Sunday, February 10, 2008

Connectivism: Coming to My Own Understanding

This is going to be a much longer post than I usually do. Be forewarned :)

I've been intrigued with the concept of Connectivism (George Siemens) for a while now. I've been unhappy with what I see as limitations in other popular learning theories, but wasn't sure which direction to go in.

I've always believed that a good tool changes the way that we work. The computer as tool metaphor has always satisfied me, but not because I don't think it is a game-changer, rather because I think that it is a great tool and it changes the ways we work/live. This is where Kozma left off in his debates with Clark on Media vs. Methods. Not that media itself made a difference in learning/teaching, but that attributes of media changed how we learning/teach.

The following is part of a qualifying exam that I'm writing. This is the section on learning theories. Overall, I will be discussing how changing social and technological conditions are resulting in a paradigm shift in language education (though the same could be said for education in general).

Now, you can agree or disagree with this assertion, but here I'd love feedback on my understanding of Connectivism. If you'd like to focus on Behaviorism, Cognitivism, or Constructivism, that's fine too, but these are just bare summaries. I know that I could add a lot more on each, but that's better left to those that I cite. They already have done a find job.

Any feedback that you can offer would be appreciated. Thanks.


Changing Theories of Learning

Societies change and so do the ways in which we think about learning. Learning theories attempt to explain how we learn and in so attempt to explain the nature of knowledge. The field of education has seen many learning theories come and go over the years, but a few have survived and still influence the design of instruction today, namely: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism. Recently, a new set of networked theories of learning have emerged to attempt to address social and technological realities that may influence and even change the ways that we learn. Current popular theories will be briefly described and compared and contrasted with the developing theory of Connectivism (Siemens, 2005).


Behaviorism, most often associated with the work of B.F. Skinner (1935) was the most prominent learning theory for much of the twentieth century. Its influence is still strong in the field of education, though it is certainly out of vogue. This theory holds that learning is the result of an event (stimulus), the reaction to that event (response), and the consequences for that response (Burton, Moore, & Magliaro, 2004). Through this process, participants modify their behavior to obtain a favorable outcome.

Behaviorists believe that knowledge is developed through sensory impressions (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Learners, therefore, build knowledge through everyday experiences in a type of trial and error approach to knowledge-building. Each successful cycle leads to the next. Through these iterative and incremental cycles, we not only learn not to touch a steaming pot, which has an obvious stimulus, response, and consequence, but we also learn how to operate a car, act on a first date, and even speak a language.


Cognitive Constructivism (Cognitivism) is most often associated with Piaget (1952) was popularized as a response to Behaviorism. Cognitivists faulted Behaviorism for a difficultly in accounting for higher order thinking skills and a lack of focus on the mind in learning (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).

Cognitivists are concerned with how learners "how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved by the mind" (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 53). It is often associated with schema theory, information processing theory, and the "mind as computer" metaphor of cognition. It focuses on the promotion of mental processing; how learners think through problems. It endeavors to make learning meaningful to each learner for a particular context (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). The focus is on how learners interact with and process the world.

For Cognitivists, the learning environment is only part of the learning process. It is the most immediate, but it does not and cannot account for individual learners' interaction with the content and the connections that they build between existing concepts and new concepts. These interactions are iterative and accumulative resulting in increasingly complex understandings (Boudourides, 2003). Cognitivists would likely agree that, though there is a correct answer, no two people come to it in exactly the same way.


Social Constructivism (Constructivism) is most often associated with Vygotsky (1978). Constructivism has many similarities to Cognitivism. They both describe theories of learning that emphasize the construction of knowledge; however, they differ in a number of areas. The two most important are (1) the distinctions between realism in the two theories, that learning is the result of interaction with the real; and (2) that social interactions are not only the vehicle for learning, they are the vehicle for development. Growth comes through these interactions (Boudourides, 2003).

Also, whereas both cognitivism and behaviorism are objectivist theories of learning, constructivism holds that there is no knowledge that exists outside of the person; there is no objective reality. We cannot assume that two people understand in the same way. Knowledge is a process of developing understanding of something in a very personal way through situated activity (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). Learners create meaning from their experiences that are separate and different from the meanings developed by others, even those participating in the same experience. Understanding is based not just on current experiences but the aggregate of all experiences, thus each person brings with him/her a cache of experiences that are brought to bear in a particular situation (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).


Connectivism is an emerging theory of learning presented by Siemens (2005), which is representative of the growing interest in networked theories of learning ( Siemens establishes Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, since previous theories do not adequately account for learning when considering the knowledge requirements of the information age. Namely, how does learning theory change when information storage, processing, and recall are off-loaded onto devices and through networked connections?

Siemens defines Connectivism as:

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing. (2005, Connectivism section, ¶ 1)

In this view of learning, networks (neural, social, and technological) represent a distributed view of knowledge. In the brain, knowledge is distributed through connections between different regions of the brain and in the networks we form (social and technological) knowledge is distributed through connections between individuals, groups, and devices (Siemens, 2006). This means that our network connections are not just sources of information, but the very connections that we make are part of our knowledgebase. This focus on connections between learners and information sources sets Connectivism apart from other popular theories of learning.

