This post analyses connectivism and is a response to Week 3 Activity 13.
Opening comments – I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post because I am struggling to say anything particularly new about connectivism based on the plethora of blogs, posts, videos and wikis that seem devoted to it. I am still undecided as to whether connectivism is a learning theory, but in the spirit of experimental blogging, I am going to present some initial thoughts with the caveat that I can change my mind about what I say if at a later date something inspirational occurs to me or my thoughts become more settled.
What is connectivism?
It’s a ‘learning theory for a digital age’ (Siemens 2004). Siemens contends that the theory is necessary due to the abundance of content and information made possible by networked technologies. In short, it’s not possible to know everything and learning resides in the connections a person makes, starting from their own personal networks to the wider network they are part of. Siemens contrasts connectivism with other learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism) which were ‘developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology’.
Connectivism espouses a notion of learning that focusses more on the capacity to learn more or keep learning rather than what is learned, based on the assertion that what is learned today is likely to be out of date. Siemens illustrates this by saying that that ‘the pipe is more important than the content of the pipe’, seemingly stressing the importance of the process of connecting rather than the content or information itself, which is Siemens’ view might well be out of date. In contrast, Siemens categorises other learning theories as focussing on knowing something in a static sense but that cannot deal with the speed and complexity of learning needs in a digital age.
There does appear to be a contradiction though with the pipe analogy. In Siemens’ own paper, he extrapolates what a learning theory should be, criticising that ‘Learning theories are concerned with the actual process of learning, not with the value of what is being learned’. By this he seems to be saying that what is being learned is more valuable than the process, but the pipe analogy seems to suggest the opposite – it is the connection (process) rather than the content that is important in connectivism.
As to what learning is, Siemens talks about the ‘primacy of the connection’. He also says that knowledge and learning cannot reside inside your head (as in cognitivism) but can reside in the network – in other people, in databases etc. and that learning is about the ability to manage and access those connections.
Connectivism has generated much debate, supporters and detractors. I’m just going to focus on a few points of discussion which are interesting.
Analysis: Is connectivism anything new?
Siemens’ assertions in his 2004 paper seems to gloss over the history of social, informal and situated learning and ideas about Communities of Practice, which also focus on networks. Theorists of social learning and CoPs have espoused that learning happens with other people, in communities and that knowing who and where is important to learning. While connectivism appears to be less hierarchically organised than a CoP, some of the basic ideas about ‘knowing who’ rather than ‘knowing what’ manifest in a CoP. Furthermore, Siemens’ ‘weak ties’ in connections can also be seen in the role of legitimate peripheral participation (LPPs) in a CoP.
There are other ways in which connectivism isn’t necessarily new. Siemens talks about knowledge residing in non-human appliances (which sounds a bit scary), referring to databases for example. Yet, it’s probably fair to say that an important non-human appliance has been the book!
Siemens also talks about self-organised learning, which might broadly equate as learner centred or learner controlled learning. This contrasts with behaviourism and congnitivism, which has a stronger role for the teacher and instructor and where there is one right answer. However, there is an alignment with constructivism in the sense that learners are encouraged to self-organise and where there isn’t necessary a right answer. Even in cognitivism, the notion of scaffolding has its aim of getting the learner to the point here they do not need the scaffold.
Analysis: Does the digital age need a new learning theory?
Considering that connectivism does seem to be an evolution of some social learning thoeries, what’s new about connectivism and the digital age? Weller (2011) acknowledges the importance of the ‘pedagogy of abundance’ that is changing education and teaching, where ‘we are witnessing a change in the production of knowledge and our fundamental and our relationship to content’. In The Digital Scholar, Weller reviews pedagogies that appear to support this fundamental shift – one of which is connectivism, which he calls the only ‘post-network’ theory. However Weller also cautions that that ‘abundance does not apply to all aspects of learning…an individual’s attention is not abundant and is time limited. The abundance of content puts increasing pressure on this scarce resource…finding effective ways of dealing with this may be the key element in any pedagogy’. So could we say that connectivism is an attempt or option to deal with this – for the knowledge to reside in the connections.
But we need more research to see if this is actually the case. c-MOOCs are one way where connectivist principles are tested — self-organising, aggregation, co-construction of curriculum. How successful are they? Take-up rates are very high but there is anecdotal evidence that students struggle in the chaos and drop out rates are high. However, in the connectivist approach, drop out rates should not be a problem, as the whole system is designed not to mimic a start to end course. Students are free to take what elements they want and don’t want. Judging the success of a connectivist course is difficult because it’s not clear what to judge it by – if the ‘old’ rules of course completion, assessment and objective assessment of learning don’t apply (c-MOOCs don’t have assessments).
Connectivism seems suited to many contexts as an approach or mindset — where problems are complex (difficult to predict), where there are no right answers and the process of learning is fundamental to achieving a solution. Using the abundance of connections, resources and people now more tightly connected by digital technology as a way of learning is attractive and sensible – and is happening organically in some contexts. As a teaching and learning pedagogy, it’s not an easy solution and requires learners to take responsibility and teachers and designers to take multiple roles. It also may make learners out of teachers – teachers are no longer the sage or the guide but perhaps just another node in the network. It seems to suit a style or method of learning in a context of abundant content. I am not convinced that it is in itself a learning theory (how people actually learn), which I believe is still to some extent an individual process.
In writing this blog post, I think I have learned about connectivism using a plethora of learning approaches. I am enrolled in a Masters’ course which appears to be structured along constructivist principles – of developing this blog post in a way that is most relevant to my context and which is meaningful to me. I have approached the research in a cognitivist way (using my prior mental models of what a theory is and what questions I can apply to interrogating connectivism). I have taken a connectivist approach to the connections I have in my personal learning network, harvested my social bookmarking and Twitter feeds and used Google to find videos and presentations to enhance my understanding of connectivism. I’ll tweet its publication and invite feedback and comments. And now I’ll reward myself with a cup of coffee (in the style of behaviourism).
Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age [online]. Available from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm
Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, London, Bloomsbury Academic [online]. Available from http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/DigitalScholar_9781849666275/book-ba-9781849666275.xml