Friday, March 12, 2010

P2P Wiki - Connectivist Learning Theory (George Siemens)

Over at the P2P Foundation Wiki, there is a post on Connectivist Learning Theory, a topic I am interested in as an alternative to traditional learning methods, which seem not to work for a lot of people.

Part of the history is in social learning theory (Vygotsky, Bandura, Bruner - three of my favorite dudes in psychology history). I also like that this model's theory of mind is both embodied and distributed (and I would guess, as well, culturally embedded).

Connectivist Learning Theory - Siemens

From P2P Foundation



"A central tenet of most learning theories is that learning occurs inside a person. Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual (and her/his physical presence – i.e. brain-based) in learning. These theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology)… In a networked world, the very manner of information that we acquire is worth exploring. The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins. When knowledge is subject to paucity, the process of assessing worthiness is assumed to be intrinsic to learning. When knowledge is abundant, the rapid evaluation of knowledge is important. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill. Including technology and connection making as learning activities begins to move learning theories into a digital age. We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections. Karen Stephenson states: “Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories…


"what is it that's unique about connectivism. As a starter to the discussion, and one that will be a critical focus in our fall course, I'll suggest the following:

1. Connectivism is the application of network principles to define both knowledge and the process of learning. Knowledge is defined as a particular pattern of relationships and learning is defined as the creation of new connections and patterns as well as the ability to maneuver around existing networks/patterns.

2. Connectivism addresses the principles of learning at numerous levels - biological/neural, conceptual, and social/external. This is a key concept that I'll be writing about more during the online course. What I'm saying with connectivism (and I think Stephen would share this) is that the same structure of learning that creates neural connections can be found in how we link ideas and in how we connect to people and information sources. One scepter to rule them all.

3. Connectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge. Our knowledge resides in the connections we form - where to other people or to information sources such as databases. Additionally, technology plays a key role of 1) cognitive grunt work in creating and displaying patterns, 2) extending and enhancing our cognitive ability, 3) holding information in ready access form (for example, search engines, semantic structures, etc). We see the beginning of this concept in tool-based discussions of Activity Theory. Connectivism acknowledges the prominence of tools as a mediating object in our activity system, but then extends it by suggesting that technology plays a central role in our distribution of identity, cognition, and thereby, knowledge.

4. Context. While other theories pay partial attention to context, connectivism recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and connections based on context. As such, it becomes increasingly vital that we focus not on pre-made or pre-defined knowledge, but on our interactions with each other, and the context in which those interactions arise. The context brings as much to a space of knowledge connection/exchange as do the parties involved in the exchange.

5. Understanding. Coherence. Sensemaking. Meaning. These elements are prominent in constructivism, to a lessor extent cognitivism, and not at all in behaviourism. But in connectivism, we argue that the rapid flow and abundance of information raises these elements to critical importance. As stated at the start of this post, constructivism found it's roots of growth in the social reform-based climate and post-modern era. Connectivism finds its roots in the climate of abundance, rapid change, diverse information sources and perspectives, and the critical need to find a way to filter and make sense of the chaos. As such, the networked centrality of connectivism permits a scaling of both abundance and diversity. The information climate of continual and ongoing change raises the importance of being continually current. As Anderson has stated, "more is different". The "more" of information and technology today, and the need to stay current, forms the climate that gives roots to connectivism." (

Principles of connectivism

- 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.


Dave Pollard:

"here's my understanding of what it's all about, and key definitions:

1. Connectivism is a theory of learning that asserts that knowledge and learning are not (about) content, but connection. Hence:

2. Knowledge = patterns of connections, of three types:

  • 1. neural = know-what,
  • 2. conceptual = know-how, and
  • 3. social = know-who)

3. Networks = loci of knowledge.

4. Learning = making new connections (of the above types).

5. Understanding / coherence / sensemaking = forms of pattern recognition.

6. Community = those with shared knowledge and shared learning interests.

7. Workarounds = the mechanism by which individuals make sense of and apply their own learning, regardless of mandated knowledge (instruction) or accepted knowledge ('conventional' wisdom).

