Connectivism, the pedagogical social fabric and the pipe as a knowledge and skills conductor in the professional identity formation of the student in higher education in the 21st century

Author: Marcella Zoccoli|

To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner.
I am not a teacher only a fellow student.
-Søren Kierkegaard


This practice paper is based on a previous inedited essay written by the author in early November 2018 during the studies at JAMK Teacher Education College accomplished in February 2019, and her working teaching experience at JAMK School of Business, where she teaches Basic Leadership Skills and Mindful Leadership.
The aim of this document is to present some of the elements, queries and interpretations arising from a reflection about the topic of the learning theory/phenomenon of connectivism meant as a pedagogical social fabric made of tangible and intangible components; the way the higher education students of the 21st century, immersed in a blended human-technology ambiance, by experiences a learning journey through the pipe of connectivism , can gain knowledge for their professional identity formation while facing the challenges and the opportunity posed by the social-technological phenomenon of the digital era. The perspective of a learning alliance between the student, as a human being and the technology as a device and presence, it is the ideal bridge embodied by the connectivism’s pipe, through which, the feedback loop of information flowing between the two actors transforms the content of the knowledge continuously.
This dynamic interconnection applied to a complex network system, like the one of connectivism, creates the foundations for the learning ecology, that offers to the learner the possibility to explore the dimensions of his/her individual experience. Additionally, the net of the traditional-virtual class, conceived as a learning living organism generates elements of knowledge useful for the achievement of his/her cognitive, social-emotional and technological skills that contribute to foster the attitude to responsibility and ethical behavior.


The pedagogical debate about what kind of learning theory, among those available in the current pedagogical panorama, could fit with the requirements of the students in the 21st century, is still animated and passionate (Breslow, 2015). A balanced mix of theories of learning seems to be the trend of some pedagogical approach for the education of youths; especially when they are exposed to an international and intercultural environment faced by multiple challenges , where the technology is a presence, and where ‘’the activities …’’ become ‘’… practices in order to learn … [and] are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways’’ (Downes, 2007).

In this kind of situation, especially in the higher education sector, the actors’ stage of the learning process effectiveness is almost formed by the institution (people and process) – the teachers and the students. They are interconnected and connected to a network system in which human beings and technology shape the digital society, in which people are exposed to challenges and opportunities through multiple complex interdependent phenomena and often there are not ready-to-use valuable instructions disclosing the intricate interactions human-human and human-technology plugging in /plugging out the learning socket. This environment creates opportunity to build small community of practice (Wegner 1998), the traditional class or the virtual class, which functions as a living organism (Arie de Geus 1997) in which the forging of competencies based on knowledge, skills, attitude and values move with an on/off mode according to the use of technology.

In this flexible and open system (Kergel, Heidkamp, Rachwal, Nowakowski, 2018), the learning process is developed by following some general guidelines, as for example those indicated by OECD Education 2030 project (2018) and allowing at the same time, tailored-made adjustments according to the human beings involved and their specific attitude, talent, skills, motivation, courage and passion. Still under a definition, this new learning process knowledge creation network should be built with the heart, the head and the hand (Nicholls, 1994) of each single learner, teacher (hopefully conceived as lifelong learner – fellow student) and the institution’s culture on the base of shared values and processed through the educational interactions happening, as mentioned by Kincheloe (2012) on three levels ‘’social (macro-), individual (micro-) and institutional (meso-) , which form the net on which education generates itself.
The interdependent combination among the three (institution, teachers and students) develop the presence, the adaptability and the creativity of the whole. As stated by Siemens (2004) ‘’Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity….Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database)’’. To create a sustainable alliance in the network, all members should accept shared values, principles and ethical-responsibility codes, by starting from the individual and flowing in a continuum move through common collective shared space to reach the final aim or to proceed further.

This is the fertile social-technical context where to seed, nourish and re-designing the learning environment as holistic and blended, integrating onsite-online-virtual learning experiences. These merging activities can be supportive in the development of the ability to see and find connections among subjects, fields, ideas, concepts and theories. Achieving core skills, as a reward in terms of knowledge by transforming theory to practice, nowadays seems not to be enough. When the aim is to engage and empower the individuals (not only the network itself) and make them able to keep nourishing the system for the prosperity of the collectiveness, practicing the practice becomes fundamental. This means taking action, mindful action useful for the professional identity formation, meant as that vocational journey through which young people can source-explore with freedom their vocation (Hillman, 1997), shaping it according to the space-time being of their living times and connecting it to their life, so to design and perceive their future work as a creative dimension.

