A provocation: From information-based teaching to community-oriented learning

“The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.” (Quote from George Siemens, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, 2004, and image taken from Stephen Downes’s presentation: The Elements of Connectivism, 2011).

Today’s readings made me think about an issue I personally grappled with since I started teaching in the Fall semester of 2020: the notion that a lot of my/our success as educators depends on my/our ability to facilitate student’s engagement. This has been particularly challenging for me because I had never taught before, and also because I had to learn on the go not only how to be a teacher, but also how to teach online when most of my own experience as a student had taken place in person.

But my situation is far from unique. In “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” George Siemens outlines how educational institutions and workplaces, students, teachers and workers alike, have had to transform the way they learn, teach and prepare for the workforce in a world where people’s ability to learn new skills is more important than the skills they already possess. If what we teach students might be irrelevant or outdated in just a few years, Siemens suggests, it is our capacity to teach them how to learn what will help them thrive, more than the pieces of information we can provide them.

The question here turns from what we teach, what content we tell our students to memorize and critically engage with, to how we present that information in a way that empowers students to actively participate rather than passively receive data and information. This shift from the “what” to the “how” also entails a big question about how we intentionally incorporate technology into our classrooms, especially now that we are teaching online. How can we use Zoom, Blackboard, emails, search engines, online translators, Google forms, social media networks, computers, mobile devices, screens, microphones, to empower our students to use their voices and minds in liberating ways rather than oppressive ones? I think this is particularly important for the student population we work with, the CUNY students who for example feel more comfortable not turning their cameras or microphones on while in class, and therefore cannot participate in small group activities or in class discussions, because they live with elder relatives or small children that require their attention or make noise while they are in class.

One of the game-changing decisions I have made in my class this semester was to open up breakout rooms for students to work together in every session, as opposed to what I used to do last semester when I would assign activities for them to work individually. I now let them talk and interact with each other for at least 5 minutes three times per class, before we check the answers for grammar or sentence formation exercises. And I am happy to provide them with that online space for them to engage and talk, even if they are not necessarily talking about my class content exclusively. In the midst of a global pandemic and socially distanced life, I bet they appreciate that space. If they are not learning Spanish grammar, at least they will practice how to be social.

According to Siemens (2004), “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” I did not know the meaning of “connectivism” as stated by Siemens before reading his texts, and certainly not when I made the decision to prioritize student collaboration, but this semester my students’ engagement has increased. Some of them have even asked for additional homework assignments.

I’d like to end my provocation by inviting you all to think of what you can do to transition from traditional (online) teaching/learning models, those that have largely shaped us as students, to other models that foster engagement and personal network formations as goals rather than tools. What pedagogical opportunities and what challenges emerge while trying to use the technologies our institutions have provided us? How can we effectively transition from information-based teaching to more experiential and community-oriented learning?

12 thoughts on “A provocation: From information-based teaching to community-oriented learning”

  1. This is a really interesting application of this concept of covnnectivism, Lidia. I appreciate it because, while I certainly related to Siemen’s concept, also noted that it felt like an abstraction.

    One thing I’m thinking about re: your particular example is that, for those who would resist a shift in pedagogy of this sort, I feel like foreign languages would be one of their examples. For instance, I could see someone thinking “What’s with this group learning?! ‘Si’ always means ‘yes’ no matter what the group comes up with!” (Math would be the other example that my hypothetical straw man might resist: “2+2 always equals 4” is actually an argument I’ve heard in a tirade about “kids these days,” but that’s another story…maybe).

    And yet of course translation, even at the basic level, is never a simple passage from one language to another without the loss of any meaning. Languages carry cultural weight and history and ways of looking at the world, and so something’s always lost — I say all of that not because I think they’re original thoughts but just to suggest that in fact, a connectivist approach has the potential to capture this more liminal space of what translation is, to facilitate an engagement wherein exploring language through the different experiences of other students (in the breakout rooms) could, consciously or not, illustrate how the approach to a language is important too. Perhaps, even if students have not exactly done the task in their breakout room, some of that engagement could make its way into the lesson plan.

    Now I’ve veered into abstraction again, but I certainly appreciate your provocation to think about a practical application of this connectivist concept.

