Clever us?

The big question from last week was: can the system be clever when the individuals within it aren’t?

A common example of group intelligence is the fairground game of guess-the-number-of-sweets-in-the-jar. The chances of any one individual guessing correctly are low. However, the chances of the average of many guesses being correct is high (for a fuller analysis of the phenomena and an explanation as to how it breaks down when people get to discuss their guesses see this excellent article from Discover Magazine). So, in this case, every single individual could be wrong, and the collective could be right. Score 1 for Connectivism.

However, does this work for more complex calculations? There are plenty of counter-examples where collective wisdom breaks down. It could be said that our inability to address the threat of environmental catastrophe and the recent credit crisis are perfect examples of the madness of crowds. Jaron Lanier in his book ‘You Are Not  A Gadget’ argues that collective decision-making breaks down when not dealing with simple value-free calculations, and that any celebration of ‘mob-rule’ mentality is both misguided and demeaning:

If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots.

Anyone observing the ebb and flow of trends on twitter would be hard-pressed to disagree.

So, we are back to a familiar model where an individual adds a pole to the scaffold of human knowledge for the next person to clamber on. This is a tried and tested approach and forms the basis of academic peer review across the globe (i.e. show us what you found and how you found it). As such, the Connectivism theory is not wrong in valuing the process of learning over the product. Neither is it saying anything new.


Function over form

Complete knowledge cannot exist in the mind of one person.

This was the quote that stuck in my head. As I mentioned in previous posts, Connectivisim is a distributed model where learning occurs across communities. As such, it is no longer considered an ‘internal, individualistic activity.’ Back in the dim recesses of my mind this triggered a memory. It reminded me of another theory that emphasises collective endeavour over individual revelation: Functionalism.

In Sociology, Functionalism is a theory that analyses social phenomena according to their contribution to social harmony. So, for example, the purpose of government sponsored education could be interpreted both as a desire to make children smarter and to inculcate them in societal norms and values. More controversially, even things that could reasonably be considered dysfunctional can have ancillary benefits to society. It is argued for example that unemployment – while potentially ruinous to an individual – is useful inasmuch as it provides a reserve labour force that can be quickly called upon when new demands emerge.

Funcationalism and Connectivism are both macroscopic approaches (I’ve looked it up since last week). It sees the wood but not the trees. Constructivism could be seen as  the opposite. It can see a lot of trees of different varieties but has little sense of how they fit together. So, which is right?

I suspect that they might not be quite as contradictory as I’ve presented. After all, they share one key characteristic: they both eschew knowledge for its own sake. In Connectivism knowledge has a very limited shelf-life because a connected world is so dynamic. In Constructivism, knowledge that is disconnected to application is dismissed as trivia. In both cases, there is a sense that learning is a process rather than a destination.

The key question for me is whether you can design a learning environment that does not rely on individual revelation. Put simply, can the system be clever when the individuals aren’t?



In with the old?

“Before the Internet was discovered, a century was equal to a thousand years” (Henry David Thoreau)

The Internet has changed everything. Where we were once passive consumers of media, now we are all creators of it. Traditional methods are cast aside as we invent new paradigms every day. Etcetera, etcetara, etcetara.

Has it though? Is this age such a momentous one? It would be churlish to argue that the Internet hasn’t had a profound effect on how we live our lives. When broadband goes down – as it did at work this week – I am reminded how dependent I am on it to perform even the most basic of tasks. However, we have been here before.

I have misquoted Henry David Thoreau above. He was not referring to the Internet. He was referring to the invention of the printing press. A device that promised to usher in a new era of mass communication where many more people could access much more information. It did have profound consequence, but did it change how people learn?

After all, the knowledge of the world may exist in my phone but will I know how to use it? Can I build an engine if I were to read the wikipedia page on thermodynamics:

The plain term ‘thermodynamics’ refers to macroscopic description of bodies and processes.”Any reference to atomic constitution is foreign to classical thermodynamics.”The qualified term ‘statistical thermodynamics’ refers to descriptions of bodies and processes in terms of the atomic constitution of matter, mainly described by sets of items all alike, so as to have equal probabilities.

I’m sure that it would if I spent time working out what terms like ‘macroscopic’ mean, and making sense of the concepts that they refer to, then I could start to build an engine. However, the information is no use to me until I do, and I am not any use to anybody else who wants to build an engine. As such I cannot even begin to ‘recognise the patterns’ in the chaos of stuff. As such, even if learning is no longer a lonely process, there is still room for an individual revelation. We are not just nodes of information.

Angry butterfly destroys Texas

Almost everything I know about chaos theory I learned from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Jeff used it to charm Laura Dern. George Siemens uses it to develop a new concept of learning: connectivism.

Connectivism takes at a starting point the argument that technology has changed the way we think. In Siemen’s words “The tools we use define and shape our thinking”. Whereas other theories focus on learning as an internal and individual process, Siemens argues that in an increasingly chaotic world the challenge for the learning is to “recognise and adjust to pattern shifts’. As such, learning does not occur as a series of single transformative moments but is a continual process of sifting and sorting through an environment that is rich with noise. It is one’s ability to navigate through this soup of stuff that makes for effective learning.

It is an intrinsically collaborative model, which prizes the interconnectedness of things. As Siemens states “complete knowledge cannot exist in the mind of one person”. Therefore, instead of trying to learn everything for myself, I as a learner should ensure that I am part of a community which is sharing knowledge, perspectives and insights and in doing to I am helping to form new knowledge. It is both an exhausting and exhilarating prospect.

So, I have two immediate questions:

  • Is Siemens right?
  • Do I want Siemens to be right?

As someone who deleted his Facebook account, the implications of Connectivism are a little frightening. Should I embrace a noisy world or hide away from it? I have a month to find out. More importantly, what does Laura Dern think?

The long run

In the long run, we’re all dead. (John Maynard Keynes)

Can collaboration persist? Should collaboration persist?

It could be argued that many of the benefits of collaboration degrade over time. Perspectives could harmonise so that the same ideas circle around like vultures over a ransacked carcass. The creative tensions that fuel collaboration could be exhausted, or explode into animosity. Is it worth the time and trouble to keep a collaborative endeavour going?

Game theory would suggest that it is. In the classic ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ game two suspects are kept apart and asked to make a decision as to whether they defect (i.e. rat on their partner) or cooperate (stay silent). In a one-off game it is always better to defect; irrespective of what your partner does your material outcome improves by being bad. If the game is iterative, the long-term pay-off rewards cooperation. This is seen as a possible explanation as to how communal species develop in evolution.

But it’s difficult. Long-term relationships are hard to maintain. If half of marriages end in divorce, then how do collaborations endure where are there no certificates or dependents involved? The answer probably involves lots of hard work and negotiation. It might also involve playing the field.

Whenever one is locked into collaboration there is a significant potential for discord. Fault lines can be big things (I don’t know where we’re going) or little things (I hate the way you suck your teeth). The grass over there can look awfully green when you’ve been clumping around your own lawn for too long. So perhaps we should encourage our collaborators to collaborate elsewhere to test this out? After all, it worked for Take That.

Or perhaps we should introduce fixed terms for collaboration, where all parties review how it is working, and whether it should continue at all. It might help to overcome the problem of staying together by habit rather than choice. Either way, any collaboration needs review and renewal if it is to keep working beyond the short term. After that, we’re all dead anyway.