Friday, May 09, 2014

Is Connectivism a Broad Family of Ideas?

I think it is worth looking at the end of Jon Dron's long post to get to the heart of what he finds so wrong about my work. I reserve the right to look at the rest of his work in reverse order as well.

Let's move carefully, one sentence at a time. He writes:
My worry is that if, instead of seeing connectivism as a family of ideas, theories and approaches that offer value in helping us to see outside the box of traditional educational methods, we see it as a single cohesive theory of learning, then that theory had better be fairly unassailable or someone coming to it afresh will likely observe its flaws and move on to the next. 
So we are presented with two choices: either connectivism is a "broad family of ideas" or it is a "single cohesive theory of learning."

If it is a single theory, then it had better be "fairly unassailable," otherwise, it will simply be replaced by the next theory that comes along.

We are intended to believe that it is not fairly unassailable, and that it is better to see connectivism as a "family of ideas, theories and approaches."

We can argue about whether it is "fairly unassailable" later. Let me look at the other option. Would it be better to think of connectivism as a family of ideas, theories and approaches?

On one hand, it is indisputably so. Any academic school of thought is. Anything that involves more than one person will be. It would be a miracle if George Siemens saw eye-to-eye on everything, and when we introduce voices like Dave Cormier and others to the mix, a variety of viewpoints begins to emerge.

Whether they call themselves connectivists is up to them; it's a matter of self-identification, and with each new voice, a new version of the theory is proposed.

But on the other hand, there is no particular reason why I, or any other individual, should view it as such. My job is (in part) to look closely at the subject matter and identify which things I think to be right and true. I would be doing the subject a disservice if I did not. Yes there is a risk that it might be replaced. That's science.

So why is Dron so concerned about this? He doesn't actually mind the fact that I actually am seeking the right and the true. "That's fine in some ways and represents a big part of how knowledge evolves - we do not have to be wed to theories at the hip," he says. Indeed, I welcome the possibility that someone will come along with a better understanding and replace all my work.

But he's worries about the wider effect of my approach. "It massively detracts from connectivism's value as a stable centre and catalyst for action, which is a role that it has played very well for very many people over the past few years," he writes (my emphasis).

I would ask, at this point, what it is that he thinks makes connectivism a stable centre and catalyst for action? From my perspective, it is precisely because we have attempted to identify what is right and true. I have sought to do more than just offer a grab-bag or cookbook of  pedagogical techniques, I've tried to base those on something more than speculation and imagination.

But now we get to the core of Dron's objections: he thinks that what I propose has simply been attached to connectivism:
I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should not aspire to finding such an all-encompassing theory, but to tie it inextricably to a theory that already works well enough to inspire many thousands of people around the world to see the world differently seems worse than pointless to me.

Again - from my perspective, the reason it works well enough to inspire many thousands around the world is that it has been the result of a concerted attempt to get the core theory right. 

One of the things that distinguishes me, at least, from many other educational theorists is that I do not feel bound to accommodate all those other theories that have come before. Yes, phrenology might be in our family of related theories and many people might be quite happy evaluating character in that way. But in my own approach I see no reason to preserve it.

And yes, I truly believe the state of most educational theory today has the status of phrenology. But we'll deal with that later. Because Dron's real concern is that my work is being 'tied inextricably' to the theory of connectivism.

This is worth emphasizing. Dron is very concerned to ensure that my work is seen as distinct from connectivism, and is being 'tied' to connectivism (presumably illegitimately). "It is precisely that fear that inspired me to write my previous post and it is why, beyond the learning value of thinking about," he writes, "it in such detail, I have just written another very long post on the subject."

So much for Dron's 'family of theories' approach. He's happy to say that connectivism is a family of theories - so long as one of those theories does not call the others false (or wrong, or irrelevant, or whatever). It is to me an odd way to do research and discovery.

What Dron really wants to do is to make sure that what I am proposing is not mistaken for connectivism. And he is very worried because over the last decade, what I am proposing has been taken to be connectivism.
If I were the one presenting Downes's theory then it would not matter so much as it would just be one voice among many, but his name is often associated with George as one of the theory's central authorities so his perspective matters more than mine. He is far better known in educational circles than I, he has written a lot about it, and he has worked with George in high-visibility events like CCK08, so his opinions carry a potentially significant greater amount of weight. 
From where I sit, it seems to me that Dron thinks of George as the 'one true voice' and true genius behind connectivism. And it's true that George is more accommodating of other theories than I am; he is far more likely to use a phrase (for example) like 'making meaning' than I am.  But Georeg and I have talked enough, and worked together enough, for me to know that we're both chasing the same idea.

Dron may prefer George's version of that idea. That's fine. But it doesn't make my version somehow illegitimate and somehow 'tacked on' to connectivism. George gave a name to something we were both working on prior to December, 2004, and demonstrably so.

This is why it bothers me that Dron hasn't read my work. On the one hand, he is clearly not familiar with my body of work on the subject stretching back to 1995 and earlier, and yet on the other hand, he suggests that my approach to connectivism is simply 'tacked on' to some presumably better version of the same story. It strikes me as an absurd position to hold.

I don't think whatever voice I have in the world is derived simply from my association with George. From my perspective, if I have any reputation at all, it is precisely because I have taken the approach that I have, of seeking out what is right and true, and of discarding those trappings of educational theory that, no matter how often they're found in cookbooks and self-help manuals, are in my view wrong.

So, while the phenomenon of connectivism has no doubt attracted a variety of points of view and perspectives - and I welcome that - I do not intend to change my approach. I don't see my approach as somehow harmful to connectivism because my approach genuinely is connectivism. Dron's argument that I am somehow an imposter is, at its heart, an ad hominem.

If what I say is somehow 'harmful' to the 'family of ideas, theories and approaches' that Dron values, well, so much the worse for them. I feel no obligation to defend the wrong, on the specious grounds that it is useful.