All the posts and comments on the #PLENK2010 discussion board this week so far have given me something to think about. It was a conscious decision to put the subject of the week in the title of this post. It seems most discussion has revolved around the technical platform that an institution or a person might use, rather than on what these platforms actually mean in the learning of participants.
In my experience, and that is in a brick and mortar university, the LMS/VLE is mainly used to support the teaching and administration that takes place in the institution. The PLE/PLN is there to support learning. This different emphasis makes all the difference to me. Institutional learning is very much focused on what the teaching staff provides, rather than what students as autonomous learners can find for themselves. In my PhD research I looked at a crossover possibility, where within the institution over a two year period a slow transformation was created from highly supported learning and a directive teaching approach towards autonomy in a research project in which social media played an important role.
My research highlighed the importance of communication in learning to crate a high level of social 'presence'. An LMS/VLE is problematic in facilitating this.On the one hand teaching staff might meet students on a regular basis, so there might not be such a need for discussion board interaction, on the other hand major problems with power relations on discussion boards have been identified. Also. some people will perform well by not contributing much in discussions, but instead spend time in self-directed study away from the course site, while others perform well by communicating extensively with tutor and other learners.
Nonnecke and Preece explain that when people are not participating in the discussion board (otherwise called ‘lurking’) this is not necessarily a bad thing: ‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 51). Research by Bedouin in non-participation in online discussion found that the people who were not very visible in the online classroom ‘spent most time reading assignments, reading others’ comments, web searches, writing assignments and spent less time on writing online messages’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 52).
Gulati’s research indicated that half of these learners identified themselves as self-directed learners, rather than social learners. The way people participate in online discussion depends, apart from a tendency to autonomous learning, also on a number of other factors as argued by Mann and also Levy. They posit that the openness in online dialogue and the power-relations within an online learner group are important issues in creating relations of trust within the online community (Mann, 2005; Levy, 2006). This resonates with Gulati’s research results that also identified that the power relations in the discussion forum influence participation. She found that confidence and affective issues were important aspects, while the level of knowledge displayed by some participants was also a determining influence on the level of participation and confidence of others.
I don't know how you experience the use of discussion forums on this course as opposed to finding your own way of communication and collaboration on your own PLENK network, through the use of blogs, wikis, Twitter and other tools? My research showed that feedback from knowledgeable others in their learning was crucial to move on, develop and learn, but that it was not necessarily important that this other would be a university instructor. The level of presence was important, however. And Dron and Anderson (2007) see a difference in presence and engagement in the learning activity if there is a high level of presence (that you can find for instance in a group on a course) but lesser so on a network with a looser structure and even lower on a collective, through applications such as flickr or delicious, where the connection with others is facilitated through tags.
This is clearly one of the major challenges in this MOOC as the numbers are high and the learner group is dispersed and participants might not speak the same language. I can already see though how it is not only the facilitators that provide feedback and support. The more this happens the more successful the learning I believe.
Dron, J. and Anderson, T. (2007) Collectives, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-Learning, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education (ELEARN) 2007, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Gulati, S. (2003) Informal learning: Building an argument for Inclusive Online Learning, 2003 ATHINER Conference, Athens
Levy, P. (2006) Learning a different form of communication: experiences of networked learning and reflections on practice, Study in Continuing Education, 28,3, pg. 259-277
Mann, S. J. (2005) Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community? Studies in Higher Education, 30, 1, pg. 43-55