29 October 2010

Learning in Learning Networks (2)

In a previous post I concluded that the non-formal learning that is a prime characteristic of Learning Networks may well be an internally inconsistent notion. Either non-formality points to the absence of the structuring that teachers provide and then the question arises of whether non-formal learning is learning at all; or teachers are allowed in to develop learning content and learning tasks, provide assistance, etc., but then non-formal learning starts to coincide with formal learning. The problem can be resolved by looking more carefully at the dichotomy of formal and non-formal. The key is to differentiate between learning as an activity and the contexts in which this takes place. To make sure this distinction is crystal clear, I conceive of learning as an activity people undertake to update or extend their range of beliefs and abilities. In order to learn, they need a context, an environment, that provides them with the right kind of stimuli to learn. The problem arises because we tend to think that teachers should be part of that environment as only they can ensure that learning is effective, efficient and satisfactory.

To make my point, I use of a distinction that Suzanne Verdonschot in her thesis called Learning to innovate uses; she synthesizes the ideas of a variety of other authors to arrive at this distinction. Suzanne distinguishes three kinds of learning:
  1. learning that prepares one for the workplace (training or acquisition learning)
  2. learning that helps one better to perform at the workplace (learning sensu stricto or participation learning
  3. learning that is needed to resolve novel problems (productive or creative learning)
Her context is one of learning at the workplace, but that does not detract from a more general usefulness. Since Learning Networks target professional development, her distinction is certainly useful for the present discussion.

Training (acquisition learning) is associated with clear-cut tasks that need to be fulfilled and with carefully described competences that one needs to acquire to fulfill those tasks. Competence gaps that people have with respect to a particular job situation can therefore easily be identified, and instructional-design-type methods can be deployed to design learning content and tasks that help people to fill these gaps. Such environments are rather schoollike in that there is an important role for teachers who design and develop the learning environment. Such an approach, moreover, is possible, because of the relative immutability of the situation: the work tasks are known, the competences needed to carry them out also, so learning tasks and content may be developed in advance and will remain useful for some time to come. If anything, this kind of learning may be described as formal, even though it still differs from the archetypal school-based learning by children and adolescents. (Parenthetically, children and adolescents learn not merely to prepare for the workplace, enculturation and socialisation are important other functions.)

Learning in a narrow sense (participation learning) is what one does on the job. Although the tasks to be carried out do not change fundamentally, there's always room for improvement; procedures may be optimized, services may be fine-tuned, products may be enhanced. A social setting with colleagues is crucial for this kind of learning to occur. Communities of practice is a term that comes to mind immediately and the example of maintenance personnel that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid give in their book The Social Life of Information (p. 99 et seq.) quite well illustrates this kind of learning. It cannot be planned ahead nor does it lend itself to competence-gap-type of analyses as it is not known beforehand what needs to be learned. Although it is still individuals who learn, it is the community which provides their learning environment. The structuring comes about through the way their work is organized, such as through the early-morning dispatch meetings with a cup of coffee that Brown and Duguid mention. This kind of learning takes place in non-formal context, as there are no curricula, no lecture time-tables, no teachers, only colleagues who may occasionally act as teachers.

The third kind of learning is yet different. It can best be described as 'working and thereby learning'. Were in the previous kinds at least the work tasks stable, we now even do away with that assumption. Indeed, the work tasks are the problem as they have to be replaced by other ones in order to create novel products, services or procedures. Clearly, the kind of learning that talks competences is no use here. To be sure, competences matter, but learning tasks to acquire those cannot be defined. One doesn't know the prospective work tasks, let alone the learning tasks (and associated competences). (The only exception may be meta-competences such as being able to solve problems, to collaborate and communicate, to guide one's own learning, etc.) This kind of learning is described as productive or creative learning as at its heart lies the need to produce or create new knowledge. Although it is social in nature, the notion of a community of practice does not apply. Such communities consist of relatively stable groups of people, where creative learning requires inputs from new people, even though one may not yet know from whom! Productive learning thus thrives on a networked approach, one in which a great many people with a great many different backgrounds are available for collaboration. The network forms a valuable source upon which one can draw for learning creatively and productively and thus be innovative. The idSpace project, discussed in a previous post, was about this kind of learning. Clearly, this is the kind of learning that George Siemens with his connectivist view targets: even though learning is not equivalent to making and breaking of connections, making and breaking them amounts to creating a learning environment for oneself. Clearly also, this kind of learning demands non-formal contexts.

Back to Learning Networks. As argued, they encompass quite naturally productive learning. In so far as a Learning Network consists of an ensemble of relatively stable, established communities of practice, it also supports participation learning. Either way, Learning Networks are non-formal learning environments. Now back to the original problem of how to design a Learning Network as an environment that still allows one to learn efficiently, effectively and satisfactorily. This problem still stands. Suzanne Verdonschot's thesis is one long attempt to develop design principles for productive learning environments. She lists 11 of them but concludes that they 'do not have a prescriptive function, [... but] present various perspectives that offer the designer starting points for the design of interventions.' (ibid. p. 240). This is much better than nothing, but can of course not be equated with the tried and tested principles of instructional design. So, the logical problem of being inconsistent when talking about non-formal learning in Learning Networks has been resolved, but a practical problem has come in its place, and not a simple one at that!

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