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Connectivist Illuminati?

September 21, 2008

In this post I try to understand knowledge as Stephen Downes does, reiterating his view from a Moodle post last year.

“At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Hence people see a relation between connectivism and constructivism or active learning (to name a couple).

Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic.

Connectivism is, by contrast, ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. It may consist in part of linguistic structures, but it is not essentially based in linguistic structures, and the properties and constraints of linguistic structures are not the properties and constraints of connectivism.

In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action. And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks.

Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways. ” (Downes, 2007).

If I understand this correctly, what Stephen is suggesting is that knowledge is distributed, not acquired, and is literally the set of connections formed through action and experience. Knowledge is not necessarily grounded in language and logic. Constructing meaning makes no sense because connections form naturally and not through intent. Hence there is no concept in connectivism of transferring, making or building knowledge.

He says that learning is the ability to construct and traverse networks. (I wonder where understanding fits into this ontology). Knowledge = connections. Learning is the ability to form connections. Knowledge is not acquired, as though it is a thing (but is a connection a thing?).

“This gets to the core of the distinction between constructivism and connectivism (in my view, at least).

In a representational system, you have a thing, a physical symbol, that stands in a one-to-one relationship with something: a bit of knowledge, an ‘understanding’, something that is learned, etc.

In representational theories, we talk about the creation (‘making’ or ‘building’) and transferring of these bits of knowledge. This is understood as a process that parallels (or in unsophisticated theories, is) the creation and transferring of symbolic entities.

Connectivism is not a representational theory. It does not postulate the existence of physical symbols standing in a representational relationship to bits of knowledge or understandings. Indeed, it denies that there are bits of knowledge or understanding, much less that they can be created, represented or transferred.

This is the core of connectivism (and its cohort in computer science, connectionism). What you are talking about as ‘an understanding’ is (at a best approximation) distributed across a network of connections. To ‘know that P’ is (approximately) to ‘have a certain set of neural connections’.

To ‘know that P’ is, therefore, to be in a certain physical state – but, moreover, one that is unique to you, and further, one that is indistinguishable from other physical states with which it is co-mingled” (Downes, 2007).

I don’t know about all this. Seems to remove all free will from the system, and suggest that the only reason I know P is because I possess certain neural connections, and my neural connections = physical state is unique to me, and indistinguishable from other physical states. How can my unique physical state be indistinguishable from other physical states? Wouldn’t be unique then, would it? Seems this argument is centred on intent. Knowledge is unintentional, non-representational, non-propositional. All that is left for knowledge is connections, which form naturally through a process of association. How can we even use representational symbols to discuss it then? Are not representational symbols an agreed-upon means of communicating? Is there not knowledge transmission, construction, destruction in the communication process? Without representational symbols, how would one communicate?


“So – I argue – the assertion that we think in a language, whether while playing chess or composing an essay, is an illusion.

It may look like we’re using language, but that’s not what’s actually happening.

What we are actually doing is pattern matching. We are imagining different sorts of arrangements of pieces and then matching them to desirable (or undesirable) outcomes, such as pins or mates or whatever.

An awful lot follows from this, because the mechanisms that describe reasoning via pattern matching are very different from those describing physical symbol systems.

And it is precisely that set of differences that characterize the difference between connectivism and constructivism” (Downes, 2007).

Ref. Downes, S. (2007) Moodle forum post retrieved Sept 20/08  from


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One Comment
  1. deadvocate permalink

    So. Is Stephen suggesting that connectivism occurs pre-cognition? Sounds like a topic for a post in the forum. Let’s give it a try…..

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