Friday, October 15, 2010

Formal learners have the best of both worlds?

Thanks Dave, your post has finally made me put my fingers on the key board to write the post that I have been thinking about for the past days. You start with where most discussions on the PLE originate, in an opposition to the institutionally controlled LMS. To me it seems more helpful not to take the technologies as the central point of discussion, but the forms of learning: formal (as in institutions) and informal (as on open online networks).

The idea I liked most to move from formal towards informal learning comes from Ivan Illich, who would like to rid us of ‘scholastic funnels ‘(1992) and instead create ‘community webs’ .He would like people to be able to call on the teacher or peers of their choice, teach if they feel they have something meaningful to say and call meetings to share resources whenever possible (1971).

This sounds pretty much like a Personal Learning Environment to me. To move community webs onto online networks was never his plan, though. He was very much wary of technology as it might further develop the ‘surveillance society’ that he abhorred. He could see, however, the use of technology to serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction ‘and values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.’

To me there are three major challenges to achieve this type of webs online:
1.                   Power
2.                   The network as a place to learn as opposed to an educational institution – the role of the educator/knowledgeable other
3.                   The learner as a developing human being –critical literacies

1. Power

Dave and other network enthusiasts (and I count myself as one of them) speak often about the power that  educational  institutions hold over learners. What they rarely discuss however, are the power relations on online networks.  Everyone familiar with the work of Barabasi will know that there are power relations on the online network, as there are in educational institutions. Barabasi found through his research that participants on networks are not only selective, but that the nature of networks prevents network “surfers” from having access to all information at the same level.

The most intriguing result of our Web-mapping project was the complete absence of democracy, fairness, and egalitarian values on the Web. We learned that the topology of the Web prevents us from seeing anything but a mere handful of the billion documents out there.
                                                                                       (Barabasi, 2003, p. 56)

We are in the hands of corporations such as Google to help us find the resources and documents that we need, which makes us dependent on them to build an ethical dimension into their search algorithm. Of course we have found other ways to filter our information; knowledgeable others we trust can provide us with relevant and interesting information . Bouchard (2010) and Boyd (2010) still see problems with these as well and question the possibility of hierarchy-free peer to peer connections on the Web:

However, the notion of  'supernode' predictably emerges when some contributors are recognized by a  number of others as having particular relevance to, or knowledge of a problem. There seems to be a natural tendency within the 'perfectly' democratic network to organize itself, over time, in a hierarchical system composed of leaders and followers. We are then left with a social organization that resembles the 'outside' world of government and commerce, with the difference that the currency of exchange in the network is not money or power, but reputation and popularity.
                                                                             (Bouchard, 2010, p. 3)

Boyd (2010, p1.) also emphasizes problems with this:

Instead, what we're seeing is the emergence of a new type of information broker. These people get credit for their structural position. Although the monetary benefits are indirect, countless consulting gigs have arisen for folks based on their power as information brokers. The old controllers of information are losing their stature (and are not happy about it). What is emerging is not inherently the power of the creators but, rather, the power of the modern-day information brokers.

To me it seems that there is a shift in power from educators who might operate in educational institutions, who are paid to provide learners in their care with a rounded education, and with this I mean they provide information that encompasses a multitude of points of view on a topic that they are supposedly experts in. The online information brokers, however, who operate on networks, are free agents and do not have a responsibility or obligation to provide a critical point of view. They might do this, but do not necessarily have to.  I don’t know of any research in the role of information brokers in networked learning. (If you do, please let me know).

2. The network as a place to learn as opposed to a group in an educational institution

Now, I know that proponents of learning on networks see this differently. Stephen Downes for instance represents in this blog post and this image a particular picture of learning on networks and in groups (in formal education). He argues that on perfect networks the diversity, autonomy, openness and connectivity will facilitate optimal conditions for learning.

