Connectivism principles and course design

There seem to be an increasing number of attempts to design courses based on connectivism principles. In my last post I wrote

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course.

I stand by this statement, but the fact is that I am often (as an education consultant) contracted to write online ‘courses’ within traditional settings, i.e. Universities. In my most recent contract I have explicitly tried, within the constraints that come from working in a traditional educational setting to apply the principles of connectivism to the course design, i.e. openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy. This is what I have learned.


We have to decide what we mean by this. Do we mean open as in free course to the whole world? I think most Universities would need a lot of convincing to do this. I would like to know more about how Universities that have done it (e.g. University of Regina and University of Athabasca, USA) have rationalised their costs? What is in it for them? I can see that the recent PLENK course has generated a lot of research. I suppose an open course could also help to market a University – but for Universities which are already high in the rankings what would be the benefit of an ‘open course’?

I do not think that the course I have written will be opened to the whole world. Apart from anything else I personally do not have the required reputation or academic standing – but I think it could be opened to the whole University – staff and students – as professional development. But, in my mind, this does not fulfil the connectivism principle of openness.

If by ‘open’ we mean, transparency in what we are doing and open sharing of resources – yes we can encourage that in the course design – but we cannot enforce it without cutting across the principle of autonomy. And if the course is not open to the world, then the principle of ‘openness’ is compromised from the word go.


We definitely need this for a rich learning environment. In a MOOC this is a given – but how do we get this in a small course of say 20 participants. I think diversity of resources (in the sense of variety) is possible however small the number of participants, but diversity in relation to participants is obviously limited by smaller numbers. On the other hand we have seen time and again that MOOC participants are easily overwhelmed by the diversity on offer. So is it possible to build the principle of diversity into an online course which is not a MOOC? Yes I think so. It might come in terms of the student group (e.g. the course might be for international participants), but if not then we can design for diversity in learning environments and resources. Not the wide diversity offered by a MOOC, but still diversity. So it seems that diversity can exist along a continuum of less to more diverse. Openness can also exist on this continuum, but it can also be one or the other, i.e. open or closed.


At the heart of this lies a belief in social learning. I have thought about this in past, but have been thinking about it a lot in the past few days following Heli’s recommendation in a comment on my last post to view Dr. Brene Brown’s video, where Brene Brown extols the virtue of connectivity. This prompted me to send it to a friend who I highly respect for her ability to ‘think outside the box’. She dismissed it. Her view is that ‘connectivity’ is just one strategy for learning.  Those that choose not to engage in online social networking have a different strategy. This was a wake up call for me. It reminded me that not everyone believes in social learning and that I must be prepared for this in my course design.  So what have I done?  I have built in an introduction to a lot of different technologies (with thanks to Alec Couros for his idea of providing open course participants with tutorials). I have also encouraged people to ‘connect’ where, when, how and with whom they wish, using whichever technology they wish (a la Stephen Downes and George Siemens in their MOOCs), but I have also realised that if the course participants choose not to be connected  or interact with others, then that must be their choice. And this leads me to autonomy.


In designing my course I have realised that when Stephen Downes presented the principles of connectivism as openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy, he presented them as equals on a level playing field – but I can now see that autonomy ‘rules’.  This determines how open and how connected  learners are and how much advantage they wish to take of diversity.

It also brings a course designer right up against traditional hierarchies, because autonomy means that learners can choose where, when, how, what and with whom to learn – a real challenge for a traditional educational system, particularly if assessment comes into the mix.

In the course I have designed I have tried to be true to the principle of learner autonomy. I have provided suggestions for activities, discussions, readings and assessments – i.e. I have provided learners with some structure – my structure- but have also made it clear that participants can choose whether or not to engage with any of this.  In doing this I am wondering whether I am abdicating responsibility. I have a friend whose PhD is focussing on why so many of her post graduate learners have the attitude ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ (Carmen also has some interesting thoughts about this in a comment on my last blog post) – and I’m wondering if this will be the reaction to the course I have designed – and it if it is, what I will do about it. So I am aware that by pinning my colours to the ‘autonomy’ mast, I could well end up with a course that appears to fail.


So far I have never worked on a course that has failed. I think this is because I and my colleagues work very hard to keep our students on board – but this brings me back to the ‘autonomy rules’ thought. If we do this – i.e. work hard to keep students on board, chase them, provide them with resources etc. are we diminishing their autonomy? At what point along the autonomy continuum of less autonomy to more autonomy should a teacher/tutor sit? What is our responsibility in relation to autonomy? I have written my course, but I don’t yet have a clear answer to this question.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m off to enjoy it.

All the best for 2011 to anyone who ventures here 🙂

One thought on “Connectivism principles and course design

  1. Mary January 1, 2011 / 5:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with designing online courses and your analysis in terms of George’s theorizing.

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