“There’s a seventh C too, you know” my neighboring seat-mate, the excellent educator Larry Kahn,  leaned over to whisper to me.   “Really,” I said, “what?”  “Connectivism.”

I wasn’t sure whether I was painfully behind the times, not already knowing about this seventh C, or alternatively that I’d been let into a secret club, the club of connectivism, but I was hooked.

Pat Bassett, the NAIS President, was presenting, and he shared with us his vision of the 6 C’s, be they 21st century skills or the essential capacities for success today: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity (the big 4 emphasized by P-21, edleader21, and Ken Kay), Character and Cosmopolitanism (Cross-Cultural Communication and Collaboration).

The elusive 7th C, though, I’m increasingly becoming convinced, is key: essential, exciting, empowering, elevating.   It captures something about learning today and tomorrow, and the way I understand it, it taps into, draws upon, and expresses (with its helpful first letter C), the power of networks and all that they can do to advance each of us individually and as groups.

This 7th C is just as important, I’m coming to believe, for ourselves to learn and develop and for us to faciliate our student learning, as any of other 6 C’s, even if, conceptually, it is still relatively more elusive than the first six.

Connectivism is defined on Wikipedia this way:

Connectivism was introduced as a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual. Connectivism proposes a perspective similar to the Activity theory of Vygotsky as it regards knowledge to exist within systems which are accessed through people participating in activities.

Before continuing with connectivism, an aside.   It has belatedly (call me slow, I know), occurred to me that when we talk about 21st century skills, we are talking about two different general concepts.    The first, and far more widely circulated category of so-called 21st century skills, I’m going to label with quotation marks: “21st century skills.”   P-21, or the Partnership for 21st century Skills, is is the leader in this category, but many, many others use the term often and care about the concept deeply– including this blogger.

At the same time, we are also, often, questioned or criticized: what do you mean, “21st century skills?”  Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity: they’ve always been important, and we worked hard to advance them in learning long before the 21st century.  Well, yes, of course– you are entirely correct, all of us who advocate have to concede.   The point, we try to explain as best we can, is not that the skills are new to the 21st century– hardly– but we call them this because they are vastly more important, for more of the population/workforce, than ever before, because of the information, internet, and global-connections revolutions.

But what is increasingly interesting and important to me is to delve into what are more truly 21st century skills: the skills that really are new (either absolutely or relatively) to our new century, and surely this 7th c, this connectivism or networked learning, is chief among them.

One of my key intellectual influencers today, Stephen Downes, is credited as a critical co-developer of the concept of connectivism, and you can read Downes on the topic here, in a 2007 post.

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

Downes then takes the conversation into a different direction, investigating the nature of knowledge itself, which frankly, I am less interested in.  Instead, it is worth turning to the valuable writings of George Siemens, a name still relatively new to me but whom I am (belatedly) recognizing is an intellectual leader of great importance.

As the editor of the International Journal of Instructional Technology explains,

George Siemens advances a theory of learning that is consistent with the needs of the twenty first century. His theory takes into account trends in learning, the use of technology and networks, and the diminishing half-life of knowledge. It combines relevant elements of many learning theories, social structures, and technology to create a powerful theoretical construct for learning in the digital age.

This article, entitled Connectivism, a Learning Theory for the Digital Age, is succinct yet sweeping.

  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.

There are other terms for this relatively new skill and aptitude, and it may well be connectivism isn’t the best option– that we are straining too hard for a C in this case.   Networked learning, and exploiting the power of the network generally, capture and communicate much of these ideas as well or better than connectivism, and there is a rich mine of recent writing on this broad concept.

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s New Culture of Learning, which for me is one of the signature writings on these ideas, doesn’t, to my recollection, ever use the word connectivism, but speaks volumes on this subject.    As they write:

Embracing change and seeing information as a resource can help us stop thinking of learning as an isolated process of information absorption and start thinking of it as a cultural and social process of engaging with the constantly changing world around us.

In a world where context is always shifting and being rearranged, the stability of the what dimension of knowledge also comes into question.  In the new information economy, expertise is less about having a stockpile of information or facts at one’s disposal and increasingly about knowing how to find and evaluate information on a given topic.

The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.

Whatever we call it, we need to do much, much more to recognize its importance and import it onto our list of 21st century skills and into what we are facilitating our students in learning each and every day in our schools.  How do we help out students connect, create,  and collaborate online and how do we launch them on life-long learning that vigorously exploits the resources of the web?

C image by Leo Reynolds,  CC licensed from Flickr:http://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/5917273774/sizes/m/in/photostream/