Constructivism and connectivism


The postmodernists rejected the objectivist epistemology – the idea of idealized, absolute truth and knowledge.  In the 1950s there was a paradigm shift from an objectivist epistemology towards a constructivist approach (Wilson 1997). The founder was Jean Piaget who saw play as an important and necessary part of the student’s cognitive development, and provided scientific evidence for his views. This constructivistic approach is where the student learns through experiences, constructs knowledge, chooses and analyses information, relates this to his or her previous knowledge and conclusions and articulates his/her views and hypothesis (von Glasersfeld 1990).  One recognises the fact that no individual is a “tabula rasa” and that everybody has, if not an education, a history that can be drawn upon in the learning context.

The constructivist literature is slightly confusing as there are as many varieties of constructivism as there are researchers (Ernest 1995). Yet, the social constructivism has won solid ground. Here the social dimension is in focus and knowledge is developed through consensus among people in a social group, e.g. a scientific community. The co-creation approach to teaching is based on social constructivist principles and refers to the fact that the relation between people, e.g. scholars and/or teachers, and their interactions in learning and knowledge development are important. I am applying this approach also when running career development workshops with young scientists. I see the lifelong learning as a cone developing in a three-dimensional space along the axes of lifetime, number of subject fields and size of social network (Figure 1).

Fig.1 The cone figure represents my vision about lifelong learning. The constructivistic approach operates in two dimensions: lifelong learning (y-axis) where knowledge is accumulated over time, and life broad learning (x-axis) which represents the number of subject fields. The social constructivism adds a third dimension (z-axis) namely the size of the social network. The connectivism facilitated by the internet allows for an even wider network, and increases the number of subject fields, thereby broadening the learning process.

This three-dimensional figure allows me to map the students’/scientists’ learning history and capacity, it supports the planning, and it allows the learning process to be adapted to the individual.

Connectivism and learning

The connectivistic approach is based on a social constructvistic idea of everything happening in an environment of networks and thereby expanding the learning environment (Figure 1, outermost cone outlined in red). Learning is the outcome of the cooperation within the network and the integration of abundant and diverse information supported by our new information technologies (Siemens 2006). The learning is based on a diversity of views, combinations of specialist nodes/hubs or data sources, competence/ability to see the connection between different fields. This allows for continuous updating of information, and decisions and choices being made in an iterative loop allowing adaptation to the continuously changing world (Siemens 2004). The student is active and may collect information independently, and construct and share knowledge with others through discussion fora on social media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Learning becomes the identification of different sources of data/nodes, connections/links and networks based on the information acquired (Siemens & Conole 2011.).

The conscious mentor

So, where in this three-dimensional space is each individual placed? None of us is in the same place, and our learning history is dependent on age, social, educational, cultural background, work experience and spare time activities; forming unique individual “sculptures” inside the cones outline above. I have not had the same access to networks as my students who grew with the internet. Many of my colleagues have had a more traditional primary education, and they have expanded their learning network in the academic setting, but not always combined their learning with other aspects of life or utilized the web for networking. Identifying the “learning sculpture” or learning history of each individual is essential before setting the goal, defining learning methods and deciding on assessment of the learning outcomes. This may also be used when analysing the diversity of students in a class. Some foreign students have never been subject to a constructivistic approach, and this has to be taken into consideration early in the learning process.

In the space of lifelong learning the principle of constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang 2011), combining cognitive psychology and constructivist theory fits well. Learners construct meaning from how they learn, new knowledge is linked to the learners’ memory, the process and content is reflected upon, and the teacher aligns the learning activities with the learning outcomes. Here the goals of the learning process are specified, the learning activity is adjusted to the task, and evaluation criteria are set in place to allow for constructive feedback. This approach has been integrated in the course development at BFE and I now apply it in my discussions with young scientists and experienced researchers when planning their career by setting the goals in the career plan, identifying how to achieve these goals through courses and research, and identifying external evaluation of the progress. (See section on “Career development” for more detail).

I also apply the approach of constructive alignment when I now develop my portfolio for “excellent teacher” as I have some clear goals set by the announcement, i.e. learning through reading and developing texts, and connecting previous work and texts to my now more comprehensive teaching philosophy. I discuss my teaching philosophy and thoughts and the theory with colleagues at the faculty, UiT and abroad. I make my digital portfolio available for assessment for the evaluators as well as for my peers and thereby receive suggestions on how I may develop further. I think that the portfolio as a learning tool is good as it allows the individual to adjust to one’s own background and learning. As the portfolio is in constant development it encourages lifelong learning and as it is made public, it contributes to build the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) (Allern 2011) at BFE and UiT. All teachers who participated in a Swedish project on lifelong learning highlighted the importance of good communication between teachers and between students (Espejo Reveco and Torres Villagran 2017). They stressed the need for the active interaction between students and teachers, including the organized assessment and individual tutoring, and also in the development of the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is comforting to see that my teaching philosophy on lifelong learning described above has practical implications and I wish to develop the teaching environment further through applying my philosophy in several new and ongoing development projects (see Further work)