As we saw earlier, the initial enthusiasm for e-learning led to several pedagogies being resurrected or adopted to meet the new potential of the digital, networked context. Constructivism, problem-based learning, and resource-based learning all saw renewed interest as educators sought to harness the possibility of abundant content and networked learners.
By the late 2000s though, with the advent of greater connectivity, user-generated content, and social media, a number of educators began to explore the possibilities of education in a more networked, connected model that had these new developments as core assumptions. The theory of connectivism, as proposed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2004–2005, could lay claim to being the first Internet-native learning theory. Siemens (2005) defined connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements — not entirely under the control of the individual” (para. 27).
Pinning down exactly what connectivism was could be difficult. Siemens (2005) stressed it was not a pedagogy, but rather could be viewed as a set of principles:
- Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- 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. (para. 30)
Key to the connectivist approach is the belief that knowledge is distributed in a network, and learning is a chaotic process. There is no single, correct set of objects of knowledge whereby education occurs through the transferral of knowledge from educator to learner, but rather knowledge and people are distributed, and it is the process of engagement with these that constitutes learning. It thus can be seen by Siemens (2005) as an attempt to embrace the nature of the Internet, which is characterized by its decentralization, multiple nodes, and changing nature. This is perhaps its most significant contribution — whereas other pedagogies sought to bring order to this chaos, connectivism takes this chaotic nature as a core principle and seeks approaches to navigate through it meaningfully.
What does connectivism look like in practice, then? Kop (2011) noted that it is characterized by four major types of activity: aggregation, in which learners access and curate a wide range of resources; relation, in which learners are encouraged to relate content to their earlier experiences; creation, in which learners are encouraged to create an artifact of their own, such as a blog post, using tools of their choosing; and sharing, in which learners share their work with others in the network.
Perhaps the most informative realization of connectivism was when Downes and Siemens developed their own courses, particularly the presentations of Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in 2008 and 2009 (known as CCK08 and CCK09), which were often attributed as being the first MOOC. These were open courses, in that anyone could study them at no financial cost, but also open in terms of content, direction, and technology. In CCK08 (Downes & Siemens, 2008), the content was distributed, so it was not located in one place but rather found anywhere online, with the “course” being constructed from connections and tools linking the content together. A key component was the use of a diversity of technologies, including Moodle, wiki, Elluminate (a synchronous communication tool), Twitter, Flickr, a central blog, and a daily mailing tool. Learners were encouraged to develop an online identity in blogging tools, such as Blogger or WordPress. This content was automatically aggregated by Downes and Siemens into a central collection. A newsletter was sent to distribute this aggregated content, as well as events and discussions, to learners every day. CCK09 (Downes & Siemens, 2009) followed a similar approach, but as the course guide noted, “What was most interesting about CCK09 is that the students from the previous year returned to the course again, and in many cases took over the teaching of the course” (p. 2).
From this brief description, it is apparent that this course would feel very different for learners than a conventional course. There is far less direction and structure, and there is a strong emphasis on creation and on making connections with each other. For some learners, this was a revelatory experience and they couldn’t imagine studying any other way, but for others it was confusing. Kop (2011) identified three major challenges for learners in such a connectivist course:
- Self-directed learning: Learners have to be autonomous and confident to be able to learn independently, without the formal support structures, and to be comfortable in aggregating, relating, creating, and sharing activities.
- Presence: Connecting with other learners is a key aspect of connectivism, and so it requires learners to have a high degree of online presence. This is both time consuming and may not suit all learners.
- Critical literacies: In order to be able to work effectively in the distributed, technology based connectivist environment, learners need a range of competencies including technical ones, communication skills and the ability to critically assess content they find. (p. 21–23)
I implemented a similar approach on a MOOC some years later and experienced these reactions from students. Some found the approach liberating, others challenging, and some frustrating. One student commented to me that it felt like watching a party inside a house with your face pressed against the window outside. In a social-based course, being unable to find a way to participate, due to one of the challenges that Kop identified, can be an isolating experience.
What was most significant about connectivism was that it represented an attempt to rethink how learning is best realized by taking advantage of the new realities of a digital, networked, and open environment, as opposed to forcing technology into the service of existing practices. This approach has been surprisingly rare since. Dave Cormier, who is recognized as inventing the term “MOOC,” and others have attempted rhizomatic learning that builds on the botanical metaphor of Deleuze and Guattari (1987). The rhizome plant has no defined centre and is constituted of a “number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat” (Cormier, 2008b, para. 3). This offers a metaphor of how knowledge is created in a networked context. As with connectivism, the best way to illustrate this is to consider an open course, Rhizo14, created by Cormier, which focused on exploring the concept of rhizomatic learning itself.
