Sensemaking through Networks

Will Richardson writes that much of the chatter about changes in education due to technology is missing the point. Getting students and teachers and everyone to publish and write–yes, that’s a good start. Improving communication between schools and the community–yep, that’s good too. But Will argues that those are really just ways of doing the same thing we’ve been doing for a while, just with a nicer set of tools.

But here is the bigger question, I think. Through teaching them to use these tools to publish, are we also teaching them how to use these tools to continue the learning once that project is over? Can they continue to explore and reflect on the ideas that those artifacts represent regardless of who is teaching the next class? Can they connect with that audience not simply in the ways that books connect to readers (read but no write) but in the ways that allow them to engage and explore more deeply with an ongoing, growing community of learners? Isn’t that the real literacy here?

Part of what I think Will’s talking about here is connectivism: the idea that learning is about creating connections, both between people and between ideas. When I first heard of connectivism, I didn’t really get it. Actually, I’m not sure that I get it now. However, I think I might have figured out one piece of it.

My initial reaction to connectivism was that it was just about using people in your network basically as sources of information. Instead of looking something up in a search engine or encyclopedia, you ask a person. Will quotes Jay Cross in calling this the “outboard brain.” That didn’t seem very revolutionary to me though; it just seemed like more of the same stuff, just with different tools.

But I don’t think that’s what Will’s really talking about. The network isn’t just a source of information; our connections actually help us make sense of that information. We see patterns in what people talk about and how they discuss it, and that helps us in our sensemaking. We weigh information from trusted sources more heavily than those we don’t trust, and that becomes part of our understanding too. Our networks are part of our filters keeping some information out, but networks also help us connect ideas and dig deeper. We get feedback from others, and hopefully we learn to improve because of that.

What do we want students to be able to do? If I understand Will correctly, he’s hoping we can teach students to use the network as a way to make sense of the vast amounts of information now available to us. What the technology lets us do is connect with people so we can understand more and keep learning. We don’t have to stop learning when a course is finished; we can keep interacting with our network and learning together. Really, that shouldn’t just be a goal for students; lifelong learning should be a goal for everyone.

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3 thoughts on “Sensemaking through Networks

  1. Sometimes I think of a person who is connected with others (and not just people in their field) as a hub to access potential energy for collaboration. James Burke pushed the concept of real innovation coming from the connections that were made between people who learned from both the successes and failures of others. What I love about this day and age is that learning is empowered by our ability to connect with people all over the globe. So many more perspectives = richer experience to draw from and inspire creative solutions. I don’t have to have my head stuck in a book (though I do still get pleasure from doing that).

  2. I think reading a book can still give you a different perspective, but it is different being a passive consumer of that perspective and actually interacting with a person, whether live or virtual.

    I agree that seeing multiple perspectives is definitely one of the benefits of the connections we can now enjoy. I’ve heard a number of people argue about the opposite possibility as well though. What about people who choose to close themselves in an echo chamber, only interacting with those who have very similar viewpoints? I accept that this is a possibility, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Maybe that’s part of the role of education though; to expose students (at any level) to alternative perspectives.

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