IRRODL Special Issue: Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning

A special issue of IRRODL – The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning -has just been published.

Vol 12, No 7 (2011): Special Issue – Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning

This is a refereed open e-journal which you can access here:

It is great to see recognised names amongst the contributing authors and particularly of Sui Fai John Mak – who I have worked with on research in the past –

Congratulations John, Rita and Helene. I’m looking forward to reading your paper and all the others; emergent learning is a topic that really interests me.

Too much choice

I am still reflecting on my experience at the Networked Learning Conference and it has been heartening to receive supportive comments here on this blog, in emails and  f2f.

The conference in Birmingham yesterday was wonderful. Inspiring in many ways. It’s interesting to reflect on why it worked so much better for me than the Networked Learning Conference. It is obviously significant that I was involved in the planning of this conference – and I think relates to negotiated meaning. Etienne talked a lot about the importance of moving away from thinking about teaching, learning and education as being about ‘stuff’ (e.g. curriculum, grades etc) to being about meaningfulness. The B’Ham conference was all about ‘meaning’ for me and I think it was for some of the delegates too judging from the feedback we have been receiving. The Birmingham conference was also considerably shorter and smaller, but more importantly was more focussed in it’s content.

The good thing about the Networked Learning Conference is that it has brought into sharp focus for me, some of my learning preferences and abilities. So I realise I am more of a ‘small is beautiful’ person, although I did manage to participate in CCK08 until the end – but mostly from the confines of my blog 🙂

I have also been intrigued by Heli’s posts about the Networked Learning Conference, as although she wasn’t at the conference, she really seems to have much more of a handle on what went on there than I do! She has managed to stay focussed on her interests (connectivism) and not get distracted by the huge diversity of what was presented at the NLC, which I found bewildering.

So Heli’s blog has reminded me that I am the type of person who does not like large department stores – I can never find what I am looking for and prefer the small shops with less choice and more focus on my personal style. It also reminded me that although I love gardens and flower shows, my one and only visit to the Chelsea Flower show in London  many years ago also left me feeling disappointed. I could not see the ‘wood for the tree’s – or in that case the flowers for the gardens. It is more enjoyable for me to experience the Chelsea Flower show from a distance, via the television, radio  and newspapers – but does this mean that I abdicate choice to others and open myself to possible group think, echo chambers and lack of critical analysis?

There is so much talk nowadays about being able to traverse networks, being able to filter and select, analyse and synthesise from vast amounts of information, that I wonder if we will end up with a divide between people like me who tend to prefer a smaller number of connections and those who participate happily in vast networks. Or has it always been like this – but to a lesser degree?

Some great questions out there at the moment

I keep coming across great questions which really make me stop and think.

George Siemens  asked four really thought provoking questions in the Networked Learning Conference 2010 Hot Seat

  1. What skills/attributes do learners need in order to learn effectively with networked technologies?
  2. What role will educators need to fulfill in networked learning environments?
  3. Can learning networks (partly) replace the teacher?
  4. Given the prominence of networked technologies and the growth of networked learning, what types of research questions does our field need to pursue?

In fact I think George must be in question posing mode as in this week’s CCK09 course he has asked another great question

  • This week is an opportunity for you to reflect on what openness means to you, what benefits you get from being open, and concerns with transparent learning (as well as how you expect to overcome those concerns).

And in this post George has alerted us to D’Arcy Norman’s question:

  • How do you connect to people online?

These are all questions that I have been thinking about for some time but haven’t been able to articulate so clearly. They are all relevant to my life and work. So where to start in answering them?

140 characters

This week I was in a meeting where a colleague said ‘If a post can’t be written in 140 characters it’s not worth writing’  or words to that effect. It might have been ‘not worth reading’. Shock horror! Where does this leave a slow, slow blogger, a person who always has to pause before thinking, a person who simply cannot say what she needs to say in 140 characters and so has not yet ‘twittered’ despite having an account, i.e. me!

Following the comment I did think carefully about the length of my emails. I do have experience of receiving hundreds of emails each week and of deleting emails beyond a screen view in length, because I simply don’t have the energy to answer them. I am now trying to keep a check on the length of my own emails. But only for people that I am not really connected to. If I feel really connected to someone, I really couldn’t care how long their email or post is, I just want to hear from them / ‘connect’ with them. Do they feel the same, I wonder? I think they do, if they have the time – and I can empathise with not having enough time.

140 characters might be enough for a short in-the-moment  information exchange – but I don’t think it’s for me. Not at the moment anyhow!

Life cycle of ‘connectedness’

Last year I wrote about my mother’s connectedness –

When you are 83, connectedness takes on a new meaning year by year. This year my mother’s connectedness is ‘shrinking’. Those who she can readily connect to (albeit never online) are dying. And she is becoming forgetful. Her neural connections do not work as well as they once did,  although she still has a formidable memory for times past.

For me this brings a new dimension to the concept of connectedness. It not only means different things to different people, but it is experienced differently at different stages of the connectedness life-cycle. This is similar to Etienne Wenger’s ideas that a community goes through a life-cycle and ultimately dies.

I can see my mother’s connections waning at social, neural and conceptual levels. She has never used a computer, but that is not the point. My mother was once a highly connected person in her own way, but I can now see a closing down of these connections which is not in her control.

Do online connections make a difference? This week I learned that a past colleague of mine has died – very sad since she was considerably younger than me. But what I find interesting is that her Facebook account is still ‘alive’. People are posting messages to her as if she was still alive.

So what does this mean for connectivity? Can it die – or is it that once it has been initiated, it will always be there, ready for further connection?

Blog aggregation

Did you follow the CCK08 course? You remember all that talking we did about how difficult it was to keep tabs on all the blogs you wanted to follow – well Nancy White (who I’m sure you’ll remember from the CCK08 course if you didn’t already know her from elsewhere) and Tony Karrer have obviously recognised the difficulties of lesser mortals like me and created a blog aggregation site – Communities and Networks Connections.  Just those 3 words, tells me its just what I need.

This is not a place to blog or network or hold conversations – it is simply somewhere to go to find out what bloggers are saying about communities and networks and hopefully feel more connected in the process.

I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, as it’s very clearly set out. And it is so easy to find things. I’m looking forward to spending more time, digging around on the site. It’s going to be great for the research project that John, Matthias and I have just embarked on, as a quick look has already shown me that there are loads of links to blogs that are talking about blogging!

Thanks Nancy and Tony for a great initiative!

Choosing to blog

Thanks to John and Matthias I am still thinking about if blogs might offer a distinctive type of conversation compared to other types of online communication and if so how are they distinctive?

A quick internet search has shown that people have been writing about reasons for blogging, and characteristics of bloggers for the past 5 years. Stephen wrote an article  about it in 2004  and more recently there have been blog posts exploring the characteristics of successful bloggers. So why would anyone want to research this now, when a lot has already been said? Is there anything new to add?

I think the CCK08 course suggests that there maybe is something new to add, because the course offered participants the choice of whether to blog or not and a range of alternative possibilities. This is very unlike the way in which many blogs are introduced to students on more traditional courses, where this choice of communication possibilities is not on offer.

Matthias has commented on why blogging might be a disticintive form of communication:

I suspect it is a distinctive place on the orality vs. literacy spectrum, on the reader vs. participant spectrum, and (especially) on the synchronous vs. asynchronous spectrum.

…and I can see that these spectra might apply to the choice between blogging and an Elluminate session, or blogging and joining a Second Life group, but I find it much harder to apply these spectra to the choice between blogging and the Moodle discussion forums, which is a choice that I made myself on the CCK08 course.

At one point – or maybe even more than once – Stephen was really encouraging people to blog rather than hold their discussions in Moodle, partly because there were some rather aggressive conversations going on in the Moodle forums, but I also got the feeling that he felt that blog conversations would be more productive (I will have to go back through the forums and check what he said).

I would be really interested to explore the reasons behind people’s choices of where to communicate on the CCK08 course and in particular why some people blogged in preference to other forms of communication, although not necessarily to the exclusion of other modes of communication. I think this might be a new way of building on what has already been written about blogging and might offer insights into how communication for learning works online.

Sustaining Communities

The subject of the research paper that I have recently submitted (with a colleague)  is the challenges facing ‘artificially’ created communities. By this we mean communities that are set up as  part of a funded project. We found that there are significant challenges, as you would expect,  to be faced when the funding ceases. The project may have attracted a lot of interest and if an online site has been set up in association with the project, then this interest may have come from across the world.  So what to do with all these people, now that the funding has been withdrawn and the management team is no longer being paid for their efforts? Does this management team have any responsibilities to the wider, larger community that it might unexpectedly have created and if so what are these responsibilities? Should they be obliged to move into voluntary community work when this is not what they originally signed up for? How does the community perceive its responsibilities? So at this stage, when funding ceases, the community faces a crisis of identity which includes determining who the community is for, who should lead it, and what will be the purpose of the community if it is to continue but no longer as a project.

I am writing about this because these thoughts around this research also resonate with experiences on the connectivism and connectivist knowledge course and on the Connectivism Technology Web 2.0 Education Learning and Research Ning site (community?) set up by Sui Fai John Mak.

On the connectivism course there was some discussion about the distinctions between a course, a network and a community. It was clearly a course, but for some it was also a network and for others it was also a learning community. The idea of ‘community’ brings with it a great deal sharing and collaborative negotiation of meaning, which in turn helps people to make relationships more than just simple connections. The relationships that were made on the connectivism course are still alive for some people ( I wonder how many?), but whilst individual one-to-one relationships can be relatively easily sustained, group relationships and a sense of community need a degree of organisation and leadership to be sustained. John has taken this on and people have joined the Ning site, but whilst organisation and leadership is certainly not lacking, as yet there has been little interaction which lies at the heart of an effective community. So I wonder what people were hoping for when joining the Ning site.

Are you a weak tie?

Here is another slide from Valdis Krebs presentation that caught my attention.

Email Clusters

There’s hope for lurkers, the inhibited, the shy, the intimidated and the lacking in confidence people here! This slide shows people with strong and frequent interactions /connections linked with the dark lines. But as the slide shows very clearly, without the weak ties to hold them all together, the network would collapse! So we shouldn’t underestimate the importance or significant of the weak ties!

Do we have the full picture?

This was another interesting slide from Valdis Krebs

Here we have a view of what is going on behind the organisational hierarchy, i.e. the connections in the white space (grey lines) that are being made to get the job done.

So in this course, or in any course,

  • How much ‘back-channelling’ is going on?
  • How many people are making a significant contribution without anyone being aware of it or even being aware of it themselves?
  • How many people have deliberately chosen to inhabit the white space even if that is an unfamiliar term?

I find this intriguing as there has been such a lot of talk in the foums and blogs about dominant characters and their effect on the course, whereas in fact there could be an awful lot going on in the white space that we are mostly unaware of, but is still having an effect on the course. Fascinating and well worth thinking about from a teaching perspective.