On connectivism – the pipe is not the issue

Learning is a network phenomenon, influenced (aided) by socialization and technology.

-George Siemens (2006, para. 5)

The availability and presence of technology in our everyday lives offers unprecedented opportunities for students to collaborate, share and build knowledge – on local, national and international levels. In recognition of this, George Siemens proposed a theory of learning in 2004 which he coined ‘connectivism’. The core principle of connectivism is that “the pipe is more important that the content of the pipe” (Siemens, 2004, para. 29). In other words, access to the ‘correct’ source of knowledge at any given time and the maintenance of this source of knowledge is more important for a learner than the knowledge that a learner possesses (Chatti, Jarke & Quix, 2010).

A new theory of learning or a pedagogical approach?

The benefits of collaboration  for knowledge sharing are heavily reinforced by research (see Harrison, 2011; Hattie, 2012; Thompson, 2010; Partington, 1998; Sarra, 2014). However, the idea that learning outcomes can be improved significantly when students collaborate through different media with adults or peers – all of whom possess a variety of skills and levels of expertise – is not new, in fact it is quite similar to the social constructivist approach pioneered by Vygotsky (1986) in the mid-twentieth century. For this reason, I very much agree with  Verhagen’s (2006) argument that connectivism is not a new theory of learning, but rather a pedagogical approach founded in network-based learning,  or collaboration for knowledge sharing in the digital age.

So how does connectivism compare to existing pedagogical approaches?

Let’s take the 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning (“8 Ways”, n.d.) as an example. Both approaches place importance on sourcing information using a variety of media. The approaches differ in that 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning places more emphasis on actively seeking and facilitating learning rather than finding and maintaining the ‘correct’ source of knowledge for the learner to consume.

Right. Define “actively seeking and facilitating learning”…

8 Aboriginal Ways Learning underscores the importance of co-creating a learning environment with students in which they are not only motivated to share and build knowledge – or in Siemen’s terms “access the pipe” –  but also to employ problem solving skills, i.e. actively practice systems thinking and self-regulation to reach an identified goal. This process involves maintaining a learning environment that values error and creates trust in addition to feedback, challenge and practice at the right level- all factors which have been found to be particularly impactful on learning (Hattie, 2009) and are noticeably absent in connectivism (Chattie et.al., 2010).

So the pipe is not the issue?

No – the pipe has always been there – naturally the media changes with the time. The possibilities that the pipe, or collaboration for knowledge sharing through a variety of media present have only recently been embraced by Western culture (relatively speaking), assisted by increased access to technology. Value the pipe and the opportunities that it presents – but don’t loose sight of what we know improves learning while looking for the ‘correct’ source of knowledge to maintain. Somewhat ironically, Siemens explains this well:

Our obligation as educators requires a solid focus on emerging trends [author’s note: e.g. access to wider networks facilitated by technology], while not succumbing to distracting fads [author’s note: e.g. learning theories/ pedagogical approaches which reinvent the wheel incompletely]. Our desire to connect—to externalize—is a vital component of the learning process [author’s note: correct – a component]. Instead of merely developing learners for careers, we have an obligation to create a learning ecology where learners are able to shape their own meaning [author’s note: cue valuing error and creating trust, feedback, challenge and practice at the right level – all of which are not addressed satisfactorily by connectivism].

-George Siemens (2006, para. 78)


Chatti, M., Jarke, M. & Quix, C. (2010). International Journal of Learning Technology, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.dbis.rwth-aachen.de/~quix/papers/jlt2010.pdf

8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning. (n.d.). Uncategorised. Retrieved from: http://apo.org.au/node/21702

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Oxon: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: maximising impact on learning. Oxon: Routledge

Harrison, N. (2011). Teaching and Learning in Aboriginal Education, 2nd Ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Partington, G. (ed) (1998). Perspectives on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education. Tuggerah: Social Science Press.

Sarra, C. (2014). Strong and Smart – Towards a Pedagogy for Emancipation: Education for First Peoples (New Studies in Critical Realism and Education (Routledge Critical Realism). [Kindle Edition]

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens, G. (2006). Connectivism: Learning Theory or Pastime for the Self-Amused? Retrieved from: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm

Thompson, P. (2010). Schooling the Rustbelt Kids. [Kindle Edition].

Verhagen, P. (2006). Connectivism: A new learning theory? Retrieved from: https://www.scribd.com/doc/88324962/Connectivism-a-New-Learning-Theory

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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