Archive for the ‘Cognition’ Category

Connectivism or Collectivism – relations between the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Through a post on Christian Dalsgaard’s blog I came across a discussion opened by George Siemens on the notions of Collectivism and Connectivism – a post which Terry Anderson then responded to. In the post ‘Collective Intelligence? Nah. Connective Intelligence’ George Siemens writes about his discomfort with the notion of ‘Collective intelligence’ – a term which appears in the 2008 Horizon Report – he writes:

“For reasons of motivation, self-confidence, and satisfaction, it is critical that we can retain ourselves and our ideas in our collaboration with others. Connective intelligences permits this. Collective intelligence results in an over-writing of individual identity”

In the post “Collectivism and Connectivism” Terry Anderson comments on this by presenting his understanding of ‘collective intelligence’ and presents four different social constellations related to learning (what Terry Anderson and John Dron have called the ‘taxonomy of the many’) – here Terry Anderson present four/three aggregations of the many (individual, group, network and collective. The notion of ‘collective’ he interprets in the following way:

“Collectives – These are non personal aggregations of the Many. They allow us to compare ourselves to the many, collectively predict and make decisions, ask questions of all, vote and visualize our aggregated opinions and ideas, match our interests and find networks, groups and individuals and in many other emerging ways help us understand and control our collective worlds.”

In another post “Networks Versus Groups in Higher education” (which is well worth reading I might add!) Anderson expands a bit on the notion of the collective or collectives:

“Collectives are machine-aggregated representations of the activities of large number of individuals. They achieve value by extracting information from the individual, group, and network activities of large numbers of networked users.”

As an example Anderson mentions recommendation systems (e.g. Amazon) and also ‘tag clouds’ and clusters (e.g. at Flickr) seem to fall under this category (where order or ‘intelligence’ emerge out of chaotically structured and large amounts of data, through the actions carried out and content provided by the individual users and (re)-represented through machine-aggregation and complex algorithms).

However, as I also argued in a comment to Christian’s post, I think the discussion of collective or connective has deeper roots which can be traced (at least) back to differences between a Vygotskian and Piagetian view of learning – as Christian very nicely summarised my comment:

“I think you have an important point, when you state that the theories differ in their approach to the relationship between individual and group or the individual and the social. One approach has the individual and individual cognition as a starting point (Piaget) and views the social as “connected” individuals; in other words, social connections can strengthen individual cognition. The other approach has social practice as a starting point (Vygotsky) and holds that individual cognition is dependent on a social practice.”

In the Piagetian view (or socio-cognitive view if we use the distinctions made by Dillenbourg, Baker, Blaye and O’Malley in the article: “The evolution of research on collaborative learning” [Google Scholar link]) individual cognition is strengthened, facilitated, matured or catalysed by social interaction – but the cognitive development (e.g. development of schemas) remains tied to the mental operations of the individual and has its own logic relative to the existing mental apparatus of the individual (the schemas) – a point taken to its extreme in e.g. radical constructivism known from Glaserfeld. In the Vygotskian view, as Christian says, the point of departure is a social practice and individual cognition is dependent on social practice – or to say in another way – our cognitive structures and processes are formed by the social, cultural world (ways of structuring our thoughts are derived from the socio-cultural world e.g. mnemonic techniques, language and ‘methods’ of approaching a problem) – in this sense our cognition is inherently social or cultural. As it is phrased by Cole & Wertsch in the article “Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky”:

“Higher mental functions are, by definition, culturally mediated; they involve not a ‘direct’ action on the world, but an indirect action, one that takes a bit of material matter used previously and incorporates it as an aspect of action. In so far as that matter has itself been shaped by prior human practice (e.g., it is an artifact), current action benefits from the mental work that produced the particular form of that matter. [...] In such a view artifacts clearly do not serve simply to facilitate mental processes that would otherwise exist. Instead, they fundamentally shape and transform them”

Such ideas of the social shaping of cognition has a also lead to the critique that we must then be mere ‘puppets and marionettes of the culturally given’ – a critique which seems to be echoed in Siemens statement “Collective intelligence results in an over-writing of individual identity” or differently put and taken to an extreme – the individual becomes a mere reflection of socio-cultural forces and our cognition would then be uniformly structured or determined by the social. While this might be a valid critique of the argument, socio-cultural researchers (Cole, Wertsch, Engeström), however, also stress how individuals and collectives continuously produce new, surprising behaviour and knowledge- and no less – artifacts (ideal or material)…but this is a longer discussion and well worth a follow-up post!

With this I just wanted to stress that the discussions seem to have deeper theoretical roots and represent different ways of conceptualising and understanding the foundations of human cognition.

But such differences (in underlying assumptions and understandings) often pop-up during discussions of socio-cultural learning theory or social theories of learning – for instance when I discuss Wenger’s notion of communities of practice and his social theory of learning with students, a question that often arises is “but is it not possible to learn by one-self – do you mean that I can’t learn by myself by reading a book or reflecting on an issue”. This interestingly relates to what Anderson writes in his post about ‘individual learning’:

“Individual learning – Most of my learning takes places as I read, watch and listen with no desire or expectation for human interaction, connecting or networking.”

Now, my contention to such an argument (which I think Anderson himself also addresses in a follow-up comment) is that the activities of reading, watching or listening never actually take place in a social vacuum. This is not to say that individuals don’t read, learn, listen etc. by themselves but that this always take place in relation to, in anticipation of or in the light of other social activities – one is reading to prepare a lecture, for writing an article etc. In this sense such an activity might be individual, but it is simultaneously also always social. And, I think both proponents of collectivism and connectivism would actually agree on that; even though they might view the foundations of human cognition differently.