Tuesday, August 02, 2011

George Siemens - if social media goes so does connectivism

So George Siemens has lost interest in social media as “there is no there there” (plagiarising Gertrude Stein). Now I’m not an uncritical zealot when it comes to social media and have spoken out against the hype, but to claim there’s no substance at all to social media is wrong.

First he makes the general statement, “Social media=emotions”. I assume he means that social media only results in the emotional outpourings from the participants. So when I get invites to speak, write, exchange views, follow up links to useful blog pieces/articles/academic papers, read reviews and then go to movies/theatre, share photographs, rediscover old friends and meet up, keep in touch with distant relatives – it’s just a well of emotional mush? What George fails to understand is the fact that the networked world is causally connected to the real world. Real things happen in the real world because we communicate through these networks.

Siemens use of Facebook and Twitter seems to have been limited to, “attending to my emotive needs of being connected to people when I’m traveling and whining”. A bad workman blames his tools and if he sees Facebook and Twitter as ‘posting only’ media, forgetting that there’s groups, messaging and other features that are widely used for practical purposes, that’s his loss.

Connectivism not really there?

I should say from the start that I never bought Connectivism, as it muddles up primitive epistemology, dated social psychology and pedagogy to produce a nexus of thinly connected ideas around an abstract noun. Not for the first time have such vague, unsubstantiated ideas gained currency among educators. For me, the real problem is duplicity. Surely he's thrown out his connectivist baby with the bathwater of abandoned social media. So much for the idea of knowledge existing in the world of real activity by real people. Surely that also means 750 million on Facebook and hundreds of millions of learners on Twitter and other social media. And so much for the whole idea of creating a network for learning – unless, of course, that must mean George’s blog, online courses and speaking engagements. In a stroke Siemens has banished the largest and most potent networks on the planet to the dead zone, and with it connectivism.


So what’s his solution? “The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses” says George. He means, of course, ‘the academy’, namely academia and academics. George’s problem is to imagine that the academy is the focus of all intellectual and important activity. The conceit is the idea that if it ain’t about institutional learning it ain’t worth it. It’s an academic conceit that we all want to be lifelong learners taking their courses, attending their lectures, signing up for their online courses and hanging on their every word. Most of us couldn’t wait to get out of school and college, and wouldn’t dream of going back. Not leaving school at all is fine, but it doesn’t give you the right to look down upon others just because they don’t write academic articles and aren’t part of those networks. After nearly 30 years in the learning game, I truly believe that little has emerged from academia in terms of innovation, pedagogy and good practice. Indeed they themselves seem stuck in a primitive pedagogy that depends on lectures (which they will defend to the death). Time to move on.

Social media and politics

He ridicules Jeff Jarvis’s comments on the political power of the hashtag but the University of Athabasca ain’t Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen or Syria. Academics like Siemens can afford to disconnect because, to caricature Kissinger, “the stakes are so small.” “The notion of the Arab Spring being about social media is similarly misguided” says Siemens. Well, one can sit in some University somewhere and make these generalisations but YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have, and continue, to play a serious causal role in these revolutions. It's something I'm convinced of after travelling and speaking to young people in these countries. People are dying for their rights and using these media to achieve real political change and it's an insult for ill-informed academics to reduce this to an off-hand comment about it being 'misguided'.


Let me end with a real story about Facebook. Jan Kaufman, a learning expert, had a stroke last year, and we watched with astonishment as she at first typed garbled posts, then over the following year got better by drawing nourishment from her friends on Facebook. She was inspirational and genuinely thinks that social media contributed to her recovery. We, in turn, learnt loads about what it really means to have a stroke, hospital life, claiming benefits and recovering cognitive skills. If George wants to dismiss this as useless ‘emotion’, he’s making a big mistake. It was a genuine learning experience for me, Jan and many of her friends. Social networks are, for him, “void of substance”. I fear, however, that it is Siemen’s arguments that are void of substance.


Ian said...

Heaven help us if academic publication is to be held up as some sort of 'gold standard'. Fact is, huge numbers of new journals and conferences have been set up in the last 20 years to create outlets so that academics can create huge amounts of mostly useless, pointless and unread academic papers which mostly now bear no relation to the real world outside of academia.

Lesley Price said...

Connectivism is just what social media has give Jan.

I am also fortunate to count myself as both a 'real' and Facebook friend of Jan Kaufman. After her stroke, Jan's brain needed rewired. The best analogy I can use is that it was a jigsaw that had once been complete and following the stroke it jumbled up so much that to find all the pieces, not least the straight edges, was a mission.

As Donald says, her first posts were garbled, but through sending messages back as well as spending time both face to face and on the phone, she has slowly but surely made huge strides towards a recovery that nobody expected, the jigsaw is now almost complete. She can even drive again! Her life may never be quite the same picture as it was but Facebook gave her the opportunity to connect..is that not true connectivism?

