Connectivism: why I’m a skeptic

Is connectivism a theory? I guess. But when considering its usefulness to my own teaching and learning, I have reservations.

Here are 3 reasons I still have doubts about the value of connectivism as a theoretical construct:

  1. Yes, at a micro level the neurological processes of thinking and learning involve connections within networks. And yes, at a macro level as individuals we are connected to a variety of networks for sharing information. These are useful and informative parallels but there is no evidence that one is more than an analogy for the other. Because network connections are required at the micro level does not mean that they are necessarily a pre-requisite of learning at the macro level. There is a temptation to use one as an analogy of the other, but this seems likely to be an over-simplification.
  2. Connectivism is overly focused on learning as managing information: ‘… connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.’ (‘Connectivism’ and Connective Knowledge) If we visualise this at the macro level, the successful learner would appear to be little more than an effective navigator of information networks. For learning in a purely theoretical context, that might be fine. But as a professional developer, I’m more concerned with developing capability than knowledge.
  3. Connectivism does not adequately build on the theoretical constructs I have found useful in my own teaching and learning. It’s not that every theory has to explain every event, but connectivism seems to have inadequate room for concepts such as reflective practice or higher levels of thinking inherent in models such as Bloom’s taxonomy.

Image: Tyramide filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain by Neurollero

5 thoughts on “Connectivism: why I’m a skeptic

  1. pandora

    In reference to your third point I say-What’s wrong with learning as managing ideas and information? Does one not manage ideas and information in the process of reflection, sometimes arriving at new connections?

    How does connectivism preclude reflection or learning from reflective practise-it doesn’t. The point of connectivism is that it explains the creation of new, heretofore unknown knowledge better than constructivism.

    Bloom’s taxonomy includes creativity and synthesis,the so called higher order thinking skills as descriptors of human behaviour. Bloom does not try to explain how these behaviours occur-whereas connectivism offers a mechanism of explanation.

  2. Paul Left Post author

    I agree, nothing wrong with learning as managing information – but I believe there is more to learning than that, and (for me) connectivism doesn’t deal with these things. eg at the macro level critical reflection and evaluation might involve ‘traversing networks’ but that does not seem a sufficient explanation for me of the learning that is involved. I guess if Stephen Downes had said ‘SOME learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks’ I’d be much happier!

    Overall, I think the analogy between cognitive networks (micro level) and personal networks (macro level) is seductive but runs the risk of over-simplifying and distorting what actually happens at each level.

    Learning is a highly complex and varied human activity – I believe connectivism has validity but it’s application is not necessarily universal.

    Thanks for your contribution!

  3. Michael Cenkner

    I agree with you Paul on the mixing of metaphors, and also on the “learning as traversing networks.” The latter is as you say more of a sub-set of evaluating and with some tools, synthesizing. But it’s not “learning about” or “learning how to” and these are the bulk of what we do, especially in “education.” Leading to another criticism I have of connectivism: is its conflation of “education” and “learning.” One is a function of specialized, stratified societies, while the other is a natural human function (like humour perhaps).
    While there are many issues with “education,” you can’t change its fundamental transactional nature (i.e. for credentialing), unless you’re not in a specialized, stratified society. Nor, perhaps, would you want to, since credentialing definitely has its place in life in such societies.
    Stephen Downes is amazing though, no Ph.D!
    : )

  4. Paul Left Post author

    Yes, I’m really interested in the metaphors we use to describe learning and teaching.

    And yes, we need to recognise that a lot of significant learning takes place outside the education system – when we are inside educational institutions it’s not always easy to remember that. And your description of learning as a ‘natural human function’ which is like humour is an interesting simile / metaphor to explore further!

    Thanks for your post, Michael…

  5. norbert boruett

    Paul Left has put forward his arguments. Personally i have found a lot of inspiration with connectivism and i followed Stephen Downes and Siemens work on the same with a lot of interest.

    Of course i am sure Downes would provide a smarter response. Nonetheless, i would like to add that connectivism as a theory of learning is plausible and that it would not be intellectual dishonesty to assert that since there is no mention on the levels of learning in connectivism , the the theory is faulty.
    The way i see it is that you can connect at any level-i can choose to operate at the creativity level or at the application level depending on the purpose of learning.


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