Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Nodes and Edges of Connectivism

I've just finished reading Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II, in which Mr. Weingart tries to correct the misuse of networks by humanities scholars. He provides a basic and quite clear explanation of what networks are and what they are not, how current technology can analyze networks, and what technology can say about networks, and most importantly, what it cannot say about networks.

Along the way, he provides the DNA for networks, and this reminds me of how fractal and complex networks are, with networks nested within networks and interacting across multiple scales. If networking is part of the DNA of connectivism, then what is the DNA of networking? Weingart gives me a few handles to work with.

He starts his discussion by defining networks in a typical fashion: networks "stand for any complex, interlocking system. Stuff and relationships [emphasis in the original]." He calls the stuff nodes and the relationships edges, in keeping with common terminology. A network, then, is a collection of nodes that are in some way related along recognizable edges. Stuff and relationships, or nodes and edges, are part of the DNA of networks. This is simple and intuitive enough, and Weingart makes this definition directly applicable to connectivism when he notes that
generally, network studies are made under the assumption that neither the stuff nor the relationships are the whole story on their own. If you’re studying something with networks, odds are you’re doing so because you think the objects of your study are interdependent rather than independent. Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.
Starting with these basic concepts, then, I immediately think that there isn't any information – or any other thing, for that matter – that cannot be represented as a network. Indeed, I agree with Weingart "not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever's going on." I think this is Downes' point when he says on his blog, "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks."

Both the Universe and our knowledge of it are network phenomena. Actually, I already object to that statement as it seems to suggest that our knowledge is something apart from the Universe. It isn't. Our knowledge is somehow an active node in the universal network, connected along multiple edges, just as natural an emergent phenomenon as rocks are.

I don't know that either Weingart or Downes would completely agree with the statement that everything is a network phenomenon, but it makes sense to me. I can usefully model everything as a network – this very post, for instance.

This post is a multiscale network: nodes joined by edges to form the nodes joined by other edges at other scales. As nodes, letters network to form morphemes, which network to form words, which network to form sentences, which network to form paragraphs, which network to form posts, which network to form blogs, which network to form conversations, and so on. And this covers just the syntactical view of the network. We can then look at the semantic networks in which subject, verbs, objects, and other nodes network together to create concepts, which network together to create arguments and explanations, which network together to create a belief system, which network with other belief systems to create a conversation, and so on.

It is quite useful to me, then, to think of this post as a network structure, and whatever knowledge emerges herein "is distributed across a network of connections" that shifts in scale from letters and morphemes to conversations about networks, education, and knowledge. This knowledge emerges for me as I write – adding, rearranging, deleting, and shifting words and sentences about – and for you as you read – scanning for patterns of meaning using the syntactical cues I've left behind. I hope that the pattern of knowledge that emerges for you as you read this post is reasonably similar to the pattern of knowledge that is emerging for me as I write this post. If the two patterns are reasonably self-similar (and I'm not exactly sure how we can ever establish that for certain), then I will believe that I have communicated my message to you, that I have somehow transferred knowledge from me to you, even though we both know that nothing was transferred.

But there is no guarantee. Every speaker, writer, or actor is aware that an audience can perceive very different patterns in the same configuration of words, sentences, and paragraphs. My father – an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – frequently remarked that most of his congregation heard sermons that he never preached. The message they heard depended more on their own sense of guilt and sinfulness than on his choice and arrangement of words.

Once this post is published, then, it becomes a node in a network of people (you and I) who each engage the overall network of writer, reader, and text from different vantages. It should be no surprise, therefore, that knowledge emerges in different ways for each of us, sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically.

If nothing else then, the complex, multi-scale, network nature of writing helps me understand and explain why even a simple piece of writing such as one of my brilliantly clear and concise writing assignments can receive such divergent interpretations, with almost every student doing something different. If knowledge was a discrete, transferrable thing, then I could give all my students the same thing, but because knowledge is an emergent pattern scattered across a network of words, I can hope only for a reasonably similar pattern blossoming in the minds of my students. Sometimes the magic happens. Sometimes it doesn't.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Time for a SmOOC?

