Understanding and using the idea of “network learning”

The following seeks to engage with some thoughts shared by Brigitte, bring together some earlier ramblings of my own, and connect this with R&D related work I should be doing over coming months (though it’s historically rare for those plans to come to fruition).

The title of Brigitte’s post is the question “What is networked learning?” This is an important question in the context of the NGL course we’re participating in because the overall focus is developing your own answer to that question, identifying the principles of your conception of NGL, and then using those principles to design a change to how some task you are involved with “as teacher”.  Hence if your answer to “What is networked and global learning?” isn’t all that great, the rest of what you do will suffer because of it.

Features of less than great answers

It’s not hard to see less than great answers to this question. The following lists some of the features of those that I’m familiar with.

It’s the technology, isn’t it?

The most common is that the use of networked digital technology (even an LMS) is the key feature of network learning. Or if you’re really cool, it’s use of blogs, Diigo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack or insert latest sexy networked digital technology. While I’m keen on digital technology and it can be a great enabler for efficiency, or a great catalyst for rethinking and transformation of practice. It’s just a (increasingly useful) means to an end.

This post from last year – titled “There’s more to it than the Internet and social software” – picks up a similar refrain and links it to various thoughts from 2015 NGL participants and beyond, including the idea that everything is a network.

It’s groups of people, isn’t it?

Another common less than great answer revolves around groups of people. i.e. multiple people all working toward a common goal. An answer that often suggests that the absence of commonality of purpose (or some other form) means it can’t be what passes for networked learning. And/or, it’s an answer that often assumes that a single person – someone not talking directly to someone else – can not be engaged in what passes for networked learning.

In this comment on one of my earlier blog posts comparing connected and networked learning, Nick Kelly expands the comparison to include communities of practice. The most common “groups of people” model that comes to most people’s minds.  The particular view of network learning Nick uses in that comment is described as

NL emphasises the possibility for technology and design to enable better connections between learners and between learners and resources

Nothing there about common purpose.  It’s a definition that includes the idea of connections between learners and resources.

It’s about students (and teachers), isn’t it?

Another common less than great answer tends to limit network learning to the learners. Or, as I suggest in this post it might also include the teachers

Typically networked learning – at least within an institutional setting – is focused on how the students and the teachers are engaging in networked learning. More specifically, how they are using the LMS and associated institutional systems (because you can get in trouble for using something different).

But what about everyone else? If we live in a rapidly changing world where ubiquitous digital technology is transforming the very assumptions upon which we operate, aren’t we all learners who might benefit from network learning? Harking back to Nick’s description above

NL emphasises the possibility for technology and design to enable better connections between learners and between learners and resources

Which is the point I try to make in the earlier post, that network learning shouldn’t just be thought of as what the students and teachers engage in, but as

how the network of people (teaching staff, support staff, management, students), communities, technologies, policies, and processes within an institution learn about how to implement networked learning.

The argument made in this paper is that the use of digital technology to enhance learning and teaching in most formal educational institutions is so terrible because “everything is a network” is only thought to apply (if then) to learning and teaching, not the support and management roles.

Learning and knowledge are people things, aren’t they?

In this paper some colleagues and I draw on what Putnam and Borko (2000) have to say about new views of knowledge. Views of knowledge that certainly do not agree that knowledge is something that is solely in people’s heads. It’s a view that’s connectes

Better answers

Brigitte draws on the Wikipedia definition of networked learning

Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another’s learning.

That’s a better answer (IMHO). No explicit mention of technology or common purpose. But of course there are alternatives and this remains a short description that doesn’t offer much detail. What are good and bad ways of developing and maintaining connections? What is a connection? What is its form? How might it be formed?

It’s in answering these types of questions where the variety between different interpretations of NGL enter the picture. Exploring these different interpretations and find one that works for them is one of the challenges for participants in the NGL course.

Putting it into practice

Formulating and justifying principles for action

A use the following definition of educational theory quite often because it resonates with my pragmatic view of theory. Hirst (2012) describes educational theory as

A domain of practical theory, concerned with formulating and justifying principles of action for a range of practical activities. (p. 3)

And that’s the aim of the NGL course, to encourage participants to draw upon their view of network learning to formulate and justify principles for action. Action that involves them planning some intervention into an act of teaching.

This post seeks to compare two different perspectives on network learning. One titled connected learning (getting a lot of traction and doing interesting stuff in the USA) and more European view of network learning. What’s interesting is that both appear to formulate principles for action.

It’s the formulation of principles for action that are based on an appropriate perspective of networked learning, and then using those principles to design a contextually appropriate intervention is the main focus of the last task in the course.

Is it worth it?

Adam isn’t alone when he expresses the following, related uncertainty

While I myself am a big enthusiast of implementation of ICT in education, I still haven’t convinced myself that online and distance curriculums actually offer learning advantages aside from flexibility and convenience

Indeed, this may be the big question for many people, but whenever people ask the “does it work” question with learning and teaching (with or without digital technologies), I am immediately put in mind of the following quote

That is why ‘what works’ is not the right question in education. Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere. – Dylan Wiliam

A previous offering of NGL included a UK-based university educator teaching one of the sciences. Her definition of “what worked” was, not surprisingly, a very objective one. Either, NGL worked, or it didn’t work. And you could only know if it worked if there were double-blind, randomised, controlled trial. The gold standard for knowing if something works, or doesn’t work.

Along with Wiliam, I think education is much more difficult than that. It’s much more contextual. What works today, may not work tomorrow with the same learners.

Why is e-learning like teenage sex?

I’ve given a presentation that argues that almost all e-learning is like teenage sex. Not because I think that digital technologies cannot have any positive effect. But because I think the way that formal education institutions and the people within them understand and harness digital technologies remains extremely limited.

From this perspective, in this type of context, NGL is rarely going to provide advantages beyond flexibility and convenience.  Especially when the mindsets that underpin how formal education institutions do anything is stuck in a very non-NGL view. Which is what we argued with the BAD/SET framework, and where the D in BAD stood for Distribution and was defined as

the world is complex, dynamic, and consists of interdependent assemblages of diverse actors (human and not) connected via complex networks.

For me, network learning involved effectively recognising and leveraging that view of the world.

References

Hirst, P. H. (2012). Educational theory. In P. H. Hirst (Ed.), Educational Theory and Its Foundation Disciplines (pp. 3–29). Milton Park, UK: Routledge.

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.

3 thoughts on “Understanding and using the idea of “network learning”

  1. Pingback: David Jones’s Blog – Networked Learning | EdTech Hot Technologies

  2. Pingback: Echo chamber for your own predilections | BeeLearning Blog

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