George Siemens, founder of connectivism: “Artificial intelligence can help us make sense of a complex world”

George Siemens, Expert on Learning in the Digital Age

In 2004, George Siemens published Connectivism: A Teaching Theory for the Digital Age and it laid the foundations of a current of thought that broke down the changes that occurred in the way of learning from the irruption of the internet. Seventeen years later, with the explosion of artificial intelligence, he revised his theory.

Siemens is the president of the Society for Learning Analytics Research, collaborated with government agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia and is a professor at the University of Texas. His disruptive gaze led him to give lectures in more than 40 countries. Last week he exhibited at the International Congress of Educational Innovation (CIIE) organized by the Tecnológico de Monterrey. There he interviewed him Infobae.

-In short, how would you define connectivism, the current of thought that you promoted?

-The main idea is that knowledge becomes a network and connects, which means that we arrive at what others are learning. The second point that surrounds it is that when we are learning we are forming connections on three levels:

Neuronal: learning takes place at the cellular level and is established from a pattern of connections.

Conceptual: when we are learning about a subject we necessarily have to learn from others. For example, in biology we have to learn about cells, about life, about systemic interdependencies.

Physical or external: we learn through interaction with artificial agents, that is, technology.

-Since 2004, when you published the article to date, how much has your perception of the way of learning changed? Did it progress the way you expected?

How quickly artificial intelligence has become an influence in recent years we could not anticipate. I did obviously expect external systems to be part of the process, but how fast it has moved in recent years was a surprise.

I originally thought in 2004 that it was great that we were connected, that the simple fact of connecting and being part of networks was incredible. But now we realize that networks are subject to trauma, misinformation, propaganda, state actors. I realize that there are indeed considerable challenges that arise when we are globally connected.

-How does artificial intelligence enter the way we learn?

-There are several uses and some very positive ones. It is natural that when we talk about artificial intelligence we focus on everything bad. But let’s think, for example, of Covid-19. Last year there were between 1,300 and 1,500 articles about the virus published each week. Now maybe there are more. If I am a researcher, it is impossible for me to read 2,000 trials per week, but AI systems can summarize and give us insight into the main points of the article. That’s great for me. Artificial intelligence can help humans with the complexity of the world, to make sense of and pay attention to the most human things. We will no longer have to do physical jobs in factories, it will solve routine jobs, those that need less intellectual effort and also those that become tedious, like the example I gave of the Covid investigations. We are already experiencing the potential.

Siemens gave a lecture at CIIE 2021
Siemens gave a lecture at CIIE 2021

And specifically in the classroom, what potential does it have?

-It is an area that has many promises, but I am worried that the big technology companies are going to take over that. Universities do not have the economic capacity to compete with corporations. If we have a student and we see what they know, how they have learned it, what their interests and goals are, we can give them personalized recommendations. Perhaps you have a student who can finish a statistics course in two weeks instead of three months. Advance at your own pace and not have to keep up with the entire course.

-Fulfill the promise of educational personalization …

-I would love to see AI could go out and generate a reasonably automated profile of what a student knows. And that with that profile a path is designed for them. I think I should be able to do a collection of syllabi. If I go to a university and they give me a standardized textbook, the AI ​​should give me a personalized textbook, based on what I already know and what I still need to learn. You and I would take the same course, but we would have a diverse curriculum, adapted to each one.

-Taking that profile and bringing it to the job market, what would be the mediation of AI between the professional and the companies?

– With regard to the labor market there is also a lot to do. The analysis of the skills that companies are asking for should be connected with the profile of the professional, it should be possible to generate a personal recommendation to the student. You should say to universities: “These skills are not being requested in any company. I need you to redirect the academic offer towards this side ”.

Let’s say you work for 20 years in a bank, but at one point you decide that you want a different life plan. The profile should show all the skills you have developed up to then and those required for a career change. From there, course recommendations should emerge. Instead of doing a 3 or 4 year PhD, you may be able to do it in a year. It’s about streamlining the process, saving time and money.

-In 2008, you pioneered the opening of massive online courses, the so-called MOOCS, which in theory came to democratize knowledge. Thirteen years later was that promise fulfilled?

-Over time they have changed a bit. The MOOCS focused on the instructional process. Some companies like Coursera have scaled it, but its potential is not yet fully realized. Some people saw their quality of life improve from accessing these courses in Africa or India, for example, although it may not be as rich and immersive as it could be. There are many pending accounts.

-What do you expect for the post-pandemic? Will we return to an educational model similar to that of 2019 or will profound changes come?

-I do not expect a return to what it was before the pandemic. We are going to see more and more uses of technology. One of the things the pandemic did was generate a lot of negativity around the technology, many people criticize it because they realize that it is not a great experience if it is not well designed. On the one hand, this pessimism will persist because the learning experience was generally with poor development processes, but on the other hand it also generated an incredible investment, with new startups and ideas. I believe that the way of educating has changed forever and that artificial intelligence is going to set that course.


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