What Is Connectivism Learning Theory and How Can You Apply It in Learning and Development?
Chances are, your company is chock-full of subject matter experts brimming with valuable information. In fact, 42% of internal knowledge is uniquely held by individual employees. If one of those employees leaves without transferring that knowledge to a colleague, it will be lost forever—a major hit to workplace efficiency.
This is where Connectivism Learning Theory, sometimes called Connectivist Learning Theory, comes in.
Connectivism is built on the idea that digital technology brings people together and creates new learning opportunities. Although connectivism is among the more recent learning theories, it’s already transforming workplace training practices. With today’s workforce moving toward remote work and remote learning, connectivism provides a framework for L&D to rethink existing processes and training.
The challenge with connectivism for L&D teams is investing in app-based and online learning tools that offer a social component. It’s this intersection between human interaction and digital technology that supports a continuous learning environment.
Connectivism accepts technology as a major factor in our learning process. In fact, this theory promotes the idea that learning can successfully happen through digital channels, including social media, forums, videos, and blogs.
George Siemens (in 2004) and Stephen Downes (in 2005) said connectivism begins when an individual turns to digital technology to solve a problem. This can include actions such as googling a question, texting a friend, or searching for topical social media content. Connectivism Learning Theory posits that the use of digital technology helps to solve a problem and, in turn, deepens the understanding of a topic.
As more corporations adopt remote work and remote learning, connectivism provides a framework to ensure employees have the tools to build relationships with each other and create a culture based on continuous learning.
For example, imagine a new hire has a question about paid time off. They turn to Slack to message colleagues with this question and are directed to an internal wiki with all the information they need. Not only has the new hire gained an answer to their original question, but they also have access to a database filled with internal knowledge on a variety of topics. Even more, they have begun to form connections with their new colleagues. So in the future, they will turn to their colleagues or the wiki for answers instead of bombarding HR with basic questions.
In this way, connectivism is similar to another popular learning theory, Collaborative Learning. These two theories often go hand-in-hand to aid workplace culture and interpersonal relationships among colleagues by emphasizing human interaction. Where connectivism differs is in its reliance on digital tools to connect individuals and facilitate deeper learning experiences.
George Siemens developed Connectivism Learning Theory by mapping out his eight guiding principles:
- Learning and knowledge rest in a diversity of opinions. Perspectives from a variety of sources deepen our understanding.
- Learning is a process of connecting. When we build relationships with colleagues, we open ourselves up to new skills, thoughts, and ideas we might not otherwise have access to.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Learners may store information in a digital way, like in an app, social media post, or video. Similarly, a community of learners may store information in a database or forum.
- The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. As Siemens says: “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.”
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. Collaborative social interaction brings people together and forms a long-term learning environment.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. We must learn how to build a bridge to connect point A to point B. That bridge itself is a new learning opportunity.
- Accurate, up-to-date knowledge is the intent of all Connectivist Learning. When we work together, our understandings are constantly being reinforced and updated.
- Decision-making is itself a learning process. What we know today may change tomorrow. If up-to-date information is the intent of connectivism, we must accept that our knowledge will need to continuously evolve as new understandings present themselves.
Connectivism sounds great in theory: we all use digital technology, so, of course, it makes sense to apply it to learning opportunities. In practice, this theory can take many forms—so long as learning takes place through digital and social means. In a workplace setting, you can apply three strategies with minimal lift from your L&D team: gamification, social learning, and mentorship.
Put simply, gamification is a learning mechanism that leverages components of games—like points, challenges, and levels—to boost learning and tap into our human need for rewards.
Gamification supports connectivism because it takes mundane learning activities, such as reading an article or completing a training module, and makes them interactive by rewarding the participant. It’s also a way to give feedback in real time, foster collaboration, and celebrate employee achievements.
Gamification also gives employees a safe space to fail, learn what they did wrong, and work through their weaknesses.
This learning strategy has been around a long time—even before gamification became a buzzword in L&D. Think back to when you were in kindergarten and received a gold star for washing your hands. That’s gamification in action. More recently, the method was the focus of a 2019 meta-analysis in Educational Psychology Review that proved gamification, in most applications, is an effective learning method.
More often than not, contemporary learning-based apps feature gamification components. You can turn your existing training modules or courses into interactive games using an LMS or learning app. Here are some things to look for in an LMS if you want to implement gamification:
- Leaderboards to encourage healthy competition with training.
- Badges or certifications for completing a course. It’s an added bonus if these badges are sharable, so employees can show them off on LinkedIn or their resume.
- Trivia or interactive quizzes to reinforce knowledge.
- Challenge modes for learners who want to push their learning even further.
Social learning opportunities, in your L&D program, encourage all levels of staff to contribute ideas and share internal knowledge.
Like peer-review sessions or group discussions, social learning gives learners the opportunity to exchange information, form their own opinions, and learn from each other in an informal, safe space. Social learning is important in the workplace for facilitating psychological safety.
With social learning, every employee has equal space to speak up and contribute to an idea without fear of retaliation or embarrassment. As an added bonus, social learning opportunities form communities where learners can freely share information and reinforce knowledge through conversations.
A simple way to encourage social learning with minimal lift is to develop an internal wiki that all levels of staff are encouraged to contribute to.
Another option is to create a discussion forum or online space where learners can discuss training or learning opportunities. In practice, this might look like a Slack channel or other internal space such as an LMS or learning app. Discussion forums also give staff members an opportunity to connect with subject matter experts (SMEs) at your company.
Workplace mentorship programs support connectivism by bringing together staff members at different stages in their careers to swap internal knowledge, discuss company culture and values, and talk through role-related challenges.
Studies show that learners who participate in a mentorship program tend to see higher levels of workplace satisfaction and greater career growth and are more likely to remain committed to a company.
Even though the benefits are well-known, many companies don’t have an ongoing, dedicated mentorship program in place. In a 2020 survey, 73% of companies believed they did not devote enough time to mentorship. Mentorships also encourage employees to control their own learning by having a person to direct questions to and learn from. Employees gain personalized knowledge on-demand.
Strong mentorship programs exist in remote settings as well. Mentorship begins on day one by assigning new hires to an onboarding buddy: a person who’s been with the company long enough to learn the ins and outs and has built up enough internal knowledge to answer questions or knows where to look to find answers.
Schedule regular meetings for the mentor (or buddy) and mentee to check in once per week for the first two months, then let the mentee set the pace. These can happen in person or remotely with a video conferencing app like Zoom. Even if mentees don’t need regular meetings after the first two months, they still have a connection with a colleague they trust and can turn to with questions later.
Related: The What, Why, and How of Mentorship Programs at Work
To sum up: Connectivist Learning works best when people are able to collaborate. Collaborative Learning builds on the ideas of Connectivism Learning Theory, including social interaction, ongoing knowledge exchange, and seeking information through digital channels.
Digital tools, like an LMS or Collaborative Learning platform, make it easy for colleagues to form deep connections and exchange knowledge. With a Collaborative Learning platform, employees can share information and learn from each other on-demand, which fosters an ongoing learning environment in the workplace. Best of all, a Collaborative Learning platform is simple to update as knowledge changes, so your workers never feel left behind.