Connective Learning: Challenges for Learners, Teachers, and Educational Institutions

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) has dedicated a special issue to “Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning” (March 2011), edited by George Siemens (Athabasca University, Canada) and Grainne Canole (Open University, UK).

This special issue is not meant as a definitive sum on connectivism but rather, as Terry Anderson, editor of IRRODL, put it in his announcement on the Instructional Technology Forum mailing list:

… a challenge and request that we spend more effort into trying to understand if connectivism has approaches and delivers important insights and practical designs into the increasing networked learning context in which we function.

Learning is connective

Here on Educational Technology and Change Journal (ETCJournal), Lynn Zimmermann wrote about the “Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses” (Jan. 2, 1011), in response to Tom Preskett‘s “There’s Blended Learning and There’s Blended Learning!” (Dec. 12, 2010). Previously, the cardinal importace of “connectivist” P2P social interaction was also pointed out by Jan Schwartz in “Learnings from a MOOC” (Sep. 7, 2010) and in several reports about Plenk 2010 by Stefanie Panke, Lynn Zimmermann and Jim Shimabukuro.

This is not just a bias of ours. In his March 2011 TED Conference entitled The Birth of a Word:

Rob Roy explains how he video-recorded everything that happened at his home for the first years of his son’s life, then analyzed this material with his MIT team in an effort “to understand the influence of social environments on language acquisition” (3:04 ca).

Almost half a millennium earlier, Pierre Eyquem, seigneur de Montaigne, decided that his baby son Michel should learn Latin. However, wishing to spare him the “tedious time” needed to do so in  traditional education, he decided he should acquire it as his first language, and thus  forced everybody in the household who interacted with the child to learn enough Latin to be able to “gabble” in Latin with him (Montaigne’s Essays in Charles Cotton’s translation: “I, 25 Of the Education of Children”).

The idea of  making a kid acquire Latin as his first language was not quite as zany in the 16th century as it may seem now. Latin, back then, was  the international scholarly language. So the present equivalent of Pierre Eyquem’s initiative would be parents who bring up a child in English even though it is not their first language. Some  do that, and as they cannot wield Pierre Eyquem’s feudal authority over other potential interactors, they pack the child off to private English kindergartens and schools instead.

The interesting point is that already  in the 16th century, Pierre Eyquem understood that most of us best learn by interaction with our environment, and towards improving it. And this obtains for all learning, not only language learning.

What does change once learning moves online, then? Prima facie, for a digital immigrant such as me who used to create a connective personal learning environment F2F in cafés after classes and at distance with  a mechanical typewriter and snail mail, the online tools that are now available are an incredible improvement.

Example: I am presently in charge of the Conferences page here. As I am not an academic – nor likely to be able to afford the costs of attending most conferences – this task would have been totally beyond me in pre-digital times. As I explained in the introduction of that page, now, I strive to update it via indications sent by e-mail, added to the comments of that page, gathered from mailing-lists, social networks, etc. To these information resources, I recently added Lanyrd, a twitter-based application: if you sign in to it with your twitter account, you will see which conferences your twitter contacts are attending in the near future. If you do not have a twitter account, or do not wish to share its data with an external application for security reasons, you can still browse and search Lanyrd for conferences you might be interested in, also by place or by topic. The “multi-subjective” view gained by making a twitter-based lanyrd account is a great help in finding relevant information, though, as the  people who follow or are followed by the ETCjournal twitter account are likely to attend conferences that are of educational or technological interest.

Challenges of online connective learning for learners (and hence, teachers)

In Terry Anderson’s already quoted message to the Instructional Technology Forum mailing list about IRRODL’s special issue on “Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning,” he also drew attention to Rita Kop’s “The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences During a Massive Open Online Course” contribution (Jan Schwarz reported about this course in “Learnings from a MOOC“) to that special issue.

