a person to person basis, on a student to student basis. The person with some experience - the mother - shows the person with no experience - the daughter.

As to the theory of learning that is advanced here - "experience, storage of concepts and "lore," memorizing technique, many elements that only a literalist and reductivist would parse into endless "connectivity" - we respectfully disagree (at least I do; George will make his own statement).

From my perspective, statements like "storage of concepts" are in important ways fundamentally misleading. It is not a case of me being a literalist or a reductivist - a better description would be to call me an 'eliminativist'. I simply think that the phrase "storage of concepts" has any correspondence with what actually happens.
2. Not content to merely describe how *some* learning *might* be going on in the Internet context (which mainly applies *to technology itself* but not to the content that can fill those new means of communication), you now manufacture a pedagogy out of this. It now has to become a learning doctrine inflicted on our kids in the schools, although they've already been dumbed down and impaired by the constructivist ideologues for the last decade or more -- and by other variously rewarmed and recycled Ilich or whatever they read in the 1970s to make everything meaningless, relative, and dependent only on child-centric operations that lead nowhere, as they can't fill with content or demand any standard.
It is not clear to me that it is constructivism that has dumbed down (to use your phrase) education. Countries such as Canada and Finland score very well on international tests (imperfect measurements though they are) and yet widely use constructivist techniques.

Indeed, it seems to me, from where I sit, that as education in the U.S. turns more and more 'back to basics', with rote and drill test preparation, the resulting education is more and more (to use your phrase) "dumbed down." The place where education is failing the most seems to be the place most resistant to constructivist and modern 'progressive' educational methodology.

That said, this is not a defense of constructivism, which has its own able adherents.

I would certainly resist the suggestion that connectivism in any respect resembles a "dumbing down" of education. Indeed, one of the more frequent criticisms we hear is that students are not capable of learning this way, that it sets the standards too high, that they need far more instruction, guidance and direction than we propose.

Indeed, read the rest of your criticism, and you see this type of argument frequently repeated. How can you say we are offering a dumbing down when we are passing so much responsibility on to the learner?

As for people like Illich and Friere - we openly admit our debt to these thinkers. That does not mean we are mere Illich and Friere clones. But when they suggest that bthere is a connection between traditional forms of education and oppression, we agree (at least, I do; George again can make his position known).
3. There's a lot that seems not to be captured by this doctrine. I'm with Tony when he says "Connectivism should still address the hard struggle within of deep thinking, of creating understanding. This is more than the process of making connections."
Again, it's not clear what is being required here.

The difficulty and depth of connectivist learning should be obvious to anyone who looks at this course; again, the complexity is one of the most oft-cited concerns.

Probably the suggestion is that there is not an instance of 'deep thinking' in any particular instance of content. That we have not, for example, subjected students to a long and extended argument, built on sustained chain of reasoning.

Well - I may well teach a course one day where Principia Mathmatica is part of the curriculum. But that said, I simply do not think that that sort of structure constitutes 'deep thinking'.

When you analyse the structure of such treatises, the reasoning is very clear and evident, formed of relatively simple types of inference - propositional and predicate calculus, modal and deontic logic, probability, mathematics (if it's advanced), boolean logic, and maybe (if it is advanced) inductive reasoning, metaphor and analogy.

These forms of inference, being in the main linguistically and syntactically based, can be assembled into a relatively long and complex chain without a lot of difficulty (at least, by someone who has mastered the basic forms).

Rather more difficulty occurs when the reader seeks to look beyond what is said, to analyse the terminology employed against a background set of beliefs, to expose the inconsistencies and ill-formed inferences, to find the empty and vapid concepts, to distill the clutter of rhetorical device, to identify the assumptions, the presuppositions, the linguistic traces of theory and unstated inference, to expose what is manifestly the emptiness of much traditionally 'deep' literature.

To me, far more complex - and insightful - forms of reasoning are being created through the interplay among thousands, or millions, of individual content elements. Where each content element may by itself appear to be simple, it is the interconnections between them that creates a much more complex, deep, and rich tapestry of meaning, far more than could be created merely using linguistic devices.

