Connectivism: Contemporary Learning Theory, Distance Ed Theory, or Pedagogy with Panache?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around connectivism, the learning theory developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes that in a lot of ways led to the growth of distance education and the development of MOOCs.  At its heart, connectivism is about where content/knowledge/learned stuff exists, and posits that in an interconnected, technologically-robust world, it is as much about how to access the learning opportunity as anything, but inherent to such a model is the notion that technology has systemically changed not only the way knowledge operates, but also the brain itself.  

Part of my difficulty in defining connectivism comes from a lack of application for the term and its meaning:  having completed my coursework in learning technologies, I have only run into it after beginning preliminary dissertation research, and the people I run across in my personal learning network who utilize it are rarely separated by more than one degree from Siemens and Downes.  So I end up reading the same arguments and verbage, but lack more distanced perspectives on the topic, and also have yet to truly be able to take connectivism out for a test-drive.

At this point in my journey, here is where I am on connectivism:  I see it as the result of distance education methods and pedagogy, and its creators are working hard to prove the postulate of technology changing society, ergo learning theory must change too, so here we go.  Connectivism is trying very hard to incorporate the social aspect of learning shown as vital through the likes of Vygotsky, Piaget and Bandura, but focuses on networks of all sorts:  organizational, technological, and even neurological.  I think the connection to neuroscience is an interesting one, though having not read more than Siemens’ initial paper as an academically rigorous proponent, I have to be somewhat skeptical of that link (just as I am with neuroscience and learning disabilities).  I see the focus on the place knowledge/content/learned stuff rests as akin to a constructivist’s focus on environment.   When I think about the writings of Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky on the way in which people interact with and filter content through technology, I see a lot of what Siemens discusses in his initial connectivism paper.

But is it learning theory?  At this point in my journey, I would not label it as such.  Full disclosure:  I am a doctoral student at Pepperdine University, an education school heavy on constructivism, situated learning and social learning theory.  Gary Stager was a professor of mine.  So you can write off my criticism as representative of that if you wish.  But I think Stager brought up a good point back in 2008, one Siemens rolled into a blog post on the unique ideas in connectivism.  According to Siemens, Stager said he was not interested in where constructed knowledge resides physically, and retorted with wanting to know the unique idea in connectivism.  I think the stasis of knowledge/content/learned stuff is environmental; taking from activity theory, it exists unique to the set of internal and external variables and stressors present in any given environment.  Technology can mediate such a thing, and it can hold content, but it is not a pre-requisite for knowledge/content/learned stuff.  Connectivism says not only is this learned stuff held in networks, but that artificial intelligence can in fact house learning.

One aspect of theory that connectivism has yet to solidify for me is what learned stuff is.  Content is easy; it is information without context.  Knowledge is more difficult; it cannot just be the addition of context, because that changes knowledge for everyone (or perhaps that is the point).  But if a network can hold learning, and this is a way for organizations to utilize learning through the shared network, the network is not an environment as much as a repository, and connectivism seems to be ignoring the individual users in this scenario.  Learning analytics might seem a cozy bedfellow for connectivism, but big data means something different to each interpreter; sure a computer can complete rote tasks, but determining what crunched numbers mean is variable, and I presume the most important variable to be the environment.

Obviously, more reading, interpretation and application will help to develop my views.  Perhaps I am missing something larger.  At this point, however, I concur with Rita Kop and Adrian Hill in their research article looking at connectivism as a learning theory:  A paradigm shift, indeed, may be occurring in educational theory, and a new epistemology may be emerging, but it does not seem that connectivism’s contributions to the new paradigm warrant it being treated as a separate learning theory in and of its own right.  Connectivism, however, continues to play an important role in the development and emergence of new pedagogies, where control is shifting from the tutor to an increasingly more autonomous learner.  For me, connectivism is a model with great potential and deserves continued thought, research and development, but in its present sense it is a pedagogical tool for distance education and organizational management.

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24 thoughts on “Connectivism: Contemporary Learning Theory, Distance Ed Theory, or Pedagogy with Panache?

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