A CHALLENGE TO CONNECTIVISM (connectivism conference presentation)

"the skin is not all that important as a boundary" BF Skinner(1)

The notorious Skinner got that one right. The boundary issue is crucial. In considering the learning process we need to ask: What happens inside our body / brain, what happens outside, in the external environment, and how are the inside and the outside connected? What is the mind, where is it and how does it work? These are core theoretical questions about learning with immense practical significance. The necessary process of formulating a new learning theory ought to incorporate and struggle with a modern synthesis of philosophy, cognitive science (including artifical intelligence research) and the history of learning theory. My critique of George Siemen's Connectivism suggests that a better job could have been done.

mp3 from actually presentation with discussion included (thanks to leigh blackall for this):
Unfortunately there were some interruptions due to my connection dropping out
Best to download both slides and mp3 and hear talk while flipping through the slides

“The skin is not all that important as a boundary” BF Skinner

slogans from school 2.0 wiki http://school20.wikispaces.com/
Greg Whitby new school http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2007/01/21st-century-school.html
David Wheeler on software innovation http://www.dwheeler.com/innovation/innovation.html
Alan Kay on computer science being stagnant http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/alanKay

Why am I here? When I read George's 2004 paper I thought interesting ideas, I like the sound of some of this. Later on George wrote a paper evaluating constructivism which I didn't like so I blogged a critical response. And thought thats the end of that. But to my surprise George did later get back to me and invited me to this conference as a critic. I think he deserves a lot of credit for doing that.

(during which I sneakily try to establish credentials that I understand what is called “web2.0”)
Some people have said: “connectivism resonates with me” and that was my initial reaction too. I agree that connection is a good metaphor for our current age. The network is very visible and a medium of radical change as we speak.

Our ability to communicate, interact and collaborate has been augmented many fold by recent developments in the read/write web. As George points out our ability to remain current, diverse and connected is far more possible than in the past.

This also offers the prospect of an educational transformation from Just in case --> Just in time.

I see these things as positives that have become associated with the theory of connectivism


There is more than resonance, there is upbeat excitement about what this could mean for education,

  • the creation of a new school in Sydney, Australia, under the leadership of Greg Whitby

however, everything has been reformed except the curriculum
Greg Whitby new school http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2007/01/21st-century-school.html

  • as illustrated by a couple of slogans off the new School 2.0 wiki
slogans from school 2.0 wiki http://school20.wikispaces.com/

“It's not about technology, it's about a new and vibrant information landscape that reshapes teaching and learning”

“Technology should be like oxygen--ubiquitous, transparent, and necessary”


OK, so what is my argument against connectivism which has become associated with these exciting thoughts and developments.

What I am saying is that something interesting is definitely happening but it's not radically new at the level of learning theory. I'll illustrate this by reference to some older learning theorists.

Initially I'm just providing a brief overview of my position – 3 main parts - with more detail coming later

First -- The role of language (as explained by Vygotsky) and “objects to think with” (as explained by Papert) in learning theory predates the Internet – more on these theories later


Second how should we think about the Mind
The Mind is something we've been arguing about for more than 2000 years – I'm just stating my current view here for discussion purposes

What and Where is the Mind? The scaffolding provided by language and “objects to think with” extends our minds from the brain into the environment – ie. The Mind is a construct which involves brain, our biological systems such as hormones, our perception and structures we create in the environment (Andy Clark, “Being There” 1997)

Why am I going on about the Mind in this presentation – this is partly in response to the Achilles heel statement in George's book


"The Achilles heel of existing theories rests in the pace of knowledge growth. All existing theories place processing (or interpretation) .of knowledge on the individual doing the learning”
Knowing knowledge, p. 33

The Andy Clark view of the Mind does not place all of the processing and interpretation of knowledge at the level of the individual – simply put, there are other theories around about distributed cognition, so why do we need a new one?


Third the issue of some things being more noticed than other things
“I don't know who discovered water but it wasn't a fish” - Marshall McLuhan

I think what might be happening is that language and “objects to think with” are so ubiquitous in our lives that they are not always noticed.

Network based learning theories might be more visible because the network is more visible, new and exciting. This is not a complete explanation of the popularity of connectivism – 1000 registrations to this conference - but it does serve as a reminder that we need to go back and have a good hard look at existing learning theories and what they have to offer



assertion: “the pipe is more important than the contents (simply because content changes rapidly)”

The immediate rejoinder here is that content is important too. And then some will argue, reasonably, that some content is more important than other content. This leads into a discussion of the nature of knowledge (content), is there some knowledge that is more fundamental than other knowledge, what is the difference b/w a new idea of substance and a fad? This is a discussion which has to be had. The slogan leads into this discussion but does not provide an answer to it.


assertion: “the half life of knowledge is declining”

Yes, but ... I would say that at any given time some knowledge is more durable and important than other knowledge - and that "half life of knowledge" arguments obscures that fact. This term is provocative and good a discussion starter but needs more analysis.

I am not arguing that there is such a concept as “fundamental knowledge” but that at a given time some knowledge is more important than other knowledge. What sort of knowledge?

What is described as “learning how to learn” skills or meta-cognition or the methods by which these are acquired such as effortful, directed study deserve some emphasis IMO

Some of the principles that help us understand how the net works perhaps should be emphasised too – the separation of structure from style in digital documents, advanced search skills, RSS feeds, aggregation, folksonomies might turn out to be short lived but seem important for the present – as presented in the recent YouTube video, The Machine is Us – Using Us.

Then we have

Alan Kay has produced a list on non universals, things that are not learnt spontaneously, arising from anthropological studies of all know human societies. How are we going to teach these?
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems

The implication from this list is that the declining half life of knowledge slogan requires a lot more analysis



Returning to Papert's constructionist idea of “Objects to think with” being used to facilitate learning.

