Fostering community building in communities of learning through assignment design

Picture of several meerkats
Meerkat (suricata suricatta), courtesy of Josh Guard

I have an increasingly strong opinion on what constitutes learning, in general, and what will constitute learning form a lifelong learning perspective.

In my opinion, it is communities. Or, put on dynamic terms, community building.

I would like to avoid the debate whether Connectivism is a learning theory, or whether we should be talking about learning networks.

The important thing here, to me, is if we can detach learning from learning institutions by subverting the dynamics of the classroom to become networked learners and networked educators.

I am totally convinced that it is building communities that open up the traditional institutions — the handbook, the classroom, the teacher, the library, the… — what enables lifelong learning on a sustainable basis.

Community building through assignment design

The problem is that we are often headed to designing assignments. We have to make them up and students (not learners yet) have to do and submit then.

I would like to here share four steps that I personally use so that my mandatory assignments (mandatory to my students, mandatory to my as a teacher) as artefacts for community building.

  1. Try and make all or part of my assignments happen in the open. That is, that anyone can have access to them and, even better, interact with them. An essay is less open that a debate around a shared set of slides on the virtual classroom of your LMS; and a set of slides can be opened up if uploaded on a document sharing social networking site (e.g. as Slideshare), disseminated through another social networking site (e.g. Twitter) or embedded on a blog, and debate fostered on the same social networking site (and monitored with a tag/hashtag) or on the comments of the blog post.
  2. Isolated assignments usually work worse than “connected” assignments. Splitting an assignment in parts corresponding to stages or, even better, building a story around a set of assignments works best to raise interest on the topic, to have the sense of creating something, to be expectant to what is to come — yourself as a student and in relationship to your peers or mates. A case analysis, split in different deliveries, contributes more to community building rather a bunch of quizzes corresponding to each of the chapters or the handbook.
  3. Responding to assignments is rather passive, even for the most creative assignments. Fostering content sharing is by fare more proactive. Contributing to the collection of resources to be used in a specific task not only adds to the actual collection of resources, but signals the contributor as a legitimate, reputed, active member of the learning community. And contributes to create (even if) weak ties among the members of that community, thus actually building the community of learning.
  4. To avoid this exchange being but a bunch of many monologues, marking contributions to others’ content is usually a good strategy to foster real dialogue between contributors who, later on, will much probably engage in conversations and exchanges spontaneously, deeply and, luckily, strengthen what before were only weak ties. But, of course, things do not just happen, so they have to be encouraged. And there is nothing wrong with it. On the contrary: one should not expect the unexpected, not without some external stimuli.

In my opinion, beyond complex designs, some simple but strongly driven actions can potentially and much likely lead to setting up the basis of strong communities. Or, at least, to pave the path towards community building.

And an accurate and focused assignment design can certainly be an important part of it.

The networked educator — an approach from distributed leadership

Most of the definitions about the networked educator — or the networked teacher — are clearly biased towards tools: if you one uses a specific set of tools for education, then one is a networked teacher. This is, in my opinion, a very narrow approach to what has been called the “teacher 2.0” or, in more general terms, “education 2.0”. In El Profesor 2.0: docencia e investigación desde la Red (Teachers 2.0: teaching and researching from the Net, 2006), my colleagues César Córcoles, Carlos Casado and I stated that a teacher is, above all, a researcher, and that some digital tools constituted a new framework for collaboration among researchers and that this new frameworks allowed to increase their communication and motivation capacity in the classroom, and to optimise the efforts devoted to searching for information, collaborative work and the communication of their results.

That is: it is not tools, but usage, what constitutes the basic foundations of a an academic panorama with greater collaboration between peers and a natural evolution of the current meritocracy system. It is not using blogs, or microblogs, or social bookmarks, or online video, or whatever the tool, but how and what for one will use them. And, most especially how will that affect one’s own tasks, organization and decision-making.

