Landing : Athabascau University

What is connectivism?

In my last two posts on connectivism (here and here) I've alluded to but not made particularly explicit what I think connectivism actually is, even though I have been critiquing and exploring its boundaries. This post is an attempt to fairly briefly list what I think are among its more compelling shared ideas. I will draw substantially from George Siemens's most cited seminal article that has acted as a catalyst and gravitational centre for the idea, though I will also be adding odd bits of interpretation and extrapolation here and there that might not have been in the original and to which others have contributed. If connectivism makes any sense at all then knowledge about it is a networked phenomenon, not an individual invention. This is my bit of personal sense-making as I see it on this particular rainy day, not a definitive account to stand for all time,  not a scholarly article citing its sources, not a theory, not a refutation of any other model of the idea. It is just how I see it this morning. By writing and sharing this I hope to learn more and maybe help others to make their own bit of sense of it. If you have any thoughts, please share them here or elsewhere (where I can reach them on a network) so that we can learn together.


'Connectivism' is a label for a family of related theories and models about learning in a networked age that recognize the implications of the network itself in supporting and playing a central role in such learning. These theories and models consolidate various ideas, facts and theories that relate to networked learning then make predictions and prescriptions as well as imply patterns that are a consequence of them. In more detail...

Given that we agree with most or all of the following (in no particular order):

  • Knowledge is distributed throughout our social and material networks and does not simply reside in our brains. We think with our networks as well as about them, and their emergent and designed patterns as well as their content influence our thinking (strong echoes of socially distributed cognition here, plus activity theory and actor network theory, a bit of complexity theory and a hint of connectionism).
  • The Internet is a massive network full of interesting stuff and people that far transcends what or who any individual could hope to know. It is, however, just the most visible tip of a general trend over many decades towards richer, greater, more networked communication planet-wide (plain common sense).
  • More is different in a networked system, resulting in a) large scale patterns and emergent behaviours not usually seen in smaller systems, and b) linear benefits of scale - a 1% contribution rate in a network of 10 people will be of a lot less value to all the people in that network than 1% contribution rate in a network of a million people  (draws primarily from complexity theory, graph theory and systems thinking).
  • Social systems are complex adaptive systems that can be looked upon as ecologies full of diverse and mutually affecting parts, including ourselves, the objects we interact with and create, our models and theories, as well as larger structures that emerge or are designed within them (draws from complexity and systems theory, evolutionary science, ANT, literature on ecologies, cities, technology, etc).
  • The world as we experience it is evolving more rapidly thanks in part to increased and better-networked knowledge and has been doing so at an exponentially rising rate for at least hundreds of years (draws from various fields, well explained by complexity theory and evolutionary theory but also sociological and historical models of change).
  • Connecting ideas in a public or semi-public social space amplifies them, exposes them to useful critique, increases the adjacent possible for new and better ideas to form, enables greater creativity and depth of thinking (draws on common sense as well as systems theory, theories of collective intelligence, and activity theory).
  • Greater diversity means more opportunities to learn different things, juxtapose ideas, generate new ones, as well as reducing potential for stagnation of knowledge. It also makes things in the long tail matter too, and to have a greater chance to develop as useful niches, extending the adjacent possible (draws from complexity and systems theories as well as psychological theories relating to creativity and sociological models of groups and networks).
  • Creation of artefacts is a crucial means of creating knowledge and understanding (draws  primarily from constructionism).
  • Learning is a process of change and adaptation, about being as much as it is about knowing how or what (draws from broadly constructivist accounts such as those of Bruner).
  • Structure influences behaviour, and to a lesser extent vice versa. Technologies are not neutral, environments shape interactions within them and slowly change as a result of those interactions (draws from evolutionary theory and complex systems theories as well as ideas like social construction of technologies, activity theory and others).
  • People provide meaning, motivation and value as things in and of themselves (draws from motivation theory, humanist philosophies and ideas such as social capital)
  • The complexity of modern societies and our increasingly rapidly changing roles within them mean that we more than ever need to learn how to learn, and keep on learning new things. In terms of employment, there is a visible shift to creative and flexible job roles. We need to understand complex systems behaviour and adapt if we as individuals and, for that matter, we as a species are to survive (common sense as well as a common theme in educational literature, notably in self-directed learning, andragogy, etc).

