Sunday, 11 May 2014

Transcendental Subjects: Stephen Downes and Jon Dron on Connectivism

There's been a fascinating debate between Stephen Downes, whose 'connectivist' theory has underpinned his pioneering of the MOOC (or rather the cMOOC and not the xMOOC, which is a pale travesty of his idea and which has unsurprisingly been a disaster!). It started with Dron's paper on "Connectivism: A learning theory or a theory of how to learn": Personally, I wouldn't say this was a particularly focused critique. It draws attention to other theories which family resemblances to Downes's theory (like distributed cognition) but it seems to me that Dron is expressing a general disquiet with Downes's theory. Nothing wrong with general disquiet (it's often a good instinct!) but unless clarity starts to emerge (maybe in the form of a better theory) its easy to get lost in the gnarly wood.

Downes has responded to Dron here: He quibbles with Dron's characterisation of connectivism, and takes particular issue with his stance regarding what he calls the "physical symbol system" hypothesis - even dismissing distributed cognition as an instance of this mistaken theory (in his view) [I'm not sure I could be so certain here!].

What are these guys talking about? Here it's important to be clear: They are both discussing something metaphysical. They are not alone in this enterprise, to be fair: all theorists of learning have done the same. The problem is that better theorists like Piaget knew he was describing something metaphysical. What does it mean to have an argument about metaphysics? Well, usually this results in varieties of sectarianism - and that is what appears to be on display here!

More deeply, the metaphysical discussion revolves around differing descriptions of a Transcendental Subject (in ordinary language, a Transcendental Subject is a 'make-believe person' who is assumed to lie at the root of us all). This was something that was given to the world by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Alain Badiou summarises Kant's position elegantly in a short passage in the introduction to Meillasoux's 'After Finitude' (2008):
"Kant grants to Hume that everything we know comes from experience. Yet Kant upholds the necessity of the laws of nature, whose mathematical form and conformity to empirical observation we have known since Newton, concluding that since this necessity cannot have arisen from our sensible receptivity, it must have another source: that of the constituting activity of a universal subject, which Kant calls the "transcendental subject". This distinction between empirical receptivity and transcendental constitution appears to be the obligatory framework for all modern thought" (Meillasoux: After Finitude, p VII)
The nature of the transcendental subject is not just the subject with "categories of understanding" as Kant presented. It is also the cybernetic human's understanding of the world through coordinating conversations (as in Pask's conversation theory - popularised in educational technology by Laurillard), or a transcendental subject formed out of the social communications in society (as in Luhmann's theory)  - and in the connectivist model of knowledge presented by Downes and Siemens (it also affects connectionism too...). The problem is that as transcendental models, they are essentially unprovable.

Kant's reasoning about his transcendental subject was presented in the context of what he called a 'transcendental argument'. This was an argument to address the question: Given this is how the world is, what must be going on? Kant arrived at his transcendental subject through looking at what was happening in the real world, and thinking about how it could be possible. He was, in this respect, absolutely in-line with Hume's thinking about the ways that scientists reason about the world (Hume argued that scientific understanding of causal mechanisms in nature were effectively social constructs created by groups of scientists performing repeatable experiments where there were regular successions of events that required explanation.)

I don't see Downes or Dron (or anyone else in educational technology for that matter) looking at the world as it is and seeing what's there. Instead they tend to see what they want to see. And what they want to see is framed by the particular theory, or particular ego battle they wish to engage with.

Learning is immensely complicated. It is as complicated as music (which I prefer to think about). The great educators like Comenius can offer sound practical advice, and certainly some learning theory is valuable in drawing teachers towards doing sensible things with learners. But equally learning theories can draw people to doing rather silly things too. That's sometimes no bad thing (we've done a lot of silly things in e-learning!) - we should learn from the silly things we do. But if the things we do are silly, we should be prepared to question the underlying assumptions that led us to do them. As I have commented before (see this rarely happens.

There appears to be far greater organicism, multi-dimensional stratification and dialecticism involved in real experiences of learning and teaching than is adequately expressed in any learning theory I know. The weakness of most of these theories lies in their essential 'connecting' nature, where the very idea of 'connecting' is metaphysical. Aesthetic experience and aesthetic understanding does not appear to be about 'making connections'. In some ways this goes back to my thoughts about Lamarck (see and Bateson's comments about the importance of environmental constraint. Mind emerges from nature through absence, constraint, redundancy. Ernst Gombrich in A Sense of Order  (1979) even went as far to highlight the importance of information theory in the analysis of redundancy in artistic experience. That's in the right ball-park; and it has little to do with making connections. Indeed, it's an approach which is much more empirical rather than transcendental. Teaching and learning interventions (like artistic works) punctuate experiences; they do not make connections - although their punctuations may (and often do) lead to growth of the mind.

So both Downes and Dron would do well to look at this post-MOOC world as it is, not as they would like to to see it. xMOOCs and cMOOCs have taught us a lot. Given what has happened, what must be going on? Indeed, given what is happening between Downes and Dron, what must be going on?


Ling said...

It is a really complicated problem....

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Ling,

Sometimes I think it's complicated... but...

It can't be that difficult to look at the world and see things as they are, not as we would wish them to be!

It just takes courage and humility. That's what's difficult!