    1. That’s a great point, Stephen (& Lidia) about language learning. The non-English language I have the closest connection to as an instructor is American Sign Language. So much of that language learning is necessarily ‘fieldwork’–since it’s visual-gestural, and has a long oral literary tradition but a very brief recorded one, ASL is not best learned by books. Because of this, ASL students jump into that ‘network’ of learning even before they have basic proficiency. This can occasionally lead to annoyed Deaf people at interpreted museum tours (remember museums?). But it also gives ASL students a foundational knowledge of their modest place in that network: often, it’s at the very edge, with none of the power and privilege they’re used to as hearing people. (Being “hearing” is an identity they’re suddenly discovering they have). Language proficiency and cultural competence are the only ways inside that network.

      I wonder how language learning could be different if were some explicit discussion of this kind of learning in your sort of “Intro to College Success”-type courses that first-time, full-time students take at many two-year schools. (Two-year schools are where ASL, and interpreting, is more commonly taught, even now that a BA/BS is required for national interpreter certification). For that to happen, of course, would require a broader re-conception of the instructor’s role by the institution, one whose coming doesn’t exactly feel imminent.

    2. I also find the idea of approaching translation between different languages from the connectivist perspective very interesting. In today’s class, my students told me how funny some movie title translations could be in their native languages, so I guess the culture and conventions carried in languages can’t be 100% translated since different cultures and languages have their own conventional networks. Another thought: even if the language “nodes” (e.g., vocabulary and grammar) are similar, the connected patterns (e.g., usage in contexts) are different?

  2. Lidia,

    I really appreciate how your post ties together two of most interesting moments in Smale and Regalo for me. One is about “overlapping taskscapes” for students. You mention the student who has elderly people or children in the background (and this speaks to me since I have plenty of both in mine). Here, you infuse your questions about pedagogy with Small and Regalo’s insight (via Delcore et al) that “‘schoolwork is not an activity that stands separate and apart, or that can be analyzed in isolation’ from the other responsibilities of students’ lives” (59).

    I was also struck by your reflections on this as a younger teacher–an incredible and unfair challenge that you seem to have really risen to! I think our students have done remarkable work, too, and part of that is their ability to be inventive and to draw on networks of care to get what they need. Here I thought about the “affordance” of an apartment building, with its lack of private space and its excess of public space. One student described using that lack of space to–ironically–publicly perform the act of studying. This would not work for every student (I know I’d be distracted if not mortified) but for this student, it made them feel the presence of a community of care, encouragement of home networks: they call working in that public space “not uncomfortable; it’s pretty cool….[neighbors] admire me, you know, for putting so much hard work into my schoolwork” (Anon., qtd in Smale and Regalo 67).

    Also, your notes on Siemens and the notion of connectivism brought back a lot of the educational theory we looked at in ITP I — usual suspects like Dewey and Freire, but also newer ideas from folks like Amie Hamraie on collective access; Melissa Watson and Rachel Shapiro on translanguaging; Beth Nowviskie about the need to balance capacity and care. The version of an idea that seems recurring to me came in Smale and Regalo (I swear I did all the readings, I just like their work): “The most successful students we spoke with saw themselves as **active constructors** or participants in their own academic taskscapes” (74, emphasis mine). This focuses on the importance of student decision making (which it sounds like your breakout rooms help enable). That’s something that more corporate models of ed tech (and more teacher-centered and content-focused pedagogies) don’t do well centering. To Groom, who puts it colorfully, many ‘updates’ to corporate LMSs involve little more than “taking the imaginative experimentation of others and wrapping them up as a product that can be bought and sold like pair of shoes….This is total bullshit.”
    Whether you’d put it that way or not, certainly, there is an ethics of care to this on the part of instructors, as you suggest in your post. Essentially this work might be a form of what Abreau calls “care tracking.” It’s certainly harder when done right, not only because of the risk of vicarious trauma: “your body and your time are taxed by this [care tracking] reproduction of labor in your life: data labor at home converges with data labor in the workplace” (Abreau). Yet the retention of conversations that happen in chat, or the use of affordances like private comments in Commons blog posts, or the incorporation of hypothes.is into a transcript for an OER audio text, the building in of redundancies to account for events or technology problems–all these uses of data and technology can be done in a care based way–or a punitive way. It can take effort to ensure the former and avoid the latter.

      1. Because of how they’re designed, is the short answer to that question.

        The longer answer? Let’s run through the usual suspects here–corporate LMSs; banking concepts of education; austerity budgets that give departments ‘no choice’ but to (ab)use adjunct labor; data mining masquerading as academic integrity; intense economic pressures that lead students to view college cynically, as a transactional experience rather than one that can (also) be transformative.

        At a lab I attended related to CUNY Academic Commons through the City College Teaching and Learning Center, I learned that instructors had lobbied to get the college to license (and I think buy?) graded quiz plug-ins set up for CUNY Academic Commons. Nothing wrong with a good graded quiz, don’t get me wrong, but I think its inclusion in an environment like the Commons does reflect a lack of imagination in terms of forms of assessment. (Like, “The Commons is great but could you make it more like Blackboard?”)

        Worse, maybe, and more to the point of your point about effort, Luke, is assessments like quizzes in an environment that is designed to be more networked like the Commons circumvents the kind of dialogue that other methods of formal assessment *way* better suited to the Commons can offer. (To put it differently, and maybe in a way I can’t totally defend, a quiz defeats the purpose of the Commons altogether.)

        It’s not so much more work to assess a piece of writing using contract grading (with its complete/not-yet-complete feedback loop). Contract grading, though, creates a more individual dialogue with a student, putting on them the responsibility to interpret the assessment (beyond Complete/Not-Yet-Complete) since there’s no number or letter grade for them to look at to know “how they did.” (Obviously the instructor has a responsibility to be clear in their comments.) Similarly, it’s more upfront work to spend class time making a rubric in collaboration with students during an editing session, or to guide them through a scaffolded process of writing their own essay questions, but then their drafts have more focus and the instructor’s comments do too, since they’ve already described their work alongside the instructions. (And maybe next time, they’ll do that to begin with.)

        So, why is it more effort? Because teaching is hard, and doing it ethically is more work at first than doing it sloppily, but all this is less work in the end, because the network gets a kind of momentum and can do the thing without you, which is actually, don’t tell my boss, kind of the point.

  3. Hi Lidia,
    I am not sure what I can do to transition but I have tried to find different ways to engage, like use of surveys, more breakouts, and mini-competitions via group quizzes. I think the breakout rooms have been more significant than all other attempts and I think this speaks to the way connectivism seems to highlight the interactivity of digital communication as being more important in some ways than actual content knowledge. While I have encountered this theory prior to reading Siemen’s article for this class, I must say that I still think it is abstract because with Connectivism, we are forced to consider not only “the what vs how” of teaching and learning content but we have to reconsider what is knowledge and consider how students decipher the content and what connections they have and make to content. As the internet has replaced paper books as the main sources of knowledge and the chaos of the web has simultaneously made learning both easier and harder than ever. I see “Connectivism” as an attempt to apply all of the major pedagogy theories in digital way but it is not so simple to do; the traditional theories focus on the ways that an individual mind will best absorb certain content- they sort of take for granted that the content itself could be malleable. The digital age has forced this on us to rethink what we count as knowledge, and I think Connectivism respects this reality. The connectivity between ideas, facts, falsehoods, and even emotions are all presented with the internet as the “presenter,” the teacher’s lesson is filtered through the experience that students have with all of these “nodes” of information. One thing I have found is that many students do not know how to search the internet properly; it is complicated by the many online voices, images, etc. competing for student attention. I am not sure how to teach students how to learn, aside from study skills, but I am working on something around misinformation. It is not easy to anticipate how adept a student is at collecting and absorbing and distinguishing (good vs bad) information. If you look at the “Google stats”, you can see the searches that people have been looking up and it’s interesting to see how that correlates to events. For instance, prior to the Capitol attempted Coupe D’état there was a surge in “election fraud” type searches. While connectivism gives us a framework for understanding how learning happens/ is malleable in the digital age, I am not sure it can help us deal with misinformation aside from getting us to understand that the ways that knowledge develops in the modern era must be thought of in terms of how both the learner and the content are connected.
    Like you, I did not use group as frequently at first in my classes. I thought that individual would be easier since the students were not in the same room and because group work usually takes up more time but I later decided that I should work it in more frequently because, the content itself is less important than the experience students have with each other. I now use breakout room 2-3 times per class and I find that this has been better. The more breakout sessions there are, the more likely the students are interacting with me as well afterward. I also have been using asynchronous discussion boards more which I did not use at all for students prior to this semester but I do find it tricky to encourage interaction between students. Sure, I can ask them to respond to another student but sometimes that feels like it’s not authentic, like I am forcing a conversation between students in some way. I think that the Glass Bees reading made the point I am so ineloquently trying getting at in my rambling: “Technology may provide new ways of delivering and accessing this information, and mark the basis of many a medium, but the idea of a community and its culture is what makes any technology meaningful”. This is why I agree with you that the breakout sessions are very helpful, even when the group does not actually do all of the work or veers way off topic. I think there is some very important stuff that takes place when students discuss things, whether they are off topic or not, the shared experience is somehow valuable (even when students fail to do the classwork entirely) and I think it is critical for making meaning out of the classroom experience regardless of content.

