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Where is the Learning in Networked Learning?
Symposium Convenor: Vivien Hodgson
In this symposium the intention is to bring together a collection of
papers where we will revisit the early description of networked learning
that researchers at particularly Lancaster but also Sheffield University
have worked with since the nineties i.e.
Each of the papers will focus particularly on the learning aspect of networked learning and how, in both theory and practice, ideas about the design, experience and processes of learning are seen and have developed over the ten years since this description of networked learning was first written into a JISC research proposal in 1998.
An emphasis of the symposium will be to explore, in more depth, the nature of the connections that are made within networked learning and the way these connections have come to be discussed and analysed from a learning perspective. In particular, the papers pick up on different aspects of ideas emerging from social practice and socio-cultural theories applied to conceptualisations of collaborative learning, which have come to be closely associated with networked learning.
The symposium includes the following papers;
From the days of Plato until today's information society, knowledge has been at the core of human activity critically influencing aspects of social, cultural and economic prosperity across communities. The emergence of networked communication technologies has dropped traditional boundaries in H.E. allowing bringing together geographically dispersed learners and giving them opportunities to redefine their shared understanding of a given discipline as well as a shared sense of their complex roles as developing professionals. Increasing attention is being paid to the ways in which values, beliefs, experiences and knowledge are being shared and negotiated among groups of learners in formal educational settings. Networked learning in particular, provides a range of collaborative learning arrangements that include a broad variety of networked computer technologies and has become a useful context for knowledge construction in H.E. What is interesting in exploring knowledge construction learning communities is placed on discussions pointing to the distinction between the creation of collaborative knowledge and possibilities for learning emerging from such initiatives. There is also a need for research on the ways in which the experiences gained from collaboration are used to deal with emerging learning situations, e.g. those met while preparing assignments and project reports as part of a formal course of study. The process of collaborative knowledge construction often involves cycles of developmental activity in which participants engage including decisions about what is worth to be added to the knowledge of a learning community. As a useful conceptual tool for researching the process of knowledge construction in networked learning, we propose the notions of epistemic activity and epistemic fluency. The epistemic ideas, we argue, work as a useful framework to give meaning and to refine collaborative discussion prone to the generation of new knowledge.
This work-in-progress paper develops the conceptual background for researching knowledge construction in networked learning and examines learners' participation in knowledge advancement activities both collaboratively and individually through the lens of qualitative methodology. Learners' participation in knowledge construction activities is investigated using an analytical framework originating from the data and ideas guided by the theoretical framework of the study. Data have been collected from a postgraduate course in Advanced Learning Technology including online discussions, student assignments and interviews.
The paper concludes that the ideas expressed within online messages exchanged between course participants as well as research projects and reviews undertaken as part of their assessment are representations of abstract knowledge. Epistemic activities have a decisive role in knowledge creation and improvement as they add value to such representations. Participation in epistemic activities inherent in a professional culture or discipline (i.e. through answering important questions, solving out problems and adding to its knowledge base) allows gradually becoming an active valued practitioner of this culture and generally develops one's epistemic fluency. Finally, the findings point to the importance of the contextual aspect in the process of knowledge construction and epistemic fluency acquisition pointing to the fact that knowledge can be advanced through interaction of the individual with the environment including peer learners, tutors and available resources. The ability to create and refine knowledge while maintaining a set of relations between other learners, resources and communities has implications for learning. Connectivity is crucial to that extend. In that respect, networked learning needs to be redefined to emphasise the dynamic attributes inherent in the connections enabled between participants and resources which are conducive to the emergence of shared and new knowledge. The implications for transformational learning found in such initiatives remain to be further explored.
This paper proposes a social practice perspective on networked learning. Networked learning doesn't privilege any particular view of learning and the paper does not claim any special status for a social practice view but it sets out a clear agenda and demarcation for this area of study. The suggestion is that social practice can provide a theoretical lens that allows researchers to examine networked learning in ways that other perspectives do not and that a social practice approach is especially appropriate for research focused on the kinds of changes that are taking place around what has been termed Web 2.0.
The term social practice has been developed in relation to commonly used meanings of practice and other available alternatives in academic discourse. It is suggested that social practice should not be viewed as an exclusive or singular perspective. Instead it is suggested that social practice is particularly suitable for examining certain levels of activity in relation to learning and networked learning specifically. Social practice offers a materialist account that places an emphasis on externalities and artefacts rather than processes of learning that take place within the 'head' either as brain functions or as cognitive processes of the mind. This materialist emphasis also stands in contrast to some cultural accounts of practice that emphasise discourse at the expense of other factors. In order to illustrate the kinds of issues that a social practice perspective can assist in researching an account is provided of those aspects that make networked learning a distinct research area. This is then focused on two issues in particular, the place of artefacts in learning and the role of affordances.
It can be argued that artefacts have always played a role in learning related to the externalisation of information. In early periods of human development memory and the oral tradition dominated learning and the practices that supported learning. An ability to memorise exactly what was handed on was a key element in preserving and disseminating knowledge and tradition. In later periods the written language provided a repository of knowledge in texts and knowledge and learning were related to the specialist skills of reading, writing, mathematics and arithmetic. Learning still retained a large component of memorisation and repetition as the means to store and reproduce texts were extremely limited. In the modern era with the advent of print technologies texts could be produced and reproduced with much greater ease and reading and writing skills were spread more widely in society. Increasingly memorisation became less important and the ability to understand and deploy conceptual knowledge became more central. This material account of learning as a history of the relationship between social knowing and the technological means available to support social practices provides a backdrop to the central argument of this paper.
Networked technologies provide a new set of possibilities that can affect the forms of practice that support knowing and learning. These technologies shift traditional conceptions of time and place and make available large quantities of traditional texts alongside new forms of reification that preserve what has previously been peripheral and ephemeral. Digital technologies shift the boundary between externalising information and externalising cognitive processes. Increasingly those processing and conceptual skills once important to education and learning are delegated to machines and services supplied over the network. The current phase of development captured by the phrase Web 2.0 arguably reasserts the primacy of process over content in that what is externalised is a part of a process that relies on engagement and participation to add value in the system. That is the value for learning does not lie in the technology, nor in content supplied by a central service, rather it lies in the emergent properties arising through the aggregation of many parts in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
The aim of this paper is to explore the notion of networked learning and to further develop the theoretical and methodological concepts within this area of research. It does so through introducing the metaphor of patchworking as a way of understanding and investigating learning processes and by discussing how this particular perspective might inform networked learning. The metaphor has emerged from a detailed interactional study of a short, intensive learning process in which eight young people (age 13-16) worked collaboratively with an open-ended problem. Throughout the process the learners were co-located, but their work was heavily mediated by and dependent on ICT in the form of e.g. tablet-PC's, video-cameras, mini-discs, internet access and the use of various software applications. Furthermore, the learners were put in contact with 'experts' and other resource persons, whom they could interview and discuss with - also they were given a 30 minutes lecture by local researchers.
The notion of metaphorically understanding learning as a process of patchworking encompasses for one thing a particular view of learning, but also it suggests specific ways of analytically approaching learning processes. It suggests that we can metaphorically view learning as processes of creating or stitching a patchwork by assembling and continuously reorganising multiple patches and pieces into a 'final' patchwork. Furthermore, it suggests that it is not the 'final patchwork' in and of itself, which should be the object of analysis. Rather, the analytic focus is to investigate how, when and why various 'patches and pieces' (or resources) such as ideas, arguments, pictures or web-texts are stitched together into provisional patchworks, which are combined, reorganised, negotiated and assembled into a 'final' patchwork. In the paper some of the analytic concepts, methods and theoretical ideas will be discussed in relation to a particular interpretation of networked learning. The discussion will revolve around the view of learning in networked learning and how networked learning provides another perspective than other ideas and fields. Also, the paper will discuss the nature of the case, as the case is different from what is often the object of study within the area of networked learning. In spite of this the paper will argue that the insights gained from the study can feed into and contribute to theory and methodology within the area of networked learning.
An important concept in the particular interpretation of 'networked learning' discussed in the paper is the notion of promoting connections - both between learners, between learners and teachers, but also connecting people with 'resources'. This paper argues that the learning is not only located in the 'connections' or 'interactions' between the entities. Rather, it is located in a flow of activities, and the paper argues that the metaphor of understanding learning as a process of patchworking can enhance the analytic focus of network learning. An important part of metaphorically understanding learning as a process of patchworking, is the analytic focus on studying flows of activities and closely inspecting how connections to other people and resources come to shape and form the learning process and the construction of knowledge.