CCK11 Thinking about connectivism

I am sitting in on a MOOC (massive online open course–seriously cool!) about connectivism.  The term itself caught my eye, though I had to spend some time disambiguating it with “connectionist” (computational neural net) stuff. I now see it as extending learning theories that spanned behaviorist to constructivism, now connectivism. See  this document for the chart, and this page for the first week’s activities.

Actually, I’m fighting a battle with cognitive dissonance here. I’m wrestling with the notion that the chart linked above appears to be trying to answer the wrong question.  In my view, the issue is not about how connectivism is different from the other learning theories; rather, the question should be closer to how connectivism builds on earlier theories, since I believe that’s what it is trying to do.

My view is built upon notions of relational biology due to Rashevsky and Rosen.  In “Topology and life”*, Rashevsky, one of the founders of mathematical biology, realized that we can tease apart a living organism and count the components (which has the nasty side effect of killing it), but we cannot put it back together. Something in our knowledge of living (complex) things is missing. He set out to find out what that something is. Rosen came along and later and offered a mathematical model called the Metabolism-Repair System which serves as a candidate answer.

A central tenet in the Rashevsky-Rosen concept is that the action lies in the connections.

Rosen authored the book Anticipatory Systems (soon to be reprinted) which essentially (my view) offers the underlying basis for all learning theories: living entities are anticipatory by nature. From the lowest single cell creature to the largest living creatures on Earth, anticipatory behavior is in play, whether it’s simple chemical reactions to sunlight bending a plant to face the sun, or to complex neurological processes from neural firings to brains at work.  That model fits all the learning processes, be they conditioned-response or people in networks.

Ok, I just offered a highly reductionist explanation to a massively complex set of processes. I don’t see that as any different from someone saying that process X is better than process Y. At some point, as Rosen was fond of saying in his books, you have to keep asking “why”.  I believe that anticipation serves as a foundation on which “why” questions can best be understood and, perhaps, debated. My own answer to cognitive dissonance is to ignore the “my process is better than” arguments and spend time seeing how they each work together.

* Topology and life: In search of general mathematical principles in biology and sociology. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 16 (1954): 317–348

5 thoughts on “CCK11 Thinking about connectivism

  1. Fascinating edges to explore, Jack! Re anticipation (and my eye wanders to the spine of “Life Itself”, by Rosen, just 15″ from me), I like how you link that with asking “why”. I think questioning itself is the throwing out of an intention, with some kind of confidence that in some future the satisfaction of that intention will specify the context within which, retrospectively, the relevant conditions for its satisfaction are identified. That could be called “learning”, which in this context can be seen as embodying new bindings. After the rebinding the path is relatively obvious, and, with organisms, there seems to be care taken to monitor and husband henceforth ongoing learned bindings (cf http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/getting-over-the-code-delusion ).

    I think in that kind of anticipation there is a throwing out of a future (in the sense used in “call-by-future” in programming languages), and also almost certainly a meeting of past-flowing-forward with future-flowing-back, analogously (and perhaps more than that, given how we keep discovering quantum facilitation in photosynthesis, nerve signal propagation, etc) to quantum state vector collapse retrospectively specifying paths chosen. We, and organisms, seem to be able to do this. We are at the very beginning of even conceiving of bringing such capabilities (anticipation, intentionality, call-by-future) to our software, and, through that, to its mediation of our social interactions.

    1. Thanks, Mark.
      I believe that you make an important point when you say:

      “We are at the very beginning of even conceiving of bringing such
      capabilities (anticipation, intentionality, call-by-future) to our software, and, through that, to its mediation of our social interactions”

      I would like to think that we can find a way to accelerate details entailed in that statement.

  2. Very interesting, Jack. I’m with you in thinking that Connectivism is building on, rather than purely different from, [some aspects of] other learning theories.

    I’m particularly interested in the idea of “relational biology” … although I’m not immediately understanding the link you’ve implied here between “action lies in the connections” and “living systems are anticipatory by nature”. It may be that I’m misunderstanding what you mean by ‘anticipatory’.

    Anyway, I hope you continue to bring these ideas into the #CCK11 discussion – they’re highly relevant.
    cheers,
    Simon

    1. Simon,
      You raise valuable questions, well worth longer blog posts and conversations. It is perhaps sloppy of me to say “action lies in the connections” when what I believe I am paraphrasing is the essence of relational biology, that relations between components within a living thing, and between those components and their environment are essential. The term “relational biology” finds its way into the literature along side “systems biology” and other terms.

      Rosen cites a simple example of the single celled creature that moves itself into a chemical field of increasing strength anticipating food somewhere along that path. It seems fair to suggest that there is a vast difference between a single-celled creature anticipating food through chemotaxis, and humans anticipating food when they smell something cooking in the other room, but the primary notion of anticipation persists across a range of living creatures. From Wikipedia
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anticipation_(artificial_intelligence)
      if the sky is cloudy and barometric pressure is low, it’s an anticipatory behavior to take a long an umbrella.

      At some point in the future, I’d like to work with others to show how anticipation plays roles in learning theories.

      Many thanks

  3. Nice post!

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote “In my view, the issue is not about how connectivism is different from the other learning theories; rather, the question should be closer to how connectivism builds on earlier theories, since I believe that’s what it is trying to do.”

    I was going to post this tomorrow on my CCK11-related-thoughts-blog, but what it seems to me is that many people try to throw an old theory out the window as if it doesn’t work any more; there is an either-or though process going on and in my view it’s not like that. I think that there is a continuum here and these theories are complementary to each other, not exclusionary.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts as we move through this MOOC

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