To me there are some issues with this. Firstly, as I just hinted at, power relations on networks are not as perfect as that. Secondly, networks are not as diverse as might be optimal as research has shown that there is a tendency for tribalism on the Web. Thirdly, not all learners are as autonomous and possess the critical literacies to make them comfortable with the negotiation of online networks for learning. 

 People learning in a group in an institution seem to have the best of both worlds:  Groups don’t operate in a locked room; members of a group can move onto the Web and the network of their choice whenever they like. Groups are also not necessarily the one way knowledge transfer entities that Stephen describes. There are examples of a totally different approach to group learning . The advantage that groups in formal education have over self-directed learners on networks is that support is provided for learners who need an extra step up to feel comfortable in the learning setting.  I like the matrix Gerald Grow (1991) provided on the matches and mismatches of learner needs and educator support.  Good teachers have always kept in mind the balance there is in supporting and letting go. I also like the model of learner autonomy by Paul Bouchard (2009) that shows that learners need to address different aspects, some psychological, others pedagogical, in order to feel comfortable while learning in semi-autonomous learning environments.

Also as mentioned earlier, a knowledgeable person is present and being paid to make that people become aware of issues a self directed learner on a network might not come across. ‘Kerr refers to Kay’s non-universals for instance, a series of understandings (identified on the basis of research by anthropologists) that are not learned spontaneously, and which are common to all known human societies – for instance, “deductive abstract mathematics, model-based science, democracy [and] slow deep thinking.” Kerr suggests that if learning these non-universals is considered important, then methods ought to be identified to teach them.’ (Kop&Hill,2008).

As a researcher who has carried out research in the importance of ‘presence’ in learning I am also concerned about the lack of intensity of the learning experience on open online networks compared to a formal class room.  A body of knowledge is emerging that emphasizes the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ ties in different learning situations (Jones at al, 2008).  Here a link to an earlier post on presence and the learning experience.  

In my view ‘rubbing up conceptually to other people’s blogposts’ is still a very different experience than sitting opposite the person and communicating in a real life situation. It is more like reading a book or an article than experiencing a person with all five senses. Research  seems to indicate that the higher the intensity of the interactions, the higher the engagement and motivation to be actively involved in the learning experience (Kop, 2010).

I would like the level of communication and collaboration in learning to reach the level of a dialogue. This is what educators such as Freire aspired to in order for learning to be a transformative experience, rather than for it to remain at the level of a conversation. Critical educators such as Freire (Freire and Macedo,1999, p48) who worked in areas of social and economic deprivation and intended to bring about transformation in people’s lives by using education for awareness raising of injustice and power relations in society. He thought it to be essential that teachers have a directive role. In this capacity, teachers would enter into a dialogue ‘as a process of learning and knowing’ with learners, rather than the dialogue being a ‘conversation’ that would remain at the level of ‘the individual’s lived experience’. He found it important to engage in a dialogue because he recognised the social and not merely the individualistic character of knowing.

He felt that this capacity for critical engagement would not be present if educators are reduced to facilitators. You can feel where I am going:  is it enough for facilitators on this course to have a ‘hands-off’ approach’ and provide information, or should facilitators engage with the topic of the week and  at creating a learning environment that makes people think at a deeper level? I would be interested to hear from you. Chris Jobling already said a little bit about this on his blog yesterday.

I also have here a quote from a discussion post by Antonella Esposito on the #PLENK2010 discussionboard that I though expressed well where networked learning is moving, but also its challenges:

I believe that harnessing the value of technology-based informal learning deals with managing a good balance between serendipity and intentionality. It deals with a double ability: on the one hand the ability to lead your attention towards threads of discussion which reasonate what you are studying or working on, or merely are interested in; on the other hand, it deals with the abilty to surf the complexity of an open environment, in which interdisciplinarity, different stages of competence and the interplay of personal, professional and scholarly level of conversation offer new views to be sifted and expanded.
The more you “live” in such social spaces, the more you need sophisticated literacies to integrate them in your own learning journey. (Antonello Esposito on PLENK discussion forum week 4

This leads me to my next point.

