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The Value of Connectivism

Today’s students have come to expect learning on demand. They are not afraid of technology, and speed is the name of the game. They multitask, think less linearly than those of us over 30, enjoy fantasy as an element of their lives, are less tolerant of passive activities, and use their tools to stay connected with each other. Nevertheless, this situation has implications for educators.

I thought about this scenario in relationship to the eye-opening experience I recently had while listening to an archived Web presentation by George Siemens from Canada’s University of Manitoba. He was discussing “connectivism,” his theory of learning in the digital age. I was intrigued by his theory, but wondered: Does his theory have merit? Do we need another theory of learning? Is anyone buying into this? How is it different from constructivism, which also raised my eyebrows when I first learned about it way back when? However, the more I thought and read about connectivism, I began to see his point.

While content and courses are still viewed as the starting points of learning, Siemens indicates that the Web and the Internet are changing that model. For instance, the majority of education no longer occurs in formal settings. People are now learning “through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks” in an environment in which “know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed)” (Siemens, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, January 2005, http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm). Thus, Siemens believes making connections, not content, should be perceived as the beginning point of the learning process.

Theories of Learning

To date, theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism have dominated instructional design, and still have their place in the domains of learning. Formal transmission-based and mastery learning are associated with behaviorism and cognitivism, while emergence learning, which involves reflection, cognition, and high personal control over content, is associated with cognitivism and constructivism. Certainly, constructivism applies in an acquisition learning domain where learning is often self-selected and informal (e.g., exploring, experimenting, self-instruction, inquiry, satisfying a curiosity). However, Siemens indicates that these theories are challenged in the digital age because “many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology” (Siemens, http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm). In contrast to established theories of learning, the essence of connectivism is that learning is viewed as a connections/network-forming process (George Siemens, “Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation,” ASTD’s Learning Circuits, November 2005, http://www.learningcircuits.org/2005/nov2005/seimens.htm).

Connectivism recognizes that learning resides in a collective of individuals’ opinions and nonhuman appliances. I really focused on these “nonhuman appliances.” Their core skills include the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts, and to locate sources of unknown knowledge when needed at the point of application. It’s also important to remember that the intent of learning activities is currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge), and because knowledge is increasing exponentially, it can rapidly change what is perceived as a reality. Thus, the decision-making process (what to learn and its meaning) is a learning process itself (Siemens, http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm).

The process is complicated by new communications tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, social networking sites, podcasts, webcasts) that have sprung up, giving greater end-user control over what is published on the Web. This has resulted in some amateur contributions of questionable quality. It has also increased educators’ concerns about Internet safety and increased their need to teach a process of evaluating Web sites for accuracy and currency.

An Ecological Approach to Learning

New tools have also enabled their users to change the ways in which knowledge can be classified. For example, folks who are using social bookmarking systems are creating their own schemes called “folksonomies,” derived from “folk” and “taxonomy.” As opposed to the traditional predefined taxonomy for information retrieval, with folksonomies, users add their own keywords or tags to content they save, creating personalized or community-based organizational systems. And over time, the community develops its own structure of keyword descriptors to define its resources (Adam Mathes, “Folksonomies­­—Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata,” AdamMathes.com, December 2004, http://www.adammathes.com/academic/computer -mediated-communication/folksonomies.html).

Personalization is among the trends when working with technology and the Internet. According to Siemens, learning ecologies and networks are structures that enable continual and personalized learning, and should be considered in instructional design (Siemens, “ Learning Development Cycle: Bridging Learning Design and Modern Knowledge Needs,”elearnspace, July 2005, http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/ldc.htm). Learning communities, information sources, and individuals can all be considered nodes or connection points in a network; it only takes two nodes to share resources. These networks occur within an ecology and become the key consideration when designing new learning spaces in the digital age.

An ecological approach to learning is open, adaptive, decentralized, tolerates experimentation/failure, reflects a need for simplicity, promotes trust and learning in safe environments, as well as includes many tools for dialog and making connections. A learning ecology includes the following (Siemens, http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/ldc.htm):

  • A space for gurus and beginners to connect (master/apprentice).
  • A space for self-expression (blog, journal).
  • A space for debate and dialog (listserv, discussion forum, open meetings).
  • A space to search archived knowledge (portal, Web site).
  • A space to learn in a structured manner (courses, tutorials).
  • A space to communicate new information and knowledge indicative of changing elements within the field of practice (news, research).

Ultimately, the value of this theory is its link to the concept of lifelong learning. According to Siemens, “ We are moving from formal, rigid learning into an environment of informal, connection-based, network-creating learning. … Knowing is no longer a destination. Knowing is a process of walking in varying degrees of alignment with a dynamic environment.” Gone are the days of “this is what it is” ( Siemens, http://www.learningcircuits.org/2005/nov2005/seimens.htm) .

Online Resources

To learn more about this theory or to participate in a blog on this topic, visit http://www.elearnspace.org or http://www.connectivism.ca

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

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