It follows that (in no particular order):

  • Knowing how to traverse, nurture and build networks matters at least as much as knowing stuff.
  • What we need is ever shifting and contextualized, so knowing what to find right now and where to find it is a key focus.
  • Connection is crucial - at the very least with people, with the artefacts they create, and with and between ideas.
  • We as individuals have an obligation to create, share, aggregate and remix things in order to build more diverse and useful networks. Doing so is itself a learning process in which we are extending and scaffolding our own learning as well as that of others.
  • Open sharing is a basic good (I would argue for a slight refinement of that - isolation and parcellation can improve diversity in the overall system as long as there are sometimes channels to allow knowledge in and out and isolated cliques do not persist in their isolation)
  • Our goal should be one of sense-making and wayfinding, both for ourselves and others.
  • Diversity and plurality of views should be cherished and valorized.
  • Emergent patterns should be sought, nurtured and utilized to improve learning.
  • Adaptability is a basic need, both at an individual and a broader community level.
  • A pluralistic account means that we need to learn to hold many contradictory things as at once true and not true, and to make sense of them as needed in our ever changing contexts.
  • Formal education is typically a bit limiting, over-prescriptive and goal-focused, and fails to take advantage of the richer and differently structured learning space afforded by the Internet and mobile networks.

This further suggests some broad design patterns, principles and goals for nurturing better learning (in no particular order):

  • Communication should be ubiquitous and embedded, from a micro to a macro scale.
  • Distributed systems encourage and support diversity and therefore learning. Small pieces, loosely joined in a network, are more resilient, more adaptable, and more capable of evolution than large chunks. Evolution is a good thing.
  • Structured group patterns should be supplemented by less structured network patterns, in order to nurture and stimulate creativity and adaptability.
  • We need to get pretty good at the skills of communicating effectively with others, online and not.
  • It is a good idea to play with tools and systems that connect us with others and extend our capacity to use our networks and let others benefit from our knowledge.
  • Centralized and especially closed systems tend to be more restrictive and harmful to networks the bigger they get, though they may and often do have value as incubators at a smaller scale and may provide islands of stability or scaffolds at a larger scale that can positively affect the dynamics of the overall system, so should not be summarily discounted. It's complex.
  • Control should be and, in a distributed networked space, almost certainly will be in the hands of learners, not a central authority. This includes control of engagement, pace, toolset, medium, content, process, privacy, occasion and pedagogy.
  • We need tools that extend our capacity to make sense of the massive influx of information provided by our networks, as well as to see larger-scale patterns within them (with the proviso that we need to recognize the risks and limitations of such tools, especially in shaping our knowledge, because positive and negative feedback loops can polarize ideas or filter out ones that might matter).
  • We should actively seek the edge of chaos, neither too chaotic nor too ordered, because that is where progress, adaptation and evolution occurs.
  • Top-down design may not always be needed. Where it is needed, design should be responsive, closer to gardening than engineering, exploratory more than prescriptive. 
  • Feedback loops are essential -  as well as individual interactions, close attention should be paid to emergent behaviours and systems/we should adapt accordingly.
  • Learning goals and outcomes are at the very least negotiable, should be adapted to individual needs, and capable of changing on the fly.
  • Catalysis is at least as valuable as intentional process design.


There are of course countless other things at different scales, right down to social UX design and up to political and legislative changes, that matter here, and I think there are plenty of other things that matter which fall somewhat outside the scope of the theory (including a goodly part of my own work) or that I have simply forgotten to mention, but I said I would keep it brief this time! 

Jon Dron

Jon Dron

still learning, never learning enough
About me

I am a full professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment in the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at...