Motivated by Bon Stewart's efforts to unpack the MOOC buzzword and now by Jenny Mackness' thoughts about the explosion of MOOCs in higher education, I want to say a bit more about the appropriation of MOOCs by universities and corporations.

One could be kind to the universities that are, in Mackness' words, "jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate," and say that at least they recognize a good new wine when they see it and that they are putting the new wine into old skins mostly because that's what they know how to do, but really, I don't know how kind such a comment would be, and anyway, I'm not sure the universities are that benign (used mostly in the medical sense of not being malignant). A more cynical train of thought might suggest that we are witnessing a movement by the forces of control to counter and appropriate, to quote the blog Learning Spaces, "smooth spaces where nomadic thinking can occur, and is indeed encouraged."

The writer of Learning Spaces (BTW, I don't know the name of this person. Can anyone tell me? Thanks) argues that corporatisation of education reflects a shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control, as described by Gilles Deleuze in his article Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). Learning Spaces says, "In education this [control] is characterised through dataveillance and ever more strict frameworks for accountability, particularly through the work of Ofsted. However, whilst restrictions and creeping privatisation have led to a loss of professionalism and increasing homogenisation of the educative process, Deleuzean geophilosophy emphasises the potential for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I believe that MOOCs began as explorations "for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I think this more open space is core to the idea of MOOCs (part of the DNA), and that most of us are suspect of what we see as the compromise of this open space by recent versions of MOOCs rolled out by more corporate bodies. I think that Bon Stewart, Jenny Mackness, and others will agree. Stewart notes that MOOCs "grew, initially, as learning networks of emergent knowledge focused around educational technologies: in other words, around complexity and disruptive innovation in higher ed." Mackness says about the very first MOOC, CCK08, that it "was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently." We don't see this same openness in some of the latest, most notorious versions of MOOCs.

The openness of MOOCs means that MOOCs can be hijacked for different purposes. This is intentional, I think. The idea is for people, or even institutions, to connect freely to a MOOC and to use it for their own educational purposes. I hijacked a couple of the MOOCs I engaged, using them as supplemental readings and discussion springboards for a faculty development program in writing across the curriculum. A few of the faculty at my local university actually liked the hijack enough that they enrolled themselves into the MOOCs and into subsequent MOOCs.

Others, particularly corporations and corporatized institutions, will hijack MOOCs and do things with them that we early MOOCers are not likely to appreciate. I find a possible explanation for this misappropriation in Deleuze's essay Postscript on the Societies of Control and in Learning Spaces educational riff on that essay. Deleuze says that society is shifting from what Foucault called disciplinary societies with its various enclosed environments (prisons, hospitals, families, factories, schools, etc.), each with its own rules and hierarchical structures to what Deleuze calls societies of control, in which individuals are turned into dividuals, separate data streams captured and manipulated by the corporations that own the data streams (Google, Facebook, Apple, international banks come immediately to mind). As Deleuze succinctly says, "Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt." Deleuze does not appear to see this as progress. For our argument, he sees some dire possibilities for education: "Indeed, just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination. Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation."

This line of thought seems to suggest that we should expect the educational corporations to hijack MOOCs for the purpose of establishing their controls over the data streams that MOOCs generate. We should also expect old-style schools to reject MOOCs as they try to preserve their enclosed and managed spaces. What Mackness calls cognitivist MOOCs, then, are likely to be threatened from two directions:
  1. The old-style schools (disciplinary societies) will seek to control MOOCs either by blocking MOOCs from their enclosed spaces (forbidding laptops and smartphones in the classroom), or by bringing MOOCs into their enclosed spaces where they can manage them as they've managed things for two hundred years.
  2. The new-style schools (societies of control) will seek to control MOOCs by extending the mechanisms of control (salary, marketing, and validation, for example) that ironically use the same technological substrate as MOOCs: modern computers and networks.
I don't think the old-style schools are any threat to MOOCs. As Deleuze says of all old-school, disciplinary societies: "We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure--prison, hospital, factory, school, family. … The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons. But everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It's only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the _societies of control_, which are in the process of replacing disciplinary societies." The old schools will not survive the steamroller that Deleuze calls the societies of control.

