Connectivism: When is it Appropriate?

Published by Mrs. AD on

(Photo credit: Naomi Epstein)

There is a lot of cross over between the different theories of learning, and even more in the roles an instructor can play in a connectivism classroom. I myself had a hard time distinguishing the differences between them. Perhaps this is because learning is an abstract concept. In the physical world, the difference between a lion, cheetah, and panther are visibly distinguishable. They are all cats, have four legs, and hunt as apex predators of their environments, but are distinct species. When it comes to the differences in learning methodologies there are no spots to look for, no bushy mane to pick out as distinctions. Yet they all focus on two main aspects: the instructor and the learner. I see the distinction in the details each choose to focus on rather than a broad arrangement, which is why at first glance there seems to be very little difference. To summarize this thought, we are still comparing cats to cats, as opposed to comparing cats to monkeys. Once I had this realization I found the concept much more tangible.

(Photo credit: Swedish Nerd)
(Photo credit: The Open University)

If you consider the rate at which humanity progresses in technology, it is no surprise that knowledge and information progress at a similar pace. Gone are the days of specialized job distribution, or are they? Certain vocational industries will always benefit from apprenticeship learning, such as metal crafting or cosmetology. These hands-on vocations require physical interaction with the material and often learners are taught through evaluation of their mistakes. This does mean that you cannot learn skills from interactive media such as videos or blogs, but the craft cannot be mastered until you have practiced it in the field. The difference in the workforce as a whole is that there are far fewer markets that require this kind of physical expertise. In the time of the Greatest Generation, skilled labor was at its peak and many jobs required this type of specialized expertise. Now only one person needs to be the expert that designs the initial piece, then the manual work is taken over by computers and machines. At the same time, those computers and machines need software, parts, repairs, etc., which create different jobs for humans to fill. The diversity of skills has evolved. The new jobs that have been created require learners to continually update their skills as new processes and programs become available. It is these professions that a different approach to learning is most valuable.

It would be impossible for students in the field of computer science to learn only the skills needed for todays computers because they are out of date the moment you purchase them. Here learning the process of self-teaching is much more valuable and the idea of networks of learning is literally integral. However, there are still baseline knowledge that would be most effectively taught through more traditional methods, such as physics or mathematics.

The core curriculum in science and mathematics see little change over decades so their instruction does not require a networked pedagogy. It is in this sense that I have a problem with the idea of connectivism. When you are in a field of consistent change, you need your network to be able to keep up with new ideas and practices. That is not to say that science or math do not see change, science is constantly evolving, but the core principles stay the same. Gravity pulls things to the surface, water boils at 100 Celsius, 2+2=4… the basic foundations do not change. Here I do not see that connectivism can be applied to such fields at a base level. The skills fostered through connectivism are still essential to the profession at higher levels where discovery and innovation are at the forefront. In some areas connectivism could make sense but in others it would be silly. How does a 3rd grader explore multiplication? No amount of curation or networked administration will teach them core scientific concepts. Even at the collegiate level, I would have found self-exploration in Chemistry impossible when it comes to the orbital structure of electrons or balancing equations.

Ultimately, there is no one method or theory of instruction that will cover all aspects of learning, or all learners. Our focus has been on Western ideals of academia, I wonder what theories Japanese scholars have been postulating. The language barrier alone has likely kept most of theories and practices regional. Cultural differences would also factory into the mix. In online learning, particularly in philosophical areas, connectivism will show its strength. Really any pursuit that requires evaluation or interpretation. For other endeavors, a traditional or possibly blended approach would be more appropriate. As educators, I feel it is important to understand the distinction and know when to apply a different method.


3 Comments

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