YAM (Yet Another Map)

Learning theory mapped to ID model

Learning theory mapped to ID model

Is connectivism a new learning theory?

Stephen Downes and George Siemens are active bloggers in education. Over the past two years, they have proposed a new theory of learning, connectivism, based on their vision of how the availability of ubiquitous networks have changed the nature of learning. An article by Kop and Hill in the October issue (Volume 9, Number 3) of IRRODL (International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) considers whether connectivism qualifies as a theory.

On the surface, the argument from Downes and Siemens “feels” intuitively right:

  • since the power law applies to (computers attached to) the Internet, doubling the number of users quadruples the number of connections; therefore, connections are a critical component of knowledge construction;
  • since the rate of change of information is accelerating, the rate of change of our knowledge must accelerate, a feat which can only be accomplished through a power law network rather than our personal cognitive structures

However, a theory must provide more than a feeling. The article states that an emerging theory must be based on scientific research; even a developmental theory must meet certain criteria: describe changes within behavior, describe changes among behaviors, and explain the development that has been described.

Using connectivism to describe changes within learning theory, Siemens argues that:

  • objectivism is realized in behaviorism where knowledge is acquired through experience
  • pragmatism is realized in cognitivism where knowledge is negotiated between reflection and experience
  • interpretivism is realized in constructivism where knowledge is situated within a community
  • distributed knowledge  (from Downes) is realized in connectivism where knowledge is the set of networked connections

The author analyzes this argument and concludes that previous work by Vygotsky, Papert, and Clark already account for the changes connectivism attempts to claim as its own. In addition, Siemens’ argument seems circular: acknowledgement of knowledge as a set of connections (distributed knowledge) is required as a foundation for the theory of connectivism where knowledge is the set of networked connections. And in fact, some implications of the theory sound ludicrous:

  • there is no such thing as building knowledge;
  • our activities and experience form a set of connections, and those connections are knowledge;
  • the learning is the network.

The authors conclude that connectivism fits a pedagogical level rather than a theoretical level. “People still learn in the same way,” but connectivist explanations and solutions can help us deal with the onslaught of information and the enabling power of networked communication.


Random analogy (but I do so love metaphor). If “scaffold” is too constraining but we need the idea (and I think we do), what about gradient?



What the article doesn’t specify is the delay between memory formation and recall. One of the articles we read last week said short-term memory temporal capacity was 15 seconds, so if the delay was longer than 15 seconds, this phenomenon may apply to long-term as well as working memory.

On the surface this research would seem like a vindication for the  cognitive school with its emphasis on memory schema (although there’s nothing in constructivism that denies the important role of memory–only that memory is viewed through the lens of the individual’s culture and experience). Maybe I need to think of behaviorism as applicable to fundamental (physical) learning. So, we first have to learn a topic behaviorally (get the definitions down– sort of like the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) before we can learn the same topic cognitively (see the patterns–the middle levels). And once we’ve spent enough years on the planet (20?), we have accumulated enough history and acculturation that we will (whether we want to or not) learn the same topic constructively (apply our own values which have formed by and over that period of time). For example, a 10 year old can learn historical dates but can’t learn (see) a pattern of colonialism from those dates; a 15 year old can learn (visualize) that pattern but can’t be horrified (or proud); a 20 year old, having grown up in a culture that prizes human rights, can learn to abhor a pattern of conquest (or, having grown up in a culture that values “manifest destiny,” can learn to rationalize war as a national imperative).