New like e-textbook new?

I started writing a comment on George’s spot post Connected Learning: What have they done with Alec, Will, Vicki?, prompted by the announcement coming out of the DML conference in San Francisco of a “new” learning model called connected learning. I quickly realized that what I wanted to say was not a comment, but a blog post.

It’s a post that is also a reaction to a tweet that Alec Couros made about the same connected learning initiative over the weekend:

I get Alec’s point. Reading about the initiative did feel more than just a bit familiar. Is this really “new” as the press has been spinning it?

Well, it’s probably new like e-textbooks became “new and revolutionary” once Apple decided to get involved. Get a juggernaut like the MacArthur Foundation on board with an initiative and it is bound to cause a splash.

I also take George’s point that it is important to acknowledge the people who have been pushing this model of learning for may years. But I actually take the connected learning initiative as an acknowledgment of their hard work, and the hard work of many people over the years. It is the continuing evolution of many conversations that have been pulsing around the edges of numerous communities for quite a while now.

It has me wondering if we aren’t hitting some kid of tipping point in the whole networked/connected/distributed learning world? That there are more conversations going on about it in many diverse communities? In short, is “connected learning” (or whatever you choose to call it) going mainstream?

One of my staff said to me recently “edtech is the new vertical”. Once the public educator in me suppressed my urge to throw up at the VC speak, I found myself agreeing. It seems that the edtech space is “in play”. Money is being invested. Startups are being funded. Things seem to be happening.

Not that I want to lump connected learning with the edtech startup space. Rather, my point being that there is a lot of conversation happening in many diverse communities about this topic, so it seems inevitable that a high profile initiative like connected learning seemingly pops up out of nowhere. It’s in the air.

But I look at the names of the people floating around the initiative and I wonder – did this really just pop-up? I mean, it is coming out of the MacArthur Foundation, an organization that has more than a casual relationship with learning & technology.

I see names like Mimi Ito and Howard Rheingold associated with this initiative. Hardly newcomers, or people who have popped up out of nowhere. John Seely Brown gave the keynote at the conference and, judging from the casual banter, obviously knows Mimi Ito and her work. Howard Jenkins seems to be a fan. These are people who’s work I deeply respect and admire, and who have been either directly in the edtech space or working very close to the edges of the space for a long time. I see their names floating around a project and I pay attention.

Ultimately, I think the connected learning initiative is a good thing. A very good thing, actually. A research initiative that focuses on the type of learning I think is important – networked, collaborative, digital. A pedagogy of the internet, which is what I think open learning/open pedagogy, connected learning, distributed learning, networked learning <insert phrase of your choice> is all about. It what drew me – and continues to draw me – to the work of people like Alec, George, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormie (and others) just as it draws me to the work of the people who I see associated with the connected learning initiative.

New? No. Which I actually think the connected learning initiative acknowledges when they state that (emphasis mine) “Connected learning is a work in progress, building on existing models, ongoing experimentation, and dialog with diverse stakeholders.”

As Alec noted in a tweet later in the day, that last point is crucial. A “dialog with diverse stakeholders” :

The conversation is longer. Much longer. But it is happening. And in a lot of different spaces. I saw many people in my PLN at the DML conference, getting excited about what they were seeing. Talking about it. Practicing connected/network/distributed/open learning. Which is, ultimatley, what we all want to see happen.

So, let the conversation begin continue.


Unleash the power of networked learning

Excerpt from article by Martha Stone Wiske, Harvard Graduate School of Education in Harvard Business Review

Amplify’d from
Unleashing the Power of Networked Learning

What’s different is that the top-down, center-out approach to traditional education is dramatically diminished. Learner-generated, informal interactions, short messages, and nonverbal media are the norm in these networked learning situations. No longer are we worried about “warming up” the online environment — it’s plenty hot! No longer are we pondering the advantages of deliberate, reflective, collaborative knowledge construction in a formal threaded discussion forum. We are tapping into a cacophony of rapid fire exchange that is more like scrappy conversation bursts at a party than orderly discourse of academic knowledge building.

How do we conceive and harness the power of networked learning in this context? Well, that’s the new question this year. Clearly networked learning can be powerful: just ask Hosni Mubarak. The current generation of students in high school, college, and graduate school are figuring this out. Their teachers need to ask themselves, “How do we work with our learners to foster the critical thinking, complex communication, and collaborative construction of warranted knowledge that we believe it is our responsibility to do?” What is clear is that we won’t be in charge the way we used to be or thought we were.




What is a MOOC?

