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Scavenger hunts and connectivism

Tower of the AmericasAt the Questionmark User’s Conference here in San Antonio. Having some good ed-tech related fun down here. This one is a smaller conference, and I like those as opposed to the biggie ones since you actually get a chance to meet and network with people. Had some good times last night during scavenger hunt where we had to roam around San Antonio (some of us with more margarita in them than others…guilty!). We had to find the cheesiest souvenirs and take pictures from/on/with various landmarks. Over to the left is the “Tower of the Americas.” No rules against using Photoshop, I hope.

Heard an excellent keynote from Terry McGinn this morning about organizational culture and how it can be empirically measured. This is an interesting concept, not only because I work at a school where there are multiple cultures (administrators, students, faculty and all the permutations thereof) but also since the speaker stepped through various slides illustrating the evolution of sociology and how the social scientists of yesteryear viewed society, culture, and behavior. This kind of parallels the march of other social sciences and how they all seem to dovetail into each other and run parallel to each other at various points along the timeline.

The point of the keynote was about something entirely different, but the first few slides got me thinking about how “social” thought and research has evolved. In the beginning (being late 19th century for the most part), the dominant focus was on the individual and what was inside their head. Psychology started off with psychoanalysis with its intense study of the self and our hidden impulses. Educational psychology itself started with an early form of behaviorism (Thorndike, 1898) which was eventually reflected in the field of psychology itself as it shifted to a more rote stimulus-response stance, allowing itself only to observe behaviors that can be seen and tracked: teasing rats with levers and food pellets, shocking monkeys when they are bad, etc. (really brutal time if you ask me). Around the 50s and 60s, science backed off a little bit and tried to study internal processing, what was going on inside our heads again…but more focus was placed on how thoughts were formed, judgements made, and how these affected how we view the world. Perception became a big deal. More research on cognition sparked an interest in group dynamics and behavior of individuals when peer pressure or other forms of social engineering are applied. Educational psychology and general psychology research finally seemed to get in synch and the study of education as a science gained some ground.

So what does this leave us today? Well we have group projects in schools with individual rewards for good behavior or performance. Students are administered grades based on individual achievement and no one pays attention to social development until there is a problem. While psychology has attempted to explain and observe social behavior, educational psychology and research has given us constructivism where students are directed to generate their own learning while the instructor is a “guide on the side” versus the “sage on the stage” (borrowed from somewhere). But once you ask the question of whether little Johnnie or Jennie learned anything, they are taken out of the group context. Even if the the totality of the learning activities are group-directed and you count in the classroom behavior, lighting, and the sum of all students’ personal experiences you still need to get inside the students’ head to define “learning.” How about all the knowledge that floats out on web pages, through television, or is gleaned from other people? Those brain-based fans out there will please excuse my hasty generalizations. :) I learned more about biology and nature during hazy late night Discovery-watching sessions in my college years than I did in Biology 101.

I have been following the topic of Connectivism that’s been popping up on different ed-tech blogs, twitterstreams, and my other feeds with some interest. I found out about it from reading George Seimens’ work regarding how to contextualize this new era of tagging, connecting, collaboration, and reciprocal learning and its impact on educational psychology today. Being an eLearning developer, of course I am interested in this as it can be enabled through technology readily available to all of us.

Now if you think I am going to go into a Web 2.0 rant, please don’t, because I am not. But I am encouraged to see a new line of thought out there that takes into account a learner’s activity as a contribution rather than an end-goal. Whether this activity is posting to a wiki or blog, or helping choose classroom rules of conduct with a crayon and sheet of paper together in a group, these are activities that benefit the group as well as the individual. What are the activities and behaviors that promote learning here? They are, simply put, working together, building on personal experiences and others’ experiences, offering them up as a means to conceptualize and connect new ideas and identify with them. Also, though, in tune with connectivism, we can see benefits of learners integrating and connecting this knowledge to preexisting their lives: the oldie but goodie “teaching for transfer” idea… but this time it’s through collaboration and making new, discrete connections between people, ideas, concepts…things that the student may have experienced, heard of, learned about, or read somewhere. It hopefully gets all wrapped up in this amorphous thing called comprehension, the interconnectedness of all this accumulated knowledge.

What does this offer beyond what has already been written and discussed for decades? Not only does connectivism involve the acquisition of knowledge through newer means in and out of the classroom, but also how incoming knowledge is screened to reject extraneous, incorrect, or inappropriate information. “How can we help students learn and adapt with all of the distractions nowadays!” is a common complaint I hear among the other teachers with me in my grad school class. Connectivism asks us to embrace the noise and help students selectively pick what is of value…but now we are forced to address digital literacy, online censorship, privacy. This was coming anyway, you knew that already.

This is just my thoughts on the subject, I am trying to hammer this out into a course project, so forgive if I misrepresented any of the ideas I have referenced here.

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