Connectivism: A new Dimension to Aerospace Education post-COVID19

How often have we all sat in a classroom trying to make sense of what our teacher is trying to communicate to us? More specifically, if you are an aerospace professional reading this article, try to make a mental picture of the following word: training.

You have probably drawn one of the following two pictures: classroom, instructor, whiteboard; looking at a computer screen clicking through a number of slides in some basic form of distance learning, or, for the pilots among us, simulator or flight training.

All these scenarios reflect a number of learning theories which were developed throughout the 20th century and eventually translated to aviation education, training and regulation. Learning theories form established frameworks that help relate the psychology of learners with the process of learning. Principally, the following are the most widely accepted learning theories:

  • Behaviourism, where learning is shaped by behavioural responses from outside stimuli. Instructors provide positive, frequent reinforcement and rewards, which incentivises the learner to behave in the same way in similar situations.
  • Cognitivism, where learning is a process of input and output. What is going on in the learners’ minds? Learning is now not just a change in behaviour, but a change in the way a learner thinks, understands, feels.
  • Constructivism, where learning is an active and constructive process by which learners manage to connect past ideas and knowledge to new information and situations. Flight crew, for example, can hopefully use this kind of learning to successfully interpret unprecedented emergency scenarios.

Despite seeing their origins long before the advent of modern technology and digital connectivity, these learning theories continue to be the most used in designing aerospace learning experiences in 2020.

However, a new learning theory is emerging which addresses the limitations of these theories: Connectivism. The theory is described by renowned scholars George Siemens and Stephen Downes, who in a 2011 online course defined connectivism as

“The thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. It shares with other theories the fact that knowledge is not acquired, but rather, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience.”

Connectivism, therefore, tries to bridge gaps in traditional learning theories concerning the role that technology plays in our daily lives. It promotes learning that happens outside the learner, such as through social networks and others’ experiences, and through knowledge that occurs throughout digital networks. An interesting question, therefore, beckons.

“How can we practically use connectivism within the aerospace education environment to make learning more relevant in the post coronavirus age?”

In their research, Siemens and Downes identify 8 principles of connectivism which can broadly be applied to aerospace.

  1. Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions. We must, therefore, create digital avenues which allow the aerospace industry to share ideas, knowledge and opinions whilst going on their busy schedules.
  2. Learning is a process of connecting. In other words, a process of connecting information obtained from immediate and external environments to be able to build meaningful decisions.
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Information can be stored anywhere – whether on our personal devices, on the cloud, on future aircraft or future artificial intelligence entities.
  4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. The ability for aerospace professionals to seek out information and make decisions based on the basis of that information is considered to be more integral to the learning process. E-learning’s focus on performance support tools providing on the job support is one example where aero education can shine.
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed for continual learning. Building social and professional connections within the industry, therefore, is key.
  6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Within the industry we need to redefine skill sets and allow individuals to build a portfolio of skills which allow them to develop the critical thinking skills required for the post coronavirus age.
  7. Accurate, up-to-date knowledge is the aim of all connectivist learning. At an age where any piece of information is available at the touch of a button, the ability to successfully navigate the plethora of information available to the modern aerospace professional quickly and efficiently is much more important than remembering.
  8. Decision-making is a learning process. What we know today may change tomorrow. The right decision today may be the wrong decision tomorrow. The dynamism of today’s aviation world is a testament to this principle. Every management professional within the industry can vouch for the difficulties encountered when environments change abruptly, making organisational relationships and communication flows key to the decision making process. Having the human resources within the organisation adequately educated to deal with changing environments will be key in the low margin environment that the airline industry will face when existing the pandemic.

In this period of reflection for the industry, it becomes almost therapeutic to reflect on what was being done before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have received a shock restart – an enormous challenge, but also an opportunity to think about what we can do differently. We have all witnessed the almost immediate shift to widespread web conferencing to continue dealing with our daily professional lives.

Despite the turmoil, however, it remains my belief that aviation will rebound strongly – leaner and more efficient. Education and training of the people remaining within the industry, and joining in the coming years, will be fundamental to the successful future of the industry.

It is up to all of us, therefore, to place ourselves in a different mindset.

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