Social media is not all about travelling or whining, neither is it all about serving some kind of nebulous academic outcome. To me, it’s about maintaining a conversation...and like all conversations whether you value it or not depends on how good the conversation is and whether or not it has a purpose that means something to you.

So a bit like watching something you don't like on TV...change the channel...just because you don't like the programme, it doesn't make all TV bad.

Nic Laycock said...

The Neanderthals were overtaken by our modern man ancestors simply because we learned to, and embraced, communicating in a new and better way. Is there a connection? It is in isolation that our thinking is untested and becomes entrenched. Is that what is happening in certain parts of academia? I prefer to look at those who have understood the potential generated through embracing, exploring and exploiting the possibilities of our digitised and connected society. Just for example have a look at www.avu.org to see what can be achieved for the whole learning community using a little imagination and a great deal of determination to bring change into being. Don, your critique and challenge are well-placed. George's refutation indicates an unwillingness to explore and engage, preferring instead to remain within the understanding of past centuries - a bit of a paradox for someone supposedly following the university hypothesis don't you think?

James Durkan said...

I'm keen to read George Siemen's deliberations in their entirety. I'm not challenging your take on it but the development is somewhat astonishing and I really want to understand the context.

That said, I'm going to weigh in on the side of those who do see a valuable contribution from social media in the support of learning. Indeed, it goes some way towards addressing the deficiencies of academia. As you recall Bloom, for example, had identified three domains involved in learning: attitudinal, behavioural and cognitive. Academia concerns itself only with knowledge transfer (emphasized by the cognitive domain). The fallacy of this was exposed in Ireland recently with the exposure of Dr Asia Ndaga – qualified, but didn't even know how to take a pulse.

Social media facilitates real world application of the 'book-learning' and the necessary enculturation that is a necessary part of preparation for the role the learner is hoping to play. It provides learners with access to experienced people and possible role models.

Furthermore, learning is, by its very nature, challenging and a supportive network is invaluable.

So, in conclusion, social media can reach the areas academia is indifferent to.

James Durkan said...

Nic, this is probably not the best time to make that point given that this very week, the view emerged that Neanderthals were displaced because they were outnumbered.('There were just too many humans for Neanderthals to survive', http://io9.com/5826353/there-were-just-too-many-humans-for-neanderthals-to-survive)

Donald Clark said...

Ian - too true. We're awash with bands of roving academics flying from conference to conference (Siemens admits that this is wearying in his post) and Journals read by handfuls of people. I also agree that the research (JISC being the prime example) is high cost, low impact. That's why social media finally got the debate out of these contexts and into the real world and practising communities.

Lesley - thanks for this. He's changed channels, that's cool, but to have condemned the rest of us as being emotionally hysterical was crass.

Nic - spot on - I really hope he's not simply reverted to an old, jaded archetype - the haughty academic.

James - sorry, I've now included a link to Siemen's blog post - my mistake.

Nicola Avery said...

Hi Donald, I think that how we communicate and use social media may just be a phase based on how these technologies been developed and I think that connectivism goes beyond this at a far deeper level in terms of human interactions within technology and social networks. I am not academic, I have worked in elearning dept of a university - Surrey - where I know you have presented - so I think that the distinctions you are drawing between universities and corporations are a lot more blurry than your post - IM not very HO

Frances Bell said...

That's a great story about your friend and her and her network's use of Facebook. I really think it's about what you do on and with these networks. George's post and yours provoked me to reflect on my use of Twitter so that was a bonus for me http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/managing-networking-in-social-media-whats-in-between-the-zone-of-homophily-and-broadcast/#comment-85
I have also critiqued connectivism but do believe it has some value as phenomenon rather than a learning theory.

Donald Clark said...

Frances - George Siemens made the classic mistake of universalising his own limited and blinkered experience to everyone. It is an astonishing set of generalisations.

An astonishing Tweet was from Martin Weller from the OU (I think) "I see @gsiemens gets a roasting from @donaldclark http://t.co/pMwgJPH - a sure sign that he is right" - is this really what passes for debate in academe these days?

Jon said...

I always enjoy your posts Donald! In this case, however, I think you are being a bit unfair and slightly missing the target. George would agree with most of what you say, though maybe not with some of your more personal comments

'social media=emotions' is indeed a misleading and uncharacteristically confusing turn of phrase and I somewhat disagree with George about hashtags. It’s not the hashtags but the collectives they represent that make a difference though I think he is right that it’s not that big a difference and of course it is not the technologies but the people that make the important changes. However, George's main complaint is not with such tools per se, but what happens when the social networking part of them becomes, as Chris Anderson might say, a destination rather than a feature. That makes sense to me. While he is clearly frustrated, I don’t think he’s seriously suggesting we drop them. As a follower of several of George's various social media personas, I can affirm that he continues to be a highly prolific poster of stuff on, in and about social systems.