The pipe as a knowledge and skills conductor: the learning alliance

As stated by Tschofen & Mackness (2012), the connectivism is offered as a new learning theory for a digital age, but it is not yet universally accepted even though it lends itself to multiple interpretations and readings according to the field of reference.
In this practice paper the connectivism is presented as ‘conditio sine qua non’ for the understanding of the relation society-technology in which “learning is not merely the acquisition of a body of knowledge’’ (Wenger 2011) and so it is not meant as an educational prescription, but as a possibility to create a learning alliance between two different entity that ‘’… co-constitute each other from the start. They are each other’s condition of possibility to be. Technology is not the artifact alone it is also the technological attitude or disposition that made the artifact appear as meaningful and necessary in the first instance. However, once in existence artifacts and the disposition that made them meaningful also discloses the world beyond the mere presence of the artifacts’’ (Introna, 2017).In fact, in the pipe connecting the persona (human being) to the no persona (technology) the feedback loop creates and delivers flowing usable content ( as shown in Figure 1) where students (human beings) can master their own acts -‘’ sui actus… est dominus’’ (Aquinas) – with an intentional, conscious, self and social awareness-based approach. The connectivism becomes ‘’ a conduit for growth and even transformation’’ (Mezirow, 2000) a ‘’journey of the self” as indicated by Tschofen & Mackness (2012) from which receiving and delivering information achieved from the experience of it contributing to cognitive, social-emotional and technological skills development.


Figure 1.The learning alliance – between Persona and No Persona created by Marcella Zoccoli 2018



Despite the criticism and limitation discussed by the academic arena around the possible label of‘ ’theory’’ when addressing to connectivism (Clarà & Barberà, 2014), its current double ‘’identity’’ as a theory and phenomenon (Bell, 2011) allows the exploration of the availability and transferability in a faster way of both human and non-human sources and resources. It can support teachers and students in designing widely their learning-knowledge ecology in the perspective of creating values considered both as fundamental requirements of the human existence and of the social interactions (Schwartz & Sortheix 2018), and as complementary elements in the ‘’development of the technological landscape’’ (Carver, Minku & Penzenstadler 2017).

Through some of the several principles of connectivism designed by Siemens (2004) like for instance, ‘’nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning’’ or ‘’decision-making is itself a learning process’’ some new insights could be yield in rebalancing the importance of the altered notion of the word ‘’interaction’’ itself among human beings (Sellen, Rogers, Harper, and Rodden 2009), which is always more challenged by the intertwined and overlapping layers of the connectivity of the human relations with the technological connections.

Through its pipes the connectivism guides human beings to consider achieving more clarity about the meaning of interpersonal relations because ‘’the starting point of connectivism is [by the way] the individual’’ as stated by the Siemens (2005). This theory-phenomenon’s perspective and principles show that the learning and knowledge are possible in presence of diversity of opinions and environments which offers also space for additional intercultural reflections. Even though this last aspect will not be discussed in this paper, it is a basic element for the achievement of the ‘’planetary citizenship attitude’’ (Morin,1999), possibly by merging the diversity of Western and Eastern culture that shape the (international) learner life-world, through connections and networking process.

The skills and capacities in knowing more, through the pipe and the experience created by connectivism become more important than what is currently known, and the importance of the pipe is fundamental when trying to answer questions raised from the phenomena with the aim to support for example the young generation in learning the way to lead and manage, for the good of themselves as persona and consequently for the collectiveness, this unstable historical moment.

The apparent contradictory patterns of connectivism as mentioned by Clarà and Barberà (2014) ( i.e. theunder-conceptualization of interaction) can turn into supportive provocations if we are willing to answer some open queries that should deliver elements suitable to build the ethical foundations of the personal formation of a learner-student. In fact, through an interpretation of connectivism, as a journey of the learner’s self , as mentioned before in the paper, some questions echoing in my own reflections could find some answers useful to observe and better understand the pipe – as the place – where the human-tech rapport-environment can form ‘’innovative values model’’ (Hanel, Litzellachner & Maio 2018) that along with human virtues ( Peterson and Seligman, 2004) shape the skills that could cope with the ever-evolving technology while respecting the dignity of the learner-student as human being.
The intertwine social pedagogical fabric (Kincheloe , 2012) created by the human-tech interactions rests upon the socio-technological phenomenon that is inlaid of connections. The pipe containing the information flow becomes a social perspective tool changer and for its learning and understanding, the integration of several disciplines, is required. Pedagogy, sociology, philosophy, psychology and technology, just to name a few, they have to co-evolve to support broadly the student in this learning experience.

The dimensions of the individual experience: the learning ecology as a mindful experiential mirror in the student professional identity formation

Because technology needs scientific knowledge to create or improve the products and tools available to human beings, educating the students to be aware of their critical thinking, decision making, and human action become a fundamental responsibility and goal for teachers. The strength of awareness is a core skill in the perspective of the development of their capabilities-skills (not only scientific) and their moral acceptability and impact on collectiveness. As the French writer, Rabelais, wrote in the sixteenth century : “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme” [Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul] and being technology the tangible product of science theories, principles and laws, if not used wisely, can turn into something harmful, like a process of brain’s upgrade as the result of the techno-humanism laboratory research (Harari 2015).