In this article, Rita Kop gives data about effective participation in the PLENK MOOC:

The PLENK MOOC started with 846 participants, and that number steadily increased to 1616 by the final day, as shown in Chart 2.  (…) Although the number of course registrations was high, an examination of contributions across weeks (i.e., Moodle discussions, blogs, Twitter posts marked with the #PLENK2010 course tag, and participation in live Elluminate sessions) suggested that about 40–60 individuals on average contributed actively to the course on a regular basis, while others’ visible participation rate was much lower.

PLENK Analytics; Chart 2: PLENK participation rates, illustrating what Rita Kop writes in the passage quoted above.

She then analyzes participation in the various activities that  connective learning should comprize, using the material produced by participants and their comments, and also the work done by PLENK’s focus group about lurking. This evidence will be most useful in organizing other MOOCs in ways that might further greater participation.  However, one might argue with her conclusion:

… It became clear during the research that the four activities mentioned in the introduction— aggregation, relation, creation, and sharing—were not achieved by the majority of participants. They mostly felt happy to aggregate, relate, and share resources, but only a minority of 40–60 PLENK participants were engaged in the creation of digital artefacts, such as blog posts and videos, and in the distribution of these. It seems that people needed time to feel comfortable and confident to get involved in this type of activity, while it also seems that people needed some time to digest readings and resources that were published and produced during the course before being able to get involved in this active production process themselves. Early indications from this preliminary research were that people were still learning without this type of activity.

Further research and analysis will be conducted to find out if this “creation” stage is really necessary to enhance learning in a connectivist learning environment and exactly how the challenges identified with connectivist learning might best be overcome.

Lurking is not a problem, as long as lurkers are learning  because enough material is created and shared by nonlurkers. Today’s lurkers, maybe baffled by the MOOC set-up, may well become tomorrow’s connective creator and sharer, once they understand it better. In a MOOC, the second O stands for “Open,” and this also means chronologically open, i.e., the activities do not have to happen in time-defined stages. I lurked for a long time on the WWWEDU discussion list and on the Digital Divide Network after — thanks to Bonnie Bracey Sutton — I added them to my personal learning environment (back then, netiquette rules actually prescribed lurking until you got your bearings in a group).  Then for a while, before I actually started participating, I used what I learned there to create info in Italian for another project I was involved in. This did not produce any feedback in the original groups, and the same might well have happened or still be happening with some of the PLENK “lurkers.”

Logistically, PLENK 2010 would possibly have become very unwieldy if all 1616 participants had been creating and sharing. I once participated in a webinar about the educational use of wikis. At one point, the presenter unleashed us onto the home — and sole — page of a wiki she had created for hands-on practice. This was tantamount to sending all students of a brick and mortar school to a single bench in the chemistry lab. After a few hiccups, the page froze. I suggested using the “Create a new page” feature of the wiki in the chat of the webinar, but so many people were complaining there that my suggestion quickly got shoved out of sight. The webinar froze too for quite a while. In other words, a minor tech issue — the number of people who can edit a wiki page at the same time — created a learning problem.

An Italian MOOC

In his ongoing  (Un piccolo per)corso libero per aspiranti cittadini del cyberspazio (A small free journey or course for would-be citizens of cyberspace), a MOOC for medical students also opened to interested outsiders (“cyberstudents”), Andreas Formiconi has been mapping our online social interactions (via RSS feeds, mainly of our blogs) in sociograms where the red nodes are the medical students, the blue nodes are the cyberstudents, and the turquoise node is Andreas.

At first, there were more lurkers than connectors (as in the PLENK MOOC):

Sociogram, with only few connections. March 11, 2011

Sociogram, March 11, 2011

However, gradually, the proportion got inverted:

Sociogram, April 16, 2011, with more connected nodes than isolated ones

Sociogram, April 16, 2011

There might be several explanations for this inversion, which apparently did not happen in PLENK 2010:

  1. Andreas Formiconi’s course, with 239 registered participants, is not quite as massive a MOOC as PLENK 2010.
  2. Several cyberstudents already knew each other and had already been interacting: thus they could function as interaction catalyzers at the beginning.
  3. Medical students are going to get graded for this course.
  4. Andreas Formiconi’s efforts to convince lurkers to participate (see below).

