Is Connectivism a New Learning Theory?

Here is my response to Connectivism: Theory or Phenomenon.

Interesting points and observation.  There are lots of empirical evidence in support of Connectivism, only that I still haven’t got the time to consolidate all of the research findings.

My involvement of number of researches did reveal certain areas where the previous learning theories fell short in its explanation, especially in the areas where emergent, self-oganised and self-determined learning (Heutagogy) did occur.  It could be argued that many (or majority) of the participants of MOOCs (in some cMOOCs, and most xMOOCs) are learning based on an instructivist approaches (behaviorism and cognitivism), and not on social constructivism and connectivism.  Why?  There are good reasons that I would be able to cover in this short response.

In summary:

1. People have been educated under instructivism and would more likely feel accustomed to the lecture method.

2. Transmission and consumption of information (treated as knowledge) is considered a simpler and easier way.

3. Learning is still confined in the Simple to Complicated learning scenarios under most institution education environment (in xMOOCs), where systems, procedures, policies and best practice is based upon.  The known prescriptive knowledge in most xMOOCs could be “trained” and assessed mainly because there are still known and correct answers related to prescriptive outcomes and performance criteria. It seldom addresses the complex and chaos learning scenarios under an informal or non-formal learning environment (i.e. both appearing in most c and x MOOCs where learners are outside the institutional learning framework, and learning occurs in various networks, including social networks, communities and individually).  This is where xMOOCs find it hard to break through, and one or a few professors are expected to “teach” tens of thousands of learners, but that there are simply no way to knowing what sort of learning has taken place, except responses from the tests, clicking of start, stop, pause of the videos or accessing the resources or tests (which is again based on behaviors of learners).

4. Most of the rhetoric (on both for and against Connectivism) are based on certain frame of reference (an educator, an administrator, a professor, an expert or consultant, a course organiser or designer, a student), and that most people are still relating such learning under a confined institutional education environment especially in xMOOCs, which is limiting the type of discourse on how learning has actually taken place in their real life, and how emergent learning has occurred with tacit and explicit knowledge yet to be “defined”.

5.  There are lots of challenges if the students are critiquing under such an education system, as the researches are limited to past findings with closed education system (the typical class settings) and learning theories which relate to social learning theory, but not an integration of the various learning theories under a digital age.

6. Trying to critique on a “New Learning Theory” such as Connectivism requires more evidences for both proving and dis-proving the theory, and if the disprove is based on another theory, then likely you would end up with “self-fulfilling” prophecy as surely there are gaps in between what you are looking for, and what the theory of Connectivism proposes.  This is why a shift of frame of reference (perspective, and basic principles of learning) be used to explore about the theory.  This should be grounded on evidences and practical applications and not rhetoric.

7. The various reports from xMOOCs – from professors, participants, and experts all indicated certain patterns of self-organised groupings, emergent learning and social networking, together with the properties of networks – openness, connectivity, diversity and autonomy (to some extent) are realized, but then seldom promoted, as they are not enlisted under Mastery Learning (the main pedagogy).  However, if you review what Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig have shared in their presentation, they did highlight some of the existing pitfalls with the video lectures only, and the lack of interaction with the professors and peers with the xMOOCs approach, except those in the LMS.

8. I am afraid that most students are writing papers grounded on a traditional linear definitive approach, in order to satisfy their education institution requirements, and that most, if not all would need to satisfy the well established framework of education as deemed certified as “canonical knowledge” and known system.  Connectivism goes far beyond such approach, and thus a student who would argue based on Connectivism may not easily be able to demonstrate competency that easily.

Finally, as I have argued throughout, there aren’t many people deemed as experts in Connectivism, except the pioneers – George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and so how could other professors and students be able to accept Connectivism if they haven’t been “educated” or haven’t learnt about the theory?  Besides, there are some principles under Connectivism which are mooted and debatable, and it is time to review them based on more evidences and applications.  Unfortunately, we are unlikely able to access the data and learning analytics of xMOOCs as they are owned by the xMOOC providers.



15 thoughts on “Is Connectivism a New Learning Theory?

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  3. Thanks for reading my article John and thank you for taking the time and trouble critiquing it – that’s very much appreciated, especially as I am in the third month of my EdD 🙂

    I’ve only come to connectivism quite recently and my interest has been sparked largely due to my involvment in the “e-Learning and Digital Cultures” course. So I wanted to understand more what was going on there, particualrly as the course tutors wanted to “flex” the xMOOC model a bit.

    I couldn’t agree with you more regarding point 6, the whole notion of “theory” is a nebulous one, and it seems that in educational discourse, at least, having something that is grounded in theory appears to be very important indeed.

    I kind of see where you are going with point 8, but for me at least, we need more of this kind of critical inquiry, such as your response to my post, to move the connectivism agenda forward.