Distributed leadership

Eric S. Raymond and Yohai Benkler, among others, remind us that one of the deepest impacts of the digital revolution is the increase in the granularity of tasks, that is, how big tasks can be split in smaller tasks in ways that were not either possible, effective or efficient in prior times. This increase of granularity usually leads to more actors doing things and in separate ways, almost immediately leading to people making decisions on their own, in a decentralized or even distributed way.

A first approach to this distributed leadership can be illustrated with an example. In a world without Internet, a teacher will usually prepare their own material and teach with it. With Internet, is much more possible that someone will prepare a given material (create), make it available to others (share) and a third party will bring it to their lecture (use). Of course, this already happened with the internet (publishers made textbooks, librarians piled them up, lecturers used them), but the scale at which this can happen with the Internet is potentially different by several orders of magnitude.

And not only the scale — in quantitative terms — but the qualitative terms can be dramatically changed too: while a publisher can prepare some educational resource and distribute it top-down to a group of lecturers, a real community of practice can prepare that very same resource, each one of the members contributing with their fraction of knowledge, and use the result while retaining the freedom to chose, adapt, edit, improve, etc. before, during or after the use.

A hierarchic, individualistic, world of educators

Let us simplify how educators work in a traditional world. The simplification has no implicit judgement, but aims at trying to make things more understandable.

Usually, a teacher lectures. To do so, she can either use a textbook from an instructional designer — that sells her work to a publisher that sells the book to the teacher or the school —, or use other resources from a library or any other archive (which is usually fed by the very first instructional designer. Of course, there are many variations and shades of grey to this scheme but, in general terms, it looks very much like this:

The networked educator — an approach from distributed leadership

Let us now go up the ladder of complexity:

  1. The solipsistic model: an individual teacher does it all. Mostly, lectures live, like in the oral tradition.
  2. A hierarchy does it all, distributes directly or indirectly (through archivists such as libraries) supporting resources to the teacher, which applies them to her lectures.
  3. All tasks of the creation, sharing and using processes are split among different actors, most of them shifting roles every now and then.

The last step can be drawn like this:

Instead of a linear, directed way of doing things, of making decisions, here tasks overlap and actors change roles constantly, thus generating different hybrid roles. Besides the three traditional/simple ones — instructional designer, archivist, lecturer — others add to the set:

  • The creative educator is the one that can create educational resources, and then put them into use in her own lectures; but it can also be a teacher that is able to store what she is doing in the classroom: notes that become a textbook, a taped lecture that becomes courseware.
  • The open lecturer makes publicly available the results of her lectures… or of the classrooms work (e.g. open wikis where collaborative work happens); but also is able to find existing resources that can be applied in to her classroom.
  • The open editor creates content that is made publicly available. If made on purpose, so that a certain model can be replicated, I call it franchiser.

But the most important actor is the one that lies on the middle of the scheme, the one that is able to do — and actually does — it all.

  • The networked educator (I prefer it to networked teacher, because one can educate without teaching) easily shifts from creation to sharing, and from sharing to implementation, and so on. And, indeed, she usually even transforms the individual tasks that were formerly well established. Thus, sharing can no more be something about making available through archiving, but also being a curator of content, or a hub through which one can find more and better content.

This is, of course, a very very simplistic approach to this issue. But it is helping myself to identify the tasks that make up education (and learning) and how can technology subvert the dynamics of the educational process, which is, to me, the most interesting impact of the digital revolution in learning and most especially in the educational system.

Thesis Defence. Arnau Monterde: Emergence, evolution and effects of the 15M network movement (2011-2015): A technopolitical approximation

Thesis defence by Arnau Monterde entlitled The integration of the uses of digital technology in adult persons in their training activities at the university, in Barcelona at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. December 22, 2014.

