Just What is Connectivism…


According to one of its major proponents George Siemens, connectivism can be defined as a “learning theory for the digital age” (Siemens, 2006). It blends elements of the previously established learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism and applies them to a technology-driven, less formal and network-based system of learning. On his weblog, Siemens makes many strong arguments for connectivism as a separate learning theory. However, many other educational researchers label connectivism as merely a strong “thesis” that has implications to learning but since information is storage is in a non-human entity, it cannot be labeled as a human learning theory. Learning is not about what you know or how you have learned but more so your skills at locating it on the web. Connectivism, while not without some merit, is an idea that is more based on powerful web searching than brain-based learning.

George Siemens discusses Connectivism: Socialized Open Learning

Connectivism is not an established learning theory

Educators are familiar with learning theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. With the introduction of technology and teachers integrating this technology into the classroom a new learning theory was on the horizon. In 2004 George Siemens introduced a theory called connectivism. Bijdrage van Pløn Verhagen characterizes connectivism as “a pedagogical view, not a learning theory” in his article Connectivism: a new learning theory?.Verhagen states that “pupils from an early age need to create connections with the world beyond the school in order to develop the networking skills that will allow them to manage their knowledge effectively and efficiently in the information society”. According to Clarissa Davis, Earl Edmunds, Vivian Kelly-Batemanat the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia, state that Siemens’ theory is the "combined effect of three different components: chaos theory, importance of networks, and the interplay of complexity and self-organization" (2008).

While it has some relevance to education, critics such as Plon Verhagen describe it as pedagogy versus actual theory. A major critique is the storage of information. Verhagen says that if learning is merely the storage of information, than how does it differ than the information stored in books? Or, how is information stored in a computer a reflection of actual learning? Most collegiate institutions do not officially list it as an educational learning theory, also adding to its lack of credibility. Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism emerged through years of research by brilliant psychologists. If connectivism should be considered a learning theory, it make take more than a web blog to prove it so.

Bill Kerr is another opponent of connectivism. He was invited by Siemens to speak on the subject at a conference but upon review, had several challenges to the thesis. As he states on his weblog, “Networks are important but haven't changed learning so much that we need to throw away all of the established learning theories and replace them with a brand new one”. According to Kerr, a good learning theory should firstly, “contribute to a theory/practice spiral of curriculum / learning reform”. However, he feels that connectivism “fails on the first count by using language and slogans that are sometimes “correct” but are too generalized to guide new practice at the level of how learning actually happens”. Second, a theory should provide a significant new perspective about how we see learning happening. While according to Kerr, connectivism does contribute to a general world outlook there are already pre-established theories that do what Siemens describes. Last, a theory should represent historical alternatives accurately. Kerr believes that it misrepresents the current state of established alternative learning theories such as constructivism, behaviorism and cognitivism. (Kerr, 2006). It is more of an extension of constructivism than its own separate theory.

A video by Steve Nowak, Connectivism: Theory or Nifty idea, adds humor as he challenges and tries to explain the theory of connectivism.
The video also integrates a portion of the previously posted video Connectivism: Socialized Open Learning

Connectivism relevance to education as a tool not a theory

Any new educational ideas are relevant to teaching. As educators, we cannot deny the all-dominating power of technology and its influence on recent generations. We even structure classrooms based on cooperative learning, where students network orally to share what they have researched and apply that learning.

However, the recent article “Brilliance in a Box: What do the best classrooms in the world look like?”, author Amanda Ripley reports that "In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms," according to Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Schliecher spends spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). "I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets" (2010).

Southern Methodist University is an example of where computers are leaving the classroom. A survey of students published by British Educational Research Journal reports that “59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw” (Young, 2009). Low marks were also given to other computer assisted classroom activities. Technology has not been banned from the classroom, in fact, every professor was given a laptop to create podcasts and videos for their classes. Now many professors have embraced the “inverted classroom” where students come more prepared than ever and classes are now filled with discussion, practical sessions and debate.

Connectivism supports students but reduces structure

While it can support students, connectivism can be too radical in its approach without a structured environment. Its emphasis seems to rely on informal learning and according to Rita Kop and Adrian Kill in their article “Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past?” one’s choice to engage with outside experts, allows for almost no local control. How could one enforce state or national standards of education with this structure?

Connectivism is useful in the same vein that using Wikipedia is useful: for general information. It is an excellent way to read about and gather basic information on a subject. While it makes the process of gathering this information occur more rapidly, this same type of learning can occur using magazine, newspapers, books or the like.

In the aftermath of "No Child Left Behind" we as teachers have seen an ever-increasing push for state and national standards of education. Billions have been spent on restructuring education to a more stream-lined curriculum. Students who connect to network and construct learning environments online may have difficulty meeting college standards, performing on SATs or state tests that are administered traditionally. According to the Educational Research website,"In one international study that looked at the effects of dropping and reintroducing standardized tests in 29 industrialized countries, academic standards declined, students studied less, curricula became incoherent and selection and promotion became arbitrary after standardized tests were dropped" (2006).

While compelling, Connectivism has many holes

Siemens states that with connectivism, “Students are not confined to interacting with only the ideas of a researcher or theorist. Instead, a student can interact directly with researchers through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and listservs. The largely unitary voice of the traditional teacher is fragmented by the limitless conversation opportunities available in networks. When learners have control of the tools of conversation, they also control the conversations in which they choose to engage”. This type of learning opens up many possibilities and breaks down the walls of the traditional classroom. Students could speak directly with authors, professors, researchers, reporters; the possibilities seem limitless.

While this is both compelling and attractive, how would Siemens propose these individuals be paid? While these people may be enticed as guest speakers for a traditional classroom, if their role is broken down to online appearances, we may begin to see a shift in online broadcasting.

Copyrighting is another issue. Students already struggle with citing information in this cut and paste world. The more we encourage quick searching, the more we will see this behavior occur. Unless the ironclad copyright laws change, we may see more students face serious consequences from their “connected” information. As quoted by Virginia Montecino of George Mason University on her site discussing "Copyright and the Internet", "The Internet has been characterized as the largest threat to copyright since its inception. The Internet is awash in information, a lot of it with varying degrees of copyright protection. Copyrighted works on the Net include news stories, software, novels, screenplays, graphics, pictures, Usenet messages and even email. In fact, the frightening reality is that almost everything on the Net is protected by copyright law. That can pose problems for the hapless surfer." ("The Copyright Web site" http://www.benedict.com/).

Robert J. Rubis provides more holes in the connectivism learning theory through his blog, Still Edging Ahead,
"George Siemen’s statement that “Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity betrays his western conceit that “society” means the western, largely English-speaking, and technologically advanced countries. Even Mexico, the country of Siemen’s birth, does not qualify, except in the large cities, and even there only in “wired” pockets of these. The problem is, that these twenty or thirty countries represent perhaps one of the almost seven billion people on the planet. So while “Connectivism” as a Learning Theory may have relevance in segments of this limited societal strata, it just does not relate to the vast majority of learners on the planet today." (Rubis, 2009)


According to Frances Bell, it “remains to be seen whether or not Siemens’ research projects will help to build connectivism as a theory. Connectivism currently has its impact mainly at the level of curriculum (Verhagen, 2006); to go beyond that, it requires further elaboration and development, informed by rich studies that test its application in practice” (Bell, 2010).

There are many questions that need to be answered, along with research that needs to occur before connectivism is declared as an official learning theory.


Bell, F. (2010). Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and actor network theory. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Networked Learning, Aalborg, Denmark. Retrieved Jul. 23, 2012 from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Creanor.html

Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. Connectivism. (2008). In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved July 23, 2012, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/.

Kerr, B.. (2006, Dec. 26 ). A Challenge to Connectivism. Retrieved Jul. 24, 2012, from http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2006/12/challenge-to-connectivism.html .

Kop, R., and Adrian Hill. (2008, Oct.). Connectivism: Learning Theory of the Future or Vestige of the Past? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. IRRODL. Retrieved July 24, 2012 from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/viewArticle/523/1103 .

Montecino, V. (1996). Copyright and the Internet. George Mason University. Retrieved July 23 from http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/copyright-internet.htm.

Nowak, S. (2011, Nov. 30). Connectivism: Theory or Nifty Idea?. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PODGhoklyuQ

Pros and cons of NCLB: What the research say. (2006, Nov.). In Educational Research. Retrieved Jul. 22, 2012, from http://www.ernweb.com/public/892.cfm

Ripley, A.. (2010, Oct. 20 ). Brilliance in a Box. Retrieved Jul. 23, 2012, from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_hive/2010/10/brilliance_in_a_box.html

Rubis, R. J. (2009, February 8). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://edgingahead.edublogs.org/2009/02/08/connectivism-new-blooms-taxonomy-messing-around/

Siemens, G. (2006a). Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime for the self-amused? Retrieved Jul. 23, 2012 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm

Verhagen, P. W. (2006). Connectivism: A new learning theory? Retrieved from http://elearning.surf.nl/e-learning/english/3793

Young, J. R. (2009, July 20). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Teach-Naked-Effort-Strips/47398/