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cyb·er·gogue: an educator that describes, designs, and discusses the art, science, and study of approaches to learning, instruction, and curriculum through the use of electronic platforms and media.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Critique of Connectivism as a Learning Theory


Having explored a “learning theory” that George Siemens (2005; 2006a) and Stephen Downes (2005; 2007) developed for a networked and digital world called connectivism. Fascinating and extensive conversations in the blogosphere and in educational journals debate whether connectivism is a new learning theory or whether it is merely a digital extension of constructivism. Siemens and Downes initially received increasing attention in the blogosphere in 2005 when they discussed their ideas concerning distributed knowledge.

An extended discourse ensued in and around the status of connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age. This led to a number of questions in relation to existing learning theories. Do they still meet the needs of today’s learners, and anticipate the needs of learners of the future? Would a new theory that encompasses new developments in digital technology be more appropriate, and would it be suitable for other aspects of learning, including in the traditional class room, in distance education and e-learning? In this article, I highlight current theories of learning and critically analyze connectivism within the context of its predecessors, to establish if it has anything new to offer as a learning theory or as an approach to teaching for the 21st Century.


A lamentable disadvantage of theories is also a satisfactory advantage of theories—that is, they are wont to change over time. Changes to theories may result not only from newer discoveries and/or the confutation of former or presently held findings which have bearing, but also as a consequence of change from outside the domain itself that impact the field. Changes in conditions relative to other widely varying areas (e.g., social, political, economic, organizational, technological, global, cultural, informational, psychological, and scientific) insinuate themselves into the prospective reframing and re-conceptualizing of educational practice and understanding (Hayes & Wilson, 2000) as well as its constituent elements. This observation is apropos to why educational theories and the models based upon them change.

Epistemologically speaking, change is a constructive and formative feature of the dynamics between research, theory, modeling, and practice within the evolving field of education and learning as the field comports with and compliments them. It follows that learning theories are, in a sense, like the working philosophies of education that instructors develop as a preliminary (and evolutionary) foundation to their practice of teaching. Such philosophies are never completely developed, and determinate versions are never reached because they are always moving toward more complete and utile working philosophies (Apps, 1973). In addition to “complete and utile,” I would add meaningful. This is highly constructive as no single theory is all-sufficient nor all ‘good’ or all ‘bad’ but, one or the other is more or less suitable for a given learner population and task depending upon the attendant variables (e.g., age, academic or career goals, learning aims, level of education, language proficiency, and so on). This is more than a demographic concern; rather, psychographic variables are also considered.

What is Connectivism?

At the dawn of the 21st Century, a new educational framework was developed called connectivism. Its two principal originators (Siemens, 2005; Downes, 2006) claim that the theory explains how people currently learn in a networked and digital world. Purported to be a learning theory, connectivism is viewed as a befitting description of learning as “a continual, network-forming process” (Siemens, 2006b, p. 25). According to Ally (2008), the current information explosion means that learning is not controlled by learners due to changing environments, innovations, changes in the discipline and related disciplines. Therefore, in this view, (a) learners must unlearn what they learned in the past, and (b) learn how to learn and evaluate new information (p. 19). Siemens and others have referred to connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age (Loureiro & Bettencourt, 2010). In connectivism, learning and knowledge are defined as:

“…processes that occur within nebulous environments of shifting core elements—not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as knowledge patterns on which we can act) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets. The connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing” (Siemens 2006b, p.30).

The introduction of connectivism initiated much debate, which is ongoing in the blogosphere and discourse in educational journals, on whether it is a new learning theory or merely a digital extension of constructivism. Yet, the question remains unsettled. However, it is possible to show that connectivism is not a proper learning theory but, rather, an account of how (i.e., the modes) learning occurs in a digital and networked global environment. Thus taken, which side of the argument one takes should be informed by an adequate understanding of what constitutes a learning theory.

The General Nature of Learning Theory

Like the debate on connectivism, the reliance upon theory itself has been controversial. In the education and research field, “theory has been both celebrated and condemned” (Andersen, 2008, p. 45). Even so, theories continue to predominate in the educational and research fields of learning and instruction. According to Dorin, Demmin and Gabel (1990), a theory: (a) provides a general explanation for observations made over time, (b) explains and predicts behavior, (c) can never be established beyond all doubt, (d) may be modified, (e) seldom has to be entirely dismissed if thoroughly tested, and (f) may be widely accepted for a long time and later disproved. Equally, learning theory and instructional theory have essential criteria by which they are defined.

