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Zack Underwood, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Zack-Underwood.jpg Today’s students wrestle with a torrent of information from small decisions such as choosing the color of notebooks for each class to large decisions such as choosing a major or career.  Advisors provide assistance with large and small problems; in the case of choosing a career or major, advisors can shed light on majors and career opportunities of which students may or may not be aware. Towards helping academic advisors in the capacity of teaching, Muelheck, Smith, and Allen (2014) “propose using models that describe the ways student acquire knowledge and values as tools for understanding learning in advising” (p. 63).  Connectivism is a model of learning that can guide first year advising through “the integration of principles explored as chaos, network, and complexity, and self-organization theories” as well as an “understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations” (Siemens, 2004, para. 23).  This article examines how connectivism is useful for academic advising as a theory that links previous information to current information, incorporates technology within the realm of knowing, and guides students to look beyond their own understanding to connect information.

Connectivism combines previous information with current information to create new meanings and understandings (Siemens, 2004).  Elieson (2013) claims “one cannot learn something new without having first obtained certain prerequisite knowledge” (p. 29).  Astin (1999) believes college administrators, including academic advisors, are fighting for student time against these prerequsite or even current experiences.  Advisors are part of a “’zero-sum’ game, in which the time and energy the student invests in family, friends, job and other outside activities represent a reduction in the time and energy the student has to devote to educational development” (p. 523). The idea is that knowledge is constantly changing with multiple influences, including but not limited to peers, technology, and media.  Students find connections between their previous and current understandings.  In this regard, students bring preexisting knowledge about particular majors and even regarding academic advising.  The figure below explains how an incoming student would recognize the idea of academic advising in college.

Underwood graphic.jpg

From the model, each student views the definition of an academic advisor independently. Some students could see their advisor as a guidance counselor where others would see differences between advisors and counselors. Previous knowledge, experiences, and aspirations are driving the student’s assumptions about academic advising and advisors (Bowen, 2012).  Ellis (2014) encourages advisors to be aware that “previous high school advising experiences shape new college students’ preliminary advising expectations” (p. 47).  Siemens (2004) emphasizes the idea that knowledge is a series of interrelated webs from not only social interactions, but experiences, digital observations (commercials, websites), or even organizations.  In the end, the interconnectedness of all of the knowledge leads to learning.  These previous experiences can be positive or negative, and the advisor is at the disadvantage of knowing very little about a student’s background with advising.

Beyond defining academic advising, students use this same process for other decisions, including their majors. One day some students may want to be nurses, while others may want to be business majors.  Entering students must write a single major on their admissions application (or undecided in some cases), but in reality they have no realistic idea about what it takes to be an anthropologist, nurse, or business professional.  The students are influenced by not only their social network in real life, but their virtual world as well.

The idea of connectivism accepts the medium of technology as a part of the student’s decision-making process.  In a world of Siri, Cortana, Watson, and other robots giving individuals answers, people are influenced through technology.  Students’ constant connectedness influences their decisions and knowledge base.  For example, instead of going to the Encyclopedia Britannica for answers, today’s students simply ask an Amazon Echo, and rather than having to memorize facts about a subject, a student can Google anything.  Technologies over time have changed to a more personalized and individualized medium (McHaney, 2011).  Today’s students prescribe to the idea that “our minds need reduced clutter so new problems can be solved” since knowledge is available at one’s fingertips (McHaney, 2011, p. 53).  

Students not only process previous knowledge, but current knowledge from online articles, their best friend’s tweet about a profession, or their role model’s Instagram account. Students’ digital feeds are influencing them (Pasquini, 2013).  Connectivism admits that students can learn from devices and “decision-making is itself a learning process” (Siemens, 2004, para. 25).  This is not a new concept, but students today have access to more technology, digital devices, and social networks than ever before (McHaney, 2011).  Students are not only polling their parents, friends, or relatives to help them make decisions, but using their digital devices for decision making, as well.

Connectivism suggests that students should combine thoughts, theories, and general information in a useful manner.  Advisors should encourage students to do the same. Current students may appear on the exterior to know what they want to do, but with so many options and potential vocations, students may not see all the possible connections (Siemens, 2004).  Tinto (1998) encourages colleges and universities to create “a community model of academic organization that would promote involvement through the use of shared, connected learning experiences among its members, students and faculty alike” (p. 170).  Student connections can be created through curricular and extracurricular activities, and advisors can start these conversations by questioning students about their decisions or assumptions.

In a connectivist viewpoint, advisors are the role models and guides for students. “The fundamental purpose of academic advising is to help students become effective agents for their own lifelong learning and personal development” (Chickering, 1994, p. 50).  This change takes place by advisors guiding students through the gauntlet of college courses and empowering them toward autonomous decision-making.  Through these interactions, students are guided to interact with their world (both physically and digitally) to create new knowledge.  “The student cannot be merely a passive receptacle for knowledge, but must share equal responsibility with the teacher” (Crookston, 1994, p. 5) or, in this case, the academic advisor.  Similar to interacting with a video game, students must interact with their world to make influenced decisions using previous experiences, current digital information, and future goals.

Advisors’ roles are to question the connections behind student decisions and help students gain confidence in their decisions for vocational roles. “These connections between academic studies and ‘real’ work can have a profound impact on a student’s life.  They often give purpose and direction to their studies” (Elieson 2012, p. 6).  Students are in charge of their decisions.  “Advisors now understand that students’ academic task in college involves constructing an overall uniquely personal understanding of the how the world works, the ways by which knowledge is gained and critiqued, the meaning of these understandings in terms of students’ own lives” (Lowenstein, 2013, p. 248).  Academic advisors can ask students questions to start these connections.  This may require advisors to help students make the connections between subjects.  For example, connecting a liberal arts curriculum to future vocations.  The following are examples of advising questions that facilitate connectivism.

  • What influenced you to choose your current major?
  • Have you ever watched a film or YouTube Video and thought, “I could see myself having that job”? What was it and could you pursue it?
  • If you could have any career, what would it be? How does that connect to what you are currently studying?
  • What are your favorite subjects from college or high school? How are all of these subjects related? Are they related to a future career or goal?
  • How do you like to express your ideas (e.g. writing, music, film, etc.)? How does this connect to your future goals?
  • Happiness and success are two reasons students choose specific careers. Can you think of a career where you can accomplish both? Explain.
  • Do you enjoy quantitative subjects such as math, science, or accounting or do you prefer qualitative subjects such as English, art, or communication studies? Why?

On a more systemic level, academic advising as a whole subscribes to connectivism.  NACADA’s core values are found in a hexagon, which share boundaries and are essentially connected (NACADA, 2005).  Advisors are responsible for connecting information, people, higher education goals, and their own experiences among others.  Helping students make these connections, though not directly stated in the Core Values, is an accepted responsibility of advisors.  Lowenstein (2013) describes this idea: “each individual component not only stands on its own, but grows tentacles as subsequent experiences shed light on it, illuminating the way it can interconnect to other components” (p. 246).  Connectivism’s principles echo those of academic advisors by combining the idea of previous knowledge, accepting technology’s role in decision-making, and expecting students to grow from information they gather.  Regardless of the type of advising taking place (prescriptive, developmental, etc.), connectivism acknowledges the idea that students are using a broad number of tools and viewpoints to make academic decisions.

Zack Underwood
Academic Advisor
University College
University of North Carolina Wilmington
[email protected]


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Bowen, J. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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McHaney, R. (2011). The new digital shoreline how Web 2.0 and Millennials are revolutionizing higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub.

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National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Core-values-of-academic-advising.aspx

Pasquini, L. (2013). Academic advising: Supporting online students [Webinar]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/LauraPasquini/academic-advising-supporting-online-students

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism, A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2(1), Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm 

Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. Review of Higher Education, 21(2), 167-177.

Cite this article using APA style as: Underwood, Z. (2016, September). Connectivism: A learning theory for today’s academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 39(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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