For teaching we must now adopt a connectivist mindset


Education has very suddenly moved to a hybrid and flexible mode, sometimes referred to as “hyflex”. What does that mean? 

Hybrid: The media in which these new modes of learning happen are a complicated and varied mixture of digital and analogue (that is to say, physical, non-electronic). 

Flexible: Temporalities of engagement follow more diverse patterns, between synchronous and asynchronous[1], and with not all students engaging in the same ways at the same time. 

Disruption caused by changing socio-material conditions necessitates hybridity and flexibility. For example, some students, on some days, may not be able to join a lecture in sync with the rest of the class. This does not rule out live teaching, but rather adds to the complexity. Some may participate live online. Others may watch a recording and engage through an asynchronous discussion. They could even watch the recording together, and chat to each other synchronously as they watch. The stresses and constraints that determine access to learning have become far greater and more unpredictable, resulting in a diversity of needs and patterns of behaviour.

The switch to hybrid and flexible teaching is also positive, widening access to education, affording new ways of working, aligning education to emerging practices in industry and society, and perhaps eventually having transformative effects well beyond the university. This is both exciting and challenging.

In addition, the tools, techniques and resources that students may use in learning are now far less constrained than in the conventional classroom. For example, a student can join a videoconference on their phone, and at the same time work on documents, access notes, search journals, all at the same time. Learning is, at least potentially, more diverse and distributed. Again, this is exciting and challenging, especially to teachers who are used to having an overview of what their students are doing.

As a consequence, when designing for learning, we now benefit more than ever from adopting a connectivist mindset – that is to  say:

  • seeing students as intelligent agents growing their own understanding and capabilities through actively connecting together diverse ingredients in diverse ways; 
  • being teachers who see their role as facilitating the connections that enable growth and sense-making.

Connecting, in this sense, is not a passive bricolage, but rather an act of creative synthesis. We can argue, with strong justification from cognitive science, that this view aligns closely with how cognition actually works (see especially the extended cognition thesis of Andy Clark, and the connectionist model of cognition). We can also argue that it is better aligned with the reality of the world today, in the way in which its systems operate (a socio-materialist pragmatism). The cultivation of the connective capability is, following this reasoning, a key outcome of education. It equips students to cope with a complex world. It develops that most precious of abilities, creativity. A conscious emphasis on connectivism in designing and implementing education means starting from hybrid and flexible as the default, and seeing cases where that is not possible as being in deficit (which is to swap around the still-common viewpoint that hyflex is a more chaotic and less perfect alternative to “traditional” teaching).

In my next article in this series I will look at techniques we can use to design and facilitate this kind of networked, distributed, connective education. How do we ensure that students keep moving in the right direction? How do we establish and sustain a sufficiently common and meaning-giving narrative thread that holds it together whilst also encouraging creativity?

[1] In synchronous communication, all parties attend the channel at the same time, waiting for messages and then responding. In the asynchronous mode, participants turn their focus away from the channel to do other things, and do not necessarily attend to messages immediately.

Thanks to John Couperthwaite for introducing us to the term hyflex at our recent Teachnology Enhanced Active Learning festival at Warwick.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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