A new theory of teaching and learning arose called Connectivism has recently become popular. (Siemens, 2005) Based on constructivism, it takes that theory to a new level by tapping into the power of greater connectedness brought about by internet-based communications. However, it has not come without its detractors. Some focus on how its network theory basis has problems when applied to human behaviour. (Catherine Fitzpatrick, 2008) Some focus on the ideas that information technology should find its way into most parts of curriculum based learning. The fundamental problem is what is the “best” way to teach or learn a subject. Therein lays the rub. There are multiple ways to learn about something. For example, Gardener outlines seven. (Wikipedia, Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 2008) The opportunities and resistance in society towards new approaches to teaching and learning varies depending on the level of education. There are different opportunities and resistance in the ages 5-18 year environment (Kindergarten to grade 12), post secondary (college/university), and the corporate world. In this short discussion I will argue that there are more opportunities to make fundamental change.
To start this discussion off at Meta level, one of the key problems is that much of today’s’ society operates in a competition model. Nations compete with each other for status, resources, or followers. Companies compete with each other for market share. Individuals compete with others for jobs, promotions, or mates. In effect, people operate in a selfish mode as described by Hobbes. (Wikipedia, Jonathon Hobbes, 2008) In the effort to achieve higher status, people often operate in opposition to collaboration. Thus, it is difficult to create agreement on many ideas. In Western society, other than politics and healthcare, a subject guaranteed to have many opinions is how an education system ought to be run. So, despite the fact the internet is connecting more and more people from a larger geographical area and transcending class boundaries, the largest part of the population was born in the pre-internet era. This pre-internet group views knowledge as a precious commodity that is need in effect for self preservation. Not so, think our post Generation Y internet savvy citizens. They view that knowledge should be shared and many in fact share lots about their personal life for anyone on the web to see. (Wikipedia Generation Y, 2008) So how does this play out in our educational institutions. The next section will look at the K to12 public education system, then the post-secondary institutions, and finally the corporate training world to see where lays the resistance and opportunities for change.
K to 12
The K to 12 education environment will be the biggest hurdle to teaching and learning theory change. There is a huge inertia to change due to:
- The nature of limits to public funding. There is rarely extra money to experiment with alternative systems. (Instead, new systems are crated like Montessori.)
- Practically everyone in the western world goes through the K to 12 education system. So for most people, it is the only system they know.
- The administrators and teachers in many cases come from the previous generation with the associated “generation gap” issues of technology uptake, and attention to contemporary culture.
- Since most adults have children, almost all adults will have an opinion on any suggestion to education reform.
Despite the resistance, there are some opportunities:
- The cost of education demands new approaches because of scarcer tax dollars and competing programs such as healthcare due to the post-war baby boomer reaching retirement age.
- Most of research in education theory takes place in the context of K to 12 so the path ahead may be clearer for this group than the next two described below.
- There is more opportunity for grass roots initiatives among parents, individual teachers, and schools.
The inhibiters seem to outweigh the opportunities, but the three opportunities outlined above can be powerful persuaders to policy-makers.
The post-secondary environment faces different challenges than the K to 12. Resistance in this group includes:
- The Intellectual property aspect of professor’s knowledge. Professors guard their knowledge closely as a means of job protection and stature enhancement.
- There is 30+ years of legacy professors who are not actually taught education theory. Many still practice the oral/blackboard mode of information transmission.
- Post-secondary institutions regal in their “uniqueness” despite their sameness. (Michael A Peters, 2007)
On the opportunities side, many post-secondary institutions, whether publically or private funded face the same issues and thus opportunities:
- These institutions need to increase their student population base in a declining enrolment era to keep or increase funding/profit. Turning to technology communication tools to “poach” on other geographic draw areas and to tap into pool of student snot normally able to afford university due to travel, accommodations, or full-time work status.
- By turning to technology tools, the universities open themselves to much more socially interactive modes of learning
- Post-secondary students can be more experimental, thus a fertile ground for causing changes.
Post-secondary intuitions may be the best positioned from an institutional perspective to adopt different approaches.
The corporate world is often not thought of in an institutional framework; This is in spite the fact all companies have a distinct corporate culture. This distinctiveness continues into the teaching and learning realm. Some companies do not place a high value on self-improvement, and instead focus on extracting as much productivity as possible. Others place a high value on gaining new knowledge so that the company can adapt to changing market and technological conditions.
Companies may have the greatest resistance to different approaches to teaching and learning because:
- Most are not attuned to education theory or practice. Instructors are often specialists with no place in the organization for general educators.
- Companies continue their current path unless profits shrink to a point where savings or alternative methods are needed to ensure the survival of the company.
