#cck11: Connectivism and Social Constructivism – what’s the difference?

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.


25 thoughts on “#cck11: Connectivism and Social Constructivism – what’s the difference?

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  4. Great post.
    The connectivist perspective does fit in more situations than schools. Constructivism is a perspective that fits in describing learning in a school. The connectivist perspective (or metaphor) can be used to describe somebody behind a computer who is learning in an informal way.

    • Thanks for the thoughts Jaap 🙂 I work with a load of people who only rarely use computers – they work in fields like ceramics, painting, letterpress, etc.. it’s interesting for me to reflect on how connectivism is evident in the way even they work and learn.

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  6. Hi Lindsay,
    thanks for the post – a very interesting look at the distinct differences between two apparently similar theories.

    I would speculate that, in practice, either theory goes only so far and that effective learning practice has to draw on both approaches. I may be about to show my ignorance, but in its purest form, surely constructivism requires the components of the knowledge being ‘constructed’ to be already available to the participants… i.e. in their brains!

    Connectivism, with its weak social ties, has the potential to draw together knwoeldge from a wider group contributing in accordance with their knowledge (not because of their membership of a group). However, the knowledge base resulting from connectivist endeavours tends to be murky. The lack of focus or intentionality can result in there being no ‘end point’ which, rightly or wrongly, is needed for practical reasons when an externally-organised group of learners (e.g. school children) have other things to do.

    Going back to my original point, therefore, a group will make progress if the individuals are ‘connected’ to the outside world and can learn from it, but are ‘socially constructing’ knowledge to meet finite objectives with their classmates. A network of overlapping ‘Personal Learning Networks’, brought together by a good ol’ fashioned VLE, would therefore guide the inwards and outwards flows of information for the benefit of the group. Twitter in one Window, Moodle in another!

    • Hi Dave, thanks so much for this thoughtful response – there’s a lot to grapple with here 🙂

      You wrote:

      “surely constructivism requires the components of the knowledge being ‘constructed’ to be already available to the participants… i.e. in their brains!”

      The way I see it, this is where the constructivist perspective falls a bit short and the connectivist perspective is making a more valiant attempt to model: What do we mean by ‘available knowledge’? Can all forms of knowledge be analogised by the ‘where’s Waldo/Wally’ scenario – where knowledge is something that, once you’ve encountered, you can’t ‘forget’ or ‘unlearn’? Obviously not. The idea of knowledge as residing in the *connections between* people, resources and ideas – rather than ‘in our brains’ is so very interesting.

  7. Dawkins’ idea (I think it was him) of the meme as counterpart to the gene. What itches and engrosses me about connectivism is that so many important things – from global ideas like human rights, to individual strivings for self-actualisation – depend on a view of humans as more estimable and entitled than mere carriers of memes. And even though I’ve been totally bowled over by Kevin Warwick’s cybernetic ideas of outsourced brains, I’m not (so far – are you?) convinced that the pipe is more important than its contents – though I do think that’s an idea to be engaged with, since it’s an assumption that’s built-into more and more social phenomena. Isn’t it the case that what we have internalised – the extent of what we know – influences the questions we can form and the connections we seek? I’m really interested to find that the social constructivism theory – the one that took shape in communism – turns out to be the more individualistic approach of these two.

    P.S. “A central tenet of social constructivism is the definition of knowledge as the result of consensus” – not been aware of this but I’m intrigued.

    • Dammit…! Did Richard Dawkins make that connection first…? I thought I was breaking new ground 🙂 Ah well, I don’t mind having synergy with Dawkins, as long as he doesn’t sue me for plagiarism…

      I think the ‘constructivism & consensus’ idea came from George Siemens; I guess I made it sound more black-and-white than I meant to but I definitely get a sense from both George and Stephen’s work that connectivism emphasises the multiplicity of dimensions and perspectives in knowledge in a way that constructivism doesn’t. Stephen made a lovely distinction in Wednesday’s elluminate session about ‘co-operative knowledge’ as opposed to ‘collective knowledge’; we are seen to function as “many densely-connected individuals” rather than as a single collective.

  8. Lindsay, I agree with your notion that Connectivism seems to do a better job of handling complexity than the three other theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism) that reduce learning mostly to something that happens within an individual mind. It is a hard notion to shake, in part because it usually feels as if that is where the learning is taking place: inside my own mind. I sense the shift of learning as an internal movement.

