Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Connectivism and Social Learning in Practice

Confusion Over Times and Rotations
Once of our assignments this week was to utilize an online collaboration tool called VoiceThread. We were free to choose any need, problem, or situation we are confronted with in our school or classroom. Our school changed its starting time to an hour earlier, and then implemented a rotating block schedule. These two changes far outweigh other issues, and cause me confusion and drive me to inconsistency in my classroom. If you have been in a rotating schedule, please take a look at my VoiceThread, and make comments, suggestions, or just add a sympathetic note. Every little bit helps!
The link to the VoiceThread is:

Connectivism and Social Learning in Practice
Cooperative learning has always been a powerful tool. In our school, we all have posters hanging up that speak of the WICR learning methods. W is for Writing, I is for Inquiry, R is for Reading, and C is for Collaboration. We know how powerful students helping students can be, whether it is learning in an academic classroom, or on the blacktop at recess. Although we all feel like we a good teachers, a peer perspective can be an important breakthrough teaching method.
Connectivism as a learning theory, explained and broken down by George Seimens, has three key roles. These roles are explaining how learning occurs, allowing creation of future models of learning, and helping to make sense of the present world (Laureate, 2011b). Together with Michael Orey’s definition of constructivism as social interaction while constructing (Laureate, 2011a), the practice of learning in a social environment can be powerful if done correctly. This is the challenge we face as educators in the implementation of a social classroom.
Orey also goes on to address the needs of the social classroom environment, breaking the material into three groups. The teacher needs to be sensitive and aware of what the child already knows, what they are able to learn at this moment, and what the student in unable to learn at this moment. Orey refers to these are the Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD). In order to achieve learning, he suggests that the highest layer can only be achieved by having a More Knowledgeable Other, or MKO, in the setting. This MKO can be the teacher, a peer, a parent, or even a resource like a computer. This MKO can assist the student to reach the higher levels.
In order for social classrooms to be effective, there are four recommendations from the text Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007). It is recommended to use a variety of criteria to group students, using informal, formal, and base groups, keeping the groups to a manageable size, and combining cooperative learning with other classroom structures. While the text makes these generalized recommendations, it does not go into specifics of the criteria; for instance, what is considered a manageable size of each group? Will two students be sufficient, or are more required in order to have an MKO within the group? While I can appreciate that the text implies the teacher, who knows the classroom best, should be the one responsible for the groupings, having a theoretical example would have been helpful. There are two old sayings, first that there is strength in numbers, and the second of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Finding strength, while not spoiling the soup, is the challenge.
An additional challenge is finding the correct mix to optimize the collaboration or social learning. The mix of students, their abilities, group sizes, and numerous other variables into appropriate groups is the most daunting challenge of this social constructivism. I personally believe that middle school students should be challenged to interact with each other, breaking the elementary school “boys and girls” groupings that occur if the students are allowed to choose their own groups. In my class I use “buddy sticks”, which are nothing more than tongue depressors with a color, a college name, a number, and a shape on each one. The students can either choose or are given a buddy stick, and then I choose how the pairings occur, either by color, by college, or by shape. This way the students are not able to discreetly swap sticks so they get the same color as their friend. The students, knowing that the selection is random, do not complain about their pairings. I can also double up the pairs into groups of four, which is the largest grouping I use.

Figure 1 - Buddy Sticks.  Notice that the pairings change so that the students cannot swap sticks to be with their friends. The choice for colors, colleges, numbers, or symbol pairs makes the possible combinations numerous compared to just colors.

Once the groupings are completed and the students have relocated into their groups, cooperative learning can occur. Some instructional strategies work well in groups, particularly those activities that cannot be done by individuals. These include jigsaw and pair share. What I have seen is the power of groups when applied to those activities that we traditionally think of as individual, like homework, know-want-learn, and taking notes. In these cases, the MKO can act like a mentor or a director, keeping the group focused by assisting and facilitating the activity. Not only is this powerful from a resources standpoint, because we are only one person with 24 hours in our day, but it can also be powerful from a teaching standpoint. The MKO may re-teach the material from a unique perspective, allowing the learner to grasp the knowledge in a slightly different form than what the teacher originally intended. When this occurs, the brave teacher (and I consider myself brave) will allow the MKO to show their new perspective to the entire class. Each time this has happened, and it happens often in my class, there are additional students who now understand the material. A teacher who may be insecure will not allow control to be relinquished; however, those who cede their control momentarily are rewarded with a true learning moment.
Integrating technology and social learning simultaneously is a synergistic relationship. The diversity of the students’ technology knowledge is a wide range.  When paired or grouped appropriately, the result of students assisting others becomes very powerful. The MKO student feels empowered, and the learning student does not feel belittled. Both take on a positive role, and both benefit from the grouping. The text also recommends that a project be implemented in order to best use technology in a social constructivist classroom. The projects include webquests, movies, creating websites, and reaching out beyond the classrooms. Within webquests, for example, the students bring on their wishes to see different locations, views, and what is important to them. When they share these ideas and directions, their views of the knowledge are expanded, and the connections are made by the students. Although the connections made may seem illogical to a teacher, the students, and their peers, may find the connections absolutely rational.
All the groupings are their activities are in alignment with the ideas behind connectivism. Siemens states that education is like a weather system; complex but not complicated. There are so many factors, so much material with abundant information that the amount of knowledge is not the issue, but how the new knowledge gets connected, i.e. networked, to existing knowledge. If connectivism facilitates the networking of new knowledge, then groups, which add a new vision, technique, perspective, or other method to establish the connection, are vital.