- Most corporations rely on accreditation status of outside organizations or product/service providers to pre-screen employees. The employer does not care what educational theory is used so long as employees have minimum capabilities and there are enough potential recruits available.
- Many companies only have a check box attitude towards teaching and learning in professional development to ensure they are covered legally that employee has received training, so the quality of training experience is not much of a factor
Opportunities that lie in the corporate world revolve around globalization.
- Globalization means increased competition so corporations look to reduce training costs and improve performance outcomes.
- Companies understand the need to grow networks of people or create alliances and partnerships for information purposes. This a key aspect of connectivism.
- Companies are actually more serious about new education theories and practice because of the need measure training outcomes against performance.
- The most agile company will be the one that continues to thrive. Agility is linked to keeping up on the latest practice, even in education theory and practice.
What’s in it for society?
If society desires fundamental and systemic change, the advantages of different teaching and learning approaches include:
- True performance based outcomes. A person can actually do math, dissect, read, write, or operate equipment. The school letter grade does not matter, it is performance based on discrete measurements.
- Institutions can teach and learners can learn in lesser amount of time. So money is saved, more knowledge covered, or there is a greater depth of understanding.
- Educators can now focus on the ideal learning environment/path for the learner.
- There is now a desire for continuous learning. Self-motivation is much more powerful that institutional based motivation.
- Create the personal and societal mechanisms for a collaborationist world.
Why listen to the inertia?
Despite the long list of points relating to the resistance to adopting new approaches to teaching and learning, there is some value to their concerns. Rather than rush into change, there is the need for facts/outcomes based research. Qualitative research is not enough. The results have to be convincing to the strongest nay-sayer.
Also, society will not change overnight. Change is a decades-long process. For example, even though some significant companies may change learning directions within a year or two, in general, it can take 10-15 years before all of industry changes. Lastly, many people that resistant change may do it at a personal level. Thus, change needs to focus on the person, and not the needs of the group. If you focus on the person, then you enable groups to succeed.
Will change happen or is this an exercise in wishfullness?
The opportunities we have outlined above offer a new direction for teaching and learning. However, is society up to the challenge? Will our group-like behaviours of weak ties and the fact the internet allows easy connections give individuals the depth of learning needed for the future with its complex challenges of globalization and climate change?
One of today’s problems is that we are a just in time society. Even our “close” family can be short shifted because of work commitments. We establish connections to get the info we need, then more often than not, bail on the connection. So, if we are that bad now at being connected, how can a theory like connectivism succeed? Why don’t we keep the connections?
Time: New problems in our lives present themselves differently than past ones so new connections to new people and information are needed. We drop the old ties for new ones.
Tools: We have not yet seen the best technology tools to keep us connected. RSS is still relatively new, email still pervasive, and there is poor integration of technology tools (task assignment tools, calendars, project management tools). The need to do manual updating of home and work-based toolsets because web platforms compatible in both places do not exist or are sometimes blocked.
I would answer that we can move beyond the weak ties and JIT connections. This course has already made me more attuned to emerging educational theory, more software tools to enhance the learning experience, to more people who can help me find the right tools, and to more case studies for their implementation.
As an example of adopting different approaches to teaching and learning, just the other day, while reading the Week 11 readings for CCK08 during my children’s swimming lesson, a peripheral acquaintance of about 5 years asked what I was reading. I told him it was for this course and how it was helping me teach better. It turns out he teaches political science part-time like me. He was getting tired of teaching the same content using the rather static lecture/seminar format and he wanted to make a change but did not now how. He started picking my brain on how to improve his course. Despite our busy lives (both of use have children the same age, and both of us have fulltime jobs in addition to teaching, and both of us are going to school part-time) we agreed to get together later in November so I could demonstrate the CCK08 course environment and my Royal Military College LMS so that he can implement a new course design in January. Because we have chosen to collaborate, we may have stronger ties than ever.
And I the CCK08 student, may become the teacher much faster than I thought.
Catherine Fitzpatrick, “Refuting Stephen Downes’ Theory of Networks Re: Blogs vs. Forums,” Connectivism and Connected Learning Course (CCK08), University of Manitoba, Forum: Week 3: Networks, 26 September 2008.
Michael A Peters. Higher Education, Globalization, and the Knowledge Economy, 2007.
George Siemens. “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, II, 1, (January 2005).
Wikipedia, “Theory of multiple intelligences,” Accessed 16 November 2008, last updated 16 November 2008.
Wikipedia, “Jonathon Hobbes,” Accessed 16 November 2008, last updated 16 November 2008.
Wikipedia, “Generation Y,” Accessed 16 November 2008, last updated 16 November 2008.