Firstly, the question of how to label Connectivism is an important one because this affects how people connect with the theory. As a relatively young theory, its growth, acceptance, employment and how people actually understand Connectivism all depend partially on how it is represented. Representing a theory inaccurately limits the quality of the potential connections made with that theory, an insurmountable obstacle for such a theory that is concerned with the creation of successful networks and connections of specific quality to support this success. Secondly, to be clear, my position isn’t one of anti-Connectivism. To say that Connectivism is not a learning theory is not to devalue the theory. I seek to clarify what Connectivism is and to hopefully bring up some questions, presenting it as a fundamental theory of Education, not Learning.
Education is Intention
There are any number of network types in the world: Restaurant Franchises, Delivery Networks, even Networks of Excellence. All are particular instances of applied network theory, and Connectivism is the instance that is applied to Education. In any type of educational system, intent permeates the process of learning. This intent is the source of structure that is a part of all education to some degree; in simply stating a topic for study it begins the building of boundaries on learning. The way that structure guides educational learning towards its intent is to use the qualities of connections to shape itself. Via connections, structure presents content in select ways, providing learners with avenues to navigate through a course. In the past, these routes were limited; since the boom of information technology the number of qualities has become much more complex, calling for a theory like Connectivism to help make sense of the map. Connections themselves relate to learning in a binary way: with connections a learner can learn, without connections they cannot. Connections need to be driven by structure and intent in order for Educators to be able to grow, develop and describe successful networks. Education is in tension between intention and learning, and connections act as agents on behalf of structure to work for the quality of learning in education.
Distribution follows Distinction
That knowledge is distributed is one of the key characteristics of Connectivism. The emergence of Connectivism in recent years as an important theory can be partially connected to the ability for information to sit more accessible in current learning technologies than it has been able to in past technologies such as oral language and static printed word. However, distributed knowledge cannot avoid the distinction of intent. Unique educational networks distinguish themselves by their intention or purpose, thus different networks place unequal values on knowledge. Knowledge that contributes to the success of one educational network, may contribute more, less or even harm the success of another. The connections between distinguished networks, which value knowledge differently, must accommodate for this discrepancy of value. Looking at it from a human learner perspective, we all are a part of endless networks upon networks. For example, the network that is my mind must somehow connect with the network of a group of MOOC participants, and to do this in this example, through a connection I need to use a system of representation to receive and communicate certain values about knowledge between both networks. It is not exact, it is approximate, but there is no other way to do this since the distinction of intent dictates different measures for success and thus different values on knowledge for different networks. Learning in Educational Networks involves a measurement, representation, a playing out of that learning that connections cannot translate.
Connectivism, which includes the separation of meaning and representation, cannot say anything about actual learning. Learning is a term of high approximation, that doesn’t fit in with the exact or pure approach of “non-representational” Connectivism. The theory of Connectivism certainly includes representation, but only in so much as it affects or adds to the quality of intentional messages of a connection. The realm of a learner includes representation as a medium to translate the values of knowledge that the individual learner understands and expresses as their own learning to compare with the various networks they are a part of. To interpret actual learning and collect concepts based on observed learning is the role of a learning theory, and these tasks lie outside the capabilities of Connectivism. In the tension between structure and learning, a learning theory will communicate with an educational theory (design strategy, educator roles, etc) in order to produce a successful network or system. The role of Connectivism, working as an access agent for structure, is on the educational side of this tension, receiving its direction from along a spectrum of ideas that could be applied to a range of complexity in educational concepts or ideas. Explained much better than I can by Richard Feynman in this video (starting at 1:20), a hierarchy of ideas and concepts probably has a lot to do with the more modern complexity theory. I would suggest that ideas like Learning and Learning Theories lie at the more abstract end of the hierarchy, where Connectivism is at the fundamental end, being as fundamental as a social science like education would allow.
The Values of Learning
Taking into account the approximate quality of intentional learning, and the representation needed to interpret this learning into distinct educational networks, Connectivism is best situated to concern itself with the quality of access to distributed knowledge, not with how learners learn. This is illustrated in structure’s dependence on connections to present quality to serve intent, and further reflected by the objectives of Connectivism to grow, develop and describe successful networks. Success in an educational system can only be measured with respect to the intent of that system. Thus, Connectivism is linked to the structural, design side of education, not the side of individuals or Learning.
Connectivism and Learning do have a relationship, or better put Connectivism has an important view of learning. Concern for quality of access is not learning. The ability or the capacity to use connections or the actual use of connections is not learning either. Connections influence actual learning, they control the limits of what can be learned, even strongly provide such things as efficiency or motivation, but to consider this learning is mislabeled. Learning is what plays out, the change as a result of using connections, among other things. The presence of connections are one of the things that allow learners to undergo the change in themselves that is learning. Driscoll looks at this change in the light of stand alone performance, or performance potential. Connectivism, which ultimately mediates the types of access to knowledge for learners, views learning free of access concerns: Learning is the change in value of knowledge.
What this all hopefully points to is the nature of Connectivism as a fundamental Theory of Education, one that shapes structure and access to information. Connectivism is a theory that sets limits on the potential of learning so that education can be directed ever closer to an ideal intention. The relationship to learning might be thought of as the rules of a sport to an actual game. A sport like basketball values certain skills, so basic rules were put in place to let those skills determine the outcome of the game. Rules are fine-tuned to maximize the values of these skills. For example, the rule that doesn’t allow a player to dribble the ball again after they pick it up can raise the value of the skill of dribbling, since the better dribblers will be able to keep the advantage of movement. However, this particular rule (connection) doesn’t affect a dead-eye 3-point shooter or a 7 foot center as much. A successful game of basketball (judged here by the balance of competition, not by who wins and loses) is set up by the rules, but these rules are not a game itself. The athletes themselves determine what happens in an actual game under the set of rules, just as learners determine what learning takes place among the boundaries of connections. Clarifying access to information, liberating dynamic values of knowledge, Connectivism is a starting point of intentional learning that can anchor the revitalization of education.