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course, and it seems like there are more popping up these day, primarily aimed at educators. Which is one of the reasons why I think Jim Groom’s DS 106 course on Digital Storytelling is an important evolution in the MOOC trail, blazed by people like Alec Corous, George Siemens, David Wiley, and the recent PLENK 2010 course run by George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes. Jim’s course is pushing the MOOC beyond educators and towards a more general audience in that the subject matter is not specifically related to the process of networked learning or educational technology.

If you are not familiar with the MOOC model of online learning, Dave Cormier (who, along with Bryan Alexander coined the term) has created a great primer video on MOOC’s. I think this is an important video as it clearly articulates, in less than 5 minutes, what a MOOC is, how it works, and how it is different than other types of online courses. I think it provides a great introductory gateway to the concepts of networked learning for those unfamiliar with the terrain.

Update: About 30 minutes after I published this article I read a post by George Siemens entitled What’s Wrong with (M) OOC’s in which he hilights three concerns he has with MOOC”s, which are the high drop out rate, degree of technical skill required by both participants and facilitators, and learner disorientation. I am guilty of the first one – dropping out of PLENK. I started strong, but couldn’t finish. This was due mostly to the other commitments I have going right now (my Masters research). It was too easy to not participate, which is reflected in another concern with MOOC’s which Alan Levine brings up in his comment to Georges post:

To me a missing piece is the challenge of creating the stake that a learner has in a MOOC- not paying for a course, not working with a grade or credit as incentive, it falls completely on an individual’s own internal drive to participate, and to do so fully.

One thing is clear – the MOOC model is emerging and there are people who are working hard at figuring out all the bits and pieces. And they are doing it out in the open for all of us to see and participate in.


Network vs Community

A post by George Siemens on PLN’s earlier this week has really pushed my thinking about legitimate peripheral participation, lurking, and the differences between a learning network and a learning community with respect to social expectations and identity.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘taker’, yet I do often consider myself a ‘lurker’. I do not equate ‘lurking = taking’. Sometimes I lurk, sometimes I take. Sometimes I feel I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, so I just like it as a way to acknowledge that I have been there and send a signal to my connection to keep those weak ties bound. Sometimes I contribute something back.

I still find myself uncomfortable. The dialectic nature of learning does not always come easy to me. Even posting my response to George made me uncomfortable, to the point where I was almost apologetic to George for bringing the whole issue of lurking up in the first place as I felt that it distracted from the important point he was making about the need to act by contributing something to all these connections we are busy making.

The reasons why I felt uncomfortable are complex and personal, primarily centered around my own issues of often feeling like I am an imposter at the table. It’s a feeling I have often, even in f2f social situations. I don’t bring this up as a way to exercise my own personal issues as some sort of angst-y therapy blog post, but rather to highlight the complex and highly personal nature of why we may choose to contribute or not contribute (and while reading comments like “Lurking in the physical world is done by thieves, spies and ethnographers” makes me smile, it also doesn’t make a self-proclaimed lurker feel anymore comfortable about contributing). I still feel like something is at risk when I post something. It is a barrier for me, and one that I can’t (or choose not to) always overcome.

I think the fact that I “sometimes” feels like a lurker illustrates the fluid nature of our own personal identity on the web, a point underscored for me when I read George’s reply to  Tannis Morgan’s comment in which he was articulating the differences between identity in a network, and identity in a community.

Hi Tanis – identity and positioning are very different things in networks than they are in community. I don’t want to get into the whole community/network debate here (we do that annually in CCK courses), but networks have different social structures than most communities do. A community has general rules, guidelines, and soft social pressure. We get these in networks to a lesser degree. In networks, for example, we can have parallel conversations where I follow you, I know what you’re writing and thinking about, it forms my development, but I don’t have to focus explicitly on what you (and others) say. Conversations are abundant, diverse, fragmented, and complex. In a community, stronger protocols exist. For example, in a virtual community, if everyone is blasting out random thoughts and ideas, we conclude there is no engagement. On Twitter, I can contribute, create a few resources, post them…and maybe people will respond. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s ok, in a network, to contribute and not be explicitly acknowledged. In a community, contribution has stronger social norms – i .e. it needs to be acknowledge, discussed, and so on. As a result, the identity of individuals in social networks has a different impact than it does in communities. But I need to think a bit more about what exactly that difference is…at this point, it seems to me that identity is more fluid in networks and therefore has less requirements of expected behaviour or roles than we find in communities.

Reading this was a bit of an aha moment for me (and a duh moment as well). A learning network is not a learning community. There are differences, both subtle and profound, between the two.

Which brings me back to Wenger & Lave’s legitimate peripheral participation, and how my thinking got shifted by this post. LPP is a concept that is very much tied to communities, specifically Communities of Practice. But, as George points out, a network is not a community. They are two different entities, and the social expectations for involvement in both are different. In my attempt to understand the nature of networked learning and PLN’s, perhaps I am transferring too much from the Community of Practice model, and not fully acknowledging that there are fundamental differences that exist between learning in a community and learning in a network.