That's why Polanyi describes much of our knowledge as tacit - as subsymbolic. It is too complex, too detailed, to be rendered as mere text.

To complain that the form of reasoning we would encourage students to take part in as shallow is a gross misrepresentation.

It is substantially harder to work with the disorder and complexity we see within a connectivist network. Because linguistic (syntactical and semantical) descriptions of the concepts and entities in such a network just barely touch the surface, and students must therefore immerse themselves in the process of reasoning in such a system, rather than merely reading about it.
The process of "enlightenment," if you will, for lack of a better term ("recognition" isn't adequate), isn't just connecting dots; it's a process of intelligence -- human intelligence making sense of the myriad connections, and you cannot reduce intelligence to connections -- comprehension, awareness, memory -- these faculties are all about something higher than mere connections that does indeed depend on three things that constructivists seem to destroy or deny:
Goodness, I would never say that 'recognition' is merely a process of connecting dots.

Recognition is a physical process in which an already existing and relevantly similar patten of connectivity in a neural network is activated through an interplay the corresponding sensory stimuli. To be able to do this is to have first grown the relevant pattern connectivity, a long and involved process.

That said, this - "you cannot reduce intelligence to connections -- comprehension, awareness, memory -- these faculties are all about something higher than mere connections" - remains a proposition yet to be proven. And - again - I am not proposing to reduce such folk-psychological terms as comprehension, awareness or memory. I am rather challenging their capacity to explain anything at all, and questioning whether a theory formed of such concepts can ever work at all.
a. Created cultural and knowledge context -- institutions. Hey, they aren't evil. They work. They are not "all broken" as the "personal democracy" networkers imagine.
Institutions, as they say, tend to 'work well' for the people they favour.

We have just finished a century wracked with world war and atomic destruction, and we live in a world that is dying environmentally, perpetuates poverty and misery for a large number of its citizens, and continues to tolerate armed conflict as a means of resolving international differences.

Even in relatively stable societies governed almost entirely by institutions, poverty runs rampant, millions get by without health care, crime is rife, the economy is teetering and the country is on the verge of being plunged into a credit crisis while the government borrows its way into oblivion in order to fund an illegal and immoral war.

Your definition of 'working' is very different from mine.
b. Authority -- established by actual practice, experience, being proven right etc. Again, not inherently evil, but necessary in a democratic society to prevent the endless tyranny of a zillion subjectivities claiming decentralized or nodic "authority" just by showing up.
Most authority in our world is obtained through the barrel of a gun or purchased with unearned (and often stolen) wealth.

The phrase "tyranny of a zillion subjectivities" is literally nonsensical.

The sentiment expressed in this paragraph is classically Hobbes - his justification for the right of the monarch is that without such a central authority the lives of the mass of men would be "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short."

The justification of order and authority in contemporary society are more subtle, based on the (oft ill-used) 'consent of the governed'. Such 'social contract' theories, ranging from Locke to Rawls, are based on some sort of fiction that, were we given the choice, we would opt for the government we have. After all - to quote Locke - if we don't like it, we could always leave.

I certainly don't think that anything like a majority would have opted for what we actually have as a society. The governance of society has essentially been handed over to an elite, and, as Rousseau says, an elite, when it governs, governs solely in its own interest.

'Authority' - properly so-called - is typically the representation of the will of this elite. And it is only the illogic of such an elite that can depict the freeing of a population from this will as some sort of imposition or tyranny.
c. Tradition -- while opensourceniks imagine they have utterly escaped anything that seems oppressive and old-fashioned or "Luddite," in fact they create even more rigid doctrines and rituals. Tradition does help create a knowledge context and means of conveyance that does work.
Actually, we call such 'traditions' things like 'standards' and 'protocols' - and the major difference between our interpretation of tradition and that of the previously existing regime is that we believe that such are the result of voluntary cooperation rather than imposition from a centralized voice of authority.