According to Wilson (1997; as cited in Andersen, 2008), a good educational theory has three functions.

1. It helps people to envision new worlds, such as how education can exploit (a) enhanced communication, (b) informational retrieval, (c) creative tools, and (d) the management capability rendered by the Internet.

2. It helps people to make things, including how to invest their time and limited resources most effectively.

3. It keeps people honest, that is, it: (a) builds upon what is already known; (b) helps them interpret and plan for the unknown; and (c) drives them to look beyond day-to-day contingencies, with a view toward ensuring that the knowledge and practice of online learning is robust, considered, and ever expanding (p. 46).

Gredler (2005; as cited in Siemens, 2006a) lists four required elements that comprise a well-constructed theory:

“Clear assumptions and beliefs about the object of the theory should be highlighted; key terms should be clearly defined; there should be a developmental process, where principles are derived from assumptions; and it should entail an explanation of ‘underlying psychological dynamics of events related to learning.’” (p. 28).

In Miller's (2002) contrast between "theory" (p. 3) and "developmental theory" (p. 7), she describes substantial deficiencies these can have between them. Moreover, she says, emerging theories should: (a) belong to the domain of scientific research; (b) use scientific methods; and (c) be based upon previously conducted studies (i.e., they should be constructed logically and verifiable through testing) (Miller, 1993; as cited in Kop & Hill, 2008). In comparison, a developmental theory: (a) may attempt to become established formal theories over time; (b) are fertile testing grounds for ideas, which, in turn, may lead to empirical research that can then validate or invalidate already given formal hypotheses; (c) attribute meaning to facts within the context of a broad organizational framework; and (d) may emphasize and focus on some facts over others, which in turn can lead to further inquiry on the basis of a prioritization of information (p. 3). To differentiate connectivism from other learning theories, Siemens (2008; as cited in Utley, 2011) utilizes five elements considered common to all educational theories: (a) how learning occurs, (b) factors that influence learning, (c) the role of memory, (d) transfer of learning, and (e) the relevance of each learning theory to certain types of learning (p. 36). Clearly, theories of learning are important to educational practice and research mainly because they “help to dictate the selection, organization, and presentation of content” (Bevis, 1989, p. 79). Hence, an understanding of what learning means is required.

Defining Learning Theory

Early learning theories, starting more than 150 years ago, were originally thought to be universal, and were meant to explain all aspects of the learning process (Mowrer & Klein, 1989). More contemporary investigators built upon these foundational theories of learning, and began a shift in their focus toward specific principles of how people learn rather than continue in the attempt to explain all aspects of learning (p. 1). According to Hilgard (1958), the broad landscape of activities which are generally accepted as examples of learning make it very difficult for there to be a completely satisfactory definition. An approximate definition is more practical, such as: (a) language acquisition, (b) a memorized poem, (c) typing skills, (d) social prejudices and preferences, (e) tics, (f) mannerisms, and (g) autistic gestures (p. 2).

This wide variation of things seen as the results of learning is evidence of why a single definition would not suffice. There are several more typical definitions which describe learning.

1. Learning is a relatively permanent change in the potential of an organism to respond, resulting from prior experience or practice (Gordon, 1989; as cited in Mowrer & Klein, 2001).

2. Learning is the effects of prior experience with specific stimuli and responses, which result from an enduring change in the mechanisms of behavior involving similar stimuli and/or responses (Domjan, 1998; as cited Mowrer & Klein, 2001).

3. Learning is the result of repeated practice to effect a more or less permanent change in behavior potentiality (Flaharty, 1985; as cited in Mowrer & Klein, 2001).

4. Learning is the change in the behavior or behavior potential to a given situation based upon the subject's repeated experiences in that situation, provided the change of behavior is unexplainable based on the subject's native response tendencies, maturation or temporary states (Bower & Hilgard, 1981; as cited Mowrer & Klein, 2001).

5. Learning is an experiential process that results in a relatively permanent behavioral change that is unexplainable by temporary states, maturation, or innate response tendencies (Klein, 1996; as cited in Mowrer & Klein, 2001).

These various definitions, at least, have in common the idea that learning is a behavioral change which occurs subsequent to a person’s experience and stimulus-response to something. Closely related to this is the idea that, “Conditioning is the process of forming associations. Learning and conditioning are inferred from behavior because they cannot be observed directly” (Fogiel, 2004, p. 109). Correspondingly, the variety of definitions of learning is paralleled by a variety of learning theories (Table 1) as well as approaches to their application.

