Learning is social
Much of what I have been reading and reflecting on has been shaped by my belief that quite a lot of learning is social. I don’t mean social in the sense of going to a bar with friends and having a drink; I mean social as in constructed with others. While a lot of the learning that I do seems to be individual right now, it is not until I write down what I am thinking, what I believe that I have learnt and how I have connected it to previous experiences or understandings that the learning actually crystallises. It is the act of writing down my learning, expressing it in a form that can be consumed by others, that I begin to truly structure my understandings. Further, it is not until someone else reads that writing and comments on it, or discusses it with me, that I confirm that I have understood and added to my knowledge – this is the interaction that I believe is truly learning. While reading, taking notes, watching videos etc might fall into the category of learning, I don’t think it truly is- I think that it is just taking stuff into my head. When I actually interact with others to connect that stuff with other stuff, draw conclusions, create new links, apply it; that is the learning part.
For many years, most formal learning in schools and universities was not collaborative – although it was social in that there were at least two people required – the teacher and the student. However, traditional learning was based on a transmission model, where the teacher/lecturer stood at the front, and expounded the knowledge, which the student/learner absorbed with varying degrees of success. This absorption rate was measured in tests where the individual student had to regurgitate this learning to demonstrate how much they had taken in. It assumed the student/learner was an empty slate, and that the teacher/lecturer held all of the knowledge that was required. It required no collaboration, and nothing new was constructed; the knowledge was simply transferred.
Even today we see this transmission model in schools and universities. It is reflected in popular culture (Google Teacher on image search and you will see photos and clipart of an adult standing before a blackboard, pointing to what is to be learnt). It is what lots of people imagine when they hear the word classroom, or learning. While students may now sit at desks that are grouped and students may have laptops in front of them, much learning still occurs in this way. Current fascinations with standardised testing regimes seem to reflect an understanding that this is the best way to capture what has been ‘learnt’, while others try to convince that this is not the way.
Research shows that the transmission model is largely only suitable for awareness building; it does not result in effective transfer or application of knowledge. How much do students recall weeks after an exam situated in this context? In addition, it is not even possible anymore for one person (such as a teacher) to hold all necessary knowledge in their head. Now that we have ready access to content, much of teaching should no longer consist of the transferral of content knowledge – much of teaching should now ensure that students have the skills to access, evaluate and apply information when and where they need it; to create the connections they require to build new understandings, and to remix and build upon what already exists. Reports such as A Rich Seam by Fullan and Langworthy find that there is a need for new pedagogies which reflect the current context:
So this leads me to reflect on collaborative learning. I believe that many people (mistakenly) equate collaborative learning with ‘group work’ or ‘team assignments’ – those times when you find yourself with perhaps 3-5 others, and you are tasked with working together to respond to an assignment task or assessment. This may indeed be collaborative (although attempts to manage social loafing may result in the scenario of individuals completing different amounts of work separately, then combining at the end). However I don’t believe that this is collaborative learning. My sense is that collaborative learning occurs when the act of collaborating with someone else results in the construction of new knowledge or understandings. Through dialogue, argument, exchange of opinion, debate, discourse – the result of two or more people sharing what they know, and building upon it.
Social Software enables Collaborative Learning
Three things have occurred recently which have greatly expanded people’s ability to connect with others all over the world. These three things are access to broadband internet at a ‘reasonable’ price, the emergence of mobile computing and the development and large scale adoption of online social networking tools. Rainie and Wellman (2012) label these three changes as the ‘triple revolution’. This ‘triple revolution’ has resulted in the potential for individuals to be more highly networked than ever before. Not everyone is connected in this way; however internet penetration rates in the Western World are hovering at a minimum of 70%; and access to mobile and social media is also growing globally.
What does this mean for collaborative learning?
It means that the transmission model where the teacher holds all of the information and the learner must access it directly from them is no longer feasible, as the learner can now circumvent the teacher, and go directly to the source. This model may have operated successfully in times of information scarcity, but in an environment of information abundance, its value is limited. The role of the teacher must change to reflect this environment. Wenger and Traynor suggest that this means finding the sweet spot where teaching and social learning leadership mesh.
Social software enables greater opportunities and supports for collaborative learning; where learning occurs through sharing and interaction with others. There is extensive research to support the assertion that we learn collaboratively because of a wide range of reasons, including shared common interests and the reward of exchanging ideas and support. Now we have the technology to connect with a network that most closely supports our individual learning needs. How do we connect with this network?
Collaborative Learning through the PLN
There is a great deal of professional literature on the concept of a professional/personal learning network (PLN). Some equate PLNs with PLE’s, others (including myself) see them as slightly different conceptions. Learning through a PLN brings challenges that are different to connecting face to face. This brings us to the concept of developing digital literacies. Steve Wheeler suggests these include social networking skills, transliteracy skills, maintaining privacy, managing identity, creating content, organising and sharing content, reusing/repurposing content and self broadcasting. Doug Belshaw suggests that digital literacies revolve around eight elements: cultural, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confident, creative, critical and civic. When developing a PLN, I agree that high levels of digital literacies, however they are explicated, are required. This is because learning through a PLN requires the ability to evaluate quality information (crap detection). It requires the ability to connect safely and to maintain levels of appropriate privacy. It requires a technical knowledge of the tools being used, and a knowledge of the tools available so that the most suitable ones may be chosen for different purposes. Learning through a PLN requires an understanding of the ethics of using, sharing and creating work online. As an active participant in a PLN, one also needs to be able to create, manage and remix content effectively and in a way that clearly expresses the learner’s opinions. Collaborative learning through a PLN is largely informal and therefore is dependent upon the individual to manage and direct their learning. Learning through a PLN requires a lot of skills many of us may not yet have, or are in the process of developing!
I love having a PLN to turn to when I am seeking information or guidance. However it has taken a long time to build and develop. As an early adopter of Twitter (joining in September 2007), and as a keen user of technology, I have spent a lot of time being online, playing in different spaces, developing different skills and experimenting with different tools. My digital identity is fairly well developed. I prefer not to participate in ‘preconstructed’ professional learning environments such as The Educators PLN because I feel that connecting with the individuals of my choice at my point of need is more effective for me. This is not a criticism of these large networks, just a personal preference. I would like to support others to develop their own PLNs, hence my doctoral studies in this area – however I do believe that it is an individual and personal construction. I also acknowledge the time it takes to develop a PLN, and the time required to dedicate to being online; and that finding this time may be a challenge. I build it into my day; at lunchbreaks, when I have 10 minutes to kill waiting to pick someone up, when I am waiting for the bus, while watching episodes of trashy reality tv with the family on the couch. I get a thrill everytime someone from ‘overseas’ contacts me, uses my work, asks me a question – this may be a uniquely Australian experience, as we are fairly well removed from the rest of the world!!!! Collaborative online learning has become part of my day, part of my life and a major way in which I learn.