Communities of Learners Redefined: Customized Networks That Impact Learning

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Those educators among us who are familiar with constructivist and constructionist models of learning understand the impact that social learning theory has had on the field. Likewise those of us who are familiar with the application of new technology in learning understand that customization (or "the user") is what drives every structure, every program, and every software function.

It seems, then, that as educators we have a struggle between emphasizing the social nature of learning while maximizing the benefits of each learner becoming more clearly identified in the process. New technology, of course, can help in both aspects, but it is the teaching method that is challenged. I hope that eventually teaching methods will have morphed into a flexible model of instructional design and delivery that I will call "Customized Learner Networks": networks that are both socially constructed and individually driven.

Defining Customization
The idea that digital environments should be customized to suit the user is now the expected norm of the digital world. Users instantly expect to have their own view of whatever the context is fully represented and sustained. Indeed, having to plough through irrelevant and unnecessary information not only discourages the user from the environment but immediately disassociates the user from the environment, which results in a decision to not return. Therefore customization means relevancy for the user.

Taking this idea and transferring the implications to a learning environment, educators should be challenged with the same reality. While we may use technology to mediate instruction, we should also understand that learning environments either mediated or sustained via new technology should provide the same level of relevancy for the learner. That is, the immediacy of the technology (i.e., direct communication, hyperlinked data, searchable references and databases) have resulted in learners expecting those data and links to be highly relevant to their learning and not peripheral to their learning goals.

Of course, this can sound like "spoon feeding" the learner; however, in my opinion, this is direct information and relevant instructional organization and structure. What can be expected then from learners is a meaningful use of the information, an analysis of the information, and, critically, the application of the information to a real-life context of use. In other words, we can expect a higher level of learning from the learner provided we understand and provide customized contexts of learning for their use.

Individual Connections (Initiative)
Learners currently understand the usefulness of individual connections is terms of social networking. Recently, a college student was charged with "cheating" because he understood this concept in preparation for an exam--finding individuals who could help him prepare was something he did not even question. His professor, however, had not understood the reality of this kind of connectivity and charged the student with cheating simply because he had not given permission ahead of time for this kind of collaboration in exam preparation. Students do not leave those kinds of decisions to their professors--it is the regular action of a digital user to connect with someone who can help, enlighten, share information, or simply aid in some general way. Therefore, as educators, we should "factor in" the notion that individual connections are happening regardless of our understanding or accommodation in the learning environment. With our understanding, however, we can maximize these connections in the learning process.

Needless to say, instructor guidance is required to help students decide on helpful connections rather than simply connecting for the sake of it. We all recognize that simply because students are wirelessly connected at all times during a class session that they are not always using that ability wisely or in keeping with the class content or course outcomes. Therefore, as educators we are challenged to not only understand that students are usually connected but that we can leverage this capability and desire to help them select an effective learning community and learn how to:

  • Manage the group;
  • Construct collective knowledge; and
  • Apply that knowledge in a meaningful way.

Each of these skills is valuable (and transferrable) for all students no matter what the area of content within which the course of study falls.

Social Connections (Interaction)
In a recent article I discussed the benefits of social networking concepts in the learning process. In particular, I noted:

An appropriate response, then, to social networking tools is not, in my opinion, to reject them as irrelevant to learning but to realize that current students are likely to be already familiar with the passive uses of social networking and need to be challenged toward innovation. (Reynard, 2008, p. 3)

In a sense, then, the "social" aspect of the networking must be redefined, if students are truly to understand the benefits to their own learning. As already discussed, individual students can initiate their individual connections with other learners and influencers of their thinking process; however, their social networking skills can also be developed to become motivated by learning rather than merely social interest yet, at the same time, maintain the socializing aspects of cooperative and collaborative work. Students who understand that their knowledge is socially constructed can benefit immensely from the integration of social networking into their learning process. It cannot be understated that the sooner students understand that their knowledge is not an isolated construct the sooner they will develop skills of negotiation, debate (an almost forgotten academic skill), critical inquiry, and cognitive positioning--all of which are essential in becoming successful lifelong learners as well as developing expertise in their discipline.

