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. (

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 –

Kop, R. & Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past?

Verhagen, P. (2006) Connectivism: A new learning theory?

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.

#PLENK2010 The relevance of learning theories

I was interested to see what George would come up with re the relationship between learning theories and PLE/PLNs. The Moodle discussion forums have been much quieter – but perhaps this is because it is Week 4 of the course. Dave Cormier has posted somewhere – I think – that this is a hard week in a MOOC – probably made even harder by the subject of learning theories  🙂

I wouldn’t claim to know a lot about learning theories and certainly not all the learning theories that George mentioned, but I do know that they have strongly influenced my life as a teacher. For me, learning theories inform the way I teach. They are perspectives that I take according to the context/situation I find myself in;  I use them to inform my teaching according to my own and my learners’ needs. So for example:

I find myself usually opposed to behaviourism, e.g. I do not want my learners to ‘jump through hoops’. I do not want them to think only about the qualification, but to learn for its own sake. On the other hand I am realistic enough to know that their qualifications are important and that they need them – also I know that whilst I might do everything to encourage intrinsic motivation, they also need extrinsic motivation – particularly young children, who love those gold stars, but also adults who respond to those motivational strokes. With enough ‘rewards’, we can encourage even the most reluctant learners to reach their/our goal and they and we are satisfied and happy.

However, there are many occasions when I not only want my learners to simply achieve a given outcome, but also to think about how they have arrived at the outcome. An example would be to ask children to explain how they arrived at a given answer to a mathematical problem/calculation. I have always found this fascinating – if you ask a number of different children to explain how they each arrived at the solution to a given calculation/problem, they are all likely to have come to the answer differently. This cognitivist approach also helps children who get the answer wrong – as they begin to examine their own thinking.

As a science teacher (in the past) I was always interested in the constructivist approach to teaching and learning. This approach, for me, acknowledged that learners have prior experiences which influence how they think about new learning experiences. In the case of misconceptions, which are extremely prevalent in science education, learners need to deconstruct their misconceptions and reconstruct their thinking in the light of their new learning. In science teaching this usually involves a practical activity in which learners’ misconceptions are physically/mentally challenged by the evidence before them. For example, if a learner sees a metal ball and a polystyrene ball of the same shape and volume, dropped from the same height, reach the ground at the same time, then their misconception that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects is challenged.

Behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivist approaches can all be used with individual learners. They apply to the individual’s behaviour or individual learning. But in all my teaching there has very often (but not exclusively) been an acknowledgement that people learn from each other. This has involved learners in communities of practice, group activities and collaborative learning and has been context dependent. These social contructivist approaches engage the learner in development of knowledge and personal identity as they grow as much through their relationships with others as they do through engagement with the concepts being taught/learned. As George said today in his presentation – Week 4: George Siemens – Complex Knowledge & PLE/Ns – learning is socially negotiated and developed.

So where does this leave connectivism? Again according to George – in his presentation today, connectivism is driven by network formation – growing and pruning connections. The spectrum of learning from a connectivist view involves resonance, synchronicity, wayfinding, amplification, learning/knowledge symmetry. A while back I wrote another blog post about connectivism as a learning theory – in preparation for the Networked Learning Conference and in an attempt to understand connectivism as a learning theory and how it be useful from a teaching perspective.

According to George a theory of learning should

  • Explain what’s happening
  • Predict what could happen
  • Be a foundation for action
  • Be a foundation for preparing for future needs

All the theories mentioned above seem to fulfil these requirements, including connectivism. They all seem to be useful for providing differing perspectives according to specific contexts. I definitely wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,  just because connectivism, PLEs and PLNs have come along.

Some notes on connectivism

In preparation for the Networked Learning Conference 2010 presentation, I considered the question, ‘Is connectivism a theory’? This was discussed in depth in CCK08 and I seem to remember the discussion becoming increasingly convoluted with no decisions being made. The jury is still out on this question.

For me, the following notes, pulled together from George and Stephen’s blogs and writings – elearnspace , connectivism , halfanhour,  and OLDaily list the points that I need to know and want to remember. There is  a lot more to it than this  and I see these notes as a simple aide-memoire for some of the key ideas.



Connectivism is essentially the assertion that knowledge is networked and distributed and the act of learning is the creation and navigation of networks.


George claims it is a theory on the basis of 5 criteria for deciding whether something is a theory –

  1. How does learning occur?
  2. What factors influence learning?
  3. What is the role of memory?
  4. How does transfer occur?
  5. What types of learning are best explained by this theory?

