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Connectivism vs Constructivism?

September 22nd, 2010 by Jenny Hughes

I’m always a bit nervous about commenting on someone commenting on someone…but was interested in Steve Wheeler’s blogspot post reporting on a keynote he attended in Brisbane yesterday. Speaker was Sir John Daniel asking whether initiatives aimed at trying to provide computers for children in emerging nations to offer escape routes from the poverty trap actually work.I quote Steve’s post

Well, yes and no, was Sir John’s answer. No, in the case of Nick Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, which was aimed at an ambitious 150 million, only 1 million have actually been distributed. Yes, in the case of ‘Slum Dog Professor’ Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall project.

So far, so good. I’m agreeing with him. But found his arguments less than convincing.

The difference between the them, said Sir John, lay in the concept and theory behind the two projects. OLPC was premised on the theory of constructivism, where the child, as a solo explorer, could use his laptop to learn independently. Mitra’s project on the other hand, discovered that children actually learn best (and even teach themselves) when they are in small groups. Minimally invasive education has been shown to be better than direct instruction for promoting intellectual maturity. Thus, said Sir John, social connectivism trumps constructivism for third world child learning.

Hmmm! This raises so many questions.

Firstly, the intention of OLPC was certainly that individual children would have their own laptop which they could use alone, at home. But it was also something they could use in school in the presence of other pupils (if they attended school) and could help bridge the home-school, formal-informal divide. Importantly, it was envisaged that other family members would, by association, access information initially using the child as a conduit. So the computer becomes a catalyst for family learning. I am also interested in this idea of the OLPC child being a ‘solo learner’ operating ‘independently’.  I thought that one of the biggest benefit to the child was that it could provided access to other learners, social networks, communities etc etc. I agree that most kids learn best in groups but surely these groups can be on-line groups as well as physical groups?

“Minimally invasive is better….” is also something I have problems with. Yes – maybe – sometimes. I have spent a lifetime in teacher training talking about ‘appropriate or inappropriate’ methods and technologies stressing that every learning situation is unique and what is appropriate in one context may not be in another. As a generalisation, I can see where he is coming from but I would be a lot more cautious.

I agree that OLPC has not been the global success we were all hoping for but there were many contributory factors to do with the technology, the costing models, the distribution, the support etc etc which collectively may have been more significant barriers than the pedagogic model. I think I’m saying that we are not comparing like with like here. OLPC and the Hole in the Wall were so totally different in conception and execution.

Finally, I am genuinely confused by social connectivism being presented in opposition to constructivism. Is Social Connectivism now a distinct pedagogy that has fallen bellow my radar? Or, for that matter is Constructivism a pedagogy? Constructivism is a theory of knowledge not a specific pedagogy – Constructionism is the educational theory proposed by Papert using Piaget’s constructivist ideas.

(And while we are on the subject, we also need to make a distinction between Cognitive Constructivism (Piaget, Dewey etc) and Social Constructivism (Vygotsky, Bruner etc)

Research support for constructivist teaching techniques is very divided – one of the major criticisms being that it is deterministic and reduces the individual to a product of his social environment (a very similar criticism to that  often made about Behaviourism, funnily enough)

Notwithstanding all that lot, many researchers (e.g Bruning, Eggan etc) argued that knowledge must initially be constructed in a social context before it can be appropriated by individuals and Vygotsky’s basic premise was that meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters. This rather supposes that ‘social connectivity’ is part of Constructivism not something to be set in opposition to it.

Anyway, thanks for that Steve. If I have misreported the original speaker (almost certainly) I unreservedly apologise but your blogpost and Sir John Daniels ideas certainly made me think and stimulated much late night, beer-fuelled discussion and argument here in the Pontydysgu office.  Diolch yn fawr iawn!

8 Responses to “Connectivism vs Constructivism?”

  1. Thank you for these thoughts.

    My knowledge of the OLPC project, although borne of a constructivist approach, never inferred that it was either cognitive or social constructivism. The team involved are clearly both social and cognitive constructivists – in fact, more like social constructionists. However, it is, I think, unwise to attempt to parcel these complex individuals into categories such as these.

    It seems to me to be a leap to say that because OLPC was premised on the theory of constructivism – “the child, as a solo explorer, could use his laptop to learn independently.” I have never heard or read such beliefs coming from any of the OLPC folks.

    Connectivism, on the other hand, arises from the work of Derrick deKerchove and has been taken up by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. See more here – http://www.connectivism.ca/

  2. I was at a Open Source World Meeting in France last summer and I have the opportunity of seeing the OLPC workin’ and I agree with Peter, this gadget it isn’t about a constructivism model of working, it has a fundamental social side with a lot of applications to make children work and learn together.

    Curiously, at the same Conference I talked about the Sugata Mitra with an university teacher from India who knew about the ‘hole in the wall’ experiment when it happened and he hasn’t good words about this one. Perhaps the results of this experiment are not as impressive as we believe.

  3. Teemu says:

    Thank you for the interesting post.

    When aiming to understand learning theories and their impact on learning tool design we should actually go rather far in the history of ideas and ideologies to understand the big picture.

    I appreciate that you brought up the Cognitive Constructivism (Piaget, Dewey) and Social Constructivism (Vygotsky, Säljö, Engeström, Hakkarainen).

    Often I see, especially in the English speaking world, that people consider Cognitive Constructivism to be the “core” and Social Constructivism to be some kind of a subclass and application of it.

    From my reading of Vygotsky I have understood that his theory is from large part antithesis of the Piagets theory. What he is precisely showing are weaknesses in Piaget’s theory. He is not “building” on it, but rather aiming to do a paradigm shift — he was a young revolutionary man anyway.

    In the OLPC there is a lot of baggage from the Piaget (and Papert), the Dynabook (Kay) and other R&D projects relying on the PC revolution. The OLPC has been fast to move to the direction of being more “social” and actually been very successful in it. On the other hand if the underlying theory would have been Social Constructivism the device and the software could look very different.

    “Hole in the Wall” is totally different story. I highly appreciate the experiment and definitely one can see in it some connection to Social Constructivism, too. I have found the result from the learning point of view, however, very limiting. In the documents and presentation I have seen the main learning achievements have been ability to use computer. That is of course interesting and important, but if the learning is in the level of clicking and searching internet it is not very impressive. Still, it demonstrates how Social Constructivism works in practice.

  4. An interesting post which I am thinking through.

    Prompted by Teemu’s comment here I am contemplating where grid-connected wearable technologies that are wearable and location enabled come into this picture.

    To date I cant find any better theory than connectivism to describe what is happening in that space and fast here in Australia.

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  1. […] connectivism trumps constructivism for third world child learning which quotes Pontydysgu’s Connectivism vs Constructivism? has me thinking about the two terms with an analogy of an building toy set. (This could also be […]

  2. […] It might be worth exploring more deeply Sugata Mitra’s ‘hole in the wall’ experiment before you get too excited about it. Amplify’d from http://www.pontydysgu.org […]

  3. […] a time to find. They have much knowledge there and I was not used to surf there, but I succeeded and here it is: Connectivism vs. constructivism by Jenny Hughes. She tells about some projects (Mitra + ..) and […]

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