I’ve recently completed a literature review on the topic of Massively Open Online Courses (and, more specifically, whether there is compelling data-based analytics that support the investment in such a platform). What has resulted from my initial review is a curious new learning theory: connectivism, devised by Siemen and Downes, which supports the use of MOOCs from a theoretical standpoint.  Here is an excerpt from my review:

Initial keyword searches of “MOOC” both on the web and within academic journal search engines revealed a consistent theoretical framework behind the MOOC: connectivism. In fact, Clarà and Barberà (2013) revealed that some in the field have begun to classify two types of MOOCs: cMOOC (or connectivist MOOC) and xMOOC (other types). The xMOOC doesn’t necessarily use a particular pedagogical strategy, although Clarà and Barberà found that a behaviorist approach is normal in those “non-connectivist” MOOCs.

Why identify connectivism beyond the three most widely-recognized pedagogical concepts of constructivism, behaviorism, and cognitivism? Siemens and Downes (as cited in Clarà and Barberà) rationalize that traditionally, knowledge is a thing; that is, a representation of what a person can create or appropriate. Web 2.0 and associated technologies create a multiplicity of perspectives and therefore do not mesh with the thingness of knowledge. Siemens and Downes, in response, proposed a new learning theory: connectivism. Connectivism demonstrates the following two key concepts in digital learning (Clarà & Barberà, 2013):

  1. “…Knowledge is subsymbolic, and that representations are just epiphenomena of knowledge, but not its matter.” In other words, knowledge is a representation of the recognition of association of patterns.
  2.  “These neuronal associative patterns are caused by the learner’s recognition of associative patterns between informational entities (named nodes) located outside the learner and organized in a network. In the Web 2.0 environment, the nodes would be people, materials, and tools that the learner connects to.”

Mackness, Mak, and Williams (2010) studied the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course offered by Siemens and reported the participants’ reactions, especially with regard to the concept of connectivism. They wrote, “…participants [experienced] the principles of connectivism – autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness in practice. Our findings suggest that these might all be achievable in a complex learning network, but in a course (as opposed to a network), particularly a massive open online course, they can be compromised.” What’s especially relevant about this connectivism study is that it took participant feedback and compared it to successful outcomes in the course itself.

Although the course was specifically tackling the topic of connectivism, because Mackness, Mak and Williams equated connectivism with MOOCs, the results are some of the few and far between evidence-based dialogues on the subject. “It may be true that all learning begins with a connection, but connectivity itself is not a sufficient condition for connectedness or interactivity,” they found.

Clarà and Barberà (2013), meanwhile, dispute the psychological underpinnings of connectivism. They posit that the theory itself is a learning paradox: how does one recognize a pattern if one doesn’t know there is a pattern to be recognized? If one does recognize the pattern, how should he or she know the significance of the pattern? Practically, without leadership and direction, students without the ability to self-regulate at an advanced level feel lost.

Secondly, they propose, the node theory of connecting with another human being is not a binary on-off switch. Rather, building of relationships is a fluid concept that grows (and wanes) as a dynamic process. The authors characterize this fault as underconceptualization of relationships and connections.

Finally, Clara and Barbera claim that connectivism doesn’t explain concept development. As with connecting nodes, learners do not understand concepts as a binary: learning psychology for decades has supported continued growth of the understanding of a concept. A 12-year-old does not understand a concept the same way that he or she did at age four. In the twentieth century, associationism was abandoned for this very reason (in the Vygotskian tradition of cultural psychology).

Even with their critique of connectivism as a theory, Clarà and Barberà don’t call for the abandonment of MOOCs entirely. They urge that a new and adequate pedagogy be developed for xMOOCs.

Connectivism is not without its champions. Rodriguez (2012) characterizes one of the case studies of a cMOOC as a success (although surreptitiously quoting Siemens, the thought-leader behind connectivism, is not terribly convincing). With a lower drop-out rate compared to the Stanford-style courses and a peer model, Rodriguez concludes that though the experience for participants was different, it was still valuable.


Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2013). Learning online: Massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129-136. doi:10.1080/01587919.2013.770428

Mackness, J., Mak, S., & Williams, R. (2010). The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Networked Learning, Aalborg, Denmark. Retrieved from website: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/PDFs/Mackness.pdf

Rodriguez, C. (2012). MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like courses: Two successful and distinct course formats for massive open online courses. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 23(1). Retrieved from website: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2012/Rodriguez.pdf