The limitations of connectivism

The Connectivism & Connective Knowledge online course (CCK08) is now underway with close to 2,000 participants. I’ve wondered for some time about the usefulness and applicability of connectivism as a theory of learning, and enrolling in CCK08 seemed like a good opportunity to explore this issue in depth.

My first post is a response to one of the initial readings on connectivism, which states:

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.

This appears to suggest that learning involves ‘creating new patterns of knowledge’ and ‘developing skills in navigating knowledge’. This seems to me to be a very knowledge-focused model of learning, and the skills it does incorporate are self-referential – they are skills only in navigating the network which ‘defines knowledge’. If we imagine that the network is broken, then the only real skills developed are in navigating a faulty network.

For someone involved in professional development in education, concepts such as capability, self-efficacy and reflective practice don’t seem well-served by the connectivist definition of learning. This is not to say that ‘the network’ doesn’t have a role to play in supporting processes such as reflective practice (in fact, I think it has an important role) but it does seem limited in its ability to define learning in other than purely knowledge terms. I’m also not suggesting that ‘navigating patterns of knowledge’ is not an important part of learning, but it is just a part.

2 thoughts on “The limitations of connectivism

  1. Diego Leal

    I couldn’t help to think a little more about the limitation you mention regarding reflective practice. I wondered if that could be “explained” by a network theory.

    My 0.002 cents on this (draft thoughts, a little confusing, maybe):

    There are several network levels (brain, environment). Recognizing something in the world means to develop the neuron connections required to recognize it (as I tried to discuss in a post in my blog). Thus, developing a specific practice reflects in the development of neural connections in the brain.

    But, the neural connections are updated each time you “practice” (John Medina explains this in a very clear way), so in the end you have a continuous updated practice (with neuron connections strengthened or dulled by positive or negative experiences) . Of course, that doesn’t mean it is reflective.

    Then again, what is reflection? Does reflection mean “thinking about practice”? I think it could be useful to precise a little more what do we really mean by “reflection”, in order to try and develop the argument a little more.

    I hope this makes any sense.. :D

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  2. Paul Left Post author

    I’m happy with the role of neural networks as a low-level component of learning and brain function in general. But I think the analogy that is then drawn with human / social networks is just an analogy, and that any resemblance is rather vague.

    For me, higher-order thinking and learning such as critique, synthesis etc are not really ‘explained’ by thinking about them at the neural level. And they’re also not well ‘explained’ by the social network beyond that it has a role in it.

    When I referred to reflective practice I was thinking along these lines: http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-3/reflective.htm – the concept has been around for a while but I feel it still has value.

    Since I”m involved in professional development of teachers, I’m concerned with how learners change and develop their practice. Connectivism seems much more focused on knowledge, and in that sense it seems not very progressive or central to my work.

    Diego, many thanks for your input – I’m really enjoying this debate, and your comments and questions have led to further ‘reflection’ on my part!

    Paul

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