I think the new-style schools, however, are a great threat to connectivist MOOCs. They understand and use technology that enables MOOCs of any stripe, and they believe (unlike the old-schools) that their very life depends on establishing control over the data streams that open educational resources such as MOOCs create.

All is not bleak, however. Deleuze notes that this period of transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control holds real promise as well as peril. As new regimes of control emerge in home, school, factory, and hospital: 
There is no need to ask which is the toughest regime, for it's within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. For example, in the crisis of the hospital as environment of enclosure, neighborhood clinics, hospices, and day care could at first express new freedom, but they could participate as well in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements. There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.
I think, then, that our best new weapons are more connectivist MOOCs that "express new freedom," knowing full well that others will offer near enemies: MOOCs that establish control over the various data streams that feed into and out of a MOOC. I especially like Jenny Mackness' idea of SmOOCs, or small open online courses. I think it's time to offer a SmOOC. It looks like a fine, new weapon to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's the Matter with MOOCs?

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled What's the Matter with MOOCs?, Siva Vaidhyanathan dismisses the current obsession with MOOCs as "something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity." He adds insult to injury by adding that he, indeed, enjoys MOOCs: "Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference."

Those of us who have actually been in a MOOC will find Vaidhyanathan's argument silly at best and outrageously unfortunate at worst (kudos to John Mak for trying to correct Vaidhyanathan's errors). His failure to understand MOOCs is catastrophic and staggering. Vaidhyanathan has failed scholarship and done a great disservice to the Academy and its conversation about MOOCs, which have almost nothing to do with online video banks or rich, private universities, but with collaborative communities created more often than not from somewhat remote, public universities. Still, I suppose this sort of misunderstanding is bound to happen.

Eventually, any theory or practice worth its salt moves beyond its origins and begins to take on a life of its own. The same will happen to Connectivism. Others will begin to define and shape Connectivism, perhaps in ways that Downes and Siemens do not anticipate and will not support, but it will happen if Connectivism doesn't die first. It seems to be happening more quickly with MOOCs. Luck of the draw?

I'm not sure, but I do have a connectivist/rhizomatic explanation for it that turns me back to my own discipline of writing. A newly-minted theory (and Connectivism is still rather new in the history of educational theory) is like a newly-minted book (or a newly-minted baby, nation, or computer system): it has a generative point with a rather limited DNA, but once it is released into the eco-system, then the theory (or book, baby, nation, system) takes on its own life, direction, and development that the originators (or writer, parents, founders, inventors) seldom anticipate and never control. I'm reminded of a story about Robert Frost reading his poem The Road Not Taken, and afterward, responding to a young woman who asked him what the famous poem really meant. He asked her in turn what she thought it meant; whereupon, she spoke at length. When at last she concluded, he said that, from then on, that's what the poem would mean to him.

I don't know if the story is factual, but it is true, and Frost was wise to understand that the meaning of his poem no longer belonged to him, unless he wanted to rewrite the poem, and then it would just be another poem that he would eventually lose control of.

Of course, Cormier, Downes, and Siemens, along with others, are still writing Connectivism and MOOCs, and I'm certain that they still have points to add and clarify, but really, they can only supply the generative DNA. The growth and development of Connectivism and MOOCs will depend on so much more. Let's hope that they enjoy watching their baby grow.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Connectivism and Complexity

Well, I look around, and it's been a month since I've written. How does that happen? I could list the details, but they aren't that interesting – family, work, and medical appointments mostly. Fortunately, all is well with my world.

The sad part for my blog is that I've lost my train of thought. As I recall, I was thinking about networking as part of the DNA of connectivism, and the DNA comment elicited a comment from Stephen Downes about my confused attempt to reconcile connectivism and essentialism. My last post was an attempt to figure out why Downes thought I was trying to reconcile the two concepts when actually I was trying to establish that DNA did not imply an essentialist approach. Was it poor writing, poor reading, or a mix of both? And did connectivism have an explanation for that kind of communication failure?

