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Cognitivism vs. Connectivism

Click the Venn diagram to enlarge it.

Backgrounder: Cognitivism is a learning theory popular in the 1980's and 1990's. It demonstrates the consequences of behaviour and establishes maintenance of behaviour, so it is ideal for teaching Health Promotion, Second Language, and Rhetoric. Cognitivism is especially appropriate for when students need to learn how to interact socially, explain concepts, and reflect on their answers. Cognitivism posits that building meaning is the same as learning. Students build their own knowledge and meaning, either individually or socially, through experience. Teachers can give differentiated instruction because Cognitivists focus on the student, rather than the lesson. Cognitivism demands open-ended research and investigating contradictions to refine thinking. Dialogues and journaling are examples of cognitivist activities. Let the students interpret and summarize what they discovered for the class in presentations. Do not use a Cognitivist lesson in a Special Ed class where the students are autistic, when it is better to have one correct answer, and the flow should be predictable.

On my Personal Learning Experiences page, I recall a Cognitivist lesson, in which I researched Jane Jacobs for Geography class. Cognitivism really can make a lesson "sticky" enough to last 40 years (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013). As a curious and self-disciplined student, I was suited to independent study by the time I reached high school. Cognitivism is not for immature students or standardized testing. I'm living proof that the internal rewards of Cognitivism can establish and maintain good learning behaviours (Nabavi, 2012). Cognitivism creates life-long learners.

Connectivism is Canadian George Siemens' learning theory from 2005. Siemens authored Knowing Knowledge, which explains changes in learning necessary for the digital age. He pioneered distance learning via cMOOCs at Athabasca University and the University of Manitoba. Basically, Connectivism posits a hive mind is crucial for learning because information is constantly changing. Therefore, the most important skill students need is to be able to find and filter information. What an individual student knows is unimportant. The collective memory is paramount. Siemen's emphasis for Connectivism is the community, which is a clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing and thinking together.” But is Connectivism really more of a teaching technique (a pedagogy), rather than a well-rounded learning theory?

I can hear Marshall McLuhan calling "The medium is the message," from 1964.

Certainly, Connectivism is inappropriate in austere settings. Connectivism is also inappropriate for students in aviation, medicine, dentistry, and Emergency Services. Memorization of one accreditation standard or one best practise is necessary in these fields, so the student's behaviour is predictable and timely. When prompt and decisive action by a lone individual may make the difference between life and death, Behaviourism or Cognitivism is more appropriate than Connectivism for many jobs. We care how our flight engineer behaves in a storm, not what motivates him.

Unlike a traditional learning theory, Connectivism does not tell how students receive, organize, store, retain, and recall information, Connectivism does not demand reflection, learning from failure, or correcting errors.

Let's examine an excellent example of a short, inexpensive Cognitivist lesson and make it into a lengthy, expensive Connectivist lesson. It is from Dr. John Campbell, a nursing teacher from England, who also does charity work in Asia and Africa.

    • Dr. John Campbell’s instructional material is for nurses who need to give intravenous medication to patients. His objective: “Intravenous fluids are prescribed in a specified volume over a period of time. E.g. 1 litre of fluid over 8 hours. How do we use these prescriptions to calculate mls to be given per hour and how many drops this means we should set out intravenous drips at.”

    • Dr. Campbell evokes long-term memory of grade school arithmetic and uses a familiar calculator. He limits the working memory to 4 steps (intrinsic memory), so there will be no cognitive overload. It is less than the 5 steps maximum recommended. There is no extraneous load that would distract, like musical accompaniment or flashing arrows.

    • Dr. Campbell sequences the lesson. The first thing the student must remember is the 3-step equation for how to calculate the dose by litres per hours, by millilitres per hour, and drops per minute. Secondly, the student must remember to adjust for the flow of drops per minute in a thin (20 drops) or thick fluid (15 drops).

    • A type font would be less "noisy" than writing longhand. Dr. Campbell writes out four concrete examples, which make the information germane. The mnemonic of right drug, right dose, right patient, right time, and right administration route makes this a schema. He separates the visual channel from the auditory channel, so there is less distracting "noise" for his students.

    • Around the 5:40 min. mark, in the second example, Dr. Campbell prompts his students, asking if they remember the equation. This is reinforcement and repetition. However, there is no place for the students to answer, so it’s just a rhetorical question. Even interactive radio buttons would improve the structure.

The same straightforward YouTube lesson can be made Connectivist, much longer, and more costly if the teacher makes it a group project. Let us say Dr. Campbell instead forms a peer network of nurses in the UK, Asia, and Africa. The teacher helps the students connect the lesson to their past experience, and some become peer tutors. The lesson will be asynchronous because of the time zones involved. He can divide the nurses into groups, and tell them to choose Prezi, PowerPoint, or Padlet to make an interactive presentation to the class. He encourages the students to film an IV setup with their phones, demonstrating how they calculate intravenous drug doses on the nursing unit, and narrating it with Audio Recorder. He encourages the students to research at the National Institutes of Health if IV drug administration is always the best route, or should it be reserved as a last resort for the sickest patients. The teacher guides the nurses to resources, such as Super Teacher Tools for interactive games, and Storyboard That for outlines. The teacher emphasizes that, since they are already medical professionals, they must take ownership (agency) of the project. He reminds them that, although English is the second language for many participants, they have already demonstrated efficacy through their past performance in their mother tongues. One standard language of instruction is not required. When researching, creating, and analyzing, the nurses will reach the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Finally, the students can vote for their favourite presentation on Edmodo as feedback.

Thus we see that Connectivism is more of a pedagogical tool, rather than a learning theory. What if some of the nurses do not have a reliable Internet connection? What if some of them can only access the Internet on cell phones with limited and expensive usage? How can they peer review and debrief if there are pay walls, government censorship, or language barriers? What if the laws in the students' home countries are different regarding copyright? How can they make a standardized test to determine if learning actually took place? Everything in the Connectivist lesson is contingent on using the World Wide Web or digital services, whereas in a true theory, instruction can be modified and tailored to the needs of the students, regardless of technology.

Comparing Connectivism pedagogy to Cognitivism, or any other learning theory, is like comparing chalk with cheese.

For a detailed overview of the major learning theories, go to


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