On Connectivism

A research paper written for my “Development of Technology-Based Instruction” course. Every post on this blog will not be a mile long and written in APA format, but in the interest of creating my own “personal content management system,” I have included it here.

Ubiquitous computing and its associated technologies have forced theorists and designers to reconsider the very nature of our systems for knowledge and learning. A majority of the debate centers around what to do with “Web 2.0,” a marketing buzz-word developed to describe a vision of the Internet as a space for social connection. A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 93% of teens use the Internet, and of these, 64% participate in some form of content creation activity (Lenhart et al, 2007). Universities and corporations are beginning to catch-up, and are aiming to alter their practices in order to engage the generation of Americans who have grown up with such technologies. Connectivism is a new learning theory has emerged with the goal of meeting these challenges. I posit that including Connectivist learning theory in the process of designing instruction will result in more effective learning that bears greater resemblance to learning outside of the classroom.

Connectivism is primarily the result of work by Siemens (2005), who found the three existing learning theories (Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism) did not properly account for recent advances in technology. Additionally, the exponential increase of available information through the Internet means that the process of finding information and determining whether or not that information is valid has become just as important as actually knowing something. Informal learning through communities of practice and social networking are also aspects not addressed by existing theory.

Central to the idea of Connectivism is the growth in importance of the network, which Siemens believes “fundamentally [alters] the hierarchical structure found in many traditional institutions” (2008). An epistemological framework for Connectivism can be found in Downes’ concept of Connected Knowledge. Downes (2005), makes the assertion that everything is distributed – “every entity is composed of additional entities, and the properties of the entity in question are not all mere reflections of the smaller entities, but rather, unique properties, that come into existence because of the organization of those entities.” Learning is the recognition of connections and patterns of organization within these separate entities. The truth, however, is impossible to guarantee when what is seen as truth is really a fragile interpretation of patterns.

The issue of truth comes up frequently in debates regarding the importance of one major development that has come out of Web 2.0 – Wikipedia. Wikipedia has drawn harsh attacks from academics, who criticize its openness and inclusion of unverifiable information. Downes (2005) sees Wikipedia as merely a better example of connective knowledge than its traditional counterparts. Wikipedia relies on the successive interactions of a community of people, while encyclopedias rely on an expert, who has internalized the knowledge of a community through education and professional practice. This concentration of authority, however, can lead to the acceptance of knowledge that is merely politically expedient or promotes the dominant subculture. According to Dede (2008), “experts may sometimes ‘speak truth to power,’ but too often ‘experts’ are anointed, funded, and rewarded to provide rationales for politically expedient actions.”

Eijkman (2008), sees the battle over Wikipedia as part of a larger war in determining who controls knowledge. The two competing factions see the world from a Foundational perspective (where certainty, objectivity and the authority of academia are the guiding principles) or a Non-Foundational perspective. In a Non-Foundational arena, academics are not the gatekeepers of information and learning, but rather the “representatives-in-residence” of a community of practice that acculturates students in the customs of the field. Eijkman sees the architecture of Web 2.0 directly supporting such communities, making the implementation of non-foundational learning much easier.

Fueling the battle between Foundationalist and Non-Foundationalist thinking may be the inherent fear that comes with significant change. Kop & Hill (2008) see Connectivism fundamentally altering and eventually eradicating the role of the instructor. They see learners ultimately eschewing the requirements of the institution in favor of pursuing their own goals and interests. This seems to be a rather extreme viewpoint, and one that may never fully come into fruition in our current societal setup, where institutional certifications are prerequisites for entrance into most career fields. What is more likely to happen is the movement of traditional institutions to fulfill the demands of learners who have become more savvy “shoppers” of education and will seek out the methods of instruction that fit their needs best.

Connectivism and Web 2.0 have been in existence for only a few years, but communities of practice have existed for far longer, according to Brown & Adler (2008). The studio model in Architectural education forces students to work together in a common space, where they “peripherally participate” in each other’s work. Architecture students are notoriously placed under intense pressure and working together in such close quarters frequently creates both competition and cooperation among students (Cuff, 1996). In a virtual setting, communities developing open source software have become extremely prevalent and have resulted in a quality of software equivalent (and in some cases, superior) to commercial products. New members are initiated by taking up simple tasks, and can gain increased responsibilities by demonstrating their skills and achieving the trust of other members of the community. These communities alter the traditional pattern of learning by allowing students to be active participants in their field, acquiring tacit knowledge at the same time that they are acquiring explicit knowledge (Brown & Adler, 2008).

