Emergent learning in open environments

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This is the third in a series of posts we are making in preparation for the e-learning conference in Graz, Austria, at which we are speaking on September 17th. The title of the presentation is Surfacing, Sharing and Valuing Tacit Knowledge

Previous posts relating to this presentation are:

  1. Evaluation of Open Learning Scenarios
  2. Characteristics of Open Learning Environments

In my last post I wrote that I would come back to further discussion of what we mean by emergent learning. In our first paper [1], when we started to think about the significance of emergent learning in open learning environments, we wrote:

In this paper we argue that it might be useful for educational institutions to actively explore alternative frameworks such as connectivism (Siemens, 2005), complexity theory (Cilliers, 2005, 2010), communities of practice (Wenger, 1998, 2006), and the underlying threads of emergent learning to inform their planning and strategy. We will attempt to bring together elements of all these areas of research and practice to develop a framework for emergent learning that can be applied across education, work, and social networking, with their increasingly blurred boundaries.

Emergence has been discussed and defined by a number of authors, such as Cilliers (2005), Goldstein (2009) and, at the international systems level, Knorr-Cetina (2005).  For the purposes of this paper, we interpret emergent learning as

learning which arises out of the interaction between a number of people and resources, in which the learners organise and determine both the process and to some extent the learning destinations, both of which are unpredictable.  The interaction is in many senses self-organised, but it nevertheless requires some constraint and structure.  It may include virtual or physical networks, or both.

We still use this explanation of emergent learning and have summarized it in this image……

Emergence is

… but have discussed and expanded on our thinking on our open wiki [2]

Learning in the open (open networks, open courses), particularly where these courses are massive (MOOCs) requires learners first and foremost to be autonomous. Learners must make their own decisions about what to learn, how to learn, where to learn and who to learn with. In open online learning environments there are multiple paths that a learner can choose to follow, multiple resources (the whole of the internet) that a learner can choose to work from and a huge diversity of people from across the globe to interact with. Once learners move into a truly ‘open’ learning environment, the teacher (if there is a teacher) is likely to lose sight of them and therefore cannot plan for the learning experiences that the learner might encounter.

Learners are increasingly moving into open learning environments (such as MOOCs) from choice, but even when enrolled on a ‘closed’ course where the teacher has planned prescribed paths, learners can and do move into their own spaces out of sight of the teacher, e.g. into a Facebook group. This freedom of choice over where to learn is a recognized affordance of the internet and social media.

When learners are not on prescribed paths we cannot know where their learning journey will take them or what they will learn. Learning in these environments is unpredictable and can be surprising and emergent. The more a learner is out in the open and able to cope with uncertainty, the more likely it is that emergent learning will occur.

If you have read this far you might be thinking ‘so what’ [3]?

The answer for me is that if ‘open’ is going to become the ‘name of the game’ in education, and there is plenty of evidence that we are increasingly moving learning into open learning environments (and learners themselves are taking control of their learning and doing this), then we need to recognize that these environments are complex and learners will need new skills to cope.

We are interested in what these skills might be, but we are more interested in the effect that these complex environments will have on learners and their identities. Learners will not only need to be able to navigate these environments and manage their own learning, but they will also need to develop the ability to reflect deeply on their learning and surface their tacit knowledge and understanding. The Footprints of Emergence [4], described in my last post, is a tool for doing this.

The notion of ‘open’ learning environments is, I think, here to stay. This does not mean that there will be no more closed courses or closed learning environments, but we can expect that learners will no longer feel constrained by these and will go wherever they choose. In addition the world is now wide open, as it never has been before and successful learners will be those who understand this, recognize the significance of this for their lives and future development, and learn how to operate in open environments.

Surfacing, recognizing and valuing emergent learning has always been important in teaching and learning, but will become more so as learners move increasingly into open learning environments.

References:

  1. Williams, R., Karousou, R. &  Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883
  2. Footprints of Emergence open wiki – http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/
  3. Mackness, J. (2013). Footprints of Emergence – so what? Retrieved from: https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/footprints-of-emergence-so-what-2/
  4. Williams, R., Mackness, J. & Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of Emergence. Vol. 13, No. 4. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1267

 

Connected Learning in an Open World

The Royal Observatory

At the beginning of this week I was in Greenwich, London for the first time in my life. On Monday I travelled up the Thames from Embankment to Greenwich Pier by Clipper (another first) and stood on the decks of the Cutty Sark.The Cutty Sark

On Tuesday I spent the day at the University of Greenwich’s APT2014 Conference, the reason for the trip.

University of Greenwich Queen Anne Court (1)

On Wednesday I stood on the Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory.

The Meridian Line

A key question asked in the main exhibition room of Flamsteed House  at the Observatory is ‘Where am I? This related to how you can work out your exact location on the open seas, by knowing how to fix your latitude and longitude positions. But ‘Where am I?’ seems such an important and relevant question for an educator and although I didn’t visit Flamsteed House until the day after the Greenwich conference, I found myself constantly wondering where I am in relation to the discussions that were held during the conference.