Lurkers or connectivity challenged students?

Be it as it may, the point is that several participants continue to lurk. Andreas Formiconi foresaw that: in the part about grading for medicine students in his  “Startup corso 2011″ post (March 8, 2011), he also offered lurkers the option to be graded via traditional quizzes on their knowledge of the contents of the course. He also offers a taxonomy of lurkers:

  1. Unwilling geeks who actually already know what the course is about and don’t wish to work too much.
  2. People who prefer to trust chance and don’t wish to work too much: they rightly know that you can get away with quizzes.
  3. Incurably agoraphobic and studious learners who feel lost unless they get precise guidelines and heaps of stuff to be learned by heart.

He added that he was not going to bother about the first category, but would attempt to “corrupt the others” into participation, even during the above mentioned quizzes.

I would add a fourth category, or maybe a subcategory of his third one: people who are connectivity challenged. Fortunately, in most cases, the challenge is sectorial and can thus be by-passed. You also get connectivity challenged students in F2F brick-and-mortar classrooms.  When I was teaching French as a foreign language at the liceo (secondary school) 2 in Lugano in the 1990s, one of my students was extremely shy.  If you asked him a question, his suffering in attempting to reply was so obvious that I gave up. As his written work was always interesting and well argued, I simply started reading from students’ written works, including his.

Nowadays, extremely shy people who find speaking in a F2F class an ordeal may be able to tweet about lessons, using a hashtag that would show all relevant tweets on a screen. Even autistic people use social web tools to create vibrant online communities of interest, where members interact via videos and blogs.

Other shy people might get blocked by having to write in the totally open environment of a MOOC. Hence the importance of offering them alternative ways to prove that they are effectively learning in such MOOCs. Andreas Formiconi’s tests on the content of the course is one solution. Maybe other intermediate ones might be explored: for instance, the possibility for these people to create a private blog or wiki to which they would invite the course convenor(s) and those participants with whom they feel confident in sharing their works in progress, before going fully public.

[Personal experience with such a block: as Jim Shimabukuro's and my preliminary notes to "IFPI, P2P and an Article that Disappeared" explain, he accidentally published the  draft of the piece when it was too much of a flea's description of an elephant to be readable. When I received the automatic publication alert, I changed the visibility status of the piece to "private"  while I was making the changes Jim suggested. I still don't quite understand why the idea of editing in public cramped me in this case, whereas I have no problem with that on a public wiki, but it did.]

Challenges of online connective learning for educational institutions (and hence, also for teachers)

..You know, they’ve spent ten years at school, being told that there’s one answer, it’s at the back. And don’t look. And don’t copy, because that’s cheating. I mean, outside school, that’s called collaboration, you know, but inside schools. Now this isn’t because teachers want to do it this way. It’s just because it happens that way. It’s because it’s in the gene pool of education.

From the subtitled and transcribed version (49:47-50:11) of Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Paradigms conference at the Royal Society of Arts, London UK, June 16, 2008.

(Un piccolo per)corso libero per aspiranti cittadini del cyberspazio, and so many interaction-based educational projects before it, inspired by Freinet, Montessori, Decroly, Steiner, and others prove that the genetic curse evoked by Sir Ken is not absolute. Genes can mutate, and if the ecosystem is favorable, mutants can become the main strain.

Presently, educational ecosystems are often contradictory, with official guidelines paying lip service to the importance of student-centered, interactive learning, and at the same time imposing nationwide tests to ascertain what all students of a given age group have learned.  If the funding of educational institutions depends on their students’ performance in such tests, it is no wonder that they encourage traditional, teacher-centered, learn-towards-test methods. This is one of the perverse effects of the US’s No Child Left Behind Act, and  it is also present in many other countries.

