"Experts have a role...": Connectivism and its discontents

I attended a meeting recently and was struck when one of the participants (leader of the Ed-Tech division at a major university) used the phrase "Experts have a role..." in the context of teaching/learning online.

We were enjoying an informal discussion around connectivism, the educational theory that places learning entirely in the hands of the learner ("learning is more important than knowing" and "knowledge creation not knowledge duplication" are key connectivist slogans).

In practice this means that learners in a connectivist environment are (or should be) constantly building and curating their networks with other learners (or anyone else they find useful), producing artefacts (videos, presentations etc.), joining and moderating discussions etc. etc.

It's not hard to see the appeal of some of this (absolutely: let's get learners making things and talking to each other, peer-to-peer). But like so much of the theoretical talk in the learning space it's hard to see how, as a holistic theory, it can relate to most people's experience of what it means to teach, or to learn.

George Siemens (with Steven Downes) is a primary mover in this field, but even he has his doubts. (Side note - I highly recommend Siemens as someone to follow: progressive and original but always nuanced and thoughtful, without the off-putting "blow-it-all-up-and-start-again" fundamentalism that so many theorists seem to delight in.)

For example, how many learning theorists could say something as, well, reasonable (and reality-based) as this? 

“It is unreasonable to expect a learner to care about the same issues that an instructor of a participatory course cares about. While concerns of access, participation, and equity might be important to me, a learner may well enter a course with the primary goal of learning a skill or concept. My values may not be her values.”

(Quote retrieved from George Siemens' blog,, offline as of 2019)

Indeed. Most learners are looking for–and need–clear direction, at least initially. (This applies to human beings also of course: I could point you towards Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, but perhaps that's for another post...)

In my view the key to good learning design is to strike the right balance between "top-down" instruction from an authority figure (a.k.a. an expert) and providing learners with the space they need to become "meaning makers" (a favourite phrase of the connectivists, incidentally.)

That's why good learning design will always be an art, not a science. And when it comes to art, I'll leave the final word to none other than Vladimir Nabokov, in a quote that applies (emphatically!) to the field of online learning and its related theories:

“The isms go; the ist dies; art remains.”

(Vladimir Nabokov, "Lectures on Literature")


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