Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

“…the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.”
George Siemens

In this piece George Siemens argues for a new learning theory, connectivism, as the technological changes of the burgeoning digital age have rendered previous theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism) obsolete. As theories are paradigms I have no issue in tweaking, revising or outright discarding them as they are useful only insofar as they offer us usable models of the workings of more complex interactions and outcomes (Joseph Campbell spent a career discussing this, his focus being more on the value of myth in this regard).

Early on Siemens states that, “in many fields the life of knowledge is now measured in months and years.” He further references fellow scholar, Gonzalez (2004) to inform us that, “The ‘half-life of knowledge’ is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). To combat the shrinking half-life of knowledge, organizations have been forced to develop new methods of deploying instruction.” As educators we must also bear in mind that, “Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning… Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.” The statement that:

Technology is altering (rewiring) our
brains. The tools we use define and
shape our thinking

strikes me as the most fascinating and important statement in this entire piece. We are then informed by Driscoll (2000) that learning is “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world” (p.11). This definition encompasses …learning as a lasting changed state (emotional, mental, physiological (i.e. skills)) brought about as a result of experiences and interactions with content or other people.”

If we accept these premises then really, all bets are off. We need to start ‘rewiring’ our ideas about the practice of education and begin to focus more on the skills of learning and working collaboratively to engage with these emerging norms and embrace the newer realities that:

Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the “fuzziness” of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for life-long learning. Schools new focus then becomes to foster skills that recognize that, “‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.” and that, “Meaning-making and forming connections between specialized communities are important activities.”

I found the statement that, “These [learning] theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology)” puzzling however. The article previously stated that learning occurred only by a change in an ability or potential ability which seems to be at odds with this other definition. The latter statement, “Knowledge that resides in a database needs to be connected with the right people in the right context in order to be classified as learning,” tempers this logical concern somewhat.

Those who can best utilize networks for learning then, will excel in the digitally, connected age. As Siemens cites Albert-László Barabási that “‘nodes always compete for connections because links represent survival in an interconnected world.’ This competition is largely dulled within a personal learning network, but the placing of value on certain nodes over others is a reality. Nodes that successfully acquire greater profile will be more successful at acquiring additional connections. In a learning sense, the likelihood that a concept of learning will be linked depends on how well it is currently linked. Nodes (can be fields, ideas, communities) that specialize and gain recognition for their expertise have greater chances of recognition, thus resulting in cross-pollination of learning communities. Accordingly, if, ‘decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations'” and, “new information is continually being acquired,” then, “The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital.”

In the man’s own words

When knowledge loses status to interconnectedness, the ability to make connections and status within a network then the skills of connecting to, maintaining and nurturing personal information networks gain importance. No longer is the youth with 500 friends on Facebook just wasting their time but learning valuable skills. “Within social networks, hubs are well-connected people who are able to foster and maintain knowledge flow.” Individuals with these skills have an advantage. As alluded to above, connectedness today has a direct correlation to connectedness tomorrow. These individuals are well positioned as valuable professional assets tomorrow. Siemens informs that, “The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.”

In summation, I love this guy. Very quotable. This reflection/post is yet another example of the confidence this course is inspiring in a person with great interest in the application of ICT in the classroom and in life but with some reservations about the social and health implications as we move, seemingly, farther and farther from our natural world. One last, irresistible quote from George Siemens to close:

“The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.

More Food for Thought

About Sean Thompson

Sean is an educational technology specialist at Sacred Heart International School in Tokyo. He travels extensively across southeast Asia speaking, presenting and participating in discussions regarding the effective integration of technology in an educational setting. In 2014 he partnered up with DEEP Learning to support the team with the development, promotion and execution of professional development conferences for teachers worldwide. Sean is also an Apple Distinguished Educator, an International Baccalaureate Educator Network Workshop Leader , a Google education Trainer and a Certified Google Educator available for professional development at your school.
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5 Responses to Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

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