Learner Connections (Collaboration)
I have also written about helping students reach autonomy in their learning process, which is the ultimate goal of all instruction. Helping students learn how they learn, how they process information, and how they apply information is critical to their growth as independent and autonomous learners. A major aspect of this development is in the area of learner connections. We have conventionally addressed this as group or pair work where we, as educators, organize students into working groups and provide tasks that the groups must complete within specific guidelines and expectations. In the digital world, these kinds of groups, if they are truly based in learning, need not be confined to a class or a course but can continue long after the course has ended. Such examples as wikis and blogs are wonderful ways of helping students continue their learning and drawing from their learner group on an ongoing basis. Additionally, that group does not need to comprise only a few students in one class but can involve students and peers from anywhere in the world. This is truly an amazing change in the context of learning available to our students through digital connections.

The challenge to educators is, of course, to be able to quantify progress within the existing course parameters. For example, if students begin a class with existing communities of learners, why silence those and start new ones? Similarly, if students initiate new communities of learners during a class, why attempt to end those simply to apply a grade? Understanding the flexibility and endlessness of digital communities of learners moves the learning into a wider field and challenges existing structures of evaluation and assessment.

Knowledge Connections (Application)
Helping students understand the difference between information sharing, ideas sharing, and knowledge construction is truly a and one that still exists in the digital world. That is, simply because students can make connections and share information with untold numbers of individuals around the world instantaneously does not mean that those connections are producing new knowledge. In fact, I would suggest that acquiring new knowledge is more of a challenge currently than ever before.

This is for two reasons:

  1. There is a misunderstanding of knowledge: Many current students truly believe that information is knowledge and that anything captured from the Internet is legitimate.
  2. Most courses of study do not either accommodate and facilitate knowledge construction or reward new knowledge when it is achieved. That is,most coursework remains task-oriented, with prescriptive expectations and representations of learning (tests, quizzes, exams, etc.).

Therefore, simply having tools that could be used well in knowledge construction does not guarantee their use or success. Students must be educated just as they always have in what is knowledge and how to achieve it and recognize knowledge when it is achieved. Additionally educators must remain committed to knowledge construction and value the evidence of new knowledge through changes in behavior and action (academically and socially) in the learning assessment. In a recent article, I suggest:

The problem is we have defined knowledge as simply an increase of information and do not wait for the process of learning to take place that will move the student through an engagement with that information and to application and transformation. (Reynard, 2008. p. 2)

Therefore educators who understand the importance of encouraging individual students to initiate and manage networks while at the same time fostering the notion that knowledge construction is a social endeavor with direct and meaningful application are successful in reaching and engaging current students. Rather than seeing these two as mutually exclusive, the inclusive educator stimulates student customization of their own learning environment while retaining accountability and rigor in the field. Educators who attempt to control these networks and connections not only diminish the learning experience but also ignore the potential that new technology and changing user expectations can have on the learning process. Gwen Solomon and Lynne Schrum (2007) in their book, "Web 2.0 New Tools, New Schools" say it this way:

The shift to Web 2.0 tools can have a profound effect on schools and learning causing a transformation in thinking. This will happen because the tools promote creativity, collaboration, and communication, and they dovetail with learning method in which these skills play a part...The old way of doing things is presentation-driven; information is delivered and tested ... the new way is collaborative, with information shared, discussed, refined with others , and understood deeply." (p.21)

I would suggest that the tools are already being used daily by most students and that the greatest challenge to educators is to integrate these tools freely and change teaching methods and assessment methods to value the skills that must be developed in order to use the tools effectively in teaching and learning.

References

Ruth Reynard, "Social Networking: Learning Theory in Action," Campus Technology, 5/28/2008, http://campustechnology.com/articles/63319

Ruth Reynard, "Expert Teachers: The Risk of Becoming Knowledge Workers," THE Journal, 8/20/2008, http://thejournal.com/articles/23124

Solomon, G. & Schrum. L. (2007) Web 2.0--new tools, new schools. International Society for Technology in Education. Washington DC, USA.

About the Author

Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is the executive director of academic programs and faculty at Daymar Colleges Group and an education consultant. She can be reached at ruthreynard@gmail.com.

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