3.  The learner as a developing human being –critical literacies

In all of this we should not forget that we are all developing human beings. I would like to go a little deeper into Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development. Perry arrived at his scheme through empirical research in college education, and there has been some criticism and also some extensions to the scheme have been developed (see Moore and Williams(2002) Understanding learning in a postmodern world: reconsidering the Perry scheme of intellectual and ethical development, in)  The nine stages have been depicted in some cartoons here (slideshows by William Rapaport in middle of page)). Perry saw 9 stages of development, which progress from a dualism between right and wrong. , starting with the identification with an authority figure, then on to a stage where different positions and beliefs are acknowledged, but are simply wrong; as the learner always thinks he is right and the other is wrong.

The third stage is seen by Perry to include attempts to include diversity and moves towards acknowledging that there is a multiplicity in human opinion, experience and ‘truth’. He says at this level ‘the acceptance of uncertainty to be legitimate . . . is for many students an exciting one'. In position 4 the learner moves towards the notion in this uncertainty that one’s own thinking is the important thing. In position five a relativism is added to the mix and the learner becomes aware that the context influences one’s thinking: ‘one’s task in life is finally understood fully as intellectual and ethical – a question of judgments and meaning-making in both academic and personal contexts. (Perry, 1998).

In position six to nine the emphasis shifts from being intellectual towards being ethical and involve commitments. Commitments are chosen and are anticipated, clarified and refined in light of ‘legitimate alternatives, after experiencing genuine doubt, and reflecting a clear affirmation of one’s self or identity – define one’s identity in a contextually relativistic world’ (Moore & Williams, 2002). quite sophisticated and according to Perry this level is not reached till post-graduate learning.

Why bring the Perry scheme up here? In many instances over the past years I have been asked how people might be able to cope with the challenges of learning on online networks. As Antonella expressed in her post, we require sophisticated skills, literacies  and advanced development to learn independently. Stephen Downes and I facilitated another Massive Open Online Course earlier in the summer with as topic Critical Literacies, as we are well aware that learning on new open online learning environments requires different capacities from learners than more traditional learning settings (although we might not quite agree on them (:-)). Stephen has given several presentations on this, which are more entertaining than my words so I have linked them here.


Oeps, this post has become a little longer than expected. The main point I have tried to make is that learning on open online network is quite different from learning in a formal educational setting: it is self-directed which requires different conditions for a learner to thrive than in formal education.

It also doesn’t seem to me that learners in formal settings have such a bad deal: they have structures that support them in their learning, and no, I am not that pessimistic about the teaching in institutions. It is not a ‘unity’sausage, where all lecturers, teachers and professors are all good or bad at teaching, and use all the same tools and resources and the same pedagogy. They are as diverse as participants on a MOOC, or nodes on a network providing information. Of course they have the advantage of moving on and off networks as they please as well as their learners, so are they the fortunate ones?


  1. Hi Rita, great post, I liked it very much (but I will need a better english for tell you why ;) !!...

  2. Thanks Estela
    Tell me in Spanish and I'll see if Google translate will make sense out of it for me. Rita

  3. I tend to agree just from my personal experience on Plenk. As someone new to MOOC learning, I have found it difficult to retain a particular focus, meandering from the Daily, to people's blogs, to the course wiki - interesting, yet somehow lacking a scaffold or structure to focus my time into something with a definable outcome....while not saying this self directed way of learning is inferior, as an educator I am always conscious of purpose / aim / objectives of any 'course' or unit of learning. In a MOOC, the 'purpose' is most likely for people to log on, look through and respond to material, add their own ideas - valuable, maybe harder to 'quantify' what is learnt..

