Connectivism and the evolution of culture

For ETEC 642 Week 3

In the week 3 materials, I am most mindful of two streams of content: growing power of online communities and revised metaphors of learning as networking. Interestingly, they share some common structures. Both emphasize connections as the primary mechanism for growth and success, and that growth is described as organic and intertwined rather than linear and self-contained.

Our online communities are powerful, to be sure. We can engage in collective action, including learning, on unprecedented scales. We can share knowledge about issues and events instantaneously in communities of interest that span across oceans and continents. This power, however, is new and completely immature. Communities of interest are implicitly susceptible to group processes such as confirmation bias, in which we overly weight information congruent with our opinions and discount disconfirming information (Oswald & Grosjean, 2004), and “groupthink” errors in which homogenous groups typically fail to examine evidence outside their limited range of experience (Baumeister & Bushman, 2011).  Social media also offer vast opportunities to interact with diverse views that contradict our own, but until the medium matures, those with highly accurate but differing views may be seen as “trolls” by communities of interest.

These observations are congruent with Rheingold’s (2012) observation that instructors fear social media might be using our students rather than visa versa. He looks to crowd-sourcing and other group interactions to battle the spread of counter-factual information, but social psychology has demonstrated that a diversity of views must be honored for this to happen (Sanderson, 2010). Currently, the group polarization of contemporary politics is reflected by entrenchment of ideas in surprisingly isolated communities. Overall, this phase may be outgrown as the process of extended and shared learning develops.

Humans evolved and spread in no small way because of our ability to transmit knowledge to others, allowing us to outlive other hominid lines with greater strength, speed, or climbing ability. The Social Brain Hypothesis (Dunbar, 2003; Jerison, 1973) suggests that we evolved our brains specifically for social interaction and that our success arises from our ability to cooperate. Lenski and Lenski (1987) posited that our cultures are growing more complex as part of a natural evolutionary process. Similarly, Shirov and Gordon (2013) applied Moore’s Law (that computers double in complexity every two years) to the complexity of life, and to the expanding complexity of our cultural knowledge and abilities. We have now reached a point where our ability to share and transmit information has allowed for massive, global transmission in a medium that enhances our neural and direct interpersonal networks with this vast digital nervous system.

Connectivism, as described by Kop and Hill (2008), has become an inexorable part of human life. Our current traditional aged college students are the first to be born into a world where computers in most homes is a normal part of their natural world (at least in developed countries). Those who were born into a world of robust and widespread social media usage are still in elementary school. I suspect that as these young people grow, learning the skills of global networking from the start, we will see continuing increases in the quality and quantity of informational technology such that our current systems will look as primitive as Gutenberg’s press very shortly. On a metacognitive level, this is a natural progression for creatures who appear to have flourished specifically by evolving mechanisms to communicate and transmit knowledge. Hopefully, we value and spread wisdom more quickly than we develop tools to divide, dominate, and destroy.

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Social Psychology and Human Nature (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Cengage.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (2003). The social brain: Mind, language, and society in evolutionary perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 32, 163-181. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093158

Jerison, H. J. (1973). Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence. New York, Academic Press.

Jerison, H. J. (1955). Brain to Body Ratios and the Evolution of Intelligence. Science
New Series, 121
(3144) 447-449.

Kop, R. & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past?. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3). Available at:

Lenski, G., & Lenski, J. (1987). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (5th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Oswald, Margit E.; Grosjean, Stefan (2004), “Confirmation Bias”, in Pohl, Rüdiger F., Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 79–96, ISBN 978-1-84169-351-4, OCLC 55124398

Rhinegold, H. (2012). Netsmart: How to thrive online. Canbridge MA: MIT Press.

Sanderson, C. A. (2010). Social Psychology. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

© Stephen Fox, 2013, contact


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