Enabling interaction, collaboration and social learning online is perhaps the most difficult, and yet most important, part of teaching online. “Beyond learner satisfaction, however, is the more important belief that collaboration enhances learning outcomes and reduces the potential for learner isolation that can occur in the online environment. By learning together in a learning community, students have the opportunity to extend and deepen their learning experience, test out new ideas by sharing them with a supportive group, and receive critical and constructive feedback.” (Palloff & Pratt 2005).

To truly create a dynamic, interactive, social and collaboration-rich online learning environment requires a redefinition of what it is to teach. Much of the discussion below is based in the writings of George Siemens, who according to Wikipedia is: a writer, theorist, speaker, and researcher on learning, networks, technology, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the founding President of the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR).

Siemens proposes a contemporary theory of learning called connectivism, which among other things asks the surprisingly simple question:

How do the practices of the educator change in networked environments, where information is readily accessible?

On connectivism in the classroom

Siemens is particularly interested in how instruction changes when knowledge is transferred via networks. A network here implies a multidimensional connectedness, as opposed to sequential flow. In a classroom context this is obviously learning online, and/or using online resources which equate to multiple modes and nodes of information (multidimensional) vs. learning primarily via teacher instruction (sequential flow). Online courses require someone to create and manage the interactions, but they do not necessarily require a single source of content/instruction because so much of the information which used to be transferred via teacher instruction, is now simply available online.

This idea of networks as structural models for education and learning was already mooted in the 1970s when Ivan Illich, and Austrian philosopher critical of many foundations of Western Culture (whose Learning Webs chapter is well worth a read), suggested that learning webs, “can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through the teacher”.

Siemens picks up the baton with his connectivism theory (in the interests of balance, some thinkers do not consider Siemens’s theory to be a per se valid learning theory.) In Siemens’s view, learning in the digital age is no longer defined by individual knowledge acquisition, retention and retrieval, but rather through interaction with a variety of knowledge sources including the Internet and learning management systems. He also believes that the power of learning through networks is precisely because they demand collaboration, and a communal form of knowledge building.

In a connectivist learning environment learners are not passive receptacles but are required to be active in the process of knowledge acquisition as they “participate in discussions, search for information, and exchange opinions with their peers. Knowledge is co-created and shared among peers, not owned by one particular learner after obtaining it from the course materials or instructor. The learning process creates a bond between and among learners as their knowledge construction depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion. Hence, collaborative learning processes assist students to develop higher order thinking skills and to achieve richer knowledge generation through shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making.” (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke)

Stay tuned

Essentially this means that while online learning may appear to be an insular activity, its greatest potential lies in its ability to network students with other learners, and other sources of information. Which leads us back to the original question: How do the practices of the educator change in networked environments, where information is readily accessible?

Siemens proposed a number of redefinitions: Teacher as curator, atelier, concierge and network administrator, which we’ll explore in more depth next week. So keep an eye on the NEO Blog!

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