4a. Connectivism

Clarissa Davis, Earl Edmunds, Vivian Kelly-Bateman
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia
Review of Connectivism


Just like anything else that involves human experience or interaction, the act of learning does not happen in a vacuum. It is at the intersection of prior knowledge, experience, perception, reality, comprehension, and flexibility that learning occurs. In years past, the traditional learning paradigms of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism have been the benchmarks against which the learning process has been measured. What happens, though, when you throw into the mix all the technological advancements that have come about over the last 40-50 years? These theories certainly do not become obsolete by any means, but they do need to be used in a very different way to be able to incorporate the attributes of a 21st century learning environment. In today’s technology-rich society, it has become increasingly important to learn how to learn. Vail put it simply by declaring that learning must be a way of being (1996).

If you would like a quick introduction to connectionism, try looking at networked student in plain English video.

Half-Life of Knowledge

New technology forces the 21st century learner to process and apply information in a very different way and at a very different pace from any other time in history. As a result, the span of time between learning something new, being able to apply it, and finding that it is outdated and no longer useful continues to decrease. This phenomenon is what Gonzalez refers to as the “half-life” of knowledge – the time span from when knowledge is gained until it becomes obsolete (2004). Since the advent of technology, from the radio to the internet, the half-life of knowledge has decreased significantly. Gone is the era when it takes days, weeks, months, or years for something to catch on with the general population. Something that may have taken that long just ten years ago can now reach literally millions of people around the world within a matter of seconds. The link to the video below demonstrates the dramatic effect this has had on society in recent the years:

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=jpEnFwiqdx8&feature=related (Fisch, McLeod, & Brenman, 2008)

Taking into account the ideas presented in the video, how is the 21st century learner supposed to assimilate all this information, and make valuable use of it?

Components of Connectivism

At its core, George Siemens’ theory of connectivism is the combined effect of three different components: chaos theory, importance of networks, and the interplay of complexity and self-organization.

Chaos Theory

The idea behind Chaos Theory is that, regardless of how unrelated events may seem, when studied together, they create a pattern that can show relevance beyond the individual events themselves (Salmon, 1999, para. 5). This creates what Gleick refers to as a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” (1987, p.8). Basically, if the underlying conditions used to make decisions change, the decision itself is no longer as correct as it was at the time it was made. “The ability to recognize and adjust to pattern shifts, therefore, becomes a key learning task” (Siemens, 2005, para. 18).

Importance of Networks

According to Siemens, “considering technology and meaning-making as learning activities begins to move learning into the digital age” (2005, para. 15). Inherent to this new viewpoint on learning is the idea that we can no longer personally experience everything there is to experience as we try to learn something new. We must create networks which, simply defined, are connections between entities. By using these networks – of people, of technology, of social structures, of systems, of power grids, etc. – learning communities can share their ideas with others, thereby “cross-pollinating” the learning environment (Siemens, 2005, para. 21).

Complexity and Self-Organization

Heylighen (2008) describes the delicate interplay between complexity and self-organization as follows: “Complexity cannot be strictly defined, only situated in between order and disorder. A complex system is typically modeled as a collection of interacting agents, representing components as diverse as people, cells or molecules. Because of the non-linearity of the interactions, the overall system evolution is to an important degree unpredictable and uncontrollable. However, the system tends to self-organize, in the sense that local interactions eventually produce global coordination and synergy. The resulting structure can in many cases be modeled as a network, with stabilized interactions functioning as links connecting the agents” (p. 1). In addition, Luis Mateus Rocha (1998) defines self-organization as the “spontaneous formation of well organized structures, patterns, or behaviors, from random initial conditions” (p.3).

Connectivism Defined

According to Siemens, “connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired and the ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. Also critical is the ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday” (Siemens, 2005, para. 24).

Principles of Connectivism

Based on the above definition, Siemens posits the following principles of connectivism:

  • Learning and knowledge rest 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.

Decision-making itself is a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision (Siemens, 2005, para. 24).

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Caption: In this narrative, Bobby wants to learn how to restore a 1967 Ford Mustang. The learning theory by which he learns is Connectivism. He uses the internet to research steps in restoring the car, and discovers an entire personal learning network (PLN) through different blogs, reading others’ reviews of restoration books, joining bulletin boards and forums, as well as following some of the bloggers on Twitter. He creates his own twitter to connect (follow other Mustang enthusiasts and have them follow him back) with that PLN directly, making comments about his own work he’s doing and seeking advice from those in his PLN. He even joins some of the local ‘meetup’ groups, and attends some Mustang ‘Tweetups’ to meet with his PLN, all while working on his car. Through all his messaging and sharing different bookmarks, a new user (Tommy) to the PLN reads Bobby’s information and is inspired to follow his desire to learn how to restore a Mustang, too. Connectivism via ’67 Mustang was written, designed, and created by Three Theorists–Jennifer Lortz, Carolina Robinson and Jessica Wals (2009).

A Comparison

How does connectivism compare to other learning theories? How does it differ from established paradigms? The chart below illustrates both the similarities and differences between connectivism and three major philosophical perspectives on learning. To view this table in a Word document, click here.

Connectivism chart.gif

(Ireland, 2007, para. 7)

Critics of Connectivism

Is Connectivism a new learning theory? As a fundamental criticism of connectivism, some argue that it is a pedagogical view, not a learning theory. An outspoken critic of the theory, Pløn Verhagen, Professor of Educational Design at the University of Twente believes connectivism to be relevant on a curricular level as it speaks to what people should learn and the skills they should develop. To be relevant at the theoretical level, connectivism should explore the processes of how people learn. Verhagen does not believe the latter to be the case (Verhagen, 2006). Other critics have been less austere. Invited by George Siemens to present at to the Connectivism Online Conference in February, 2007, Bill Kerr offered limited support for connectivism. According to Kerr, connectivism fails to qualify as a theory based on three criteria. They are:

  1. Connectivism does not contribute to a theory or learning reform, due to its use of “language and slogans that are sometimes ‘correct’ but are too generalized to guide new practice at the level of how learning actually happens,”
  1. Connectivism does “contribute to a general world outlook,” and
  1. Connectivism “misrepresents the current state of established alternative learning theories such as constructivism, behaviorism and cognitivism, so this basis for a new theory is also dubious” (Kerr, 2006, para. 5-7).


The debate on the status of Siemens’ theory of connectivism will undoubtedly continue for some time, and the ultimate outcome remains to be seen. However, one of connectivism’s defining principles states that what we consider to be right today may tomorrow be considered wrong (Siemens, 2005). So then, perhaps, “tomorrow” the debate could lead to a prevailing view that connectivism is the leading learning theory of the time.


Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Fisch, K., McLeod, S., & Brenman, J. (2008). Did you know?. Retrieved December 8, 2008, Web site: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=jpEnFwiqdx8&feature=related

Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: The making of a new science. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Gonzalez, C. (2004). The role of blended learning in the world of technology. Retrieved November 1, 2008 from http://www.unt.edu/benchmarks/archives/2004/september04/eis.htm

Heylighen, F. (2008). Complexity and self-organization. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Retrieved November 3, 2008, from http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/ELIS-complexity.pdf

Ireland, T. (2007). Situating connectivism. Retrieved November 7, 2008, fromhttp://design.test.olt.ubc.ca/Situating_Connectivism

Kerr, B. (December 2006). A challenge to connectivism. Retrieved November 11, 2008, from http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2006/12/challenge-to-connectivism.html

Rocha, L. M. (1998). Selected self-organization and the semiotics of evolutionary systems. Retrieved November 9, 2008 from http://informatics.indiana.edu/rocha/ises.html

Salmon, V. (1999). Chaos in the composition classroom: Why do some classes fail to function?. Inquiry, 4, Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.vccaedu.org/inquiry/inquiry-fall99/i-42-salmon.html

Siemens, G. (2005, January). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, Retrieved November 03, 2008, from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Vaill, P. B., (1996). Learning as a way of being. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Verhagen, P. (2006, November). Connectivism: a new learning theory?. elearning, Retrieved November 4, 2008, from http://www.surfspace.nl/nl/Redactieomgeving/Publicaties/Documents/Connectivism%20a%20new%20theory.pdf

Additional Reading

What is Web2.0? Ideas technologies and implications in educationhttp://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/techwatch/tsw0701b.pdf

Confronting the challenges of participatory culturehttp://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Teens and social media http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Social_Media_Final.pdf

Media multitasking among American youth: prevalence, predictors and pairingshttp://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7592.pdf

Little boxes, globalization, and networked individualismhttp://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/littleboxes/littlebox.PDF

What connectivism is http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html

Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime of the self-amused?http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/Connectivism_response.doc

A challenge to connectivism http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2006/12/challenge-to-connectivism.html


APA Citation: Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/