Arnau Monterde: Emergence, evolution and effects of the 15M network movement (2011-2015): A technopolitical approximation

Methodology

  • To investigate the 15M Spanish Indignados movement in the network society.
  • Systemic and multiscale approximation.
  • Situated and networked research: technopolitical practices, collaborative knowledge building, online/offline interaction.
  • Methodological combination: quantitative analysis (15M2014 survey); network analysis (Twitter, Facebook, hyperlinks); qualitative analysis (in depth interviews); participatory observation.

Emergence of the 15M

Emergence: the whole cannot be explained after the parts, but has to be approached differently.

The 15M begins its formation before the 15 May 2011: with the Sinde Law, the NoLesVotes movement, Democracia Real Ya, etc. The 15M is organized on the Internet between February and May 2011, after the prior technopolitical movements. It conquers the street after consolidating online. But why does the 15M bursts? The Arab Spring and the events at Tahrir Square are very important, being these factors multipied by what happens on social networking sites. The main factor, though, is lack of democracy (or lack of quality democracy), and not the economic crisis — which is a factor, but not as important as democracy or corruption.

Besides determinants, the form is also very important: the decentralization and distribution of the movement play a very important role, as emotions also do: both hope and indignation are very important parts of the movement.

Last, but not least, language will play also a role in the movement, mostly in first person, transversal, inclusive, affirmative, easy to own.

Communication

Indeed, technology will be crucial both for organization and communication, with many different tools and uses, including a meta-debate of what technologies and what for, about technological empowerment, autonomy, technological sovereignty. There is a synchronous multichannel communicative ecosystem. Networks will be new space of socialization and collective action.

On the other hand, media seem to be quite out of the debate, not even being able to capture and explain what is actually happening.

In the meanwhile, the movement evolves on a multilayer basis, where none of the participants will only participate in just a single platform/layer. There is, thus, no distinction between online and offline: layers overlap constantly and are chosen depending on the task to be done, on the level of engagement that it requires, the goals to be achieved at any given time, etc. And when layers synchronize, the movement begins to walk.

Evolution of the 15M

Most people think that the 15M has changed and evolved from its origins, but there is a consensus that the movement is still relevant in the public agenda. 84.5% of the participants (in the survey) still have an interest in the 15M and form a collective identity. Even more important, whatever the initiative linked to the 15M analyzed, the same communities and collective identities arise.

There is an open, transversal, systemic and dynamic identity of the 15M, which cannot be reduced neither to the aggregation of the individuals nor to the personaization of the connective action.

Technologies

Evolution of multiple technologies, especially pads, videostreaming and Twitter.

Centrality of technologies for a political use.

Usages are multiple, but allowing the accumulation of learning to better use technology, especially to find out the most appropriate users.

Different networks: structural (for inner organization) vs. functional (for a specific purpose). Within the networks, there is a high functional specialization, always collaborating and not competing. With dynamics of continuity (where they are active) and discontinuity (when they remain in stand-by, but not dismantled). Sinchronization of netwokrs and a strong dialogue between structural and functional networks.

Temporal distributed leadership: networks take the lead depending on the initiative.

Multitudinous and networked self-organization, self-consciousness of the 15M, temporarily (synchronicity and latency).

Impact on politics

Institutions will not let the movement in, added to an institutional counterpart will help to give the impression that the movement is not reaching out or making an impact. But as time goes by, there are events that are difficult to explain without the 15M, such as the crisis of bipartidism, some political practices, the appearance of new political parties, etc.

For instance, network analysis shows how Podemos during the European Elections seems to be “adscribed” to the movement. In the case of the local elections, the integration of some parties is even higher, with dynamics of some parties very much like the 15M.

Other impacts: open voting lists, collaborative crowdfunding, transparency, open elaboration political programmes, local parties that partly come from the “plazas” and act alike, autonomy of the local parties without a central hierarchy, etc.

On the cons part, the frontier between parties and movements blur, there is a tension between the institutional and the movement tempos, etc.

The 15M will not create new parties, but will set the conditions upon which new parties will emerge.

