Learning Theory or Pastime for the Self-Amused?
November 12, 2006
MS Word file of this article is available here: Connectivism:
Learning Theory or Past Time for the Self-Amused?
It is always an honor to have one's
work reviewed - even (or perhaps, especially) when it is critical in nature.
Ideas, concepts, and theories are sharpened, or dulled, in the space of
dialogue and scrutiny.
I recently had the pleasure of reading
a critique by Pløn Verhagen (2006), Professor, Educational Design, University
of Twente, of my 2004 article, "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for
a Digital Age." My appreciation exists on two levels: (a) Verhagen's
time in reflecting on and reacting to the article, and (b) the provision
of an opportunity to further dialogue about connectivism's relation to
the process of learning, development of technology, societal trends, and
pedagogy and curriculum. Though this final element is particularly dry,
and in today’s age seems to acquire a diminishing audience, we are weary
of pedagogy and curriculum before we have fully managed to effect needed
As I read the review, I was immediately
struck by the illustration it provided of why connectivism (or pick any
view of network-based learning) is so important. The review represents
the limiting factors of traditional; views of learning—or, extended slightly,
the very structures and spaces we use to define our schools, organizations,
In the original 2004 article I stated:
"The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our
ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what
we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate
known knowledge at the point of application" (Conclusion section,
¶ 1). I find Verhagen’s (2006) critique falls at precisely this point.
The core of what I wrote in the initial
article is still valid: that learning is a network phenomenon, influenced
(aided) by socialization and technology. Two years is a lifetime in the
educational technology space. Two years ago, web 2.0 was just at the beginning
of the hype cycle. Blogs, wikis, and RSS—now prominent terms at most educational
conferences—were still the sandbox of learning technology geeks. Podcasting
was not yet prominent. YouTube didn't exist. Google had not released its
suite of web-based tools. Google Earth was not yet on the desktops of
children and executives alike—each thrilled to view their house, school,
or business in satellite images. Learning Management Systems still held
the starting point of most elearning initiatives. Moodle was not yet prominent,
and the term PLEs (personal learning environments) did not exist. In two
years, our small space of educational technology evolved—perhaps exploded
is a more accurate term.
Against this backdrop, I am unsure why
Verhagen (2006) opted to complete a review on an article's content when
the ensuing conversation (particularly among so called edu-bloggers) since
the article (Siemens, 2004) was published says much to create a context
of understanding connectivism. Understanding context is the key. Much
has happened since the article was first written, which in no way devalues
connectivism as a concept - rather it validates it. The theory of connectivism
is no less immune to change than the underlying trends it proposes to
I am curious as to the approach Verhagen
(2006) utilized in reviewing the article. I sense it primarily consisted
of reading the article and providing a reaction based on his experience
in the learning technology space. Did he search online? Did he view or
listen to presentations posted on elearnspace? Did he encounter Stephen
Downes’ (2005) article on Connective Knowledge? I did not receive any
email or skype requests to dialogue—an opportunity I rarely resist. Diverse
perspectives, current knowledge, opportunities for dialogue, and use of
technology are important ways of 'coming to know' in today’s world.
The error made in the review is precisely
the reason why we need to explore connectivism as a learning theory: static,
context-less, content-centric approaches to knowing and understanding
are fraught with likelihood of misunderstanding. To write a review of
the American political system of 2004, and treat it as if it were today's
reality, fails to acknowledge the process to which all content is subject.
This is the danger of product iconization as offered, or explored
by prominent theories of learning, thus failing to acknowledge - explicitly
- that ongoing changes obsolesce current knowledge.
Hubert Dreyfus (2002), in his audio
lectures exploring Heidegger’s Being and Time, questions whether
a hammer is actually a hammer in absence of nails. Context shapes the
nature of knowledge and learning, requiring that we consider contextual
factors when engaging in debate, dialogue, or critique. To assess a concept,
in absence of the context of occurrence (why a conversation happened in
the first place, as well as how it has since evolved), is to largely ignore
the process aspect of learning and focus instead only on the product
Verhagen’s (2006) criticisms are broadly
centered on three areas:
1. Is connectivism a learning theory or
2. The principles advocated by connectivism
are present in other learning theories as well.
3. Can learning reside in non-human appliances?
I imagine these particular principles
can be argued at length and may well reflect more of an individual's personal
epistemology than a neutral discussion of learning and knowing. I have
opted to broadly explore learning theories and connectivism in the balance
of this paper, in order to highlight key distinctions and advance the
argument of why we need a different theory of learning, and the accompanying
factors influenced by learning: how we teach, how we design curriculum,
the spaces and structures of learning, and the manner in which we foster
and direct critical and creative thought in our redesign of education.
