I had the privilege of being a guest instructor recently at the University of Monterrey in Mexico. One of the things I love about guest instructing there is I get to talk with students about so many different topics. In one class I may be asked to talk about my experiences as a teacher, and in the next class I may be answering questions about the educational systems in America. I find the experience both challenging and invigorating.
Shortly after I arrived in Monterrey, I was contacted by instructor,Mónica Quintanilla, who was interested in having me talk to her class about the theory of connectivism. This was a topic they had been recently studying, and she was hoping I might be able to add to her student’s understanding. I was excited about the opportunity because an online course I am currently teaching covers various learning theories, including connectivism. This was the perfect opportunity to delve into the theory a little deeper and fine-tune some of my own thoughts on the subject.
Connectivism is a theory that describes learning as a process of accessing and connecting information that is distributed throughout a networked environment (Siemans, 2004). In this theory, what becomes most important is not the specific knowledge one currently has stored in memory, but rather the ability to access and make meaning of knowledge that is needed now and in a future point in time. As Siemans describes it, “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe” (Siemans, 2004). In other words, it is the access to the content that is more important than the content itself.
We now live in a time that I like to call the era of ubiquitous information. You can ask me a question about most anything and I can find an answer for you within a very few moments using my smart phone. Not only can I find the answer to your question, but more than likely I can find a video about it, a discussion forum talking about it and a website dedicated to it. With information this accessible, there is less reason for me to store it in my head. What I need to do, however, is make sure I maintain an understanding of how to get to the information when I need it. It is also important that this understanding not become stagnant. How I get to that information today, may not be the same way I access it in a month or a year. Part of my current learning has to focus on how to maintain my information access.
Something else I have to take into consideration is the change in the “half-life” of information. As Seimans discusses, less than forty years ago the “life of knowledge was measured in decades” (p. 1). Today, knowledge in certain fields is not expected to hold true beyond a few years or even months. So quite literally, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. This means I have to discern which information is up to date and accurate. This requires an even greater understanding of information access because part of finding accurate information is checking multiple, reliable sources.
The last aspect I have to consider is my ability to make meaning of the information I am accessing. This involves higher-level thinking skills such as evaluation, analysis and creation (Bloom, 1956). It’s not enough for me to access the information. I also have to know how to interpret, connect and apply that information in order to successfully solve the problem or complete the task at hand.
Part of my conversation with the students (all of whom are preparing to be teachers) had to do with the implications of connectivism in the classroom. In my mind, the implications are profound. Since significant changes have occurred in how we access information, it seems to follow that changes should occur in how we assess student relationships with that information. Is it necessary, or even relevant, to continue assessing students with instruments designed for low-level thinking skills such as memorization and recall?
This is certainly not a new idea. Educators have been creating instruments that assess higher-order thinking skills for decades. This is not to say that things should no longer be committed to memory. We could digress into a very long discussion on what information is worth memorizing. Making it through the day is much easier if we have certain information stored in our brains. Basic mathematical facts come to mind. A healthy vocabulary, basic scientific concepts, certain phone numbers and the names of our children are just a few things we need commit to memory. There are certainly more things to add to this list, but the bigger question, I think, is how much of the content we teach still needs to be memorized by our students?
I also think it is very important to question the appropriateness of assessing our students in isolation, with no resources other than their memories. How often outside of school are we required to solve a problem, complete a project, or make an important decision without being able to consult others or access our resources? The answer to that question is almost never. In this era of ubiquitous information, wouldn’t it make more sense to assess students on their ability to access and make meaning of the information they need in order to solve a problem or complete a challenge? I see this as a fundamental shift in student assessment. A shift that recognizes the landscape has changed. A shift that also makes student assessment more authentic and relevant.
To demonstrate this line of thinking, I posed a challenge to the students. I put them in groups of three and told them their task was to get me home in the quickest and most economical way possible. They were allowed to use any resource they had access to, but they only had 10 minutes to complete the task. At the end of the 10 minutes they had to fill in a table I had displayed on the board. I would then choose my method of travel based on their findings. The resultsof this challenge were interesting, and in my mind further legitimized the theory of connectivism. As you can image, the students went straight to their laptops and smart phones to find their information. It was no surprise that all five groups decided the fastest way for me to get home was by plane. What was interesting, however, was that every group went to a different source to search for my tickets. This resulted in each group having a different price and length of travel time. The students knew there were numerous ways to access the information they needed. What they realized, however, was in order to find the specific information that met my criteria they needed further knowledge of how to access the best information. This, of course, is not easy to do. As anyone who has recently purchased an airline ticket knows, finding the best deals with the shortest layovers in the timeframe you need is quite the challenge. Having knowledge of the best places to go to get your tickets saves you time and money, and in the case of my classroom challenge, gives you a chance to excel in an assigned task.
The intention of this writing is not to argue that all other learning theories should be ignored at the expense of connectivism. As with most things in life, the best approach is a balanced one. There are still things students need to memorize. Students still need experiences that deepen their understanding through scaffolding. Students still need opportunities to make their own meaning and to learn from others. However, what connectivism recognizes, more acutely than most learning theories from last century, is that we are living in a world that is networked as never before. This network, this connectedness, is going to continue to grow and strengthen in a variety of ways. Some of these ways we can predict, but others we can only imagine. As educators, it is critical that we accept this fact and assure we are properly preparing our students. One way to do this is through the theory of connectivism.
*Special thanks to Mónica Alejandra Quintanilla for inviting me to her classroom during my visit to UDEM.