Connectivism Applied to English as an Additional Language Students

David MacLellan


David MacLellan


Cape Breton University



This literature review paper delves into the emergent learning theory Connectivism and highlights some of the main principles that Connectivism promotes in relation to digital learning.  The literature reviewed in this paper will also look closely at learning from the perspective of English as an additional language (EAL) students and discuss some of the findings relating these students with digital learning.  The final focus of this paper is merging research on Connectivism with research on digital learning for EAL students with a discussion on how Connectivism can be applied to incorporate some important learning strategies that can be used for EAL students.

This paper is written in response to observations and insights related to last Spring’s move to online learning in Nova Scotia and many other regions.  Due to the challenging issues of access and communication, this literature review paper aims to find solutions to ensure that schools and students are better equipped to deal with digital learning moving forward.  The themes that come out of the literature include the importance of collaborative learning, the necessity of equity and access in digital learning, evolving concepts of how knowledge and information are perceived and transmitted in a digital context, and how teachers and schools have a responsibility to evolve as the world around us does.  This paper suggests that Connectivism is a learning theory that needs to be given more attention by educators and that all students, especially EAL students, would benefit from a curriculum that is more connected with a learning plan that acknowledges how information is stored and dispersed in an increasingly digital world.


Communicative Learning, Connectivism Learning Theory, Digital Divide, Digital Learning, Language Acquisition,


Video resource5103 Literature Review Video. (04:28).


This literature review was an opportunity to research some important ideas related to the ramifications of last Spring’s online learning in Nova Scotia due to the COVID 19 pandemic. There were many students that were displaced from learning due to the harsh realities of schools and teachers not being prepared to move to a digital form of learning.  The digital divide has gained significant attention as educators are working hard to ensure that they are more prepared if digital learning is to take place again in the future. EAL students were one of the more adversely affected groups which has been noticeable as students have returned to face to face learning this year. In many cases, EAL students were not exposed to an English-speaking environment during online learning. Exposure to an English-speaking environment can be so crucial to success in language acquisition. This literature review has two main purposes. One is to closely observe a learning theory in Connectivism that is aimed at learning in a digital age. Studying a learning theory that promotes 21st century learning is extremely relevant in the year following a move to online learning and needs to be given more attention. The second main focus of this literature review is to find solutions that help bridge the gap for EAL learners that has been created by the digital divide and come up with ideas to prevent it from happening again.

Literature Review

The literature used in this paper offers some important insights that will be helpful for educators in a digital context.  This literature review presents learning theories, practical activities and other learning materials for online learning that is relevant for educators looking to provide meaningful digital learning that is aimed at improving language skills.


Connectivism is a learning theory that has emerged over the last 30 years to meet the learning needs of students in a digital age. Introduced by George Siemen in 2004, connectivism proposes that learning is chaotic in nature and puts emphasis on connections as a key component. Connectivism acknowledges that learning is evolving and requires a greater emphasis on connections in learning than most other traditional learning theories.  “Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity” (Siemens, 2004, p. 6). Some of the principles of Connectivism according to Siemens (2004) include that learning occurs through connecting ‘nodes’ of information sources, learning does not reside just in the individual but through a diversity of ideas and opinions and that maintaining connections is required for continuous learning.  This has obvious implications for an ever-increasing digital world. Foroughi (2015) states that in a digital context, students must know how to discover information continuously and that benefits their learning. Connectivism is an approach that is aimed at continuously seeking connections with other knowledge sources to accomplish this.  Mattar (2015) summarized Connectivism as being an appropriate learning theory for a digital age stating that learning theories need to be aligned with the current context in which technology performs cognitive tasks that were previously expectations of learners. Learning needs to evolve to meet the needs of 21st century learners and activities that simply promote information storage and retrieval are no longer relevant.

Language Acquisition for English as an Additional Language (EAL) Learners in a Digital Context

English as an Additional Language has become a more prominent demographic in Nova Scotia schools in recent years.  EAL teachers support classrooms to help students whose first language is not English in meeting learning outcomes based on a given time frame. Most of the interactions with students are through in class support during classroom instruction but EAL teachers also work one on one with students.  Last Spring’s move to online learning made everyone aware of the importance of online learning for EAL students. Many EAL students were not equipped with the skills or tools when they suddenly moved to an online learning context. This has been obvious with some of the gaps that had been created by the time that students were able to come back to their physical classrooms last September. This is why it is crucial to give EAL students the necessary skills to be equipped for digital learning. For this to occur, there needs to be an awareness of the unique contexts of EAL students and this has to be aligned with appropriate approaches to learning in a digital context.

