Argument against connectivism as learning theory


While the assertion that the world is more "connected" now than ever before is beyond dispute, George Siemens' connectivist learning theory is anything but. Siemens' theory argues that learning exists in a networked system, the more nodes and bigger the pipes of the network, the more learning has taken place. Siemens puts forth this theory because he found the older learning theory models inadequate in the age of technology. However, critics have described the theory as being internally confusing, more pedagogical in approach than actual learning theory, and too reliant on an idea that learning exists in non-human structures. Below are listed some of the researchers who have critiqued the theory along these lines.

Plon Verhagen

According to Verhagen, the Connectivism Theory has numerous confusing parts that make it seem weak. Plon Verhagen's article criticizes connectivism as a new learning theory and reorganizes George Siemen's 8 connectivism principles into 4 categories.

Category 1 includes principles 1, 5, and 7

These statements are not new learning theories, but instructional strategies. By exposing learners to more sources of knowledge, they will learn more. This is not new at all. To be a good researcher or teacher multiple resouces should be accessed. This sound rule of thumb has been around for quite some time.

Category 2 includes principles 2 and 8

This is once again a scaffolding strategy or idea that what we are teaching should be built upon, or inter-related. This has been an idea held for years. It is not a new way to learn. Good teachers access prior knowledge, build upon it, and then repeat this process. New ideas should be built into the students' existing schema and related to as many different concepts as possible. Teachers have been working on cross-curricular themes for quite some time too. Once again we have many good ideas, but no new learning theory.

Category 3 includes principles 4 and 6

These once again are not a theories on learning, but an opinion about teaching. By saying that capacity to know is more important that what is known, we aren't introducing anything new. We are saying that the journey is more important than the destination.

Learning may reside in non-human appliances.

Georges Siemens stated that he believes that learning may reside in non-human appliances. (This statement can be found under priniple 3 of networked learning which is a subset of connectivism.) Mr. Siemens does a wonderful job of comparing humans and machines. He creates many useful analogies. He takes it too far when he says non-human appliances can learn. Appliances and machines do what they are told. Vehicles do not learn to turn left when the steering wheel is turned to the left. The vehicle turns left because I told it to. That is the way machines work. They do what they are told to. There is much more to learning than reacting to a command.
Learning involves thinking. Thinking involves the stimulation of neurons. Neurons are not present in appliances. Appliances perceive what we allow them to. They gather the data that we allow them to. Appliances may process information, but just the information we tell them to. Without humans, artificial intelligence would not even exist. To say that non-human appliances can learn, is like saying a shovel can dig a hole.

Additional Criticism of Connectivism Being a New Learning Theory
• Bill Kerr
In a lecture/discussion at an online conference, Bill Kerr explained why connectivism is not a new learning theory. Kerr's wikipage with a slideshow, mp3 audio file and verbatim notes details his beliefs regarding this topic. In one of his blog posts he states that the old theories still fit.

Kerr takes special exception to the notion that there is somehow "learning in the network" that can exist outside of our head: "George seems to be falling into a trap, becoming so enamoured with the power of the network, to the point of denying the importance of the individual and the learning that occurs inside "our heads". These thoughts of mine were gathered from various sources, synthesised in my head and then put onto the network."

Kerr also feels he is too dismissive of the older models in that "they too relied on technology". In his post "Pipe More Important Than Contents", he agrees with the assertion that we shouldn't be focused on the content knowledge as much as we should on the method for getting it there, but that doesn't differ from constructivism.

• Connectivism = Constructivism
Kerr isn't alone. It could also be argued that connectivism is an extension on constructivism because students are essentially empowered to construct their own knowledge from creating their own networks. According to the website funderstanding, the definition of constructivism is as follows:

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.

In the Web 2.0 world students live in today, their experiences do already consist of interacting and connecting with others to create networks. Choosing whom they interact with and what technologies they employ to do so seems to fall under making their own rules and adjusting their mental models to accommodate the new experiences they share.

• Rovy Branon
Rovy, a proponent of a theory he calls "situativity", likewise takes issue with Siemens' semantics. He argues "It might be more appropriate to call this a theory of information management, or knowledge management rather than a learning theory. Learning theories describe how learning occurs but not how learning is facilitated."

Branon goes on to debate the notion of intelligence residing in non-human structures, but leaves open the possibility for future iterations of AI to change that.

• Connectivism = Irrelevant
And, the blogger Paul Justice serves as a succinct example of how many educators find the theory, that of a big bunch of high-brow words by a theorist who is only concerned about putting out a big bunch of high-brow words, not actually helping education.

Connectivism - Beneficial for Students?
According to Stephen Downes, "in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge."

Besides simply academics, an exorbitant use of the computer, more specifically via connectivism, greatly impacts physical and social developments. Too much time is spent on the computer and students are "missing out" on some of the essential activities needed for the rest of thier lives.


Connecting the Dots?
As great as Connectivism is presented by supporters, it fails to answer a few major questions.
  1. How do we monitor what students are learning?
  2. How do we measure what is learned?
  3. Is there a blueprint for effectively implementing Connectivism into my curriculum?