However, apart from such perverting laws, educational institutions do tend towards controlling the ways students officially learn, not so much because administrators are control freaks (some are, but by far not all), but because of their legal responsibilities. For instance, in a digital environment, these responsibilities include:

Protecting students’ privacy if the students are minors. This means that K-12 schools cannot implement fully open MOOCs, as some online collaborative and connective tools do not offer sufficient privacy protection. Even when such tools, per se, offer good privacy guarantees, as Google Apps for Education do (as long as participants are apprised of the vast controlling powers conferred  to the administrators of their accounts),  their implementation can entail severe privacy violations, as happened in Didasca‘s PerCorso Gmail course: see “Beware of Privacy and Other Issues When Signing Up for Free Courses.”

Protecting students’ and other people’s copyright. This is a sensitive issue even in closed learning environments because of the relentless “pirate hunts” waged by the content industry. All the more so in a MOOC where all contents created by participants are openly available online.

Guaranteeing equal access to learning. This concerns all orders of public schools and universities. Many online collaborative tools are not accessible to people with given types of disabilities. See, here, “NFB: NYU, Northwestern and Other Schools Adopting Google Apps Discriminate Against the Blind.” Moreover, even when a tool is, per se, accessible to all, this does not guarantee that content created with it in a MOOC will be accessible too.

In the case of the (Un piccolo per)corso libero per aspiranti cittadini del cyberspazio course, the privacy and copyright issues do not obtain because all participants are adult and thus responsible for their choices and actions. The accessibility issue has been addressed in Daily: il problema dell’accessibilità (April 5, 2011): after describing how he asked a low-sighted student who uses a screen reader to check if the course block is accessible, Andreas Formiconi asks — and suggests we ask ourselves —  questions aimed at putting ourselves in the shoes of people who have to use web tools via adaptive technology, in order to understand what barriers they meet. For people who are not specialists, such a maieutic and empathetic approach is more efficient than a declarative tutorial about accessibility. It also offers a rich learning experience — as Diderot explained in his Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient  (Letter about the blind for sighted people’s use) and Lettre sur les sourds et muets à l’usage de ceux qui entendent & qui parlent (Letter about the deaf and dumb for hearing and talking people’s use).

However, the situation would be substantially different in a MOOC where participants are minors and, hence, where the convening institutions are legally responsible for what they are doing online — to themselves and to others. A fully open MOOC might not be feasible with minors, but it should be possible to use semi-protected solutions that still allow connectivity, provided they are presented as such to the students, explaining the reasons for preventing full openness in an institutional context.


Connective learning is the main way humans have always been learning so it cannot be challenged. However, connective learning in a digital world that hugely increases the number of possible connections does pose several challenges to learners, teachers, and educational institutions. These challenges must be met because learners are availing themselves of this digital connectivity anyway (and at times any way). Ignoring this fact won’t make it disappear.

7 Responses

  1. [...] Connective Learning: Challenges for Learners, Teachers, and Educational Institutions « Educational … Interesting reflections on connective learning including the development of connections among learners in different learning environments. (tags: usqict ee4l) [...]

  2. [...] Ich habe Lanyrd sofort ausprobiert: “We’ve found 19 conferences your Twitter contacts are interested in.” Claude Almansi, Educational Technology & Change (ETC), 19. April 2011 [...]

  3. [...] der Orientierung. Weniger als das Hauptthema hat mich ein Blog-Literaturverweis von Robes auf Claude Almansis Artikel „Collective Learning: Challenges for Learners, Teachers and Educational Institutions“ [...]

  4. [...] as long as lurkers are learning because enough material is created and shared by nonlurkers.” (Claude Almansi) Ein sehr sympathisches Statement, das aber die Frage offen lässt, woher man wissen will, ob Lurker [...]

  5. [...] Lurking als Lernen: “Lurking is not a problem, as long as lurkers are learning because enough material is created and shared by nonlurkers.” (Claude Almansi) [...]

  6. Update 1: Just published:
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