In the process, I believe Verhagen's questions will be addressed.
My response begins with a brief exploration
of our desire for externalization as expressed in language, symbols, emotions,
and thought - laying a foundation of learning factors. After a quick overview
of knowledge and learning, I review the principles of effective theories,
change drivers, and why a new theory of learning is required.
'To 'know' something is to be organized in a certain
way, to exhibit patterns of connectivity. To 'learn' is to acquire certain
patterns" (Downes, 2005, Section O, ¶
The spirit, or zeitgeist, of
an era influences the structures of society: churches and religious groups,
school, and government. In contrast with the educational ideals of previous
cultures, our current Western world is largely dominated by a spirit of
productivity, utilitarianism, and return on investment (or other metrics
to justify learning and training).
In today's environment, many educational
structures exist with the primary intent of preparing individuals for
the workforce. Much like previous societies aligned education with the
higher ideals of their era, work and employment - as cornerstones of life
- drive much of today's education. The religious-based views of education
have largely given way to education based on science. As a whole, our
structures of learning have become more utilitarian (Postman, 1995, p.
As we will explore shortly in our desire
to externalize our knowledge, our goals for learning are not simply utilitarian.
We may engage in formal learning activities to increase our career prospects,
but for many, the bulk of learning occurs as a desire to make sense, understand,
develop personally, or (for the utopian) become contributors to making
a better world. Our views of learning must account for our strong urge
to make meaning.
Bowen (1972a p. xix) presents three
broad challenges to education today: adequate rationale, support, and
pedagogy. Educators are seeking to create a high-calling of learning that
exceeds vocational needs. The absence of a clear pedagogy, or vision of
how learning ought to be done, further complicates the potential for success.
Postman (1995) noted: "There was a time when educators became famous
for providing reasons for learning; now they become famous for inventing
a method" (p. 26). Our educational model today is largely defined
by the desire to achieve and produce in an economic system.
When compared with higher ideals of
education from previous societies, this model appears shallow. Mayer (1960)
listed numerous basic goals of education: health, command of processes,
home membership, vocational efficiency, civic efficiency, worthy use of
leisure, and ethical character (p. 12). The varied purposes of learning
presented learning opportunities beyond simply work. Many of the nobler
elements of learning, often found in the belief or faith domain, have
yielded to the increased quest for efficiency and utilitarianism.
Postman (1995) stated, "the great
narrative of science shares with the great religious narratives the idea
that there is order to the universe" (p. 9). Education occurs within
the prominent philosophical and societal notions of what it means "to
be." In eras of religious focus, the development of morals provided
the foundation of learning. In eras defined by exploration and knowledge
growth, the prominent function of education was to pry open doors of hidden
knowledge. The development of the industrial era shifted the educational
focus to preparing individuals to function in work environments. Career
preparation, not moral or intellectual development, became the primary
focus of learning. The space of shifting ideals presents challenges for
society as a whole: (a) the erosion of existing structures of knowing
and need for knowing, and (b) the yet to emerge characteristics of the
new space are unknown, or speculative at best (p. 23).
The current internet era is at a point
of substantial change. The long-established fault lines of philosophical
debate are being reshaped as our means of interpreting life, learning,
and reality are moving into a new dimension - the virtual world. Dede
(2005, p. 9) listed tremendous physical property values assigned
to online virtual spaces, with GNP of virtual games exceeding the GNP
of many countries, and virtual currency trading on par with real-world
currency. The internet functions according to a different sequence of
rules, guidelines, codes of conduct, and points of value than does the
physical world. A necessary reorganization is underway, resulting in new
metaphors of learning and existence as a whole.
The eyes through which we see learning,
the boundaries in which we construct learning, have been shaped and created
by the great debates from previous generations. The established notions
of knowledge and learning appear inadequate in a world and space subject
to substantially different pressures than earlier societies. The dichotomy
of qualitative versus quantitative, religion versus science, and such
have been formed through the debates of philosophers, scientists, and
religious people. Educators today face challenges relating to: (a) defining
what learning is, (b) defining the process of learning in a digital age,
(c) aligning curriculum and teaching with learning and higher level development
needs of society (the quest to become better people), and (d) reframing
the discussion to lay the foundation for transformative education - one
where technology is the enabler of new means of learning, thinking, and
Too many educators fail to understand
how technology is changing society. While hype words of web 2.0, blogs,
wikis, and podcasts are easy to ignore, the change agents driving these
tools are not. We communicate differently than we did even ten years ago.
