I don’t know what I don’t know

George’s second question this week has had me thinking: Can a network of learners serve the same roles as a teacher or professors?

This type of question invites the answers ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but in fact ‘It depends’ is how I would have to answer.

It depends on the age of learners. My career has seen me working up through the ages from teaching 4 year old children to adults. I now only work with post-graduates. I remember working for one inspiring headteacher, who told me that if I couldn’t teach 4 year old children effectively, I would probably never be much good. He made all his teachers spend at least one year teaching this age group.  Most 4 year old children can’t read or write and many can’t count. Could they learn to read and write in a network of learners? Well it would depend on the network. Could they learn to read and write without teaching – I think probably not.

So this leads to a population of children who are brought up in a culture of learning from teachers. Their understanding of learning is inextricably linked to teaching. That’s not to say that they won’t learn at all in networks, but how well they learn in networks will depend on their understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning and also on what the understanding of their teacher is.

The answer to George’s question will also depend on what learners are trying to achieve. If they want accreditation then they need teachers for this – and will continue to do so unless the system changes, which I think is unlikely in the near future. A network of learners will not serve. Learners working for accreditation on this course are not getting it from CCK08 participants, but from the teachers.

It will depend on whether the network of learners includes the experts that are needed for the learner to make progress. I watched an interesting drama on the TV last night about how Einstein came to write his theory of relativity. I didn’t know before last night that if Einstein hadn’t been asked the right question, at the right time by Eddington (another scientist in his network), then his work on relativity may never have progressed. But what are the chances of someone as clever as Einstein, finding a challenging expert in his network? On the other hand I was talking to someone last week who is member of an online parenting community of practice. It’s obvious that a lot of learning goes on there with no direction from any teachers, in the formal sense. They are all teaching each other and learning from each other.

So it will depend on whether the network is conducive to learning and is willing to share and promote learning. Whether there is give and take, mutual responsibility and accountability.

In certain circumstances, I think a network of learners can serve the same roles as a teacher, but I think we will always need teachers – at least for the foreseeable future. Teaching is a highly skilled profession, which takes many years to develop. The thing is ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ and we rely on teachers to point us in the right direction, just as they have done in this course. Would I have been able to locate a network of learners about connectivism if I hadn’t come on this course? Yes – maybe, but I’m sure I would have been completely lost without some sort of a steer. Having teachers means that we don’t have to ‘re-invent’ the wheel. They save us a lot of wasted time. They  nurture our learning and help us make progress. We may also get this in a network, but it will be a bit ‘hit and miss’.

I think the whole notion of learning networks will need to become more deeply embedded in our learning and teaching cultures before a network of learners can serve the same role as a teacher. It is possible to find instances of this happening now (as for the parenting community example I mentioned above) and it may become common place in the future, but for now I think we need teachers and preferably teachers who understand the power of learning in networks.

2 thoughts on “I don’t know what I don’t know

  1. Sui Fai John Mak November 23, 2008 / 11:22 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Thanks for this in-depth analysis on that important question. As mentioned, it is pretty difficult in generalising nowadays, as even situated learning is contingent to the situations.
    In network learning:
    Is there a teacher needed in a network?
    Who are the “teachers” in a network?
    Why does one join the network?

    Not all scientists like to work in a network, Newton is a typical example. His lecture was not filled with any “student”. He liked to work alone. There are few Newton nowdays.
    Even Einstein preferred to conduct research (i.e. on relativity). Isn’t it interesting? Many great philosophers and scientists are lonely researchers and thinkers, and they may not like to be bound by the rules of communities, society, so as to allow their creativity to flourish. Besides, society places higher values to those great educators and research scientists (the Nobel Prize winners in particular). How would one be remembered in history? Individual or collective contribution?
    Nowadays, people could only achieve their goals with the co-operation, collaboration and connection with others. One needs “learners” to become a “teacher”. So teachers and learners need to be connected. And it all comes back to the vision (pathfinding) of both learners and teachers.
    George and Stephen are leading the way in this course, and they deserve the credits in opening up the avenues towards connectivism.
    Is teaching still a noble profession? In a commercial world, is corporate training more important than higher education?

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