'Connectivism': Creating Learning Communities
In the field of online sharing and learning, the “Massive Open Online Course” (“MOOC”) has received a lot of attention. Many are enthusiastic about what elite universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Harvard are piloting. The two schools have offered joint online courses that have attracted well over 100,000 students. Much is also written about the start-up ventures Udacity and Coursera, which managed to enroll over two million students in just one year. These ventures provide a forum to some of the world’s best professors to host their lectures online. The students are then encouraged to participate through online forums that help build a joint learning community. They typically do not offer academic credit aside from, in some cases, a statement of completion. But they also do not charge tuition. There are estimates that only about ten percent of students who sign up for courses actually follow them until the end [4. See article by Tamar Lewin (2013, January 1): “Students Rush to Web Classes, but Profits May Be Much Later”, New York Times]. And it still remains to be seen whether mass distribution of centralized online lectures will ultimately be incorporated into the formal educational system or whether they are just briefly hyped by universities and venture capitalists searching for new revenue sources and recognition.
This article will, therefore, go beyond the MOOC. It will dwell, instead, upon the original pedagogical model that lies at the heart of the MOCC experience, which was co-shaped by two Canadian learning specialists: George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes.
The relationship between work experience, communal learning, and knowledge is at the heart of connectivism – as is expressed in ‘connectivity’. Accordingly, “to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect” (Downes 2007). Thereby, connectivism builds on earlier practice- and community-oriented pedagogical frameworks and theories such as constructivism, social learning, distributed cognition or Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory. Some of the theories around online community learning trace their roots all the way back to the early notion of “Bildung” that sees education as the process of shaping oneself and the world as put forth by German writers and thinkers Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Schiller in the late 18th and early 19th century (Deimann et al.: 2013).
The learning concept of connectivism understands learning according to the following eight principles [5. See Connectivism. (2013, July 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:20, July 15, 2013]:
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes, or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances: learning can rest in a community, a network, or a database.
- Learning is more critical than knowing.
- Maintaining and nurturing connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Perceiving connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency – as accurate, up-to-date knowledge – is the intent of learning activities.
- Decision-making is in itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.
What does this mean for the connectivist Open Online Courses? Four methods have been identified and summed up by the peer-producers of the Wikipedia article on connectivism as follows [6. Source of the entire following paragraph: Massive open online course. (2013, July 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:21, July 15, 2013]: “1) Aggregation: […] a starting point for content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated and accessible to participants on a regular basis. 2) Remixing: Learners associate materials created within the course with one another, and with materials elsewhere. 3) Re-purposing: Aggregated and remixed materials are to be re-purposed to suit the goals of each participant. Finally, 4) Feeding forward: the sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with others and the rest of the world.”
These modes of operation form an integral part of a peer-learning oriented pedagogy. The “open learning layer” (Seibold 2009:264) includes:
- the open licensing of content as spearheaded by the “Open Educational Resources” (OER) movement (Wiley 2009)
- the focus on ‘self-empowering’ study groups of self-organized peers (peeragogy.org 2013)
- the open structure and learning goals
In a connectivist world, learning by sharing is the only sustainable way of learning. This moves the Cartesian dictum of “I think, therefore I am”, to a “We participate, therefore we are”, as John Brown and Richard Adler nicely (Brown/Adler 2008: 18) nicely put it.
About the Author
Balthas Seibold is a senior project manager for ‚Global Knowledge Sharing & Learning’ at GIZ, the ‘Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH’. He focuses on open knowledge cooperation to foster the freedom to learn and innovate in developing countries. Balthas has a special interest in the knowledge commons and social networks and their potential to build human capacities, link up people and foster open learning worldwide. Before 2012 he led capacity building programs with GIZ that promote the open source IT-sector in Asia and Africa such as ict@innovation. Balthas has also worked at InWEnt – Capacity Building International, UNESCO’s bureau of strategic planning, the GTZ and the UNDP.
The author would like to thank the following persons for invaluable input and detailed comments (any errors and misjudgments are of course his own): Philipp Schmidt, Andreas Meiszner, Susanna Albrecht, Kader Ekici, Christian Gmelin, Petra Hagemann, Claudia Lange, Sarah Malelu, Sabine Olthof, Natalie Maria Stewart, Lennart Stoy, Miriam Unverzagt.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to GIZ or any other affiliation.