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George Siemens - Connectivism: Learning Conceptualized through the Lens of Today's World

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:28pm

Images I am a little behind in my context filtering of the Connectivism conference from the view point of children of poverty - or my attempt at being a Voice for the Voiceless. Reflection is an important part of sharing ideas that evoke meaning and I think maybe I do not reflect as fast as some.

My understanding of connectivism as a way of knowing is really still in an emergent stage, but as I listened -- most of what was discussed resonated and seemed very familiar to my own ideas about coming to know. Almost as if I now have a label to describe what I have always believed.

George's slides are available here and the audio here.

The abstract for his session:

Knowledge and learning are forefront in the progress and advancement of humanity. At no other time in history have we stood before as rich a panorama of opportunity as we do today. Our access to information, knowledge, global conversation, research, and the experiences of generations past provide a firm foundation on which to build the society of tomorrow. Yet openness, abundance, and access raise new concerns. The ability to cope with today's knowledge deluge, to engage learners in co-creation of content, and to enlarge classroom walls to include diverse perspectives requires a new conception of learning. Theories of cognition and learning that have served well in the past seem frail, ineffective, and out of touch with the reality of learners and the new context and characteristics of knowledge today.

George's argument truly provides a rationale for rethinking learning, teaching and the way we "do" school. I was inspired as I listened on behalf of the homeless children who attend schools who are designed to only deepen the chasms between the haves and have nots.

Since knowledge is ever increasing it is becoming more clear that we need a nonlinear model of learning. A basic redesign of how we learn and interact with each other in and out of school.

This change in the way we communicate and transfer knowledge has true potential for a power shift that puts the individual in charge of their own learning. No longer are our most needy of students dependent on how a teachers structures the learning environment. But rather, they can get access to the mentors/resources/and leverage they need through the networked connections they make in the safety net of the classroom. This redesign is great news for our most voiceless populations! By nature many children of poverty are great connectors. They are use to having to make connections and network to get what they need. They come to know and survive through skills obtained through street connections, collaborations, negotiations and often manipulations. In a classroom, they will understand how to utilize the network, in many cases better and faster, than their non-impoverished peers. So a paradigm shift of this kind in the classroom will be welcomed news for high poverty children.   

Network intelligence basically is built on the idea that, "None of us are as good as all of us."
Hasn't learning always been about connecting resources? Not for our most needy populations. But with these new avenues to connect with others, children of poverty can have access to the resources they need to grow. While moving from school to school and shelter to shelter, networks of online mentors can provide the consistency and predictability they so desperately need. Their online networks will still be available through every transition- providing valuable information to the new teacher as to educational gaps and known abilities. Preventing students from having to start over yet again.

George points out that we are at the beginning point of knowledge growth. There is tremendous pressure as individuals to grow and understand what is happening. We all are going to have to upgrade how we relate to information and knowledge. Our relationship with knowing has evolved from knowing what; to who to go to to find out what; and then to how to apply what we have learned to our own personal context. In other words, how to make sense of what we have learned in our networks.

Hidden Rules
For impoverished children part of making sense will be in having a teacher who understands the varied context in which the student finds themselves. One who knows how to help these children with the hidden rules that guide each setting and how they can apply what they learn to move ahead. Each social class has their own understanding and their own cultural response to situations that are seen as acceptable within their own context. It is through knowing the differences in what is acceptable in one social setting to the next that children of poverty escape.

Ruby Payne suggests that it is by understanding the hidden rules of a culture that you are able to move from one class to the next. You are able to break free from generational poverty.

Poverty is about survival. It’s about the tyranny of the moment, living in the right now. Middle class is about work and achievement and material security. In middle class, things are possessions. Wealth spends its time on connections – political, financial and social connections – because they keep you safe and well. But in poverty, after you’ve been there two generations, your decision-making is going to be based on survival, entertainment – because entertainment takes away the pain – and relationships. Because the only possession you really have are people. And when people become a possession, then the rules change.

Just think of how this will  empower the voiceless with not only a voice (through their online networks) but enable them to develop connections. At first, it will be messy as they make new connections and they try and "possess" those with whom they connect.  But as time passes and they see collaborations modeled and realize the abundance of connections available-- they will learn valuable ways to engage and grow.

One Ramps the Other
George talked about the unique tie between the technology infrastructure and the knowledge created and how one ramps up the other. In poverty important information is passed on verbally because there’s less written language. In middle class – in school and work, which are middle class institutions – you have to be very verbal, but you also have to use written words; you’ve got to be able to plan. In poverty you don’t have paper and you don’t plan – you survive the moment.

Now steps VoIP as a way to connect and children who normally have succeeded in school through text find themselves having to adapt. Children who are story tellers by nature are able to communicate and collaborate naturally with individuals they have never met.     

We need to be network administrators for all of our students but especially for children of poverty. Differentiation of instruction in connected classrooms will be in making sure our students get the right connections and networks based on their individual needs. We learn by watching and modeling. All children need to see effective collaborations modeled and that by networking with others around the world, they can gain the skill set they will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

My Personal Experience

I have a personal story to relate how powerful these connections are for children of poverty. I didn't read my first book cover to cover until I was 26. I had left home at 14 to live on my own. My role models were not such that I was being nurtured or growing. It was around my 24th birthday that I got my first computer. The guy who gave it to me showed me how to network with others online. I remember going to bulletin boards and engaging in meaningful conversations. I was blown away that others wanted to read and respond to my ideas.  I would sit with a dictionary in my lap and look words up as I typed them with two fingers. My sentence structure was horrid and my spelling was totally phonetic and I was embarrassed. I was determined to impress my new global friends so I worked very hard at learning to communicate at the same level they did.  This communication and networking experience served as part of the catalyst that got me enrolled in college.

There was a soldier in Germany (I met on Newton, a science bulletin board) who taught me most of my beginning computer know how. We would send messages back and forth via email and in the threaded discussions. A few years later, out of the connections I made online I was able to help my preservice teachers (as I was asked to teach the courses on creativity at the local university soon after I graduated)to collaborate with teachers from around the world and construct a f2f literacy fair for our community using the artifacts and children's literature they were sent by their new e-pals.   

Information can move more quickly and efficiently when networks are established. Impoverished children can close academic gaps by self-directing their learning in a learning ecology.  As teachers we should be teaching students to network within the safety net of our classrooms. For example, by using a project approach to learning, students can take responsibility for a portion of the curriculum that most interests them.  They become the class expert on that area of the learning and students know who to go to when they are completing the tasks related to each area of the content. Being class expert creates a sense of efficacy that spills over to other academic tasks.  After collaborating with each other face to face it makes perfect sense to the student to expand that technique to experts online. As teachers our role becomes helping our students find experts who know what they need to know to master the intended objectives.

Connectivism holds great promise for students who traditionally have felt lost in a linear style of learning. Finally, students of poverty will be able to work through their strengths, rather than their weaknesses to master classroom content.

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