Connectivist and Constructivist PLEs

Is the PLE a connectivist construct or a constructivist construct? Or both? Or neither, just influenced by many theories? A statement by Wendy Drexler in her paper prompted this question. I quote:

Principles of connectivism equate to fundamentals of learning in a networked world. The design of the teacher-facilitated, student-created personal learning environment in this study adheres to constructivist and connectivist principles with the goal of developing a networked student who will take more responsibility for his or her learning while navigating an increasingly complex content base. (emphasis added)

It could be worthwhile to consider two interpretations (Wendy uses support from both theories in tandem in her networked student model to construct & analyze the teaching-learning experience she describes):

  1. PLEs are some combination of constructivist as well as connectivist ideas/principles, or
  2. There exist two unique types of PLEs – constructivist and connectivist.

The PLE and the MOOC are ideas in Connectivism discussions that are represented not only as direct innovative applications of the connectivist state of art (theory, process and technology), but also raise comparisons, as in this week’s discussion, to entrenched industry-wide systems such as LMSs, as cogent alternatives for the education system.

Learning theories, in the past, have spawned a set of practices unique to their strengths. These practices (techniques, processes and technologies) have made it easier for downstream adoption of theory into the classroom (online or offline) and the eLearning content development and delivery industry as a whole. Further downstream, it has enabled technology development, research and assessment leading to a level of analytics on which the current system is based, directly or indirectly.

The MOOC environments, such as those for the PLENK2010 discussion, and the PLE/PLN environments that participants have been contributing, are now as much centerstage as the concepts behind connectivism as a theory in this discussion.

A lot of insight will be generated by researchers in PLENK2010 on preferences, styles and behaviors with MOOCs and PLEs, which should feed into improvements in these environments for the future or perhaps even new innovations. Obviously, a whole lot of work is being done on the technology architecture to ensure that the state of the art is fully utilized to translate connectivist influences to the platform level.

According to Stephen and George, what sets apart Connectivism from Constructivism and other theories is importantly that knowledge is distributed, the set of connections formed by actions and experience, and learning is the constant negotiation of new nodes in the network being added or removed, gaining importance or losing it.

A new node is a new experience and the learning process dictates that we “dynamically update or rewrite our network of learning and belief”. We do that by continuously adapting, self-organizing and recognizing emergent patterns. Learning becomes a ““door opening” process that first permits the capacity to receive knowledge, followed by encoding the knowledge as a node within our personal learning network”.

In that context, the learning process/pedagogy used in MOOCs and PLEs, with its emphasis on network formation, reflection, open-ness, connected-ness and other ideas, reflect the principles of connectivism.

By definition, they are different from learning processes in other theories such as Constructivism, and therefore, in this sense, it is confusing to term MOOCs and PLEs as both constructivist as well as connectivist.

Let us address the technology aspect. Are there two technological alternatives for PLEs and MOOCs? If for a moment we were to ignore Connectivism as a theory, but recognize the MOOC and the PLE as technological platforms, could they be assumed as a logical manifestation of social constructivist practices in the digital age?

If Connectivism did not exist, would we still have moved to MOOCs and PLEs as they are visualized today (maybe under different names)? How would a Social Constructivist design an open course of the same broad characteristics as the MOOC (large number of people, distributed, no entry qualifications, no credits…) or an open process of guided discovery or problem solving or by defining a set of tools for personal learning in a community of practice environment.

Our current environment in PLENK2010 (or earlier in CCKOx) is built on Moodle (which is an LMS inspired by constructivism, constructionism, social constructivism and connected & separate motivation; also here is their view on the pedagogy that Moodle supports) and extended with tools such aggregators (Stephen’s gRSSHopper), Twitter, SL and Elluminate.

If the design of Moodle is an answer to the question, and due to the way we are using Moodle in MOOCs so far, I believe that MOOCs and PLEs would need to be seen then, technologically, as equally applicable to both theories, to be used in ways that each theory predicates in its belief of what the learning process should look like.

Janet Clarey did a host of interesting interviews early last year on how leading LMS providers are looking at incorporating (or have now already incorporated) informal learning and social learning environments as an extension of the standard LMS offerings.

In my understanding, PLEs/PLNs are not comparable to LMSs, rather it is the MOOC environment that should be generally comparable to LMSs. Comparing PLEs/PLNs to LMSs are an apples to oranges comparison.

In MOOCs (read MOOCs environment), the management part is facilitative of connection forming and collaboration, not dictatorial as in an LMS augmented by social learning. In a MOOC, learning is the “door-opening” process whereas in an LMS it has rigidly expected outcomes inline with traditional models of training and assessment. In a MOOC, connections are openly negotiated with no need for structure, while an LMS must obey structure and authority.

Likewise, LMSs (or more generally Human Capital Management Systems [HCMS]) today have features that allow users to perform many other functions that MOOCs have not addressed – assessment and performance management, talent & succession management etc. – and although these may not be addressed by MOOCs by design and we may want other downstream solutions there. We need to definitely think how needs that HCSMs respond to as also needs for content management (authoring through to publishing and standards therein), are to be addressed.

