Archive for the ‘learning theory’ category

Observations of a Critical Theory newbie

1 February 2011

How many “facts” do we accept at face value?

For example, do we really remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we see, 50% of what we do…?

It’s human nature to accept knowledge that’s universally propagated. If enough people say it enough times, it assumes the aura of conventional wisdom.

Our peers wouldn’t be wrong, right?

Hold your horses

This is where Critical Theory steps in.

A critical theorist examines accepted truths in light of their socio-historical contexts. In his thought-provoking paper Critical Theory: Ideology Critique and the Myths of E-Learning, Dr Norm Friesen maintains:

“The central argument of critical theory is that all knowledge, even the most scientific or ‘commonsensical,’ is historical and broadly political in nature. Critical theorists argue that knowledge is shaped by human interests of different kinds, rather than standing ‘objectively’ independent from these interests.”

As you can tell by that quote, Critical Theory is steeped in political science and social justice. However it all boils down to challenging any knowledge that presents itself as “certain, final, and beyond human interests or motivations” and is “considered so obviously commonsensical or natural that it is placed beyond criticism”.

In other words, Critical Theory is about myth busting.

Myths in e-learning

As the Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University, Dr Friesen applies the principles of Critical Theory to three e-learning myths:

1. We live in a knowledge economy.
2. E-Learning enables “anyone, anywhere, anytime” access to education.
3. Technology drives educational change.

I’m going to provide a brief overview of Friesen’s arguments, but then I’m going to do something either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid: point out where I don’t agree with the author – an academic heavyweight about a thousand times more credible than I.

But hey, Critical Theory is all about challenging what we’ve been told. Besides, by the end of this piece you’ll realise that I essentially agree with Dr Friesen. So please bear with me!

The knowledge economy

Friesen argues that the concept of a “knowledge economy” defines knowledge as a commodity. Rather than something that should be shared openly, it has market value and thus can be bought and sold.

Friesen recognises the social implications of such a philosophy: the emergence of a classist society in which knowledge workers (ie those who have the knowledge) succeed and prosper, while service workers (ie those who don’t have the knowledge and are relegated to manual labour) struggle and subsist.

Man mopping floor

My problem with Friesen’s argument is that it doesn’t appear to bust the myth of the knowledge economy. If anything, it reinforces its truth.

He describes the current state of affairs – the encroachment of technology on traditional educational artifacts; criticisms of the schooling system in its current form; the postindustrial shift from manufacturing to services; the widening gulf between rich and poor.

Then he advocates means by which we might overcome it – recognise the value of other forms of work that complement knowledge work; cultivate a range of skill sets that relate to those other forms of work; view knowledge as an instrument of democratisation rather than as a saleable commodity.

In other words, the knowledge economy is not a myth, and there is a danger that a large proportion of the population will become disaffected by it if we don’t do anything about it.

Anyone, anywhere, anytime

Friesen argues that the catchphrase “anyone, anywhere, anytime” promotes a privileged group of people (ie white males) as the universal representation of all e-learners. However, the digital divide dictates that “anyone” does not include people in disadvantaged communities; “anywhere” does not include nations outside the OECD; and “anytime”, I suppose, is redundant in light of the first two.

My problem with Friesen’s argument in this instance is that it takes the catchphrase out of context. In the corporate sector, for example, “anyone, anywhere, anytime” is certainly not a myth. It’s entirely plausible that all the employees of a particular company can access their e-learning resources from anywhere at anytime – and if they can’t, it’s an anomaly that the IT department needs to fix quick smart.

In this scenario, the experience of the population (ie the staff) is indeed universalised. Race, gender and income have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Businesswoman on laptop

Besides, I’d imagine there are plenty of blokes in Lithuania (not to mention in trailer parks across the US) who would take umbrage to the assumption that all white males are rich and hyperconnected. Is that, ironically, a myth that critical theorists are guilty of perpetuating?

Technology drives educational change

Finally, Friesen argues that the myth “technology drives educational change” disempowers educators. It dictates that it is not they who drive the future of their own profession, but rather technological progress. Those who adopt new technologies will go forth and conquer, while those who resist will lag behind.

In contrast, Friesen maintains that technology is only one component of a complex system. As such, it is incapable of acting alone to initiate change, but rather must interact with people in their environment who will appropriate it accordingly.

My problem with Friesen’s argument this time around is that since the dawn of time, technologies from paper to blackboards, from computers to smartphones, have changed education. The way we teach and learn today is vastly different from how we did even a mere 20 years ago.