    Best wishes and many thanks,


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  5. 2 responses:
    1. Instead of hypothesizing, start surveying those who prefer connective learning and find out why.
    2. An excellent point about conducting inquiry using a traditional system, points 4,5,and 6 from above. That method of inquiry cannot stand up to a shift in perspective.

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  9. John –
    “There are lots of empirical evidence in support of Connectivism, only that I still haven’t got the time to consolidate all of the research findings.” 😉 Fermat’s Last Theorem and the size of the margin of the page? 😉 just joking.
    Your points set the scene for Connectivism but I find it difficult to use any to explain Connectivism as a theory of (my) learning.
    On that point, what would I expect from a theory of learning? It would have to work at a “me” individual level – that is, it would have to explain and predict how my learning could or does occur. Your point about one being used to particular ways of learning impeding using Connectivism is a good one.
    Also, for my own learning, I see Connectivism as sources of learning (my learning). So is Connectivism better described as where knowledge IS rather than where learning is being created?
    Leaving individual learning for a moment, I really see macro aspect of mankind’s learning, with Connectivism providing an explanation (or perhaps a theory) of one major and increasingly developing source of learning (given the digital communication age).

  10. Hi George, Agreed that the theory has to work at an individual level, and it would have to explain and predict how your learning could or do occur. My questions to you include: How do you learn? How has learning occurred to you?

    Do you learn through building and or navigation of networks (aggregation, curation of information sources), personal level (neuronal-level connections, thinking and reflection of personal experience (what sort of changes in behavior, and way of thinking with conceptual connections of various concepts based on those experiences (sense-making)?

    In this way Connectivism is based on a thesis that learning is a networking phenomenon and that knowledge is where one could sense and recognise the pattern emerging out of the building and navigation of the networks. Learning is then a dynamic process, with certain adaptive properties associated with the networks, which could happen under a Complex Adaptive System and Knowledge Ecology (such as a MOOC). This means that when information changes, a person would need to examine the knowledge pattern resulting from those changes. The MOOC movement and the implications are good example illustrating such knowledge pattern. No one single expert (of MOOCs) so far has fully been able to definitely explain the knowledge and learning that are embedded in MOOCs for both the networks and individuals.

    However, when individual professors and all associated learners are co-evolving and co-learning with the learners, each would sense the learning emerging out of the interactions or engagement, with some perceiving knowledge and learning with different degrees of meaning – based on sense-making.

    Professors and learners (some, if not all) would each define their way-finding (goal setting, learning how to explore their own pathways) resulting from those exploration, connections, engagement or interaction. These sort of learning also result in various interpretations of what constitutes self-determined learning, self-organising learning (both individually and networks and groups) and emergent knowledge and learning, apart from prescriptive knowledge and learning.

    There are people who may learn and interact differently from those as defined under the “formalised” and theorised learning approaches, based on legitimate peripheral learning (as peripheral learners) or other reasons (Anderson, 2013).

    Such patterns of both individual and social learning are repeated appearing in various forms throughout the cMOOCs, and also re-emerging in xMOOCs despite the “assertion” that the pedagogy is based on Mastery Learning. Indeed, you could associate the learning associated with Connectivism to be an integration of the previous learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and situated learning (and COPs) all based on connections and interactivity (Connectivism).

    May I relate to my previous post:”How would a connectivist approach work? Yes, you still require the deconstruction of the student’s existing thinking, but not just based on the teacher’s input. Rather, you would suggest the students to be immersed in networks, based on navigating activities and the using of appropriate tools or media (i.e. media and technology affordance), in exploring about the “right” and “wrong” concepts, and discerning those right from wrong through navigation tools and reflective thinking. This is similar to what I have suggested here:

    The concepts that are crystallised through such networked learning may be based on the ability of the learner to recognise and interpret the pattern (i.e. principally on the navigation and exploration, with or without the teachers), rather than the demonstration of the teacher and explanation of the concepts via “Constructivism or Social Constructivism”. This means that the concept development under Connectivism is far more reaching than the typical “classroom” or social networks environment, but would also include technological and media enhancement for its nourishment.”

    There are lots of factors which could impact or influence a person’s learning under such a knowledge ecology (MOOCs), including the authority and power exerted through formal authority, professors, peers etc. and the emotional and affective dimensions (likes/dislikes of certain aspects) emerging from the interaction with course, professors, experts, networks, peers, preference of learning based on individual learning styles, autonomy and self-determination or organisation of individuals, and most importantly personal educational and learning experience which would ultimately impact on one’s perception and appreciation or adoption of those properties of networks – openness, diversity, autonomy, and connectivity or interactivity.

    Thanks again for your valuable comments and insights.

    Anderson, T. (2013) Promise and/or Peril: MOOCs and Open and Distance Education (accessed 3/5/2013)

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