    But if we reduce learning to that internal shift in mental states, then we overlook the interplay between the individual and the environment that is so necessary for that shift to occur. While I can certainly sharpen my internal skills to learn better, it’s the interplay between me and my environment that makes the learning possible. Perhaps this is what George means when he says that the “pipe is more important than the content of the pipe?” The pipes, or dynamic connections, between the individual and her environment (people, things, information, organizations) are the keys to learning. Perhaps a better metaphor than pipe would be synapse. Pipes are rather rigid.

    I’m working on this concept of complexity on my blog.

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  10. Hi Lindsey

    Nice post – I was really struggling with connectivism – then this post came along!

    I have a real issue with knowledge existing outside biological systems – but am conscious that I have become, in some slight way, a cybernetic organism – one that is now relying on technology for every day activity. Take ‘memory’ for example: I use gmail as a second long term memory. I envisage that in future we’ll have decent connections between human brains and data repositories (bemoaning the awful keyboard / screen interface). So, perhaps I am beginning to accept knowledge can exist in a network.

    And … the pipe is more important than the content? I think this resonates with notions of moving education beyond content:
    * Towards learning to learn:
    … content might have been king 100 years ago, but not now;
    * towards modernising our education systems:
    … which professional from 100 years ago would cope in a contemporary setting: surgeon, accountant or a teacher?
    * Towards serving the student, not the system.
    … why are we still testing what student know – surly it’s more valuable to know what they DON’T know? (but concentrating on process, NOT content).

    Thanks for the post – much appreciated …


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  12. Ahhh. It is interesting, and maybe interesting because of the comparison that is often made. Why compare connectivism with constructivism, rather than say Place Based Education, or Post-Structuralist approached to pedagogy? in many ways Connectivism to my mind has areas of Critical Pedagogy to compare it to. In my reading is Connectivism more overly political than constructivism. Yet its grappling with epistemology is more than a slide glance to Post-Structuralism, Foucault, and Deleuze come to mind.

    Just some random thoughts from south of the equator.

  13. Hi Lindsay,
    I don’t think George specifically came up with the idea of constructivism being about consensual knowledge – I know I had had long discussions around this with my friend Edwin before I’d ever heard of George or Connectivism (I identified three types of reality with which we engage, Objective, Subjective and Consensual http://parslow.net/reality.htm)
    The idea of the external knowledge is also one which fascinates me, and you have hinted at one of the reasons for this. Just as our DNA is not conscious (as far as we are aware!), neither are our individual neurons. Yet, they manage to work together and produce this sensation we call consciousness – similarly, none of them “knows” any facts about the world, but we do. The model of people communicating in a network (with or without “technology” being involved) seems broadly similar, to me, as our models of neurons communicating with one another. It doesn’t seem, to me, to be beyond credibility that knowledge exists in the outer-network (as opposed to the inner-network of neurons inside us) which we currently cannot access. Of course, a problem with this is that it also suggests the possibility of emergent multi-bodied consciousnesses, which is an idea many would treat with scorn.

  14. This has been a fascinating read. I am not as well versed with knowledge and learning theories as I would like. I had read about knowledge as being descriptive vs. procedural and am not sure if that distinction is still used? If it is, how do these types of knowledge apply to Social Constructivism and Connectivism?

    I am a physician and here is something I face every day. How does a physician acquire this knowledge? Which theory explains it better? Do you need a little bit of both theories?

    When considering a medication to treat someone’s high blood pressure, some things I need to know are:
    * Name of medication, dosage, potential known side-effects, cost, effectiveness
    * Patient’s insurance plans, attitude towards medications, likelihood of changing lifestyle, previous adverse reactions to medications, other medications he is taking,
    * How to communicate with the patient, help the pt understand these issues and be partner in the decision re’ the medication, how to write a prescription.

    • Hi Neil,
      My view would be that there is a mix, certainly. A lot of the information in your first point would traditionally have been looked up in MIMS (in the UK), which is now presumably available online. The knowledge you probably use here is ‘where to look for the information’ (although in computing terms I am sure you can ‘cache’ some of the information in your memory). Similarly with the second point, I don’t know how you work, but given the number of patients many doctors see, I would imagine it is best not to rely on remembering that Joe Bloggs objects to taking certain types of medication, or forgets to take a on-a-day type, and that it is therefore better to have this information in their notes. If that is the case, what you have learned is to keep records and refer to them, rather than rely on human memory. These are both cases of connectivism, I think, where it isn’t what you know that is important, but that you have learned how to find out.

      I suppose the third case could be similar, in that knowing how to find out how to communicate best with the patient is still important, but communication between people may be seen as a special case. A lot of communication seems to me to be trial and error – you start with your best guess, and depending on the feeback you get (patient looks happy but engaged, patient has fixed smile but doesn’t seem to be taking it in, patient looks unhappy etc) you adjust the mode and content to try and get the information across as well as possible and reach consensus on the method of treatment. I can’t imagine many people relying on looking this sort of thing up in a database (although there could be merit in using a tech system to help train yourself to adjust to giving appropriate responses), chiefly because of the delay and impact on the communication and trust that would cause.

      An example of the ‘cached’ knowledge is how to write a prescription. I don’t think this takes a deep understanding of the underlying systems, and is a skill which you learn fairly early on as a doctor. Indeed, it appears to be so ingrained in many doctors that I am not certain that it requires conscious intervention once the choice of drug has been made – it is more of an autonomous response (a lot like a lot of speech acts in everyday communication are).

      • Pat,
        Thanks for the explanation. You mention, how learning how to communicate my be a bit of trial and error. Is that not constructivism? I would have tried different was to communicate in the past, and learned what “works”. Then with each patient I communicate with, I accommodate that construct?
        I agree that the information in the first point is almost entirely available in databases. Learning how to use these databases is probably connectivism? But to me, that is just information. I need to understand this information and learn to apply it to a specific patient and internalize and learn from that experience and is that not constructivism (social constructivism)?
        Am I being too concrete? Is that what the difference is between the 2?

        • Hi Neil,
          I hadn’t thought of the communication one as constructivist, but I think I agree with your reasoning. The best way of communicating is possibly kept as personal knowledge rather than shared with the patient, and I would certainly say I find it hard to think of it in connectivism terms.
          With the databases, the information in them has been developed as knowledge by a larger network and distilled into a format which can be stored and shared. I would agree that the connectivism part is in learning to use the databases.
          I’m please to think there are doctors who learn to apply the info to specific patients (not entirely convinced that is my experience of doctors, but that is another matter!). The application of the knowledge you acquire (as a result of reading the information, or of remembering it from previous experience) is separate, I think, to the learning process involved as you get feedback on whether the treatment is working.

          For me, I think the main difference is that connectivism provides a framework for looking at how knowledge can be formed in a broad context, and is particularly suited to those situations where information can quickly go out of date. Interestingly, the particular case you have highlighted is perhaps important for even more ephemeral learning – skills (communicating with the patient), and knowledge (particular application of therapies relating to a specific patient) which apply to specific instance rather than being directly generalisable. I guess this might be modelled by social constructivism if you reflect on it as part of a practice review?
          It is certainly possible to consider it in connectivism terms if you accept my personal view that the ‘network’ is not just the bits outside of the nodes (so to speak) but a continuous network which includes the neural structures of the brain (and probably the entire nervous system). The same model can apply, I believe, inside and outside of the individual.
          For me, that is the main ‘difference’ between constructivism and connectivism – I think the latter provides a more general model which can be used to examine ‘personal learning’ as well as ‘collective’ or ‘collaborative’ learning, both of which can be quite nicely described by constructivism.

  15. I have to save this understanding of social constructivism differs to my own. To me it is about making personal meaning in a social context. Social contructionism is more likely to be seen as a shared understanding of the world.
    Getting back to Neil’s original question of the place of procedural and descriptive knowledge, this seems to be more related to cognitive approaches to learning. Etienne Wenger( communities of practice- a social constructivist approach) talks about ‘plug and play’ theories. Different theories add to our model of learning and may explain different aspects.
    I don’t yet have a deep understanding of connectivism.
    And again going back to Neil’s first question- I am enjoying reading Eraut’s thoughts on professional learning. http://surreyprofessionaltraining.pbworks.com/f/How+Professionals+Learn+through+Work.pdf
    I’d really like to continue this conversation. It is too absent from the medical education literature. This paper by Egan on clinical communities of practice is also very useful.

  16. Nice post, thank you for this. A word I always seem to hover around when I think of Connectivism is Potential. This may be similar to what you are saying near the end of your post about genes that ‘influence’ and ‘increase the chances’? I see Connectivism mainly as setting the potential for learning; constructivism, or other learning theories focus more on what happens following that potential.

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