Sunday, 27 January 2013

Our Chemical Selves: The Biology of Connectivism

 Connectivist Learning: course Prerequisites: 

your own device, internet connection, oxytocin and adrenaline

This is my last post before the edcMOOC course starts tomorrow. Through this blog, I've been living out the connectivist experience of not one, but two MOOCS, both which are experimental in the connectivist "genre".

According to the good folk at ETMOOC, the key principles in the design of such a MOOC are:

•  The course is developed with a weak ‘centre’. While will provide a level of aggregation, detail, and direction, the majority of interactions are likely to occur within groups & networks, facilitated through various online spaces & services.
•  Participants are strongly encouraged to develop their own reflective, learning spaces. We’re hoping that every learner in #etmooc creates and maintains their own blog for continuous reflection, creativity, and resource sharing.
•  Sharing and network participation are essential for the success of all learners in #etmooc. Thus, we’ll be needing you to share your knowledge, to support and encourage others, and to participate in meaningful conversations.

To fellow students who will embark on eLearning and Digital Cultures tomorrow, this is a familiar scenario. With an email to participants suggesting some online platforms, the two themes for the course and an artefact which is to be produced, course coordinators left us to our own devices for nearly 3 months and look what happened! All of the above and more, not a teacher in sight! (Not quite true, most of us are educators of some sort). Students have been blogging about this extraordinary experience, and those who have become part of the group later in the piece say they have never seen anything like it in other MOOCs. 

I will don my academic hat and hopefully write something of a more scholarly nature a bit further down the track.  But for now, I'd like to consider my experience as a person, what it feels like to do a connectivist MOOC and what my concerns are for those students we might recruit to learn in this way. Yes, concerns.

Firstly though, what does the connecting in connectivism mean? How do we learn by connecting? Are we talking "connecting" as in the Matrix where Neo and friends plug into a computer to enter a virtual world where skills and knowledge are "learned" through the uploading of programs direct to the brain? I don't think that is the intention of a MOOC. But I will come back to this point.

The Matrix: Trinity cares for Neo's physical body while his conscious self lives out an adventure in the constructed virtual realm of the matrix.

I understand the philosophy behind connectivism to be based on collaborative learning where we need to connect and engage with other people, and in the process, create personal learning networks (PLNs)

"The PLN consists of relationships between individuals where the goal is enhancement of mutual learning.  It is based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value-added information for the other",  ETMOOC reminds us.

Herin lies my concern. The bit about connecting, trust and reciprocity. Going to do my science thing now, but I'm only going to ask some questions. As reductionist as it sounds, I think we need to pay attention to how humans, and in fact most (or maybe even all) mammals connect with one another. Without suggesting that we are just a stack of chemicals with no free will, I believe that much of who we are and what we do depends on biological substances which play a huge role in shaping our social behaviour. 

Two of the big guns are oxytocin and adrenaline. 

Most of know about adrenaline, it's the hormone that gives us a pleasurable rush in response to stress; quite addictive for some, gaming software companies depend on it! The pounding heart, the rush, the feeling of power, the excitement, we've all felt it. It's true, studies show that internet addicts have a much higher "sympathetic nervous system activation" (ie adrenaline) when surfing the net. It's measurable, real and problematic that we can become addicted to our own adrenaline through our online activities.

And oxytocin? It's known as the "love hormone", best known for its role in reproduction, birth and maternal bonding. Huge surges in oxytocin ensure a new mother only has eyes for her baby: it is one of the most powerful human bonding responses we see. We're only just beginning to understand its role in romantic attachment, stress reduction and tribal bonding. What is even more interesting when we consider "connectivist learning", is that oxytocin is known for  increasing trust and activating the neuroplasticity required for learning. Paul Zak reports that online social activities such as facebook or twitter interactions cause measurable oxytocin surges, so one would assume that the social activities required for bonding, connection, engagement and trust combined with the brain stimulation of the learning process would all involve a strong, complex partnership with oxytocin. 

This is absolutely not my area of expertise, but I don't think it takes too much to join the dots and realise that we are playing with some pretty significant biochemical processes here.  I've felt them. I've bonded with my "peeps" as Laurie refers to us. I look forward to our online interactions, reading their blogs, being inspired by their writing, their use of tech tools, their enthusiam for learning and their leadership within the group. We've all fully embraced the premise and actions of connectivism, and I'm 100% certain I'm not the only one in the group who might be just a teeny bit guilty of neglecting some real world activities like sleep, conversation, social interaction, and OK, laundry. But mainly those oxytocin related bonding things that are the glue that holds relationships together.

And today, I had another edcmooc hormone response in the tweetchat. Talk about adrenaline! Those tweets were coming at us so fast it gave me a rush! And again, I know I am not alone in that response because I sent out a short survey and results that have come in already are littered with words like "buzz", "excitement", "exhilaration". Fellow student Chris confirms it. Adrenaline!!!!!!

