Biography

Stephen Downes
Stephen Downes
George Siemens
George Siemens

An educator, researcher, and author renowned for his work in the areas of educational technologies, analytics, networking, and open platforms for learning, George Siemens has made a significant impact on academia in the twenty-first century. His work, Knowing Knowledge (2006), an examination of how knowledge has changed in recent years, affecting learning, organizational structures, and commerce, was met with critical acclaim and has been translated into four different languages for use around the globe. Siemens has presented keynote speeches and educational presentations in over 30 countries, discussing technology and the media's influence on learning and society. His Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, on discerning sense from complex informational sources, has given him a strong foundation in the rapid advances and changes of the digital era. Siemens is currently the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University.

Regarded as a leader in the field of online technology, and a prolific educational writer and researcher, Stephen Downes has devoted his personal and professional attention towards furthering the landscape of academics and pedagogy through digital resources and platforms. With a Bachelor's degree and Master's degree, specializing in the philosophy of science, Downes has expounded upon his thoughts on the ways technology has radically changed informational and knowledge processes. He spent over a decade teaching, in person and online, for Athabasca University, the University of Alberta, and Grand Prairie regional college, working with the University of Alberta as a digital and information architect, developing e-learning and research tools. Downes now works for the National Research Council of Canada, acting as a senior researcher, since 2001, continuing his exploration of technological and educational ideologies and initiatives.

Through their similar lines of research in numerous areas, including learning technologies, knowledge processes, and information, Siemens and Downes have worked together on several academic projects. Most prominent of these are their collaborative work in what has been recognized as the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in 2008, followed by similar online courses delivered to over three thousand participants in later years, as well as their development of the learning theory connectivism. From their initial work together on the theory, Siemens and Downes have since wrote and conducted research separately on the concepts they first identified, defined, and solidified in the field of pedagogy. Siemens currently edits and operates a blog collecting various articles and insights related to the theory, including those by his co-theorist.


Connectivism


As defined by Siemens and Downes, connectivism rejects the ideas of other learning theories, that knowledge is something to be gained, like a physical object, or that knowledge is formally rooted in logic and language. Instead, learning and knowledge occurs in connections, interactions and experiences, between individuals, organizations, resources and other outlets of information. These connections take place within nebulous contexts and environments, removing control from the individual or learner; new knowledge is constantly being acquired, whether recognized or not, and the ability to recognize and utilize useful and valuable knowledge is essential to furthering one's understanding of his or her landscapes. Downes states that, through connectivism, knowledge is not created, built, or transferred between people, and individuals do not 'construct meaning' through their learning. Rather, the connections created between people, and the actions undertaken through this connective process, leads to naturally occurring growth, self-development, and knowledge acquisition.

As detailed by Siemens, there are eight primary principles of connectivism:
  • Learning is an ongoing process of connecting specific resources, and other sources of information
  • Knowledge and learning rely on a diversity of opinions, perspectives, and viewpoints
  • Knowledge and learning may be present in 'non-human appliances,' including digital technologies, hardware, and so on
  • The potential and capacity to learn is more important than prior and current knowledge
  • Connections must be maintained and strengthened for continual learning to occur
  • The ability to understand the connections between disparate ideas and concepts is an essential skill for learning
  • Ensuring accuracy and current knowledge is present is the intent of connectivist structures and activities
  • Decision-making is learning in and of itself; individuals choose what to learn, including the meaning, importance, and implications of information, within rapidly changing context

Through the individual, or the learner, networks of connections are created which spur personal growth and learning. The rise of digital technology and online platforms for communication has furthered this primary idea of connectivism, as well as its principles. The internet has provided individuals across the globe with an outlet through which they may interact with one another, furthering their experiences, connections and, thus, their knowledge. This opportunity, and their theoretical work, led Siemens and Downes to develop the MOOC model of teaching. Through a Massive Open Online Course, Siemens and Downes sought to create an environment where students, academics, researchers, thinkers, and educators, with connectivist skills including knowledge dissemination and interpersonal development, could hone their skills and their knowledge via online interactions and discourses. The researchers note the difficulty, for many, in understanding the purpose of the MOOC, as it was not a classroom for teaching, but an engaging and immersive environment for learning and connectivist networking.


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Curricular Considerations


Although the classroom is typically viewed as a space where knowledge is shared or gained by teachers and students, heavily disagreed with by Siemens and Downes, this educational setting does provide the ideal context for connectivism to occur. Students bring to the classroom differing experiences, opinions, biases, and viewpoints, with each a source of information. With repeated proximity to and contact with one another, at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels, the classroom offers boundless possibilities and potential for students to connect with one another, furthering their personal growth and learning through these interactions. The extended timeline of the classroom, lasting between September to June in Ontarian elementary schools, September to December and January to June in secondary schools, and September to December and January to April at post-secondary institutions, allows these connections to be nurtured and maintained, strengthening students' learning. To aid in this networking process, and stimulate the creation of networks between students, educators should focus their curriculum and lesson plans around group work; the concept of 'jigsaw groups,' where students become experts on a particular topic with one group, and then share this with another group comprised of various 'experts,' would connect students to both a primary source of information, a commonly-minded group, as well as disparate ideas and concepts.

These connections between students can be extended online, through the use of a classroom forum focused on maintaining interactions, relationships and dialogues, and bridging the gap typically noted between the classroom setting and the domestic space. Online resources also offer teachers new opportunities to connect their classroom and students to others across the globe. Certain schools in the United States have connected their students with those in other parts of the world via Skype, allowing for global dialogues, discussions, and learning to take place. With these advances in technology, educational curriculum must change to adhere and be prepared for the global implications of this connectivity, including the potential for students to discuss real world social issues, and for students expanding their knowledge in, as Siemens and Downes would note, unexpected though wholly organic directions.


Extending Questions

  1. Has the original concept of the MOOC, as a connectivist educational structure, been changed with the rise and dividing of xMOOCs (instructor-centered courses) and cMOOCs (learner-centered courses)?
  2. Though Downes and Siemens state it is a natural component of the learning process strengthened through experience, should decision-making and knowledge dissemination be taught to student in lower grades, such as elementary school? What are the potential challenges in teaching students how to properly process and assess information?
  3. While technology does offer numerous benefits in connecting individuals across the globe and furthering their learning, what possible informational pitfalls may occur through digital sources, such as social media or online news outlets?


Researchers' External Links


Downes' Blog
Siemens' elearnspace
Siemens and Downes on MOOCs and Education

References


Bell, F. (2011, March). Connectivism: Its Place in Theory-Informed Research and Innovation in Technology-Enabled Learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12 (3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/902/1664
Downes, S. (2014). About Stephen Downes. Retrieved from http://www.downes.ca/me/
Downes, S. (2012, May 19). Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. Retrieved from
http://www.downes.ca/files/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf
Educause. (2015). George Siemens (Athabasca University). Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/members/george-siemens
Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm


"Creating, preserving, and utilizing information flow should be a key organizational activity. Knowledge flow can be likened to a river that meanders through the ecology of an organization. In certain areas, the river pools and in other areas it ebbs. The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of information flow." - George Siemens
"There is no reason for the delivery of instruction (whatever form it may take) to be conjoined with the more formal and institutionally-based assessment of instruction. Which means that we can offer an open, potentially chaotic, potentially diverse, approach to learning, and at the same time employ such a process to support learning in traditional institutions." - Stephen Downes