The (Digital) Writing on the Walls… Dr. Michael Wesch

If you haven’t yet found the time to watch Dr. Michael Wesch’s lecture at the University of Regina this January, I would highly recommend that you do.  Wesch’s lecture entitled The (Digital) Writing on the Walls (and why the walls don’t matter anymore) was recorded live and is available here.  This is a fantastic lecture, one which I wish I could have attended, but I am certainly glad to have experienced it via the technology of Ustream [and from the comfort of my couch as well].

Michael Wesch is clearly at the center of exploring the changing landscapes  of technology and education.  Dr. Wesch is professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, where he studies the effect of new media on human interaction.  Wesch’s greatest claim to fame has been the creation of YouTube videos explaining the state of world of Web 2.0 technologies.  His videos on culture, technology, education, and information have been viewed by tens of millions, and have earned him the nickname “the explainer” by Wired magazine.  I have viewed his videos with students in a variety of situations.  They are excellent windows into the world of the second generation web, and are available here.

Michael Wesch portrays a very clear picture of today’s landscape of learning environments, and the attitudes of students.  In this video lecture, Wesch outlines a model of learning theories titled Transformations in Learning (to which he credits Balinki and Klinchi,2005).

This model has 4 major levels:

  1. Receptive (acquiring knowledge)
  2. Subjective (analyze and critique)
  3. Procedural (separate & connectivist)
  4. Constructive (constructing new information and knowledge)

He explains that many learners in today’s learning environments get hung up as Subjective knowers, and he explains the hazards of this. Many students believe that everything is subjective, everything is just opinion.  “This is a dangerous position.  These students are almost adverse to learning.  ‘Ah, What do you know?;  Nobody knows anything.  Everything is just opinion.’”  Students do not respect elders or teachers as worthy sources of knowledge or wisdom.

This hits home for me.  This describes very well many of the learners that I encounter every day.   In an age of interactive Web 2.0 technologies, students seem to think that all knowledge is available on-line, and that there is perhaps little value in many school activities.  ‘Why learn information if you can just Google it, right?’

Dr. Wesch identifies that many educators aim to move students beyond the levels of receptive and subjective knowers, but that many get caught setting the bar too low.  This creates a move to procedural and subjective knowers [critical thinkers], and he states that “I don’t think critical thinking is enough.”

He discusses possible solutions to this chaotic learning environment.    He talks about constructivist and and essentially connectivist theory as solutions to these modern learning obstacles.  He recommends that we need to go beyond enabling critical thinking in order to create learners who can be critical about and analyze information, but also who can create new knowledge and have the ability to share knowledge, by creating meaningful connections.  I suggest that this is interdisciplinarity, and this comes through the application of all learning modes, including the higher levels of constructivist, contructionist, and connectivist.

Overall, the aim is to move students from knowledgeable (receptive learners) to knowledge-able (constructive, connective, interdisciplinary) students who are able to create their own knowledge and find ways to connect and share their understanding.   This begs the question:  “Which tests are we preparing students for – the standard tests, or the test of the real world – to deal with real world events and help to create change in positive directions?”

Learning Theories in a Digital Age

In an article from December of 2004, George Siemens outlines connectivism as a new learning theory for our digital age.  He writes, “Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments. These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology. Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. ”

I would agree with most of what Siemens says, however I would argue that learning has always been impacted through technology.  Whether the technology was pen and ink, pencil and paper, film and video, or today’s 2nd generation of internet technologies, technology has always had enormous impact on education.  Connectivism is a new learning theory that has come about because of changes in the landscape of learning environments.  Connectivism is a new learning theory for our digital age.  However, it is not THE learning model.  It does not replace other theories of learning.

Behavioral learning represents the acquisition of skills [ei. driving, keyboarding, or playing musical instruments]in which practice and repetition is important. Cognitive learning represents the internalization of information, knowledge, and concepts.  Constructivism is learning through which the learner construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.  Constructionism is a theory that emphasizes that learning occurs especially well when the learner is engaged in constructing something for others to see.

I believe that learning is multi-faceted and so therefore is teaching.  Learning takes place in a variety of ways, shapes, and forms.   Learning takes place in behavioral, cognitive, contructivist, constructionist, as well as connectivist ways, perhaps simultaneously.  One theory or method is not superior to another, in fact a good teacher enables all modes of learning to take place whether they are aware of this or not.

It is true that our world is changing rapidly.  Information is changing, knowledge is changing, learning is changing.  A new connectivist theory of learning allows us to explore how we allow learners to connect to information and to form knowledge.  At the same time,  however, the ‘older’ theories of learning have not become any less important.

Tony Forster, in a blog post from 2007 brings up some great questions about connectivism as a learning theory.  This may be an area in which the questions are more important than the answers.