Here’s some food for thought: Has the internet changed the essential nature of knowledge and learning?
George Siemens and other Connectivists think so. In fact, they argue, modern networks have created new forms of knowledge and learning that have changed the very definition of what it means to learn.
Siemens and his fellow thinkers call this new form of learning “Connectivism.”
Connectivism: A Brief Overview
In a 2005 article, Siemens describes this new interconnected learning thusly:
“Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. […] Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database).” (p. 1)
In practice, this means:
“Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and completion of work-related tasks.” (p. 1)
He goes on to describe the following principles at the core of connectivism:
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision. (2005, pp. 5-6).
Siemens summarizes this process as “Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed.)” (2005, p. 2).
In other words, today’s learners are not solely focused on knowing how to do something or knowing what something is. They must be able to know where to find accurate, up-to-date information.
This know-where ability is what the internet has changed about the essential nature of learning. To be a proficient 21st century learner, you must be able to tap into the network of knowledge the internet has brought to our fingertips.
What Does Know-Where Look Like?
To better understand what this theory looks like in the real world, consider the following two students.
Student #1 is a medical student in 1849. He is attending medical school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – at the time, the largest and most notable city for medical education in the US. He is introduced to new knowledge through instructors, fellow students, practicing physicians, an operating theater where medical students sit in stadium seating while surgeons cut and saw below, and a textbook or two. If he wants to learn more about something, he needs to track down a book or specialist on the subject, which can be quite a laborious task. The knowledge he obtains during his degree will be considered adequate for the rest of his career.
Student #2 is a medical student in 2019. She is attending medical school at an institution picked for its instruction, tuition, acceptance rates, and career outcomes, not because it is located in a specific city. She is introduced to new knowledge through many of the same channels as Student #1, as well as dozens of other resources: conferences, online databases, case studies and metanalyses, video recordings, photographs. If she wants to learn more about something, a few taps on her smartphone or laptop can find her multiple sources on the topic.
The knowledge she obtains during her degree, while useful, will not be adequate for the rest of her career – medical advances, new technologies, and new research move at an immensely faster pace in 2019 than in 1849. In fact, as in most professions today, the half-life of important knowledge has become shorter. The medical field’s rate of change is especially startling: “In 1950, doctors in practice could expect the total amount of medical knowledge to double every 50 years. By 2020, it will take just 73 days.” (Poorman, 2016)
Student #2 will need to stay abreast of all these developments to remain a competent and well-regarded physician. She will also need to be able to recognize misinformation (e.g. the false connection between MMR vaccinations and autism) and revised information (e.g. whether eating eggs is bad for your cholesterol.) Therefore, she cannot let her knowledge stand untouched like an island – she must connect her knowledge to the community and let it be stored, augmented, altered, and adjusted accordingly.
In essence, Student #1’s education is based on know-how and know-what, while Student #2’s also requires know-where. She must practice two essential connectivist skills, “the ability to seek out current information, and the ability to filter secondary and extraneous information.” (Kop & Hill, 2008, p. 2). And she must continue to learn throughout her career, guided by her network.
Know-Where & Networked Learning
It is worth noting that connectivism is still being developed and has no end of controversy around whether it qualifies as a learning theory (e.g. it does not take into account the role of teachers and instructors). However, even critics agree that a paradigm shift is occurring at the juncture networks and learning.
George Siemens has it right when he says: “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.”
Gaining and maintaining knowledge in the 21st century is all about knowing where to look in the pipe/network.
Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523/1103
Poorman, E. (2016). Staying current in medicine: Advice for new doctors. The New England Journal of Medicine. Retrieved from https://knowledgeplus.nejm.org/blog/staying-current-in-medicine-advice-for-new-doctors/
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning.