What’s wrong with established theories of learning?

I was involved in a recent conversation where an individual asked for clarification on about whether connectivism was an actual learning theory…or if it was more a radical re-conceptualization of how learning happens in today’s digital environment. I chose the safe answer and stated that I intended it to be both.

To elaborate, I’ll use context to refer to the new environment in which learning is happening (and in turn impacts any theory of learning) and method to refer to a new way, or metaphor, of learning.

Our changing learning context is axiomatic. We see it in any form of information – from newspapers to radio to TV to the internet. Everything is going digital. The end user is gaining control, elements are decentralizing, connections are being formed between formerly disparate resources and fields of information, knowledge is developing rapidly, and everything seems to be “speeding up”. It’s critical that learning theories adequately meet the challenges of this environment. Regardless of how we perceive knowledge and learning (i.e. is it objective? interpreted? subjective?), our theories have to account for the environment in which learning will happen. The learning must link to real life. All three dominant learning theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism) provide some value at this level, as long as they are able to adjust to the new information context. Connectivism is, in this sense, at least partly an attempt to conceptualize learning as a function of a new context.

Connectivism’s relevance increases when we consider a new method (or metaphor) of learning. The achilles heel of existing theories rests in the pace of knowledge growth. All existing theories place processing (or interpretation) of information squarely on the individual doing the learning. This model works well if the knowledge flow is moderate. A constructivist, for example, can process, interpret, and derive personal meaning from different information formats…as long as the flow doesn’t overwhelm the learner. What happens, however, when information is more of a deluge than a trickle? What happens when information flows too fast for processing or interpreting?

Once knowledge/information flow becomes too rapid and complex, we need to conceptualize a learning model that allows individuals to learn and function in spite of the pace and flow. A network model of learning (an attribute of connectivism) offloads some of the processing and interpreting functions of knowledge flow to nodes within a learning network. Instead of the learning having to evaluate and process every piece of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes (people and content). The learner aggregates relevant nodes…and relies on each individual node to provide needed knowledge. The act of learning is offloaded onto the network itself – i.e. the network is the learning. This view of learning scales well with continued complexity and pace of knoweldge development.

2 Responses to “What’s wrong with established theories of learning?”

  1. As I read this post, I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with my del.icio.us bookmarks. It’s a tool that I use constantly to manage information flow and extend the reach of my brain. Each time I tag a URL, I’m investing a bit of time to create an anchor (connection point), that I’ll be able to access later. But in my own brain, very little lies behind that connection point – the power of the tool lies in digitally extending my physical memory bank. I actually visualise it as an extension… my brain is a castle with a moat that separates my information bank from the world’s information – I can use tools or relationships with people to build bridges to the world outside and all the information that resides there. The great thing about tools like del.icio.us is that those connections are semi-permanent and the information is accessible when needed. So the information is available, but not taking up room in my brain that I currently need for other details. One important point, however. Using del.icio.us means that I have the knowledge of how to access the information, but not necessarily the knowledge itself (if we consider knowledge assimilated, contextualized information). I think this reinforces the idea that we will be less reliant on content-oriented knowledge in the future, and more reliant on skills like resourcefulness, critical analysis, etc.

  2. Julian says:

    So a new skill becomes necessary / emerges – the skill of being able to evaluate other network nodes for “trustedness”?
    Reminds me of Andy Carvin’s idea about how to teach students to use Wikipedia reliably.
    But to be slightly contentious for a moment – how does the theory you propose differ from the accepted scientific approach where new knowledge is built in the work of others? Surely you could consider the body of research in a subject to be nodes in a network too?