That said, if the PLE grows to include management features (say additional “environments” for teaching or mentoring or assessing or tracking can be added) in a way that decentralizes the teaching-learning process, it may be worth comparing it with enterprise or institutional LMSs.

My belief was, and is, that thinking that the standard LMSes (including to a lesser extent Moodle itself) can be extended to include connectivist learning is a contradictory approach. It seems to be responding more to a paranoid “need” to go social, on both sides – customer and LMS vendor. 

Which then takes me to the next question: Can we conceive a truly connectivist technological architecture that makes it technologically distinct from an implementation that could lend itself ambiguously to both constructivist as well as connectivist interpretations?

Connectivist systems need to address an important aspect – that of sense-making and wayfinding.  These systems ways should, in some way, allow us to design environments, generate learning analytics and assess performance at the level of the person, while at the same time allow us to loosely manage, provision and plan the connective learning experience at different levels in the organization.

We would not only have to think of learning but also of connectivist assessment and performance, topics that we have not made substantial progress on (there is an interesting conference coming up in early 2011 on Learning Analytics, please check out the Google Groups site for some discussions).

Among other things, these systems should find ways of integrating with the rest of the ecosystem in the organization in consonance with connectivist principles. These systems should be responsive to the needs for privacy, should be technologically open with well-defined interfaces and should store content metadata in ways that can support the learning process.

Above all, there will be many tensions – personal vs. organizational preferences/knowledge/data, diversity and autonomy vs. structure and control etc. – and connectivist systems must provide for ways to adjust that balance for each organization.

I believe, at the heart of these systems, will be the following design principles:

  • Open and extensible mash-up frameworks
  • Reliance on Open APIs to deliver mash-ups
  • Every object is made collaboration aware (X.0, technologically immune) irrespective of source
  • Spaces are multiple views around a cluster of object base types
  • Spaces are transferable as units and so are other dimensional views
  • All resources are associatively and progressively connected through metadata
  • Architecture builds in dynamic any-to-any connections while allowing any combination or view/perspective aggregation of X.0 objects
  • NBTs (Network Based Training) will make possible persistent learning and knowledge management environments

14 thoughts on “Connectivist and Constructivist PLEs

Add yours

  1. I think that you raise some really interesting points here but learning in connectivism would be about networks of people and things rather than just people using systems. Your design principles would be for systems that support connectivism but I agree they could also support constructivism.
    My observations in CCK08/09 was of participants excited by connections and conversation who exhibited just as much constructivist learning and behaviours as connectivist.

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  2. Thanks Harold and Frances.

    Frances, we will need people to use systems that facilitate the network creation, communication and extension – like our MOOC environment and individual PLEs do. I am trying to work on design principles that promote or contain the network from the ground up. When you say that participants exhibited both behaviours, connectivist and constructivist, you are saying that both theories are able to explain parts of the learner behaviour in these courses.

    However, my point is that it will be valuable to evaluate what a pure connectivist learning behaviour would look like, because we have been learning of how different the two theories are in terms of the nature of knowledge and the learning process itself. And, in turn, it would be valuable to evaluate which kinds of systems can encourage and facilitate this behaviour.

    Thanks,
    Viplav

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  3. Interesting post.

    You write:

    “Connectivist systems need to address an important aspect – that of sense-making and wayfinding. These systems ways should, in some way, allow us to design environments, generate learning analytics and assess performance at the level of the person, while at the same time allow us to loosely manage, provision and plan the connective learning experience at different levels in the organization.”

    This doesn’t follow. These may be important in a constructivist pedagogy, but a connectivist approach is quite different. The constructivist concept of sense-making, for example, is virtually unrecognizable in connectivism.

    The account in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensemaking will do as a starting point. It relates, “…the concept of sensemaking was first used to focus attention on the largely cognitive activity of framing experienced situations as meaningful. It is a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests….”

    This account (and variants, which I will not enumerate here) depicts ‘sensemaking’ as a more or less intentional, cognitive, and even collaborative process. But none of these would describe a connectivist alternative. The connectivist alternative (which can only be loosely termed that) consists of the adjustments of links and associations that takes place when presented with new experiences, a process that takes place automatically and organically.

    The whole concept of ‘sensemaking’ depicts a higher order cognitive skill that isn’t there. We can represent, after the fact, the changes in cognition that actually took place. But it is very much a stretch to say that we are constructing frames, placing experiences within frames, or achieving any sort of (entirely fictitious) common understanding.

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    1. Stephen, I think it does follow. My context is that of setting up an environment that promotes the connectivist type of learning and knowledge – sort of like what we are doing with this MOOC and thoughts around the PLE.

      Sense-making would be a part of this environment – and I think so will the intention or desire (to make sense). This intention will exist as we would seek out (be more receptive to) new experiences through the desire to “know”.

      In a properly designed connectivist environment like the PLE or MOOC, it is possible that new experiences are encountered more frequently because of how connected you are and who is in your network.

