Learning through Connections – in theory

So part of the reason I am keeping this blog is so I can share with you the research I am undertaking as part of my doctoral studies. Writing about the ‘stuff’ that I have been reading and thinking about for my studies in a blog post is great. I love it. Why? Because when I take the time to explain what I have learnt in my own words (and in a way that is less formal than my thesis requires) I often find that I develop a deeper understanding of it, and feel more confident about writing and talking about it. While some people like to ‘talk’ their way through their learning, I like to ‘write’ my way through; putting things down on paper (or on a screen) somehow helps me process it.

So today I was playing around with something that I find very hard to do; creating a visualisation of a conceptual framework. My research is drawing upon a number of different theories, conceptual constructs and frameworks, and while I know and can see that they are connected, trying to come up with a visual that captures this is tricky. This is what I created today:


Let me explain it to you.

So my research is about how teachers experience professional learning through personal learning networks. I’ve written before about PLNs – and I find them interesting because they allow people to learn anywhere, about anything, as long as they can connect with the right person, resource or information at the right time.

Because I believe that knowledge is actively constructed by the individual through their interactions with each other and their environment, and that learning is not passively receiving information but the result of people actively constructing knowledge, the idea of a PLN sits really well within my own world view. These beliefs are actually based on social constructivism; you can read about it here, or if you are in the mood for something a bit lighter, check out this great animation:


Social Constructivism underpins many frameworks and constructs. One theory that draws on Social Constructivism is Networked Learning. Networked Learning is different to Network Literacy (which I will write about in an upcoming post), but is a theory which has been getting increasing attention due to the proliferation of networks in our everyday lives, thanks in a large part to social media and mobile technology.

Networked Learning has been defined as:

learning in which information and communications technology (ICT) is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners, between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources. (Goodyear, Jones, Asensio, Hodgson, & Steeples, 2005, p. 453)

The most important part of this definition is the word connections; it is through connections between people and resources, mediated by technology, that networked learning occurs. Manuel Castells has written extensively on how new media amplifies opportunities to create networks that permeate our entire social structure, and you can read about this in his classic text, The Rise of Networked Society. (Castells, 2000). Technology  makes it possible for people to connect regardless of time and space, with increasing accessibility to knowledge as well as a multiplicity of spaces for engagement and self-expression.

So networked learning basically emphasises active, dynamic and social learning, and recognises the role technology plays in enabling this to happen more easily. These slides from Caroline Haythornthwaite’s keynote at the 2016 Networked Learning conference give a great summary of networked learning, where it’s at, and the context in which it is being researched if you are interested in the area.

So, there is a definite link between social constructivism and networked learning; the basic assumptions of social constructivism underpin networked learning, and that is why I have drawn a connection directly between the two circles. I did make social constructivism the larger circle though, as it also underpins many other learning theories; it’s like the foundation which stabilises and informs learning in many different contexts.

Networked learning definitely acknowledges the role of technology in enabling connections. However, two recent concepts have evolved which draw on networked learning, and which situate themselves very much within our current ‘technology soaked’ existence; Connectivism and Connected learning. That’s what the cloud that says ‘internet aware’ means, and why it overlaps networked learning – because these ideas are integrated with what is possible when social media and other mobile, networked technologies are harnessed for learning. Remember when I said that the key word in the definition of networked learning is connections? The names Connectivism and Connected Learning are no coincidence!

So let’s start with Connectivism. Whether this is a theory or not depends on who you speak with; and if it is considered a theory, whether or not it is a theory of learning or a theory of instruction is another debate. The founder of Connectivism, George Siemens, argues that it is a learning theory, and that it actually supersedes other learning theories including behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.  Others suggest that it is not a complete learning theory, but that it is a theoretical framework that might shape the way we think about knowledge and learning in an environment of abundant and constantly changing and evolving information – this article by Kop and Hill does a great job in considering some of the debate surrounding Connectivism. If you are interested, these blog posts and articles are also thought provoking reading on this debate.

