Attacks on connectivism

What is it about connectivism that stirs up such strong emotion?

In my experience it has now been strongly attacked in public at least twice – the first during CCK08 by Catherine Fitzpatrick – who voiced her objections in no uncertain terms and more recently by Marielle Lange in Wikipedia. Perhaps the interesting thing about both these instances is that they end up as personal attacks on Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Why?

The objections revolve around the claim that connectivism is a new learning theory.

Marielle Lange levels these criticisms at this claim:

  • Connectivism is a hoax
  • There is nothing new in connectivism
  • The claims have never been published by a refereed journal
  • The claims are unwarranted and unsupported by evidence
  • The claims amount to intellectual dishonesty
  • They don’t make any new or original contribution to learning
  • They don’t make any new or original contribution to pedagogy

And then for some reason that I don’t understand she seems to take real exception to the fact that Stephen Downes does not have a PhD, that much of his and George Siemens’ work is published in blogs and that the article – Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age – has been published in a not-for-profit journal.

In a recent Elluminate session, Stephen Downes discussed the status of connectivism as a theory –

For him connectivism is an empirical theory intended to describe how learning occurs. It is based on observations and evidence from a variety of related empirical theories. Four theories which he claims support connectivism are connectionism, in computer science, associationism in philosophy and psychology, graph theory in mathematics and social network theory. Connectivism is a theory about pedagogy to describe how we can apply what we know about how networks learn to learning. Connectivism doesn’t have a message; it is not a belief or a political movement. Connectivism doesn’t argue; it describes – describes the world as we see it and explains why we are developing e-learning as a distributed and networked process.

Lange and Fitzpatrick are not alone in criticising Downes’ and Siemens’ claims for connectivism. I don’t even think they are alone in descending into personal attacks, although I don’t think these help their cause, because they get carried away and then lose their credibility, e.g. Lange writes:

The acclaim they receive typically comes from classroom teachers who are unfamiliar with the pre-existing theories. Unfamiliar with the vast amount of literature on the web covering the same issues a lot more ably. Let’s face it. The “theory of Connectivism” was published as a blog post! It was later published by Educause, a non profit organisation. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Connectivism)

It is fairly easy to demolish this paragraph. First, teachers, in order to be teachers, are trained, and that training involves a study of learning theories, although they might not be familiar with the vast amount of literature on the web – but that does not make them incapable of critically evaluating new ideas. Second, the fact that the ‘theory of connectivism was published as a blog post’ is part of the whole point about it all. Downes and Siemens are trying to establish a new way of thinking about education and research, which questions and destabilises traditional ways of working. Posting to blogs, and the belief in peer review (as happens in Wikipedia) is a deliberate and conscious strategy. How better to test out their ideas? Publishing in Educause was also part of this strategy.

Of course a claim for a new learning theory will have to be critically analysed, tested and discussed – I doubt anyone disputes that and some articles are beginning to come through which do just this.

Bell, F. (2010) Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and Actor Network theory – http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/PDFs/Bell.pdf

Kop, R. & Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/523/1103

Verhagen, P. (2006) Connectivism: A new learning theory? http://elearning.surf.nl/e-learning/english/3793

And there will be more – it is early days as far as connectivism is concerned. It is also possible – if following Downes’ and Siemens’ work to see their ideas and explanations developing as time progresses. Surely establishing a learning theory is a long-term and dynamic process, but the starting point is to make the claim. If it is ultimately thrown over – let’s hope it is on the basis of evidence rather than personal attacks.

Finally the focus on whether connectivism is a theory or not detracts from what for me are the more important questions raised by Downes and Siemens and these are:

  • How is technology changing the way we think and learn?
  • How is technology changing the way we teach?
  • Do we need to challenge traditional ways of working in education?

Whilst there have been published research papers which address these questions most are published in closed journals. The work that Downes and Siemens do differs in its openness; this means that they are more subject to criticism and attack, but also that their work is more accessible to a wider audience – and there is evidence that the audience is wide.