How do we unleash the power of networked learning? What is the nature of that power and what levers must we wiggle to generate effective learning through online technologies?
I’ve taught a course about these questions for many years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and this year I notice a shift in the answers my students are developing.
As in prior years, we read and think about how to build online learning communities:
Engage participants as active learners rather than passive recipients of digitally distributed information.
Build social presence online by using formatting, informal talk, emoticons, and calling participants by name
Use discussion forums to promote reflective thought and collaborative co-construction of new ideas through participants actively creating new threads and replying to others.
Nourish an online learning community by making goals and expectations explicit; establish norms to build trust and familiarity early; remind participants to respond thoughtfully to discussion prompts and deliberately build on one another’s ideas; involve them in sharing responsibility for stimulating and guiding the online discussion.
The educational design of the course is the same as it has been for years. Learners are asked to:
Formulate a project to conduct throughout the term that is central to their interests in the “real world” and that serves as an ongoing focus for analyzing and applying ideas from the readings.
Participate in a weekly online discussion of the readings, structured by a prompt devised with me in collaboration with the student leader of the week who uses strategies we study to facilitate the online discussion among fellow classmates.
Highlight insights and challenges via online and in-class discussions that arise as students harvest, connect, ponder. and try to apply concepts from the reading to their own projects.
Develop and expand our understanding as a class, as we build a common language and use it to analyze real examples of networked learning that students are developing or critiquing for their projects.
So what’s different now? As the term began in January, we were engulfed by news about how pictures and text messages transmitted by mobile phones stimulated the revolution in Tunisia. Egyptian officials attempted unsuccessfully to squelch networked communication in a misguided effort to forestall the overthrow of their autocratic leader.
Networked learning continues to fuel uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. Against this backdrop, many of my students’ projects are about informal networked learning rather than web-based activities in k-12 schools, university courses, online professional development, or formal workplace settings. Two students are designing a social networking site that encourages adolescent girls to rethink and respond to the overly sexualized representation of women in popular media. Another is planning an online resource to help disaffected high school students learn programming through developing apps for mobile phones. One student with a background in marketing is tapping into adolescents’ social networking habits, e.g., generating feeds to their friends through their Facebook pages, hoping to engage those who see the dangers of smoking to reach their smoker friends who believe they are invincible.
What’s different is that the top-down, center-out approach to traditional education is dramatically diminished. Learner-generated, informal interactions, short messages, and nonverbal media are the norm in these networked learning situations. No longer are we worried about “warming up” the online environment — it’s plenty hot! No longer are we pondering the advantages of deliberate, reflective, collaborative knowledge construction in a formal threaded discussion forum. We are tapping into a cacophony of rapid fire exchange that is more like scrappy conversation bursts at a party than orderly discourse of academic knowledge building.
How do we conceive and harness the power of networked learning in this context? Well, that’s the new question this year. Clearly networked learning can be powerful: just ask Hosni Mubarak. The current generation of students in high school, college, and graduate school are figuring this out. Their teachers need to ask themselves, “How do we work with our learners to foster the critical thinking, complex communication, and collaborative construction of warranted knowledge that we believe it is our responsibility to do?” What is clear is that we won’t be in charge the way we used to be or thought we were.
Martha Stone Wiske is a Lecturer on Education in the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Teaching for Understanding with Technology (Wiley, 2005) and is co-founder of the international journal ECi (Education, Communication, and Information).
Dr. Wiske would like to thank her students Sarah Krongard and Quintin Anderson for their contributions to this piece
Learn more about the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard.