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Lit Review 1: Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

September 23, 2013

lisa hammershaimb

For our second class assignment we had to write two literature reviews on any papers we would like to choose. Since Dr. Siemens is my dissertation adviser and I am a child of the digital age, I thought it only fitting to choose his work on Connectivism as my first piece. You can find the original article here.

 

Review of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age
by Dr. George Siemens

Touting itself as the learning theory that embraces the contemporary era where, “We can no longer personally experience and acquire all learning that we need to act” (Siemens, 2005) Connectivism is an optimistic learning theory that promotes personal connections, finds patterns in seemingly random chaos, and engineers bridges between the disparate islands of individualism, technology, and knowledge attainment. In Connectivism, all parts of life are imbibed with meaning and if one knows how to filter and discern, every situation can be an opportunity for gaining knowledge.

In Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, Dr. George Siemens lays out the foundations of Connectivism, a theory that he considers to be the natural progression of the well-established learning theories of the past (behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism). Dr. Siemens posits that technology today is so pervasive that it has re-wired our brains in fundamental ways. In this re-wiring, knowledge acquisition has transformed from something that is gained via linear forms to something that is assembled via patterns, networks, and personal connections. Unless we factor technological impact into the equation, we will not succeed in reaching today’s learners. Connectivism is built upon this new pattern-seeking and network-based paradigm.

The article begins with a discussion on learning, with a particular emphasis on the “half-life of knowledge.” (Siemens, 2005) Siemens theorizes that because knowledge is growing exponentially, it is no longer logical to think about knowledge as a static entity whose main goal is to be ingested by an individual and go no further. Indeed, many concepts today come with an expiration date that is often a year or two after conception. Learners today do not look to learning as a point of arrival, rather they look to it as a bridge, taking them from one unknown idea to the next, always emphasizing access, journey, and serendipity. To reflect this shift, educators must equip students with the ability to make effective decisions, resulting in students who are confident in their own learning process and have the ability to make sense of complex and disparate information. Learning is not the exclusive domain of the classroom, rather the classroom gives learners a framework through which they can “learn from” all situations they encounter.

Siemens continues with the idea that “the organization and the individual are both learning organisms.” (Siemens, 2005) In the past, defining knowledge was viewed as the exclusive domain of the organization and as such the organization filtered what was and was not pertinent information for the individual. Now the individual holds determinative power for their own learning and in so doing looks to communities or networks instead of organizations to expose ideas and help filter appropriate and relevant knowledge. The formal organization’s power has been deeply undermined by the power of the individual’s network.

In this more individual-centric structure, connections are key because each individual relies strongly on their connections to help them learn. Many of these connections happen through what Siemens terms “weak ties.” (Siemens, 2005) Weak ties are the relationships that occur in short bursts throughout the day and result in shared information transfer. Though the two participants have very little in common, the information exchanged can be pivotal in either individual’s story and thus become a new connection in both of their networks. For example, a weak tie between two patrons at a local coffee shop could lead to passed knowledge about a new business venture, which could lead to a new job for another weak tie of one of the patrons. The web of connection and the potential for impact through very loose, very thin networks is staggering. When the even more vast link of loose ties created via social networks and technology mediated communication is added into the equation, the potential for connection, impact, and transformation compounds exponentially. Individuals who are seen as influential are no longer those with the most traditional learning experiences, rather influential individuals are those with the greatest level of connection, often shown through an abundance of weak ties.

With it’s reliance on weak ties, and short bursts of information exchanged between changeable humans, Connectivism delights in seeing deeper patterns and distilling meaning from chaos. With Connectivism the question is not, “does meaning exist?” but rather is, “how do these random incidents connect together to form a larger narrative?” The exploration is yet another venue in which learning can occur as a whole new level of cross discipline engagement ensues. Rather than siloing information and experts, Connectivism is about connecting disciplines and formats. When everything becomes part of a larger web it imbues the very act of learning with unbeknownst importance. Individuals must now learn not only for their own betterment but also because the rest of the world needs their own bit of input and their own unique set of connections to continue the production of knowledge.

As someone who has grown up heavily influenced by technology, I have no trouble believing that my mind, like my peers, has been re-wired with a proclivity toward forming significance through non-linear channels and cross discipline means. That said, I do have questions about Connectivism’s overarching applicability. How would the ideas of Connectivism play out in a culture or society that doesn’t have as much access to internet, technology, etc? Is Connectivism a learning theory just for those who live daily with technology or can it translate to remote cultures and people groups? Or, perhaps Connectivism only become limited when you tie it to the formal idea of technology? Perhaps people in remote cultures or people groups do indeed already have their weak ties, nodes, etc. but they are entities unique to their context and are technology agnostic?

Connectivism also heavily emphasizes the context in which connections occur. In Connectivist theory, changing the context in which a decision is framed can lead to a shift in the “correct” decision. Is this context representative of the mental or physical context of the learner? If the context is indeed physical, I wonder how this plays out in distance education learners for whom instructors really have no control over the physical context in which learning occurs. Do we as instructors have to be even more nimble and anticipate a myriad of contextual settings? Do we intentionally abstract our information, and trust that through reflective learning our learners will engage in appropriate ways? If the context is mental, how can we as instructors bring each of our very diverse students into the optimal personal mental space so that they are open to optimal learning connections?

Connectivism heavily emphasizes the delivery of the content over the meaning of the content and this too gives me pause. Because there is so much focus on the “pipeline of information” over the content of information itself, is there a danger that presentation charisma can trump actual knowledge acquisition? Can instructors leave students with a wealth of meaningless connections? And if presentation is key to knowledge acquisition, are instructors who are trained to be expert orators going to be inherently more successful than instructors who are only trained as knowledge experts?

Finally, while I fully support the greater decentralization of learning away from a more formalized organization-oriented structure to an individually constructed structure, I have concerns about the purity of information that gets disseminated. When knowledge is passed along a network chain, how does it avoid turning into a world-wide game of telephone where everyone puts their own spin on the message and the purity gets diluted through each participant? Or, is the dilution actually a survival of the fittest mechanism and ensures that the knowledge being passed really is as robust as possible?

Questions aside, overall I do see Connectivism is a relevant and much needed addition to the learning landscape. In today’s increasingly networked society, the transformative power of connections as a means of knowledge acquisition must be acknowledged and I believe that students in an educational structure that exploits these connections will indeed thrive.

Siemens, George. (2005) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.
International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2. Retrieved from http://itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

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