Sunday, 30 October 2011

For or against Connectivism as a learning theory?

In December 2004, George Siemens, who had a keen interest in the area of e-learning, proposed Connectivism as a new learning theory. He argued that existing learning theories did not provide for the changing nature of learning due to the influence of technological advances. Although Siemens’ Connectivism is not a universally accepted theory of learning by academics, he argued that if properly applied, it has the potential to significantly improve education through the revision of educational perspectives and generate a greater shift towards learner-centered education (Siemens, 2004). In this paper I will be focussing on what connectivism is, and how connectivist is used in education as a new learning theory. I will also discuss arguments as to why some academics accepted Connectivism as a learning theory and why other academics were against connectivism as a universal learning theory.

According to the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia Connectivism was introduced as a learning theory that had its foundations set on the fact that “knowledge” is present in the world rather than in the head of an individual (Wikipedia, 2011). Connectivism suggests a frame of reference similar to Vygotsky’s Activity theory in the sense that it describes knowledge to be present within systems which are accessed through people participating in activities (Wikipedia, 2011). It also “touches” on Bandura’s concept of Social Learning in that it suggests that people learn through contact, by giving attention to how people live, communicate and learn (Wikipedia, 2011).

In Connectivism, learning takes place through the process of a learner connecting to and by feeding information into a learning community. Siemens argues that: “a community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together (Siemens, 2004).

According to Siemens the starting point of Connectivism is the individual. He argued that personal knowledge comprise of a network, which feeds into a organisations and institutions, all part of a learning community. The learning community then forms part of a larger network and is described as a node in the connectivist model (Siemens, 2004). The nodes are established from the connection points that are found on a network. In this particular case a network comprises more than one node linked in order to distribute resources. These nodes may have different sizes and strengths. It all depends on the focus of information and the number of persons who are “navigating” through a particular node (Downes, 2008).

In Connectivism, knowledge according to Siemens, can be stored in a number of different digital formats and is distributed across an information network.  Siemens argued that learning and knowledge are said to “rest in diversity of opinions” (Siemens, 2004). Learning transpires through the use of both the cognitive and the affective domains; cognition and the emotions both contribute to the learning process in important ways (Siemens, 2004).

With the changes in the development of technology, information also changes constantly (Siemens, 2004). It can happen that technology’s validity and accuracy may change over time, depending on the finding of new contributions pertaining to a subject. Connectivism stresses two important skills that contribute to learning:

·         the ability to seek out current information,

·         the ability to filter less important and not pertinent information (Siemens, 2004).

Siemens further stated that: “The capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known” (Siemens, 2004) The ability to make decisions on the basis of acquired information is measured as an integral part of the learning process (Siemens, 2004).
According to Downes Connectivism differs from other theories in the sense that “it denies that knowledge is propositional” (Downes, 2008) and that other theories are labelled as 'cognitivist theories because they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic (Downes, 2008). He furthermore describes knowledge as a set of connections formed by actions and experience that may consist in part of linguistic structures.

Downes is of the opinion that a phrase like 'constructing meaning' in Connectivism makes no sense. According to him, “connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not 'constructed' through some sort of intentional action” (Downes, 2008). Downes describes “meaning” as a property of language and logic, expressing referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems.

Downes argued that there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge in connectivism. He stated that the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing “or developing ourselves and our society in connected ways” Downes, 2008).

Kop and Hill argued that the key strength of Connectivism is in the use of web-based activity as an example of learning. Siemens and Downes acknowledged that the world wide web and its online environment was central to the development of connectivism.  They stressed that it is inclusive to other learning environments, but they did not provide any concrete examples of how it may be applied (Kop and Hill, 2008).

Kop and Hill pointed out that learning are based on and part of networks, Siemens’ Connectivist approach is essentially about cognitive development, and does not attempt to explain the socialisation processes “inherent” in the networked world” (Kop and Hill, 2008).

Verhagen argued that the principles of Connectivism were already present in established learning theories, and that Connectivism as a viable model will supply backup to pedagogy and curriculum rather than affirm a learning theory (Verhagen, 2006).

Out of principle I would like to support and agree with Jenny Mackness’ argument that “whether Connectivism is a theory or not detracts from what for me are the more important questions raised by Downes and Siemens and these are:

·    How is technology changing the way we think and learn?
  • How is technology changing the way we teach?
  • Do we need to challenge traditional ways of working in education? (Mackness, 2010).
Although I support the idea that technology is changing the way we think and learn, I do not support the Connectivism learning theory as proposed by Siemens. Research has shown that in order to promote Connectivism an online environment is vital. Although we live in a society where social networking is at the order of the day, learners in schools from all over the world do not currently have the language and technical ability to support social collaboration and learning by connecting to an online environment using a tool such as a computer to feed information into a learning community, that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together (Siemens, 2004).


Downes, S. 2008. What Connectivism is. Internet source. Accessed 15 October 2011. Available from:

Kerr, B. (2007). A Challenge to Connectivism. Online Connectivism Conference. University of Manitoba.

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past?. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9(3).

Mackness, J. 2010. Connectivism and connective knowledge: Attacks on connectivism. Internet source. Accessed on 20 October 2011. Available from:

Siemens, G. 2004. Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2.
Verhagen, P. (2006). Connectivism: A new learning theory? Internet source. Accessed 20 October 2011. Available form:

Wikipedia. Free online Encyclopedia. Internet source. Accessed 26 October 2011. Available from:

1 comment:

  1. Quick Comment Percy. I have always wanted Connectivism to be a learning theory. Because pedagogically and practically its a winner :-)

    to rationalize and defend connectivism as a learning theory, a few things that have come to mind.

    1. do you/we think/learn connectively - Yes - we connect pieces of information, make meaning and learn. How does that work in the brain - is it different from cognitivism - i believe so.
    (knowing the brain works in a connective manner using synaptic network this also gives some legitimacy to the idea also).

    2. we are in a new learning age, we don't have to remember everything - we are using external elements to save our own brain organising/processing power.

    3. connectivism is about self expression - this is not emphasized in the other mainstream pyschological learning theories. you learn by outputting, not necessarily by internalizing.

    1 and 3 don't need technology, they can be applied anyway.

    have not thought through things through enough to say i am ready to argue and defend strongly (i'll have a go though)

    just thought i'd throw these thoughts your way