      There will be higher order thinking skills here to solve problems, think critically and analyze. The new critical literacies also will be part of this environment.

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  4. Great post prompting a valuable discussion! I think it’s important to provide context around the quote. The students in the study are high school students experiencing personal learning environments for the first time. The PLE construction process is scaffolded in a much more structured way than we experience as adults participating in a MOOC or independently building a PLE and/or PLN. Some may argue that the study does not represent PLEs in the purest sense because because it is takes place in a high school classroom where the teacher continues to retain some level of control. I can’t argue with that. The premise behind the design in this study is to nurture networked-learners-in-training and provide a foundation in the processes that support student construction of PLEs for life-long independent learning. Numerous learning theories and pedagogical strategies could be leveraged by a teacher to facilitate this process. Constructivism and connectivism happened to inform the design in this study.

    Considering the big picture of PLEs strictly from a learner’s perspective, I wonder if we can rule out any theory of learning. Connectivism (IMHO) provides the most comprehensive view of how learning takes place in a network, but I see the PLE encompassing every strategy and opportunity a student has for learning. What theory can we rule out? Is my view too broad?

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    1. Hi Wendy,

      Consider the point Stephen is making here for possible connective interpretation of sense-making. If you remember, George has also differentiated between different theories in terms of how they define “know-ing” and “learning”.

      I think it is important to not use contradictory theories in one environment. How does one take constructivist ideas which are fundamentally different from connectivist ideas and mash up the two? It is also important to do that at this point to expose more of the theory into practice puzzle.

      Thanks,
      Viplav

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  5. Viplav, et. al.

    This is an excellent discussion of the differences between constructivism and connectivism. I have only a few moments to respond.

    I agree, an LMS is not a PLE.

    The LMS, like Moodle, has a predictable format and structure. A good place to visit, meet people, mingle…

    These paragraphs get at what makes PLEs unique…

    “According to Stephen and George, what sets apart Connectivism from Constructivism and other theories is importantly that knowledge is distributed, the set of connections formed by actions and experience, and learning is the constant negotiation of new nodes in the network being added or removed, gaining importance or losing it.”

    “A new node is a new experience and the learning process dictates that we “dynamically update or rewrite our network of learning and belief”. We do that by continuously adapting, self-organizing and recognizing emergent patterns. Learning becomes a ““door opening” process that first permits the capacity to receive knowledge, followed by encoding the knowledge as a node within our personal learning network”.”

    And at least for me, Stephen Downes (in this post) gets at how learning occurs…

    “The connectivist alternative (which can only be loosely termed that) consists of the adjustments of links and associations that takes place when presented with new experiences, a process that takes place automatically and organically.”

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    1. Thanks, Mary! We do need to think about educators so long used to creating experiences hoping that they will translate into meaning for the student. Experiences can be synthesized to some degree and presented in the learning environment, but as Stephen points out, hoping that students will construct common meaning from that experience, maybe difficult to adjust from the connectivist point of view.

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  6. I find discussions on constructionism difficult because, as a construct, it’s many variants fill up so many “nooks and crannies” in our intellectual life and it can be talked about in so many different ways. I would like to disagree with Stephen about sense-making along this line of thinking.
    First – whether you call it sense-making, meaning making, interpretation or hermeneutics, it’s is such a huge part of contemporary thought; to eliminate it from connectionism would be more radical than any account I’ve read to date.
    Second – to draw a distinction between constructionism and connectivism I think you should ask, what does connectionism do that overcomes problems in accounts of constructionism. For me it is not in interpretation, something connectionism should allow for, but rather, it is in the distributed nature of intelligence leading to action. Communities of practice feels inadequate to me and distributed cognition seems to have gotten short-circuited before it really developed. I think connectionism is a good candidate to fill this void by providing a better social basis to the social in (social) constructionism.
    Third – Stephen has brought attention to the question of how is “distributed learning / intelligence” related to action. This is an area of constructionism (addressed to some extent by the “embodiment” people) that is weak and in need of channeling that inner Yoda (“there is no learn; only do). See here http://ple.elg.ca/course/moodle/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=322#p1553
    Fourth – I really like the list at the end of your post. The question for me is – How can we hack ourselves to bring this list from a virtual world of applications to a psychological world of conscious and behavioral change in how we learn and do.

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    1. Thanks, Howard! I think we could conceptually recast the principles I mentioned in the following ways:

      a. Build the capacity to externalize knowledge in many forms intelligible to other networks
      b. Be able to self-organize for various contexts in ways that your externalized knowledge becomes available to other networks
      c. Align vocabularies to aid meaning making across networks
      d. Allow diverse influences through connecting to and collaborating with other networks

      Thanks,
      Viplav

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  7. Stephen, Wendy, Mary and Howard,

    Thank you for your responses. We have Stephen to blame for my delays in responding! As always, he models and demonstrates in rapid fire mode, but my reflection and practice is agonizingly slow in contrast :). In fact, I am still working on a plausible response to cover the comments he and you all made! Soon, as they say, I hope there will be light 🙂

    Thanks for your patience!
    Viplav

    Like

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