Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is Connectivism a credible theoretical framework for my EdD research?

At last I have settled on my topic for my EdD research - I am going to look at the impact of the Virtual International Day of the Midwife (VIDM) which is an annual free, online conference that I have been facilitating for the last 4 years. So I am now at the stage of trying to find a theoretical framework to guide the development of my research proposal.

I am very interested in the theory about learning in the digital age, Connectivism, which has been developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. In his sideshow to the 2010 DEANZ conference, Professor Terry Anderson explains very clearly the difference between connectivism and the more traditional learning theories of behaviourism and constructivism. Connectivism explains that we learn via the networks we develop, so the emphasis is not on content (behaviourism) or the process of learning (constructivism) but rather the connections we make to nodes which may be people, information sources or non-human appliances.

Difference between connectivism and constructivism
I was asked the other day what is the difference between connectivism and constructivism....what is the difference between connectivism and what Etienne Wengar says about communities of practice? Constructivism explains that we learn in groups or communities....that our learning is socially constructed....people come together to problem-solve, discuss, and validate learning. Learning is based on prior experience and shared with the group. On the surface that doesn't sound very different from Connectivism. However, my understanding is that constructivism and communities of practice are a lot more formal....based on groups that come together with a definite purpose in mind...with a common aim and desire to work together for a specific purpose and outcome in mind.

Network of practice 
To put into my context, the midwifery research email group I belong to is a community of practice (COP) made up of midwives with an interest in research and the aim of sharing latest research findings and helping to support each other as we develop our own research projects. But the VIDM is not a COP because the participants only come together every year, they do not work together at any other times. Participants are distributed all over the place. The way they come together is very ad hoc and serendipitous. The whole event takes a snow-balling approach to organisation and implementation, and rely on networks for information to be distributed.  So, according to Siemens and Anderson, the VIDM is more of a network of practice, as opposed to a COP. Which brings me to asking if I can use Connectivism to explain what goes on at the VIDM? How are participants learning? Are they learning through the connections they are making at the VIDM, or is there no learning going on at all? Can participants learn from networking  in such a short time frame? What networking, if any, goes on after the VIDM? How are participants networking, if at all? Do they do it during the conference itself? Or are they networking via other avenues such as the VIDM wiki or Facebook page?

The problem with Connectivism
 I have always struggled to get my head around theory and how you develop research around a framework which is why I have avoided qualitative methodologies in the past. So I am a little concerned about my choice of Connectivism as a theory to explain what happens at the VIDM. The problem with it is that it is a relatively new theory, and remain controversial in some quarters. And I am not 100% confident that I have the depth of understanding and knowledge around educational theory to be able to critique it at a level that will be expected for an EdD. And I wonder if I'd be better off applying an "easier" theory like Rodger's Theory of Diffusion which I do understand and has been critiqued and researched extensively.  Another option would be utilising a theory around professional development, especially in the online context.

Connectivism hasn't really been tested, in my opinion. There is little empirical evidence that looks at it closely and I have a real worry that it has been latched on to by educational technologists and has become more of a trendy fad than a credible theory. This provides both a threat to my research and also an opportunity. On the one hand I could use this opportunity to apply this theory in practice, and make a real contribution to discussion in this area. On the other hand, it may be so new and untried that I am unable to work with it, especially in the context of the EdD. Whilst I want my EdD to make a contribution to knowledge development, I do not want to make life too hard for myself.

 I usually end my blog postings with questions for my readers but this post is more of a musing out loud so I am not even sure what questions to ask you. What I am about to do is do some reading around professional development, so if you know of any theory or author that you think might help me, please feel free to let me know.

Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. George Siemens 2005. 
Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. George Siemens 2005.
Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? Rita Kop and Adrian Hill. 2008
Connectivism: Learning Theory or Pastime of the Self-Amused? George Siemens. 2006.
Three generations of Distance Education Pedagogy: Challenges and Opportunities. Terry Anderson 2010.
Connectivism. Wikipedia
The networked student. Wendy Dexler. 2008


smak said...

Hi Sarah, I am totally with you. If you are to satisfy the requirements from your supervisors, then you must ensure that your research is truly open, transparent, rigorous enough to show that your approach is GROUNDED on Connectivism and that it works. Otherwise, I wonder if your hypothesis could be “proven” with the theory of Connectivism. Explaining to potential supervisors who do not know, understand or appreciate Connectivism is like moving mountains. You could still do it, but I can’t be sure if that would be a challenge to your supervisors too, if they haven’t learnt or applied it at work, or have too little experience, to arrive to an judgement that is based on a formal system. There are many assumptions here, and I think the best way is to discuss with your supervisor what he/she thinks, and to share your thoughts with any interested parties concerned, just like what you have been doing. Openness and transparency is one of the guiding principles of Connectivism. If people don’t like or share it, then you better consider other options, IMHO.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hello John, you've given me food for thought. Thanks a lot, Sarah

George Siemens said...

Hi Sarah - you might find this paper by Wagner and Berger from 1985 helpful:

They define several stages of theory development. I would position connectivism between the "orienting" and "unit theory" stage. Currently, most discussion on connectivism is around orienting people to a different way of thinking wrt to learning. Those claims need to be testing and evaluating at the unit and research program levels...

Leigh Blackall said...

Too soon to associate with 'a learning theory'. I reckon Critical Theory has more than enough in it to fully unpack what is going on in VIDM. The big three learning theories, derived from psychology: cognitivism, behaviorism and constructivism (including social) are I think too broad and common sense to be of use. I reckon they're all interelated rather than competing theories anyway, and connectivism is a class of social constructivism. I have found Lave and Wenger's book on legitimate periferal participation a good place to look out from.. And of course Illich, who spent so much energy trying to articulate a more humanitarian view of teaching and learning, in all his work, not just deschooling. Further, I'm thinking both our lines of investigation intersect here on this question of yours. My notes and early drafts are all on Wikiversity, perhaps my references there may be of some use.

Sarah Stewart said...

@George Thanks for dropping by and for the reference. I am seeing my supervisers tomorrow so might get back to you for some clarification...hope you don't mind :)

@Leigh I couldn't find the references you were talking about...could you send me a specific link. Also, could we have a Skype chat...I'd love to catch up with where you're at with your PhD.

Alexander Hayes said...

Thinking of it this way -

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks Alex.