Critique of Connectivism as a Learning Theory

According to Downes (2007), connectivism is essentially “the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.” According to Siemens (2005), learners derive their competence from formal connections and their capacity to know is more critical than what is presently known. He describes it as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, complexity and self-organization theories” (Siemens, 2004; as cited in Ally, 2008, p. 19). Moreover, Siemens (2006a) claims that knowledge structures are not hierarchical or flat, and learning networks enable contrasting elements to be selected based upon a particular research or learning activity. Further, these allow the adoption of different theories, as required, to solve more nuances of learning problems. Further, this kind of theoretical fluidity, without the complete adoption of a given theory (i.e, interpretivism or positivism), makes the task of seeking knowledge more salient (para. 57).

Instructional Theory

Based upon this connectivist profile by Siemens (2004; 2005; 2006a) and Downes (2007), connectivism sounds more like an instructional theory, which provides specificity to instruction in a given learning context, rather than a learning theory that limits its horizon to general principles. According to Morrison, Ross, Kemp, and Kalman (2011), learning theories are descriptive and generic, but instructional theories should be prescriptive and situation specific. Further, in essence, instructional theory "applies the principles and assumptions of learning theory to the instructional design goal of interest" (p. 382). Its focus is on instructional objectives.

The Current Transitional Landscape

My view (Wade, 2010) is that there is no single theoretical, practical, empirical, or ideological approach that is a solvent to all current educational challenges. To me, cognitivist-developmentalist learning theories are a more appropriate take on how people learn in general, which is to say that learners go through various stages of development from simple and concrete in the early years to more abstract and complex later on. It has long been thought in the historical epistemological view that “the apparatus of cognition is static” (Ohta, MacLeod & Uttl, 2005, p. 1). It is now held that cognition is very non-static (p. 2). Moreover, I claim that both heredity and environment impact upon human learning and development. For cognitive psychology, “Dynamic cognition permits flexible interaction with our environment, allowing us to exert ‘cognitive control’ over our experience: We are not passive recipients of information but active manipulators of it (p. 2). This is especially true of the current modern technopoly, a term coined by Neil Postman, which he defined in an interview as:

“…a culture that has submitted all of its social institutions to the sovereignty of technology and, in doing so, rejects, just about wholeheartedly, all of the traditional accoutrements and beliefs from older forms of culture.... It is a culture that believes generally that human progress and technological innovation are the same thing. And, so, if we can pursue technological growth and development, we can achieve happiness and equanimity and, maybe, paradise" (McCreary, 1993, p. 76).

Therefore, learning and technology (and technopoly) are now interrelated, as described by connectivism. According to Polkinghorne (2004):

“…the technical-rational approach to decision making about what to do and how to do it is held as normative. It is proposed as the only scientific way to make decisions and as the way in which practitioners governed by a technical model would make decisions. In technical-rational practice, decisions about what to do are determined by applying scientifically validated general propositions to particular goals. The technical-rational model is the dominant method of making practical decisions in contemporary Western society” (p. 27).

Even so, it should be noted that the very nature and function of learning theory is itself in flux at the present (Mezirow, 1997). The rate of change within the field in the past three decades has accelerated markedly beyond any previous time in its modern history. (Yet, trends or movements which drive the change phenomenon within the field are outside the scope of this article.)

Connectivism as a Learning Theoryhttp://talknchalk.com/usq/edu8415/images/productivepedagogies.jpg

According to Verhagen (2006; as cited in Veletsianos, 2010), “…connectivism is more a theory of curriculum (specifying what the goal of education should be and the way students should learn in that curriculum) than a theory of learning” (p. 35). Marcum (2006) states particularly that connectivism goes beyond behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and learner-centered approaches to a learner-driven approach. Bell (2010) claims that, “Connectivism is clearly an attractive theory for practitioners wishing to change their practice to take advantages of the affordances of digital media and open publishing” (p. 531). According to Anderson (2008), it helps people to understand that learning is about making connections with ideas, facts, people, and communities. Kanwar (2008; as cited in Poley, 2010) holds that this is a way for faculty to challenge learners by creating interactive opportunities (Kanwar, 2008; as cited in Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read, 2010). For Siemens (2005), the use of technology by learners is linked to making connections.