According to Brown (2008), the plethora of niche amateur communities that exist across the Internet can provide a model for implementing communities of practice within the existing educational framework. Harvard Law School offered a course in 2006 that involved learners at three different levels: the students taking the course in person, non-Law School students enrolled through the Harvard Extension School who could participate in discussions through Second Life, and the public-at-large that could access course materials and lectures at no cost. Projects such as the Faulkes Telescope Project (faulkes-telescope.com) and Hands-On Universe (handsonuniverse.org), allow students to remotely access data and images from observatories and collaborate with working scientists. The BugScope project at the University of Illinois (bugscope.beckman.uiuc.edu), allows K-12 students to send in insect specimens to be examined on a scanning electron microscope (Brown & Adler, 2008).

Gaining widespread support for such communities may be more difficult than many of these authors tend to believe. Currently, distance education is dominated by course management systems (CMS) such as Angel or Blackboard. Though many CMS packages include the technologies that are considered a part of Web 2.0, they limit content access to the instructor and students for the duration of the course. Alexander (2008) argues that these limitations force students into developing “dual digital literacies,” wherein the student must negotiate the CMS model (the student is fed content by the instructor) and the open Web model (the student must make choices about how to find, manage, and assess credibility of content). In the case of student-generated content, the open Web also forces students to deal with writing to a global audience, who are not able to access CMS content. Brown & Adler (2008), provide anecdotal evidence from a graduate seminar at Utah State University, where the quality of students’ blog writing improved when the instructor posted links to students’ blogs on his own blog and encouraged students to read and comment on each other’s writing. When one student had a post mentioned by a prominent blog, writing improved further, pushing the walls of the discussion beyond the class and involving the discourse of the international community-at-large (Alexander, 2008). Camplese (2006) has re-imagined blogs at Penn State University by considering them not merely as tools for writing and sharing, but rather, “personal content management systems.” As personal content management systems, blogs become online portfolios, repositories for class notes, a way to submit a term paper, and perhaps most importantly, a searchable, organized personal archive that can make evident a student’s intellectual development.

The value of Connectivism goes well beyond the realm of higher education, and there are a number of examples of its use in the corporate realm. The subject of our group’s project, Best Buy, is one example. Blue Shirt Nation, the company’s internal social networking site, provides a platform for its vast network of employees to share ideas. Initially developed to gain more insight into customer behavior, the site has become a place where the teenage cashier in their first job can exchange information with executives at the highest levels of the company. Turnover for employees engaged in Blue Shirt Nation are 8%, an incredibly low number given the nature of the retail industry. The site has also managed to turn the company’s culture “upside down,” to a certain extent, by providing a space for voices not generally heard in a traditional corporate hierarchy (Maruggi, 2008).

There are some companies, however, that are taking much more revolutionary approaches to the traditional corporate arrangement. Cisco Systems, a company dedicated to selling networking hardware, began reorganizing its management structure following the economic downturn in 2001. Like most corporations, Cisco was vertically organized, with a strict hierarchy that fed all decisions through the top levels of management. In order to gain efficiency, the company began spreading decision-making responsibility across working groups involving around 500 executives (McGirt, 2008). Financial incentives were re-worked as well, rewarding managers for collaboration facilitated by the company’s in-house social networking tools. Such tools allow employees at all levels of the company to share knowledge and find potential collaborators. Though Cisco believes the new structure has generated a significant amount of new ideas for the company, the absence of a traditional productivity metric has made analysts unsure of whether or not Cisco’s radical departure will result in profits. The company’s structural changes also created some level of discord within the company, leading to the departure of as many as 20% of Cisco’s executives (Kimes, 2008).

Skepticism for Connectivism and its associated tools come from a variety of sources. A Deloitte study of companies maintaining online communities for employees and/or customers shows mixed results about their effectiveness. While these communities allow companies to find new talent, help design products and services, and improve brand image and awareness with customers, a number of key roadblocks prevent most companies from realizing these gains. Companies are frequently relying on metrics such as “number of visitors” or “page views” that are not significantly related with the potential benefits of the medium (Deloitte, 2008). Better measures may be inbound links or Google search rankings (Worthen, 2008). Finding resources to manage online communities, especially as companies continue cutting back in order to deal with current economic recession, may prove to be even more difficult to overcome. A third of the companies in the Deloitte study only had one part-time person managing their community, and a majority of the others delegated the responsibility to a marketing professional with little prior experience (Worthen, 2008). When companies are spending money, they’re often purchasing the latest technological bells and whistles that may not even be used. The developers of Best Buy’s Blue Shirt Nation recommend involving end-users to determine specifically what the community needs in the design stage of the project implementation. What they discovered was that spikes in user growth had less to do with technology and more with management support and user-generated content (Maruggi, 2008).

