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Connectivism as Learning Theory August 26, 2008

Posted by Eyal Sivan in Defining the Connective, Self.
Tags: , , , , , ,

The 18th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was stunned when introduced to Buddhism for the first time. Here he had found an ancient Eastern religion which arrived at largely the same philosophical conclusions he did in his own pursuit of truth. So much so that several of his contemporaries accused him of plagiarism, to which Schopenhauer has this to say:

“It must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own, for this numbers far more followers than any other. And this agreement must be yet the more pleasing to me, inasmuch as in my philosophizing I have certainly not been under its influence.

Far be it from me to compare myself to Schopenhauer, but I recently had a similar experience. In my virtual travels, I came across a manifesto entitled Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, originally published in December of 2004 by George Siemens, an Associate Director in the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba.

Since then, Siemens has authored many blog posts, podcasts, video interviews and other digital artifacts, all elaborating on the original theory (most recently at connectivism.ca). In 2006, he wrote a book called Knowing Knowledge (available free online) that restates the theory and explores related concepts. This September he and like-minded colleague Stephen Downes are even offering an online course on Connectivism (for university credit, no less).

The truly fascinating bit is that the two of us, completely independent of one another, seem to have arrived at exactly the same made-up word to describe largely the same conclusions. Like Schopenhauer, this agreement is yet the more pleasing to me, inasmuch as I have certainly not been under Siemens’ influence.

Indeed, the only difference between Connectivism as learning theory and Connectivism as general theory is the context: Siemens frames most of his arguments in the context of education and knowledge (i.e. epistemology), whereas my definition is intended more in the context of a sociological worldview (i.e. ethics). From a philosophical viewpoint, our two disparately-formed definitions are nearly identical.

As this post is intended to introduce the learning theory of Connectivism, the remainder will focus on Siemens’ work. His definition, taken from both the original paper and book, is as follows:

“Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, complexity and self-organization theories… [It] is the assertion that learning is primarily a network-forming process.”

He begins the manifesto by comparing Connectivism to dominant learning theories (and their epistemological counterparts): behaviourism (i.e. objectivism), cognitivism (i.e. pragmatism) and constructivism (i.e. interpretivism). The flaw in all three of the existing theories, he says, is their presumption that learning occurs only inside a person.

According to Siemens’ theory, learning occurs primarily in network structures, which are “not entirely under the control of the individual.” This connective knowledge, to use Stephen Downes’ term, exists irrespective of scale: the network structure may refer to the neural net inside your brain, your social network of like-minded peers, your company’s collaboration and knowledge management tools, or the entire Internet. In this way, Connectivism addresses distributed, self-organizing knowledge, even outside of the individual. Using Siemens’ definition of learning (actionable knowledge), the theory addresses distributed learning as well.

The manifesto is convincing, as is the profuse amount of supportive elaboration Siemens provides on his blog. He explores such challenging concepts as network theory, non-linear complexity, cognitive science, technology supplanting human faculties, bottom-up vs. top-down control, the individual and the network, and in a particularly interesting entry, subjectivity vs. objectivity. He consistently emphasizes the importance of maintaining flexibility and embracing change (even going so far as to call for a new discipline).

If the above doesn’t sound enough like the Connective espoused here, how about the following quote from one of his posts:

“Instead of hierarchy, we create networks. Instead of static spaces of information exchange, we foster ecologies.”

Many of the critics of Connectivism take issue with its definition as a learning theory. Since I am not qualified to debate whether it is or isn’t (I’ll leave that to the teachers), I’ll instead side with Matthias Melcher, one of the blog’s readers, and propose that Connectivism “extends to much more than learning and schools.” I think that Siemens actually believes this as well, as many of his statements focus more on sociological reform than learning theory per se:

“Forget blogs…think open dialogue. Forget wikis…think collaboration. Forget podcasts…think democracy of voice. Forget RSS/aggregation…think personal networks. Forget any of the tools…and think instead of the fundamental restructuring of how knowledge is created, disseminated, shared, and validated.”

