COPs, PLN, and Connectivism: A Creative Expression

Nonlinguistic representations can facilitate deep learning of a concept. In the 2nd module of EdTech 543, I explored communities of practice, personal learning networks, and connectivism. These are related but different concepts. The graphic below represents a simplified view of how I learn from people and resources. I’ve tried to represent how personal learning networks (PLN), communities of practice (COP) and connectivism relate  to each other.


Communities of practice are defined as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger-Trayner, 2015). They have three important characteristics. There is a shared domain of interest to which the COP is committed and has special competence in. The community shares and learns from each other. The goal is to develop and cultivate a shared practice which results in resources, knowledge, tools, processes, etc. COPs can be sustained or transient depending on their goals.  I am a member of several COPs in diverse domains of interest that have no overlap (my inpatient internal medicine ward team, a prostate cancer screening guideline panel, my classmates in EdTech 543, for example). COPs are indicated by the multicolored groups of people in the above diagram.

Connectivism may or may not be a unique learning theory. Some view it as unique while others consider it a branch of social  constructivism. As learning theories often do, it integrates other principles including those of chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories (Siemens, 2004). Knowledge is not contained in any one individual but is distributed across a linked network of  nodes. Each node is a resource or knowledge source. Learning is the “construction and traversing of the network” (Downes, 2007).  What gives this theory some validity to me is the observation of Landauer and Dumais (1997) that people have much more knowledge than appears present in the information to which they have been exposed. We each have small amounts of knowledge that gets amplified when we network. When I first read about connectivism I realized this model really fits patient care well. As physicians, we can never know everything about every disease or have the technical abilities to perform every procedure. So we consult other specialties (the nodes) to provide information. It is the network that cares for the patient.  In the above diagram, connectivism is indicated by the lines between me and the COPs, individuals, and the tools I use for learning (web, video, social media, and print materials). Some of these connections are very strong and I use them a lot (darker lines). Some are weaker and don’t get used as much (lighter or dotted lines). Some connections occur in person (line emanates directly  from me) and some are mediated via technology (lines emanating from devices). Some connections are very close geoprahically and some are long distance. Some connections are indirect and are mediated through a person I am directly connected with. Some of my connections are also connected to others in my network and to some of the COPs I am a member of. Many of my connections are independent of each other.

I have been cultivating my personal learning network for a few years. A PLN is a group of individuals you connect to in order to learn from and with, collaborate with or be inspired by. PLNs are intentional and as such go beyond friendship.  They are usually mediated via social media. I mainly use Twitter, blogs, and various Diigo groups. A PLN differs from a COP because COPs are made up of individuals with a shared domain and are designed to produce a product. PLNs are often composed of people from various domains. For example, my PLN contains educators, instructional designers, EBM experts, clinical experts, medical journals, and philosophers. I use my PLN to learn about lots of things.  PLNs are designed for personal needs while COPs are usually designed for corporate needs (I use corporate as an inclusive term. It could be a corporation or a school or a garden club, for example.). The COPs I’m a member of are designed to accomplish very specific tasks (for example, develop a prostate cancer screening guideline).

How are these related?  PLNs and COPs are tools or ways in which we can work together to learn, create products, and/or improve processes. Connectivism helps explain how and why we connect and learn within PLNs and COPs.

Now it’s your turn. How do you think these concepts are related? Is my diagram a reasonable representation of these concepts? How could I improve it?


Downes, S (2007). Msg. 30, Re: What connectivism is. Connectivism Conference: University of Manitoba.  Message posted to

Jackson, N. (2015, May 14). Seek, sense, share: Understanding the flow of information through a personal learning network [Web log post]. Retreived from

Landauer, T. K., Dumais, S. T. (1997). A solution to plato’s problem: The latent semantic analysis theory of acquisition, induction and representation of knowledge. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from:
Wenger, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B.(2015). Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its uses. Retrieved from:

EDTECH 504 Reflection: How are emerging technologies, learning theories, and theories of educational technology connected?

Learning theories try to explain how people learn. They are based on empirical research and assumptions. They include principles about how particular factors affect learning. Teaching and learning strategies are developed based on these principles. Ertmer and Newby (1993) emphasize the importance of learning theory as a source of verified strategies, as the foundation for strategy selection, and as the most reliable way for predicting learning outcomes. When I first began learning about learning theories I felt I had to choose one of them and design all learning exercises following the theory’s principles. I soon learned this was impossible as I teach varied things to varied learners in varied settings. Each major theory has its merits and limitations. Using different strategies based on the learning context is the most prudent strategy. Often strategies from multiple theories are used simultaneously.

