What is the unique idea in Connectivism?

Late last week, I threw out a question to Gary Stager on Twitter: “when a constructivist constructs knowledge, where does it reside physically/biologically?”. Gary replied with something along the lines of “we don’t know and I don’t care. I can teach well without knowing the details of how the mind works”. Fair enough. Different educators adopt different approaches in order to makesense of the teaching and learning process. I’m trying to define it from the perspective of how our mind works. Gary is – in true constructionist form (and I don’t mean that negatively!) – is focused more on the practical results and activities.
Gary then asked a critical question: what is the unique idea in connectivism? The response takes a bit longer than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, so I’ll tackle it here.

First, a new idea is often an old idea in today’s context. For example, what is the new idea in constructivism? That people construct their own knowledge? Or the social, situated nature of learning? Or that knowledge is not something that exists outside of a knower? (i.e. there is no “there” out there). Obviously each of those concepts can easily be traced to numerous philosophers. The ideas have existed in various forms over 2000 years ago. What is new with constructivism today is that these principles are being (have been) coupled with existing calls for educational reform by individuals such as Spencer, Dewey, and Piaget. See Kieran Eagan’s book Getting it Wrong from the Beginning for a more detailed exploration. But it is more than just the shift in policy and calls for increased learner control. Constructivism made sense in that it rode on the cultural trends and philosophical viewpoints of the day. As authority in society shifted, Truth was questioned, post-modernism flourished, and our understanding of diverse cultures and ways of knowing increased, it only seemed natural that cognitivism and behaviourism took a back seat. What is new in constructivism, and please provide commentary if you disagree, is that it combined existing ideas into a framework that resonated with the needs and trends of the current era.

In this regard, connectivism also shares in bringing to the forefront ideas of philosophers and theorists from previous generations. Much of what is unique is the particular combination and integration of ideas that reflect the broader societal and information-based trends. But I do think there are unique ideas in connectivism.
Before I get into those, however, I’ll address some of the existing theory that serves as the fertile soil of connectivism (and, I think, to a large degree constructivism).

From whence does connectivism originate?

All ideas have a heritage. All concepts have roots. A few related to connectivism:

1. Tools augment our ability to interact with each other and to act. Tools are extensions of humanity, increasing our ability to externalize our thinking into forms that we can share with others. Language is an example. Activity theory provides a basis in this regard. So does the socio-cultural work of Vygotsky. Gibson’s notion of affordances of tools, while based in his research on perception, also serves a role in validating tool use. And how could we leave Wittgenstein’s notion of negotiated understanding out of a language discussion? Similarly, tools are “carriers of patterns of previous reasoning” (Pea) and reflect some type of ideology. This view is also prominent in Postman’s assertion that all technology carries an ideology.

2. Contextual/situated nature of learning. Situated learning draws from the work of Lave and Wenger, though, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Papert’s emphasis on active doing fits this at least partly.

3. Social learning theory. Here we can draw from Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy, Bruner, Vygotsky, and others.

4. Epistemological views: all learning theory is rooted in epistemology (even though von Glaserfeld declares we are in a post-epistemological era, suggesting that providing a theory of knowledge is exactly what constructivism cannot do). As an epistemological basis for connectivism, I’ve found Stephen Downes’ work on connective knowledge valuable. More recently, Dave Cormier has been advancing the concept of rhizomatic knowledge and community as curriculum.

5. Concept of mind. The notion of mind is enormously complex. We encounter a unique blend of philosophers, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligence in this area such as Churchlands, Papert & Minsky, McClelland & Rumelhart, Clark (embodied cognition), Spivey, and more. Mind is seen – too varying degrees – as embodied and distributed across numerous devices, relationships and artifacts. Hutchins popularized the notion in his text on Distributed Cognition. These concepts are also reflected in Weicks’ papers on heedful interrelating. Salomon’s edited text on Distributed Cognitions extends these ideas into an educational context.

6. We also find a compatible view of connectivism in the work of new media theorists such as McLuhan, exploring the impact of technology on what it means to be a human. The impact of technology on humanity will continue to grow in greater prominence as we are increasingly able to augment human cognitive functioning through pharmaceuticals and the future promise of embedded chips.

7. We also find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complextiy and systems-based thinking. For example, Mason, Davis, and others, recently published a series of articles on the impact of complexity theory on the enterprise of education. Individuals like Barnnett suggest it should more accurately be called “supercomplexity” as we are not able to even begin to understand the directions things will take in the future.

8. Network theory. Sociologists, mathematicians, and physicists have spent several decades defining networks and network attributes. We are able to define key network structures, manner of behaviour, and flow of information. Concepts like small worlds, power laws, hubs, structural holes, and weak/strong ties are common in literature. Educational focus of networks comes from work by Starr-Roxanne Hiltz, Chris Jones, Martin de Laat, and others. Networks are prominent in all aspects of society, not just education. This prominence is partly due to the recognizable metaphor of the internet…but networks have always existed. As Barabasi states, networks are everywhere. We just need an eye for them.

The Unique Ideas in Connectivism

If those elements form the basis of connectivism – and to varying degrees share in the heritage of constructivism and cognitivism – what is it that’s unique about connectivism. As a starter to the discussion, and one that will be a critical focus in our fall course, I’ll suggest the following:

1. Connectivism is the application of network principles to define both knowledge and the process of learning. Knowledge is defined as a particular pattern of relationships and learning is defined as the creation of new connections and patterns as well as the ability to maneuver around existing networks/patterns.

2. Connectivism addresses the principles of learning at numerous levels – biological/neural, conceptual, and social/external. This is a key concept that I’ll be writing about more during the online course. What I’m saying with connectivism (and I think Stephen would share this) is that the same structure of learning that creates neural connections can be found in how we link ideas and in how we connect to people and information sources. One scepter to rule them all.

3. Connectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge. Our knowledge resides in the connections we form – where to other people or to information sources such as databases. Additionally, technology plays a key role of 1) cognitive grunt work in creating and displaying patterns, 2) extending and enhancing our cognitive ability, 3) holding information in ready access form (for example, search engines, semantic structures, etc). We see the beginning of this concept in tool-based discussions of Activity Theory. Connectivism acknowledges the prominence of tools as a mediating object in our activity system, but then extends it by suggesting that technology plays a central role in our distribution of identity, cognition, and thereby, knowledge.

4. Context. While other theories pay partial attention to context, connectivism recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and connections based on context. As such, it becomes increasingly vital that we focus not on pre-made or pre-defined knowledge, but on our interactions with each other, and the context in which those interactions arise. The context brings as much to a space of knowledge connection/exchange as do the parties involved in the exchange.

5. Understanding. Coherence. Sensemaking. Meaning. These elements are prominent in constructivism, to a lessor extent cognitivism, and not at all in behaviourism. But in connectivism, we argue that the rapid flow and abundance of information raises these elements to critical importance. As stated at the start of this post, constructivism found it’s roots of growth in the social reform-based climate and post-modern era. Connectivism finds its roots in the climate of abundance, rapid change, diverse information sources and perspectives, and the critical need to find a way to filter and make sense of the chaos. As such, the networked centrality of connectivism permits a scaling of both abundance and diversity. The information climate of continual and ongoing change raises the importance of being continually current. As Anderson has stated, “more is different”. The “more” of information and technology today, and the need to stay current, forms the climate that gives roots to connectivism.

This is simply a starting point of a discussion. I don’t know if I’ve fully managed to address Gary Stager’s question. I’d appreciate reactions or comments to the above ideas.

19 Responses to “What is the unique idea in Connectivism?”

  1. Is the theory of connectivism dependent upon technology? While it’s not as easy to build large face-to-face networks, similar behaviors and learning can result from those relationships. Are we just using technology to take over some of the initial labor-intensive thought processes? Or, is the use of technology really changing the way we think and process information? I’ve been interested in this question since I left the corporate world and returned to teaching and grad school. Back in 1997, I left teaching to work for IBM. The constant state of connectedness was foreign at first, even for a technically literate person fascinated by innovation. I was immersed in email, IM, teleconferencing, text messaging, and working on critical projects – simultaneously – 50 to 60 hours a week for 7 years. We can argue about the brain’s ability to effectively multitask, but the reality was that it was a critical skill. I have no proof, but I personally feel that it changed the way I think, communicate, and process information. It put my mind on hyperdrive. I’ve heard some argue that this quick change in gears leads to attention deficit, but what I experienced was intense focus on many tasks at once. At the same time, I had to power down when it came time to read complicated, lengthy technical documents. The ability to work effectively in both of these environments was necessary, and my mind seemed to adapt to it. All of that said, I believe that human learning is complex and probably encompasses all the theories that have emerged thus far along with those that will emerge as a result of continued brain research. For me, the intriguing aspect of connectivism is the technology component, not the technology itself, but how we humans are adapting to it. Even more interesting is how (or if) educators will adopt practical teaching methods to respond to it.

  2. Tom Werner says:

    George, I appreciate the way you discuss these ‘-isms’ (connectionism, constructivism, behaviorism) as philosophies or world-views rather than as dogma (i.e., you avoid “connectionism good, behaviorism bad”).
    One only has to look at the vast user-generated content available on Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and so forth to see that connectionism is a philosophy/world-view worth exploring.
    And conversely, in the context of YouTube and the others behaviorism (if we define behaviorism as the world-view that leads us to have needs assessment + objectives + content creation by experts + content delivery + evaluation) seems to be not very relevant, sort of like a philosophy that focuses on the little swimming pool and ignores the big ocean.
    However, imagine that you were a corporate trainer at a pharmaceutical company and you need to train X hundreds of pharmaceutical sales reps about diabetes and your new diabetes drug so that they can make sales calls on physicians. In that case you really do have content that they need to know, experts who really are expert, an interest in testing their knowledge, etc.
    I think in that case the instructionist approach (of objectives, content delivery, evaluation, etc.) that usually derives from behaviorism may be pretty useful.
    One might say, “Well, the issue of training sales reps about diabetes drugs doesn’t interest me.”
    But that’s the point: depending on the situation, the kind of learning/teaching/training one is responsible for, these different -isms have different levels of appeal.
    At any rate, I appreciate your even-handed treatment of these different philosophies.

  3. Lanny Arvan says:

    I struggled with this post, both on the definitions and on whether there is a strong normative component to the theory that is not articulated here.
    On the notion of learning you espouse, there is nothing explicit that much effort might go in yet with no real take away. Why not make that part of the definition? Learning is about making situated experiments (Donald Schon)or, less formally, finding new paths. Those paths could lead somewhere interesting, but they could be dead ends. It might not be easy to tell the one from the other. So most of the time spent in learning may be about verification – telling the one from the other.
    Constructivism has a strong normative component to it aimed at teachers and in particular as a critique against straight “content push.” The argument is that presenting students with paths that have been shown to lead to good places does not push the student to verify that it is indeed a good path nor does it help the student to find other good paths. It has also come to mean that there should be small group work in the classroom a good part of the time where students either brainstorm or argue about the truth of a proposition. I don’t entirely subscribe to this view, but at least I can understand the argument.
    I’m inferring from other things you and Stephen have written that Connectivism is also a critique, particularly addressed at introverts (in the Myers-Briggs sense) who make much of their meaning via introspection and also at the Academy and the notion of who is an expert. I’m in “i” and so the critique I’d take is that instead of an extensive and possibly rocky and heavily blocked mental sojourn done entirely via introspection, get the early formative ideas out there into the network for others to react. Connectivism then could be seen as an advocacy for the publishing of informal and early thinking. This is an attractive idea to me though many might feel threatened by it. (Should junior faculty who have not yet earned tenure keep a blog about their research?)
    The other idea is about viewing the Academy as a club with rather steep entry requirements. Club members do make connections with other members, but often not with anyone outside. Connectivism argues that this is restrictive and ultimately damaging for learning. (At least, that is my understanding.) We need open access. Groups of interest will form but they are driven solely by affinity for the subject, not by any other externally imposed credential. When Wikipedia was newer, there were a lot of discussions on this point. People seem to have moved on to other questions, but I believe this argument was never resolved.
    Learning technologists might well embrace Connectivism as a way of organizing their own approach. It may appeal to other unarticulated norms they have. Faculty may be less accepting of the idea as it appears a threat to the traditional culture. So I wonder whether you agree there are these normative aspects to Connectivism and if you perceive these tensions to be the ones you wish to resolve by advocating for it.

  4. Doug Holton says:

    It sounds like connectivism is more related to connectionism (neural networks), distributed cognition, and Latour’s actor-network theory (everything is a node in a network), which were mainly big in the 80s and early 90s.
    You might look into criticisms of those approaches (not that anything is completely “wrong” or “right”). Connectionism still suffers from the same problems of traditional symbolic cognitivism, the symbol grounding problem and so forth. If knowledge is just a “relationship” and learning is making some “connection” then what is meaningful learning? Actor network theory makes no distinction between people and things like technologies.
    You might want to look into phenonomenology (see for example Don Ihde’s philosophy of technology), embodied cognition/enactivism, and the simulation theory of mind.
    And concerning ‘filtering’ the deluge of information we receive on a daily basis, look also into ecological psychology (J.J. Gibson, affordances, invariants, and effectivities), change blindness, etc. This has been applied to education with the contrasting cases technique (Bransford et al.). Much of what we are deluged with is not “processed” or attended to at all.
    See for example:
    or this awful wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enactivism
    So I guess a possible criticism of connectivism might be that it too ignores embodiment and what makes ‘information’ meaningful. It just lumps all resources out there as undifferentiated “content” like in regular learning objects theory. It doesn’t acknowledge recent research on perception and cognition, and how difficult it is to really learn and perceive new things.
    The alternatives I mentioned above can express learning without using terms like “content”, “connection”, “representation”, and without referring to knowledge as some “thing” that you can possess merely by be exposed to it. You can’t boil down knowledge and learning to a flowchart or concept map, and learners are tabulas rasa blank slates to be filled with content.

  5. I’m interested in connectivism and the professional formation process. Most of us have a whole bunch of introductory courses in various disciplines. From that we chose a major and learned to view a problem through the lens of a particular discipline. So I like to ask myself, “How would I look at this particular problem if I were a ________, theologian, philosopher, health practitioner, scientist, historian, mechanic, my grandmother, a person from a other cultures, etc. I’m hoping that connectivism gives us the basic thought pattern used by other people during the decision making process so we can create a more elegant answer.

  6. Hi George,
    In reading your blog I thought that was hurt by criticism of the conectivisamo. I answer here because in his blog is not allowed.
    I think that criticism is always constructive and that is important because it helps move. If many people constructively discussed a theory, there are more possibilities for improvement.
    I think we should welcome that to happen.
    Best regards,
    Dolors Capdet
    Comnectivitas, Spanish working group on Connectivism

  7. Alana says:

    Always the pragmatist I am wondering how these ideas translate to education leadership. Would you say the following (written for an online class) is correct?
    Connectivists believe in learner determined goals and objectives augmented by technology. Since the participants work together to study and produce their own content that reflects their learning, an education leader’s position is to support these efforts.
    What have I missed?
    Best regards as always,

  8. Outside of perhaps the technology aspect, if connectivism is unique, then what aspects of it are different from complexity science?

  9. Eyal Sivan says:

    Regarding Complexity Theory vs. Connectivism: I don’t think they are very different, especially where referring to Complex Adaptive Systems (as opposed to chaotic systems). It could even be said that Complexity is akin to the Scientific Theory of Connectivism, as they share many parallels, notably emergent order, non-linearity, and the concept of independent agents. I think the biggest difference (as stated by Matthias Melcher on his x28 blog – thanks to George for the link) is that Connectivism applies complexity to areas where previously deterministic (i.e. rules based) approaches prevailed.
    More to the point, Complexity science is just that: science. It maintains the distinct separation between observer and observed. Connectivism, I think, attempts to take the observations of complexity science and begin to build social structures that embody the same theories.
    For example, complexity may explain how a given social trend emerged in hindsight, but does not provide a general framework for creating the emergence of new trends. In fact, scientifically this is impossible, because complex systems are inherently unpredictable. So even if you try, you have no scientific way of measuring your success or failure.
    Connectivism, by contrast, seems to address exactly that: providing a social framework (for instance, in education) that embraces and fosters complexity, but places social priorities first. So even if your system is not as complex as possible, this is less important than whether or not the social goals are achieved (for example, dynamic, distributed learning).
    I hope that made some sort of sense…

  10. Steve Tuffill says:

    I need to get into this discussion in the way I feel most familiar.
    I notice that you state: “Tools augment our ability to interact with each other and to act. Tools are extensions of humanity, increasing our ability to externalize our thinking into forms that we can share with others. Language is an example.” With this language usage, comes the intermingling with others over large expanses of distance where the distance becomes nothing and any differences of language seem to disappear too. Also, we have what is referred to by social scientists as an “ambient awareness” of each other.
    This “ambient awareness” is omnipresent. Even though we are aware of each other in an ambient way via a site like Twitter, picture yourself on a day where the sun is dazzling, and you are walking down a city street wearing very dark sunglasses. You are aware of the other passers-by and look at them out of the corner of your sunglass-covered eyes. You have a vicarious relationship with them… With the tools of today’s Internet, such as Twitter, you have a vicarious relationship with other members of Twitter. You can feel their mood encapsulated in the 140 characters allowed to brush against their profiles… This is what I understand to be the edge of Connectivism.
    So tools are extensions of humanity, and humanity forms the derived usage of these tools. I liked the piece George did where he talks about externalizing. We all do that consciously and unconsciously. I believe that Connectivism is dependent on externalizing our personalities via technology, but that any discussion of this will bring out semantic differences and disagreement on how the theories actually move forward with the technology.