Behaviorism and Cognitivism place learning as an internal process and knowledge as an external entity, where learning occurs through the processing of input to arrive at an established knowledge goal. Constructivism places learning as a social process and knowledge as an external entity, where learning occurs through our social interactions and knowledge is constructed through social interactions. Connectivism also places learning as social process and knowledge as an external entity. However, in a Connectivist framework, learning occurs not just through social interactions, but through interactions with and between networked nodes (people, places, devices, etc.). Hence, while a Constructivist would likely see the network solely as a social medium for interaction, a Connectivist additionally sees the network itself as an extension of the mind. Learning is a process of connecting networked nodes and information sources (Siemens, 2005, 2006) to inform individuals’ understanding and application of concepts and processes.

Connectivism is a new theory of learning and is a theory still in development. There has been little, substantial criticism of the theory, though, as Siemens states, there has been significant discussion of the concepts involved (Siemens, 2006). Verhagen (2006) published a brief criticism of Connectivism. He argued that Connectivism is not a learning theory, but rather a view of 21st Century skill sets. It does nothing to describe how humans learn or what the nature of knowledge is. Another criticism was that knowledge cannot exist in “appliances”, which is in response to Siemens’ claim that “Learning may reside in non-human appliances” (2005, Connectivism section, ¶ 3).

The first argument concerns me a great deal. What is the value of a learning theory that does not adequately describe how people learn (not just conditions for learning to occur)? Siemens addresses these concerns in his response to Verhagen (Siemens, 2006) including this very useful table (p. 36) (see Table 1) contrasting Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, and Connectivism.

Table 1 – Siemens’ Contrasts between Learning Theories

[sorry can't put the table here - click here to see the Word doc]

These distinctions and his further discussion on the differences certainly help to clarify how Connectivism can be considered a learning theory. However, the distinction between Constructivism and Connectivism is still difficult to see and raises questions that will have to be worked out in future interaction/iterations of the theory, including:

(a) What is the difference between social interactions and networked interactions? Social interactions certainly happen across multiple networks, through the use of many different tools. What differentiates ; and

(b) Do social engagement and participation correspond with diversifying a network? If so, how is Constructivism different than Connectivism, and if not, how are these practically different?

Verhagen’s second argument against Connectivism regarded the potential for knowledge to be stored in appliances. In my initial readings of Siemens discussion of Connectivism led me to this conclusion as well. Further readings, however, led me to understand that “Learning may reside in non-human appliances” (2005, Connectivism section, ¶ 3) referred to the learning process and not knowledge itself. Siemens (2008) seemed to have confirmed my understanding in a recent discussion on the IT Forum listserv, “In essence, information is a node, knowledge is a connection, and understanding is an emergent property of the network itself.”

Given the incredible changes in how find, process, and store information, in addition to the incredible demands put on us by the influx of information that we are responsible for in daily, not to mention professional, decision-making, looking at alternative learning theories is a worthwhile venture. Connectivism may or may not be able to answer how we do (or will) learn in the 21st Century. It is, however, a good starting point for this discussion as well as a guidepost in our discussion of how language learning and teaching are undergoing great changes.


Wow! You made it all the way through. That's amazing. So, what do you think? Where am I off? Where am I on? Do I need to change careers and go back to being a stay at home dad? :)



Goldinn2007 said...

can you explain explicitly what does behaviourism cognitivism constructivism and connectivism think learning reply on?

Dan said...

Hi goldinn2007,

I assume you mean what does each "rely" on :)

I hope a quick answer will do as a summary. At least, this is my current understanding.

In general, I belief that in each of these theories learning relies on interactions with stimuli (of sorts): behaviorism with an observable, quantifiable stimulus; cognitivism with a contextual experience; constructism with a social experience; and connectivism with a networked experience.

People would probably complain that this is too simplified a response and that the devil is in the details, but it's a good overview for me.

More specifically...

Behaviorism - learning relies on an iterative process of stimulus, response, and feedback. Transfer relies on generalization from a know stimulus to a new stimulus that is similar enough to elicit the same response.

Cognitivism - learning relies on processing of new information in relation to what is already known. Transfer relies on the new context being similar to the experienced context. (very similar to behaviorism in my mind)

Constructivism - learning relies on personal understandings arising from social interactions (people, texts, other). Transfer occurs from experience in the practice.

Connectivism - learning relies on interactions with networks (people, machines, texts, etc.). Transfer relies on acquiring new nodes/networks that can provide guidance in the new endeavor.

I'd love to hear what you think.

Let me know.


Goldinn2007 said...