Even when framing Connectivism as more than a learning theory, there still exist some ambiguities in Siemens’ analysis.

One ambiguity is the circular use of the terms knowledge and learning, in the context of the theory. Siemens positions knowledge as existing in network structures, outside of the individual. He then defines learning as actionable knowledge (or in verb form, using knowledge). The redundancy here is that network structures are inherently dynamic and ever-changing; therefore, all knowledge that exists on the network is by definition actionable, at a minimum, by the other nodes in the network. If all knowledge is dynamic, then it is constantly actioning itself, in which case knowledge is learning, and the two terms mean effectively the same thing.

Which brings us to the second ambiguity: the role of the individual in Connectivism. The position that learning exists outside the individual and distributed across a network is a cornerstone of Siemens’ theory. Given that these learning networks exist at any scale, individualism fades into finer and finer grain networks, where a single person is just a neural network. However, in his manifesto Siemens states that “the starting point of Connectivism is the individual.” In his post on subjectivity vs. objectivity, he cleverly defends the “intrinsic (objective) attributes” of individual nodes. Throughout his work, there seems to be an ongoing battle between the empowerment and the diffusion of the individual.

There is no simple answer here. This is not a trivial contradiction; rather, it is at the very heart of Connectivism. It represents yet another point where my own ideas overlap with Siemens’, as I often struggle with the same problem. Is a network a thing, or a collection of things? For that matter, are you an individual or a collection of thoughts?

Rather than elaborate on these questions here, let us borrow some closing wisdom from another German philosopher, Edmund Husserl:

“I exist, and all that is not-I is mere phenomenon dissolving into phenomenal connections.”

I applaud Mr. Siemens for his clarity of vision and devotion to the subject. Based on his comment activity, he has incited an intelligent and well-deserved debate in the academic community about how learning and teaching should be adapted to the networked world. I will be participating in his course this September as much as time allows, and look forward to a productive and undoubtedly captivating exploration of Connectivism, as learning theory or otherwise.

If, completely separate from one another, we can arrive at not only the same ideas but the same exact word, then imagine what we could come up with together, connected.




1. deadvocate - September 25, 2008

Thanks Eyal. You have very clearly enunciated some of the apprehensions I have about this concept. I think that your observations may help me along the path of both understanding it and being able to refute it, as that is what my intuition suggests is appropriate.

I am thinking that positioning it as less than a learning theory may clear up the ambiguities. I think its assertions are too strong, and it is not suited for the task that its proponents are forwarding, yet I am unable to substantiate my view nor offer my refutation yet. And then again, I may be totally in error and my doubts will prove both irreleveant and unfounded.

But thanks for your clarity of communication; the circular talk in some blogs like Georges is difficult to sort. You have clarified much.

2. Eyal Sivan - December 30, 2008

deadvocate, thanks for the complements.

I have to say, now that the course is over, that I feel Siemens & Downes accomplished a lot. Many teachers who were new to e-learning walked away with a very strong foundation for understanding current technological shifts. I agree with you that the theory itself is still incomplete, but I don’t think its founders would refute that. I’m also sure they would welcome your doubts (especially Stephen).

3. Learning 2.0 is Dumb: Use ‘Connected Learning’ Instead | trainingwreck - May 23, 2011

[…] Siemens’ work entitled “What is the unique idea in Connectivism?”, Eyal Sivan describing “Connectivism as Learning Theory” and Stephen Downes’ piece entitled “Learning Networks and Connective […]

4. 543 – Connectivism, Cop’s, PLN’s « Angilewis's Blog MET - September 17, 2012

[…] Sivan, E. (2008). Connectivism as Learning Theory. Retrieved from https://theconnective.org/2008/08/26/connectivism-as-learning-theory/ What do Connections Do? [Slideshow file]. Retrieved from […]

5. Adrian Hill - August 9, 2013

Eyal, I’ve just come across your blog for the first time, and want to complement you on the lucidity and humility with which you present your reflections. Really excellent reading. Adrian.

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