One of the main reasons for attending the conference was to hear Stephen Downes speak. Where am I in my understanding of what he had to say and the implications of what he had to say? Here is the link to a recording of his full talk, Beyond Free – Open Learning in a Networked World  and this is the Abstract for the presentation:

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This was the first in a series of 3 talks that Stephen is giving in London this week. He started his second talk, Beyond Institutions: Personal Learning in a Networked World – given to the NetworkEDGE conference at the London School of Economics on Wed 10th July – with the words: If you feel unfulfilled at the end of this talk, it’s because it doesn’t really have a beginning and doesn’t really have an end, i.e. it’s the middle talk in a series of three. I have only listened to the recording of this second talk.

I did feel somewhat unfulfilled after the first talk. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the conference – I thoroughly enjoyed it, attended some interesting sessions and talked to some great people, but at the end of the day I felt that a lot of questions had been raised but not many answers had been found. These questions were around what we mean by ‘open’, what we mean by ‘connected learning’ and what do universities understand about open, connected learning – not only what do they understand, but what are they doing about it, what are they becoming as a result of open learning in a networked world – and are they becoming what we would hope they become? As Stephen said, ‘Institutions are what we make them’.

This thinking about unanswered questions made me wonder whether the idea of flipped classrooms, which was mentioned in the opening talk by the Vice Chancellor, should be applied to conferences. Should we engage with the ideas to be presented by the keynote speaker before the conference, and present a discussion paper/workshop as a result of that – so that the key questions can be discussed.

The points I took from Stephen’s talk were that

‘Open’ means open in all senses, particularly in the sense of open sharing of thought processes, and should be the default position in Universities. Free and open access is not enough.

But Universities are resistant to openness in the sense of open sharing, and content providers do not want people to have free and open access. The promise of open resources has not materialized.

Open access makes a massive economic difference to users, but cost IS the problem for universities because universities see online learning in terms of money making.

The issue is not finding innovative ways of teaching, but innovative ways of learning.

The bulk of MOOCs are created in the image of traditional courses, but this was never the intention of the original cMOOCs.

Change in Universities is slow – too slow.

None of these points came as a surprise. None of them is unfamiliar, but challenging Universities to become more ‘open’ can be a risky business for employees and those that do can land themselves in trouble, as Stephen pointed out in his presentation. (See slide 29 for an example).

In general people seem to be more aware of the risks than the benefits. A new lecturer at the conference said that ‘openness’ is a risk for someone like her who is new in the job and trying to establish a reputation. Sheila McNeill, who was a panel member at the end of the day, urged this lecturer to be brave and just go for it. I wonder whether being strategic about openness is more important than being brave. Sharing openly doesn’t mean that you have to ‘bare your soul’ – there are other ways of sharing. A more impersonal and less risky approach is reporting. If open sharing doesn’t come easily then share what you have discovered to be useful, rather than your own work or personal thoughts. As Stephen said in his second talk to the London School of Economics, every learner is different and reacts to each learning scenario differently.

The Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor, also on the panel, seemed to recognize the difficulties when she said that open sharing in the form of lecturers recording their lectures and openly sharing them, is a risk to the University’s reputation – but she also acknowledged that a major issue for an institution is the need for cultural change. As she put it – universities will have to wait for some staff to shift or die before this culture change can be achieved.

Stephen asked for a show of hands for who was tweeting the conference proceedings and a show of hands for who had recorded their conference presentation.  Some were tweeting, but only one person had recorded their presentation. The person sitting next to me during the final panel session was inspired and enthusiastic about what she had heard during the day, but said that she had never taught online and had never taken an online course. It was all new for her.

For me, the concerns raised about openness should not be brushed aside. Questions of whether an academic’s or an institution’s reputation can be damaged by openness need to be discussed. The benefits or otherwise of openness need to be articulated. For me, it is not about whether you tweet at a conference or record your presentation and upload your Slideshare; all these can help to model a spirit of openness, but it’s more about trying to understand why openness is necessary and how we can all be supported in understanding and doing this. Ultimately, isn’t it about personal values and educational philosophies?

So I came away from Greenwich feeling that many questions had been raised, but that they were left hanging. I would have been interested in more discussion about whether there is agreement about the changes that Stephen suggested Universities need to make and if so how they will make these changes. But I have now listened to Stephen’s second talk to the London School of Economics, which helped me to understand the context of the first talk. Inge de Waard has blogged about it here: Fabulous ideas: economics, innovation, #education  and I hope to return with another blog post.

A big thank you to Simon Walker, Gillian Keyms and colleagues for organizing a thought-provoking event, and to all at Greenwich, particularly the students, who were so helpful, friendly and welcoming.