George has compared connectivism to Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. Connectivism builds on these theories. He and Stephen write about connectivism as follows:

Connectivism recognises that:

  • Learning is distributed across a network
  • Leaning is a network phenomenon, influenced and aided by socialisation and technology
  • Learning is socially and technologically enhanced
  • Learning involves recognising and interpreting patterns
  • Learning is influenced by diversity, strength of ties and context of occurrence
  • Knowledge growth exceeds our ability to cope; quantity and complexity of information available is overwhelming
  • Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today
  • Learning is the act of recognising patterns shaped by complex networks (internally as neural networks and externally as social networks
  • Essentially our need to derive and express meaning, gain and share knowledge, requires externalisation

Stephen has written about connectivism as follows:

  • ‘Knowledge is distributed across a network of connections’
  • ”To learn is acquire certain patterns’
  • ‘Learning is the ability to construct and traverse connections’

Connectivism also:

  • accounts for continual expansion and creation of knowledge which existing theories do not
  • emphasises the primacy of connection;  all learning starts with a connection;  we need to understand how and why connections are formed

Critiques of connectivism have been that it is

  • unsubstantiated philosophising
  • unnecessary

Matthias has an interesting perspective on this. If I have interpreted him correctly he believes that – it is not useful to think of connectivism in terms of theory – it is too complex and better thought of in terms of relationships – not what it is, but how it is related to/connected to. Traditional criteria for defining a theory are too narrow. See his blog post made during CCK08 – My take on Connectivism – and other posts in his blog

Is this course chaotic or complex?

George has a great way of making what could be very confusing, easier to understand. He also manages to do this with concise papers. His Complexity, Chaos and Emergence paper is an example of this.

There is also an interesting post on  Patrick McAndrew’s Padded Thoughts blog about chaos in relation to learning.

George has posted two questions in the Moodle Forum this week

  1. In what way is learning chaotic?
  2. In what way is learning complex?

He defines chaotic learning as learning that happens within a bounded and predictable frame. So if we think about teaching physics, for example – we know what is the curriculum and we know that the expected outcome is that people will, by the end of the course, have learned the content of the curriculum. But we cannot predict how people will learn this curriculum. So we know the big picture of the curriculum, but the learning processes that go on within the curriculum are unpredictable and chaotic.

In complex learning there is no agreement about what the big picture is. There might be several views of it, but no consensus. So in the case of the physics course, there is no agreed curriculum and no agreed outcomes. There can be many surprises and examples of emergent learning. However, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be an ordered investigation into the area of knowledge being studied.

Is this course chaotic or complex? I would say it is more complex than chaotic. We are not sure where we are going to end up, but we have a semi-organised way of discussing the content.

Taking stock

My understanding is that by ‘connectivism’ we mean that knowledge is distributed across a network and that learning is the ability to access that knowledge through navigating the connections in the network. I think that’s the essence of it.

This assumes that we know what knowledge means, which is in doubt judging by the forum discussions. I can see that there is information in the network. It only becomes knowledge for me when I can make sense of it. That whole discussion in the Moodle forums around externalisation left me floundering.

Is connectivism a new learning theory? To answer this we need to agree what we mean by learning theory. From the 78 posts in the Moodle forum it appears that this is also a difficult task and there is little agreement. Personally I like the explanation provided by Stephen Hawking and quoted on Wikipedia but this relates to science so I’m not sure how helpful it is in relation to connectivism? I think connectivism provides a framework in which to think about learning, but whether this makes it a theory or not I wouldn’t like to say.

In addition I couldn’t possibly say whether connectivism is  a ‘new’  learning theory without knowing a lot more about existing learning theories and it seems to me that that could be a life-time’s work. I think you could say it’s a new perspective on learning – but does that make it a theory? So – all in all –  yes – the concept of theory may be distracting (to answer the assignment question , which incidentally I am not doing).

What are the strengths? Does connectivism resonate with your learning experiences? If so, how?


As a practical way of working/ learning, connectivism clearly makes sense in many ways. Technology is developing fast and the world is becoming a ‘smaller’ place. It’s quick and easy to connect with people from all over the world – although we shouldn’t assume that this is the case everywhere, see Frances Bell’s post (See- Re: What happened to you in the history of the social web? – Saturday, 4 October 2008, 08:54 AM) in the Moodle forum and Maru’s post on her blog. For those who do have access to the web, there is a whole world of information to tap into. The skill needed is in knowing how to do this, how to select the information we need and how to assimilate the information. I know that I can ‘google’ any information I need. I know I can also access networks for any information I need. However, accessing information doesn’t equal learning.


What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?


I can’t comment on weaknesses, but I can comment on where connectivism doesn’t resonate with my learning experience – and that is in personal contact. On this course I have made an attempt to ‘connect’. I skim read the Moodle forums – but I  ‘feel’ little connection there, either with the ideas being discussed or with the people. I read a number of blogs, and whilst many posts resonate with my own experience, I have only made very loose connections with people who have either commented on my blog or where I have commented. Connecting through blogs is a slow and laborious business. Blogs were not designed for this. Where I feel more connected is in the synchronous Elluminate and Ustream sessions. There I get some sense of who is on this course and I think that I learn most through these sessions. I can connect more easily with the ideas. But this is the most traditional aspect of the course in terms of teaching and learning, i.e. ‘the lecture’ for ‘the group’. So what does that say about learning in networks, or to qualify – ‘my’ learning in networks?