I’ve tried to explain Connectivism before and I definitely believe that it is a terrific framework for understanding how learning can be seen as a process of making connections. The underpinning concepts are what gives the PLN structure as a professional learning strategy. I have presented it with a dotted line going back to social constructivism, because it draws on the idea that learning is social (i.e. the result of interactions with others and the environment) and that learning is actively constructed (not something which is simply transferred from one vessel to another).

A dashed line connects networked learning and Connectivism to Connected Learning, another framework for understanding learning as it occurs within a networked and socially informed environment. The dashed line indicates that in many ways these frameworks inform each other; although they come from different angles, many of the constructs within are similar or the same. Connected Learning is explained in simple terms through this really cool infographic, and in more detail in Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. 

Connected Learning (CL) focuses on young people and how social and mobile networked technologies can enable the meshing of the spheres of academics, a learner’s interests, and inspiring mentors and peers. It sees learning as a flexible, networked enterprise, that happens through participation in culture and community (Ito et al., 2013). It therefore acknowledges that

“learning does not take place exclusively in the restricted spaces of formal education, but is situated in a matrix of contexts including formal and informal, local and global, embodied and virtual as well as distributed and integrated.” (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2012, p. 10)

Although the Connected Learning Report focuses on the experiences of young people, the idea that learning can occur outside of traditional ‘learning spaces’ and can extend beyond the local to harness the connectivity and flexibility of virtual spaces also underpins the PLN, and this is why I have included it in my model. The PLN offers the opportunity for teachers/professionals to develop their own connected learning environment, and many of the features that Ito et al. write about in their CL report are also features that align with the idea of a well-developed and effective PLN. The PLN, like the Connected Learning experience may be  motivated by personal interest,  supported by colleagues and peers, informed by respected mentors and  open to networking within and beyond local contexts. As professional development research argues that long lasting changes in practice occur when teachers have agency and interest in their professional learning, and are able to pursue it when and as needed, this seems to make the PLN a potentially powerful method.

Like Connectivism, I link the Connected Learning circle to Social Constructivism with a dotted line, as it too is based on the ideas of social learning and active construction of knowledge and understanding.

So.  This has been a heavy post, and it really is a bit of a brain dump. If anyone out there is interested in this area, and would like to agree, disagree, challenge or congratulate, please feel free in the comments. As a networked learner, I like to share and expand my own knowledge through my connections with others, so don’t be shy :).

8 thoughts on “Learning through Connections – in theory”

  1. Hi there, I congratulate you! Thank you! I am super interested in your thinking as I continue my research into Connectivism in a K-12 context – this is something I am putting together for an extended session at Learning2 next month. I am interested in the difference between connected learning and connectivism; I am interested in your thoughts on what a connectivist learning environment looks like in a K-12 context or if the precursor to connectivism is connected learning. My aim is to put together an activity that simulates an connectivist learning environment and then have the participants explore the principles of connectivism using the experience as an exemplar. I’m also interested in how the learning happens in connectivism…big questions for me! Would you be interested in critiquing my activity to ensure that I have not missed a vital aspect of connectivism? I am working on it today and, in the spirit of the topic, will post openly!

    1. Wow, that sounds facinating! Thanks for getting in touch :). I would love to learn more about your project, and think that some of the questions you are tackling are not only interesting but vitally important. I hadn’t considered Connected Learning as a precursor to Connectivism; I had thought of them as separate incarnations, but can definitely see the way you could draw that conclusion. You could also see it the other way around – that the principles of connectivism are what informs the development of a connected learning environment.

      Happy to chat further, and can’t wait to see your activity and investigate.

        1. Love it! I added a few suggestions for linking the principles of Connectivism to real life examples, but think it will be a great session; I’d love to hear how it goes and what the feedback is from participants :). Thanks so much for sharing!

          1. Brilliant! Your comments have certainly added value and I am now thinking of expanding the Tripadvisor idea – mapping the features of it to the 8 principles of connectivism – which I can then use as part of the discussion and a resource for participants (and others who might be interested). I have also added the next activity “Developing a Connectivist Learning Environment through Blogging” and if you are interested in taking peek, your insight & comments are most welcome.


          2. My sincere apologies for not replying earlier; I have been swamped with work recently! I love the linking to blogging and the way you have developed it for all year levels; thank you so much for sharing!

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