Connectivism has also faced criticism on a more fundamental level. Verhagen (2006) has argued that Connectivism is not a learning theory at all, in that it does not deal with how learning takes place, but is rather a pedagogical view that belongs at the curriculum level. Many of the ideas presented in Connectivism are simply parts of existing theories, and Verhagen questions “why in this combination they should justify the introduction of a new approach.” Siemens (2006) has fired back that between the time his first article on Connectivism was unveiled in 2004 and the time that Verhagen’s response was written, the digital landscape was altered drastically with the rise of blogs, wikis, podcasts, and YouTube. Additionally, he points to the absence of any mention by Verhagen of the conversation that took place on the educational blogosphere following the publishing of his initial article. Siemens believes that by ignoring the dialogue surrounding Connectivism, Verhagen has effectively proven his point: That “static, context-less, content-centric approaches to knowing and understanding are fraught with likelihood of misunderstanding.” Dede (2008), takes the middle road in this debate, by arguing that educators who dismiss Web 2.0 outright may be just as wrong as those who dismiss Classical epistemology outright.

Certainly, the Classical model of education has failed in some respects, particularly in the high-stakes tests that do little to prepare students for the challenges of life. While Connectivism offers hope of a new solution for this problem, it is just as likely to create new problems, as yet undiscovered. For Instructional Designers, it provides another tool that requires careful consideration before deployment. The vetting process will continue as it has in the education community, a task conveniently suited for employing Connectivist concepts.


Alexander, B. (2008). Web 2.0 and emergent multiliteracies. Theory Into Practice, 47(2), 150-160.
Brown, J.S., & Adler, R.P. (2008, January/February). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(1), 16-32.

Brown, J.S. (2008, October 17). How to connect technology and passion in the service of learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(8), A99.

Camplese, C. (2006, May 25). When is a blog not a blog? In Cole Camplese: Learning and Innovation. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.colecamplese.com/?p=404

Cuff, D. (1996). Architecture: The story of practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dede, C. (2008, May/June). A seismic shift in epistemology. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(3), 80-81.

Deloitte LLP. (2008, July 16). Deloitte Study: Enterprise value of online communities yet to be realized. Retrieved December 6, 2008 from http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/press_release/0,1014,sid%253D2245%2526cid%253D217168,00.html

Downes, S. (2005, December 22). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33034

Eijkman, H. (2008). Web 2.0 as a non-foundational network-centric learning space. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 25(2), 93-104.

Kimes, M. (2008, December 3). Cisco Systems layers it on. CNN/Money. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://money.cnn.com/2008/12/02/magazines/fortune/Cisco_Kimes.fortune/

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3). Retrieved November 11, 2008 from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523/1137

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Macgill, A.R., & Smith, A. (2007, December 19). Teens and Social Media (Pew Internet & American Life Project). Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Social_Media_Final.pdf

Maruggi, A. (2008, January 28). Retailer Best Buy internal social network gives employees voice and management insights. Marketing Edge Blog and Podcast. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from http://www.providentpartners.net/blog/index.php/2008/01/28/retailer-best-buy-internal-social-network-gives-employees-voice-and-management-insights/

McGirt, E. (2008, December/January). Revolution in San Jose. Fast Company, 131, 88-94, 134-136.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for a digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Retrieved November 27, 2008, from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens, G. (2006, November 12). Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime for the self-amused? Elearnspace. Retrieved November 29, 2008, from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/Connectivism_self-amused.htm

Siemens, G. (2008, January 27). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. Paper presented to ITFORUM, University of Georgia. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Paper105/Siemens.pdf

Worthen, B. (2008, July 16). Why most online communities fail. The Wall Street Journal Business Technology Blog. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from http://blogs.wsj.com/biztech/2008/07/16/why-most-online-communities-fail/

Verhagen, P. (2006). Connectivism: A new learning theory? Retrieved November 29, 2008, from http://www.surfspace.nl/nl/Redactieomgeving/Publicaties/Documents/Connectivism%20a%20new%20theory.pdf


Posted on December 8, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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