We use different tools for learning; we experience knowledge in different
formats and at a different pace. We are exposed to an overwhelming amount
of information—requiring continually greater levels of specialization
in our organizations. It is here—where knowledge growth exceeds our ability
to cope—that new theories of knowledge and learning are needed. And it
is in this space that a whole development model of learning must
be created (i.e. learning beyond vocational skills, leading to the development
of persons as active contributors to quality of life in society).
Instead of knowledge residing only in
the mind of an individual, knowledge resides in a distributed manner across
a network. Instead of approaching learning as schematic formation structures,
learning is the act of recognizing patterns shaped by complex networks.
The networked act of learning exists on two levels:
1. Internally as neural networks (where
knowledge is distributed across our brain, not held in its entirety in
2. Externally as networks we actively form
(each node represents an element of specialization and the aggregate represent
our ability to be aware of, learn, and adapt to the world around).
Intermediaries and Conduits
for Learning and Communication
We are social beings. Through
language, symbols, video, images, and other means, we seek to express
our thoughts. Essentially, our need to derive and express meaning, gain
and share knowledge, requires externalization. We externalize ourselves
in order to know and be known. As we externalize, we distribute our knowledge
across a network—perhaps with individuals seated around a conference,
readers at a distance, or listeners to podcasts or viewers of a video
clip. Most existing theories of learning assume the opposite, stating
that internalization is the key function of learning (cognitivism assumes
we process information internally, constructivism asserts that we assign
meaning internally—though the process of deriving meaning may be a function
of a social network, i.e. the social dimension assists in learning, rather
than the social dimension being the aim of learning). The externalization
of our knowledge is increasingly utilized as a means of coping with information
overload. The growth and complexity of knowledge requires that our capacity
for learning resides in the connections we form with people and information,
often mediated or facilitated with technology.
Language and Learning
As with any technology, the printing
press influenced the process and nature of learning. Prior to Gutenberg’s
invention, the written word required skill, special paper, and significant
time to produce. Gutenberg opened the door for anyone to access (and own)
books. Access to books was simply a conduit to the higher goal of learning
As a result of the increased access
to codified ideas in the form of text, the learning process transitioned
from the previous dialogue or vocal base (Socrates, Plato, religious leaders)
to the emphasis of text. Textual representations of knowledge provide
a false sense of certainty and ascribe static attributes typically not
inherent in knowledge from oral traditions. When knowledge is communicated
through dialogue, the progressive growth of understanding is tied to the
process, not the artefact. Learning, when primarily text-based, ascribes
knowledge as primary in physical objects.
The emphasis of object over process
is strong within today’s educational markets. Most courses and learning
experiences are built around content—textbooks, videos, magazines, articles,
or other learning objects. For centuries this model was effective. The
content-central view of learning loses effectiveness in environments that
are rapidly changing and adapting. Text in itself is a codification of
knowledge at a point in time—a snapshot. In contrast, conversation is
fluid and continual.
Language, as the corner stone of conversation
and dialogue, is in itself transformative. Postman (1995) asserted that
we use language to transform the world, but we are then in turn transformed
by our invention (p. 87). A similar concept was expressed by Alex Kozulin
in his forward to Vygotsky’s (1986) Thought and Language: “abstract
categories and word meanings dominated situational experience and restructured
it” (p. xl). Language is a conduit—a medium through which individuals
are able to create shared meanings or interpretations of concepts.
Deriving or assigning meaning as a cognitive
process has historically been detailed in two regards: (a) images, as
assigned to and shaped by words, is crucial in creating meaning (Bloor,
1983, p. 7); and (b) the symbol or image is rooted in the intent of the
speaker—a “conscious orientation—actively directed at its object. The
symbol is ‘meant’ a certain way, as its correct application is governed
by an ‘intention’” (p. 8).
According to Wittgenstein (as cited
in Bloor, 1983), the role of externalization is an attempt to replace
“internal, mental constructions” (p. 10) with external and “non-mental”
(p. 10) constructs. The intent of externalization is to eliminate the
hidden power, or in Wittgenstein’s terminology the “occult character”
(p. 10) of an image, permitting greater clarity in discussions.
Wittgenstein (as cited in Bloor, 1983)
explored the private and public nature of meaning, arriving at the view
that the “systematic pattern of usage” (p. 19) was the primary expression
of meaning. The patterns of usage are public, not private, and internal,
as mental image or act theorists detailed.
“The real source of ‘life’ in a word
or sentence is provided, not by the individual mind, but by society” (Bloor,
1983, p. 20). “In order to prove that there is an indissoluble link between
the public world and the mental life of the individual, Wittgenstein attached
the idea of what he called a ‘private language’” (p. 54). To elaborate
on these thoughts, Wittgenstein presented right and wrong as “public standards,
and their authority comes from their being collectively held”. Per Bloor,
Durkheim and Wittgenstein pursued a differing view of objectivity than
is normally associated with learning. Their source of objectivity resides
outside of the mind and in society as a whole (p. 58). The statement that
there can be no private language assaults the notion of individual subjectivity
The point is that even introspective discourse
is a public institution which depends on conventions and hence on training.
We have no immediate self-knowledge and no resources for constructing
any significant account of a realm of purely private objects and experiences.
Vygotsky (1986), like Wittgenstein,
attached a certain element of externality to thought: “The meaning of
a word represents such a close amalgam of thought and language that it
is hard to tell whether it is a phenomenon of speech or a phenomenon of
thought” (p. 212). Vygotsky then extrapolated the thought/word connection
by asserting that thoughts do not come into existence unless expressed
in words (p. 218).
Vygotsky (1986) stated his interest
in language as a means to ensure complete understanding of a concept:
Psychology, which aims at a study of complex holistic
systems, must replace the method of analysis into elements with the method
of analysis into units.…We believe that such a unit can be found in the
internal aspect of the word, in word meaning. (p. 5)
The interplay of language, symbols,
ideas, cognition, meaning, and learning are not clearly defined. Pietroski
(2004) stated the challenge:
theories of meaning are theories of understanding, and these turn out
[to] be theories of mental faculty that associates linguistic signals
with meanings in constrained ways, then we should figure out (in light
of the constraints) what this faculty associates signals with.
Extended, the concerns go beyond simply
determining constraints. The challenge involves acquiring a common language
of meaning relating to learning and knowledge, and exploring how supporting
processes (cognition and emotions) are influenced by communication models
(linguistics) and the conduits that deliver information and knowledge (technology),
in relation to views of learning (truth, objectivity, subjectivity, epistemology).
Media, Symbols, and Technology
While not quite in alignment with Vygotsky’s
(1986) assertion that language gives birth to thought, Bandura (1986) stated,
“power of thought resides in the human capability to represent events and
their interrelatedness in symbolic form” (p. 455). Media, language, technology,
and symbols are devices that enable humans the capacity to externalize the
nebulous elements of private thought. The externalization of thought is
an important concept to consider in light of traditional theories of learning
largely emphasizing knowledge construction and cognition as primarily internal
events (in the mind of individuals).
Education, as a process, has its origin
in the earliest recordings of human activity. It is believed that foundational
elements of communication or knowledge transmission had their origin in
pictograms (Bowen, 1972a, p. 7)—the attempt of people to express thought
in physical form. Pictograms developed in complexity as determinatives
were added to clarify ideas and eliminate ambiguity. Even in early recordings
of thought and reasoning, the notion of ambiguity influenced activities
of communicators. The potential that one concept may be represented, or
be interpreted, in various ways is a foundational challenge that continues
to drive attempts to communicate and share knowledge. Perspective and subjectivity,
or at minimum interpretation, add complexity to dialogue-based processes,
The attempt to communicate also presented
the continuing challenge of the imperfect nature of physical tools to express
mental thought. Writing and visuals are conduits only partly able to properly
reflect intended meanings and understanding held in the minds of individuals.
Through symbols, we desire clarification. “The world of our experience must
be enormously simplified and generalized before it is possible to make a
symbolic inventory of all our experiences” (Sapir, as cited in Vygotsky,
Symbols and language have been key elements
of the cycle of understanding for much of recorded history. More recently,
media and technology have begun to play a central role in creating the constructs
of understanding that house shared conceptions and experiences of individuals.
McLuhan (1967) suggested, “societies have always been shaped more by the
nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the
communication” (p. 8). The rapid growth of social-based technology tools
creates an unprecedented opportunity for anyone with a computer and internet
access to play the role of journalist, artist, producer, and publisher.
If media truly does shape humanity, the changed nature of dialogue and information
exposure created by the internet will have greater implications to our future
than the nature of the content currently being explored. Much like tools
shape potential tasks, the internet shapes opportunities for dialogue—outside
of space and time—that were not available only a generation ago.
Cognition and Emotions
Wittgenstein’s rejection of meaning as
internally-derived events opens the possibility that knowledge, learning,
and other meaning-based activities are capable of being seen as “networked
elements” (as cited in Bloor, 1983). Meaning that resides external to an
individual—the aggregate, or at least reflection, of social processes—can
be viewed as a node or element in learning and knowing structures. The importance
of the shift from internal to external knowing is evident in the rise of
the internet as a connected structure permitting the development of knowledge
and learning, not simply data and information. The learning is the network.