Connectivism can represents the observation platform from which and though which explore the ‘’dimensions of individual experience’’, (Tschofen & Mackness, 2012) from different angles and through them investigating and influencing the interplay society-technology as a co-constitutive relationship generating knowledge.
Based on those premises, a holistic education in the meaning suggested by Miller (1992) ‘’Holistic education is not to be defined as a particular method or technique; it must be seen as a paradigm, a set of basic assumptions and principles that can be applied in diverse ways’’ could be recalled in the ”learning ecology of the connectivism”, as described in Figure 2 and defined by Del Valle García Carreño (2014).
It is a real or virtual site, where the pedagogy of connectivism as stated by Downes (2007) can be actualized to ‘’… describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties… diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and… describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society – which I have characterized as modelling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) – and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)’’.
The learning ecology environment of connectivism welcome the knowledge creation process through a network-learning approach. By mirroring on it the dimensions of the individual experience : autonomy, connectedness/interactivity, diversity and openness as explored by Tschofen & Mackness (2012) – as shown in Table 1 – the students ‘’should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system’’ (Downes, 2010) and to practice the practice of evaluating, creating, sharing, adapting and executing skills which are basic for the network development (envision the mirrored perspective of Figure 2 – Table 1).

Figure 2. The learning ecology by Del Valle García Carreño (2014). And Table1. Connectivism: the dimensions of the individual experience by Tschofen & Mackness (2012).

The system contributes and influences the developing of the learning process generating skills also when, the pipe is damaged or in the worst case blocked. In fact, through its pipes, it delivers data containing information made of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations of the learners. These action-reaction factors of the dimension of the individual experience happen to be part of the experience in the learning journey, and especially in those challenges the intervention of the teacher, as facilitator, is crucial to make of that apparent negative situation a great chance.
These disruptive moments happen very often while teaching subjects as leadership skills, they can be considered as extra gifts, a different form of creativity process of learning for the teacher, the student and the class where applying and training values, virtues and skills.

The network-value creation: the traditional or the virtual class as the learning living organism

A traditional or a virtual class of students can be considered as a representative example of a holistic network, non-linear system in which the factors emerging from the dimensions of the individual experience can be shared in a virtuous cycle (Zoccoli, 2017). The intertwined relation between the students and the teacher, the students with the class unit as a living organism (Arie de Geus 1997) and the use of digital platforms or could-based App as a working space (i.e. learning diary, self-reflective digital moments or papers based on challenging and non-repetitive activities), can develop interesting different iterative combination of divergent, convergent thinking process and cognitive dissonance (Schroeter, Forrester, Brigham, Fried, Grabenstein, Karban, and McDermott, 2018) which can contribute in performing positive innovative creativity suitable to problem solving activity supporting the personal and professional development.

In fact, a class, meant as a network value-knowledge and creation-learning environment in which the relation human-to-human and human-to-technology take place, can facilitate the reception, understanding and use of the digital learning experiences. It creates experiential moments in the educational journey, in which connectivism is perceived and experienced as an emergent solution to innovative learning strategies. Furthermore, it can be an effective option to the several classical pedagogical theories available in the traditional learning-teaching panorama as depicted in Figure 3 ( Del Valle García Carreño, 2014).


Figure 3. Theory of Connectivity by Del Valle García Carreño 2014.

Through connectivism and by representing the reality through images, videos, audios, texts, codes, languages, hypermedia and multimedia, the students are encouraged to develop their ability by using different channels and patterns of communication. From ‘’synchronous, asynchronous, one-to-one, one to- many, many-to-many, textual, visual, audio’’ just to mention some as suggested by Jensen & Helles (2017). These forms of channeling information empower and engage the students as individuals in learning how to lead and deal in the mix of real and virtual space, social media, social network, hybrid environment and augmented reality. The final aim is to unleash their hidden natural potential talent and develop their inter- and intra- basic common skills required in the 21st century (as depicted in Figure 4) making interacting individuals and communities (classes and future organizations ) in a creative knowledge, learning and teaching process merged with technology.


21st century skills: Critical thinking, Networking, New media
Figure 4. 21st Century skills by Geoff Cain (2010)
Academic Technology for the College of eLearning
and Extended Education at Humboldt State University


The pedagogical learning ‘’practical experience’’ (Wrenn & Wrenn, 2009) integrating the human and the tech environment cannot happen without the discussed theory of learning and phenomenon: the connectivism. As mentioned at the beginning, the purpose of this practice paper was to explore from a different angle the connectivism below the surface of its criticized points of ‘’under-conceptualization of interaction and the oversimplification of what interaction means’’ as argued by Clarà & Barberà (2014).

