Article Review: The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks

As part of my doctoral process, I have to review a lot of literature. A LOT. To motivate me to keep track of the resources as I read them, I am going to try to post summaries of the pertinent articles here. My hope is that I will get in the habit of writing and summarizing so that the literature review portion of my dissertation is easier to write. We’ll see if that works, and if I can keep up with the summaries!


Kop, R. (2011). The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: Learning experiences during a massive open online course. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 19–38. Retrieved from


Connectivist literature leads us to believe that learning can occur without formal teaching. Instead, learning is enhanced through four types of activity: aggregation, relation, creation, and sharing. However, there are challenges that may prevent learners from having quality learning experiences

Learner autonomy

Connectivist learner has to be fairly autonomous to learn in such an environment. They must be able to manage time, create and reflect on learning goals, search out resources, and learn new technology. Individuals with low confidence levels, particularly in areas of learning or schooling, are less likely to take on and succeed with connectivist learning experiences.


Higher levels of engagement may be related to learner presence and the connections with other learners. In a connectivist learning environment, presence is important since there is less teacher presence. Individual learners need to be supported by one another or be highly self-directed.

Critical Literacies

Learning outside of formal education requires different competencies and abilities. Learners must be able to challenge their own ideas and beliefs, aggregate information, and validate that information. Learners in a connectivist environment must also learn to edit and produce new information in a variety of formats and media and to collaborate with others via electronic means. Because there is no teacher or other authority filtering information, learners need a high level of critical analysis skills to interpret the vast stream of information generated by other participants in the environment.


Kop researched the types of structures and interactions that could overcome these three challenges by investigating to MOOCs that were held during the summer and fall of 2010. The summer course, Critical Literacies (CritLit) had 377 participants, and the fall course, Personal Learning Environments, Networks, and Knowledge (PLENK) had 1610 participants. However, only 40-60 participants contributed to PLENK on a regular basis.

The courses were based on 4 principles of creative engagement in connectivist courses:

  • The aggregation of information and resources
  • Reflection and sense-making on the new knowledge
  • Creation of a digital artifact
  • Sharing of the new resource

The studies used a combination of participant surveys with observations, discourse analysis, and learning analytics.

Many participants indicated that the distributed nature of the course was confusing and overwhelming, particularly to learners who had not participated in a MOOC before. To address this, facilitators created videos and discussion posts to explain how the various tools worked. Some learners were motivated by directing their own learner, while others would have preferred more direction from the facilitators.

In PLENK, the facilitators provided a significant level of coordination at the beginning of the course, but withdrew over time to let participants take control of the course. Participants felt the use of discussion boards, blogs, and Twitter humanized the course. They also indicated that learning as a community increased the depth of their learning.

The learners also gained some critical skills and abilities during the MOOCs. In CritLit, the majority of students reported gaining writing skills, ability to use technology-enabled interactions, verbal communication skills, and critical thinking skills. The most important feature students thought they needed for success in the course was the ability to “deal with complexity in a minimally structured environment” (p. 34).

Kop concludes that, to be successful in a networked learning environment, students need to be able to direct their own learning and have some critical literacies to be able to negotiate the Web to engage and participate in learning activities. These literacies include collaboration, creativity, and a flexible mindset. The social presence of facilitators and participants helped to build confidence and stimulate active participation by creating a community and sense of belonging.

Potential Application:

As with many research articles on MOOCs, I find the reporting of the results to be lacking. Kop provides good conclusions but very little of the data or analysis. She mentions a survey of participants, but only shared one question from one of the two courses. However, the list of 3 challenges and the 4 principles of creative engagement are useful frameworks for future research.



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