Businessman looking at his PDA

I agree that technology hasn’t driven those changes single handedly – after all, humans must be around to use it – but the flip side is that the changes would not have occurred if the technology was not introduced.

Regardless of how teachers and students respond to new technologies – whether they adopt or adapt them, hack them or mash them – their world will be different. Maybe we can’t predict how it will change, but we know that it will.

Shoot the messenger

When I finished reading Friesen’s paper, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I really didn’t disagree with him. I know that sounds preposterous given my observations above, but it was so.

I couldn’t put my finger on it until I realised that Critical Theory isn’t really about busting myths after all; it’s about critiquing messages.

If I do a global find for “myth” in Friesen’s paper and replace it with “message”, suddenly our views align:

1. Knowledge is increasingly seen as a commodity in today’s workplace, and it’s leading us headlong into a social crisis.

2. Anyone, anywhere, anytime access to e-learning is feasible for a privileged few.

3. Technology drives educational change via its interactions with teachers and students.

The questions I feel the critical theorist must ask are: Who propagates particular messages, and why do they do it? Under what circumstances are they true or false? What are the consequences of that truth or falsehood? What can or should we do about it?

You can bet your bottom dollar that those who pontificate about the knowledge economy are those who stand to profit from it handsomely.

Just like you may appreciate the CLO of a corporation using e-learning to facilitate anywhere, anytime access to knowledge for staff, but perhaps remain rather skeptical of some official from the UN grandstanding about it on behalf of the world’s poor.

Just like you may see through a salesman’s rhetoric about the next big thing, but rest assured if that doesn’t change your world, something else will.


Campus firestarter

3 August 2010

Campus firestarter: Connectivism is a theory.

*** UPDATE: Due to popular demand, this t-shirt is now available
in real life. Order it now from CafePress. ***

Theory-informed instructional design tips

9 February 2010

In my previous article, I proposed a Taxonomy of Learning Theories to organise a few of the myriad of theories into some semblance of order, and to assist instructional designers in using theory to inform their work.

In this article, I go one step further by listing specific, practical instructional design tips that are informed by those theories.

But beware… You will find empirical evidence reported in the academic literature that supports these tips, and no doubt you can find just as much evidence that refutes them. I don’t purport them to be Gospel, and I certainly consider them highly dependent on context.

Having said that, however, I do vouch for my tips in terms of my own experience in the workplace, where I’ve applied them in various combinations to real-world cases.

I hope you find my list useful too – not so much as a checklist to incorporate every theory into your work – but rather to ensure that you have at least considered what they have to offer.

If you have your own theory-informed design tips, I’d love you to share them with me!

Behaviourist design

Sad dog, courtesy of lampelina, stock.xchng.Behaviourist learning theories inform us that stimuli elicit responses, and that one stimulus can be associated with another.

This perspective adopts a “black box” approach to instructional design:

  • Link paired concepts. For example, rolling the mouse over Italy on a map can display “Rome”, while rolling the mouse over Spain can display “Madrid”. Strengthen the association with a short burst of Italian and Spanish music respectively.

  • Incorporate matching pairs into an interactive game that facilitates repetition.

  • Use consistent navigation, symbols and visual design.

  • Provide plenty of questions for practice.

  • Reward correct responses to questions with a visual/verbal reward (eg a big green tick and the message “Well done!”) and perhaps a brief sound (eg a pleasant bing).

  • Flag incorrect responses to questions with a visual/verbal message (eg a small red x and the modest message “Oops, that’s not right”) and perhaps a brief sound (eg a buzz).

  • Avoid exposing the correct answer upon an incorrect response. Instead, allow the learner to re-try (unless of course the assessment is summative).

  • Remember that rote learning is no substitute for deep understanding.

Cognitivist design

Network neurons 1, courtesy of gerard79, stock.xchng.Cognitivist learning theories inform us that hierarchically (or otherwise logically) arranged content aligns with the existing network of knowledge in the learner’s mind.

This perspective demands a structured approach to instructional design:

  • Structure your content logically.

  • Start with the learning outcome and work backwards to connect it to prior knowledge. Fill in the gap. If the gap is extensive, consider multiple smaller courses rather than one big one.

  • Use advance organizers to put the upcoming content into context and to pre-organise it. In other words, assist the learner to link the new knowledge to the relevant point in their existing cognitive structure, and to construct high-level cognitive branches within which to fill the detail.

  • Organise your content in increasing order of complexity. Provide an epitome of the domain initially, then elaborate.

  • Apply a minimalist design to reduce extraneous cognitive load.

  • Use plenty of white space.

  • Bold key terms.

  • Modularise some of the text (enclose it in a box) to make it easier to digest.

  • Wrap multiple paragraphs into a single interactive show/hide object.

  • Migrate extensive text into a downloadable document or onto a wiki.

  • Use an infographic to arrange key concepts in a framework.

  • Place the text in the infographic as close as possible to the corresponding point in the picture. Consider an audio overlay.

  • Avoid bright decorations and looped animations that compete with the substantive content for the learner’s attention.

  • Allow the learner to control multimedia and to press “Play” when they’re good and ready, to avoid inducing mild panic.

  • Use consistent navigation, symbols and visual design (as per behaviourism, but according to a different rationale).

  • Include activities that require sequencing and categorisation.

  • Employ real-world examples and scenarios.

  • Summarise the key concepts.

  • Include a formative assessment to enable the learner to test their knowledge, and to modify it or fill in gaps if necessary.

  • Ask higher order questions to confirm deep understanding.

  • Provide rich feedback.

  • Allow time for reflection.

  • Employ a mostly instructivist approach for novices. Reserve problem-based learning (PBL) for experts.

Constructivist design

Digger, courtesy of mzacha, stock.xchng.Constructivist learning theories inform us that the prior knowledge of each learner is different, and thus they have unique needs, goals and contexts.

This perspective demands a learner-centred approach to instructional design:

  • Explain up-front why the learner should bother. What specific problem will it solve?

  • Allow the learner to co-create the learning objectives.

  • Cut to the chase. Content should be relevant, meaningful and practical. Supportive (but unnecessary) content should be made available elsewhere.

  • Avoid forced navigation: instead, allow the learner to explore the content at their discretion. A default linear navigation, however, will assist novices.

  • Ensure the navigation menu is always accessible from anywhere in the course.

  • Would a wiki be a more effective (self-directed) mode of delivery?

  • Avoid using an end-point in the bulk of the course to mark completion: instead, use a summative assessment.

  • If your assessment is robust enough, those who understand the content will pass, while those who don’t will fail.

  • Ask a colleague to bluff their way through your assessment. If they pass, it’s obviously too weak.

  • Ensure the assessment is authentic.

  • Where possible, enable the learner to undertake the learning at their place of practice.

  • Use real photos rather than cartoons or illustrations.

  • Encourage discovery learning.

  • Provide your learners with a forum to ask questions and to learn from one another. The forum may be synchronous or asynchronous, or both.

  • Encourage continual communication among the learners and their colleagues in the wider workplace. Consider a regular “community of practice” meeting if the conversation does not naturally emerge.

Connectivist design

Connectivism, based on white character 1 by svilen001, stock.xchng.Connectivist learning theory informs us that the learner can’t possibly take in all knowledge, and it changes too quickly anyway.

This perspective demands a realistic approach to instructional design that doesn’t rely on memory:

  • Supplement your content with further learning resources, not only to assist the learner to broaden and deepen their knowledge, but also to keep it up to date.

  • Avoid merely listing hyperlinks: instead, provide explanations to help the learner recognise meaningful patterns among them.

  • Create a social bookmarking account.

  • Encourage social networking (both online and face-to-face).

  • Develop an ILE to centralise all the resources.

  • Encourage the learner to integrate the ILE into a broader PLE.

Do you have any instructional design tips to share?

Taxonomy of Learning Theories

12 January 2010

Academia is teeming with learning theories.

Some of them are old, some of them are new. Some are flash-in-the-pan, others stand the test of time and remain applicable to this very day. Some of them are controversial, while others have assumed the aura of conventional wisdom. Some of them are simple, while others are incomprehensible to mere mortals.

It can be quite a challenge for the modern learning professional to identify an appropriate learning theory, draw practical ideas from it, and apply it to their daily work.

Post it!

Where do you start?

Which theory do you choose?

What is its central premise?

How does it relate to other theories?


To clear some of the obfuscation that surrounds learning theory, I have developed the following Taxonomy of Learning Theories.

Tracey's Taxonomy of Learning Theories

This taxonomy identifies key theories that apply to workplace learning, categorises them according to common properties, and illustrates the relationships among them.

I hope that this taxonomy, along with the corresponding notes below, will assist you in using learning theory to inform your instructional design decisions.

Close up of The ThinkerOverarching themes

Almost all learning theory is derived from one or more of the following psychological schools of thought:

• Behaviourism
• Cognitivism
• Constructivism
• Connectivism

These four psychologies form the overarching themes of my taxonomy.


Behaviourism is essentially the study of overt behaviour. Behaviourist learning theories focus on external responses elicited by stimuli. 

For example, classical conditioning maintains that a neutral stimulus can be associated with another stimulus that elicits a particular response. This concept was demonstrated in the early 1900s by Ivan Pavlov, who reported that after a period of conditioning, a dog will associate the sound of a beating metronome (neutral stimulus) with food, and respond to it in the same manner (salivate). 

Stivers 2-10-03 Pavlov's dogs

Operant conditioning maintains that behaviour is controlled by its consequences: behaviours that are rewarded are likely to be repeated, while behaviours that are punished are unlikely to be repeated. This concept was demonstrated by Edward Thorndike, who placed a cat in a “puzzle box”. The cat discovered that by pulling a ring, a side door fell open which allowed it to escape. So when Thorndike put the cat back in the box, it pulled the ring again. 

Social Learning Theory is another theory that has its roots in behaviourism. I somewhat amateurishly consider it operant conditioning by proxy, whereby the learner (especially a child) observes the rewarded actions of someone else, and thus behaves similarly. It’s important to note that Social Learning Theory now extends beyond the behaviourist domain to encompass cognition, particularly through the work of Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura. 


Since behaviourism focuses on external behaviour, it considers the mind a black box. In contrast, cognitivism peers inside the box to explain the inner structures and processes of learning.

Brain 001

Models of memory 

Numerous cognitivist learning theories derive from the Modal Model of Memory developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin since 1968. They proposed that human memory comprises three components: (1) Sensory memory, which perceives the information that is collected by our senses, such as visual information (eg a drawing) and auditory information (eg a bell toll); (2) Short-term memory, which processes the information that has been supplied by the sensory memory; and (3) Long-term memory, our more-or-less permanent knowledge storage area.

The original Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model

Atkinson & Shiffrin’s concept of short-term memory was superseded in 1974 by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch’s concept of working memory, which comprises the central executive and three slave systems: (1) The phonological loop, which processes verbal information; (2) The visuospatial sketchpad, which processes visual imagery and spatial information; and (3) an integrative component called the episodic buffer.

Schematic of Baddeley's Model

In 1956, George Miller reported that the “span of immediate memory” is limited to the magical number 7±2 items. From this, he deduced that the amount of information that could be processed at any one time could be increased by “chunking” it.

In the 1970s, John Anderson started to develop ACT-R, which maintains that long-term memory comprises declarative memory which is explicitly stored and retrieved (eg crashing your bike into a tree on your birthday when you were a child) and procedural memory which is unconsciously stored and retrieved (eg the motor skills required for riding a bike generally).

Schema theories 

Models of memory provide the foundation for subsequent cognitivist theories that (arguably) have more direct implications for instructional design. 

In 1977, Richard Anderson extended the work of earlier theorists such as Frederic Bartlett and Jean Piaget. His Schema Theory of Learning maintains that within long-term memory (or more specifically, declarative memory), knowledge is arranged in a hierarchical network of constructs called “schemas”. 


Similarly, David Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory proposes that learning involves the linking of new information to relevant points in the learner’s existing cognitive structure. During the learning process, new information is subsumed under more general information in the hierarchical arrangement of the learner’s prior knowledge. 

Charles Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory complements Ausubel’s principle of ideational scaffolding. Reigeluth maintains that instruction should be organised in increasing order of complexity. In particular, the simplest (or epitomised) version of the domain should be provided initially, and elaborated upon subsequently. This approach develops a broad, meaningful context into which the learner can assimilate the narrow, detailed information. 

Cognitive load 

In 1988, John Sweller synthesised key principles of memory and schema under a new proposal called Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory maintains that the mental effort required for learning imposes a cognitive load on working memory. The total cognitive load consists of three components: (1) Intrinsic cognitive load, which is imposed by the intrinsic characteristics of the content that is to be learned; (2) Germane cognitive load, which refers to the mental effort required to organise the elements of the content into a schema, integrate it into long-term memory, and automate its processing; and (3) Extraneous cognitive load, which does not contribute to the learning process (eg the mental effort required to block out loud music). 

Studying for a Test 1

If the total cognitive load of the learning task exceeds the processing capacity of working memory, learning fails. This suggests that instruction should be designed with a view to reduce cognitive load and thereby avoid overload. 


DiggerConstructivism has a rich history. Numerous theorists have contributed to its development over the last century (eg Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Ernst von Glaserfeld), and several brands are recognised in the domain (eg cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, radical constructivism). 

Regardless of the theorist or the brand, however, constructivism essentially maintains that people learn by constructing their own knowledge on the basis of their experiences. Constructivist learning theories recognise that everyone’s framework of prior knowledge is unique, thus they have their own needs, goals and contexts. 


Baby with booksIn his study of child development, Jean Piaget posited that every learner has a mental representation of the world which he or she constructs through their experiences.

When a person experiences cognitive conflict (a discrepancy between their mental representation and what they are currently experiencing), they undergo a process of adaptation. If the new experience aligns with their mental representation, the learner assimilates it in the form of new knowledge into their existing schema. If, however, the new experience does not align with their mental representation, the learner must rearrange their existing schema to accommodate the new knowledge.

Clearly, adaptation is complementary to Schema Theory; however, the constructivist perspective emphasises the learner centredness of the activity. 

Situated Learning Theory 

A valuable means by which a learner can close the gaps in their existing schema, and broaden and deepen their knowledge, is to engage with other people, ask questions, debate ideas, and share experiences. 

BlacksmithSituated Learning Theory focuses on this social, practice-based approach to learning. The theory views learning in terms of participation in a community of practice, and considers knowledge to be highly dependent on its context. 


Andragogy focuses on adult learning, and it adopts a strong constructivist perspective.

Business manIt boils down to 5 assumptions about adult learners as articulated by Malcolm Knowles: (1) Adult learners are self directed; (2) Adults bring experience with them to the learning environment; (3) Adults are ready to learn to perform their role in society; (4) Adults are problem oriented, and they seek immediate application of their new knowledge; and (5) Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

I have stated previously that I believe Knowles’ 5 assumptions generally hold true – but not for all adults, and certainly not all of the time. An andragogical approach is appropriate for adults who are intellectually mature, self directed and intrinsically motivated, with time to learn and their heads in the right space.


While cognitivism focuses on knowledge inside the mind, connectivism focuses on knowledge outside the mind. 

ConnectivismGeorge Siemens describes connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”. He maintains that in today’s world, there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway.

So forget about trying to know everything; instead, exploit technology to extend your knowledge beyond your own brain. Build a network of knowledge sources which you can access as the need arises. 

Recognising meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information, rather than storing it all in your head, re-defines what it means to “learn”.

E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1Referencing Note

If you would like to reference this article, you
may prefer to cite my book in which it appears:

E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1

Adult learning shminciples

29 September 2009

In the global game of Corporate Bingo, the term “adult learning principles” must be one of the most abused.

It’s a convenient abstract that can whitewash a range of unsubstantiated claims and half-truths.

But what exactly are adult learning principles?

The theory

Malcolm Knowles is widely regarded as the father of adult learning.

Since the 1960s, he articulated a distinction between pedagogy (the teaching of children) and andragogy (the teaching of adults). In many ways, Knowles’ description of pedagogy approximates instructivism, while his description of andragogy approximates constructivism.

In a nutshell, andragogy boils down to 5 key assumptions:

1. Adult learners are self directed.
2. Adults bring experience with them to the learning environment.
3. Adults are ready to learn to perform their role in society.
4. Adults are problem oriented, and they seek immediate application of their new knowledge.
5. Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

The problem is, if you work in the real world, you know this is baloney.

Wurst, courtesy of schwarzsi, stock.xchng.

The real world

Laurie Blondy does a useful (if somewhat repetitive) job of reviewing Knowles’ 5 assumptions in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning. She also discusses their potential applications to e-learning, and responds to some of the criticisms that have been voiced over the years.

I don’t intend to regurgitate Blondy’s observations, nor do I wish to echo the academic world’s arguments for or against the philosophy of andragogy.

Instead, I want to expose some of the attitudes of adult learners that I have encountered over the years…

“I haven’t got time for all this. Just tell me what I need to know and let me get on with it.”

Business man, courtesy of ilco, stock.xchng.“I don’t really want to do this course, but it’s mandatory, so I’ll do the bare minimum to pass and be done with it.”

“I’ve only been with the company for a few weeks. I don’t know what I don’t know.”

“Jim’s done this course before. I wonder if he’ll give me the answers to the quiz.”

“I need to earn more points for my continuing education program. What’s quick and easy?”

“I’ll do this training so it looks good on my resume. Then I can get that promotion I want.”

As an education professional, you’re probably cringing at these attitudes. But by the same token, you know through experience that they’re alive and well in today’s workplace.

The ideal

It’s important to remember that andragogy is founded on assumption, not empirical research.

To this day there remains an intriguing paucity of statistical evidence to support andragogy, despite the litany of arguments pitched against it.

But the science doesn’t matter because the assumptions sound right. Deep in your gut, you just know that they’re true. Just like you know only Gen-Y Americans are interested in Second Life and only spammers and corporate cowboys use Twitter.

Business man, courtesy of ilco, stock.xchng.The truth is, andragogy represents an ideal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all adult learners were self directed and ready to learn. Wouldn’t it be heart warming if they were motivated by the joy of learning, rather than by power, prestige and the mighty dollar.

To exacerbate the problem, the vast majority of education professionals want to believe the assumptions of andragogy. Some of us can’t get our heads around the notion that many people don’t love learning as much as we do. Some of us can’t accept the fact that many people aren’t altruistic or interested in collaboration. Some of us can’t appreciate that many people prioritise education a few pegs below their daily work and family commitments.

All walks of life work in the corporate sector, and the sector is subject to business realities.

The circumstances

At this point I must stress that I believe most adults value learning. In fact, I believe Knowles’ 5 assumptions generally hold true – but not for all adults, and certainly not all of the time.

Post it!, courtesy of bizior, stock.xchng.

Even the most motivated of learners will one day find themselves under a mountain of paperwork. Even the most collaborative of learners will one day have a deadline screaming towards them. Even the most experienced of staff will need to learn something completely new. Even the most joyful of learners will be forced to do training that they consider bureaucratic and irrelevant.

Their attitude depends on their circumstances.

The way forward

To be fair, Knowles evolved his of views of pedagogy and andragogy. In the early days he described them in terms of a dichotomy, while later on he described them in terms of a continuum.

In other words, he realised there were times when one approach might be more appropriate than the other, in light of the circumstances and the needs of the leaner. (Incidentally, this view complements my own view of instructivism, constructivism and connectivism.)

The way forward for the education professional, then, is clear:

Know your audience.

Paper chain in the dark, courtesy of hoefi, stock.xchng.

If your learners are intellectually mature, self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults with time to learn and their heads in the right space, then go ahead and incorporate the principles of andragogy into your instructional design.

If they’re not, for whatever reason, then you’ll need to modify your approach accordingly.

Instructivism, constructivism or connectivism?

17 March 2009

Instructivism is dead. Gone are the days of an authoritarian teacher transmitting pre-defined information to passive students.

In the 1990s, constructivism heralded a new dawn in instructional design, turbo-charged by the rise of Web 2.0. Students morphed into participants, empowered to seek new knowledge and understanding for themselves, in the context of their own unique, individual experiences.

In turn, teachers enthusiastically transformed themselves into facilitators, guiding and coaching the participants to inquire, explore, discover and even generate new learnings.

Fast forward to today and connectivism is all the rage. In this digital era, we recognise that there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway. So forget about trying to “know” everything; instead, build your network of knowledge sources, and access them whenever you need them.

Slippery slope

The popular sequence of events that I have recounted is often represented pictorially as a gradient, accompanied by that ubiquitous table comparing various aspects of the three pedagogies.

Evolution of Instructivism through Constructivism to Connectivism

But is this gradient a fair representation?

Certainly it’s accurate in terms of chronology: the concept of constructivism was conceived after instructivism, and connectivism was conceived after that.

However, I think the diagram misleadingly suggests an evolution of instructional design. In other words, constructivism was so intellectually and pedagogically superior to instructivism that it replaced it, and connectivism is so intellectually and pedagogically superior to constructivism that it, it turn, has replaced that.

Sure, the gradient reflects a wonderful growth of ideas, but I think it’s a trap to conclude that the latter pedagogies supersede the former.

The real world

My view is informed by observation.

Yes, workplace learning has thankfully become more constructivist and even connectivist over time, but we all know that instructivism is still alive and well.

For example, face-to-face classes with monologous trainers and one-to-one coaching sessions remain popular modes of delivery. Even in the e‑learning space, online courses are typically linear, virtual classes frequently replicate their bricks-and-mortar antecedents, while podcasts, of course, are quintessentially instructivist.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why is this so? Why, in the midst of ever-advancing learning theory and progressive instructional design, does such rampant instructivism persist? Why haven’t constructivism and connectivism blown it out of the water?

The answer, I believe, is because instructivism remains relevant.

The three amigos

Allow me to elaborate my argument in the context of the financial services industry.

When a new employee is recruited into the organisation, there are certain things they just need to know. For example, it might be imperative for the employee to understand how the superannuation system works, or a particular taxation regime, or the regulations that govern a particular investment option.

Not only does a sound understanding of the fundamental concepts have an obvious bearing on the employee’s ability to do their job properly, but leaving such learning to chance could have serious risk management and compliance ramifications.

This is where an instructivist approach proves useful. Whether in a classroom setting, via an online course or otherwise, the resident subject matter expert (SME) within the organisation typically provides the learner with a programmed sequence of knowledge, carefully scaffolding their learning and – to adopt a cognitivist view – construct a basic framework of knowledge in the learner’s mind.

As a novice in the domain, the learner is unlikely to know what it is they need to know. The SME transmits this necessary information quickly and efficiently.

Next, a constructivist approach empowers the learner to expand and deepen their knowledge at their discretion. For example:

  • Discussion forums (synchronous or asynchronous) allow the learner to ask questions, clarify concepts and share experiences.
  • Wikis act as non-linear knowledge banks to be mined as necessary.
  • Search engines allow the learner to follow their own trails of inquiry.

No longer a novice, the learner has the tools to drive further learning in the context of their existing knowledge.

As the learner acquires expertise, we must recognise that in this digital age, no one person can ever be expected to know it all. At this point, a connectivist approach empowers the learner to extend their knowledge by proxy.

In a previous article, I provided the following examples of potential information sources that the learner could incorporate into their personal learning network:

  • Social bookmarks
  • News feeds, podcasts, blogs, wikis and discussion forums
  • Social and professional networks such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Industry conferences and other external events

In today’s environment, I see an expert as one who couples a rich foundation of knowledge with the capability to connect to new knowledge at a moment’s notice.

A new representation

In the workplace, it’s clear that instructivism, constructivism and connectivism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The astute e-learning practitioner will apply principles of all three, as circumstances change and their respective relevancies rise and fall. As I have suggested, this may align to the learner’s transition from novice to expert in a particular domain.

From a practical perspective then, is the popular “evolution” of instructional design from instructivism through constructivism to connectivism a furphy? All three pedagogies build on one another to provide a rounded theoretical toolset for the modern professional to exploit.

Therefore, I propose to replace the traditional left-to-right gradient with a new representation:

Complementary nature of Instructivism, Constructivism and Connectivism

This diagram acknowledges the chronology of instructional design theory, with the earliest pedagogy occupying the centre circle, and the later pedagogies occupying the outer rings. Yet it does not suggest that one pedagogy supersedes the other; instead, they complement one another.

Balancing act

It’s important to point out that in any organisation, different employees will be at different stages of learning across multiple domains. The instructional designer will need to balance all three pedagogical approaches to support everyone.

For example, while an online course may be purposefully instructivist to support novice learners, it’s important that a learner-centered approach be adopted to serve others who may also use the course (or parts thereof).


In short, if someone asks me “Instructivism, constructivism or connectivism?”, I say “All three, where relevant”.

E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1Referencing Note

If you would like to reference this article, you
may prefer to cite my book in which it appears:

E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1

Connectivism and the modern learner

28 December 2008

Recently, I read a blog article about connectivism by Debora Gallo. Soon after, I attended a presentation about m-learning by Jan Herrington, in which she too mentioned connectivism.

This got me thinking… I don’t know anything about connectivism!

So after several hours of unenlightened googling, I decided to bite the bullet, go back to first principles and read George Siemens’ seminal paper, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Theoretical foundations

Siemens describes connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organisation theories”.

Network spheresAccording to Chaos Theory, everything is connected, as illustrated so eloquently by the Butterfly Effect.

While chaos may appear a random mess at first glance, the theory holds that order does in fact exist.

So if we view chaos through the lens of Network Theory, we see the universe as a massive, complex network. While the millions of nodes may appear disparate and unrelated, they are all indeed connected (however indirectly).

The point for the learner is whether you can recognise the underlying pattern. Meaning already exists in the world… but can you see it? Mother Nature hasn’t drawn any lines for you: you have to join the dots yourself.

Learning in the digital age

Siemens bills connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”.

The amount of knowledge in the world is growing exponentially – and to make matters worse, it’s superseding itself quicker than ever before. So while it’s one thing to join the dots, new dots are popping up all over the place!

In this context, the idea of connectivism re-defines what it means to “learn”.

These days, we can’t know it all. There’s simply too much to internalise and it changes too quickly. Instead, we need to exploit technology to extend our knowledge beyond our own brains.

World, keyboard and mouse

Specifically, we need to connect to sources of information, and to form connections between them. In other words, we need to recognise meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information. This is the new process of “learning”.

In a sense, connectivism is about self-organising our personal learning networks. We don’t have all knowledge in our heads right now, nor do we necessarily want it. Most of it is hosted elsewhere, but through judicious networking we assume it as our own. In this way, we have access to it whenever we need it.

In fact, Siemens maintains that “the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”. I interpret this to mean that as time goes by, new knowledge becomes more relevant in the real world, while existing knowledge becomes obsolete. Therefore we need to maintain our connections to the new knowledge.

That’s why connectivism focuses on the sources of information, rather than on the information itself. Information comes and goes, but the source of the information will always provide you with the latest and greatest. (That’s the idea, anyway.)

Hence, connectivism represents a major shift in instructional design. Rather than continually feeding learners static information, we need to support their evolution in becoming their own personal knowledge managers.

The hornet’s nest

I didn’t realise that connectivism was so controversial, eg Pløn Verhagen, Downes.

I must admit that I struggled with some of the basic concepts when I first read Siemens’ paper, and I found the lack of practical examples frustrating. A part of me found solace when I realised that others with impressive academic credentials were also questioning various aspects of the theory.


However, I accept Siemens’ subsequent point that the discourse since his article was published has helped to create a context of understanding. As I have not participated in those discussions, I shall try to limit my own “unsubstantiated philosophising”.

Moving on

It seems to me that the academic argy bargy has focussed on the epistemology of connectivism.

The constructivist approach to learning, for example, can still involve the same sources of information as the connectivist approach; so the argument isn’t about how or where the learner accesses information, but what they do with it in order to “learn”.

As far as I can gather, no one’s arguing about the pedagogy of connectivism.

It’s universally accepted that the practice of learning has changed in the modern world. To keep up to speed in the knowledge economy, we need to connect to sources of new information. These days we have many excellent tools to do just that, and the modern learner is using them.

Click Me!, courtesy of wagg66, stock.xchng.

So regardless of our theoretical biases, connectivism informs us that we need to supplement the learner’s “know-how” and “know-what” with “know-where”.


One of the ways we can apply connectivism in the corporate sector is by enriching our employees’ PLEs with relevant, high-quality sources of new information. Consider the following:

  • Create a social bookmarking account to share useful websites.
  • Recommend news feeds, podcasts, blogs and discussion forums.
  • Use Twitter and Facebook to foster social/professional networking.
  • Maintain wikis as JIT knowledge repositories.
  • Promote industry conferences and other external events.

But facilitating connections to good sources of new information is only part of the solution. The learners also need to form the connections between them to drive self-organisation.

Context setting is particularly important. Don’t just insert a simple hyperlink to an information set: explain its purpose. For example, “this website contains full-text copies of the legislation that governs the financial services industry”; “this wiki hosts our product information”; “this news feed informs you of our daily interest rates”.

Let the learners know that they don’t need to remember every clause of every act of law; nor do they need to learn the obscure details of every product the company sells; nor do they need to memorise the company’s interest rates, which are prone to change anyway.

However, they do need to know where to get this information when they need it.


Finally, connectivism demands some serious meta-learning skills.

Not only must learners identify and self-organise sources of information in the wider world, but they must also continually evaluate the contents. The digital age has set off an avalanche of information: learners need to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t.

Falling 1's and 0's

To support the development of connectivist meta-learning skills, consider the following:

  • Encourage your learners to find further sources of information for themselves.
  • Encourage them to share these sources with their colleagues via Web 2.0, and to explain their relevance.
  • Run exercises or workshops to develop their content evaluation skills.
  • Provide case studies illustrating how new information has affected existing situations in the real world.

Our role, therefore, is not only to assist our colleagues in sourcing new information, but also in managing it effectively. Only then can they become self-directed, self-regulated and, ultimately, self-made in the knowledge economy.