Connectivism and ‘Ah-Ha’ moments

Do you understand what connectivism is? Sometimes I think I do. I read Stephen’s blog post for example, and it seems to make sense. But then someone raises a question like what is the difference between constructivism and connectivism – as John Mak did and even being familiar with George’s diagram –   I begin to question my understanding all over again and doubt it.

For me understanding usually only comes with application to practice. So I feel  OK with constructivism and social constructivism. I used to be a science teacher and always believed that my approach to teaching was one which recognised social constructivism, because I focussed on challenging students misconceptions through modelling, demonstration and discussion.  I believed that my students came to my sessions with their ideas pretty firmly fixed based on their prior life and learning experience. For example, most students believe that if a heavy object is dropped at the same time from the same height as a light object, then the heavy object will reach the ground first. This is a very common misconception.  A constructivist approach involved challenging this deeply set misconception through physically demonstrating that heavy objects do not reach the ground before light objects. I believed that the physical demonstration had the effect of deconstructing the student’s existing thinking and reconstructing it or replacing it with the correct thinking. The student had an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment which was individual to the student whether or not the student discussed it with others (social constructivism). I have seen this happen many times, for many different misconceptions.

So if I took a connectivist approach how would I understand what was happening – what might I do differently or how might I think differently? This is where I have surprised myself in finding Matthias’ diagram/map so helpful (I usually cannot relate to these types of diagrams – Matthias knows this so I am not insulting him).


This diagram (and discussions I have had with Matthias about this) shows me that thinking about this in connectivism terms is not about changing what I do or how I teach, but changing what I believe is happening and how it is happening. So if I embrace Matthias’ diagram in relation to challenging students’ physics connections, I need to recognise that what is happening to the student is a culmination of all their connections, both prior and existing, however weak or strong those connections might be.  As a tutor I am unlikely to know what all those connections are; all I can do is see the outcomes in the students’ understanding and behaviour – but a belief in a connectivist approach means that I cannot see myself as responsible for their understandings – this lies within the network and their connections. My role is to recognise this and contribute to the network connections.

So this has implications for the ‘Ah-Ha’ moment in learning, which I know Jeffery Keefer has blogged about in the past. ( I can’t find the exact post – but here is a related one – ) Can they happen? Yes they can – as can breaking down students’ misconception,   but Ah-Ha moments are not a ‘bolt from the blue’. They are influenced by a myriad of past and present  connections.

I’m wondering if, first, have I finally understood this?  and second – if I have – then why has it taken me so long? And I am still uncertain as to how connectivism offers anything new/different in relation to networked learning.

Collaboration online

Many online courses now require students to collaborate, but we know that just putting people together in the same space isn’t enough? What should a tutor do to prepare students for collaborative tasks?

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides very good guidelines on how to prepare for collaborative tasks online. These are usually designed into Stage 4 of the model after it has been established that everyone has successfully accessed the learning environment (Stage 1), participants are socialising easily and the learning community norms have become apparent (Stage 2) and  information is being freely exchanged and a culture of open sharing exists (Stage 3).

Up to Stage 3 activities centre around helping participants to feel stimulated by and comfortable in the learning environment. Relationships are beginning to be established. Students who are not comfortable with each other and the learning environment will not be able to collaborate effectively, so it is worth spending time on the early stages of accessibility, socialisation and information exchange.

Tutors also need to decide whether the collaborative groups will be self-selected or whether students will be put into groups by the tutor. My personal view on this is that it depends on whether the collaborative group tasks are to be assessed and assessed for what, and whether it is a short course or a longer course. If the task is to be assessed, then if I was a student I would want to be in control of the outcome of that assessment as much as possible and therefore choose my own group. If it is the ability to work in a group that is being assessed then maybe random mixing of students is appropriate.

