George Siemens, Connectivism

This is part of my reading for the Research Methods Module.

It’s intended as a very rough draft, and one that needs to be thought about further. It’s my thinking out loud – and there are many points weher I may be wrong. It’s the beginning of something, and not the end, as it were. And, as it develops, it will probably become a little softer, gentler, and more nuanced.

It’s a paper on Connectivism, a social learning theory that informs and underpins the theory behiond cMOOCs (Connectivist Moocs). It’s by George Siemens, one of the originators of the cMOOC concept and practice.

cMOOCs are Connectivist MOOCs. MOOCs that emphasise learning throught networking and connecting with other people online. You learn from the community of people you build. But, I’ll post more extensively about that later.

Here’s my take on Siemens:
Siemens, quoting Gonzalez,

“One of the most persuasive factors is the shrinking half-life of knowledge. The “half-life of knowledge” is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). To combat the shrinking half-life of knowledge, organizations have been forced to develop new methods of deploying instruction.”

Siemen’s is quoting Gonzalez  in support of his arguemt that the knowledge landscape has changed – it’s accelerated massively in terms of speed and turnover – and the theories of Behaviourism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism were developed in a time before the rapid affordances of current technology. He implies that, as learning theories ” should be reflective of underlying social environments”, and, without stating it directly, implies that the three big schools don’t reflect changes in technology, and are outmoded by them.

I would have one criticism here. Not all knowledge has a short half life. And not all social mechanisms are subject to change. The frailties of human reason, which methodology is used to counter, are largely what they have always been.

He posits some significant trends in learning,

Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.
◾ Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.
◾ Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.
◾ Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.
◾ The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.
◾ Many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology.
◾ Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).

Let’s take these one by one.

“Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.”

Learner mobility across career is both valid, and pressing. There is increased pressure to continue learning, develop, adapt and add to our learning and skills base throughout our work lives ( in terms of knowledge workers). This is fairly uncontroversial, insofar as we are talking about knowledge economy jobs.

“Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks”

The aspects of informal learning seem to be true – however Siemens presents no evidence that informal learning is, in fact, the major learning medium, nor does he define who “our” are. His assertion may well be correct, but I think this needs some evidence to back it up, and some qualification. And the assertion that formal education is not the major arena for our learning definitely needs evidence.

The conflation of work and learning contexts is popular, and seems, perhaps to be justified. Again, it’s asserted, but with no evidence, references, figures or studies to back it up. It may well be the case, though.

“Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.”

The assertion that technology is rewiring our brains has no basis in fact, emprirical evidence, or neuroscience. It appears to be unfounded, and may well be untrue. We may have different work practices, or additional work and learning practices. But the assertion that our neurobiology is changing is entirely without basis.

Prensky makes the same assertion (and I’m guessing Siemens is reflecting this). Prensky quotes a neuroscuientist, but doesn’t attribute, and, it appears the quote is regarding effect of massive childhood trauma- witnessing murder, experiencing extreme violence etc –  on development, rather than digital fluency. Prensky’s claim must be discounted. As must Siemens’s.

As Aleks Krotoski says “But that’s the rhetoric. Let’s have at the evidence.”

The current state of play in this debate seems to be that: there is zero empirical evidence that our brains are being rewired, there’s some little evidence that what and how we remember things is changing slightly (but in ways it always did – we are tending to remember more where to find information, and not as much what the information is – in the past we might remember which book, or what page or paragraph, or what person to ask or where in our notes, now we remember what website, search term, twitter user, or blog post), and that this tendency is highly reversible. It’s called transactive memory, and it’s well researched. And we’ve been doing it for millenia.

Siemens addresses this in his last point, about know how and know where (he does not address it as a long term, pre internet phenomenon, however).

The remainder of his assertions I’ll leave to the body of the text, as their summary presentations in insufficient for a detailed analysis.