Which makes me wonder at what point do our models of thinking – models that have served us so well over the years – begin to get stretched too far? At what point do our models begin to hold us back instead of give us the foundation to move forward? At what point does our scaffold begin to fall down and need to be rebuilt again?

Finally, this all makes me think that we do a disservice to both the terms “lurking” and “legitimate peripheral participation” when we use them interchangeably (guilty). They are different things, and I sometimes think the (undeservedly) pejorative nature of the term “lurker” often gets dressed up with the much more acceptable term of legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation may begin with lurking, but there is an expectation that this is the first step in a continuum for a learner in that they will eventually move out of the lurking phase and take a more active role in a community.


How students benefit from open networked learning

Helen Keegan is a Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media and Social Technologies at the University of Salford, UK, and recently wrote a post outlining one particular experience in using social media with her grad class. Working with MSc. students, Helen had the students blog and use Twitter as part of an exercise in developing a digital identity. She goes on to describe “the eureka moment” for the students on how powerful these tools can be in connecting and engaging with people who are working in their field of study. For some context on the excerpt below, Jeremy Silver is (among other things) the acting-CEO of  the Featured Artists Coalition in the UK and a prominent figure in the UK music industry.

There were some hugely influential and heart-warming examples of the benefits of students developing a professional online ID. One of these took place after our IP/Digital Rights week, when each student was asked to write a post in response to Jeremy Silver’s blog. Silver had found this post (pingback?) and left a really positive comment. That was a eureka moment for all – the idea that they could write a post, and one of the industry’s leading figures value their perspective, treat them as peers, and take the time to enter into conversation with them. This was soon followed by one of the group telling me how he’d tweeted his Audioboo blog post, and ’this guy retweeted it, said something really positive about my post – think he might actually work for Audioboo’. It was Mark Rock, the CEO…

When Jeremy Silver and Mark Rock took the time to read the student blog posts, comment positively and re-tweet, they added so much to the learner experience and i’m pretty sure they won’t have realised just how influential those acknowledgements would be – not just to the two students, but to the whole group. They were the missing link between our students seeing themselves as apprentices and professionals, the whole ‘linking education to industry through social software’ idea, which although we have been focusing on for a few years now, has never been experienced in such a potent way.

As a student, I have experienced moments like this. It is an exhilarating feeling to see that your words and thoughts have moved someone you admire or respect to action, and provide a response. It is a highly validating and motivating moment as you begin to realize that you are moving beyond being a student of a subject to being a practitioner in a field.


Facilitating a distributed discussion – an experiment

Get Connected!

The latest course in my Masters is Facilitation and Community Building, and I have an interesting experiential assignment this week. I am working with 2 other members of my cohort to facilitate a discussion with the rest of our cohort.

Our topic is facilitating collaboration in virtual teams and we’re trying something a little bit different and I’m feeling a tad nervous about it (I keep telling myself nervous is good when learning). In the spirit of networked learning, instead of facilitating the discussion in our closed Moodle forum, we are going to try taking the discussion outside of the LMS and onto a couple of blog posts that we found which are related to our topic.

Part of the reason why we decided to do it this way is because all three of us facilitating this week are strong believers in networked learning as a way to engage with a broad array of voices and opinions in our field. While the assignment we have come up with may be a bit more prescriptive than constructivist, it will hopefully give the rest of our cohort a brief opportunity to try their hand at network learning.

For the past couple of days, our cohort has been reading 2 articles on facilitating virtual teams in a collaborative environment. Tonight we posted the second part of the assignment and have asked them to visit (at least) one of three blog posts related to the topic and leave a comment on the blog. The posts we have chosen are:

  • Lurking and Loafing from Steve Wheeler talks about social loafing, lurking and how to encourage participation.
  • Collaboration from Ben Grey questions the differences between collaboration and cooperation.
  • Dysfunctional Teams from Tony Karrer is a nice summary of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Hopefully, these authors won’t mind us practicing a bit of network learning to try to spur some conversation on the topic of collaboration and virtual teamwork. So Steve, Ben and Tony, if you happen to notice a few new comments on these posts this week, take it as a good sign that you’ve engaged some of our cohort. There are 9 of us, so hopefully distributed over three blogs you won’t feel overwhelmed with a sudden influx of comments.

And if anyone in my network reading this would like to join in our conversation, that would be wonderful as well. If you get a chance, pop by these posts, respond to a few comments and help us illustrate the power of networked learning.

Photo: Get Connected by Divergent Learner used under Creative Commons license.