As discussed earlier, introducing learning in a digital context to EAL students is an important element to ensure EAL learners are not left behind. Exposing EAL learners to a range of technologies and online learning opportunities will help develop digital skills and put them in situations in which they can use their English to communicate, often with native English-speaking students.  Motteram (2013) states technology has the capacity to provide EAL learners with the ability to communicate with others more effectively.  Technology also allows learners to be exposed to other elements of learning that can be particularly beneficial for EAL learners.  In the Traore and Kyei-Blackson (2011) study on multiple technologies in EAL instruction, audio-visuals effectively aided student learning and critical thinking skills. Research has yielded different ideas on how to best present digital learning to EAL students. Beckett and Miller (2006) found that technology was particularly beneficial when integrated into project-based language learning where English is acquired through activities related to an outcome based learning theme in an organic setting. It is also important to create activities that take into account the unique background of the student. Chakowa (2018) stresses the importance of an online language learning environment that is aimed at linguistic accuracy but also nurtures a cultural awareness towards learning.

Connectivism in an EAL Context

Finding elements of connectivism that are directly aimed at EAL learners is important to find skills and activities that are beneficial to these learners. A communicative approach has emerged in recent years for language acquisition in school settings. In a digital context, activities would have to be created that allow for active participation from EAL students to support learning and encourage output of language through interaction with peers and teachers. This aligns nicely with connectivism promoting knowledge resting in a diversity of opinions (Siemens, 2004). Connectivism also allows for digital learning in a variety of settings that benefit EAL learners. “Network based connectivist approach for English language learning and acquisition supports formal learning settings, while informal and non-formal learning environments accommodate learner needs and amplify learning process” (Bozkurt & Ataizi, 2015, p. 165).  Connectivism also values critical thinking as Siemens (2004) indicates one of the principles of connectivism is filtering the meaning of incoming information through the lens of a shifting reality.  For EAL learners critical thinking is helpful to distinguish from literal translations of information they consume. “A large body of literature a fruitful yield of technology-supported instruction in facilitating L2 learners’ ability to think critically without sacrificing language literacy” (Chen & Hu, 2018, p. 13).


This literature review paper aims at acquiring more information on Connectivism and how it could apply to particular learning contexts. The research has yielded similar findings in that connectivism is a learning theory gaining more attention and needs to be considered by educators as we move to a more digital world. At the end of the day, it is up to educators to apply some of the main concepts that connectivism promotes. Unfortunately, important elements of digital learning that progressive learning theories, such as connectivism, advocate for have not been applied in education on a regular basis. Part of the issue is that access to technology-based learning has been problematic. This was apparent during last year’s move to online learning in which many students were not able to participate due to not having technology at home or they had to share their technology with their family members and they only had limited access. EAL learners were particularly disadvantaged in this context as the language barriers between schools and parents made communication very challenging. This is why it is so important to prepare all students, but especially EAL students for digital learning. There is responsibility for school boards and governments to provide access to technology for all students but there is also responsibility for teachers to take on a greater role in ensuring their students are properly equipped with digital skills. Angers and Machtmes (2005) state that teachers’ resistance to incorporate digital learning may be connected to concerns of how technology integration impacts their preparation, beliefs and values of instruction.  However, this mentality is receding as the role of teachers is also evolving. Educators cannot simply dispense information. They need to facilitate knowledge using digital tools and technology-based instruction to best support their learners.


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Bozkurt, A., & Ataizi, M. (2015). English 2.0: Learning and Acquisition of English in the Networked Globe with Connectivist Approach. Contemporary Educational Technology, 6(2), 155.

Chakowa, J. (2018). Enhancing Beginners’ Second Language Learning Through an Informal Online Environment. The Journal of Educators Online, 15(1).

Chen, J., & Hu, J. (2018). Enhancing L2 learners’ critical thinking skills through a connectivism-based intelligent learning system. International Journal of English Linguistics, 8(6), 12-21.

Foroughi, A. (2015). The theory of connectivism: can it explain and guide learning in the digital age? Journal of higher education theory and practice, 15(5), 11.

Mattar, J. (2018). Constructivism and connectivism in education technology: Active, situated, authentic, experiential, and anchored learning. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación a Distancia, 21(2), 201-217.

Motteram, G. (2013). Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching. British Council.

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Elearnspace. org.

Traore, M., & Kyei-Blankson, L. (2011). Using literature and multiple technologies in ESL instruction. Journal of Language Teaching & Research, 2(3), 561-568


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