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What Does Connectivism Mean for Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The theory of Connectivism provides new insight into what it means to facilitate learning in the 21st Century. Those responsible for teaching and training need to incorporate instructional strategies that match learner expectations and the physical changes that technology has wrought on the human brain. This is an ongoing challenge and one that does not have a single right answer or pre-packaged solution.  The application of Connectivism to teaching and learning requires a thorough rethinking of the educational process and the role of the teacher, student, and technology in that process.

Siemens has done a good job laying out the core principles of Connectivism in his 2004 piece, "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age." His list is as follows:

    • 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 skill.
    • 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 alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
      (Siemens, 2004)

While I have unpacked the three primary concepts of Connectivism in my previous post, these additional principles serve as a foundation for a rich and vibrant learning theory that should be accounted for in the design of instruction for those whom Marc Prensky would label "Digital Natives." Here is how each of Siemens’s core principles can be applied to 21st Century learning:

  • Diversity of Opinions – Utilize the Internet and social networking to expand classroom discussions beyond the classroom, school, local community, or even nation in order to consider and account for the wider variety of human experience and expertise that is available and can contribute to understanding the way the world works.
  • Connect Nodes – Use software and database tools to explore the relationships between seemingly unrelated pieces of data. This TED Talk by David McCandless provides a stunning example of the power of data visualization:
     
    • Non-human Learning – Accept that the pace of information generation is beyond what humans can comprehend and allow students to lean on technology to the extent necessary in order to make use of the vast amounts of information available to them. Having all of the world’s books in your pocket is an amazing resource – a teacher’s role is to help students develop the skills necessary to interface with the tool and make sense of what they access.
    • Know More – As information expands teachers and learners need to develop strategies for continuing to incorporate new data, knowledge, and concepts into their existing world view. In a connectivist world, learning can never stop. There will always be something new to grasp and make sense of.
    • Maintain Connections – It is critical to not only maintain existing connections but also to cultivate new ones. This concept applies both to the idea of “knowing more” above and to the socio-technical networks used to connect with others and data. Teachers need to emphasize these connections and help students create their own.
    • Connect Between Fields – Technology is breaking down the barriers between traditional academic fields – look at nanotechnology or neuroscience as prime examples. Teachers and instructional designers need to account for the fact that these historic, artificial barriers between disciplines impede the natural process of connectivist learning and take steps to facilitate the further integration of historically disparate areas by actively examining the connections between subjects.
    • Stay Current – Up to the second access to information and the ability to incorporate that information on the fly are skills that are key to connectivist learning and should be supported by teachers through providing the kinds of authentic experiences in which they are applied.
    • Decision Making – The ability to critically examine and make intelligent decisions as new data is revealed is yet another hallmark of Connectivism. Again, the current educational system of standardized curriculums and regimented progress does not allow this type of adaptive thinking. Significant changes in the education system need to occur in order for students to truly be able to make meaningful decisions in the way that they will need to beyond the classroom. Game-based learning is one way in which this real-time decision making can be cultivated in education.

This learning theory is so new and revolutionary that there is little written about it. There is even less research being done on the ways in which it can be implemented and supported or about how it actually affects learners. As an online educator, you are in an excellent position to pilot test some of the principles outlined here and in Siemens’ seminal piece on Connectivism. Let’s make a joint resolution to give it a try in the New Year. I’d love to hear about your experiences using Connectivism in the classroom. I will be experimenting with it next semester, so look for an update in late spring 2012.