Hi Dan, thanks for your quick reply. I totally agree with you.

behaviourism, cognitivsm and constructivism believes that learning or knowledge resides on individual but connectivism thinks that it resides on "non-human appliances" - hard database (i.e. book, computer system), organization, network (i.e. community, group) or other people.

behaviourism is the earliest established learning theory. one the best application is traditional class room based teaching or learning. positive/negtive reinforcement ( pass or fail)still work quite well in low level educations.

cognitivsm is more important to know how human learn. the best practice is for teachers to know how to teach and how to make learner to understand.

constructivism and connectivism are more likely to be updated to face current learning with impact of technology such as blog, wikis, text/image/video podcast or online communities/forums

behaviourism and cognitism are seem to be weak in higher education in term of interacting or responding to net-generation learners.

constructivism and connectivism are more applicable to nowadays learning. I support george's view that leaning from node or network are more important than self-in dividuals.

what do you think of application of those theories in the past or near future.

All the best


Dan said...

Hi Tony,

Application from theory is tricky :) The moment that we try to turn a learning theory into an instructional theory, we confuse how we learn with how we are taught.

I try to use methods that are best suited to a circumstance (objective, group, time, etc.). Sometimes I have to lead step by step in small increments, particularly when dealing with procedures/equations (in the linguistic sense). Sometimes it is necessary to drop them off the deep end and have them participate in an authentic situation. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.

I think that one has to take into consideration what is being taught/learned and how that can best be accomplished taking into account efficiency, retention, and transference.


Anonymous said...

I too have trouble distinguishing connectivism from cognitivism.

It seems that both develop knowledge and meaning from interaction. Constructivism is about developing meaning and internalizing knowledge from sociocultural interactions and history. Connectivism seems to be mostly the same thing said in terms more relevant to the current age of technology.

It almost seems that connectivism is a constructivism in which you personally select your social networks. Before technology social interactions were more limited by connections available between people and the amount of information available. Now with information becoming more open and social networks helping you expand your learning community it seems that constructivism still applies but on a slightly different landscape.

To me it doesn't matter how many connections I make, learning still occurs by self-construction from the information and interactions.

I still connect to people all over the world, build my PLN and gather information from nodes but if I don't internalize and reshape the information - construct it.

Connectivism is appealing to me, but I would like Siemens and Downs to make the distinction between it and constructivism more defined.

Dan said...

Thanks for chiming in JC. Yours is a timely comment, since I'm presenting on this topic (at least partially) next weekend at the ALAK 2008 (Applied Linguistics Association of Korea). I have been struggling a little on differentiating the two, particularly when discussing the relevance to language education professionals.

Think response wanders quite a bit, but I think that I start to develop an argument. Kind of a learning activity for me. I'd love your feedback on it.

I find myself going back and forth between supporting Connectivism as a new learning theory and thinking of it as more of an instructional theory. Also, as I stated in the post, I have serious questions as to the real distinctiveness between Connectivism and Constructivism. However, I see previous, popular learning theories as modifications upon a their predecessors. Therefore, if I can see even a small change in perspective in Connectivism over Constructivism, then that will be significant.

However, even with these questions, I think that the concept of Connectivism can drive discussions forward. The ubiquity and speed of transmission of information sources will just keep getting better. Does this ready access to information affect/change the way(s) in which we learn? What happens when this information in nearly instantaneous? Augmented reality (think Terminator interface, which is already in use), brainwave interfaces, and implants (neither are as far off as you may think) will change the ways in which we think about learning. So, with information quickly accessible, how does that change the ways in which we think of learning. Learning becomes less the access to information and more the ways in which we synthesis and interact with information.

The distinction between knowing what and knowing how has always been helpful in delineating types of knowledge. Those previous technologies all work to take the load for knowing what, but they are not all that helpful in knowing how. This is where the network comes in. Interactions with the network in conjunction with participation in some sort of practice, enable learners to develop both the knowing what and knowing how of their practice.

If we look at it this way, Connectivism, while also supporting the need to construct knowledge through social interactions, focuses on the purposeful use of a network to address the needs at hand. I'm beginning to think that this act of focus is a key differentiating element between Constructivism and Connectivism. Constructivism doesn't seem to (in my readings of it) have any focus on who/what understandings are constructed with. Connectivism, however, pays particular attention to cutting down the noise from countless information providers by accessing only those nodes that can help with a particular need. When you again consider we are no longer in a context where information is difficult to access, the focus on organizing information and information providers makes sense.

So, I guess we have to take this back to the original question, which is, "what is the nature of knowledge" (or how do we learn)? Here, then, if I'm looking for a distinction between Constructivism and Connectivism, I have to say that from a Connectivist viewpoint knowledge is constructed through both interactions with the network and through the development of a that network; whereas from a Constructivism viewpoint, knowledge is constructed through interactions with a network (social interactions), but there is not focus on act of developing those networks. In other words, Connectivism focuses on the power of relationships between nodes in the network and not just on the network, which, it seems, that Constructivism does.

This was a thinking exercise for me. Hope I didn't wander too, too much.

Thanks for getting me thinking about it again.


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