e-learning,  open models,  pedagogy

Connectivism and scale


In his recent post criticising the Creative Commons Certificate, which I won’t comment on, Stephen Downes repeats a claim he has made before about the scalability of the connectivist approach, stating:

One of the major objectives of our original MOOCs was to enable MOOC participants to create interaction and facilitation for each other. This is because there is no system in the world where a 1:30 instructor:student ratio will scale to provide open and equitable access.

In my view, this model worked very well.

I’ll preface what I’m going to say with stating that I’m a big fan of connectivism for two reasons: it is an example of educators thinking about how learning can be undertaken differently in a networked world, and I feel that all learners should experience different modes of learning during their degree or life. I’ve given Masters level students experience of connectivist courses, and some loved them, and others detested them. That’s fine, it makes you reflect on your own way of learning.

But I’m uncomfortable with this over-reaching of connectivism. Open universities across the world have been operating large scale, open, equitable learning for decades. As I’ve bored you all with on many occasions, I chaired a course with 12,000 online students (many more than the CCK courses). We operated a model with around 600 part-time tutors on a ratio of around 1:20. Students had access to student forums which were replicated so as not to overcrowd (this was in 1999 before social media), and tutors had access to a forum where they could raise questions. There were then Super Tutors who moderated these and raised questions up to the module team. It was hard work, but to quote Downes, in my view this model worked very well.

As I’ve mentioned before though, support is not cheap, at the time the Government paid most of the student fee with a small contribution from students. It was open, in that it was level 1 with no entry requirements, but someone definitely paid. So perhaps what Downes means is connectivism is the only way to realise cheap, or free, large scale learning. That is a very different claim.

If connectivism is to be as broadly applicable across domains and levels as its advocates seem to want, then support needs to arise from somewhere. Most of the successful learners in the cMOOCs were already experienced learners. But for a level 1 undergrad, open entry course, this is palpably not the case. It seems to me to underestimate the value of support to assume this could all be accommodated by other learners. The sort of support required for new, often unsure learners requires experience and expertise, and to suggest the network will accomplish this diminishes the value of the knowledge in my view.

There is also a danger that in devolving support to the network we place a labour cost on the learners. I agree that getting students to teach each other is a very valuable and effective pedagogy. But for many learners their issues are not with content (even when they appear to be), but with confidence, identity and other skills. A person experienced in the support role can identify this. This is often in conjunction with the support a student receives through peer to peer routes such as student forums and social media. They’re not exclusive, but complementary. But to require other learners to take on all of that burden is to potentially create a lot of hidden labour. Someone still pays, but we just don’t see it.

Downes criticises the CC Course for charging $500 (and I think he has some good points, for example around the Fellowships model), but at least that is an explicit, if you like, honest, charge. We know what it is and it is visible. Establishing a model that relies on hidden costs is not necessarily a solution.

So, yes I think connectivism has a lot to say about ways of learning, and definitely offers an alternative model to scale. But to suggest that it is the only (or even the best) way to realise large scale online learning is simply wrong.


  • dave cormier

    The model doesn’t account for equity. I also felt better about it in 2014 when the collaboration spaces were less threatening to people who aren’t rich, white and male. In a perfect prosocialweb it makes sense to me. That’s not the web we have.

    • mweller

      Hi Dave! To be fair, no educational approach can address all of those issues, and there are certainly elements of equity in connectivism. I just quibble with the “it’s the only way to scale” claim (in fact, I think it may be more interesting when it’s done at small scale).

  • Kate Bowles

    I have a question, as they say. It’s about the actual labour costs of being in that “support” role. What kind of work/income did the 600 experience?

    For too many universities the MOOC proof-of-concept was always about the opportunity to drive basement level labour costs even lower, while ratcheting up brand awareness. The strong focus on learner experience and access was a convenient front, and had the side benefit of getting leading educators involved.

    Humans can learn at scale because the human experience of it is still n=1, even if the audience is massive. Without this capacity we wouldn’t have cooking shows. But as soon as we’re also being credentialled we either need to pay humans or use AI.

    Can you say more about how the 600 worked?

    • mweller

      Hi Kate – they were employed on the standard OU associate lecturer contract. This is developed in collaboration with the trade union. I’m sure it’s not perfect but I think it is deemed to be appropriately remunerated, well supported, valued and with positive benefits (eg ALs can study OU courses free). I don’t think it’s seen as exploitative – the benefit of having a well established practice in this area prior to online courses.

  • Sheila MacNeill

    Thanks for this thoughtful post Martin and highlighting the importance
    of teachers in any learning experience. I think that one of the unsung benefits of connectivism and other theories of learning is that they help teachers reflect more deeply on their practice. I suspect many of the learners on CCK were teachers/designers.

    • mweller

      Hi Sheila – yes, definitely agree. I like connectivism and think it’s a good example of educators rethinking what is possible in a networked world. Many educators take elements of it and deploy that in their teaching. I’m all for that – it was the “it’s the only way to scale” argument I took issue with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *