Thoughts and applications of connectivism

So, post #3 for week 1 of the ICTs for Learning Design, this time on connectivism. There are two parts to the question, the second is somewhat easier and asks fo examples of how connectivism could be used in a classroom/learning context. The first is somewhat more difficult.

Position on connectivism

The question suggests that connectivism is contested by some and that some of this may arise from its challenging nature to some of the broadly accepted, established concepts or practices. The first problem with completing this arises from the fact that the guide we’re working from doesn’t really point to the folk that challenge/disagree with connectivism. This can be addressed by a quick search. That reveals a growing body of literature and challenges that can be quite complex and time-consuming to engage effectively with. Even with a history of a few years of engaging (not always deeply) with connectivism and its proponents, I don’t feel really all that comfortable enough to express a firm opinion. I’m beginning to wonder if I am over thinking this, so lets go quick and dirty for the purposes of assessment.

At the root of these learning theories/paradigms is a description of learning. I guess one approach to expressing a perspective is to examine the validity of the description of learning provided by the theories/paradigms. Based on this approach I think connectivism provides a model of learning that is perhaps closer to reality than the others. The black box of behaviourism doesn’t say anything about learning. The cognitivist approach is based on an information processing perspective. A learner as computer perspective which I don’t think captures how the brain actually works. The constructivist approach seems to wave its hands and say “learners construct knowledge”, each differently. It strikes me that there is some similarity with the network-based perspective of connectivism. i.e. students are constructing their knowledge by building and pruning networks.

That’s really broad-brush. Perhaps I should take the time to read a bit more (e.g. Kop and Hill, 2008)

One of the points in the question is

It is unsettling to be challenged about existing perceptions of “knowing”, in particular, the lack of purpose in asking our students to KNOW and be able to RECALL what they know in assessment

I’m not sure that there connectivism suggests that there would be a lack of purpose in asking students to know and recall. Connectivism, at least according to Siemens, suggests that the capacity to know (learn more) is more critical than what is known. One interpretation of this is that it doesn’t mean that what is known is unimportant, it’s just not as important as the capacity to know. In the end, demonstration of the capacity to know would seem to require an ability to demonstrate what is known.

Perhaps the view I expressed above connects more closely with Kop’s and Hill’s (2008) discussion of epistemological frameworks for learning. The final paragraph of Kop and Hill is interesting in this context

A paradigm shift, indeed, may be occurring in educational theory, and a new epistemology may be emerging, but it does not seem that connectivism’s contributions to the new paradigm warrant it being treated as a separate learning theory in and of its own right. Connectivism, however, continues to play an important role in the development and emergence of new pedagogies, where control is shifting from the tutor to an increasingly more autonomous learner.

Using this theory in the classroom

Currently I have only a theoretical/anecdotal understanding of what a high school classroom context would be like. I don’t fully appreciated the constraints of such a context, so the following will be limited by that lack of understanding.

I’ll draw on Downes comments on teaching and learning within connectivism here

to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect

and use these within the context of teaching Information Technology – particularly programming. This is a good opportunity as it allows me to make concrete some vague ideas I’ve had for a while.

One aspect of IT is learning how to program. Often programming is taught through “pretend” authentic projects such as creating a reservation system for a restaurant. Other limitation of these projects is that the student starts from scratch and does the programming by themselves. The trouble is that increasingly most software development occurs within broader frameworks. e.g. developing a plugin for Moodle, for WordPress etc.

I’m interested in exploring how programming could be taught be encouraging students to do exactly this. Pick a module, open source application – like Moodle or WordPress – and over time develop or modify a plugin. In terms of teaching it would be my task to model and demonstrate the practices and knowledge required to do this (e.g. like my work on BIM) and the students would be required to engage in the existing developer networks around these open source projects. In terms of encouraging reflection and making connections between the students and those external, the students would be expected to maintain blogs on their practice, must like I do with BIM development.

There’s much more to this, but that’s the basics.


Kop, R., and A. Hill. 2008. Connectivism Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9, no. 3.

3 Replies to “Thoughts and applications of connectivism”

  1. When reviewing the introductory programming unit, I took a similar approach in that I wanted to expressly teach the act of examining someone else’s code to isolate and extract features needed. Didn’t quite go for the whole open source contribution immediately, but that sounds interesting for some of the larger projects.

    Here’s an exerpt from the unit rationale (the whole unit was up on CQU Mahara up until its demise late last year):

    This unit introduces students to computer programming through the Visual Basic .NET programming language. The students will build many small applications that each focus on key elements of programming. Once each program is completed, the students are then encouraged to extend the application in novel ways by combining features learned in previous tasks.

    Each small application is laid out in a step-by-step guide so that producing a running application is relatively simple. This allows the learning manager flexibility to either present key features fully before the programming task, or explain more clearly what key features have been created once the application is complete. This method also gives a good ‘hands on’ approach as they will be developing more complex applications than expected for beginning programmers with highly visual results. Encouraging students to tinker with running code increases understanding through discovery based learning.

    1. Tony, the unit sounds very close to some of the ideas I’d like to achieve. Fully recognising that the realities of any context may limit what can be done.

      I watched “The Social Network” over the weekend. Early on in the movie it shows a montage of Zuckerberg putting together FaceSmash (the girl comparison site). It essentially showed his deep understanding of a range of technologies necessary to grab all the photos. He used a range of tools, understood how to kludge things together…

      To me that was a perfect example of what you’d like to be able to produce in a student, or at least start them on the way. Perhaps more realistically would be to give all students an appreciation of how this type of thing can be done and how they can go about learning how to do it.

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