The Changing Goals of Learning: A Response to Siemens’ “Connectivism”


The NETs goal for this week asks us to “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities.” Our Week 2 reading article by George Siemens advances one way to do this: by teaching students to adapt to new situations and changing conditions, a task identified in the article’s title as the new skill of connectivism. 

Connectivism Mind Map

Briefly put, Siemens makes the following points:

  • Knowing how and what (skills and content) is still important, but today’s students must also knowwhere – in other words, they must be able to “plug into sources” when knowledge is needed but not known.
  • Students must adapt to “pattern shifts,” or new situations and changing conditions, more than in the past
  • We must create our own patterns by connecting disparate sources of information, because the “ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.” 
  • The core rationale for connectivism is that in today’s world, “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions,” so connectivism is needed to access and process this diversity.

For those of us trying to empower our students (and what teacher would admit to consciously NOT wanting to do this?), Siemens’ ideas provide ample food for thought. His assertion that a vital task is creating our own patterns by connecting various sources of information is supported by hot trends in “Web 2.0:”

Siemens puts connectivism forward as a new skill to be learned, and the question many teachers will have is: “is this yet ANOTHER thing I have to incorporate? Where will I make room?”

Luckily, a shift to connectivism won’t mean simply tacking new skills onto an existing curriculum. Knowing where to find information in order to adapt to patterns shifts is just techno-speak for having students research and then apply their knowledge to new situations: skill goals that most teachers find valuable. Extra time will certainly be required, but this will be on the front-end of things: ensuring that there are enough computing resources for students to work independently, on demand; vetting sources and scaffolding the connection process; and constructing student-centered activities that help them see that “learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.” My reading of Siemens is that connectivism skills might simply upgrade and extend the skills that we already teach.

I’ve just reoriented my 9/10 history curriculum around a similar principal: I’m making research, especially online research, a great focus in my classes. The reasons for this are manifold. First, using the textbook as a primary resource tends to blunt the intrinsically interesting nature of the content. It’s only when students dig deep into history to find the stories that history comes alive; the textbook is great at giving breadth but not depth. Secondly, helping students “see connections between fields, ideas and concepts” in history is more than a skill: it’s a way to prove the relevance of a course that can seem staid and far removed from their everyday experiences. I’d like to give students the skillset they need to identify and evaluate the patterns of civilization and society. 

What prevents me from moving further ahead? The main thing, I think, is access to resources. To make connectivism a central goal, I’m assuming – and correct me if I’m wrong – that constant, individual access to connective resources (i.e. the Internet) is essential. We simply don’t have the facilities at school to make this a requirement – neither the bandwidth nor a 1:1 program. While I could require students to do connectivism-inspired work at home where all of them do have Internet, I still face the task of being able to model effectively and provide timely feedback.

I’m interested to hear from educators in schools with a relatively limited infrastructure, then: how do work around technology access constraints?

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