Connectionism Makes Sense

For most of human history, communication was an aural or gestural activity. We spoke and we made gestures, other heard and saw our movements. In both cases, the communication was ephemeral. Unheard words and unseen gestures are lost. There is evidence of humans creating painting and other artifacts which presumably were intended for meaningful communication, but the limited record leads us to conclude that type of communication was marginal.

With the rise of writing, and then print, Walter Ong noted that communication became a process in which, “The mind interacts with the material world around it more profoundly and creatively than has hitherto been thought” (Ong, 1982, p. 172). As print gave way to electronic devices and digital networks, the nature of our minds’ interactions with the material world have been extended and enhanced. With the smartphones we carry, we have a portal to the material world (or perhaps a virtual material world) where computer hardware and software take our inputs and follow algorithms to generate output that is displayed to us or otherwise communicated or stored.

Through these devices and the material world to which we are thus connected, we (in the parlance of the vernacular that has accompanied our adoption of the devices) downloaded much cognition to the material world. Our books, and now our servers, store vastly more information than can be held by a single human. Our calculators find answers and display relationships with speed that makes those of us at a certain age to marvel at the data analysis that is possible with modest devices.

Some scholars and educators have begun to define an approach to education that more closely reflects this nature of our communication landscape. Connectivists perceive knowledge to exist both within human brains, but also in the material world and the social world that exists outside of an individual’s brain and body. With the vast array of information and algorithm-based analysis that can be “downloaded” to devices in our environment, our understanding of knowledge needs to be updated.

Surely, what each individual “knows” matters. But equally important are each individual’s ability to collaborate to create knowledge and to use cognitive tools.


Ong, W. J. (1991). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge.