Behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism are the core theories that underpin so many of our approaches to learning in schools, however these ideas were not purposely designed to accommodate the learning possibilities afforded by digital technologies. Selwyn points out how “some academic commentators… question the ‘goodness of fit’ between twenty-first-century technologies and twentieth-century theories”1. The Goodreads technology affords a range of different ways that readers can record their reading and connect with other readers within a virtual knowledge space (Levy, 1997) that is unlike classroom-based learning in many respects.
Siemens’ and Downes’ theory of connectivism does specifically focus on the affordances of technology in the learning process. For them learning is a social phenomenon: they stress the importance of networking and the use of collaborative tools (Siemens, 2004; Downes, 2006). Unlike their pedagogical forebears they perceive Web 2.0 tools as situating much of the learning outside of the individual learner. For Siemens learning in the digital age relies on a “network of people (and, increasingly technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use.”2 By locating learning within networks it could be could be characterised as distributive knowledge (Downes, 2006). Siemens proposes that learning with technology occurs as a result of “the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing and thinking together.”3
Connectivism proposes the creation of learning communities that foster both the production and consumption of knowledge, where an individual can contribute to the network and access knowledge from all members of the network and from the technology itself (Downes, 2006). Thus, the cycle of learning involves an individual integrating into a network where he or she can access and share knowledge. The learner then goes on to augment their previous knowledge in light of this new learning and, finally, feed this back into the network where other members of the community can continue the learning and production cycle anew. This is why Downes sees connectivist learning as an organic process, where “connections form naturally”: a connectionist network “is not built (like a model) it is grown (like a plant).”4 Similarly, Seimens describes it a as a “learning ecology.”5
A lingering doubt about connectivist pedagogy is that many networks are not purposed for learning (Graham and Hughes, 2010). This is certainly the case for Goodreads, which is not designed specifically to be educational software, but rather a platform “to help people find and share books they love.”6 Clearly then the success of any educational endeavour using existing networks, creating new ones or repurposing existing platforms for building learning communities lies in the competence of teachers to “foster and maintain knowledge flow.”7 In the current educational climate connectivist approaches barely register in pedagogical thinking, since it has “not yet fully extended from the philosophical domain into that of applied educational research.” 8 As a result, finding skilled and willing staff to cultivate and maintain these networks could well prove challenging. Another potential pitfall to connectivism lies in its assumption that learners are self-motivated enough to connect to networks, or are not put off by the sheer scale of these knowledge communities (Anderson and Dron, 2011; Kop and Hill, 2011). Some commentators perceive the shift towards student autonomy and self-organisation as problematic (Bullock, 2011; Yoshiyuki, 2011); others doubt whether the reticence of some students in real-world environments can really be reduced or eliminated in the virtual world (Mackness et al, 2010). Siemens (2006) anticipated many of these criticisms, insisting that time, training and resources need to be devoted to changing the culture of learning in our educational institutions in order to successfully integrate a connectivist approach into the current curriculum.