This is a long argument and I'll return to it only if it comes up again.
You try to reduce all learning and intelligent comprehension to mere connections by denying intentionality or implying recognition is merely linkage of connections. And yet without intent and will to apply to what is indeed discrete bits of knowledge relayed by others, you won't learn.
Again, connectivism isn't (to my undersatnding) a reductivist position. It is an eliminativist position.
If Connectivism were true, merely exposing children to the facts scattered around on the vasty Internet or on a whiteboard or Smartboard would be enough. It isn't.
There is evidence to the contrary.
4. I don't believe that each learner is reconstructing reality, either, so I don't suffer from the problems which Connectivism is trying to solve with its even more radical critique of Constructivism. Connectivism is borrowing from and relying on the same destructive deconstructivism of Constructivism that says each constructs a thing anew.
Each bit of learning is created (I would say 'grown' rather than 'constructed') but I do not think that we 'suffer' from this.
5. I sense in the "pixie dust" remarks an inability to be content with any mystery of the universe that isn't reduced by the reductivist mind -- which isn't the same thing as the eternally curious scientific mind. I'm going to have to insist on the magic of cognition just to derail your reductivism because it's incomplete.
Again, connectivism isn't a reductivist theory.

As for "magic of cognition" - well, that's your phrase - but I am not prepared to base a theory of learning on magic.


  1. My, my, what a beautifull story you made here mr. Downes. The discussion is clearly part political and I subscribe your ideas about that the leading ideas in the world did not bring much good to many people so far, like ideas in schools and universities do not bring much good to learners also on this moment. The theory is new to me and I am very curious to see what te course will bring me going on learning as I do so far.

  2. Like so much diatribe on online political forums, Catherine justifies most of her disdain on quite shocking misunderstanding of the situation. If she had been more attentive, I think she would uncover in connectivist epistemology a startling bridge between the communitarian (ie. social group) and liberal (individual) perspectives. Rather than dividing dialogue, connected knowledge forms a basis for common ground.

  3. Rlubensky, I don't see how you can pull any "shocking misunderstanding" out of a mere refusal to believe doctrine, and a refusal to agree that certain things mean what they mean because Downes, like the Red Queen says so. There isn't any startling bridge between communitarianism whatsoever, with this endless multiplicity of subjectivities -- all governed by doctrinaire centers not even admitting they are centers.

    As for Stephen's long reply, I'll do what I can with it now:

    1. I don't know where you get the idea that there is some "return to the basics" in the U.S. Perhaps in some states. Perhaps in some schools. But not where I am (New York City) or most of the East Coast states where I have friends or family, or indeed anywhere I've heard of. So I think you need to back up that claim. You may have formed some vague prejudice in your mind about Bush's "No School Left Behind" and tutoring and such that there is now suddenly more drilling. Just because somebody devised some policy somewhere in Washington doesn't mean a thing about how the states, which are more independent than Canadian provinces, are teaching in this federalist system.

    2. As for criticizing the use of labels, I often find people have a terrible use to anyone ever using any term like "communist" or "capitalist" even though they are perfectly adequate and discriptive. Ultimately, Connectivism, with its decentralization, and its operation outside of buildings (which we're told in one of the many myriad postings actually conspired to delay the adaptation of the electrical engine!!!), is supposed to break down all institutions.

    Sorry, but you don't get to call for that, but then back away and say it is not radical or revolutionary, and even destructive.

    3. I'm going to report myself again, since you didn't engage with the point:

    "The theory might explain *some* types of learning *about some subjects* in *some situations* -- like opensource groups hacking around together on software. But that doesn't mean you can globalize it and make it apply to every single human endeavour. You can't."

    Look, you're an IT guy. So you devised your theory of Connectivism from the practice of IT. You gleaned these revelations from the experiences of using new media, but I dare say you have a history in things like IRC or various open source listserves. So the collaboration and learning that takes place in that format, on that subject, seems like a legitimate theory.

    I can only say: yes, for that subject, in that manner, which may work (and I could subject open source work to an entire critique that would challenge that concept, but let's just say it holds for now).

