Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Theoretical Synergies

A reader asked:

I read an article that was published in March 2011 edition of IRRODL: “Proposing na Integral Research Framework for Connectivism: utilising Theoretical Synergies”, from B. Boitshwarelo (Botswana).

I founded it very interesting. However, certain questions have arisen in regard to the analysis done by the author.

1- Accordingly to Activity Theory (AT), learning is initiated by intention (p168): “learning as conscious processing, a transformational process that results from the reciprocal feedback between consciousness and activity”. Is this true in connectivism? Connectivism says that learning is the ability to construct and traverse networks. Sometimes, this process may not be intentional. I mean, sometimes we learn without being aware that this is happening (as a child, for example). Does connectivism contradicts AT?

Does connectivism contradicts AT?

No doubt different people have their own theories, but I have argued in the past that one of the major differences between connectivism and constructivist theories generally is that in connectivism learning is a property of the system, something that happens all the time, and is not therefore the subject of intentional activity. You don't decide to learn now, and maybe to not learn later, you are learning all the time, it's what the brain does, and the only choice you exert over the process is what you will do to affect the experiences leading to your learning. Watch TV all day and you'll learn about game shows and daytime dramas, practice medicine and you'll learn to be a doctor. Similarly, where constructivists say "you make meaning", I disagree with the expression, because the production (so-called) of meaning is organic, and not intentional.

2- (p 169) The author says that one feature of connectivism is that it recognizes the need to adapt to the ever-changing nature of information “in order to resolve the disharmony introduce by such change”. My point is: does connectivism talk about this? Does connectivism aims to resolve these contradictions or is about to accept and learn to live with them? Are connectivist systems stable?

Does connectivism aims to resolve these contradictions

There are of course no contradictions in nature. A contradiction is a linguistic artifact, the result of sentences believed to be true each entailing that the other is false. Because so much of cognition is non-linguistic, it is probably not useful to speak of contradiction in this context, but rather to speak of harmony and disruption. (I say this almost off-the-cuff, but this would really be a significant change in our understanding of logic and reason).

All connectionist systems - ie., all networks, as understood computationally - work though a process of 'settling' into a harmonious state. What counts as harmonious varies depending on the precise theory being implemented. For example:
- Hebbian associationist systems settle naturally into a state where neurons or entities with similar activation states become connected
- Back-propagation systems adjust according to feedback
- Boltzmann systems settle into a stable state as defined by thermodynamic principles

The 'disharmony caused by change' is best thought of as a new input that disrupts this settling process. The network responds to this change by reconfiguring the connections between entities as a result of this input. This is learning.

Whether we are able to address linguistic artifacts, such as contradiction, with a given learning experience, is open to question. There is no reason to expect a contradiction to be resolved, though were our linguistic artifacts based in experience, such a resolution would be a desirable, and expected, outcome.

3- (pp.171-172) Is it really necessary to use the theoretical concepts of other more consensual and tested theories to study and validate connectivism? Does connectivism have his own tools of analysis to do this? Does connectivism need to be feed by constructs of other theories? Doesn’t this contradicts connectivism as new approach to learning in the digital age?

Does connectivism need to be feed by constructs of other theories?

I think it's important to understand that connectivism is the adaptation of educational theory to these other theories, that it points to a theme underlying these other theories, and is not distinct from these theories.

Connectivism is, in my mind, a particular instance of a much broader theory of networks. Thus, evidence that informs us about the theory of networks generally also informs us about connectivism.

This is an important point. Constructive approaches to education (and most other things) place a special significance on the role of theory, and particularly the role that theory plays in providing a perspective or 'lens' through which a phenomenon is experienced. Hence we expect any given theory to provide a given 'stance', provide analytical 'tools', and beyond certain constraints (such as non-contradiction) no one theory is assumed to constitute a privileged stance. Theory-construction thus becomes an importance scientific and pedagogical activity, leading to a host of other constructs (such as, say, 'identity').

Connectivist learning is very different. It is not about creating cognitive constructs such as theories. Learning, according to connectivism, is a process of growth and development or networks rather than a process of acquisition and creation of concepts. Networks are not concepts. Concepts are represntational systems, they postulate a devide between what they are and what they represent, they therefor entail a theory of signs, or semiotics, and have linguistic properties (such as the law of non-contradiction). Networks are physical systems, not cognitive systems. Though they can be depicted as representing things (eg., a brain state may be thought of as representing a physical state), this depiction is in itself an interpretation, and not a property of the network itself.

Now I think that network theory in general and connectivism in particular can provide a set of tools to analyze *other* phenomena - I describe these as six elements of critical literacies, but the exact nature is unimportant here - but it is rather akin to the way mathematics offers us tools for the evaluation of other phenomena - mathematics can define data and instrumentation, such as measurement, ratio and comparison, and bookkeeping - but it would not be reasonable to turn these phenomena around as a means of evaluative mathematics.

Networks, in other words, are what they are. Network theory is nothing more or less than a description of networks, and the application of that description to other phenomena, just as qualitative theory is a description of properties (such as colour, size, shape, position, relation) and quantitative theory is a description of number and ratios.