Your comments about George’s academic focus are unfair: George works for Athabasca University, though not as an academic. He is a world leader in breaking the barriers and boundaries of institutional learning, creating large-scale open courses, open content and wildly successful open publications (approaching a million downloads of his last book) that burst out of the academic confines and thrive on merit and value, not the closed nepotistic navel-gazing and bone-shuffling of academia's elitist and frequently irrelevant tribes. In his teaching I’ve watched him sweep away the likes of formal classes, teachers, lectures, institutions, publishers, disciplines and objectives-based assessment while valorising the diversity, varied interests and needs of learners. He is not in rarefied cloisters but is out there making a positive difference, engaging openly with organisations and individuals way outside academia. His writing and practice are at least as firmly opposed to useless traditions as yours and, like you, he engages with academia primarily in order to change it for the better

I agree there are some serious flaws in Connectivism: networks are not the only fruit, they are not qualitatively uniform and, apart from for a small minority, the theory doesn’t really seem to translate well into better learning. George thinks of it as a work in progress. It’s fine though: almost all educational theories I know of are snake oil but most (even learning style theories) encourage reflective practice and engagement so they can wind up working surprisingly well. We ain't doing science and we should stop pretending that we do, We do however need to create and share meaning and we need conceptual tools for that. Connectivism gives a framework to reflect on and reconsider what we do and how we do it, a shared and evolving language that enables us to talk and think more fluidly about our post-Berners-Lee reality. It's neither the last nor the only word but it has stopped at least some teachers from treating learners like vessels to be filled and opened many opportunities for learning that were not there before, That’s a mighty good start. I applaud George as I applaud you, because you both challenge unreflective beliefs and encourage people to think differently. That's the best part of what this whole learning/education thing is about.

Paul Cook said...

Very interesting but the fact that you are all in a filter bubble anyway it is all academic isn't it? Just classic delusion on some peoples part in that they think they are a part of something when they are not. You might as well communicate with a series of good friends via other means and you achieve the same thing? Cheers Paul Cook

Frances Bell said...

@Donald the article did contain crass generalisation but that is not particularly typical of his writing. I am bit disappointed that he didn't come and reply to your blog post (or mine for that matter) as I am pretty sure he knew of them.
It's good that social media have helped open up debates (and we are still in the early days of knowing how to use them effectively). However, if you observe human behaviours closely, I think that you can see that the same sensitivities and power struggles play out on social media as do in other communications channels.

I had a bit of fun with mashing up the words of contributors to a Connectivism course http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uilkFoe4hQo This was Stephen Downes rather than George Siemens in my little animation

I think you might like this extract http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uilkFoe4hQo#t=5m40s

#jon I agree very much with your last paragraph. In an article I wrote I characterised connectivism as a phenomenon. I think it would make a bit more progress if it played down the 'theory' angle. It seems to me that lots of people using connectivism also use large dollops of social constructivism

Donald Clark said...

Hi Jon/Frances– thanks for the reasoned ripostes, most welcome. George’s resonse was a rather patronising Tweet:

gsiemens George Siemens
@DonaldClark you're trying too hard to initiate controversy. breathe deeply. cleanse yourself of impure thoughts. be one with twitter.

In any case, let’s consider the substantive points.
1. Hashtags. I reject his limited and, in my opinion, ill-informed views of the power of hashtags in politics (“It’s rubbish. And it has no influence”), as I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East recently, including Syria, Egypt and the Gulf states. People are being arrested, tortured but also making real changes in their countries. Hashtags may seem trivial to him, but, in my opinion, he needs to be less dismissive. Jeff Jarvis is far from being “silly” and social media has played a significant role in political protest.
2. Misreading social networks. Twitter and Facebook are not, as George claims, merely emotional outpourings (“Social media=emotions.”). Real things happen in the real world because we connect through social networks. George caricatures these networks without, in my opinion, really understanding what people gain from the connections and communication. (“What has Twitter and Facebook done for me? Nothing, really”.) I gave plenty of positive examples.
3. Connectivism. As I said in my post, I don’t see ‘connectivism’ as anything more than an umbrella term for some general observations about the power of networks with some old-school social psychology and pedagogic observations on top. I’ve never been tempted to use the term or theory or whatever it is, as it has no value for me. But that’s another more esoteric debate. That wasn’t my real point. My real point was the duplicity in making these huge generalisations about some social media networks, based on limited personal experience, especially the “Social networks=emotions” statement. I agree Jon that not all networks are of equal value but isn’t it odd that George flees from those that threaten his academic control. He prefers that pre-Facebook, Twitter, blog world where he’s still very much the originator and not participant.

Frances – loved the dig at these guys defending lectures.

Anne Marie Cunningham said...

Hi Donald,
Just saw your comment on George's blog that you are going to use Jan's story in your keynote at AMEE.
I've been doing some research on how students might learn from reading what people write about illness in blogs and forums. Hpapy to discuss with you.

Unknown said...

social media Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments. These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology. Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes, should be reflective of underlying social environments.Learning must be a way of being – an ongoing set of attitudes and actions by individuals and groups that they employ to try to keep abreast of the recurring events.