This page originally authored by Tim Ireland (2007)
Questions about connectivism abound. “What is it?” and “Where does it belong?” are among the chief queries. For the educational practitioner and designer of technology-supported learning environments, the response to these questions might well be, “Who cares?” And such a response might be applauding the concept of connectivism rather than dismissing it.
The title of the 2004 propositional paper by George Siemens,Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, clearly indicates where Siemens wants connectivism situated; that is, he wants it to keep company with other prominent learning theories. Siemens, Associate Director with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba, goes further by suggesting that connectivism should even supplant the established learning theories because the underlying conditions for learning have changed so significantly that further modifications to theories like behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism are no longer sensible (2004). The exponential growth of technology and the commensurate shrinkage of the lifespan of knowledge call for a new approach to learning. Siemens later asserts that the breakneck pace of knowledge growth is actually the Achilles heel that cripples the existing theories (Siemens, 2006, p33).
Conversely, by recognizing the importance of connections between knowledge entities (nodes) instead of the entities themselves, connectivism provides a flexible model that can expand and contract as the nodes expand and contract. Focusing on the connections—their strength and patterns—gives the theory its name and generates Siemens’ (2004) most notable quote: “ The pipe is more important than the contents within the pipe.”
Support for Siemens’ propositions comes from fellow Canadian Stephen Downes (2005), who cites Siemens' notions of connections and pattern recognition as vital aids that learners need in order to make sense out of the chaos that tends to hide knowledge and meaning. Downes affirms that knowledge-building is not thought of as the gathering and accumulation of facts, but rather the “riding of the waves” in the dynamic environment of nodes, connections, and chaos. In fact, Downes (2007) further claims that, since knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, learning actually consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.
In his article—Connectivism: a new learning theory?—Professor P. Verhagen (2006) sharply re-positions Siemens’ propositions. Verhagen sees connectivism as pedagogical strategy that may allow students to develop networking skills in order to manage knowledge efficiently in a technological society. In other words, Verhagen, places connectivism at the level of the curriculum; connectivism speaks of what people should learn and the skills they should develop. If connectivism were truly at the theoretical level, it would explore the processes of how people learn.
Bill Kerr, an active contributor to the Logo constructionist community in the ’90s, does not go so far as Verhagen in relegating connectivism to the confines of curriculum. He expresses limited support for aspects of connectivism, specifically when it leads educators to teach “learning how to learn skills,” thus giving students the tools they need to construct their own learning (2007). Nevertheless, he regards the “supplanting” claim of connectivism to to be rather weak. For instance, he dismisses the alleged Achilles heel of the other theories—the pace of knowledge growth—as hyberbolic because some knowledge is obviously more durable and important than other knowledge.
What is a Learning Theory?
To situate connectivism as a learning theory, definitions are required. Verhagen (2006) states that a theory should explain phenomena and those explanations should be verifiable. In this regard, Verhagen concludes that Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age is insufficiently specific and coherent. Siemens responds by citing Ertmer’s and Newby’s five definitive questions to distinguish a learning theory. These questions are summarized below:
Scholarly discussion about where to situate connectivism is current and active. Siemens, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba, organized the Online Connectivism Conference in February 2007 with over 1000 registrants. Both supporters of connectivism (Downes) and critics (Kerr) were featured speakers. Resources and links may be obtained the university's website.
If the response is “Who cares?” to the question of where to ultimately situate connectivism, the respondent should not be necessarily classified as an opponent of this so-called theory. The respondent may be a teacher or an educational-environment designer who actually prizes the value of the “pipe” more than what is in the "pipe." If this individual uses Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for planning, for example, the realities espoused by connectivism will quickly propel his or her design for learning past the lower levels of the taxonomy (Knowledge and Comprehension) and into the higher levels (Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation). Importantly and practically, connectivism’s recognition of the meteoric and chaotic explosion of knowledge, and its emphasis on the network links available to access that knowledge, gives educators and educational designers the impetus and the framework to move learners into advanced levels of accomplishment. The question of whether connectivism is a theory or a curricular concept can wait for tomorrow. Educators need to use it today.
Downes, S. (2005). E-learning 2.0. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=articles&article=29-1
Downes, S. (2007). What Connectivism Is. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html
Kerr, Bill (2007) A Challenge to Connectivism. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/kerr
Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved March 4, 2007, from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm.
Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge. Lulu Publishing (Lulu.com)
Siemens, G. (2006). Connectivisim: Learning theory or pastime for the self-amused? Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm
Verhagen, P (2006). Connectivism: a new learning theory? Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://elearning.surf.nl/e-learning/english/3793
Online Connectivism Conference, February 2007, Resource Page
Vod:Pod, Learning Theory Podcasts, including Connectivism topics, February 2007,
Siemens, G. 2006, Situating Connectivism, Podcast.