Todd Deschaine

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011a). Program eight: Social learning theories [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011b). Program nine: Connectivism as a learning theory [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


  1. Todd,

    Great post . . . You gave me a lot to think about here : )

    There was a lot of discussion in our resources this week about whether connectivisim should be considered a learning theory to be utilized by educators in the classroom. Personally, I found the theory of connectivism one of the most powerful learning theories we have studied so far. Within it’s foundation the connectivist theory encompasses many elements of other theories and provides examples for how a balanced instructional approach can lead to extensive networks in the brain, therefore leading to greater retention of new content. I think that any way educators can create networks and connections for our students, whether that be through social interaction or individual exploration, will be a benefit to individual learners.

    Thank you for sharing your “buddy sticks”. I like how you use this simple tool in the classroom to create randomized groups. Being a middle school teacher myself, I often find that even when I give students numbers to randomly place them in groups, many students often “forget what their number was” and gravitate towards other groups where there friends may be. While I do believe random groupings sometime work the best in the classroom, there are also times when I intentionally place students in groups based upon their strengths and areas of weakness. I usually try to balance each group with 1-2 higher skilled students with 1-2 average to lower skilled students. While the Pilter, Hubbel, Kuhn, and Malenoski don’t mention the size of cooperative groups, I find that anything more than 4 will often “spoil the soup.” (I like that phrase and may have to borrow it) : ) (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, and Malenoski, 2007)

    At the beginning of the year I take a couple class periods to discuss with my students what a “good” group looks/sounds like. This is their opportunity to share their positive and negative experiences of working in groups. By the time students reach middle school, they have a good understanding of what makes a group work well and what doesn’t. As a class we come up with a set of “group work expectations” that they all sign to adhere to for the remainder of the year. When I have a student not doing their part while working in a group the two of us sit down and review the expectations the they signed at the beginning of the year and come up with a list of potential solutions to the problem.

    During this time we also discuss group roles (leader, recorder, time keeper, liaison, etc). Students are then given simple tasks (come to a consensus on your favorite food, band, author, etc) in which they are responsible for working within a group to practice each role. I have found that using these expectations as well as assigning group roles have helped groups work more cooperatively and productively in the classroom.

    Katie Dorr

    Pitler H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

  2. It is good that your institution encourages collaborative learning. It is important that students learn to work with each other; they need to learn to put parts of thing together in order to make a whole. The business world talks about working on a part to make a whole and then putting the whole thing together to make one. It is good when students start doing this in school so that when they go into the world of work they are not shocked at the thought of working in teams to solve problems.

    My students are working on power point presentations, in groups of four. After which they will have to upload the presentation to their Wikis. My kids are excited about this and I can't wait to see what they come up with working collaboratively.

  3. To Katie -
    Once again, thanks for your input and thoughts this week. Please feel free to take anything you want from me or my blog - I take it as a complement when someone wants to use something they get from me.

    You are absolutely correct about modeling good groups as compared to bad groups. I try to model good projects as well as bad projects, or show what good homework looks like compared to bad homework, so modeling good and bad groups before trusting the students to do it themselves without direction is a big leap of faith. In our middle school, we often have the eighth grade students come into a room with our sixth or seventh graders to model good practices. Assigning roles is also a necessity so that each group member knows their role and is aware of their responsibilities once the group rejoins the entire classroom. Thanks again!


  4. To Syuen -
    It is always a great feeling when the students get excited about something coming up in class. To have students be enthusiastic about learning is a moment that we as teachers can relish and reflect that we have done something worthwhile for our learners. I also think it makes the hard work we have put into getting this enthusiasm worthwhile, and makes our jobs more rewarding.


  5. Joanne to Todd

    It is interesting your post addresses how to group students. In the state of North Carolina we are using a new evaluation tool for teachers and my administrator observed me on the sixth day of school this year. Which is the earliest I have ever been observed!

    As I was preparing for our meeting after the observation I had to check boxes in a standard to show what level I considered myself to be at for a specific standard. The one standard I told my administrator I did not feel confident in was helping students learn how to work in groups and creating groups. She made a great suggestion; create groups based on meeting times. With each meeting created for different types of activities such as, the 10:00 group may have only two people, the 1:30 group may have four people, and a 3:00 group may have three people. Each student is responsible for keeping track of who they meet with for each meeting time.
    I only have my students for half the school year since our schedule is a 4X4 block schedule. If I had students for the whole year I would create new meeting times and group members for the second half of the school year.

    I really liked this strategy and believe it will help me feel more comfortable with group work. If I can take the pressure off myself about how to divide students into groups, then I can focus on helping students learn how to work in groups, by helping develop students strengths and become comfortable with trying new roles within a group. I am pleased so far with how well my students have adjusted to the use of cooperative learning groups in my classroom.

    Connections are so important for student learning and when connections are not made students are often not successful. I have seen this every semester in geometry, until this semester. I believe the difference this semester has been implementation of cooperative learning in their meeting groups, the opportunity for alternative assessments, and creating a learning environment where students are part of the decision making.

    Great post.
    Joanne C

  6. Technology integration provides the facilitation of instructional strategies that can create integrated lessons that will allow students to retrieve, organize, and analyze information in a way that wasn’t possible before. Students will be able to engage in activities with the assistance of technology resources that will allow them to make deeper connections. learning is an effective tool for allowing students to construct knowledge in a social environment.

    This alone will prepare students for a global workforce that will demand collaboration and diversity. "The research on cooperative learning is like a diamond. The more light you focus on it, the brighter and more multifaceted it becomes. The power of cooperative learning is brightened by the magnitude of its effect sizes, but the more you read the research and examine the studies, the better cooperative learning looks."


    Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson, & Karl A. Smith, "Cooperative Learning Returns To College: What Evidence Is There That It Works?" Change, July/August 1998, p. 27-35.