“Knowledge has many authors, knowledge has many facets, it looks different to each person, and it changes moment to moment. A piece of knowledge isn’t a description of something, it is a way of relating to something.” – Stephen Downes
It's the digital age. In a world with Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, and other digital information assistants, people have come to rely on technology to seek answers and find information. It’s no different for today’s students. Twenty years ago, students might go to an encyclopedia for answers; now they can simply ask their smartphones or type the question into Google.
It’s clear that technology is changing how students learn in and out of the classroom. Rather than learning from teachers and textbooks, smartphones and laptops serve as hubs of information for today’s students. In fact, according to a 2015 study, 87% of college students reported that they used a laptop every week for schoolwork, while 64% reported using their smartphone for schoolwork.
The increasing use of technology as an educational tool has changed the learning landscape. With it came gaps in traditional ideas of teaching and the need for new methods to keep up. The theory of connectivism seeks to be the modern-day solution to those gaps. Whether you’re already a teacher or aspire to be one, understanding this theory can give you additional tools and strategies to create a learning environment that sets your students up for success. This guide will help you dive deeper into the connectivism learning theory and provide tips on how to implement it in your own classroom.
Connectivism is a relatively new learning theory that suggests students should combine thoughts, theories, and general information in a useful manner. It accepts that technology is a major part of the learning process and that our constant connectedness gives us opportunities to make choices about our learning. It also promotes group collaboration and discussion, allowing for different viewpoints and perspectives when it comes to decision-making, problem-solving, and making sense of information. Connectivism promotes learning that happens outside of an individual, such as through social media, online networks, blogs, or information databases.
History of Connectivism Learning Theory
Connectivism was first introduced in 2005 by two theorists, George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Siemens’ article Connectivism: Learning as a Network Creation was published online in 2004 and Downes’ article An Introduction to Connective Knowledge was published the following year.
The publications address the important role technology plays in the learning process and how the digital age has increased the speed at which students have access to information. Since then, both Siemens and Downes have continued to write and speak on the subject. However, each has slightly different viewpoints. While Siemens tends to focus on the social aspects of connectivism, Downes focuses on non-human appliances and machine-based learning.
According to connectivism, learning is more than our own internal construction of knowledge. Rather, what we can reach in our external networks is also considered to be learning. From this theory, two terms—nodes and links—have been commonly used to describe how we gain and connect information in a network.
In connectivism, students are seen as “nodes” in a network. A node refers to any object that can be connected to another object, like a book, webpage, person, etc. Connectivism is based on the theory that we learn when we make connections, or “links,” between various "nodes" of information, and we continue to make and maintain connections to form knowledge.
Connectivism builds on already-established theories to propose that technology is changing what, how, and where we learn. In their research, Siemens and Downes identified eight principles of connectivism.
Those main principles of connectivism are:
- Learning and knowledge rests in the diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Learning is more critical than knowing.
- Nurturing and maintaining connections are needed for continual learning.
- The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Accurate, up-to-date knowledge is the aim of all connectivist learning.
- Decision-making is a learning process. What we know today might change tomorrow. While there’s a right answer now, it might be wrong tomorrow due to the constantly changing information climate.
Before these principles came on the scene, many theories positioned students solely as receivers of information. However, connectivism supports the theory that knowledge is distributed across networks where connections and connectedness inform learning.
It’s one thing to understand what connectivism is and another to actually incorporate it in the classroom in learning activities. Remember that in a connectivist viewpoint, the new learning responsibilities shift from the teacher to the learner. Unlike traditional teaching methods and other theories like constructivism or cognitivism, the educator’s job is to guide students to become effective agents for their own learning and personal development. In other words, it’s up to the learner to create their own learning experience, engage in decision making, and enhance their learning networks.
Connectivism relies heavily on technology, so the first step to creating a connectivist classroom is to introduce more opportunities for digital learning—like online courses, webinars, social networks, and blogs.
Here are more ways to incorporate connectivism in the classroom:
One way teachers implement connectivism is through the use of classroom social media. For example, a class Twitter account can be used to share information, engage in discussion or announce homework tasks. This can help boost class engagement and open the lines of discussion among students and teachers.
Gamification takes assignments and activities and puts them into a competitive game to make learning more of an interactive experience. There are many learning-based apps and instructional technologies teachers can use to add an element of gamification to the classroom. One example is DuoLingo, an online learning tool that helps students learn languages through fun, game-like lessons. Teachers can track students' progress while students can earn “points” for progressing through lessons. Other examples include apps like Brainscape, Virtual Reality House, and Gimkit, just to name a few.
Simulations engage students in deep learning that empowers understanding as opposed to surface learning that only requires memorization. They also add interest and fun to a classroom setting. Take, for example, a physics class where students create an electric circuit with an online program. Instead of being instructed via a book or classroom lecture, they’re learning about physics by simulating an actual physical setup.
Incorporating some or all of these examples is a great way to allow your students more control over the pacing and content of their learning. It also provides opportunities for individualized learning to match each student’s unique needs and strengths.
Both the student and the educator can benefit from connectivism in the classroom. If you’re considering adopting this theory in your current or future classroom, consider the following benefits:
It creates collaboration.
Within connectivism, learning occurs when peers are connected and share opinions, viewpoints, and ideas through a collaborative process. Connectivism allows a community of people to legitimize what they’re doing, so knowledge can be spread more quickly through multiple communities.
It empowers students and teachers.
Connectivism shifts the learning responsibilities from the teacher to the student. It’s up to the learner to create their own learning experience. The role of the educator then becomes to “create learning ecologies, shape communities, and release learners into the environment” (Siemens, 2003).
It embraces diversity.
Connectivism supports individual perspectives and the diversity of opinions, theoretically providing for no hierarchy in the value of knowledge.
If you're a current educator or aspiring to be one, it's important to understand how different learning theories can benefit your classroom and help your students find success. Get more tools and knowledge about teaching and education with a degree from WGU.