A theory for our time?

Like politicians, do we get the theories we deserve?

The Ur text of connectivism is George Siemens (2005) “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” Siemens is a good speaker and has clearly spent a long time thinking about elearning. He gave a good keynote at the Emerge April 08 conference, “Technology and Community as Identity.” (2008) But, as a learning theorist, I am unsure.

His seminal article starts right out saying, “Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments.” With this statement I find myself having to fill in huge blanks. Maybe it is true. But, it is severe shorthand. On reflection I feel I might be able to support such a statement. But, where is the evidence? Then, the second sentence: “These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology.” When was this pre Promethean time? Adam and Eve naked? Again, I can fill in the blanks and bolster such a statement so that I might support it, but the use of the word “technology” to mean, tacitly, particular things (and hence not other things) is at least problematic when one is putting forward a new theory. And we go straight into the third sentence: “Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn.” Technology, undefined, is given primary agency for some of the core features of our humanity. Again, such a statement might be justifiable. There has been a lot of work trying to pin down how it is that we can feel that abstractions have force in our lives, indeed that non human agents of all sorts can effect the world, but it isn’t referenced. And so it goes: on and on; assertion is piled on assertion; trends are identified with no supporting evidence. “Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.” Well, many will: I’ve done that but I am privileged; many more won’t Even in the UK, in the late 1990s, the average job tenure for men was 18 years, and, “…over 40% lasted more than 20 years and 24% over 30 years.” (Burgess 1998) Many people experience not so much high job mobility but extended periods detached from the labour market at all. One third of Bangladeshi women, who work, work in hotels. (National Statistics, http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=463). And I start getting cross.

This, for me represents yet another example of tacit communitarianism: normalising around “people like us”, blinded to any other who is too different. I am annoyed that “technology” is used as shorthand for a wide range of ICTs without spelling them out. This may be acceptable for popular journalism and politicians, but it does not make good theory.

Burgess, S. (1998). “Jobs for Life.” European Economic Perspectives(16).http://www.cepr.org/pubs/eep/articles/jobs4lif.htm

Siemens, G. (2005). “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1). http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens, G. (2008). Technology and Community as Identity. Emerge: Digital Communities and Digital Identity. Online.http://vle.jiscemerge.org.uk/course/view.php?id=10

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