So is connectivism any more than a by-product of advancing technologies? To me it is obvious that there is just too much information accessible by too many to continue with an education system which relies on ‘the teacher’ to be the source of knowledge. The role of the teacher will have to change and is already changing in many cases – but to what? And if there continues to be a role for teachers, then since teacher and learner are linked, the role of the learner will also change. The inverse will also be the case in that changing learners will necessitate changing teaching. So my outstanding questions are around this relationship.

So, what have been the key learning points for me so far:

1. It is possible to have an open access course for 2000+ participants, provided you have one or more people to manage the technology

2. That Blogs are not good for conversation (I only didn’t know this because I have never tried it before – it never occurred to me that anyone would want to do this. In the past, I have always used blogs for personal reflection.)

3. That forums are subject to ‘trolls’ (I realise that I have been very fortunate in my prior online learning not to have experience of this)

4. That networks don’t support the affective elements of learning (this is obvious, but I have not been involved in any networks before)

5. That for me, the affective elements of learning are very important

6. When the Moodle server is down you can’t find the links for your post!

7. That it’s possible to spend a lot of time not getting very far despite having made efforts to connect! 🙂


Emotion and networked learning

There is a lot of research (from John Dewey onwards and probably even before) about the relationship between emotion and learning. The centrality of emotion to the process of learning is recognised. So it’s not surprising that so much emotion is evident in this course. What is surprising for me is the intensity of the emotion, far higher than I have ever experienced online before, and the amount of negative emotion – again much more than I have experienced before. I think there could be an interesting research study on the role of emotion in relation to learning in this course/network and why such intense emotions have been elicited.

Like some others I have been reading and watching activity in the forums. Keith Lyons has a great post on his blog – swimming with dolphins, sharks and dead people is such a good metaphor for what’s going on. The trouble is that when you’re all in the water together, its the sharks that you keep your eye on, because despite Stephen’s reassurance that blogs provide calmer, safer waters for swimming in, the sharks do make occasional forays into the blogs, where they can do a ‘hit and run’ more easily than in the forums.

To be honest, I haven’t been aware of many dolphins. It all feels very intense, both in the forums and in the blogs. Where are the laughs? I did mention in a previous post that I thought a ‘Help’ forum might be useful for the ‘technologically challenged’. Maybe we also need a ‘Cafe’ – a purely social space or something equivalent. But I suspect that a ‘Cafe’ or even a ‘Help’ forum is more of a course component than a network component.

This thinking about emotion and learning was prompted by Ailsa’s post. One of her sentences brought me up sharp – ‘Staying silent with bullies, condones the activity.’  From my teaching days I know how hard it is to deal with bullies – a veritable minefield. For a start it’s difficult to define ‘bullying’ – but given that I have been thinking a lot about issues such as Netiquette in relation to this course, Ailsa’s post made me think again about the responsibilities we have to each other in a learning network. Do we have any? Can this be overlooked in a network? It is certainly not normally overlooked in a course or in a community, where the role of emotion in learning and the relationship between learning and emotion and how they shape each other is acknowledged and resulting issues addressed.

My feeling is that it’s in these sorts of issues that connectivism differs from other theories of learning, but I need to do much more reading and thinking before I can articulate this clearly.

The purpose of the forest

I’m still trying to get my head around what it is about connectivism as a learning theory that is different. Can’t put my finger on it, but something seems to be missing. I think its something to do with the status of people as individuals in the learning process and to do with learning as a social process that happens between people as individuals – and probably also something to do with identity (identity of the individual and of the network).

Stephen really likes the forest metaphor. He likes to see the network as a whole and doesn’t think that any individual tree within the forest has individual significance. Learning is a property of networks rather than something you get from networks. Stephen is interested in how networks as a whole learn.

George on the other hand sees learning as coming through a network and sees the individual trees. He sees the connections between individuals as being more significant than the whole.

I may have completely misunderstood this (despite listening to the Ustream session twice ;-)) – in which case apologies to GS and SD.  But whether or not we view learning from the perspective of the forest as a whole or from the perspective of individual trees within the forest seems to me immaterial if we haven’t identified a purpose for the learning. So asking the question what is the purpose of the forest – we could get the answers – to provide oxgen, or a wood supply, or a picnic area, or to prevent soil erosion etc? Determing the purpose will determine the learning itself, whether it be at neuronal, conceptual or social levels – and whether it be for the forest as a whole or for individual trees.

There has to be some ‘meaning’ in all this.  I don’t think I’ll get my head round this until I have more idea about how a learning theory of connectivism might be applied in practice. At the moment it’s all too abstract.

This is a thinking aloud post!