What is “netgl” and how might it apply to my problem

At least a couple of the students in a course I help out with are struggling a little with Assignment 2 which asks them “to develop a theory-informed plan for using NGL to transform your teaching (very broadly defined) practice”.

The following is a collection of bits of advice that will hopefully help. Littered throughout are also some examples from my own practice.

NGL != social media

Network and Global Learning (NGL/netgl) should not be interpreted to mean use of social media. In the course we use blogs, Diigo, feed readers etc as the primary form of NGL practice and in the past this has led folk to think that NGL equates to use of social media.

Just because we used blogs, Diigo, and feed readers, that doesn’t you should. You should use whatever is appropriate to your problem and your context.

What is NGL?

Which begs the question, “what is NGL”? If not just social media.

As I hope was demonstrated in the first two-thirds of the course there is no one definition of NGL. There are many different views from many different perspectives.

The first week’s material had a section on networked learning that included a few broad definitions. I particularly like the Goodyear et al (2014) quote that includes

learning networks now consist of heterogeneous assemblages of tasks, activities, people, roles, rules, places, tools, artefacts and other resources, distributed in complex configurations across time and space and involving digital, non-digital and hybrid entities.

The course material also covers more specific conceptions of NGL. e.g. connectivism gets a mention in week 1, as does public click pedagogy.

Week 3 mentions groups, networks, collectives and communities; the idea of network learning as a 3rd generation of pedagogy; and some historical origins of network learning.

What’s your problem?

It’s all overwhelming, is a common refrain I’m hearing. Understanding that there is a range of different views of NGL probably isn’t going to help. That’s one of the reason why Assignment 2 is intended to use a design-based research approach i.e. (emphasis added)

a particular approach to research that seeks to address practical problems by using theories and other knowledge to develop and enhance new practices, tools and theories.

At some level DBR can help narrow your focus by asking you to focus on a practical problem. A problem near and dear to your heart and practice.

Of course, the nature of “problems” in and around education are themselves likely to be complex and overwhelming. The example I give from my own practice – described initially as “university e-learning tends to be so bad” or “a bit like teenage sex” is a big complex problem with lots of perspectives.

How do you reduce the big overwhelming problem to something that you can meaningful address?

This is where the literature and theory(ies) enter the picture.

What might “theory informed” mean?

First, go and read a short post titled What is theory and why use theories?.

Adopting this broad and pragmatic view of theory, there are many ideas and concepts littered throughout this course (and many, many more outside) including, but not limited to: connectivism; connected learning; communities of practice; group, networks, collectives, and communities; threshold concepts etc. In understanding your problem, you are liable to draw upon a range more.

As per the short post theories are meant to be useful to you in understanding a situation or problem and then as an aid in formulating action.

Combining theories from NGL and your “problem”

The theories for assignment 2 aren’t limited just to theories from NGL. You should also use theories that are relevant to your problem.

You look around for how other people have conceptualised the problem and the approaches and theories that they have used. Do any of those resonate with you? Can you see any problems or limitations with the approaches used? Are there other theoretical lenses or just simple ways of understanding the problem that help narrow down useful avenues for action?

In terms of my problem with the perceived quality limitations of university e-learning, I’ve been using the TPACK framework for a while as one theoretical lens. TPACK is quite a recent and broadly used theory for understanding the knowledge teachers require to design technology-based learning experiences. (Since all models are wrong, it has it’s limitations)

Drawing on TPACK I wonder if the reason why university e-learning is so bad is because the TPACK (knowledge) being used to design, implement, and support it is insufficient. It needs to be improved.

Not an earth shatteringly insightful or novel suggestion. But by focusing on TPACK that does suggest that perhaps I focus my attention for potential solutions within the TPACK related literature, other than elsewhere. Almost always there is more literature than any body (especially in the context of a few weeks) can get their head around. So for better or worse, you need to starting drawing boundaries.

Now with a focus on TPACK it’s time to combine my personal experience with the theory and associated literature. My personal experience and context may also help focus my exploration. e.g. if I were working in a TAFE/VET context, I might start looking at the literature for mentions of TPACK in the TAFE/VET context (or just at TAFE/VET literature). Again, narrowing down the focus.

I might find that there’s nothing in the TAFE/VET context that mentions TPACK in conjunction with e-learning. This might highlight an opportunity to learn lessons from other contexts and test them out in the TAFE/VET context. Or there might already be some TPACK/TAFE/VET/e-learning literature that I can learn from.

In my case, as someone with relatively high TPACK I get really annoyed when people think the main challenge is “low digital fluency of faculty” (i.e. teaching staff). This gets me thinking that perhaps the problem isn’t going to be solved by focusing on developing the knowledge of teaching staff. i.e. requiring teaching staff to have formal teaching qualification isn’t (I believe) going to solve the problem, so what is?

You want digitally fluent faculty?

This is potentially interesting because a fair chunk of existing practice assumes that formal teaching qualifications or the “right” professional development opportunities will help teaching staff develop the right TPACK and thus university e-learning will be fantastic. Being able to mount a counter to a prevailing orthodoxy might be interesting and useful. It might make a contribution. It might also identify a fundamental misunderstanding of a problem and a need to read and consider further.

In my case that led to an interest in (seeing a connection with) another theoretical idea, i.e. the distributive view of learning and knowledge. I do recommend Putnam & Borko (2000) as a good place to start learning about how the distributive view of knowledge and thinking can help situate teacher learning.

The combination of TPACK and the distributive view of learning appears to be useful. So we ended up using it in this paper to explore our experience with university e-learning. That work lead to questions such as

  • How can institutional learning and teaching support engage with the situated nature of TPACK and its development?
  • How can University-based systems and teaching practices be closer to, or better situated in, the teaching contexts experienced by pre-service educators?
  • How can the development of TPACK by teacher educators be made more social?
  • How can TPACK be shared with other teacher educators and their students?
  • Can the outputs of digital renovation practices by individual staff be shared?
  • How can institutions encourage innovation through digital renovation?
  • What are the challenges and benefits involved in encouraging digital renovation?

Most of these are questions that could be good candidates for a design-based research project. i.e. can you use these and other theories to design an intervention or change in practice?

Designing an intervention

This recent post is my attempt to answer at least this question from above

How can institutional learning and teaching support engage with the situated nature of TPACK and its development?

It takes the distributed view of TPACK, the BAD mindset, and tries to envision some changes in practice/technology that might embody the principles from those theoretical ideas.

The idea is that being guided by those theoretical ideas makes it more likely that I can predict what can/should happen. I can justify the design of the intervention. I might be wrong, but it will hopefully be a better reason for the specific design approach than “because I wanted to”.

The ultimate aim of a DBR approach is to design, implement, and then test this design to see if it does achieve what I think it might.

Don’t forget the context. Don’t focus on the technology

My example above is very heavy on in terms of technology and requires fairly large technical expertise. That’s because it is something that I’ve designed for my specific context. It makes sense (hopefully) within that context.

If I were someone else working (with less technical knowledge) in a different context (e.g. an outback school with no Internet connection), then the solution I would design would be different.

Putnam and Borko (2000) give a range of examples around teacher learning that aren’t heavily technology based. If there is no Internet connection, there might be a high prevalence of mobile phones. If not, I might need to become a little more creative about using low levels of digital technologies.

In fact, if I were in a very low technology environment, I’d be actively searching the literature for insight and ideas about how other people have dealt with this problem. Almost certainly I wouldn’t be the first in the world.

References

Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 4-15.

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