Is Connectivism an Actor Network? Yes, of course

Frances Bell asks “CCK08 Is Connectivism a Learning Network?. She critiques the connectivism community/network/group of people who regularly use that term in their writing about education, in connectivist terms (“in their own terms”). The main argument is that “Protagonists have shown their ability to connect between fields of their own choosing, but less willingness to explore fields suggested by others e.g. Actor-Network Theory.” (ANT) “There are little or no links between ANT and connectivism,” says Bell. Therefore, Connectivism may not be willing to be “mutable knowlege as it extends its network…” Bell, here fails to draw a distinction between the ideas and the people who have them. If Connectivism IS its “protagonists” and the “protagonists” ARE Connectivism, then, if they do not engage with ANT, following Bell’s argument, there is a contradiction. But, how unusual is it for humans to display behaviour inconsistent with their ideas?

There are relationships between Connectivism and ANT; regardless of whether the protagonists of Connectivism make them, there are links. Bell sets out some of them in her piece. I am more familiar with Actor Network Theory than Connectivism, but when I read some Connectivist writings, the relationships with ANT are, as Bell has observed, striking.

Actor network theory (ANT) provides a way of conceptualising the multiplicity of agents in contexts, including the agency of context itself, as well as the agency of abstractions such as theories of learning. Through actor network theory we can come to understand what might lie behind a statement such as: technological developments are driving educational change. How is it that technological development, an abstraction, has such agentive force?

For Doolin and Lowe, the central concern of ANT is: “… the understanding and theorization of the role of technology and technological objects within society.” (Doolin and Lowe 2002, 75) Much of the groundwork for ANT was done before the Internet era and draws on the Science Studies movement largely attributed to Latour (e.g. Latour 1999). As Doolin and Lowe have observed, “… actor–network theory can be placed broadly within a post-modern mode of thinking that emphasizes the local and situated nature of all knowledge.” (Doolin and Lowe 2002, 69). They go on to assert that, “…actor–network theory offers a particularly effective ‘alternative reading’ of social interactions within organizations through its emphasis on empirical enquiry and its lack of constraining structure and ontology.” (Doolin and Lowe 2002, 72) In this sense, ANT shares similarities with action research conducted within an emergent or grounded theory frame.

Actors may be individual human agents: people. But, actors may also be non-human entities that exert agentive influence within and between networks: “technological actors”, i.e. artefacts of technology, “social actors” such as organisations, companies, institutions, etc., and “natural actors”, e.g. animals and plants (Kendal and Michael 1998). According to Sandelowski: “Contemporary theoretical frameworks, such as actor-network theory … show the utility of treating objects and people as if they were analytically (albeit not morally) similar by viewing them both as embodied actors in relationships with each other.” (Sandelowski 2002, 111)

Understanding a set of relationships as an actor network allows discursive force not only to people but also to artefacts, to natural objects and to institutions both at the concrete level (specific firms, schools, universities, hospitals, etc) and at the abstract level (bureaucracy, technology, religion, marriage, the economy, language) without falling wholly to linguistic, economic or technological determinism. It acknowledges the commonsense expression of the feeling that we are in part being driven or swept along by, for example, technological change and in thrall to the artefacts of technology but allows us as people to come to know critically that such determinism is the product of relations of power and struggles for power, and through that critical knowledge to engage with that struggle.

Bell appears to have caught George Siemens out in striving for grand narrative status for Connectivism. She quotes him saying, “I hope we can make progress in this course [on critiquing Connectivism], but I don’t think we’ll achieve the task in only 12 weeks. Exploring, critiquing, extending, and revising a theory is a task of generations.” But it does appears as though Connectivism, by that name, has emerged in less than one generation and Bell has critiqued it and, in making the link with ANT, extended it. Not bad for a 12 week course. However, if Connectivism is seen in a line, which includes Constructivism, Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, Critical Discourse Analysis, (Freirian) Student-Centred Learning, Structuration, Third Space Theory, etc AND if Connectivism makes links with and to these other actors in the lineage, then Connectivism is usefully playing its part in critiquing, extending and revising theory (note: not A theory).

Turkle observes that tools shape thought. She shows, with admirable clarity how for some children digital toys (Furby, Tamagotchi) have had a fundamental impact on the ethical categories (What is alive? What does it mean to give care?) by which they form their world-view from a very early age, and how, for working adults, presentation and wordprocessing software have had an impact on the ideas expressed. (Turkle 2000 ; Turkle 2004). Turkle’s observations are complemented by research in several areas. There is much in the literature on distributed cognition and identity to suggest that there may be something to her speculation (Moll, Tapia et al. 1993; Lang 1997; Salomon 1997).

Actor network theory is not particularly a theory of education or learning, but of social action. To the extent that education is social action, ANT can be brought to bear upon it. I am not interested in establishing ANT as a grand narrative superior to Connectivism. I prefer to see ANT and Connectivism both as complementary petits recits. Are Connectivists Connectivists? I don’t know. Connectivism certainly is an actor network.

References

Doolin, B. and A. Lowe (2002). “To reveal is to critique: actor–network theory and critical information systems research.” Journal of Information Technology 17: 69-78

Fountain, R.-M. (1999). “Socio-scientific issues via actor network theory.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 31(3): 339-358

Kendal, G. and M. Michael (1998). “Order and Disorder: Time, Technology and the Self.” Culture Machine 1(1).http://culturemachine.tees.ac.uk/InterZone/kendall.htm

Lang, A. (1997). “Non-Cartesian artefacts in dwelling activities: Steps towards a semiotic ecology”. Mind, Culture and Activity. M. Cole, Y. Engeström and O. Vasquez. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 185-202

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass., London, Harvard University Press.

Miettinen, R. (1999). “The Riddle of Things: Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory as Approaches to Studying innovations.” Mind, Culture and Activity 6(3): 170-195

Moll, L. C., J. Tapia, et al. (1993). Living knowledge: the social distribution of cultural resources for thinking. Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. G. Salomon. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 139-163

Salomon, G. (1997). No distribution without individuals’ cognition: a dynamic interactional view. Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. G. Salomon. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 111-138

Sandelowski, M. (2002). “Reembodying Qualitative Inquiry.” Qualitative Health Research 12(1): 104-115

Turkle, S. (2000). “Cuddling up to Cyborg Babies.” UNESCO Courier September 2000: 43-45

Turkle, S. (2004). “How Computers Change the Way We Think.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50(21)

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