What is connectivism?

The human brainImage via Wikipedia

The first week’s topic in the Connectivism course was “What is connectivism?”.  To help us answer this question, George Siemens and Stephen Downes provided us with some readings and asked us to record our reflections on our blog.  If you are curious, these were the readings:

So now that I’ve read all of that, I can tell you exactly what connectivism is . . . or maybe not.  Still, I can tell you that connectivism seems to have developed to explain learning in a world of “networked individualism”. Connectivism applies network principles to learning on multiple levels: biological/neural, conceptual, and societal/external.  It also attempts to describe the role of technology in learning and considers the context of learning important.  Connectivism differs from other learning theories because it views knowledge as non-propositional and holds that knowledge and learning can be separated from language and logic.  That’s what I’ve got so far.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The most common criticisms of connectivism is that connectivism simply isn’t a theory or that there is no need for a new theory because everything is already covered by existing theories.  Whether or not something is a theory is going to depend on your definition of what a theory is.  Siemens and Downes have attempted to articulate the ways in which connectivism satisfies various definitions of a theory.  To me, the idea of connectivism seems like a theory in embryonic form.  It is growing towards the (arbitrary) specifications of a “theory”, but some parts of the idea need to be more clearly articulated.  I find the dismissal of connectivism because of the sufficiency of existing learning theories to be ridiculuous.  I don’t think we have a “universal theory of learning” that explains all learning in all situations.  I would welcome a “universal theory of learning.”

I am not sure that connectivism is a universal theory of learning and I am also not sure whether or not its authors intend it to be.  In my opinion, for connectivism to be a valid learning theory it has to explain the process by which people learn, all people, everywhere, whether living in a society exhibiting “networked individualism” or not.

To me, the greatest strength of connectivism is that it provides for a biological basis of learning.  The lectures that I’ve heard on how the brain works would indicate that learning is based on forming connections within the brain.  I appreciate that connectivism attempts to apply network principles at additional levels of complexity.   Personally, I know that I trace my thoughts back through conceptual connections–“What was I thinking?  Oh yes of that, which reminds me of that . . . ”  It rings true.

However,  I’m not convinced that learning can be externalized in the ways described by Siemens and Downes.  I am still trying to sort out the connectivist definitions for “learning”, “knowledge”, and “technology”.  These all seem very fuzzy to me and they are central to understanding the arguments being made.  On the course discussion forum in Moodle, a classmate of mine named Bill Harshbarger pointed out that connectivism seems to deal solely with learning knowledge and ignores skills and attitudes.  I see this as a weakness in connectivism and I want to see this weakness addressed.  I guess that gives Siemens and Downes eleven more weeks to address it.

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About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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4 Responses to What is connectivism?

  1. The challenge of understanding the various definitions has been great for me. Often the debate has been distracting from my actual “learning” or “knowledge” or whatever!

    All I know for sure is the theories we have right now do not seem sufficient. As we evolve so must our theories.

  2. Hi Kam,

    You twittered me, probably from a link on the CCKO8 course. I had no idea you was on thecourse because it is so massive 🙂

    I’ve got myself properly twittered up now – was half hearted before. this is the good thing about this course – it causes a frenzy of activity to read up and learn new things which might not be acheived without the urgency brought on by the course.

    quick one: – i have not analysed it to death but, connectivism to me is a development of learning theory that has addressed societal and technological changes in human development. However it is just one way of learning. We will all still learn in behavioristic, cognitive constructivist ans connectivist ways depending on siuations and contexts.


  3. @Jeannine – Sometimes I get frustrated by theoretical discussions. When so much hinges on definitions, things quickly digress into semantic disputes and the real value of the ideas gets lost. I hope that I can figure out the definitions quickly so that I can judge the ideas on their actual merit.

    @Steve – I did find you through a CCK08 course link. I’m trying to make the course less massive (for me at least) by picking a few classmates to follow for the duration and you’re one of them.

    I agree that there are aspects from each of the major learning theories that hold truth. I’m really hoping that some day, we’ll come up with an overarching theory that explains why we seem able to learn in so many different ways.

  4. I’m not a theory girl and have little educational learning behind me – I come from a clinical background – so I find some of these discussions very difficult to follow/understand. I cannot believe that one theory suits all learning – life just isn’t that black & white. What I do like about connectivism is that it encourages leaner autonomy, & as teachers, we need to think how we apply that in our courses.

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