The mantra “the community is the curriculum” underlies much of the approach to this course, with the idea that participants were to generate a good deal of the content and structure it within a loose framework. The course covered six weeks and was framed around a question or challenge each week. After constructing a more traditional course format, Cormier (2014) reworked this to allow for a more participatory structure. He describes it thus:
The topic I chose for week 1 mirrored the opening content I was going to suggest but with no readings offered. I gave the participants “Cheating as Learning” as a topic, a challenge to see the concept of cheating as a way of deconstructing learning, and a five-minute introductory video. (p. 109)
The result was that participants interpreted the question in different ways and had a range of discussions. Although the course technically ended after six weeks, it persisted as a community afterwards. As with the connectivist course, the conversations occurred across a range of tools.
Similar to connectivism, this socially oriented, less structured approach poses challenges for some learners. It again relies on a certain set of critical skills and the ability to navigate a complex space without direction. Mackness and Bell (2015) reported many positive reactions from the participants in Rhizo14, noting a sense of “a spirit of exploration, openness and experimentation” (p. 32). However, they also noted that some learners felt isolated. It is notable that with both the early connectivist and rhizomatic courses, the subject was the pedagogy itself. Thus, any frustrations in the learning process are valuable experiences in understanding how it works, and are, in essence, content related to the core topic. If the topic was something more distant, like statistics for example, then this overhead in negotiating the learning process might be excessive. Cormier (2008a) suggests that rhizomatic learning is particularly applicable to complex domains where there is no definite answer.
These limitations with connectivist and rhizomatic learning do not undermine them as valid approaches. After all, the conventional instructional model doesn’t work well for many learners either, and it has its own set of challenges. As part of an undergraduate degree, we stress competencies such as critical thinking and collaborative working. Exposure to different learning approaches should also be a key component, as learning how to learn post-graduation is an equally important skill. Sanford, Merkel, and Madill (2011) explored how learning amongst video gamers takes a rhizomatic form, making such models more applicable to the learning a student engages with outside the formal education system, even though that system provides them with an opportunity to learn the relevant skills so they can make effective use of them afterwards.
Connectivism was an attempt to make the network nature of the current environment central in learning. I proposed a model that made abundant content the central aspect (Weller, 2011), suggesting that a “pedagogy of abundance” would have the following assumptions:
Content is free — not all content is free and not yet, but increasingly a free version can be located and so an assumption that this will be the default is more likely than one based on paywalls or micropayments.
Content is abundant — the quantity of content is now abundant as a result of easy publishing formats and digitization projects.
Content is varied — content is no longer predominantly text based.
Sharing is easy — through the use of tools such as social bookmarking, tagging, and linking the “cost” of sharing has largely disappeared.
Social based — this may not necessarily entail intensive interaction, filtering, and sharing as a by-product of individual actions constitutes a social approach to learning.
Connections are “light” — as with sharing, it is easy to make and preserve connections within a network since they do not necessitate one-to-one maintenance.
Organization is cheap — Shirky (2008) argues that the “cost” of organizing people has collapsed, which makes informal groupings more likely to occur and often more successful: “By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management, these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort” (p. 21).
Based on a generative system — Zittrain (2006) argues that unpredictability and freedom are essential characteristics of the Internet and the reasons why it has generated so many innovative developments. Any pedagogy would seek to harness some element of this generative capability.
User generated content — related to the above, the ease of content generation will see not only a greater variety of formats for content, but courses being updated and constructed from learner’s own content.
There has been more recent exploration around the concept of “open pedagogy” (Wiley, 2013), particularly as it relates to open textbooks, which will be addressed in later in chapter 20.
In general, though, it feels that the sense of experimentation and exploration that connectivism represented has dried up. Perhaps this is a result, as with the earlier adoption of constructivism, of the possibilities now seeming mundane; it was only when they seemed novel that people noticed any difference to what had gone before. We have stopped noticing the possibilities of networked technology; for example, while connectivism provided the basis for MOOC, these became known as cMOOC, and the approach they eventually adopted in the so-called xMOOC was far removed from this and fairly conservative. Even if it’s not connectivism per se, it is a missed opportunity to continually revisit the impetus to examine the learning possibilities that led to its formulation.