8. Accepted knowledge (wisdom) = what evolves as power shifts, people die and the make-up of communities changes; wisdom is inherently 'conventional' and tyrannical.

9. The 'wisdom of crowds' is not 'wisdom' at all, but rather collective knowledge = the aggregation and appreciation of patterns of knowledge of large numbers of independent people, shared; this is much better than wisdom!" (

Characteristics of Connective Knowledge Networks

"You probably grew up learning that there are two major types of knowledge: qualitative and quantitative. Distributed knowledge adds a third major category to this domain, knowledge that could be described as connective. A property of one entity must lead to or become a property of another entity in order for them to be considered connected; the knowledge that results from such connections is connective knowledge.

According to Downes (2005), connective knowledge networks possess four traits:


Is the widest possible spectrum of points of view revealed?


Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?


Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members' perspectives?


Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?" (


George Siemens: From whence does connectivism originate?

All ideas have a heritage. All concepts have roots. A few related to connectivism:

1. Tools augment our ability to interact with each other and to act. Tools are extensions of humanity, increasing our ability to externalize our thinking into forms that we can share with others. Language is an example. Activity theory provides a basis in this regard. So does the socio-cultural work of Vygotsky. Gibson's notion of affordances of tools, while based in his research on perception, also serves a role in validating tool use. And how could we leave Wittgenstein's notion of negotiated understanding out of a language discussion? Similarly, tools are "carriers of patterns of previous reasoning" (Pea) and reflect some type of ideology. This view is also prominent in Postman's assertion that all technology carries an ideology.

2. Contextual/situated nature of learning. Situated learning draws from the work of Lave and Wenger, though, it's not too much of a stretch to say that Papert's emphasis on active doing fits this at least partly.

3. Social learning theory. Here we can draw from Bandura's emphasis on self-efficacy, Bruner, Vygotsky, and others.

4. Epistemological views: all learning theory is rooted in epistemology (even though von Glaserfeld declares we are in a post-epistemological era, suggesting that providing a theory of knowledge is exactly what constructivism cannot do). As an epistemological basis for connectivism, I've found Stephen Downes' work on connective knowledge valuable. More recently, Dave Cormier has been advancing the concept of rhizomatic knowledge and community as curriculum.

5. Concept of mind. The notion of mind is enormously complex. We encounter a unique blend of philosophers, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligence in this area such as Churchlands, Papert & Minsky, McClelland & Rumelhart, Clark (embodied cognition), Spivey, and more. Mind is seen - too varying degrees - as embodied and distributed across numerous devices, relationships and artifacts. Hutchins popularized the notion in his text on Distributed Cognition. These concepts are also reflected in Weicks' papers on heedful interrelating. Salomon's edited text on Distributed Cognitions extends these ideas into an educational context.

6. We also find a compatible view of connectivism in the work of new media theorists such as McLuhan, exploring the impact of technology on what it means to be a human. The impact of technology on humanity will continue to grow in greater prominence as we are increasingly able to augment human cognitive functioning through pharmaceuticals and the future promise of embedded chips.

7. We also find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complextiy and systems-based thinking. For example, Mason, Davis, and others, recently published a series of articles on the impact of complexity theory on the enterprise of education. Individuals like Barnnett suggest it should more accurately be called "supercomplexity" as we are not able to even begin to understand the directions things will take in the future.

8. Network theory. Sociologists, mathematicians, and physicists have spent several decades defining networks and network attributes. We are able to define key network structures, manner of behaviour, and flow of information. Concepts like small worlds, power laws, hubs, structural holes, and weak/strong ties are common in literature. Educational focus of networks comes from work by Starr-Roxanne Hiltz, Chris Jones, Martin de Laat, and others. Networks are prominent in all aspects of society, not just education. This prominence is partly due to the recognizable metaphor of the internet...but networks have always existed. As Barabasi states, networks are everywhere. We just need an eye for them." (

More Information

  1. George Siemens maintains a blog and a wiki at
  2. A response to some critical reviews about connectivism, at
  3. Connectivism: a theory for learning in a world of growing complexity. By Kay Strong, Holly Hutchins. mpact: Journal of Applied Research in Workplace E-learning, Vol 1, No 1 (2009)

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