Nowadays I often work on online non-assessed short post-graduate professional development courses. In these courses there isn’t a lot of time for students to get to know each other, but as a tutor, having done quite a bit of ‘back channelling’ and being able to see the student log in statistics, its fairly easy to create groups made up of a mix of very active participants and lurkers – so that these student characteristics are evenly distributed across groups. Even then a tutor only knows what s/he has been told by the students, so there’s no way of knowing whether a very active student who you are relying on to get a collaborative group going, is, for example,  going to be on holiday or away from the course at the time of the collaborative task, unless that student tells you. So your carefully planned groups can still go awry.

Once the students have started the collaborative task, a tutor can do a lot to help them be successful by making the norms of online group collaboration explicit – so ask the students to inform each other about when they will/will not be online, when they will/will not be able to work on the task, what roles they would each like to volunteer for and so on. Encourage them not to be ‘backward in coming forward’ and not to be shy of taking the lead.

Having worked on online collaborative tasks myself as a student in the past, I know what powerful experiences these can be. It’s surprising how well you get to know each other in these circumstances, even though you are only meeting online and have never met each other face-to-face  – but often these collaborative activities do lead to long-term working relationships.

But I also know from personal experience that group work can be a ‘nightmare’. On my face-to-face Masters degree we had to do a group presentation and I remember having to argue for an educational philosophy to which I was  opposed simply because I was the only person in the group to hold the opposite view (this was about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and the use of rewards) – and everyone else wanted to do a presentation on something I didn’t believe in – so groups do require a lot of compromise.

This raises an interesting question for tutors about whether you would allow a student to opt out of a groupwork assignment and do an individual assignment instead, if they could make a sufficiently persuasive case, or should we insist that all students engage in collaborative group work.

I once heard Stephen Downes – at the 2005 ALT conference, describe collaboration as – “the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up”, which challenges the whole notion of collaborative learning. But then David Jacques and Gilly Salmon’s have published a quite substantial text on Learning in Groups: A Handbook for face-to-face and online environments which really promotes groupwork.

So is it possible to collaborate online – Yes, of course and very definitely. Can tutors prepare students for this – Yes, of course – good teaching doesn’t change just because it’s online. Obviously there are things that you can do face-to-face (like a science field trip to study rock pools on a Northumberland beach) that would not be possible to capture in exactly the same way online, but an awful lot of what we do face-t0-face can now be done online.

The question is not whether we can get students to collaborate online – the question is whether we should. Are we asking them to do something that is worthwhile and that will enhance their learning.  Are we offereing them opportunities that they would otherwise not have? What is it that students can get from collaborative learning that they can’t get from individual learning? What specific challenges does online collaboration bring?

I don’t think there are necessarily any right or wrong answers here. If you want students to collaborate online, then there are tried and tested ways of making this a successful learning experience, but if you don’t then there will be equally effective alternatives that might suit the situation, context and culture better.


There has been some criticism that SD and GS are taking an evangelistic approach to connectivism. I have some sympathy with this. I would like to see more appreciation of the possible pitfalls of connectivism. If people ask me how I approach teaching and learning, I usually say that I favour a social constructivist approach – but that doesn’t mean to say that I never resort to a behaviourist approach or a cognitivist approach. Fitness for purpose seems a good thing to keep in mind.

What’s the unique idea in connectivism

An interesting and helpful presentation by gsiemens.  Key points for me

  • constructivism doesn’t quite fit the bill any more in providing a theory for learning (I’ll have to think about this)
  • connectivism may more accurately describe learning in the 21st century
  • learning can now be thought of as forming new networks. In the past education has viewed knowledge as pieces of a puzzle which have a place. In connectivism, there’s no place, we don’t know what’s going on and we are learning in a complex chaotic environment. This fits with always having told my students that learning is messy
  • learning can be seen as being networked on 3 levels – biological/neurons, conceptual/related ideas, social/human dialogue

So, now knowing this, what would I change in the way in which I currently teach and learn. Don’t know yet.