  4. Lidia, I appreaciate your insights and questions presented to us. Your provocation made think about how do we then put collectivism into practice? The current pandemic can be a time where we should be engaging in new ways of schooling/alternative learning practices within the community. However, the workload put on educators disconnects them to the communities students come from. Rather than think of learning practices or spaces that are not relied on private donors or white meritocracy. In order to have community-oriented learning, we all have to put into practice an effort to making connections to communities via parents of activist organizations. Tofekci’s and Welles articles make me think about how technology and information is rapidly in flux and how it forces us to rethink ideas around connectivism learning. I am not active teaching a classroom so my positionality pushes me think about knowledge creators in different ways but I do challenge us to think about words community or education, and what that really means to us and to others.

  5. Hi Lidia,

    This is also my first time teaching during my PhD, and I was so excited to teach lab courses because I felt like I had the background too, but then switching to online, I have found it difficult to find connections with my students, and even connections with the material that I’m teaching, as it is all virtual pipetting and aimless clicking. The majority of lab classes in STEM have students in either pairs or groups, so there’s actually very little lecturing, and the majority of the time, students are just figuring it out from a protocol. And in reality… that’s what working in a real lab is like. You form friendships and bonds with the fellow lab members and, as a community, tackle questions you’re interested in research. So students, especially the student who’ve never (and may never now) had the opportunity for a biology lab experience, are missing out on more than just content, but also the community that you mentioned. Also, students often students with their lab group for the lecture exams. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to bring that group work element to online lab, but it struck me in both the readings this week and the way you said you just put the students to work in groups multiple times during class, and that it didn’t matter whether they answered the questions or not, that it’s just an opportunity to grow a community in a small way. Especially in this time of online learning, I think creating space and time during class to have those before class or after class chats we used to have is just as valuable as typical concept teaching time.

  6. Hello Lidia, your provocation is very inspirational and thought-provoking to me. I shared your feelings and concerns regarding how to operationalize George Siemens’ theories into pedagogical practices, and I like how you related Connectivism to the liberation of education as proposed by Freire. I agree that the banking conception in education limits students’ opportunities of learning how to branch out to learning resources, and it’s not easy to re-define the affordances of online instructional platforms to implement community-oriented learning since online interaction is not as natural and authentic as face-to-face communication. Probably, problem-based learning, project-based learning, discovery learning, cooperative learning, and internship are good ways to shift the focus of pedagogy away from information-based “banking” and enhance connectedness, inclusiveness, and social connections among students. Jim Groom said in the Glass Bees that capitalism tries to sell students’ collaboration ideas, innovations, and visions back to our students. Technology-supported connections belong to people, not technology, let alone some educational tools even limit the connectivity among students. For example, the learning management system we have been using seems to center around the idea of banking, where knowledge is distributed to students from an authority. Though there are discussion boards, their function in supporting students’ social connections is limited.
    Reflecting on my own experience, likewise, I didn’t use breakout rooms in ZOOM frequently when I started to teach online for the same reason you mentioned. I was raised in an educational environment where lecturing and passively receiving information are common practices, and it took me a while to make the transition in my teaching philosophy. I started to use more class activities and small group discussions for students to connect. Another method I used is to let students do free writes simultaneously in a Google doc where they can see each other’s responses and respond to each other at the same time. Probably, this also manifests how people can construct knowledge in a network. To me, connectivism is a network model in which people function as “neurons” that can process information independently as well as being connected in the social network, and this network can process information as a totality.

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