Some of us celebrated, while others mourned the tenth anniversary of Wikipedia this past week. Those who were cheering likely reveled in the revolution of knowledge acquisition models and crowd-sourced quality control. Those who have been critical of Wikipedia, expressed their concerns over the lack of control over the information and presumed risk of outdated or inaccurate data.
As I begin a class on a learning theory referred to as Connectivism, I consider how greatly our collective abilities to access to information have transformed in recent years, while our teaching methods in the university environment have barely changed at all. I ponder how much more advanced our abilities are to locate and share information, while our educational methods in the university setting have barely progressed beyond the overhead projector.
Steven Downes, one of two instructors for the Connectivism course, asserts: “knowledge is distributed across connections.” Instead of relying on a single travel agent to re-arrange their flights due to the massive delays caused by snow recently, some people took to simply posting about their woes in 140 character tweets. The airlines took notice and began addressing the complaints and helping some customers find their baggage and get booked on alternative flights. Learning, in this case, wasn’t about reading online about the process of how to change your ticket, but rather capitalizing on the connections available in the “twitterverse.”
Instead of learning being about knowledge we attempt to pack away in the “empty hard drive space in our minds,” connectivism suggests another definition for learning. Downes tells us that learning is: “ the capacity to construct connections and the capacity to traverse these connections.”
There are two goals supported in the connectivism learning theory, according to Downes:
- The ability to grow and foster a network of connections.
- The ability to develop a successful, robust, trustworthy network.
Most of the pedagogy used in higher education today stresses a one-way network of connections. We assess our students’ ability to take in information from one connection (the professor) and then regurgitate it at some later date via an exam or a paper. Some of us grow fearful of entities like Wikipedia, since we lack control over the credibility and accuracy of the content.
When we rely on last year’s lecture notes (or more terribly, those from the last decade), we negate most of the benefits of having a subject matter expert as a professor. Knowledge does not last as long as it used to, due to something called its “half-life,” or the time between when the knowledge is passed on and when it is no longer accurate. Geoge Siemens, the second instructor of the Connectivism class, describes the challenge as he writes, “In many fields the life of knowledge is now measured in months and years.” That makes what Siemens calls the “know-where” knowledge (“the understanding of where to find [needed] knowledge”) much more important than “know-how” and “know-what.”
Instead of being concerned that a Wikipedia entry may be inaccurate, we recognize that relying on our own knowledge and recollection in the moment is far less reliable than the knowledge of many. Instead of worrying that the experts aren’t controlling the flow of information, we can appreciate the values that have been guiding sites like Wikipedia and trust that the way the system is evolving over time, those principles will be adhered to far more than when resting on one person’s strength.
There is the valid concern of having Wikipedia being the first and only source our students go to in order to locate knowledge. Instead of fighting against their tendency, perhaps it is time for us to begin contributing to Wikipedia and adding links to those sources we wish our students would also visit in a quest to solve problems and expand their learning.
VIDEO: What is connectivism? (Steven Downes)
ARTICLE: Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age (George Siemens)