Those are good questions, and I will attempt to come back to them and to the general issue of networking as one of the generative concepts of connectivism sometime in the future, but today (July 4th, as I start this post with a free morning. Happy Birthday, USA) I want to talk about a second bit of DNA in connectivism: complexity. I've just finished reading Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour, and the topic is on my mind.

To my mind, complexity is concomitant to networking. We can think of networks as static, fixed entities, much like the pictures in our books, as shown to the right (thanks to Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II in the Journal of Digital Humanities for this pic and lots of other ideas about networks that I intend to explore later):

This is a helpful abstraction of networking, but it misses much that is interesting about networking: the dynamism which results from the nodes of the network engaging each other and the larger eco-system. This dynamic engagement is complexity. Rather, this is what I mean by complexity, and I think that complexity is one of the amino acids in the DNA of connectivism. As with the concept of networking, complexity is not unique to connectivism. A scholar can follow a constructivist or behaviorist agenda, for instance, and incorporate both networking and complexity. However, I think a scholar can still be a constructivist or behaviorist without accounting for networking and complexity. I don't think that a connectivist can do so. These two concepts are part of the DNA.

If Mitchell is correct, then complexity is not a settled scientific term. As she says: "There is not yet a single science of complexity but rather several different sciences of complexity with different notions of what complexity means" (95). This provides me with some wiggle room to decide what I mean by complexity, but I do not stray far from Mitchell's own use of the term in her discussions of information, computation, analogies, and information processing in living systems. It seems to me that complexity is the amount and/or degree of engagement of an entity with its ecosystem – or to put it in terms of networking: the amount of engagement among the nodes of a network and between that network and other networks.

This definition lands me squarely in the issue of information and information processing, of which my own discipline, writing, is a subset. So I really like this definition, and for the moment it is the one I will use. For me, then, complexity is the degree to which any node in a network can recognize, process, and respond to information from the other nodes in its network and from other networks at different scales. This information processing appears to extend throughout reality from simple, almost mechanical physical and chemical reactions through the ideas and societies of humanity and beyond to God, Gaia, or whatever you may believe exists at some network scale beyond us. Information processing stitches the universe together and drives it through its unfolding expressions, including us humans and our societies and languages. It may be, as Mitchell suggests, that we humans may someday consider information as one of the fundamental aspects of the Universe along with mass and energy, but … I'm getting way beyond my level of competence. That is sheer fantasy for me; still, it's of vital interest to me that information processing seems to be such a core function of life.

Mitchell describes several ways that this information processing occurs in different systems from immune systems, neural networks, and ant colonies to genetic and metabolic networks. In all of these systems, if I understand her argument correctly, the individual nodes (neurons, ants, lymphocytes, etc.) are able to recognize patterns in their own network and in their ecosystems (some nodes work locally in their own networks and some globally beyond their local networks). These patterns are the information that each node can process, or understand, and can then respond to. This seems to me to match quite nicely with Stephen Downes' contention that human knowledge has much to do with pattern recognition and with negotiating our way through networks. While human thought may work at a different scale of complexity than, say, a lymphocyte binding to an antigen, the concept is similar, or fractal: the same pattern at a different scale.

To some degree, each network node (from bacteria, to slugs, to Senators in the US Congress – though those scales may not be that different) is able to process and to respond to the information it gleans from its environment. It then can realign itself with its network, which changes the network, which leads to further changes in the node, which leads to further changes in the network. This dynamism in the network, or organism, is complexity. While this dynamism is usually regular, it is probabilistic rather than deterministic, even at the most elementary physical and chemical scales, and it is this element of chance that probably lead to the emergence of COMPLEXITY as the term of choice for naming it. It is also self-organizing, so that the few possible actions of any one ant can lead to quite sophisticated  behaviors of the ant colony. Such dynamic information processing can also lead to a sonnet, or a blog post.

Okay, this is what I mean by complexity, and I insist that it is at the heart of connectivism along with networking. I'll explore both concepts more in future posts.