Learning is the Conversation in the Community


The idea that learning within a community is – at its core – the conversation among members of that community, is not necessarily a new idea. Combine this with the fact that I’m a big fan of the notion of communities of practice, and you might be surprised that I’m even choosing to write about what is for many a commonly accepted idea. So I’m going to try to briefly describe a recent experience that really drove the idea home for me in a new way.

In the past few years I’ve been fascinated, and at times confounded, by the ways the web has transformed opportunities for communication and exchange among people, as well as the ways in which virtual communities can be formed and sustained. In fact, I’m still trying to come to terms with the ways in which my own understanding of “conversation” and “community” have been, and continue to be, altered by my participation in web-based communities. Like many folks, I read and comment on blogs, use delicious to share resources with my network, connect with people on twitter, collaborate with people on ning sites, and even begrudgingly let Facebook vacuum up my data in order to stay in touch with friends. All these forms of participation can be seen, on some level, as “conversations” that take place in various communities that are networked and distributed…a part of my personal learning network. I have come to value these opportunities to connect and learn a great deal, and at times some of the exchanges do seem to be conversations. I am also learning more about how my practices are shifting as I attempt to teach in this networked environment. Lately however, I find myself asking more and more – What constitutes a conversation? Are my activities on blogs and twitter really conversations? When does a distributed network of networks on the web constitute a community? How do you recognize the shared “ah-ha” moment among learners in a web-based environment? These are slippery questions for me…

Which brings me to a recent conversation in a class I was teaching. We happened to be discussing how digital media has changed the landscape of learning, and the potential value of the ideas of the PLE and PLN for adult learners. We had read a piece from Stephen Downes, Learning Networks in Practice, and it generated some interesting perspectives. One perspective was that Downes’ view was old news, pretty much business as usual, while others suggested that his ideas represented a fundamental paradigm shift for education. The tension between these two perspectives made for some valuable in-class discussion. I recognized a quality about this exchange that was missing from the distributed and often fragmented conversations that take place in my PLN.

It was a shared event where people in the conversation could all recognize learning that was the result of collective conversation in the moment. It was a meaningful experience for me. It seemed to be a collective “ah-ha” moment; a moment where the learning is the conversation in the community. It was beautiful. I do not routinely have that experience in conversations that are distributed and networked, that is, where those in the conversation have a shared recognition of the learning. The networked learning seems more individual and parsed to me. I’m having a hard time seeing the community learning in the cloud. Maybe it is my over-reliance and need for physical cues…the head nodding & the non-verbals…the follow-up questions and the comments of affirmation…where the learning seems to get named. I like that. I’m looking for similar cues in the networked environment, where members of a community can experience the collective acknowledgment of learning. Perhaps this happens for folks, and I am just a novice network learner not yet able to see the markers. Maybe I am not dialed in to the subtle ways that distributed learning networks come to shared understanding. Or, it may be that my view here is simply a lament for the vestiges of my thinking, which suggest that learning in community, somehow needs a face-to-face component. Ultimately, I’m not sure the “place-based” experience is necessary, but my sense is that the realization of collective learning and shared understanding among members of a web-based community is more challenging to nail down. So I guess my question at this point is whether its even necessary to identify collective learning that results from the – conversation[s] – in a networked community…is it? If not, I need to figure out how to better navigate without those markers. If it is, I need to get much better at understanding how multiple entry points, fragments of perspective, and varied learning trajectories coalesce to represent learning in a distributed network on the web.


5 thoughts on “Learning is the Conversation in the Community

  1. I believe we touched on this in class, but I do think there is a different protocol for discussion that is academic and discussion that is social – on the web and face to face. One is far more casual, the other intellectual. When you’re with a group of friends discussing whatever, you can BS easily – your words are heard and either taken in or dismissed. But when you are commenting in written form, there is a bigger risk – and the experience, I feel, loses it’s luster. Perhaps this is the reason we aren’t quite there yet in educational discourse on the web?

  2. @Joanne Huebner

    Thanks for the comment, these are interesting ideas. I’m wondering if you can expand a bit on your view that “we aren’t quite there yet in educational discourse on the web?” Are you making a call for academic discourse to be more casual / social, or are you saying more generally that open/public communication on the web is constrained…making the art of conversation lose its “luster?” Or both?

    If its the former, I think that Henry Jenkins makes an compelling case (http://www.henryjenkins.org/2008/04/why_academics_should_blog.html) for reasons why academics should consider blogging. One being an expansion of the role of the public intellectual, the other, and perhaps more important reason related to your comment…is the idea that the blog platform can serve to provide new opportunitites for writing that are not constrained by traditional academic writing styles. I think that this can potentially serve to invite a more causal approach to “scholarship” – writing for a general rather than a narrow/specialized readership – that could be appealing to a wider audience. Just sayin…

    …what are your thoughts?

  3. I agree with Joanne that there is a difference between professional and personal web-based communications. The trick to meaningful dialogue is to create the comfort and safety of a conversation between friends in the professional discussion, whether online or face-to-face. Even creating this kind of environment in a face-to-face situation is difficult depending on the dynamics of the class. No one wants to be thought of as ignorant or have their ideas dismissed and the easiest way to avoid that is to say nothing.
    In the case of the class I am in currently, because many of the students have been in classes with each other before; the relationships are established and the freedom of honest discussion exists. I believe it’s more difficult to establish those relationships and the authentic environment online. That could be due to the lack of non-verbal cues or the opportunity to create an online personna that may be different than your true self (which is one of the advantages/disadvantages of online communication).

  4. @ Janet

    You’ve got no argument here regarding the challenges we face in creating learning communities that support open communication…whether they be f2f or online. In essence what I was suggesting in the post was the importance of having f2f conversations in order to support adult learners in distributed / networked learning contexts. It seems to me that while online & networked learning represent flexible opportunities and increased access, the context for processing the conversation can be time consuming and difficult to “read” in my opinion. I learned through the conversation we had in our class as people offered multiple perspectives and processed them in the context of the discussion. We are continuing that here. My sense is that I really benefit from having both of these as opportunities for conversation.

  5. I do find there is something unique that can happen in an ‘in place’ community. The experience of shared meaning seems to also be a kind of connectedness that I have not experienced in a distributed network. Yes, I seem to find my PLN is one in which I walk the path pretty much alone. I do share connection and insight with others along the way, but there is a something different than being in the room together. Maybe it’s something like looking at a video or photo of a flower versus being right next to a flower, or it could be a mango, or something else. The living force of the flower with its color and fragrance can’t be captured (in my view) through techno media. Similarly, having a conversation in the physical presence of others is hugely different than just over the net. I do see that a distributed network can continue the conversation, but it’s a different order of connection for me.

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