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.


Social Media Narratives

social-media-marketingI had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on the impact of social media in education at a recent Social Media Club – EDU event, along with Jon Becker and Lon Safko. The focus of the conversation was on how social media is generating fundamental shifts in teaching, learning and collaboration. It was a fun and interesting event to be a part of, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the event and share a few additional thoughts.

The Social Media Conversation – Who’s In?
The SMCEDU event was a unique opportunity to have both a business and educational perspective of social media offered up on the same plate, and it was fun to see how these mingled. One of the things that I found immediately interesting was the make-up of the audience…there were a few students and some faculty members, but the majority of folks in attendance were business professionals. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the broad interest in social media in the business sector. What I continue to find interesting are the ways folks in business and education speak with different levels of confidence and understanding about the role of social media in different contexts. It seems, at least from my take of the business perspective, that there is a greater sense of purpose driving the adoption of social media – namely to grow brands by connecting with and being responsive to customers. I think this kind of approach to social media works pretty well for businesses, but I’m not sure it transfers neatly to educational contexts. In conversations I’ve had with faculty members about social media, the suggestion that they are their own personal brand is a fairly foreign if not bizarre concept. Many are a bit skeptical (and rightly so) of the business metaphor that suggests students are customers, and that a primary role of education is to prepare students for the workforce. Clearly education also plays a fundamental role in helping people develop intellectual and ethical judgment, comprehend and negotiate relationships with the larger world, and prepare them for lives of civic responsibility and leadership. I’m not sure that these are always part of the workforce narrative about the need for certain kinds of skills and habit of mind. I think that when the driver for participating in the conversation about the role of social media in education emerges from a business narrative and marketing rationale, it makes it too easy for some educators to readily dismiss it and disengage. That is unfortunate, because the conversation about social media is too important to education – on a number of levels – to have it set up to be so easily disregarded. Introducing a healthy dose of critique of social media in general, and recognizing when one narrative is being privileged over another might better serve us all.

Trend v. Transformation
The idea that trends in social media change quickly is a huge understatement. The common refrain seems to be…how do you keep up? How do you stay current? What should you be paying attention to? What is most important? Again, from my perspective as an educator its not about trends…it is about a fundamental transformation in the ways we connect, exchange, collaborate, and learn. Fundamental change is afoot…that is the message – not trying to find the best way to drink from the fire hose. When the message is about emerging trends more significant questions and ideas get passed over. I find that many educators are still at the stage of making sense of how the affordances of new forms of digital media – access to information, networking, shared knowledge creation – are impacting what it means to teach and learn. There is little attention paid to the most recent social media trend. Again, perhaps this illustrates some differences in the narrative we offer about the importance and role of social media.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
One of the things that I have been hearing in conversation with colleagues interested in social media is that students are steeped in social networking practices from experiences on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., and that we can build on these experiences to support formal learning in courses that we teach. The idea seems to be that we can leverage experiences students are having in these spaces, and transfer them into web-based collaborative learning experiences on sites like Ning and Wetpaint. I’m not so sure. I think it is a worthy environment to experiment with and explore, but there is something very different about elective participation in web-based communities and required participation in a social network for a course. Plenty of questions emerge: Is required participation in a community, really a community? Can initial required participation in social media for learning lead to sustainable participation that is self-selected? What drives learners to elect to engage in social media to support their own non-formal learning? So I’m looking for good answers to these and other questions, and would look forward to hearing thoughts about whether these questions matter or if I’m missing the mark here.


Student Views on Defining Digital Media

Last week I met my students for the first time in a new course I’m teaching called, Learning with Digital Media, a special topics course being offered out of the School of Mass Communications. The course title is somewhat ambiguous, which was partially intentional, and could be interpreted in a range of ways. One important aspect of the course is for us to collectively come to an understanding of what digital media means to us. We began our first class with some discussion about how we should define digital media, and this blog post is an attempt to capture a part of our discussion.

Perhaps predictably, students began with a description of hardware and devices, like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and how these devices are connected and networked to the internet. In addition to devices there was talk of data and storage. Much of what they focused on early in the discussion could be described as concern for things electronic.

The conversation changed course when one student remarked that the existing society / culture will tend to define technology in ways that reflects the dominant technology of the day, this was described as a “working form where you are at” perspective. This remark brought a very different flavor to the discussion. Students shifted their focus to thoughts about how digital technologies have impacted how information is distributed, and they saw information as being easily transferable and something they could also interact with. The emphasis was not on how devices / hardware were connected, but rather how people and information were connected.