Challenges to Connectivism as a Learning Theory

In terms of implementation of connectivism, Siemens (2006b) argues that a substantial challenge is that organizational structures are, simply, not conducive to the current characteristics and context of knowledge, which he asserts have changed. Connectivism assumes that people, information, and knowledge do not function autonomously, but are individually connected by webs of context, culture, and pre-connection to others (Terry & Terry, 2010). Thus, the framework requires that both the learners and learning networks exist all at the same time. This begs two immediate questions: (a) how did the pre-connection content knowledge develop to create learning networks? and (b) did learners or learning networks come first? In fact, Siemens (2005) does acknowledge that learning and knowledge can exist apart from individuals, in the artifacts and communities wherein their interactivity occurs.

Logically speaking, connectivism ought not to be considered a learning theory: it currently lacks the capacity to explain what constitutes learning, as defined by Hilgard (1958) alone. A primary element of a learning theory is that it attempts to be universal, not partial. Maddock and Fulton (1998) assert that, “If a theory cannot explain all facets of human behavior, then it cannot explain any” (p. 9). Calvani (2008) notes the lack of originality in connectivist concepts, and referred to various other theorists who did pioneer the ideas which are stitched together in different ways to inform the connectivism framework. He states that the tone of connectivism:

"...is at first modest (we cannot define knowledge, we can only describe it; a single model of knowledge does not exist), but becomes more pretentious when it states that the theories of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism are not valid and that a new reference is necessary, more consistent with the nature of learning that suffers the impact of new technologies: our mind is not a black box (behaviourism), is not a computer (cognitivism), and even constructivism represents an unfit reference (mind does not build reality). 'Construction, while a useful metaphor, fails to align with our growing understanding that our mind is a connection-creating structure. We do not always construct, (which is a high cognitive load) but we do constantly connect' (p. 27) 'We do not live in active cognition. We spend much of our time in containers that we have created. Instead of thinking, we are merely sorting and filtering' (p. 23).

It seems that here, thrown away false modesty, connectivism is putting forward its candidacy to represent a new paradigm, even if this application is not supplied with a consistent reference theoretical frame (pp. 248-249).

Calvani’s observations are astute, with a view to how connectivism: (a) is cocooned in its own mythological textile, able to self-reflect and dynamically change participants from passive consumers to active contributors in a single bound; (b) belittles the construction of meaning by its transparent complexity; and (c) makes transparent everything that connects to it, to illuminate what the human eye could not discern (p. 249).

Overall, connectivism seems to be standing on one foot. It appeals to the classical formalist theories of education on which it stands, while simultaneously denying their relevancy. It declares the network itself to be knowledge and everything connected to it is a knowledge maker. Its adherence to scientific standards, supposedly, may come later, even as educators struggle to help students understand how to discriminate between scholarly academic sources and unreliable sources, which is an increasing problem within institutions of learning.







How does learning occur?

Black box - observable behavior main focus

Structured, computational

Social, meaning created by each learner (personal)

Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns

What factors influence learning?

Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli

Existing schema, previous experiences

Engagement, participation, social, cultural

Diversity of network

What is the role of memory?

Memory is hardwiring of repeated experiences - where reward and punishment are most influential

Encoding, storage, retrieval

Prior knowledge remixed to current context

Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks

How does transfer occur?

Stimulus, response

Duplicating knowledge constructs of "knower"


Connecting to (adding nodes)

What types of learning are best explained by this theory?

Task-based learning

Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving

Social, vague ("ill defined")

Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources

A comparison of emblematic learning theories (Ireland, 2007, para. 7)


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  1. Interesting analysis. My first thoughts are that no theory can explain all elements of anything (that's why there are competing theories about phenomena), that connectivism does not ignore nor denigrate the other learning theories (but rather says they are not sufficient in the current information and networked environments), and that the tone in which a theory is presented is irrelevant to the usefulness of the theory.

  2. Awesome blog over here! Thanks for sharing this very usefull information. I will visit your blog again into a couple off days to check if you have some new articles

    online learning

  3. Dear Lisa,

    The ability to explain, as you say, "all elements of anything" is rudimentary to theory. Theories are more than ideas, which you know. A theory must explain in order to be a theory. As a fan of connectivism, I would prefer it to be understood as it it is not for what it is not, which would only weaken it. Also, I do not understand the relevance or relationship of "tone" to my article or theory.