It is by directing the locus on its internal strength that this theory/phenomenon can be evaluated as pointed out by Downes (2011) “… 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. It is a pedagogy based on the realization that any knowledge, all knowledge, is like that. Knowledge is not something we can package neatly in a sentence and pass along as though it were a finished product. It is complicated, distributed, mixed with other concepts, looks differently to different people, is inexpressible, tacit, mutually understood but never articulated. When we focus on the content of a discipline, we miss most of that. We learn the words, but not the dance.’’

In the light of Downes’ concept of the relation connectivism-knowledge, it is necessary then to re-think the connectivism as the fabric of the social-technical platform on which to see the shape of learners’ professional identity growing, by mirroring holistically the human beings/students act and experience. By investigating the feedback loop happening in the pipe , this hybrid space frame, can become a necessary tool to be used to achieve some specific intended learning outcome to make the students learning and ‘’operating effectively within a multicultural and digital environment demonstrating ability in team-building and intercultural communication skills, exercising initiative and take personal responsibility for one’s own work in terms of timeliness, professional behavior, personal motivation and planning skills’’(JAMK ILOs 2018) in the perspective of nourish a space in which to find and create the knowledge needed in this sensitive moment for humankind’s prosperity and well-being.

Furthermore, as stated by Siemens (2005) ‘’the understanding of where to find knowledge needed ‘’ means supplementing the ‘’Know-how and know-what … with know-where‘’. ‘’Knowing where’’ means becoming a knowledgeable human being, who is not the one who knows everything, but is the one who knows where to find the information when needed. As Eco (1980) was used to state: “…Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must, or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” This quotation is still relevant in this evolutionary moment of the humanity, in which the boundaries between the human ability intelligence and the ability-artificial intelligence are always more blurred and could bring to humanity enormous practical benefits along with incalculable risks and ethical concerns in values, principles and behaviors change; this co-evolving socio-technology process is the platform from which to explore ethical solutions to new situations and unknow future scenarios with the aim to prevent outcomes potentially harmfully for the prosperity and the wellbeing of human beings (Laitinen, Kauppinen and Laakasuo 2018).

As educators and teachers, we have a great privilege and responsibility, to support and facilitate our students in creating and using knowledge to make choices and decisions with awareness for impacting positively the values creation, ethical behavior, and their vision in whatever working field they will be involved in future with their decision making. As an example of this network practice, in which the connection pipe performs its function as a
conductor in the knowledge network value creation and in the perspective of sensemaking (Weick, 1993), is described in the open source e-book Flying on the Eagle – Millennials’ educational journey into the Mindful Leadership (Zoccoli, 2018). The power of the relationship and the connection are the core elements for a holistic dynamic system creation in which human beings and technology find mutual balance and meaningful purpose co-creating not only valuable knowledge, but a space – the connection-flow itself, which is necessary as foundation of whatever content transmission.

In this regard, in the book there are two examples of the direct testimony and feedback from the students’ experience. In the first chapter, “Ingredients of the Mindful Leadership”, in the article titled ‘’Abundant Leadership Experience’’ is described an epic-learning journey of a student in a hybrid context where the connection has two different meaning and experience : the human-to-human and the human-to-tech. And where the absence of technology in some cases was a limitation to human activities and personal safety (
‘’Cyril is a French student who had the opportunity to take a gap year between the first and second year of his master’s degree and decided to invest this time traveling by bike with three friends in an epical journey called Colybride). Their shared vision’s core is to help some NGO’s located on their way because they want to be useful to the people they would have met, developing their leadership skills and being of service to others. During this epical journey Cyril continued his studies by taking the Leadership course in its e-learning form in Fall 2017’’.

Meanwhile, the third and final chapter titled “Mindful Leaders as lifelong learners” is about leaders’ self- awareness and their continuous learning. The article titled ‘’The Mindful Class’’, it ‘’describes the experience and the simulation of Mindful Leadership in the class environment through skill-centered classroom simulations. This teaching approach improves the learning capabilities and develops the critical thinking, empowering the individual [in Being-Leadership] and their social skills in Doing-Leadership’’. (Zoccoli 2018). (Fig.5 is visible as featured image at the beginning of the article).

To conclude it can be said that the connectivism represents a hybrid (real-virtual) experience. Teaching and learning in hybrid courses, where lectures, knowledge/experience practical work, challenges and knowledge/ experience teamwork project-based are developed on the double deck of human-tech. From that perspective we can think, feel, care and understand what Siemens (2004) meant with : ‘’The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe’’. With this concept in mind, the network-pipe experience itself becomes giver and receiver of self- and social awareness (Goleman, 1998) in an infinite process of sharing knowledge, responsibility, and mutual ethical behavior.



Author: Zoccoli Marcella,



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