Cognition is a function of the environment
in which it occurs; that is it develops from social milieu (Vygotsky, 1986,
p. 108). Cognition can be seen as an intricate series of interactions between
external and internal elements. The environment strongly influences the
nature of cognition. This element is particularly valuable in considering
the design of physical and virtual spaces of learning.
While emotions have been criticized as
subjective and, therefore, difficult to study or subject to reason (Lane
& Nadel, 2000, p. 12), they play a central role in understanding learning
and knowledge creation. Cognition, emotion, perception, and beliefs are
knowledge creation and knowledge navigation enablers. Empirical processes
have created significant knowledge growth and have elevated cognition above
the softer aspects of emotion, perception, and belief (or faith).
These latter elements, however, are strong contributors to the ongoing search
for meaning, truth, and knowledge. Often, the soft elements are the entities
that open doors of cognition. Intuition, while not as measurable and duplicable
as empirical research, still plays a substantial role in fostering learning.
Both cognition and beliefs are sources of knowledge. Reflection
and metacognition (thinking about thinking) are often ignored in cognitive
When we speak of improving our mind we are
usually referring to the acquisition of information or knowledge, or to
the type of thoughts own should have, and not to the actual functioning
of the mind. We spend little time monitoring our own thinking and comparing
it with a more sophisticated ideal. (Hueuer, 1999)
This admonition is particularly relevant in
exploring assumptions about religion, education, learning, language, and
teaching. Achieving a stage of knowing or conceptualizing, requires the
formation of boundaries in our thinking, or defined beliefs, that enable
subsequent decision making. Recognizing the hidden assumptions and deeper
beliefs is important in moderating extrapolations that exceed the offerings
of existing data or research (Occam’s razor).
Epistemology—What Does it Mean to Know?
Epistemology is concerned with the “the
nature of knowledge and how we come to know things” (Driscoll, 2000, p.
12). While educators may question the practicality of exploring epistemology
(preferring instead to focus on the act and process of instruction and learning
in classrooms), perceptions of what it means to know and valid sources of
knowledge greatly influence an educator’s approach to the learning process.
Major epistemological perspectives include:
belief that knowledge is gained through senses,
belief that knowledge is innate or present in at birth,
belief that knowledge is a function of reason. (Driscoll, 2000, p. 13)
These three structures
of valid knowledge sources provide the basis for reflecting on what it means
to learn or know. Educational theories and models built on these views of
knowledge. Assumptions of what it means to know drives approaches to learning
creation. This concept is explored in greater detail in the section on “Learning
The concept of what qualifies for appropriate
descriptions of knowledge is referenced in research theory, religion, and
philosophy. As an expression for ways of being and knowing, qualitative
and quantitative models are the most prominent. Table 1 indicates the main
epistemological elements contained within each theory (Glesne, 1999, p.6,
and Palys, 2003, p.15).
Table 1. Ways of Knowing
What is the Role
“Researchers eek out small gains
of knowledge from existing “grand theories” rather than explore new
areas not covered by existing theories”
(Glaser & Straus, 1967, ¶ 6).
Theory serves a dual purpose of explaining
phenomena (or more accurately, sense and meaning making) and of
providing guidance for decision making or action. Sutton and
Shaw suggested theory is “about the connections among phenomena” (p.
378). Theory provides a link between knowledge and implementation. Karl
Weick chides specific solution-focused theory formations as inappropriate,
as the intent of a theory is primarily a “struggle with ‘sensemaking’”
Educational technology is replete
with theories. Some adapted from previous models (behaviourism, cognitivism,
constructivism), blended theories,
emerging theories (connectivism), and related views of networked learning
(Wikipedia, 2006). Blended and emerging theories counterbalance established
theories in pursuing a theory in line with the nature of the society
it purports to support. Tools change people. We adapt based on new affordances.
To rely on a theory that ignores the networked nature of society, life,
and learning is to largely miss the point of how fundamentally our world
Three prominent learning theories
seek to provide insight into the act of learning: behaviourism, cognitivism,
and constructivism. Each of these theories has numerous subsets (social
cognitivism, social constructivism). Gredler (2005) listed two separate
theories: (a) interactionist, based on Gagné’s learning conditions and
Bandura’s social-cognitive theory, and (b) developmental-interactionists,
based on Piaget’s cognitive development and Vygotsky’s cultural-historical
theories (p. 20). For the purposes of this paper, learning theories
are cast as they link to the epistemological structures listed previously.
The three dominant theories (behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism)
are closely aligned with empiricism, nativism, and rationalism (see
Table 2. Forms of Knowledge
do we acquire knowledge?
external, sensory experience
is interpreted, reality exists, but mediated through symbols and
is internal and (like knowledge) is constructed through thought
does knowledge reside?
individual—but reflected through external, observable actions
individual, in the context of environments
Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson
Bandura, Bruner, Ausubel, Gagne
Piaget, Bruner, Dewey
Table adapted from: Driscoll (2000, p.17).
are largely concerned with the outcome, or observable elements of learning.
Behaviourists see learning as a “black box” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 35).
Instead of focusing on the internal mental activities, behaviourists
focus on observable behaviour (Gredler, 2005, p. 28). Behaviour is managed
through a process of strengthening and weakening of responses. Key theorists
in behaviourism include: Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, Thorndike (Gredler,
p. 29, Driscoll, p. 19).
Cognitivists, to varying degrees,
have posited a structured view of learning that includes the model of
a computer (input, encoding, storage, outcome), a staged process of
development, and schematic views of knowledge, with learning being the
act of classifying or categorizing new knowledge and experiences. Cognitivists
see learning as information processing. The computer is often used as
a metaphor for learning (Driscoll, 2000, p. 75). Sensory input is managed
in short-term memory and coded for retrieval in long-term memory. Situated
cognition, the view that thought is a function of, or adaptation to,
the environment in which the thinking (or learning) occurs (p. 154),
and schema theory, the view that meaningful learning (p. 116) is a process
of subsumption in an internal hierarchy of concepts, are extensions
of basic cognitivism. Piaget and Vygotksy are sometimes classified as
cognitivits (Gredler, 2005, pp. 264 & 304; Driscoll, pp. 183 &
219). Other cognitivists include Bruner, Gagne, and Ausubel.
Constructivism is a frustratingly
vague concept. The Centre for Research on Networked Learning and Knowledge
Building (n.d.) suggested, constructive “theory”
of learning, generally, has not at all become more specific or articulated
or gained any increased explanatory power or unification. There has
not been any progressive problem shift after the 80s but a continuation
of a very general and ideologically colored discussion. (¶ 2)
Constructivists hold learning to be
a process of active construction on the part of the learner. Learning
occurs as the learner “attempt to make sense of their experiences” (Driscoll,
p. 376). The roots of constructivism can be found in the epistemological
orientation of rationalism, where knowledge representations do not need
to correspond with external reality (p. 377). Adherents to constructivism
borrow heavily from theorists previously mentioned: Piaget, Vygotsky,
and Bruner (Dabbagh, 2005; Driscoll, 2000).
Learning theories and theorist classifications
are contradictory. For example, Driscoll (2000) listed Bruner as a pragmatist/cognitivist,
while Dabbagh (2005) listed him as a constructivist. New entrants into
this space quickly find a convoluted mix of psychology, philosophy,
and theory pop-culture. Discerning theories with underlying assumptions
of learning is challenging. Particularly confusing is the theory of
constructivism, which researchers tend to treat as a banner under which
to fly numerous aspects and new views. It has come to mean everything,
anything, and nothing. While not as acerbic, Driscoll stated, “there
is no single constructivist theory of instruction. Rather, there are
researchers in fields from science education to educational psychology
and instructional technology who are articulating various aspects of
constructivist theory” (p. 375). Additionally, it may be unclear
whether constructivism is actually a theory or a philosophy (p. 395).
Challenges to Existing Learning Theories
To qualify as a well-constructed theory,
four elements must exist (Gredler, 2005, p. 12): (a) clear assumptions
and beliefs about the object of the theory, (b) key terms are clearly
defined, (c) development of principles from assumptions, and (d) explanation
of “underlying psychological dynamics of events related to learning”.
Instead of modeling our knowledge
structures as hierarchical or flat, confined belief spaces, the view
of networks enables the existence of contrasting elements selected on
the intent of a particular research or learning activities. If the silos
of traditional knowledge classification schemes are more fluid, perhaps
the individual elements of different theories can be adopted, as required,
to solve more nuances of learning problems. When the theory does not
require adoption in its fullest (i.e, interpretivism or positivism),
the task of seeking knowledge becomes more salient.
Wittgenstein’s assertion that there
can be no private language (as cited in Bloor, 1983) and Vygotsky’s
(1989) notion that thought requires expression are misinterpreted to
place emphasis on the external environment as a mirror or reflection
required for knowledge to occur, or be transmitted. While the external
environment is critical, both Vygotsky and Wittgenstein mistook the
environment for the space in which thought gains life, when in reality,
the external environment is an additional space for knowledge, thought,
expression, and reflection. As an extension of humanity, the external
is in itself a space in which we exist—rather than an environment in
which our words find existence. When objects and other external entities
are viewed as extension of humanity, the notion of learning as a network
formation process becomes more palatable. If knowledge exists in external
structures of similar nature, as it exists physically within our minds
(distributed, neurologically), then it is possible to ascribe knowledge
and learning attributes to the distributed nature of networks formed
Additional support of the concept
of knowledge (and learning) existing outside of the human mind is found
in vision research. We suggest that the objects
of thought, the very things upon which mental processes directly operate,
are not always inside the brain…The cognitive processing that gives
rise to mental experience may be something whose functioning cuts across
the superficial physical boundaries between brain, body, and environment.
(Spivey, Richardson, & Fitneva, 2004, p. 178)
The challenge of theory comparison
and analysis rests in the point of focus. Much like any element
in society, the aspect that the viewer is focused on determines the
nature of the conclusion, as well as defines the capacity to see what
exists. Integrated, holistic views of theories and the particular functions
they serve is often lacking. Wittgenstein’s
rejection of meaning as internally-derived events (as cited in Bloor,
1983), opens the possibility that knowledge, learning, and other meaning-based
activities are capable of being seen as networked elements. Meaning
that resides external to an individual—the aggregate, or at least reflection,
of social processes—can be viewed as a node or element in learning and
knowing structures. The importance of the shift from internal to external
knowing is evident in the rise of the internet as a connected structure,
which permits the development of knowledge and learning—not simply data
and information. The learning is the network.
One of the limiting features of much
thought with regard to learning, understanding, and behaviour is the
inclination to take a deliberate one-sided view of the concern. Human
functioning (and the very act of cognition) is difficult to reduce to
simple representations. A holistic view and model of cognition and learning
is required—one which addresses emotions, thoughts, language, symbols,
circumstances, morality, and environment.
Various theories present knowledge
as an internal state of being in relation to knowledge as an internal
or external object. Edwin Hutchins (2000) suggested that "It
does not seem possible to account for the cognitive accomplishments
of our species by reference to what is inside our heads alone. One must
consider the cognitive roles of the social and material world…The distributed
cognition perspective aspires to rebuild cognitive science from the
outside in, beginning with the social and material setting of cognitive
activity, so that culture, context, and history can be linked with the
core concepts of cognition."
Hierarchies of knowledge have been
created to demarcate elements commonly described as knowledge or information.
Liebowitz (1999) cited the work of Tobin in structuring a four-tier
hierarchy: data (+ relevance + purpose) = information (+ application) = knowledge
(+ intuition + experience) = wisdom (p. 1-5). Wisdom
is the upper echelon of most conceptions of thought and knowledge, but,
as Burke (2000) noted, wisdom must be “learned more or less painfully
by each individual” (p. 12). Other knowledge conceptions (Siemens, 2005)
suggest the highest level in the hierarchy is meaning—the comprehension
of nuances and implications of knowledge. Moving wisdom to the domain
of the internal introduces similar challenges addressed by Wittgenstein
(as cited in Bloor, 1983) and Vygotsky (1986), namely, how can something
that is exclusively internal have life or meaning?
Requiring a New Theory
“Problems emerge when new findings
are pressed into immediate service, while the academic routines on which
they depend remain unchanged” (Baumeister,
2005, Academic Teaching section, ¶ 2)
Understanding of Learning
We are growing in our understanding
of learning. Research in neuroscience, theories of social-based learning,
and developments in learning psychology create new understanding of
the act, and process, of learning. As Downes (2006) stated,
Learning…occurs in communities, where
the practice of learning is the participation in the community. A learning
activity is, in essence, a conversation undertaken between the
learner and other members of the community. This conversation, in the
web 2.0 era, consists not only of words but of images, video, multimedia
and more. This conversation forms a rich tapestry of resources, dynamic
and interconnected, created not only by experts but by all members of
the community, including learners. (Network Pedagogy section, ¶ 6)
Pace of Knowledge Growth
Most individuals require little evidence
to support the rapid growth of knowledge—they feel it in their daily
lives. A University of California, Berkeley (2003) study on information
growth found a 75% increase in two years. Information and knowledge
are tightly linked; as information grows so does our knowledge.
Development of Technology (Ubiquity)
Technology is mobile, embedded, transparent,
and ubiquitous. Continual access to technology requires different vetting
processes for knowledge. Consider how television news differs from video
created by an amateur at the scene of an accident. Higher levels of
trust are generally assigned to formal news programs. However, as exemplified
by the growth of online video sites like YouTube, the personable, first-hand
account of amateur video has significant appeal.