    Suddenly, you back away from the demand to explain why you think your theory universally applies, and the demand to explain its provenance, and go off on a tangent, questioning whether it is "the job of a theory to explain."

    Of course it is! If you can't explain your theory, or have it explain actual human phenomena, what good is it? It may well then be a fraud -- that defrauded you, first and foremost.

    I'm not making it apply to human endeavours. You are. You've decided it's THE global explanation for THE way in which peole learn. And I say -- humbug. People learn all sorts of ways. They learn their times tables by rote chanting. They learn their telephone number by memorization. They learn how to tie their shoes by copying others and practicing and "getting a feel for it". They may learn about Internet networks by going online and hanging out. But to insist that every setting for every type of learning has to be explained by one system or theory of cognition seems to me at the root of a lot of irrelevance of all the modern educational theories, and why they inspire such annoyance and even hatred in the general public.

    The dumbing down of kids in American schools in the last 20 years can't POSSIBLY be due to a sudden increase in rote learning. Those of us who actually live here and actually have kids in these systems can see something else entirely at work: Fuzzy math. TERC. No right answers. Only process. Etc. That's the culprit. I've had the opportunity to compare and contrast how teaching is done in the old-fashioned and the new-fashioned ways and the effects on living children -- and it is extraordinary. I think most people spouting educational theory don't have live specimens of their own that they need to get educated!

    "But neither do we think that the professor or instructor figure ought to be doing everything that is currently done, and we are not in favour of an educational model that matches one expert to a small, select number of students. We believe that learning should be open, which means changing the nature of professorial work."

    Here's the problem with the tone and structure of what you are saying: it is doctrinaire. It isn't a discovered fact. It isn't a description. It's a belief system -- an ideology you wish to indoctrinate us in. That's my main problem with that. You aren't asking people to study and discovery and debate. You are telling them to accept without question your new way of doing things which you can't demonstrate is better.

    There is nothing wrong with having one expert professor with a group of students. Hey, did it not work for teaching you? Why can't that model stand? If your world is truly open and free, it should be *allowed* to stand even if YOU think it is discredited. But you aren't content to let it be. You, as a radical and even nihilist, have to overthrow it. People MUST NOT have set-ups like that anymore. If they do, my God, they are guilty of DUMBING DOWN! And I'm sorry, it's just not acceptable. Some things may work for teaching in large, baggy online love fests like you're putting on here -- things like "here's how you use Twitter" or "here's how you can start a blog and get comments". *The technology itself*. But things like "World War II" or "Indonesian culture" need experts, archives, books, lectures, engagement with the subject matter.

    *Some* of the elements of those topics might lend themselves to mass learning on open systems. But not everything. And you are taking an all-or-nothing, take-no-prisoners approach here.

    The worst thing about what you're doing here is under the guise of an open intellectual enterprise, you are saying that *no one can study your system unless they agree with it*. If they don't, it's not study, it's argument. If they question, it is "merely putting out their own world view". It's really quite a scary prospect, "open" learning systems in which we HAVE TO learn your way, your doctrine, and can't disagree.

    4. You're actually not correct about the nursing issue. The reason why there is a relatively low percentage of breast-feeding in industrialized nations, or not for more than a few weeks, is because the mothers do not teach the daughters. Only if a formal structure like a hospital or some kind of organization becomes involved will many learn.

    5. For the life of me, I can't see how you can reject the model of storage as storage. People do become fonts of wisdom. They aquire facts and knowledge. They obtain credentials. They teach. That's fine. I do not want a doctor to learn heart surgery scattered among 1,900 impressions and subjectivities. I want him to learn from a qualified expert. Again, your IT subject matter that might lend itself to easy "distributed learning" isn't a model for all subjects and all learning -- I think that's the gravest error at hand here.

    6. In fact, you aren't passing responsibility to the individual learner to go out and find his sources -- or connections, as you would have it. Instead, by using social media web 2.0 toys and tools, you are trying to create Hive Mind.

