Meaningful tools

Fetterman, D. (2002). Web Surveys to Digital Movies: Technological Tools of the Trade. Educational Researcher. 31(6). pp. 29-37.

Any article on technology tools is out of date the instant it is published; however, this article endures far better than the 2002 date suggests, possibly because Fetterman concentrates on tools that build meaning. Without inventing a complicated taxonomy, he lists a number of tools and their practical application:

  • Surveys (for gathering feedback)
  • Photography (for socialization)
  • Voice recognition (for data collection)
  • Collaborative file sharing (for group projects)
  • Video conferencing (for nonverbal communication)
  • Chat (for immediacy)
  • Reporting (for fast dissemination of research results)
  • Movies (for compelling capture of events)

Two conclusions seem appropriate seven years later:

  1. tracking changes by users in collaborative files is an invaluable feature–and yet is still elusive in Web applications (Google’s Wave may change that)
  2. private chat rooms allow users to maintain contact “more than any single software used”

While Fetterman’s optimistic vision of copyright-free accessibility still seems out of reach, his advocacy of a culture of participation has already come to pass. And as an instructional technologist, I personally appreciated his  admonition that “it is necessary to learn about technology to learn (and to help others learn how to learn) effectively with it.”

Is connectivism a new learning theory?

Stephen Downes and George Siemens are active bloggers in education. Over the past two years, they have proposed a new theory of learning, connectivism, based on their vision of how the availability of ubiquitous networks have changed the nature of learning. An article by Kop and Hill in the October issue (Volume 9, Number 3) of IRRODL (International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) considers whether connectivism qualifies as a theory.

On the surface, the argument from Downes and Siemens “feels” intuitively right:

  • since the power law applies to (computers attached to) the Internet, doubling the number of users quadruples the number of connections; therefore, connections are a critical component of knowledge construction;
  • since the rate of change of information is accelerating, the rate of change of our knowledge must accelerate, a feat which can only be accomplished through a power law network rather than our personal cognitive structures

However, a theory must provide more than a feeling. The article states that an emerging theory must be based on scientific research; even a developmental theory must meet certain criteria: describe changes within behavior, describe changes among behaviors, and explain the development that has been described.

Using connectivism to describe changes within learning theory, Siemens argues that:

  • objectivism is realized in behaviorism where knowledge is acquired through experience
  • pragmatism is realized in cognitivism where knowledge is negotiated between reflection and experience
  • interpretivism is realized in constructivism where knowledge is situated within a community
  • distributed knowledge  (from Downes) is realized in connectivism where knowledge is the set of networked connections

The author analyzes this argument and concludes that previous work by Vygotsky, Papert, and Clark already account for the changes connectivism attempts to claim as its own. In addition, Siemens’ argument seems circular: acknowledgement of knowledge as a set of connections (distributed knowledge) is required as a foundation for the theory of connectivism where knowledge is the set of networked connections. And in fact, some implications of the theory sound ludicrous:

  • there is no such thing as building knowledge;
  • our activities and experience form a set of connections, and those connections are knowledge;
  • the learning is the network.

The authors conclude that connectivism fits a pedagogical level rather than a theoretical level. “People still learn in the same way,” but connectivist explanations and solutions can help us deal with the onslaught of information and the enabling power of networked communication.