Siemens continues, quoting Driscoll on learning, and learning theories (Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon.) , using the Objectivism/Pragmatism/Interpretivism categorisation deployed there (p14-17)

“Objectivism (similar to behaviorism) states that reality is external and is objective, and knowledge is gained through experiences.
◾ Pragmatism (similar to cognitivism) states that reality is interpreted, and knowledge is negotiated through experience and thinking.
◾ Interpretivism (similar to constructivism) states that reality is internal, and knowledge is constructed.”

and briefky characterises Behaviourism ( quoting Gredler, Gredler, M. E., (2005) Learning and Instruction: Theory into Practice – 5th Edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson Education.)

“1.Observable behaviour is more important than understanding internal activities

2. Behaviour should be focused on simple elements: specific stimuli and responses

3. Learning is about behaviour change”

and alluding to the Black Box idea of Behaviourism.

He quotes Cindy Buell to precis Cognitivism ” “In cognitive theories, knowledge is viewed as symbolic mental constructs in the learner’s mind, and the learning process is the means by which these symbolic representations are committed to memory.” (Buell, C. (undated). Cognitivism. Retrieved December 10, 2004 from )

and about Constructivism he says “Constructivism suggests that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences (Driscoll, 2000, p. 376). “, arguing that Constructivism assesses learning as messy, fuzzy and complex, and approaches learners as constructors of their own knoweldge.

The precis of each offered by Siemens is…hugely incomplete. It’s the most basic summary, taken from an admirable textbook (one I use myself) but hardly a detailed, rooted and extensive analysis. There are no MKO’s in this analysis, no Cognitive Load, no mention of peer approval, praise, or learning outcomes. No mention of Bandura’s Social Learning, Papert’s Constructionism of Piaget. No real attempt to understand the different faces of learning, and the relative appropriateness of otherwise of different theories. No Prior Knowledge, Advance Organisers, or sense of extrinsic or intrinsoc motivation.

It’s a basic, often less than one paragaph introduction to the most general themes, and ideas, in their most rudimentary expression, and it’s incompleteness undermines Siemen’s attempts to undermine them as working, practical theories. Siemne’s discounting must, in turn, be discounted.

In the “Limitations of Behaniorism, Constructivism and Cognitivism section” he adds “They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations”. Etienne Wenger might have something to say here. The idea that learning theories don’t detail how learning happens in organisations is … problematic. Communities of Practice and of Interest would be a good place to start here. Studies on apprenticeship, on shallow and just in time learning would also be appropriate. Behaviourism has acres of pagespace dedicated to industrial and business learning environments.

Siemens poses several questions that he feels conventional learning theories will need to address in order to remain relevant, none of which he himself addresses, or provides evidence for as key questions. However, lets endeavour, insofar as possible, to engage meaningfully with them.

“How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner?”

I’m not sure what the linear manner is. There’s nor real reference to it. Is it a Behaviorist chunked curriculum? Is it Papert’s Constructiuonism. He provides no evidence that knowledge isn’t acquired in “the linear manner”, and no ideas as to what this manner may constitute.

“◾ What adjustments need to made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval). “

There’s some work done (and linked above) on how human memory is being affected by computer usage and the internet, that we are remembering where information is stored, and less what that information is, but in a manner we have always done, but this isn’t exactly what he seems to mean, or is perhaps only part of it. Again, this is vague, and such vagueness is difficult to counter, or even answer. He may be talking about the affordances of new technology in terms of tagging , collating and categorising information, and connecting people to it in forms that are digestible, and their impact on learning theories. Some theorists talk about the internet, and internet artefacts as an MKO. And there’s certainly work and exciting opportunities unfolding here.

If Siemen’s is arguing that some learning activities are taken on by technology, he needs to (and doesn’t) supply an idea of what this learning is, how it operates. Cognitivism, Behaviourism, and Constructivism all supply clear ideas, more or less, as to what they suppose learning to be. Siemens, in his Connectivist manifesto, does not. And that makes it difficult to umpack, with any precision, the detail in his idea of Connectivist learning.

“◾ How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?”