  4. Hi Rita, here you are my comment in Spanish...

    Aprecio mucho tu visión crítica que interpela en puntos claves los alcances del aprendizaje informal en cursos abiertos. Sobre todo porque lo haces desde dentro, desde el compromiso como profesional en esa práctica y desde la situación privilegiada de diálogo con algunos de los representantes mas entusiastas y renombrados de esa modalidad.
    Me parece muy importante que sitúes el eje de la discusión en lo humano y en los fines, y no en la tecnología y los medios. Me parece que esa perspectiva nos permite recordar cual es la “causa” por la cual trabajamos -en primer lugar las personas y luego las ideas- y que la complejidad del problema requiere aproximaciones prudentes y críticamente reflexivas.
    Y en este sentido me parece que el post hace otro buen aporte al destacar y legitimar la diversidad, tanto en la multiplicidad de realidades que encierra el aprendizaje en el sistema formal como en grupo – que no es todo igual como muchas veces se pretende mostrar- .
    En definitiva, me parece que no está en la “forma del muchos” (Dron y Anderson) “la respuesta correcta” (Perry) que determina la calidad de la experiencia educativa, sino en la calidad de los participantes –aprendices y maestros- y el ajuste entre sus características, necesidades, expectativas y posibilidades que la experiencia posibilita.

    And here a post`s review in my blog

    Thanks for your interest! Best regards


  5. Agree with Estela that the quality of the experience is based on the quality and character of the participants. Their acceptance of each other without heirarchies seems to me to be a new or at least unique social behavior.

    If we moved the team I work with to an online forum to discuss anything, the pecking order would immediately reappear in digital form. The power relationships wouldn't be altered a bit. People are not improved by some magic quality of the net, they remain largely who they are.

    What this MOOC seems to be doing is to draw people who might be open to a new social structure. Or a new way to be at ease amongst others without so much posing. To live with a bit more grace and connectedness.

    People who are ready to move on might come here for the rush of ideas without the comperition to be right. I'd guess there is no one in a comfortable position of power in the 'real world' here? They wouldn't fit nor would they understand how to behave.

  6. Hi Estela

    i tried Google translate and another site (they came up with aboutthe same translation and some things got lost in translation, eg. your part about Dron and Perry. I did understand though that you liked the humanity in learning and the lack of power relations on a course like this. I agree. I also like the ideas floating around and how people are happy to share ideas and and help each other. Thanks for your commnet.

  7. Hi Scott

    Thanks for you observations. I like how you see the people on the course and how they interact. I am not sure about the power relations. I don't know if you missed the discussion, I think in week 2 about the concept maps. Facilitators still try to put their stamp on the course somehow, but I agree that it is mostly in a gentle sort of way.

  8. Hi Carlos

    Of course it is much easier to have a teacher who chooses resources for you and gives you tasks to make you learn and understand what they are all about. A little more work is required on this course and I personally think Bouchard's model of self-direction very good at expressing the different requirements to learn autonomously. There are many issues that learners in a MOOC have to do for themselves that a teacher would have done before!. I am also not convinced that all people will feel very comfortable in such a learning environment. Especially initially the help of a knowledgeable other is crucial for people's development.

  9. Thank you for sharing an exciting post, Rita. You raise and offer explanations to important issues that need attention. I have been learning and teaching online in both formal and informal environments for over a decade and find that self motivation is an ongoing challenge. The difference between the two environments has been money. I provide informal online facilitation and learning for free. I have seen what I would term aha moments from both participants and facilitators, but I have also encountered frustrations. The challenge is to keep the online courses and workshops engaging and fun at all times or lose the participants. Online learners need a great deal of attention and sometimes leave without a word. Perhaps the reason is that the courses are free. Yet, many free courses turn out to be great for both the facilitator and participant. The team of volunteer facilitators at Integrating Technology for Active Lifelong Learning (IT4ALL) are constantly thinking of ways to improve instruction and learning. Our goal is to promote critical thinking, ongoing collaboration, and lifelong learning.

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