    Here's a good example of where this logic leads -- a call for more cheating by students so they can all learn what it's like to collaborate in a network (?!):

    7. Sigh. You're simply not going to get me to sign up for hippie notions of "oppresion" that comes from "oldfashioned" "hiearchical" teaching and learning. If anything, you seem unaware of the oppression that comes from all the child-centric nonsense, leaving children with nothing in the end but a sense of disatisfaction that they have been overindulged.

    I simply don't believe in Illich. You simply cannot stop people leaving the farms and going to the cities even if it means blighted lives in industrialized nations with pollution and poverty. They are ideologues prescribing for other people what they don't live themselves.

    8. All I mean by "deep thinking" is engaging with the material one-on-one -- one expert's credentialed material which I struggle with and master and engage with, not a dissipation among a million Twitterers.

    I find what you are saying about the alleged "empty and vapid concepts" and the supposed superiority of insights gained from the millions to be frankly appalling. I don't know what you are on about. This reminds me of Shirky dissing War and Peace because it's too long and boring, and saying, oh, his blog is more interesting.

    I think if you are honest with yourself, and you look at all the texts generated from a "conversation with 1,900 people," you will find there's not an awful lot there. I suspect few will do things the way you wish, and if they agree with you, won't agree with you enough.

    You say "Recognition is a physical process in which an already existing and relevantly similar patten of connectivity in a neural network is activated through an interplay the corresponding sensory stimuli."

    Oops, that's where you have to stop right there. Says who? This is like Chomsky and all his magical deep structures. Who says there is a pattern of connectivity? There is stored information -- even in your brain model. It's just not the case that the brain even functions as you claim (and I'm no expert, merely going by popular understanding); I don't see how you can lift this metaphor from the actual brain to your Connectivism.

    Meaning is higher than connections. You don't believe in any background of Meaning. I do. You demand that I "prove it". I don't have to. It just is. It is apprehended in good faith -- or not. It is no more necessary to prove than your own astounding premise that we have to drop Meaning and context and that we have to merely accept rows of connections, connecting without content or without storage.

    Prokofy/Catherine Fitzpatrick

  4. I just don't think I could take seriously anyone who uses a term such as 'technocommunism' - laughable.

  5. I always find it difficult to take seriously anyone who uses the word 'radical' as an unquestionably pejorative adjective. It says much more about the writer than it does about the object of their opinions.

  6. Well, I guess you wouldn't take seriously Joi Ito then. He uses the term "venture communism" to describe what he does, and he's right.

    "Radical" *is* perjorative. I see no reason to indulge in extremism or fuel destructiveness, which is what radicals do. You act as if the university needs radical change. The only thing that needs change is its pricetag, and less Marxist professors.

  7. Stephen, outstanding post (again).

    I completely agree with your position that connective media prove more of an intellectual challenge than serial media, not less. In a recent comment response at my blog I said:

    "Think about it, which is more intellectually demanding? Having a panel of experts tell you which books are considered good enough to read, or having all the books in the world thrown at you, all sewn together with hyperlinks, and surrounded by never-ending conversations exploring their styles, themes and ideas."

    It's great to read it phrased it in a more formal and epistemologically correct manner.

    Catherine, you say: "I see no reason to indulge in extremism or fuel destructiveness."

    Seriously?? That's like a black hole calling the kettle black.

  8. No, Eyal, only in this artificially-induced Hive Mind of usenet-culture and MMORPG and IT culture would my liberal, moderate, common-sense remarks debunking and calling into question the technocommunist extremism inherent in a lot of this stuff appear to be "extremist". Only in that hollow echo chamber.

    As for your either/or literalism about panels versus links, again, I can only counsel moderation. Why do we have to do one or the other? Sometimes it's useful to have panels or the NYT Book Review; sometimes it is interesting to browse around amazon and see what people wrote in reviews and discuss it; I'd like both, please, and I'd like to have choice, and not be put on a collective farm where I *must* tune into the ant farm to hear the one song all the connectivizers are singing.


I welcome your comments - I'm really sorry about the moderation, but Google's filters are basically ineffective.