Two resources have been instrumental in my understanding of learning theories: chapter four of Larson and Lockee’s Streamlined ID (2014) and a review by Ertmer and Newby (1993). I refer often to the assumptions and design strategies outlined in tables 4.3 through 4.6 in Streamlined ID when designing learning experiences (Larson and Lockee, 2014). The three main learning theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Some resources separate out sociocultural theory as its own theory while others view it as a subtheory of cognitivism. Similarly, some may consider connectivism as a separate theory while others view it as a subtheory of constructivism.

It is important to realize that when the main learning theories were developed computer-mediated communications (CMC) did not exist. CMC and emerging technologies have changed how we think about learning theories. Once you employ strategies of a traditional learning theory via an emerging technology or a more traditional e-learning technology it becomes a theory of educational technology. One must then make sure that the assumptions that applied to traditional learning environments still apply to e-learning environments. I think there is still much research to be done in this area.

I have begun to teach online over that past two years. My mentor in developing my first online course told me we were going to develop the course based on constructivist principles. So I became a constructivist. I developed video-based authentic clinical scenarios for each module of the course. During each module students resolve the clinical scenario using a clinical research article and along the way learn about research design and epidemiology. An assumption of constructivism is that transfer of knowledge is facilitated when learning experiences are authentic, meaningful, and appropriately contextualized (Larson and Lockee, 2014, p. 85). I think the clinical scenarios I developed meet those criteria but does video of an actual clinical encounter transmit that same authenticity as a real life clinical setting? Probably not, but what and how much effect does this difference have on learning? This is an example of needing to study underlying assumptions of learning theories to see if they are valid in e-learning environments.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4): 50-72.

Larson, M. B., & Lockee, B. B. (2014). Streamlined ID: A practical guide to instructional design. New York: Routledge.

EDTECH 504 Module 2 Reflection: Links between learning theories and my classroom instruction

When I read about learning theories I was struck by how compartmentalized they are. They are presented as if you have to subscribe to one of them. They each have merits and short comings. I am not any one thing. What theory I follow depends on what I teach and to whom.

When I was asked to develop an online course for second year medical students three years ago I had no formal knowledge of online learning or course development. I was mentored by an educator who told me I needed to develop the course based on constructivist principles. I began learning about constructivism and designed the course including elements consistent with these principles. For example, each module is shaped around solving an authentic clinical problem using anchored instruction. Students have a choice in the media they use to learn background material. I included group activities that would lead to richer group understanding as each student developed their own meaning of the material. Task complexity grew throughout the module. The course was somewhat of a failure because the students weren’t metacognitively mature enough to guide their own learning and develop their own meaning. I didn’t include any metacognitive scaffolding.

When I was learning about constructivism three years ago I hadn’t considered any other learning theories. It wasn’t until I took EDTECH 503 last semester that even realized other learning theories existed (Larson & Lockee, 2014, p. 82). In academic medicine it’s assumed you can teach and few are formally trained in education. Prior to this week I hadn’t reflectively inventoried what I teach and how I teach it. After doing so I realized I use strategies that would fall under multiple learning theories. The table below lists much of what I teach, the major techniques I use, and the learning theories that best explain them.

Instructional Content Strategies Learning Theory
Procedures Apprenticeship, simulation, video Situated


EBM online course Anchored instruction, group activities, scaffolding, video material is chunked Constructivism


Traditional lectures in large groups Advanced organizers, ARS questions, cognitive theory of multimedia learning principles to develop slides, occasionally team-based learning Cognitivism

Social constructivism

Journal club Case-based, flipped learning (video or articles), group discussion, advanced organizers Constructivism


Perioperative medicine conference Blended, case-based, group discussion of answers to cases Constructivism
Clinical rounds Cognitive apprenticeship, team-based learning Situated

Social constructivism

In my experience using behaviorist techniques works better with novices or on objectives that are in the lower tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy. Constructivist techniques work better with more advanced learners. Cognitivism is very prominent in medicine as we teach students and residents to use prior knowledge to identify similarities and differences between patients. Cognitivist principles are very useful for organizing all of the disease-based information we must keep in our memory. Doctors make diagnoses by matching patients’ symptoms and findings to illness scripts (defining features of a disease). These require very structured cognitive coding, storage, and organization so that they can be retrieved at the right moment.

I think what is important is that the educational strategy be aligned with the learning objectives and the assessment. I don’t feel an educator has to be locked in to any one learning theory and should use elements of each to best meet the students’ needs.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(3), 50-72.

Larson, M. B., & Lockee, B. B. (2014). Streamlined ID: A practical guide to instructional design. New York: Routledge.