Meeting the Minds – Dr. George Siemens, Part II

Dr. George Siemens is the founder of the theory of connectivism in education. Recently, he kindly consented to be interviewed by Marie Well of The Voice Magazine. Dr. Siemens was happy to provide us with very in-depth answers, and so this is the second of three parts of that interview. The first part can be found in issue 14.

Marie Well: You have also authored the book “Knowing Knowledge” which explores the changing context of knowledge. How has knowledge changed over time and how does this affect organizations?
Dr. George Siemens: That’s a long topic. I’ll try and address it without reading a book to you. The general idea is that in a knowledge age, such as we are in now, there is a more rapid development of information and knowledge globally, and partly that is due to a few factors. One, we have more advanced technologies and we have more opportunities to engage in global interactions. We can be connected with people from around the world with literally the click of a button. An example that I use to emphasize this frequently is in 2003 when the SARS epidemic developed, what is often ignored in that conversation is that the way in which the SARS epidemic was identified and addressed was through a global knowledge network. Individuals from different research labs, CDC or Atlanta, an office in Winnipeg, one in Japan and in Europe and in Hong Kong and other regions, all shared information with each other as their labs shut down. When their day was done, they would pass thee research they had done to another lab.

The biggest thing that has happened is that knowledge has become networked. Because it is networked, we can do different things with it. We can work on it simultaneously. We can have things moved to publication, theoretically at least, more rapidly. We can have more opportunities to engage in greater socialization around that. Rather than saying, “I’m working on a project and the only time I get to talk to my colleagues is either if I get to call them or if I meet them at annual conferences that we both attend,” suddenly you have an opportunity to collaborate by any range of technologies that we just spoke of and we can essentially in real time get work done. Academics now are involved in global research teams at a level that they just weren’t twenty years ago. Global research was obviously happening, but it wasn’t as well connected and less under the control of the individual academic as it is today.

Knowledge is developing more rapidly. Because it is developing more rapidly, this idea of the half-life of knowledge is important to focus on as well. Half-life of knowledge essentially states how long does it take for half the knowledge in a particular area or discipline to become obsolete because new ideas have come along or new research has been conducted. You have probably experienced that with the kinds of technologies you have access to. You are not going to use the same laptop for ten years. You might say, have a bed at home that you’ve had for a decade, fifteen years, or however long people keep a bed. Whereas, with mobile devices and even with laptop computers, you replace them every couple of years. You are not keeping them for as long of a period of time as you did in the past. That is reflective of how things are developing and changing with not just knowledge, but everything ranging from healthcare, to educational practices, to social concerns, and so on. As a result, we end up needing a different approach to work with that knowledge that we had in the past. That was the essential point I was trying to make in the book Knowing Knowledge.

Marie Well: Not only are you highly acclaimed as a researcher, but you’ve also made a monumental achievement pioneering the connectivist theory. Please tell us about connectivism and how you approached such groundbreaking theory generation.
Dr. George Siemens: The idea with connectivism is essentially what we have been talking about, which is that knowledge is a networked entity and the approach to learning, then, is a essentially one of forming or navigating or contributing to those connections. That is essentially it. It means that rather than a classroom setting with the instructor primarily lecturing, you need to adopt models and approaches that the individual student, everyone, other academics from other institutions, have opportunities to become engaged in that experience of teaching, learning, and so on.

An argument I was trying to make was that, when we learn transparently, we actually teach others. What I mean is if I’m learning a new concept or topic, and I write about it on a blog or on the Landing, or I talk about it in a course I’m either teaching or taking, being transparent about my learning makes it so that other people who are watching me have the opportunity then to see that as a teaching opportunity. Just as when someone else is transparent about their learning, when I read the work they are doing, they are teaching me. That is an important element: In order to become more effective as a society at solving complex and often intractable problems, what starts to become highly relevant is our ability to be able to dialogue about topics and ideas.

This is reflective in one of the examples that was shared in the book called The Long Tale, about how in the 1970s or so, you would see the vast majority of household American statistics, although these wouldn’t be too far off in Canada, where 60 to 70% of households in the U.S. would go to work on Monday having seen “I Love Lucy”, the TV show, so there was a fairly common and consistent narrative around the social practices and media experiences. Today, the most watched shows include NCIS and that is only seen by 10 or 12% of individuals. What has happened is that we fragmented our interaction with our TV programs, but we have done the same thing with knowledge.

That means, instead of being able to assume that the people around us know what we know, which is as relevant now as it may have been in the past, all of a sudden now we are at a point where everyone around us can be an educator because they know different things and have different tools. They don’t have to be around us, they can be anywhere globally. You can take a course on a MOOC platform, or you can engage in reading their blog or commenting on it, or watching a YouTube video or TED talks. There are just a broad range of opportunities now that enable everyone to be a teacher and everyone to be a learner. That is something I think we’ve never had historically in humanity.

Marie Well: What courses have you taught and what courses have you designed at Athabasca?
Dr. George Siemens: I taught a number of courses. The one that I designed is on Openness in Education, which looks at the ways in which freely sharing academic resources can help make the education experience stronger and provide a better learning experience for students. I’ve taught courses on instructional design at the doctoral level, which is a course that looks at advanced techniques for teaching. I am currently teaching a doctoral course on advanced research method. I’ve also taught the introduction to distance education as well, at a master’s level. I’ve taught a number of open courses in MOOC format. They are not always directly affiliated with Athabasca University. I’ve taught everything from connectivism to connected knowledge to personal learning environments–and just finished a course on EdEX that looks at data analytics and learning in the education process, and so on. Generally anything that relates to the influence of technology on processes is an area I find to be an interest.

Instructional design deals with technology to a degree. The research evidence is quite clear that the technology isn’t the most vital part of the learning process. In fact, it is a well-designed learning experience that is supported by technology that is valuable. We now have a technology dimension to everything that we do, whether it is our banking, our healthcare, going to see a dentist, digital files, digital xrays, the digital dimension is there. The role of technology in learning was articulated by Richard Clark many years ago and has come to be known as the Clark and Kozma debate. Richard Clark’s argument was that the technology makes no more difference to the learning processes than a truck that delivers food to a grocery store makes an impact on the nutrition of the food.

The idea was, and I think it is one that many folks may accept or at least recognize as a valid argument is that what is more important than using the latest technologies is having thought through and designed the learning experience well. Do we have the right level of support from faculty? Do we have the right kind of social interaction planned, and so on, as that it what ultimately makes a big difference to the student and to the success of the teaching.

Marie Well: What is your approach to course design?
Dr. George Siemens: It depends on the course. Generally, when we are looking at designing a course, the approach is to make sure at first you are addressing a topic area that is relevant for a range of individuals. You have to know who your audience is and who is going to be taking the course. Consider it from the point of view of a single or a few individuals. Will there be some industry folks involved? Is it something people will be taking to improve their career prospects? Are they taking the course for personal benefits or personal reasons? That is one of the bigger questions: the idea that you ask, “Who is your audience?” Who is going to be taking your course? What is their expected benefit from taking the course?

From there, it is important to add a thorough scoping of literature so that the prominent and important articles are identified, and the outliers that might indicate promising future directions can be identified. The articles that haven’t received as much attention, for whatever reason, could contain important ideas or counter ideas, so are also brought into it.

Having identified the audience and the content, I think it is important to start articulating what kind of learning you would like them to do through the course. How are you going to communicate a certain idea? Is a specific paper going to be valuable enough to give them a deep understanding of it? How do you take the ideas and concepts that they encounter in the readings and how do you develop a series of activities around it that enable them to really deeply and thoroughly understand what the topics are? Then, finally, the ways in which you start to do your assessments are critical. Do the assessments you have for the course reflect the outcomes assigned for the course? Do they reflect the type of content that was taught and the learning activities that were engaged in? There needs to be some alignment between course assigned outcomes, course content, and the assessment that is being undertaken.