What is Connectivism Learning Theory? (And How to Use it in the Classroom)


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For the last hundred years, there were a few educational learning theories developed and used in classrooms. The two broad theories are behaviorism and cognitivism. They were fine, still are in many ways. But the digital age has changed things. We need a new theory in town. Enter Connectivism to fill the void.

Connectivism Learning Theory addresses the cultural and economic changes that occurred as a result of technology. Everyone has an overwhelm of information at their fingertips. Learning how to filter it and make connections between disparate learning is the motive behind Connectivism Learning. Teachers need to use technology in the classroom to help students develop these skills.

Do we really need another learning theory?

The way we do business has changed. How we interact with friends, family and the world has changed. Our shopping methods have changed. 

I used to go to the library to do research. And borrow books. Back at home phone calls meant standing in the kitchen near the phone on the wall. Several calls were needed to organize a trip to the mall with a few friends. Conversations had to be short because mom was waiting for a call. 

Looking for a job meant scanning the want ads. Typing and photocopying my resume. And visiting an employment agency. My coworkers stayed at their jobs for 40 years and then retired.

Today researching means “Googling” it.

Job security no longer exists. Workers move up the corporate ladder by changing jobs every couple of years. Or they start their own business. You don’t need to rent an office, hire a receptionist and a secretary. Neither do you have to pay for advertising in the Yellow Pages (does anyone remember the Yellow Pages?).

Technologies have enabled people to share and learn information across the globe. Learning does not only happen within the individual, it’s happening collectively on a mass scale.

All of this progress means that schools need to educate children differently. We’ve known that the industrial model of teaching has been obsolete for decades. Now it’s more crucial than ever to impart the skills needed for success in 21st-century life. 

What is Connectivism Learning Theory?

George Siemens introduced the concept of connectivism in his 2005 article,  Connectivism: Learning as Network Creation. Another psychologist, Stephen Downes published An Introduction to Connective Knowledge the same year.  

Siemens explains that in our digital age learning takes place as a learner reaches out to gain and share information in a learning community. A learning community is a place where similar ideas and interests are shared. Each learning community is a “node” and part of a larger network.

 “Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks that are needed for learners to flourish in a digital era”

Siemens

The first example that comes to mind for me are forums like Reddit and Quora. Knowledge, ideas and opinions are shared on every topic imaginable. A person can be active in one thread and take that knowledge to another. 

The fundamental principles of connectivism are:

Learning grows through a vast array of opinions and perspectives. This is the opposite methodology of online marketers. They feed you similar opinions and products to what you’ve already searched and looked at. The effect can be a society to blinders on.

Learning is more important than retaining facts. This belief holds true across the spectrum of learning theories, from cognitivism through connectivism.

Learning is the ability to see connections between disparate fields and concepts. An example is my explanation above of online marketers. Growing a website (Teachnthrive.com, glad you found me) I read and listen to podcasts about social media marketing. As a 20-year social studies teacher, I study pedagogy. Bringing these 2 very different areas of study together to formulate an idea is an important skill for students moving forward.

Maintaining connections is needed for continual learning. This is another principle that I think has held true throughout time. We are social animals. Our connections to others is how we learn and survive.

Decision-making evolves over time. What we know as individuals and as a society changes over time. This change is happening more and more rapidly in our digital world.

Students are not merely receivers of information. They are also connectors to others and distributors of knowledge.

Many learners in the future will pivot into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their work-life.

In order to succeed in this environment informal learning becomes an important aspect of our learning experience. Formal education is only a stepping stone to lifelong learning. 

After completing 12 or 16 years of formal schooling successful learners will continue to develop and grow their knowledge. Many professionals, including teachers, are required to complete professional development throughout their careers. Online courses have become a $200 billion dollar industry. Podcasts, books and audio books teach us new ideas and skills. Mastermind groups form in many industries to share and grow talents.

Technology is literary rewiring our brains. There are pros and cons to this fact, but it is a fact. Organizations and individuals need to stay abreast of new ideas. But at the same time technology is offloading previously needed skills. Many tasks can now be relegated to computers.

 The need for knowledge management lends itself to connectivity theory to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.

How to Use Connectivism in the classroom.

Similar to Humanist Learning Theory, Connectivism is a learner-centered teaching perspective. It provides opportunities for students to make choices about their learning. Connectivism also promotes discussion among students, allowing for different viewpoints to aid in problem-solving and making sense of information.

Another key component of infusing connectivism in your lessons is the use of technology. Students should have an opportunity to interact with all kinds of digital platforms, from social media to Google sheets.

IDEAS FOR YOUR LESSONS:

It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to tweak lessons, replacing last year’s newspaper project with an updated version. There are tons of apps and websites available for free.

In order to add connectivism to your lessons aim for a few many components. First, add media. Second, include lots of collaboration. Third, practice deciphering the reliability and usefulness  of information so your students can navigate the overwhelm of information available. Here are some ideas.

– Lessons that teach reliability. My students are always giving me “facts” from TikTok. They need to understand that virtually EVERY site is biased and learn how to spot it and some contain complete misinformation. 

Watch a clip from CNN and another on the same topic from Foxs News. Let them discuss with each other the overt and subtle differences in the messages. Do the same with printed articles, quotes, political cartoons, etc.

Have students research several conspiracy theories. Kids love the topic. Then in pairs or groups they can try to find empirical data to prove one of the theories and create a conclusion as to its veracity.

– Encourage students to be aware of their thought processes. Replace old-school graphic organizers with a digital mind map.

Give your kiddos open-ended questions to research in pairs. Let them brainstorm and record the best search queries and compare their results. 

You can also use journaling in any subject. Ask a controversial question on a topic you’re covering or a social emotional query. Example, “If you could give a younger sibling or cousin only one piece of advice what would it be and why?”

– Performance tasks that incorporate both media and content knowledge. 

Assign a common craft video. This is a technique that involves sliding words and simple pictures in and out of the camera video to tell a story. Here’s an example. Students can create in groups of 3 or 4.

Add audio recording to your repertoire. Podcasts are a great source of information; there are now millions on every topic.

Students can make their own audio recordings as well. There are free apps and software available

Replace the tired poster board presentation or newspaper project with a digital newsletter.

Start a class Twitter account. You can use it to give shoutouts to students and remind them of upcoming events and exams.

Conclusion

In order to appreciate the need for connectivism in your classroom just think of the art of teaching and how it’s changed.

When I started teaching 20 years ago none of my classes had SMARTBoards. Students had a few computers in the library. Grades were submitted manually. When I lesson planned it was with a textbook – no Google was available!

Twenty years ago I did not co-teach. Special ed classes were self-contained. I have since had to learn how to differentiate for a wide range of abilities amongst my students. And – sometimes more difficult – adapt to sharing my classroom with another teacher.

Technology and pedagogical paradigms have changed in education. You can be sure that same holds true for any profession your students may enter. 

I truly believe it’s more important to teach our students how to learn and collaborate with others than it is to infuse specific content knowledge. Content knowledge is at their fingertips. Knowing how to think is not.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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