In my last post of 2012 I talked about the several theories of learning. I  claimed that there are 3 major theories, but added  a possible 4th one: connectivism. I didn’t really explain this theory back then, because I wasn’t sure if connectivism truly belongs in that list, that I prosaically called the 3 tenors.

I’ve been thinking about connectivism ever since and I’m still not sure which place it deserves in the history of educational theories: is it a new theory or just a variant of the constructivist trend. Maybe it’s the wrong question and am I wasting my time trying to answer it? Time will probably tell.

So let’s just try to look at the essence of connectivism and what it might imply for my own job.

What is connectivism?

DownesThe theory of Connectivism was first assembled by George Siemens and Stephen Downes and is mainly about networked learning. Downes summarises the theory as follows:

“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. … Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. … This implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (…) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (…).”

Click here to hear Stephen Downes, explaining Connectivism.


In this presentation Siemens explains the essential elements:

  • knowledge is networked and distributed
  • learning is forming new neural (biological), conceptual and external (social) networks
  • it occurs in complex, chaotic and shifting spaces
  • technology has increased the entire process


In the presentation Siemens answers two relevant questions:

  1. How does learning occur from a connectivist point of view?
  2. Is connectivism new?

1. How does learning occur?

Learning occurs through networks and will determine the dept and the diversity of learning. The frequency of exposure to information will also influence the learning effect. The strongest connections are usually in our own world and integration with the existing ideas and concept will be easier. Siemens calls this a strong tie. Weak ties occur when we try to bridge between separate worlds: learning is possible, but it will take us longer to achieve deep learning or integration.

According to Siemens this will affect the way we design learning and learning networks. It is not enough to incorporate networks into education. On the contrary, designing should start from the networks and not from education at all. In practice this resulted in the many “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) Siemens and Downes developed. MOOCs is all about offering free resources for learning in an open network. Participating in one might be overwhelming and feels a bit chaotic, because as a participant you decide yourself what and how you want to learn and where, when and how you share your insights with the other participants. Quite a form off self-directed learning, but probably not achievable for everyone!


2. Is connectivism new?

Siemens is quite clear about is: no! Networks have always existed. The only thing that has changed is the increased possibilities with technology. Technology (and Siemens doesn’t only mean internet) has made it possible to participate and create or share knowledge, dialogue with others and make simulations.

In a world of abundance and complexity networks are prominent and should help us to facilitate our learning process. The world is changing more rapidly, so this implies that what we learn today, we probably have to unlearn tomorrow.

What does it mean for my job?

Learning today is indeed about participating in networks. When checking my personal and work-related technology enhanced learning environments (TELE) I noticed that there are quite a lot of TELEs I participate in. This insight became very clear by drawing the TELEs schematically. These TELEs are a form of networks that I created for learning, that’s why I believe the future of a good teacher is one of a networked teacher. If I ask my colleagues to do the same thing, they probably will come to a similar result, although they are not always aware of the complex learning world we operate in today.

One of the problems trainees have is the overwhelming information load we face, at work or elsewhere. Everyone is searching for new ways to deal with rapidly changing environments: technology is changing constantly, the use of Web 2.0-tools are making things for most co-workers more complex instead of more efficient. And all these changes influence the way we work and live.  It is no longer possible to know everything or to stay up to date to the last-minute. Exactly the part that we struggle with, because in the past we have learned that knowledge is power! We were trained through education that we should know everything to be a good student (worker), so the difficulties we experience are not only a matter of learning new technologies (conceptual networks), but also changing our values (as a part of our neural networks?)! This is so structurally embedded that – again – it will not be an easy task to change this corporate culture! Changes follow each other so fast, that I notice currently a certain “change fatigue”. But I suppose that is an item for the next module when we will discuss change and innovation.


Downes, Stephen (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge. Essays and meaning on learning networks. Version 1.0. The National Research Council Canada. [online]. Last accessed 11 January 2013 at:

Siemens, George (2008). What is connectivism? [online]. University of Manitoba, Canada. From the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC last accessed 12 January 2013 at:

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