I  think when we ask students to enroll in connectivist courses, we should perhaps warn them that the pedagogy requires hormonal input. We need to warn them that these activities might be addictive and that nothing is quite like the deep pleasure of the oxytocin driven social bonding experience or the rush of our own adrenaline. And importantly, that we don't yet fully understand the health and social implications of activities which are part of the learning environment which depends on those and other hormones. (well we have a few clues that too much time online is not healthy for real world activities, so we can't plead ignorance)

Has anyone at the helm thought this through yet, or are they so busy getting a rush out of watching enrollments climb to tens of thousands in a matter of weeks that they have missed this? And so immersed in the engagement and social experience themselves that it hasn't occurred to them what this might mean for students, for families and communities in the greater scheme of things. 

Maybe I've jumped the gun in exploring some of the things that make us human, and what that might mean in the online learning context. But I have spent some time reflecting on my evolving connectivist experience and I couldn't help looking at Trinity in that scene from the Matrix and wondering of there is any real difference in the disconnect that exists between Neo's consciousness and his body and the resulting disconnect from Trinity and what students may experience with online learning, not through a direct wired in physical connection, but a biochemical one.


  1. Hi Angela, thanks for your very interesting post. I've been thinking about this too. I wondered are we just trying to re-create real life scenarios, or "cultures", through online networks? I have this feeling that technology is moving so rapidly, we are still catching up. There are thousands of clever, useful tools & apps out there - but how do you use them? Bringing it back to a human level, in groups and helping & including others, helps make sense of this. In my job, I have seen schools linking with other schools overseas and they've had the same thing as you mention here. For many it completely transformed their teaching careers, and also improved their students' learning and enthusiasm.

    1. Thanks Chris, I don't think we necessarily try to recreate real life scenarios, I think it just happens because it is our way. We are a human animal in every setting ad just because we are online, doesn't mean we become something other than human. Or does it?

      I love the connective learning, but it can come at a cost if we are not mindful. Possibly even boiling down to heightened oxytocin increasing trust when it not appropriate (online dating, shopping etc) Although as you say,a wonderful means to collaboration and feeling empathy and connection with others.

  2. Very interesting information. I love the idea that the need to connect is driven by our hormones. It makes total sense to me!

    1. Most things seem to be Lorraine, I am a total hostage to mine!

  3. Another great post Angela! Never thought about the actual hormones involved in on line participation and learning, but it makes sense. Your concerns are valid ones. I have been so enthusiastic about the connections, new ideas and new skills that I've acquired that I have neglected household duties as well as family. I've been mindful of this and have tried to become more focused and balanced in my online activty. Let's hope this new found discipline carries me through our 5 week course!

    1. I attacked my laundry today Willa because it was upside down. But I always do my writing in my head in the laundry, so when I emerged, I wrote this post. It's a bit of a loop at the moment! So which of my personas wrote this one do you think? Is it the same voice or was it the washerwoman speaking?? I never know!

  4. Great post, Angela! I'm in both MOOCS too- nice to see someone else had the same crazy idea. Love the bio connection (no pun intended). Looking forward to reading more of your posts throughout the next few months, and hopefully after. Really appreciate the Paul Zak reference.

  5. Thanks Amy, here is Paul Zac's TED talk
    Most of my ideas are crazy...

  6. Thoughtful post Angela. Your questioning about cmooc organizers immersion "in the engagement and social experience" as possibly a blinding one reminds me of the dangers of experimental Action Research that has gone on in classrooms. Work like that of Jane Elliot ( still generates lots of debate and conversation about what is ethical, what is necessary, and who gets to decide.

    We always need to provide education about education. As connected educators and learners, we need to be mindful of our connection to our physical space as well. Relationships with humans at a face-to-face level, but also with our physical world. What does clean water taste like? What does a Blue Jay sound like? How do the trees contribute to our air quality? Where does this carrot come from? And balance there, might help us understand the need for our own personal balance, hormonal and otherwise.

    In a strange way, this post is connect to what I just posted about the learning done in etmooc is fabulous, but I always need to bring it back to the physical world, to the work I do.

    Thanks for sharing. Good luck with edcmooc, and I hope you continue to think about and participate in etmooc!


  7. Hi Julie, thankyou for joining the conversation.

    Actually my last research project was "action research" and many elements were unnerving to say the least. The ethical issues in particular were difficult to navigate. Not sure if I would go there again, although some aspects can be highly rewarding for all involved.

    Can you send me your blog link? 38000 just started edcmooc today, and I'm lost! etmooc looks very cosy right now!

