Thursday, 10 February 2011

Networks and Feedback

Over the last two or three weeks we have had a lot of discussion about networks and how Connectivism is really focused on how learning takes place across these networks. One thing that hasn't really been discussed is the notion of feedback loops in relation to networks and I believe that understanding feedback mechanisms are crucial to understanding how networks develop and evolve. So what is a feedback loop? Feedback loops occur when information or an event in a system makes a change to the system and that information or change is then fed back into the system again allowing the system to respond to the information or event.

There are two types of feedback mechanism: positive and negative. Negative feedback in a dynamic system  is a constraining mechanism, keeping the system within certain boundaries  - it is a limiting function that helps to maintain system equilibrium - think of a thermostat - as the temperature reaches a certain temperature the thermostat cuts the heat source so that the temperature cannot continue to rise, if the temperature falls below a certain level the thermostat again connects the heat source to allow the temperature to rise. In social terms negative feedback can be seen in the use of rules, laws, social norms, etc..Positive feedback reflects and amplifies some aspect of the system and is often exponential in the sense that the amplification can happen very quickly over a relatively short period of time. Most people have probably experienced positive audio feedback, whereby a microphone, too close to speakers creates a situation where the sound signal very quickly gets louder and louder  - the microphone picks up the sound coming out of the speakers which is then fed back through the speakers, picked up by the microphone and so on until painful on the ears! We can see a current example of positive feedback in a social system context in Egypt, where after years of some degree of relative dynamic balance, the pro-democracy movement has been very quickly amplified, threatening the existing system's stability. Positive feedback loops can allow quite dramatic change to occur within a system.

In complex systems, both negative and positive feedback mechanisms are necessary for a dynamic balance of stability and instability. Without positive feedback, negative feedback would prevent any development in the system and if positive feedback went unchecked it could cause the system to collapse. It seems to me that networks are the delivery routes for feedback. We have talked a lot about the connections in networks (nodes, weak / strong links, etc) but not so much about what is being passed through these connections. As well as data, information and ideas networks are the conduits for feedback mechanisms. Thinking in terms of the CCK11 network for example, there are the readings and resources which are available across the Internet for the course each week but the network also includes a high interactive element of discussion, blog posts and tweets. Some ideas get amplified through comments, retweets, etc and become important. The CCK11 network is always dynamic - every time one of the participant's understanding changes the network changes.The CCK11 network is interconnected to multiple other networks so when that network changes the connection to the other networks change - I guess a kind of "network ecology".

There are many kinds of learning - take for example a child learning to walk. The process of learning to walk in obviously not read in a book and has nothing to do with the web or social media - but it is a feedback mechanism, feedback between the child's body and brain (neural networks), an instinctive, iterative process over time amplifying certain movements and restricting others until the delicate balance of walking is achieved. In this example no one sees the feedback itself- only the result of it taking place.

In the Elluminate meeting last Friday, there was some discussion around learning and being connected / disconnected and what that might mean. I had the thought that if you look at networks from the perspective of feedback mechanisms - events that cause change in the nodes - then perhaps the degree of connectivity is connected to the degree of available feedback mechanisms, both positive and negative. On a very basic level, if I sit in my room working on trying to understand something but not sharing my thoughts then any feedback taking place is only within the frame of my own neural connections - I will be connecting and referencing previous knowledge and understanding. I may think I really understand something until I share that understanding with someone else and then something they say might change (or reinforce) that understanding - often because they have made a different set of connections themselves. By externalising my understanding, even on a one to one level I have expanded the potential for feedback and assimilation.

When trying to follow the group discussion going on in the live Elluminate sessions I am constantly trying to adjust my perspective - how does idea X fit into my current understanding and if it doesn't fit then why not? What I realise is that "my current understanding" is the emergent result of all the connections I have previously made - not a static, linear structure built on a pre-determined path but an organic ecosystem of understanding that is always in dynamic balance, subject to forces of positive and negative feedback.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Nature vs Nurture debate

This morning there was an interesting article on the BBC website about research into how much our genes influence our learning ( . The research suggests that our genetic disposition does play a very important role in the learning process, strengthening the case for "personalised learning".

I had been thinking about this question a couple of weeks ago after quite a profound experience. It was my niece's 21st Birthday party and at one point I saw my sister writing something down. I noticed that she was holding her pen in an unusual way - the same way that I hold my pen, with my thumb and two fingers above, resting on my 3rd and 4th fingers. I have always held pens and pencils like this and thought that I had just "learnt wrong" when I was a small child. Everyone else seemed to hold theirs with their 1st finger above, resting on their other 3 fingers. I was fascinated - I asked my dad to write something and amazingly he held his pen the same way, and then I asked my nephew...again the same way.

I was really blown away by how something like this could have remained invisible to me my whole life and I immediately started thinking of the implications for learning. Genetic traits might lead to seemingly obvious examples such as the way someone holds a pen (but even I didn't notice this) but what about psychological and other less physical examples? My dad, sister and nephew are all quite different from me externally but how do I know if there are key genetic traits that run through the way that we all have gone about learning  - what else might we share? Are there other things that I think I may have learned "wrong" that are actually quirks of my genes and so I am predisposed to following a particular learning pathway?

I'm not sure how this relates to the #CCK11 course but for me it is something that has to influence learning therefore there must be a connection - I just need to find it. My initial thoughts are (purely specutively I stress!) that from a Connectivist perspective certain genetic traits may be realised in our brains through a favouring of certain neural pathways - and these become early nodes in our emerging learning network.

If anyone has any thoughts on the matter that would be great. Also if anyone has had similar experiences or knows of any neuroscientific research in this area I would be very interested to know.


"DNA Molecule Display" used under CC licence by net_efekt