IRRODL (the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) has just published a very special issue focused on connectivism.

Connectivism claims to be a powerful new learning theory that exploits the power of networks and networking to support learning. The term was first coined in 2004 by George Siemens (Athabasca University), who along with Grainne Conole (Open University, UK) is the guest editor of this issue. To the editors’ knowledge this is the first full peer-reviewed journal issue focused on connectivist ideas, ideals, practices, and criticism.

The nine articles in this issue were winnowed from a much larger set of submissions to provide both supportive and critical commentary and research results.

From the editorial:

this special issue of IRRODL presents a somewhat confusing landscape. Some themes are emerging around the relationship of connectivism to existing theories of learning and social interaction (communities of practice, actor-network theory, and activity theory being most prominent). Critiques of connectivism also reveal themes: the need for ongoing research, the suitability of existing theories in answering the questions that connectivism attempts to address, and the status of connectivism as a theory of learning….It seems futile to debate the merits of connectivism versus behaviourism, cognivitism, or constructivism. Instead, several questions arise. Which theory best maps to the reality of a particular subject content? Which theory most effectively embraces the ‘adjacent possible’ of our technologically based society? Which theory best meets current and future learning needs of learners?

Personal comments

I have to say that I have struggled for some time both to understand exactly what is the theory of connectivism, other than the importance of online social networks for learning, which I agree with but don’t find particularly helpful in pragmatic terms, and I’ve also struggled to understand the extent to which learning actually takes place within a connectivist framework. In other words, I have been looking for a more coherent theoretical framework, and some empirical evidence to support the theory. In an unstructured way that is a feature of connectivism, this edition of the journal goes a long way to providing what I have been looking for. However, it is clear that I need a community of practice to help me pull all this together!

I found the article by Rita Kop to be particularly helpful. She provides a concise definition of connectivism:

Connectivists advocate a learning organization whereby there is not a body of knowledge to be transferred from educator to learner and where learning does not take place in a single environment; instead, it is distributed across the Web, and people’s engagement with it constitutes learning.

and draws attention to three potential limitations in its application:

  1. the need for critical literacies and the power relations on the network;
  2. the level of learner autonomy;
  3. the level of presence.

She argues that These [limitations] can all be overcome by what has in traditional formal educational practice been seen as crucial to teaching and learning: social interaction.

Her article and several of the others then demonstrate how social interaction, in a variety of ways, can provide the ‘essentials’ for learning through informal networks.

The articles collectively also demonstrated the permeability of learning through both formal and informal learning structures. For the individual learner, these barriers or distinctions don’t make a lot of sense – they will often need both forms of learning.

There is too much in this edition for me to summarise – this is a case where you need to read every article to build up a more coherent picture of connectivism, and as I said it’s like a rich meal – I’m still struggling to digest a lot of it.

However, my final impression is that arguments over which is the most effective form of online learning, formal learning through structured courses, or informal learning through non-heirarchical social networks, are pointless. Informal learning has always been important, and the Internet immensely strengthens the opportunities and range of informal learning. At the same time, as Rita Kop makes clear, the conditions for effective learning through informal networks are quite demanding and will often not be present. Formal learning can (if properly designed) offer opportunities for learning that may not possible in many contexts through informal learning. In a sense, there is much to be learned from both approaches to learning. It is the context that will determine which is the most appropriate for a particular individual at a particular time, and learning will not be neatly separated by these boundaries.

This is one of the most important editions of IRRODL, and although the reading isn’t always easy, I strongly recommend the edition for anyone who wishes to understand the future development of online learning.

Table of Contents

George Siemens, Grainne Conole

Research Articles

Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning
Julie Mackey, Terry Evans

The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: Learning experiences during a massive open online course
Rita Kop

Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0
Roy Williams, Regina Karousou, Jenny Mackness

EduCamp Colombia: Social networked learning for teacher training
Diego Ernesto Leal Fonseca

Three generations of distance education pedagogy
Terry Anderson, Jon Dron

Connectivism: Its place in theory-informed research and innovation in technology-enabled learning
Frances Bell

Frameworks for understanding the nature of interactions, networking, and community in a social networking site for academic practice
Grainne Conole, Rebecca Galley, Juliette Culver

Dialogue and connectivism: A new approach to understanding and promoting dialogue-rich networked learning
Andrew Ravenscroft

Proposing an integrated research framework for connectivism: Utilising theoretical synergies
Bopelo Boitshwarelo


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