Connectivism

What is it?

Connectivism places primary importance on an individual’s ability to access material at the time they need it to answer a specific question, rather than expecting them to have already acquired and retained specific knowledge which may later prove useful. As such the approach focuses on establishing a network of connections, the ability to leverage these in a timely fashion and the skills to critically appraise information offered.

connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks (Downes, 2007)

George Seimans coined the term in 2005, although some elements of connectivism are similar to actor-network theory and connectionism. One of Seiman’s main arguments is that the immediacy of huge amounts of information, ideas and other people afforded by digital technologies (and the internet in particular) makes it less important to internalise knowledge, but more important to be skilled in accessing relevant, robust learning and making connections between this and existing learning. While the theory asserts that networks exist with or without technology, it is the current profusion and availability of data that brings connectivism to the fore.

 What are the key ideas?

Connectivism does not necessarily contradict previous theories of learning such as behaviourism, cognitivism or constructivism. Rather, it pushes the emphasis away from how knowing or understanding happen to how information and ideas are iteratively found, assessed and connected into a network. This network includes the learner’s mind, but also external nodes that may be other people, data or concrete objects, and the connections among these. Key ideas include:

sphere network

  • Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge; it is finding and meaningfully connecting what you need when you need it
  • Learning is dynamic, constantly changing and adapting as new connections are formed
  • The core skills of learning are: expertise in finding what is needed; skill in assessing the quality/validity of sources; cultivation of connections among information, ideas, things and people

 How can connectivism be applied to higher education?

The following have been suggested as ways to apply connectivist theory to learning and teaching in HE:

  • Fully connectivist learning: A cohort of students becomes an emerging network around a particular topic. The role of the instructor is to participate in, rather than lead, the learning process. The instructor models the skills that students are expected to cultivate–assessing, connecting and curating. Students pursue new learning that they believe will enhance the shared network, including their own previous learning, newly found information and ideas, others’ network nodes, and their peers and instructors. See Barnett et al. (2013) for an example in higher education.
  • cMOOC: A connectivist MOOC is a large-scale network formation supported by online technologies (versus an xMOOC, where content is delivered in more traditional ways to a large group of people). It can be thought of as crowdsourced learning, steered by individuals and the group, with a certain focus. As there is no clear distinction between instructors/students or experts/novices, cMOOCs are more often used to bring researchers of all levels together in a virtual space, or for those interested in personal development in a particular area. Seimans and Downes ran several iterations of cMOOCs starting in 2008. See Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 for an example.
  • Connectivist elements in a traditional module: Connectivist principles are applied to one facet of a course, where students are encouraged to work with each other in more self-directed, networked ways. This manifests itself very differently depending on the interpretation of connectivism, the subject matter, the platform used, and the assessment requirements. See Garcia et al (2015) for one example, where a connectivist learning blog model was piloted with undergraduates.
  • Digital literacies: Connectivist theory stresses the primacy of learner skills in finding, assessing and connecting. While these skills are important whether the learning is social, digital, cognitive or concrete, the massive amount of information and connections available online suggests that digital literacies are especially important if learners are to develop robust networks. There is a large body of research on this subject generally, and JISC provide some good resources on Developing student digital literacy.

Why should I consider connectivist pedagogies?

  • Autonomy: Connectivist learning encourages student autonomy by validating their previous network formation and allowing them to pursue further connections that are valid to them (Downes, 2014).
  • Connections over repetition: As the focus shifts from acquiring knowledge to creating sophisticated connections, students can concentrate on higher-level thinking. Sharing resources and developing networks with others does not compromise assessment but rather enriches the learning experience (Downes, 2014). And as one Durham student said in the 2017 Student Digital Experience Tracker survey, ‘There is no point in us all reproducing the same work, we will never create anything new.’
  • Communities of practice: In both teaching and research contexts, Seimans (2005) links connectivism to the formation of communities of practice. As with cMOOCs,  informal networks develop around a topic or idea, expanding and evolving over time. For students, membership of a community that includes novices and experts equally both validates their existing learning and their autonomy in further pursuits (Guerin et al., 2015).
  • Digital literacy skills: Digital literacy is crucial in and outside of academia. Even if connectivist pedagogy does not seem feasible in your context, learning and assessment activities can be designed to develop aspects of student digital literacies (see the link above).

What should I be aware of?

network

  • Assessment issues: As will be evident from some of the examples, connectivist learning in its purest form is very difficult to evaluate in a formal higher education context. Introducing it as one element of a module, or as a separate opportunity, could be more feasible. However, as an epistemology it can affect assessment activities more broadly by encouraging peer learning, the recognition of students’ existing skills and knowledge, and digital literacy.
  • Instructor involvement: In connectivist learning contexts, the academic takes an ambiguous position. Barnett et al. (2013) describe how they made the mistake of standing too far back from the students; while they meant to encourage student autonomy, this actually increased the sense of inequality, as if the academics knew secrets that they weren’t telling the students. Based on their experience, they recommended that instructors take an active role as members of the emerging network, judging for themselves when to share their expertise.

References and further connections

Barnett, J., McPherson, V., & Sandieson, R. M., 2013. Connected teaching and learning: The uses and implications of connectivism in an online class. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 29(5).

Downes, S., 2007. What connectivism is [Web log post]. Retrieved from Half an Hour.

Downes, S., 2014. Connectivism as Learning Theory [Web log post]. Retrieved from Half an Hour.

Downes, S., 2015. Learning and Connectivism in MOOCs [YouTube video].

Garcia, E., Elbeltagi, I., Brown, M. and Dungay, K., 2015. The implications of a connectivist learning blog model and the changing role of teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46: 877–894.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C., 2015. Blogging as community of practice: lessons for academic development?, International Journal for Academic Development, 20(3): 212-223.

Seimans, G., 2005. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1).

Weller, M., 2011. The Digital Scholar. Bloomsbury. See Chapter 8, A Pedagogy of Abundance.

Products

PeerWise

Piazza

  Projects

Student Voice 2014-15 (see Section 3.3, para. 4 and Section 6.3, para. 1)

Student Digital Experience Tracker 2017