The persistent advancement of technology
adds complexity to how knowledge is organized, created, and managed.
Business executives are constantly connected to their office. Technical
workers have mobile access to detailed database to assist with onsite
work. Farmers rely on advanced soil testing in determining seeding,
and then utilize GPS when planting and harvesting. Few areas of life
Expectations of Students (Net Generation)
When students enter educational spaces
today, they do so with a different mindset from even a few years ago.
Video games, mobile phones, instant messaging, and online social networking
have been constant for many teenagers. Through the use of blogs and
wikis at the secondary school level, these learners are entering higher
education with expectations sure to be unmet.
In Educating the Net Generation,
Diana and James Oblinger (2004) offered a detailed overview of today’s
learners: digitally literate, constantly connected, socially-driven,
engaged, visually-driven, and a host of additional pronounced characteristics.
Simply stated, today’s learners are different.
The Great Complexification
Weinberger (2005) presented complexification
as a defining aspect of knowledge today. We are now able, through an
abundance of social tools, to produce and create content previously
requiring a substantial investment. Broadcasting ideas—in text, audio,
and video—is a fairly simple process. As a result, any issue can be
explored and dissected form numerous angles. Even simple viewpoints
can be complexified through the multiple viewpoints of the masses.
While blogs, wikis, podcasts, and
social bookmarking are receiving much attention, the real point of interest
lies not in the tools themselves, but in what the growth of the tools
represents and what the tools enable. Primary affordances include: (a)
two-way flow, and (b) activities reflective of networked activities
Making sense of this complex conversation
requires a shift to alternative models of management. It is at this
stage that technology is beginning to play its greatest role; one that
will continue to grow in prominence as knowledge grows in complexity.
Learning, augmented by technology, permits the assimilation and expression
of knowledge elements in a manner that enables understanding not possible
Emerging Philosophy of Knowledge, Learning, and
Philosophies of “what it means to
know” are emerging in reaction to the developments in technology and
society. Stephen Downes (2005) offers a view of knowledge beyond traditional
classifications as listed in Table 1.
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?
While still in early stages of development,
technology is permitting new ways of seeing information and the impact
of interactions. As discussed earlier, rapid knowledge growth requires
off-loading the internal act of cognition, sense and meaning making,
and filtering to a network consisting of human and technology nodes.
As a simple example, the popular tag
feature of many sites (del.icio.us, digg.com, flickr), enable pattern
recognition that captures the activities of thousands or millions of
individuals. As knowledge complexifies, patterns—not individual elements—become
of greatest importance in gaining understanding.
What Makes Connectivism a Theory?
Mergel (1998) cited Ertmer’s and Newby’s
“five definitive questions ¼ to distinguish learning theory” (Distinguishing One Learning section,
- How does learning occur?
- What factors influence learning?
- What is the role of memory?
- How does transfer occur?
- What types of learning are best
explained by this theory? (¶ 2)
Table 3. Learning Theories
¼ not simply trying to explain how knowledge is
formed in our own heads.
The more rapidly knowledge develops
the less likely it will be that we will possess all knowledge internally.
The interplay of network, context, and other entities (many which
are external) results in a new approach or conception of learning.
The active creation of our own learning networks is the actual learning,
as it allows us to continue to learn and benefit from our network—compared
to a course which has a set start and end date.
After decades of molding existing
theories to changed environments, continual revisions, in the face
of dramatic change in knowledge, society, and technology, form the
foundation of a needed change in how we perceive learning. Our views
of learning, as the basis of a new approach to designing and fostering
learning, are most useful when they are in line with the changed
For many, the debate of changed
modes of learning does not require an explicit statement. They sense
it in their work, how they communicate, and how they learn. These
individuals are not focused on what, if anything, has changed theoretically.
They are asking different questions than we are attempting to answer
with dated theories.
Our obligation as educators requires
a solid focus on emerging trends, while not succumbing to distracting
fads. Our desire to connect—to externalize—is a vital component
of the learning process. Instead of merely developing learners for
careers, we have an obligation to create a learning ecology where
learners are able to shape their own meaning. Where we fail to react
to changes, learners will pursue alternatives. The creation of a
sound theory of learning provides the basis of learning and societal
functioning. Knowledge growth, emerging research (in neuroscience
and artificial intelligence), new philosophies of knowing, and growing
complexity requiring distributed knowing and sense making are no
longer sufficiently attended to by the broad theories of learning
prominent in past education. An alternative is needed. Whether connectivism
plays this role is irrelevant. Of most importance is that educators
are reflecting on how learning has changed and the accompanying
implications to how we design the spaces and structures of learning
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