Examples include the logo programming language, LEGO logo robotics, Instructional Software Design Project. This was both a radical and tangible program for change.

This is a learning theory that does speculate about the connections between building things in the environment and building structures in the brain. But some aspects of Minsky's theories (Minsky worked with Papert in AI research and wrote a book, Society of Mind) have been questioned more recently, that the structures he was proposing for the Mind (frames) were too elaborate.

On the political level Logo fought School and School eventually won. The use of logo has declined. Why did School win? Naturally there is dispute over this but according to Papert and Alan Kay the reason was that logo could only work properly by changing School totally and the social forces in favour of this change were not strong enough.


The OLPC project is another new chapter in this story so the story is not finished yet. Papert is upfront about bypassing adults and going straight to the children

It also introduces an important political question:
If the third world can have one laptop per child then why can't the first and second worlds?

It's only fair to see these challenges arising from the constructionist learning theory


Beyond the often repeated slogan about the zone of proximal development I'm not sure how deeply Vygotsky has been understood or implemented by teachers. On the surface his ideas seem more generally accepted (cf logo) but then language is seen as more important than maths and science.

Language scaffolds human development itself, a deeper insight than the obvious proposition that we use language for communication

In his “blog of proximal development”, Konrad Glogowski documents that to create a real community of learners who interact with meaningful semantic relationships takes two years. So, to achieve deep change requires favourable environments and teachers who understand the issues deeply. Deep change is not a magic bullet.

However, now that written language has combined with the read/write web in the form of blogs we are observing the same sort of resistance that previously happened with logo. eg. Default censorship of the read/write web by School filtering systems accompanied by moral panic from the media about the dangers from pedophiles and on line bullying.


"we use language to author ourselves, assisted by many co-authors as we grow up" (Daniel Dennett)

Good blogging is Vygotsky writ large. Although Vygotsky is not new I think the insight that language scaffolds self development is reaching the awareness of more people as they blog, receive comments and feedback on their blogs and develop new thoughts through this process

Consistent with the earlier view of the Mind we should treat writing and speaking as an environmental manipulation that transforms the problem space for human brains. We are constructing some form of internal and external higher order structures in this process, even though their exact form has yet to be discovered


Conversation, communication & collaboration

The read / write web augments many fold our ability to communicate and collaborate. No argument here. However, good educators have always recognised the importance of these things

Scaling, augmentation, getting bigger is not the same thing as innovation or a new idea at the level of learning theory.

There are some parallels to my argument here, for example:
Alan Kay has argued that there has been little development in computer science for 20 years
Alan Kay on computer science being stagnant http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/alanKay

David Wheeler has argued that software innovations are far less frequent than most people believe.
Things are changing very fast due to Moores Law but that does not mean that software and computer science is developing particularly fast at all
David Wheeler on software innovation http://www.dwheeler.com/innovation/innovation.html


I'd like to look at the notion of radical discontinuity, that there is radical discontinuity happening in some domains but possible not in others:

new tools, web apps YES
new learning environments – augmented conversation, communication and collaboration YES
new curriculum NOT YET?
New epistemology – I can't see it
new political awareness – I think that's needed, that a lot of the blockage is at that level



I like this slogan:
“The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet” - William Gibson
I see distribution as mainly a political issue, who is stopping the future from being distributed

I don't really like these terms – edublogger or blog-evangelist because I think they don't identify the most important issues – the most important issue is not teachers who haven't woken up to the potential of the internet yet, it's those who are blocking the process higher up the chain of control


what is really needed is for those who want to change education to form a more politically aware movement, something that teachers have been reluctant to do in the past

In the next few slides I canvass a couple of the political themes which I think are important to take up


support the rights of the child to explore new technology

“The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.” (Article 13, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)


“a risk free society is very dangerous” - Kerr
The fear of what might go wrong can't stop us from doing what is right – Chris Lehmann

what is the spirit of our times? zeitgeist
overcome the Occupational Health and Safety mentality that promotes fear and squashed innovation


thumbnail sketch:
hardware - tampering with hardware to prevent copying (DRM, TPM)
economic - locking in users to proprietary brand, eg. MS schools agreement
standards - locking in users to use particularly formats, eg. *.doc rather than *.odt
legal - copyright law strengthened
software - spying on users computers through automatic updates
cultural - demonising those who resist all this as "pirates"

I think we should take a leaf out of the pirate party in Sweden who ran a campaign based on intellectual property rights


slogans from school 2.0 wiki http://school20.wikispaces.com/
Greg Whitby new school http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2007/01/21st-century-school.html
David Wheeler on software innovation http://www.dwheeler.com/innovation/innovation.html
Alan Kay on computer science being stagnant http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/alanKay

"An artificial radical discontinuity is manufactured" yes I like that view. Has the validity of this approach been compromised by the desire to create an "ism". Compare with the more measured approach of Dede, my bold type:

"neomillennial" learning styles based on "mediated immersion," these emerging learning styles include:
  • Fluency in multiple media and in simulation-based virtual settings
  • Communal learning involving diverse, tacit, situated experience, with knowledge distributed across a community and a context as well as within an individual
  • A balance among experiential learning, guided mentoring, and collective reflection
  • Expression through nonlinear, associational webs of representations
  • Co-design of learning experiences personalized to individual needs and preference

Tony 19/1/07

(1) Cited in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology by Daniel Dennett, (1981) Ch 4. Skinner Skinned, p. 55. The original quote is from BF Skinner, "Behaviorism at Fifty". In "Behaviorism and Phenomenology " (1964) Edited by T.W. Wann.