  11. Pamela McLean says:

    Wow – my head is spinning here! I seem to be coming to this discussion from a completely different angle. I hope I will find that things join up as the course progresses. A lot of the academic theory that you are referring to is new to me. However I do know the reference to Dave Cormier’s concept of rhizomatic knowledge and community as curriculum – and I am very comfortable with the ideas he discusses.
    George says: Connectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge….. Connectivism acknowledges the prominence of tools as a mediating object in our activity system, but then extends it by suggesting that technology plays a central role in our distribution of identity, cognition, and thereby, knowledge.
    That bit of what he writes does tie in with what I do know and understand. I do a lot of self-directed study through online communities. I see the learning that I do as “connectivism”. It is by discussing (sharing ideas and practical knowledge) online that I gain new knowledge and insights. I am connecting with others online in order to make new connections in my mind. (Unlike the students quoted in our previous reading today, who have 47% of their emails from people on the campus, I have very few connections with people I know face-to-face, and even those people tend to usually be living thousands of miles away).
    I didn’t realise there was so much academic theory wrapped around the idea of connectivism. I imagined this course was going to be mainly about the practicalities how we manage to use the various online tools to learn effectively, despite being from different cultures and continents.
    I wonder if I am going to find myself an oddity here, or if there are plenty of others here like me – people with no connection to any formal academic institution but doing a lot of learning thanks to the internet. I sometimes describe myself as a “self-directed student” (informal, non-accredited). My “curriculum” is project based – guided by a need to know and a need to reflect on issues related to ICT for education and development. This course content isn’t quite what I was expecting – but I am looking forward to learning more and I imagine the course content will all seem less strange as the days go by. Thank you for making it available.

  12. Petteri Laine says:

    Thank you for your open interdiciplinary introduction – it is most intriquing. I wonder if I understood you?
    “…The ’subjective’ mind has a tendency to build grand schemes in order to better reflect itself in the ‘objective’ realm it lives in. When constructing connectivism to become an even more supercomplex learning tool, you would personally like to avoid as much fluff and jargon as possible to make it as practical as possible. Some people use screwdrivers for masturbation, as many of us academic types use complex theory for the very same purpose. However at this day and age social theorists have a huge responsibility for mankind in order to cope with the global economical recast, famine and environmental issues, just to mention few. Therefore you wish that you can find discussions, peers and education that will keep nitty-griddy school of thought debates at bay, and focus on rising above the heritage of academic politics of the colonial age. Like the term connectivism suggests, let’s connect instead of hitting each other with lame diciplines? Was this it?” I love it.

  13. One exercise I will assign to you for your homework in this course, which will make up 10 percent of your grade average, is to take an essay like this and stop using references to other writers, waving icons and badgets around.
    The average intelligent college-educated reading person such as myself can be expected to know who Spencer, Dewey, and Piaget are, and what they represent, although they may want to peak back at Wikipedia. But many of the others are insider’s baseball and obscure and dense.
    A sentence like this: “Social learning theory. Here we can draw from Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy, Bruner, Vygotsky, and others” — is completely opaque, show-offy, and therefore stupid. It conveys nothing. Unless we are one of the 6-7 really nerdy obsessives working with you in your institute on these ideas, or in some other e-learning collective that things these folks are the cat’s miaow, we won’t understand the references. Sure, we can, like good little Googlers, go read this: http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/BanEncy.html But what do YOU Mean to say about it? You might wish to spell out, rather than cryptically reference, what is is YOU mean to say about this concept.
    Thus, a paragraph like no. 5, “Concept of Mind,” could easily add 3-4 sentences and tease out what is important about “Weicks’ papers on heedful interrelating.” Showy cataloguing of other sources that resonate with your own thinking don’t make for an interesting paper. Spelling them out coherently would.
    Re: “the fluid nature of knowledge”. When are you content to let a text *stay put* and become immutable, and be held on deposit for accessing throughout the ages?

  14. Kai Pata says:

    It has been quite a while we briefly discussed in Vancouver 2007, but i have been thinking of Connectivism and embedding/integrating it with my thinking.
    Some draft is here http://tihane.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/elaborating-connectivism-framework-deepening-the-ecological-focus/
    With all the positive thinking :)

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