23 July 2010

Learning in Learning Networks

With a group of people at the Centre for Learning Sciences and Technologies at the Open Universiteit (Netherlands), I am doing research on so-called Learning Networks. Networked Learning or Learning (in) Networks is a popular catch phrase these days. As long ago as 1995 Linda Harasim and colleagues already dubbed their book Learning Networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online, and this May the fifth Networked Learning Conference was held in the city of Aalborg in Denmark. Inevitably the notion of a Learning Network harbours a great many different opinions on what it actually is. For Harasim cs, any form of learning and teaching for which networks (the Internet) were used, fitted the bill. The visitors of the Networked Learning Conference seemed very much interested in pedagogies for networked learning and in positioning networked learning properly with respect to such theories as Engeström's version of Activity Theory. And of course, ours is yet a different take. I don't necessarily see this is a problem: conceptual growth besides theory development is the hallmark of a growing and evolving scientific field.

For us, Learning Networks are online, social networks that have been designed to facilitate non-formal learning. Here, in line with what is customary, non-formal learning is like formal learning intentional (in contract with informal or accidental learning). However, it differs from formal learning in that it rigorously puts the demands of the learner centre stage. Therefore, it does not necessarily rely on such institutions as curricula, experts in the capacity of teachers, cohorts, schools as buildings or institutions, etc. So far, so good.

This definition of a Learning Network may seem rather weak. After all, it only specifies that the network should be designed in a particular way, not how that should be done. In terms of the how, it only determines that it should not contain such ingredients as cohorts as curricula. Yet, we feel this definition is an apt one as it serves as a workable starting point for empirical research into the how question. What network constellations work in the sense of allowing non-formal learners to learn, and what not?

There is a large variety research questions that we try to solve (see publications). A particularly important set relates to the role competences and competence taxonomies should play, for instance for inventorying someone's prior competences or for charting out someone's learning objectives. Since Learning Networks are online networks, another set of questions is related to appropriate software tools that should help the inhabitants of the Learning Network to learn collectively. The assumption is that being united in such an online network is an important asset, something that helps learning. However, a typical learner may only be acquainted with a few of his peers, if any. So what, in a social-network analytical terms, is a good mix of weakly and strongly linked people, and how can such a mix arise?

These questions are all about how to dress up, to tool the Learning Network. But there is one question that precedes all these: how do individual people learn in a Learning Network, how do they acquire the competences they need? In a recent paper on Connectivism in the Enterprise, George Siemens defines learning as 'the process of forming and pruning connections through social and technological networks'. Although I obviously have no quarrel with the network part, it cannot be that learning only is a matter of forming and pruning links. Ultimately, it is individuals who learn or do not learn. Networks may play a part in that, indeed I argue they should, but it is individuals who decide to make or break links and their decisions hang on what fosters their learning, which is different than being their learning. So, how can people be helped to learn in a Learning Network?

If anything, formal learning is teacher led. This means that teachers develop activities, in which their students engage with their help, through which the students learn; they organise the times and the order of engagements. A lot has been written about this by people such as Robert Gagné (nine events of instruction), Dave Merrill (first principles of instruction) and Jeroen van Merriënboer (4 components instructional design model), to mention a few. All have in common that they prescribe how what it is that needs to be learned should be 'packaged' so as to opimise learning effectiveness (what you learn), learning efficiency (at what costs you learn) and perhaps learner satisfaction.

Non-formal learning, on the other hand, is learner led. So students themselves should somehow organise their own learning. But how are we to understand that? As argued, making and breaking of links with fellow-learners may contribute to learning, it cannot be learning. Merely consuming content cannot be equated with learning either. After all, we do not lock up our students in a library for a few years, wish them all the best, and have them sit in on exam at the end. The various instructional principles and theories we have developed, including those just mentioned, indicate that there are more sensible ways to learn than being flooded with content. Put differently, if learners themselves develop learning activities, decide what learning activities to engage in, when and with whom to do so, how can they be sure they do so most effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily? This is the design question. Also, where do these learning activities come from in the first place? This is the library with books or an online network with content resources is not the same as a collection of learning activities. Perhaps teachers should develop learning activities according to sound instructional design principles and subsequently make them available to learners, for instance as open educational resources. This is the development question. But if teachers interfere in both the developing of learning activities and their structured provision, one could well argue that non-formal learning is teacher led after all. According to that argument, non-formal learning is an internally inconsistent notion: either it isn't learning or it is formal (teacher-led) learning in disguise!

I have no ready-made answer, I do have a couple of ideas. I'll discuss those in a next installment. Meanwhile, suggestions are welcome.


Note added after publication: In a follow-up post, I further develop the argument, solving the apparent logical problem of internal inconsistency, but replacing it with a practical one.