Theories for the digital age: Connectivism

Learning in the industrialised world can now be contextualised within a largely technological landscape, where the use of digital media is assuming increasing importance.  Much of this learning is informal, (Commentators such as Cofer (2000), Cross (2006) and Dobbs (2000) place the proportion of informal learning at around 70%) and is also generally location independent.

The present technology rich learning environment is characterised by a sustained use of digital media, their integration into formal contexts, and a shift toward personalisation of learning. These facets of modern life in combination have led educators to question the validity of pre-digital age learning theories. In recent years a range of new explanatory theories has been generated that can be applied as lenses to critically view, analyse and problematise new and emerging forms of learning. 

One highly visible theory is Connectivism (Siemens, 2004). Connectivism has been lauded as a ‘learning theory for the digital age’, and as such seeks to describe how students who use personalised, online and collaborative tools learn in different ways to previous generations of students. The essence of Siemens’ argument is that today, learning is lifelong, largely informal, and that previous human-led pedagogical roles and processes can be off-loaded onto technology. Siemens also criticises the three dominant learning theories, namely behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism, suggesting that they all locate learning inside the learner. His counterargument is that through the use of networked technologies, learning can now be distributed outside the learner, within personal learning communities and across social networks.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Connectivist theory is the premise that declarative knowledge is now supplemented or even supplanted by knowing where knowledge can be found. In a nutshell, connectivism argues that digital media have caused knowledge to be more distributed than ever, and it is now more important for students to know where to find knowledge they require, than it is for them to internalise it. This places the onus firmly upon each student to develop their own personalised learning tools, environments, learning networks and communities within which they can ‘store their knowledge’ (Siemens, 2004). In McLuhan’s view, as we embrace technology, ‘our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us’ (McLuhan, 1964, p. 4). Clearly our social and cultural worlds are influenced by new technology, but are there also biological implications?

Cross, J. (2006) Informal Learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. London: John Wiley and Sons. 
Cofer, D. (2000) Informal Workplace Learning. Practice Application Brief No. 10, U.S. Department of Education: Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.
Dobbs, K. (2000) Simple Moments of Learning. Training, 35 (1), 52-58.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media. London: McGraw Hill.
Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A LearningTheory for the Digital Age. eLearnspace

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[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication entitled: Personal Technologies in Education: Issues, Theories and Debates]

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Theories for the digital age: Connectivism by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Simon Ensor said…
If learning leaves connections in the brain then connected learning leaves connections to the connections. We are biologically adapting constantly to our environment. This post happily connected me to this recent article which clearly had left its mark thereby amplifying and reinforcing the connection. So just to reinforce it - here is the link bitly/TKU4nS
Steve Wheeler said…
Simon, I think in Connectivist terms the meta connections might be referred to as nodes. Glad you found the article useful in the context of reinforcing connections to other things/ideas, and thanks for sharing the link :)
Simon Ensor said…
Thank you. I shall practise and reflect.
Bruna said…
Thanks for this contribution. I am very much interested in connectivism ideas, but still I have my doubts about how "innovative" it really is, especially regarding the development of certain skills, the prioritization of some specific personal characteristics and the evaluation methods of the connectivism... Here goes the link to my text... I'm looking forward to hearing opinions...
Sonya Harvey said…
Steve - I am just completing my PG Cert in Education Practice at Bournemouth University and have fund your Blogspot absolutely essential to my gaining a good understanding of the different learning theories; it is shared as part of our course materials and has been invaluable in helping me form my essays. Just waiting for my results!
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Sonya, it's always great to hear when someone finds my work useful. I wish you every success and hope your career goes from strength to strength.
Sonya Harvey said…
Thanks Steve and thanks for connecting on LinkedIn. My PG Cert contact at BU is Debbie Holley, Head of the Centre for Excellence in Learning.

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