Conclusions

  • Centrality of the interaction of the 15M with the technologies of network communication.
  • The evolution of the 15M after the uses of the networks, action and organization.
  • The 15M transforms the conditions of the electoral arena.
  • Technopolitial contribution to the study of th 15M and its evolution.

Discussion

Joan Subirats: how to identify the phenomenon of technopolitics? Besides the techno- part, what happens with the -politics part? Is it “new politics”? Monterde: it is difficult to delimit what technopolitics is, because there neither is a beginning not an end to it: it just evolves. Notwithstanding, the analysis that the research of content, emotions, organizations, programmes and proposals, etc. clearly have a political weight. This includes the reasons for the different actors and platforms to participate in the movement and the events around it. But it is important to note that in technopolitics the most important aspect is the how, not the what. The movement is built after the practices. So, its the form that constitutes the 15M, not the content: the political programme is not put in the middle, although it of course exists.

Paolo Gerbaudo: differences and similarities between traditional (and new) parties and the movement? What are the organizational challenges and dilemmas? Marina Subirats: what happens with leadership? It was about distributed leadership, but Podemos is as traditional as any in terms of leadership. Monterde: the logics of the many new and old parties are very different, and in the field of political parties there are many factors that converge upon them to force a change. And it is very difficult — if not impossible — to make a simple statement about their relationships with the movement. There is not a single relationship of causality between the 15M and how it evolves into the parties: there are a lot of correlations, but not an identified causality. The issue of leadership is that our political culture strongly pressures towards identifying a unique leader, and this does not come from the movement, where leadership is very much different.

Joan Subirats: who is part of the movement? What is a collective identity? Can we define this? Monterde: What the research aims at answering is that there are many factors why people join, act, participate, leaves the movement, comes back to it, etc.

Joan Subirats: what it’s at stake in the debate of the 15M is representation. How is that solved by the evolution of the 15M? Monterde: quite often, it is active participation what decides membership and, in some terms, representation. You do something, you somewhat represent the movement. But it is true that this is a very difficult aspect of the movement and its relationship with representation, especially a shift towards institutional representation. Indeed, the most crucial aspect is not representation, but de-representation: how can we articulate measures and policies that work towards a de-representation (a de-institutionalization, a de-intermediation, etc.) of politics and civic action: direct democracy, participatory and deliberative democracy, etc.

Marina Subirats: what is the relationship with the Catalan Independentist movement? Monterde: part of the research heavily relies on the 15M2014 Survey, which is Spain-wide. The factor does appear in answers coming from Catalonia, but it is not relevant elsewhere. And even if the topic is dealt with during the camps, after the camps and during interviews, the issue disappears from the agenda of the 15M.

Marina Subirats: where is the ideology in the 15M movement? Did they read the “main authors”? Or did they pretend to begin from scratch? Monterde: 50% of the participants meet their very first political experience during the 15M, and many more describe the 15M more than an agora where to debate, a school where to learn politics.

PS: Congratulations doctor Monterde!

APROPIATIC (VII). Peter C. Mantell: the future of online education

Notes from the VI Encuentro académico: Apropiatic. Uso y apropiación de la tecnología para el aprendizaje, organized by UNIMINUTO, and held in Bogotá, Colombia, on November 30 and December 1, 2015.

Peter C. Mantell

Learning affords us to figure out what works all by ourselves.

Gamification is changing the market of education. Offers a potential strategy for improving engagement. Gamification is about:

  • Freedom to fail.
  • Rapid feedback.
  • Story telling.

m-Learning, or mobile learning provides more immediacy than regular e-learning, it provides an open gate to real time.

Smartly is an m-learning, gamification-inspired, learning service that provides educational video, with bite-sized chunks to be consumed on the go. Short lessons that take 5-10 minutes to complete, low bandwidth to consume, hand-crafted for mobile consumption.

We need a way to test the students without them noticing that they are being tested, with constant interactions with the content, with continuous feedback.

