Some work on the conference wiki after the online Connectivism conference, and a post by Terry Anderson entitled Learning with Networks, made me think about the possibilities that online networks could offer in changing the way we learn. Anderson referred to work by Jon Dron and reflected on the value of networks to formal and informal education. He defined a network as Stephen Downes does, not so much as a confined group, but as an open, free flowing entity that links individuals.
Stephen Downes emphasised the need for diversity, openness, connectedness and autonomy for networks to be successful. George Siemens and Stephen Downes developed theories of learning on the premise that networks and their numerous connections could facilitate learning successfully.
By participating in online networks, for instance as bloggers, people commenting on blogs, producers of videos, or as people who silently take in what other people on a trusted network have to say, they would develop their knowledge. Propositional knowledge provided by tutors does not form part of the theory, as autonomous and interest-driven individuals on an open, diverse network, would be able to learn by truly engaging in the networks.
How important would diversity of a network be?
Andersen argues that the quality of network interaction would be determined by the quantity of participants, as the larger the number of people participating, the better the chance of a heterogeneous network. In addition, he states that the quality would be dependent on the culture in the 'real' world of each network member, but also on the culture in the virtual world of the particular network, as 'individual posting and network deliberation are all situated and culturally bound'.
The more diverse the people partaking in the network, the greater the need to reflect on and think about views and ideas that are different from their own. According to Terry Anderson, if the nature of the network is heterogeneous, a certain level of competency in critical thinking and evaluation would be required. I would like to add skills in media and information literacy to this to ensure an awareness of how online companies generate content and what the purpose of this information is.
How diverse are networks?
I haven't found much research on the nature of online networks with regards to diversity. I came across a number of publications, though, that made me wonder if it would be premature to build theories of learning on the assumption that networks are heterogeneous:
Technorati's 'State of the blogosphere' report this month showed that 37% of blogs are in Japanese, 36% in English, 8% in Chinese and in Farsi 1%. Bloggers in other languages would be thinner on the ground. In a global networked environment this shows that a large number of people do not have a voice, or will be communicating through a language that is not their own.
National UK Statistics showed that in the UK still only 57% of the population had Internet access at home in 2006. The people least likely to have Internet access at home would be older people and people from lower socio-economic groups. It seems that still only particular groups in the population would engage in online debate.
People most likely to use the Internet would be young white and middle class. Even young people don't engage with web 2.0 technology in the way some enthusiasts would like us believe. Selwyn in his paper 'Dealing with digital inequality: rethinking young people, technology and social inclusion' The Net-generation seems to use it for fairly trivial activities related to chatting with their friends rather than the collaborative and connectivist learning experience envisaged by enthusiasts.
In addition, Oliver Kamm in an article in the Guardian pointed out, when speaking about political bloggers, that they are 'by definition, a self-selecting group of politically motivated who have time on their hands'. He argues that the 'conversations bloggers have with their audience are an echo-chamber in which conclusions are pre-specified and targets selected'. They result in abuse at public figures and poisoning of debate because of lack of accountability. Tim Dowling, engaged in the current debate on etiquette in the blogosphere noted that 'the blogging world has faced criticism, from without and within, for the low tone of cyberdebate. Online discourse, it is said, is characterised by personal insult, childish mudslinging, meaningless feuds, self-serving digression, pranksterish vandalism and empty threats'. He mentioned two female bloggers who have been insulted for the sole reason that they were female or that they took down insulting hatemail from their site.
This does not seem the climate and culture in which learning for all would thrive. I realise that a more traditional class room is not always a heterogeneous learning environment either, but there the tutor would be expected to show more sides of a story and keep in check unacceptable behaviour.
Another issue that sits not quite comfortable with me is the denouncement of propositional knowledge. As a teacher of infants, older children, disaffected adults and postgraduate learners throughout my career, I am not convinced that providing people with the means to learn online will automatically ensure their engagement in online networks. Not all learners have the autonomy and confidencethat would be required for this. In addition, Bill Kerr in a presentation at the connectivism conference referred to Alan Kay's non-universals. Kay explains that there are a number of areas that are hard to learn, based on studies in anthropology of all human societies . They are: reading and writing, deductive abstract mathematics, model based science, equal rights, democracy, perspective drawing, slow deep thinking, agriculture, and legal systems. When thinking about connectivism, and distributed learning, this list causes me concern as I am not convinced that people won't need the external incentive of a qualification that has currency in the workplace, or formal teaching to take on these areas.
It seems premature to expect that autonomous people in an open, connected environment will learn in depth, just because the tools, connections and the information are available. The environment might be there, but there might be prerequisites for people to engage successfully.