Connected or incomplete?

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1). Retrieved from the Internet on February 1, 2010 at

Let me first admit that I admire the author, that I actually look forward to his daily posts, and that I find eLearnSpace a goldmine. Having admitted my affection and with some trepidation, I must also admit that I continue to have doubts that connectivism qualifies as a new learning theory. I have no doubt that Siemens is onto something in identifying the emergence of digital networks as a major disruption in the way we learn. However, after reading and re-reading this article, I am struck by the feeling that much of what Siemens proposes has been proposed before.

The author’s argument that the accelerated growth of knowledge (actually, I believe it’s an acceleration of information) changes the skills we must develop in students is absolutely correct. We no longer need to require the memorization of dates–students can look those up. What we must teach students is where and how to look up those dates. We must develop in our students the ability to critically evaluate sources; we must teach skepticism. However, Siemens’ argument that informal learning is suddenly important ignores the contributions of Lave and Wenger to communities  of practice. Siemens’ argument that organizations are learning organisms fails to recognize that organizations (formal and institutional) are composed of individuals just as networks are composed of nodes (although a major contribution is the concept that connections, rather than nodes, determines the value of the network). Siemens’ argument that “learning may reside in non-human appliances” confuses knowledge support with learning.

The author briefly (and somewhat superficially) reviews the major three learning theories; while his review seems basically accurate in distinguishing among the three approaches, his contention that all three view knowledge as a “state” stands in stark contrast to the constructivist view of a constantly changing continuum exemplified by Vygotsky’s irregular ZPD. While Siemens’ argues for the increasing importance of our ability to recognize and synthesize connections and patterns, he fails to emphasize the role that our personal networks, our informal community of practice, can play in discerning those patterns and helping us make sense of the world. The author’s introduction of Granovetter’s weak ties and Milgram’s small worlds seems critical, but Siemens fails to draw explicit connections between these experimental results and his connectivist theory. While the author discusses node competition and dominance, he doesn’t integrate data visualization and the mathematics of scale-free networks. This may provide the solution: by drawing on research rather than relying on a description of changes, Siemens may be able to build a new theory of learning from his initial ideas.


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