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Words about words: 'connectivist' and 'connectivism'


For those that are catching up, this post is part of an ongoing discussion between, mainly, Stephen Downes and I that started with Downes's summary of connectivism as a learning theory. My follow-up post to this was an attempt to make sense of what he meant, concluding that connectivism is not a distinct theory of learning so much as a theory of how to learn in a network context, and is very valuable because rather than despite of its fuzziness. This resulted in a lengthy and somewhat aggressive response from Downes that appeared to me to mostly evade the issues I raised, to which I gave a similarly lengthy (and, OK, a bit irked) reply, again concluding that the value of the theory is not as a rigorous theory of learning but as a catalytic centre for many related ideas. Downes responded with four posts, each attacking a particular issue, three of which were based on a major misunderstanding of my (very bog-standard) definition of 'systems', addressing systems, evolution and complex adaptive systems in turn, and one of which addressed the central point of my argument. Meanwhile, I posted a rough attempt to clarify the shared values that those writing about connectivism appear to share. I then gave a brief response to Downes's four arguments, concentrating on the main point that connectivism (as the theory itself implies) does not belong one or two people, and has evolved to mean something broader, fuzzier, yet more useful than Downes's version of it. Downes has now responded to that and this is where we are now.

Confusion about words

In his latest post, my previous claim that Downes tends to focus his arguments on individual sentences divorced from their context and even, sometimes, single words is (ironically given the point he is trying to make) brought into sharp relief by his assertion that I changed my definition of 'systems' between my previous two posts on the subject (first here and then here, if it interests you). I have re-read my earlier posts to try to find where he gets the impression that my account in the second is in any way contradictory to or talking about something different than the first, but am still at a total loss to see it. I can only assume that Downes was quite literally looking at single sentences divorced from context, and that he then invented a whole new context to fit them. This is a good example of the fundamental weakness in his preferred approach to argument that I have previously criticized. In fairness to Downes, perhaps I made too many assumptions in my earlier post that my audience would know the areas of systems thinking that I was drawing from. My post did not fit Downes's narrow teleological view of systems, despite the fact that the examples I gave were clearly nothing of the kind (apart from the thermostat, perhaps, but that was a deliberate ad absurdum example to draw attention to what we mean by learning). That's why whole arguments are important, not individual words or sentences.

A little empirical evidence

The rest of Downes's recent post does not make substantial further arguments beyond those already made, apart from to very correctly observe that I did not provide any empirical evidence of my claim about the shifting meanings and variable application of the term 'connectivism' in literature and practice. Fair point. I will only skim the surface here due to lack of time but, by way of example, I encourage readers to check out the papers of the special issue of IRRODL on connectivism that, I think, demonstrate my point pretty clearly. Ignoring the paper on the subject that Terry Anderson and I wrote which is arguably closer to Downes's interpretation than most, in these papers you will find critique of connectivism as a theory (Bell, Ravenscroft, Boitshwarelo), views of connectivism as aligned with communities of practice (Mackey & Evans, Kop, Williams et al, Conole et al, Boitshwarelo), distributed cognition (Conole et al),  social presence (Kop), ecosystems, emergence & complexity theory (Williams et al), motivation theory (Kop), actor-network theory ((Bell, Conole et al), communities of inquiry (Conole et al), networked learning (Bell, Conole et al) activity theory (Bell, Conole et al, Boitshwarelo), social constructivism (Ravenscroft), andragogy (Kop) plus a whole lot more. This is just a convenient snapshot sample of papers on the subject - do search for 'connectivism' using Google Scholar to find plentiful further examples. I went through the first half dozen pages of results to get a sense of this from abstracts, recognizing papers I have read, and skimming the papers I had not. 'Fuzzy' interpretations outnumber those that apply Downes's perspective by an enormous margin. In fact, apart from Downes's own papers and, to a lesser extent, one or two of those by George Siemens, you will find markedly few that rely upon connectivism as a learning theory, apart from to argue that it is no such thing or that the concept is flawed. A very large number simply apply it as a theory of how to learn, and a vast majority make use of parts of it but appeal to and/or map it to other related theories of the kind I have already mentioned in this and earlier posts.

Downes appears to think that the popularity of the idea is down to his rigorous pursuit of a learning theory. Given the very diverse interpretations in the papers on the subject, this seems unlikely. More likely it is successful because he, George Siemens and others have used it as a launchpad to present and implement some really very good ideas about how to learn that share a common attitude, context and perspective, that resonate well with what we have seen and experienced as the Web and related network technologies have matured, and that provides an attractor to bind a lot of related ideas that many people have been having for some time. This is excellent work that I and many others have found immensely useful. And it is something that is strengthened, not weakened, by slightly fuzzy formulation.

Connectivist vs Connectivism

I appreciate and value Downes's contributions to the field and, contrary to his claims that I have not read his work, I have read a lot of what he has written even if still, despite my best efforts, failing to yet make it to the end of the 600+ meandering pages of his compiled book on the subject (especially problematic as the epub version has some rendering problems on my devices that make some paragraphs invisible and I am not willing to kill a tree or compromise my own health to read it). Downes frequently has great ideas and penetrating insights, and enormous passion and energy that lights up the field in many directions. I must re-emphasize that what I am trying to get to here is not a demolition of Downes's theory and is not a personal attack on Downes. I have come up with many theories myself that are far less well considered and I see all as learning steps, not definitive answers; and I like the man. What I am seeking here, and was seeking in my first post, is shared understanding of what we, as a set of people with shared interests in learning in the digital age, mean when we use the term 'connectivism' and where its true value to that community of interest lies.

I have no objection at all to Downes describing his theory as a connectivist theory of learning, as opposed to connectivism itself. He does not have to accept or condone any others to take that position and, in fact, it is a great opportunity to point out their differences and weaknesses. I welcome the argument that a connectivist way of thinking demands a connectivist theory of learning to match, even though I would still make much the same critique of this particular variant's weaknesses. But it is mistaken of Downes to dismiss the rest of what has been done in the name of connectivism as wrong and/or not connectivist simply because it is slightly or greatly at odds with his own views of what that means. To make the implicit claim that his is the one true Connectivism (with a nod to George as a co-creator of the theory, albeit with whom he disagrees on a few points and believes does not go far enough) is to dismiss the large amount of important work that has hitched itself to the name, and it implies a proprietary view of what is actually networked knowledge that is inconsistent with an important message that both he and I want to promote. Knowledge is not just a thing happening inside the heads of individuals.  

In case the thought is occurring to you, I am very much not suggesting that something becomes more 'right' because lots of people agree - they may be and probably are all at least partly wrong. Each should be critiqued on its own merits. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that Downes and everyone else should not seek what is true and/or valuable, and to fight for it. What I am suggesting, quite simply, is that the central value of connectivism is as an umbrella that sets an important agenda, binds a community, catalyzes action, and provides a common basis to discover what, if anything, the new opportunities of the networked age provide for learners. It does so using some more-or-less agreed though still evolving common understandings that George Siemens laid out well in his seminal article, that have been explored in many other writings, including those of Downes, before and since, and that I have similarly attempted to make sense of and rephrase for myself in my recent post 'What is connectivism?' as well as in other papers, books, shared bookmarks and blog posts. Is it a theory? I think so, though I am not sure that it matters whether it is or not. Frances Bell provides a great account of what kind of theory it is that I find quite compelling and that draws on others' attempts to explain it. Is it a universal theory of learning? No. Downes's connectivist account may indeed be a theory of learning, or at least the beginnings of one, whether or not it has legs to stand on beyond the connectionist part that we both agree on, but it is not connectivism, as it has been appropriated by the community/network of scholars and others that use the term. It is a subtle distinction but one that I think should be made, lest we weaken the ties that connect us.

Why are we doing this?


Is this small point worth the thousands of words Downes and I have expended on it? Well, I don't think I would have mentioned it at all had I anticipated the effort and angst it would entail. One of the fascinating differences between the blogosphere and academic publishing is that of pace, which means it really eats into my time. Another difference, though, is that an average journal paper gets read by a few tens of people while at least 5,000 have read my first post so far (and rising), so this seems a worthwhile trade-off.  Also, the process so far has been a good learning journey, it has probably got a few more people thinking about what a learning theory should be, whether a connectivist account makes sense, what value it has, and how the hell two busy, gainfully employed people, who presumably have lives to lead and families to be with, can find the time to write so much about this kind of thing. No bad thing.

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...


  • Thanks for the very significant mental and no doubt emotion energy expended in this debate. I confess some of went over my head, and I doubt the issue(s) between you and Stephen will ever be fully resolved or likley finished (I know how both of you dislike getting the the second last word in. Wink).  

    I especially value the way that humans morph ideas to make them stretch to fit the multiple versions of the world we inhabit. Perhaps it is unfortunuate that education lacks the presecriptive language of some sciences, (Dewey's Progressive education, whole language, collaborative learning and many other terms come to mind) However, as you point out, the fuzziness allows us to use and apply these ideas in the many diverse contexts in which learning happens. And this is what makes good ideas, useful ideas.

    Terry Anderson May 15, 2014 - 6:55pm

  • Thanks Terry,

    Yes, there are far more similarities between Stephen and I than differences. Not sure that this is a good thing but it makes for a fiery debate and later nights than I am used to.

    would love to find a genuinely useful descriptive and generative theory of learning that could be used in a richer context than those that are of value in training mice. I think there are plenty of small pieces of empirically verified theories here and there, in connectionist accounts, in spaced learning and a few other brain-based approaches, in some cognitivist models and even in behaviourism, as well as lots of examples of good practice at a broader level that tend to work better than others, but none that even come close to bridging the huge gaps from there to learning in a real-world social context. Given the complexity (in a formal and informal sense) my strong suspicion is that, unless or until the singularity happens, we never will have such a theory, any more than we will have such a theory that explains and predicts what will make great art or even great design (into the latter of which categories teaching and intentional learning fits rather well). We still can't even predict the weather very accurately, which is many orders of magnitude simpler (formally and informally) than the factors involved in the design of learning and teaching, and we know pretty much every factor involved in that process. With that in mind I was depressed by the recent meta-study 'proving' that lectures don't work as well as active learning which is being widely reported in the press. Much as I agree in principle that lectures are only a small part of the range of ways we can effectively teach and generally try to avoid them like the plague because they have very limited capabilities to support learning, as one of my favourite papers on the subject shows, this is yet another example of 'it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it'. People tend to report on studies that work out well, and they are nearly always enacted by smart, passionate researchers with a strong background in pedagogy and a strong will to succeed, together with an intent to prove that lectures don't work very well. Small wonder that there are positive differences reported overall. While the researchers did apply some basic measures to try to control for such things, it was doomed from the start. Even if they could show genuine differences, they cannot account for the fact that good lectures can, some of the time, for some people, work well. Moreover, so can bad ones. This study, and those that fed it, give very few hints as to why that happens, and I see very little in connectivism that would address such disparities in outcomes (however these are measured - not just talking about intended and planned things here), even it it could explain the mechanisms.

    So, engaging in continuing dialogue, reporting on what works, demonstrating ways that things can work, debating the issues, trying out new things, discovering what we can, and taking advantage of new opportunities all remain far more important than anything else in the field. Having both a common language to talk about such things and having some binding ideas to work with seems like a good idea. Connectivism provides a bit of that glue.


    Jon Dron May 15, 2014 - 9:19pm

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