    The second half of edcmooc is devoted to what it means to be human in the digital age, including the meanings we give to technology and our relationship with it. I suspect we may look at what it might mean to just ditch the physical entirely in the future and upload our consciousness to ??? and live in the virtual realm. The brain in a jar thought experiment. So much to think about!

    I will keep going with both MOOCs, it is all a great learning adventure!

    1. Here is the link Angela.

      Don't know that I will do any further action research either, but it's a hoop, so I am jumping. In fact, don't know if I will pay for another course after etmooc!

      Have fun!

  8. Angela - This is a great post, i wanted you to know that. I read a couple of days ago, but got whisked ooff to other things.

    for now let's just say it's all about the emotion - in the past i have used the phrase emotional weightedness to allude to the strength of a connection. Bye for Now

  9. As Julie has posted before, the right approach to education might be the answer for most of our questions. It is important to recover the skill to choose what's good and necessary and to stop selecting what we "think we want". Technology has become a "must have" in our society and this paradigm has been followed world-wide indeed, yet we need to begin to educate ourserlves to start making the right choises.

  10. Your post - got me thinking that we are connecting to ourselve through others - and through this greater connectivity via technology we are more fully better to explore ourselves on a much greater spectrum

    1. Am I correct in interpreting your comment as meaning that we are becoming more introspective through our connections with others?

  11. I believe that Internet initially started as a “tools of communication”, another way to make contact between people and share information at a global scale. With its continuous growth and developments, and besides other tools and solutions, Internet brought us the social networks which enhanced connectivity between users and it became not only a personal individual experience but also a social collective and most important shared experience.
    This revolutions allows us to share information ( work related, educational related, social related, … ) in several levels and e-Learning is another branch of the big tree which is the Internet.
    E-Learning allows us to have the learning experience, using the Internet channel and is also always evolving with new and stronger tools providing better shared learning experiences.
    I believe that concepts such as PLN is very present in e-Learning and in ETMOOC and can allows people to grow individually, through a collective global channel.
    Sharing the individual knowledge, information, experiences, with others is mostly helpful for future generations that can better filter and direct to themselves the knowledge, using more efficient tools to deal with the huge amount of data and information that is, and will be online in the future.
    Also I can see the existent parallelism between the mention “ adrenaline and oxytocin” and an efficient learning experience that must maximize the curiosity and interest levels, if possible, through tools that can provide an “adrenaline” effect in the learning experience and also get a bit of oxytocin through the students relation with the learning contents and the shared

  12. It will be interesting to see how group dynamics play out, and whether an in-group / out-group tend and defend barrier starts to rise up or not. On the plus side, such would likely be another indicator that group oxytocin levels are peaking. On the down side, how to work through such effects in such a large group might prove quite challenging.

  13. Thank you for your post, Angela! I really think it can be an ugent topic for the research. My current studies are not from these field (educational psychology, in nowdays), nevertheless it is smth to think about. Besides this, my graduate theme was neuropsychology, and I still look at things a bit through this prism. So, my reflections are about brain functions due to the increasing use of new technologies in our life. Children learn to use gadgets from early years, we learn to read from the display, not from paper, we we almost did not write, just type...etc. What about brains? Some neurofunctions are disappearing, but instead are there any new? Some areas of the brain freeze, others are activated? What certain effect is there for the man? I don't think it is bad or good, but I'd like to know the nature this effect. Thank's for your reflections, and I'm glad to share with you my own.

  14. Hi Angela,
    Great post and I love the conversation.

    I am sure there are many of us who connect through media and that has helped us in many ways. Many things have changed with the innovations and so have we and our ways of working and thinking. This will continue as more and more innovative tools come our way!

  15. Interesting post, thank you for that.

    In the pre-course information they did not state that hormonal ressources would be needed! But your post here explains what I was trying (and probably failing) to explain non-moocing friends of mine. When I told them about the "high" feeling before the course even began, just caused by the sheer masses and the feeling "I am one of them", I was told it is unrational und unlogic to feel this way without even having seen the a tiny bit of the course content!

    But the feeling was still there. However, it's great to know about the brain's chemistry so one can question the upcoming emotions and do a reality-check from time to time (e.g. would I put the same trust in presence course students).

    And don't let the adrenaline take over too often. In the Stone Age when we had the rush of adrenaline it usually was usefull to flee from dangerous animals. Through the physical activity, its levels drecreased again and body and brain went back to normal function (comfy mode). But today you do not work it off so easily and it can indeed cause stress. We will all benefit from a sports course. AFTER the mooc!

    1. Gosh I have been slack with my blog and not visited for a while. I think I am too embarrassed at times to actually come out and say how online immersion affects me. I will be doing something very physical after this. Just reading this post and comments Diana, this is what I want to capture in my artefact but I don't seem to be able to. Thank goodness I have my blog, as my pictures dont seem to be able to capture the thousand words!