Apropiatic (2015)

APROPIATIC (VI). Ismael Peña-López: Unfolding educational institutions. Strategies and tools for networked learning

Notes from the VI Encuentro académico: Apropiatic. Uso y apropiación de la tecnología para el aprendizaje, organized by UNIMINUTO, and held in Bogotá, Colombia, on November 30 and December 1, 2015.

Ismael Peña-López
Unfolding educational institutions. Strategies and tools for networked learning

Slides:

[click here to enlarge]

(more…)

Apropiatic (2015)

APROPIATIC (V). Larry Cooperman: Higher Education, Virtual Education, Open Education

Notes from the VI Encuentro académico: Apropiatic. Uso y apropiación de la tecnología para el aprendizaje, organized by UNIMINUTO, and held in Bogotá, Colombia, on November 30 and December 1, 2015.

Larry Cooperman
Higher Education, Virtual Education, Open Education

Martin Trow (Reflections on the transition fro elite to mass to universal access: forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WWII, 2007) reflects on how attitudes before access and functions of higher education have changed as we move from bringing higher education to an elite (0-15% of the population), to the masses (15-50%) to providing it universally (>50%).

  • Attitudes before access move from being a privilege, to a right to some qualified ones to an obligation.
  • Functions of higher education move from being a preparation for the roles of the elites, to the transmission of skills and a preparation for some technical and economic functions, to adapting the whole population to a quick social and technological change.

Though, some problems arise: the university system cannot accommodate everyone aiming at accessing higher education. What the university can offer — content, experience, certification — usually comes with a trade-off with quality. And, thus, quality has decreased in the higher education system. More people gets in the system, the level of education remains stable (or decreases) and less (in relative terms) people graduates. There is a new iron triangle: access, cost and success.

But now we have the Internet. Now what? What should be done in higher education, given those problems and the fact that we now have the Internet?

A first answer was open courseware: digitize all the existing “knowledge” and make it available for free.

Now, MOOCs have brought yet another debate on the table, again related to access. But access to what? Is there an instructional path? Does even having an instructional path equal learning? Four aspects for the debate about MOOCs:

  • Do they scale?
  • How do we manage the huge amount of data that they generate?
  • Do they represent a different pedagogic approach?
  • Where are the learning outcomes?

Weaknesses of the MOOC model:

  • Traditional/handmade model of instructional design. Why are we still working individually in teaching and instructional design? MOOCs reproduce the lecture hall and reproduces it online: videos, quizzes… they are not much different — from a pedagogic point of view — from the traditional way. Not that it is wrong, but can we go a step further? For instance, we know that active learning is much better for the building of new knowledge.
  • Inability to produce relevant research. For instance, we do know that socialization plays an important role in learning, but most MOOCs do not take that into account. Many of them ignore the possibilities of study groups.
  • P2P virtual environments are based on social networks. Peers help each other to learn how to learn. How are MOOCs approaching this fact?

What about scale? Communities of experts, co-creation models, are very much related with communities of learning. Thus, learning environments should not be intimate.

About research, one has to begin to put the right questions, and then gather data to try to answer them. Like what is the best predictor of academic performance in the last year of undergrad education. Is it family income? Social class? How well they did in their admission test? Other factors?

In the future, one would like to see communities of experts that make up the curricula and then inform communities of learners. A community of learners should be supported at any time by a community of experts that can, in an informal environment, help them through their learning process: peer-based learning environments. We need open information, we need problems that need being solved in groups. There are digital platforms — or mixes of digital tools — that come very handy to create these P2P learning environments.

Combine technology, virtuality and openness, to be used by individuals, by classrooms, by institutions or by groups of peers. This is what is being done at UCI OpenChem.

Discussion

Q: what elements should MOOCs have to (a) guarantee learning and to (b) reduce drop out rates? Cooperman: there has to be interaction among the peers. The key of learning is about facilitating communities of learning, P2P learning environments.

Apropiatic (2015)