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Connectivism: A Learning Theory For Today's Learner

Over the past several months I have been following the development of George Siemans' Connectivism: A Learning Theory For The Digital Age [Refer: Connectivism: Main Site]. The work being done is compelling. It is an initiative that has the potential to create fundamental change. Connectivism is also closely related to Connected Intelligence as well as the The Virtual Community Project so there may be opportunities to share and integrate ideas...

What is Connectivism?

Connectivism is presented as an alternative theory of learning that addresses the deficiencies in behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. The core idea of Connectivism is that we are in a new age, or what I would like to think of as a different environment, by virtue of new technologies:

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

The theoretical mission of Connectivism is to facilitate the integration of the principles of chaos, networks, complexity and self-organization into a unified approach for learning. What strikes me as the most important element of Connectivism is the focus on embracing the unavoidable confluence of learning, or acknowledging the reality that learning is not entirely under the control of the individual. Knowledge, skills and attitudes, the traditional holy trinity of educational curriculum, are therefore dynamic, mobile and under the wonderful pressure of constant change. This perspective is opposed to traditional curriculum design in which knowledge, skills and attitudes seem to be frozen communication. Connectivism does not seem to be trapped by the curricular technology.

The idea of a theory is to explain why things happen they way they do and/or to provide a consistent framework to describe specific kinds of phenomenon. In more general terms, a theory is a model of reality and therefore makes the assumption that what it is describing already exists. In this sense, Connectivism is a lens on learning - a way of accessing and understanding the dynamics of learning from a fresh perspective. Perceiving, understanding and creating meaning from a unique perspective is the ultimate benefit of a theory.

Theories can also be confining. By this I do not mean to say that Connectivism is a confining theory. Connectivism by its very nature embraces motion and mobility. In this sense I expect that the theoretical model of Connectivism itself will embrace the same qualities and capacities it describes, that is, chaos, complexity, networks and self-organization. This, in my experience at least, is not the standard means by which theories are applied. That is, phenomenon observed through the lens of a particular theory are often shaped and conformed to meet the requirements of the theory. In other words, we observe in ways that are conditioned to support the main tenants of the theory. This brings us to the old adage: To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Connectivism and Education

Connectivism describes behaviour that is different from that found in education. There is one reference in Connectivism: A Learning Theory For Today's Learner that I could find:

Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.

The point being made is important and serves as a reminder that learning is something far greater in magnitude than education or training. However, the term "informal learning" is one that causes confusion and may have no meaning at all. The notion of informal learning seems to originate in organizational training ideology, and is often something that is presented in contrast to formal education or training. The notion, as far as far I can tell, is that something called "formal learning" must be akin to education and training but I am unable to understand what either formal or informal learning might be. Nor do I believe that equating the idea of "informal learning" as being everything else that occurs outside of formal education is something that is useful. Learning, education and training are different phenomenon and always have been. Finally, the phrase "learning now occurs in a variety of ways" seems misleading. Are we to assume that has not always occurred in a variety of ways including those mentioned?

Of course, the above comments in no way detract from the importance of Connectivism. And it is also quite common for language to be confused when shifting paradigms. It may be that integrating this confusion and uncertainty into commonly accepted terminology is quite beneficial to the creative process. I suspect, however, that a significant trend in Connectivism will be to further articulate learning in a manner that elevates from ideas about education and training.

The question of how an educational system can embrace and implement strategic approaches to Connectivism will also be of great interest. One important benefit of Connectivism is that in describing new potential for learning it also changes the underlying assumptions of what education must become. This will bring it into close proximity with the most stubborn of all educational technologies - curriculum. Connectivism will demand a new organizational structure, a new concept of what curriculum is (or perhaps something to completely replace it). It will also challenge and demand fundamental change in deeply held beliefs about educating, teaching, schooling, curriculum, instructional design, evaluation, knowledge , skills, attitudes, assessment, and evaluation. For example, a teacher immersed in Connectivism is a dramatically different kind of teacher in comparison to one in traditional education. In other words, I believe it can have the same effect on an education system as Connected Intelligence - a full frontal assault on entrenched systems and roles. And, to my thinking, this is design at its best.

Connectivism and Connected Intelligence

George makes another interesting statement:

The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.

This resonated with my own experiences and retrieved McLuhan's probe, "the medium is the message." More than just I quote from a book, I had the opportunity of working with Derrick de Kerckhove over a number of years on the Connected Intelligence Project. Together we explored and implemented the potential for using applying principles of interactivity and connectivity in order to transform the education system in Madeira, Portugal. In George's terms we both strongly believed that, "The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe."

There is an important difference between Connectivism and Connected Intelligence in that Connected Intelligence is not a theory, but instead a set of strategic directions and tactics to facilitate a greater range of connections, relationships and associations across many minds. The outcome of Connected Intelligence was action that often took the form of a specific project that had an intended benefit for all participants involved. As such, I see Connectivism and Connected Intelligence as being complimentary and mutually supportive of each other.

Connectivism: The Future

It will be interesting to follow the progress of Connectivism from theory to concrete practice. Like Connected Intelligence, it will face significant roadblocks along the way. And that, in the end, is the sign of an effective design.


  • Connectivism: A Learning Theory For Today's Learner
  • Connectivism: Original Article
  • Connectivism Weblog
  • Connectivism Wiki

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