A New Theory of Learning?
The Internet, interactive social gaming, and Web applications designed to facilitate social participation have created a new environment for collaborating and learning. Humans adapt to their environment. “Learning is influenced in fundamental ways by the context in which it takes place” (Bransford et al, 2000, pg. 25). Connectivism seeks to understand learning within this relatively new, technology-enhanced context. “The concept of emergent, connected, and adaptive knowledge provides the epistemological framework for connectivism (Siemens, 2005) as a learning theory. Connectivism posits that knowledge is distributed across networks and the act of learning is largely one of forming a diverse network of connections and recognizing attendant patterns (Siemens, 2006)” (as quoted by Siemens, 2008, pg. 10).
Discussion continues in the scholarly and online blogging community over whether Connectivism is a new theory of learning. To answer that, we have to determine what constitutes a learning theory versus an idea or principle of learning. In Human Learning, Jeanne Ellis Ormrod differentiates between principles and theories. “Theories of learning provide explanations about the underlying mechanisms involved in learning. Whereas principles tell us what factors are important for learning, theories tell us why these factors are important” (Ormrod, 2008, pg. 5-6). Ormrod further identifies 4 advantages of theories. Theories summarize results of many research studies, provide starting points for conducting new research, help make sense of research findings, and ultimately help us design learning environments that facilitate human learning (Ormrod, 2008, p. 7).
Based on these views of learning theory, I submit that Connectivism is in its theoretical infancy. It is built on existing theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism (Siemens, 2005). However, Connectivism is differentiated by new requirements for learning that are evolving in the digital information age. We’re in the middle of this evolution. Therefore, more observation and scholarly research studies are required before we can effectively apply this theory to instructional design. These are exciting times. All who are participating in this exploration of Connectivism are directly involved in the process of establishing Connectivism as a valid theory of learning.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strength of connectivism is in its ability to explore and consider learning in a complex networked environment. There is powerful learning potential in a network where learning can reside outside the individual at the same time providing limitless access to further learning opportunities for each participant.
The weakness of Connectivism as a theory of learning is in practical application. Consider the concepts of chaos and self-organization, chaos, the “connection of everything to everything” (Siemens, 2005) and self organization, “the spontaneous formation of well organized structures, patterns, or behaviors from random initial conditions” (Rocha, 1998, p. 3). We can observe complex connections of everything to everything. We can observe random initial conditions after they occur. Unfortunately, we can’t effectively recreate them. (Unless we have access to large numbers of people to pull together for a common cause as with the 2000 participants in this class.) Therefore, how do we apply this theory of learning to design? Furthermore, how can we help practitioners fully grasp the theory in such a way as to consider the possibility that they won’t be able to control learning in the same way they have in the past. The implications to education must be explored further.
Connectivism resonates with my past learning experience in that I’ve come to personally value the power of networked learning. I was an independent, introverted learner throughout my formal education until the last few years of graduate school. I did not like group work primarily because I disliked the dependence on others to get work done. The distribution of work was never well balanced. Someone always ended up with more of the burden and it was often me, not because I was so intelligent, but because I just wanted to get the work done.
It has only been in the past few years, as I have seen the emergence of online networks, that I’ve come to understand the power of connections and collective intelligence. I’ve decided that networked learning doesn’t take place as effectively in a small group setting. Technology provides a means to network with a much larger population. People can contribute at all different levels of participation without adversely impacting others who seek to learn from the network. The larger the number of participators or subnetworks, the less important an individual level of participation becomes. The smaller the network, the more motivation and forced participation come into play. I’m currently involved in a number of 21st Century learning initiatives that require my participation in a Ning. On the one hand, it’s a great way to connect with other members of the group. On the other hand, contributions often seem forced or contrived. I resent (though I understand) the requirement to contribute when I don’t necessarily have anything I feel compelled to add to the conversation.
I believe that the bigger challenge for educators and instructional designers will be to figure out how to tap into or create larger networks for learning. I think that individuals will have to build their own personal learning networks based on unique needs and desires. Educators will become facilitators who help individuals navigate these large networks and organize content in a manner that best meets the learner’s unique needs.
Connectivism is a theory in progress. As I practitioner, I’m continuously tempted to apply the theory to my personal practice. As a researcher, I understand why we’re not quite ready to make those leaps. At the same time, reflecting on possible practical applications helps practitioners grasp the theory. It might also identify areas where further research is needed. Questions I continue to ponder include:
• Is there an optimal size for a learning network?
• Are individual motivation, participation, level of expertise, and level of contribution dependent factors?
• How can teachers make the best use of existing networks and facilitate the organizational challenges for student participation?
• Is it possible to design an effective learning network? Should we even try?
• If Connectivism is a learning theory, we must presume that individuals are learning in this environment. What are the implications for future research and how do we design effective studies to address these implications?
• What are the roles of individuals in a learning network? Are the values of each role different? What is the implication if one or more of these roles are not fulfilled?
Bransford, J. et. al. (2000). How people learn. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Ormrod, J. (2007). Human Learning (5th Edition). Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall.
Rocha, L. M. (1998). Selected Self-Organization and the Semiotics of Evolutionary Systems. Retrieved October 4, 2008 from http://informatics.indiana.edu/rocha/ises.html.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for a digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm
Siemens, G. (2008). Presented to ITFORUM for discussion on January 27, 2008. Retrieved from http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:zSoDQHEjB3QJ:it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Paper105/Siemens.pdf+george+siemens+learning+is+distributed+within+a+network&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=us&client=firefox-a October 4, 2008.