Connectivism: A Digital Social Learning Theory

Connectivism is best grasped as social learning theory rebranded for the digital age and communities of learning within that age. As a result, the theory’s principles remain steeped in social learning theory, while its application is adjusted for modern technology and the uniqueness of online communities. It is a difficult concept to truly investigate as it is still in development and there is much unknown about it. However, a guiding concept of connectivism is that it is a learning theory term for interactivity; a term that is very much researched for online communities.

Downes (2007) states that “to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect” (p. 1) as a summation of connectivism. However, divergent from adult learning theory, Downes states that connectivism does not have a “real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain [connected] ways” (p. 1). This newly emerging theory focused for the digital age demonstrates how the theories of behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism fall short. While these theories are essential to learning in many environments, a new dimension of principles must be developed when learning moves into informal, networked and technological enabled areas.

Explaining the value of connectivism as a new social learning theory requires the explanation of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism, as well as the subsequent limitations of those theories in context of the digital age. Behaviorism focuses on observation over understanding and that learning is about behavior change. Cognitivism focuses a process that involves managing the short term memory in order to organize the long term recall. Finally, constructivism focuses on the creation of knowledge through the understanding experiences. A consistent thread across all of these theories is the belief that learning is intrinsic; even for those people who are in the social process. Connectivism addresses the gap of learning that occurs externally, such as technology, and how organizational learning takes place.

Seimens (2005) explores essential questions concerning learning theories and the subsequent connection with technology and networks below (p. 3).

  • How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner?
  • What adjustments need to be made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval)?
  • How can we continue to stay current in rapidly evolving information ecology?
  • How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?
  • What is the impact of networks and complex theories on learning?
  • What is the impact of chaos as the complex pattern recognition process on learning?
  • With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?

It is normal to adjust current social learning theories to fit the new parameters of technology. It is important, though, to recognize that technological age has changed the face of learning so significantly that new approaches should be considered and studied. Seimens (2005) says that “in today’s environment, action is often needed without personal learning – that is, we need to act by drawing information outside of our primary knowledge. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill” (p. 3).

As a result of these questions and subsequent study, Siemens (2005) presents several principles of connectivism listed below (p. 4).

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skills.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alternations in the information climate affecting the decision.

The essence of connectivism revolves around the premise that “decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations” (Seimens, 2005, p. 4). New information is constantly in progress and the critical thinking aspect of separating important and unimportant information is required in context of knowing when that new information changes the context of a decision. Knowledgment management is greatly impacted by connectivism because this learning theory “addresses the challenges of organizational knowledge and transference” (Seimens, 2005, p. 5).

Earlier it was mentioned that connectivism focused on external learning, but all social learning must start with the individual. However, the value to recognize is that a cycle of knowledge starts personally, then is networked, taken to an organizational level, and then returned to the person. This keeps learners constantly aware of new knowledge through connections. The impact to learning and learning environments is phenomenal, but it also impacts management, leadership, media, and knowledge workers. The still developing social learning theory of connectivism creates its model around the fact that society is no longer constantly intrinsic and individualistic thanks to the digital age.

Downes, S. (2007). An introduction to connective knowledge. In T. Hug (Ed.), Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring new spaces and dynamics in digital media ecologies. Proceedings of the international conferences held on Jun 25-26, 2007

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1)

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.