So what distinguishes a connectivist perspective from social constructivism? The difference is fairly subtle. As far as I can see, connectivism resonates with similar principles as social constructivism does, but acknowledges a greater degree of complexity in the nature of knowledge and learning, enabled by advances in technology.
George Siemens defines ‘complex’ phenomena as different from ‘complicated’ phenomena. He uses the examples of an aeroplane, which encompasses a number of systems that are carefully engineered to interact with each other in a particular way, and the planet’s weather – truly complex due to the interaction of predictable and less predictable factors.
Connectivism acknowledges the complexity of knowledge and learning in a way that social constructivism cannot. A central tenet of social constructivism is the definition of knowledge as the result of consensus. The connectivist perspective allows for a greater diversity of opinions, and acceptance of transience and unpredictability of knowledge.
The dependence on a large number of ‘weak ties’ in knowledge networks is another particular characteristic of the connectivist perspective, whereas the social constructivist perspective describes a type of networked learning that is perhaps narrower in scope and intention, and where the participants are perhaps more conscious of the part they play in the exchange and creation of knowledge.
The least woolly of the distinctions has to be the connectivist notion of knowledge and learning existing outside the individual human brain. With technology performing the roles of information storage and retrieval, our collective knowledge has the potential to develop into a seemingly infinite web of nodes and connections. The mechanics of the system mean that these nodes are players in a competition for connections that we are barely conscious of.
This connectivist view of the ‘behaviour’ of knowledge reminds me of the evolutionary biologists’ view of the ‘behaviour’ of genes. Our genes influence what we do, with a view to increasing their own chances of survival; however, as individuals we are barely conscious of this relationship (and our genes are not conscious of anything!). In a similar way, the nodes in a knowledge network, that are created by – and form part of – ourselves, unconsciously compete for survival (i.e. connections). George suggests “the pipe is more important than the content of the pipe”. It’s the same situation with genes. The structure of DNA (the ‘pipe’) incorporates a replication mechanism with just the right degree of imperfection to enable the evolution of all living things from single cells to complex (complicated?!) and highly-specialised organisms. Much as we would like to believe we, as organisms, are the important ones, we’re actually just transient content – an effective host for our DNA at this point in time.