I was intrigued by the insights students had into how this connectedness and ease of exchange of information – supported by digital media – had impacted their views of communication. They saw information as something that was highly customizable, and this allowed for the development of highly segmented audiences that could be easily catered to. Students seemed to see this as both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand it seems to expand the realm of communication opportunities, and at the same time control our access enabling a focus on very specific interests. In essence they seemed to be suggesting that the power of digitally mediated communication was simultaneously open and closed. Our freedom of access in fact tightens our focus. That is something I need to spend more time reflecting on.
At the end of the discussion we spent some time thinking about key questions we hoped to explore in the course. Several students signaled concerns about where digital media was taking us, and expressed some genuine uncertainty about how the Internet could continue to advance. The general question of “where do we go from here?” captured the difficulty of we face in understanding what digital media innovations could possibly lie ahead. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. They wondered about where we would be if the digital media we have come to rely on somehow went away. They were concerned about how expectations – for everything – have become instantaneous, and how technology has become an “intruder” in their lives. They seemed to also express the concern that technology use begets more technology use, and questioned the extent to which their “free time” has become increasingly eliminated. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other questions with them this semester, and hope they’ll chime in here and on their own blogs as their thinking about digital media continues to develop.


Academic publishing…say hello to web 2.0

I recently had the opportunity to share some thoughts about how the web is impacting traditional notions of academic publishing with a group of doctoral students in the School of Social Work at VCU. It was a wonderful chance to share some emerging possibilities that are currently taking shape, as well as point out some things on the horizon.

The presentation was also an opportunity for me to formulate and pitch some ideas that have been cooking for a while. I really appreciate and admire the School of Social Work students for the interest and willingness to engage with the ideas of how web 2.0 practices are reshaping some long held views about scholarship.

[slideshare id=290850&doc=scholarship-technology-where-do-we-go-from-here-1204581709634095-4&w=425]

There are some tough questions and issues out there for new – as well as established – scholars to consider about how and where to “publish” their ideas given the range of emerging web-based possibilities. I tried to hit the obvious features on the landscape, and pose some questions for discussion.

Are published articles in open access peer reviewed journals as valuable as those in print-based journals? Is the quality of the peer review process all that different in between these distribution mechanisms? Can blogs written for academic purposes be a form of scholarly publication? Is web-based peer review in blogs and wikis a legitimate means of vetting scholarly work? Do podcasts represent a new form of academic publishing? Can web-based videos be considered scholarship?

These are thorny questions. Some answers reside in the willingness of various disciplines to wrestle with emerging notions of collaboration, expertise and participation.


del.icio.us not Tasty for Everyone

When I encountered del.icio.us about two years ago, it was the first taste of web 2.0 I experienced, and it opened a whole new world. I not only thought it was an amazing way to store my own web links, but to also connect with others that had similar interests who were also saving bookmarks on the web. The idea if social bookmarking was very appealing to me then, and it remains so now. This web-based practice is generally useful and convenient, but it is also a powerful way to discover new resources, build connections among people with similar interests, promote collaboration, and tap into a new way of organizing the web. In many ways, I see it as a bit of a gateway experience to exploring new instructional possibilities and practices…if you get this one, the doors to the participatory web begin to open up.

Clearly everyone doesn’t see it the same way.

In the work I do with faculty to explore meaningful uses of technology to support teaching and learning, social bookmarking – and the concept of tagging in general – is something I try to promote. Some faculty members immediately see the value and become tagging junkies (and encourage their students to do it as well), some have a passing interest and tolerate it for a while and still others see it as bizarre. “Why would I want to share MY bookmarks with people I don’t know?” or “This is a great tool, but I really don’t want to share with anyone…can I keep it private?” or “What do I need a network for?” Comments like these always give me pause for reflection. I try to understand the resistance.

One thing I have been giving more thought to recently is the language and meaning surrounding the ideas of “social” and “bookmarking.” Social brings thoughts of conversation, interaction and public exchange. Bookmarking brings images of one-on-one with a browser, individually saving sites, a private act, and sharing –when it happens – is with an emailed link.

Social = open + public
Bookmarking = personal + private

Like oil and water…these are at odds. Some folks see social bookmarking and say…you must be kidding…mix private and public? The initial contact with the idea seems so foreign that many can’t get past the semantics. They won’t even come to the table. The ideas – appealing to early adopters – are in need of some translation, reconceptualization or repackaging to be more broadly appealing. The practice of social bookmarking needs an emulsifier to mix together seemingly disparate ideas and make a tasty dressing.

I suspect that the language surrounding many of the web 2.0 practices and tools that instructional technologists readily use to communicate with each other, may well leave others scratching their heads, unable to share in the excitement and possibility. I’m feeling a strong need to use different language to talk with faculty members about something like social bookmarking. Sometimes I think that a simple [re]packaging can get the job done. But I’m wondering how social bookmarking can be [re]labeled so that more educators can engage with the notion of building connections through resource sharing? Is this really even necessary? Am I totally missing the boat here? Should I even be concerned?

In a recent post, Will Richardson commented:

We’re in the “Networking as a Second Language” point in teaching, this messy transition phase that is slowly gaining traction where we are beginning to understand what this means but not quite sure yet what to do about it.

I think this notion of “second language learning” gets at a little bit of what I’m struggling with. I think I’m looking for a way to translate, to use concepts in the first language to assist folks in understanding concepts in a new language. I’m feeling a little bit at a loss about how to proceed…