This is, of course, a pressing question. And I do think Siemens has some good, apt, and prescient ideas here. Fostering connections with a distributed network of co-learners is a valuable technique, and digital media are exemplarary at facilitating this.

“◾ How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?”

Ideas about just in time and shallow learning would seem to fit here, and not require radical redrawing of pedagogical ideas and established concepts. Analyses of apprentice type learning paradigms also have a part to play here.

The final three I’ll leave until Siemens discusses them.

“◾ What is the impact of networks and complexity theories on learning?
◾ What is the impact of chaos as a complex pattern recognition process on learning?
◾ With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?”

Siemen’s take on Constructivism seems somewhat simplified. He argues that, even though it may take account of social learning, it still conceives of learning as something which is ultimately individual, and internal.

“.Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is         a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual         (and her/his physical presence – i.e. brain-based) in learning.”

To begin here, it’s not a given that social constructivism (or Behaviourism, or Cognitivism) require an individual’s physical presence in learning – they all have engaged with distributed learning, elearning, mobile learning, and audio/video transmission. If Siemen’s is arguing that some learning is not brain based, then this is a truly revolutionary, and idiosyncratic idea, requiring evidence. As it stands, I find this a somewhat…cryptic.

Siemens continues, arguing that our capacity to sift information becomes increqasingly important when information is abundant, and was less so, or not at all, when information was less so.

I agree in part here – with the wealth of information, from innumerable soirces now easily available, the capacity to sift, sort, and assess has become increasingly important, or, perhaps, a more exercised skill. The manner in which we sift, may not be significantly different, though the media over which we sort and access are. The same fragile biases – confirmation bias, ad hoc and post hoc reasoning, the backfire effect, cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, selective thinking, communal reinforcement etc etc – remain, and must be countered. For true rigor, similar methodologies are necessary, to avoid the common pitfalls of human reasoning. This may vary somewhat from discipline to discipline – the availability of truth in the realms of art and aesthetics, and the availability of truth in clinical trials are in all likelihood subject to radically different constraints, availabilities, and notions.

But for realms where data, empirical evidence, and testing are feasible, good methodology is the key to truth detection.

That we have more data to sift, and more numerous sources to sift from does emphasise the utility of sifting skills, but it does not make them more, or less important.

Siemens makes the case for a Connectivist theory of learning in a technological environment. He states it is characterised by connections, groups of people, and distribution of this sifting mechanism to those groups. It is not possible for us to have all experiences, and so we distribute the experience having to those within our group, and detect patterns, assign value and meaning within those groups, and rely on those connections to sift on our behalf.

In part, Siemen’s approriates a, yet again, simplified idea of chaos theory as a reason for this distribution. This section of the paper is too vague, and ill defined to meaningfully engage with. The engagement with chaos theory is superficial, ill defined, and unfalsifiable.

So, I’ll skip ahead to his principles of Connectivism

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.

  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.

Siemen’s has defined learning as “actionable knowledge”.  He provides no concrete examples of this, making it a difficult idea to engage with.  I would argue appliances are defined in our use of them as tools. A spade contains knowledge – the shape of how it is made related to it’s function, different functions requiring different shapes for increased utility and efficiency, and the final tool shape is a function of intentionaly, action, expertise and experience. The knowledge only becomes actionable in it’s use. Books contain knowledge rendered into actionable knowledge when read.  Technological tools may require less intervention, and their utility and affordances be less transparent, but to argue that they contain learning needs  a more precise and expanded definition and explication than provided here.

  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known

I presume this is related to the idea of the half life of knowledge. Again, this is presented, rather than argued, and decontextualised. I should think an electrician, a medical practitioner, a psychologist, and a host of other pursuits would indicate that a firm grounding in the already known is a prerequisite.

  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.

This certainly aids it. I find the point valuable, useful, demonstrable, and not new, or particular to connectivism. Communities of Practice and Interest are well documented.

  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

I agree, but would argue that this cannot be detached from a capacity for critical thinking. Human pattern recognition is a skill that history has taught us needs tempering with reason, methoidology, and analytical reasoning.

  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist           learning activities.

This is an excellent aim. This is also the first mention of accuracy in the entire paper.

  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

This is problematic. It;s a statement that contains truisms (decision making can be a learnin=g process, and, in fact, several pedagogies depend on this idea – problem based, discovery and project based learning all pivot in some sense on this idea), but is perhaps limited. The lens Siemen’s speaks of is not one lens, but many. The lens of our own expertise, the lens of established and canonical knowledge in some contexts, the lens of out biases and the structures in place to ameliorate them. The lens of past personal experience. The lens of our community of practice, or peers, or project group. And reality may, or may not shift. And paradigm shifts, in many cases, are so epochal as to be beyonf=d the concern of many in their lifetimes. If reality shifts, then this is a lens we must look through, of course. If the climate determining the decision we make changes, we may require a revisiting of the decision. But, again, this is highly deonctextualised. Let’s think about this more carefully. When we are sifting ideas, we can appeal to a variety of resaources to sift. We appeal to authority, or established expertise. We appeal to coonventional and cutting edge knoweldge stores. We appeal to our peers, or managers, or supervisors. We appeal to the formal and informal networks. We appeal t0 our own experience of similar experiences. We appeal to our instict and gut feeling. We appeal to our biases.

Siemen’s seems to be arguing that the sea of knoweldge on which we set sail is constantly shifting, in a dynamic flux. In truth, the majority of what we think of as true tends not to radically alter on a day to day basis. Suns burn, galaxies circle around black holes, relativity plays out in velocity, time, space and gravity. Hearts pump blood, mosquitoes carry malaria, varied diets with lots of fruit and vegetables prolong life, Carbon Dioxide warms the planet, ideology tends to determine views on climate change. Smoking kills. Joyce remains a good writer. The body of established knowledge is, of course, subject to change. But such change requires significant evidence. For extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is required. Reality shifts far less than Siemen’s suggests, and the lens of an established reality is much more the humdrum lens that we find ourselves looking through.

Siemens argues, furthermore, that “Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism do not attempt to address the challenges of organizational knowledge and transference.” I follow about 20 corporate trainers on twitter who would disagree, and use blends of the above theories. This assertion is transparently wrong. Corporate training alone is sufficient to debunk this claim.

“The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of information flow.”

Many constructivists, Behaviourists and Cognitivsts make a living from agreeing with this. Communities of Practice and Interest are built on it. There’s not much here that’s specific to Connectivism, or even leveraged in a new or radically digfferent way.


Furthermore, he quotes Landauer and Dumais (1997) in support of connectivist ideas – ““people have much more knowledge than appears to be present in the information to which they have been exposed”. They provide a connectivist focus in stating “the simple notion that some domains of knowledge contain vast numbers of weak interrelations that, if properly exploited, can greatly amplify learning by a process of inference”. The value of pattern  recognition and connecting our own “small worlds of knowledge” are apparent in the exponential impact provided to our personal learning.” What Siemens fails to mention is that this is a paper on language acquisition, that lays claim to possible application in other areas, but provides no evidence for it. That’s not a failing in the paper, it is a function of the paper’s remit. Siemen’s seems to be taking an hypothesis, untested in the paper he refers to, as fact, and broadly applying it.

The paper suggests it may be accounting for aspects of human learning, in a manner broadly akin to the connectivist model (insofar as it is detailed here), but it’s application beyond linguistics is theoretical, and within linguistics is not unproblematic.

“The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.”

This seems an interesting precis, and is specific enough to engage with. As an architecture,, it seems workable and capable of engagement, and also a desription of networks of sharing that have evolved on social media, for sharing both formal and informal knowledge. There are some new ideas here.

But on balance, there’s not a huge amount that’s not already considered by other theories. It’s invocation of chaos theory, LSA , and neural rewiring are lacking nuance, detail, and, are on some points, plainly unfounded.



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