Four design considerations for connectivist learning spaces

Why Connectivism?

Each year the number of students with access to mobile devices increases (Rideout, 2013). A 2011 UK study revealed one in five third grade students have their own mobile device, a ratio that narrowed to four in five for high school (Englander, 2011). Another study reported close to 40% of preschool children under the age of two also have significant exposure to mobile technology (Wagner, 2013).

The internet has undeniably changed just about every aspect of what we do, how we interact, and how we think. Growth in knowledge-based sectors outpaced all other areas at the end of the 20th century (OECD, 1996) providing evidence of technology’s impact on the economy and the way we think about work. Current and future work skills require creative applications of broad knowledge in technology-infused, socially collaborative environments (Davies, Fidler, & Gorbis, 2011). Ubiquitous access to information sources challenges traditional content-delivery models of education. Mobile technology is, therefore, a disruptive force in education (Koszalka & Ntloedibe-Kuswani, 2010). Pedagogical changes and new ways of planning learners’ educational experiences reflect emerging social and economic realities.

Leveraging social connections for constructivist learning and freeing students from the constraints of the traditional classroom, mobile challenges traditional ideas about the ways people: engage with content (Tu, Sujo-Montes, Yen, Chan, & Blocher, 2012), interact with each other (Baek, Bae, & Jang, 2013; Huang et al., 2010), use technology (Baber, 2001; Watkins, Kitner, & Mehta, 2012), interact with physical spaces (Ackerman, 2013; Jones, Williams, & Fleuriot, 2003), and demands people make of a physical space (Leather & Marinho, 2009).

New approaches to teaching and learning that recognize evolutions in communication technology and the corresponding changes in the social and economic landscape, focus less on teachers and more on collaborators, less on direct instruction and more on inquiry, and develop understandings of process and metacognition (Cook, 2012; del Moral, Cernea, & Villalustre, 2013). Such approaches, Wilson (2011) says, engage learners in self-regulation of their own learning by pursuing their own goals in discipline focused, authentic, and collaborative activities. Learners not only develop content knowledge, but also high-demand skills such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity (White, 2013).

In Connectivist Learning theory, learners collaborate to make meaning through inquiry using technology to engage with “communities of practice, knots, coalitions, intentional networks, and ad hoc transient communities” (Chatti, Jarke, & Quix, 2010) creating external models of their internal processes and understandings (Beven, 2004). Connectivism harnesses the affordances of mobile technology to bring learners, thinkers, researchers, and innovators together into a learning community where participants co-construct knowledge as a group and increase understanding as individuals. Pursuing topics of their own interest in fluid learning communities that include individuals within and outside the school, the teacher no longer serves as the source of content learning. Rather, the teacher offers organizational support and instruction on processes and metacognition.

Designing for Connectivism


Learners need resources with which to acquire, engage, process, and create knowledge, and spaces, both physical and virtual, to reflect, collaborate, and present understanding. As such, demands of physical spaces are changing. Traditional rows or pods of desktop computers with a front-of-class focal point do not suit the connectivist model of collaboration and social engagement. Rather, learners need reconfigurable spaces with technology that supplements or enhances their own personal mobile technology (e.g. projectors, screen casting, A/V recording tools, interactive projections, whiteboards, printer, scanner, scribing tools). Such spaces offer physical arrangements evocative of the purpose of, and philosophies underpinning the activities that take place therein (Leather & Marinho, 2009), namely reflection, collaboration, experimentation, and presentation (Thornburg, 2001).

Wulsin Jr. (2013) observed that, “well-designed space has the ability to elevate discourse, encourage creativity, and promote collaboration.” Recognizing that physical space influences the strategies employed to effectively use the space for teaching and learning (Neill & Etheridge, 2008), computer labs or “augmented learning spaces”, must:

  1. Offers a variety of physical spaces reflecting a range of psychological and social orientations to engagement through strategic furniture selection and arrangement,
  2. reflect constructivist learning theory and 21st Century learning approaches by offering creation and collaboration tools (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, & Terry, 2013; Voogt, Erstad, Dede, & Mishra, 2013),
  3. support a resilient network infrastructure that accommodates learners’ own devices by introducing broad access with user and traffic management protocols and accommodates future growth by including high-capacity upgrades to take full advantage of current and anticipated affordances of mobile and emerging technologies,
  4. evoke best practice in 21st Century and Connectivist learning by shaping, through design, the way people engage with ideas and each other.


This post is an excerpt of a larger design project reworking spaces to reflect desired pedagogical change. Thanks to Carlos La Costa, Marcella Ryan, and Anneliese Strout for collaborating with me on this project.


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