Social Learning in Independent Spaces?

I recently posted a response to a research paper by Terry Anderson which looked at the various modes of interaction across learning platforms and spaces.  Among the important and interesting notes was Anderson’s assertion that high quality learning could happen if one of three interactions (student-student, student-teacher or student-content) was of a high quality, regardless of the quality of the other two.  Yet in my reading of Anderson’s work, I saw him continue to discuss student-student interactions with great importance, moreso than he gave to student-teacher or student-content.  This ties into some existing learning theory popular today, most notably social learning theory (though, to be general, the Canadians like to call it social cognition) via Bandura (and Vygotsky’s social development theory).  Basically, social learning theory puts great importance in the relationships subjects have with each other, either equal to or greater than the relationship subjects have with the object.  For Vygotsky, social learning precedes developmental stages in children; building from that posit, information and content must be social before it is individual.  Shared experiences shape our creation and mediation of culture, and we utilize tools to create and share meaning.  In a learning context, subjects share the formal or informal learning experience with a group, and create meaning with that group utilizing both the shared culture of the group as well as the prior knowledge and tools of the individual, all in an effort to make sense of the content.  This activates the learning in a way unavailable in instructionist or behaviorist learning environments.  Etienne Wenger’s concept of the Community of Practice stems from social development and social learning.

If environment and social learning are integral to the learning process, this poses a great problem for distance learning.  Many universities (including my Ed.D program at Pepperdine) have adopted a cohort-based, blended learning model, where individuals following a degree plan take the same courses at the same time, as well as have face-to-face experiences with the cohort.  This model helps facilitate group work, and hopefully the establishment of culture and community.  But as I posted in Week 2’s discussion boards at the Current/Future of Higher Education cMOOC (#cfhe12), such a model could sustain existing educational structure and practice, but would not be cost-effective for the massification of education, as it requires locations for face-to-face work, and a structured learning path that establishes a group of individuals in a similar field to learn about a specific number of elements deemed important by said establishing agent.  That’s expensive.

A 2005 paper by Anderson, David Annand (who I read and discussed earlier in the life of this blog) and Norine Wark looks at the various iterations of online distance education, and efforts to build group learning activities in learning environments labeled as self-paced (which the authors note is synonymous with independent learning, a political buzz term in ed talk today), where students can start and progress in courses on their own schedule.  Like always, this is one to return to for the dissertation, but for now I will post initial thoughts:

  • Quoting the paper:  …there is a tradition of open education that has sought to address the needs of learners who, for one reason or another, do not fit this classic mold of higher education. In these institutions, the primary objective of the learning model is to provide the greatest degree of access and flexibility for students.  To this point, the paper has not defined open education, and reading this article I wonder if open education refers not to open source/resources but more to open schedule/access, where it is more about flexibility than content.
  • The paper defines flexible learning as learning that is not just asynchronous, but without any semblance of synchronicity because the individual dictates the schedule, not the institution.  It then gets into synonyms:  independent study, self study, unpaced, self-paced.  As I mentioned earlier, independent study is a mirror of independent learning, which is a buzz term in ed policy circles.  What is happening in American ed circles if independent learning, a learning style that proves difficult to match with social learning, is where the buzz is?
  • Nice to see that the history of distance education looks at independent learning as a superior form of learning.  First, it’s honest…people in the discipline would naturally see their history as the ideal one.  Second, let’s look at a quote:  They argued that learner paced study is an inherently superior form of higher education, because of its ability to overcome time and place constraints, and its economic scalability. Paulsen (2003; 1993) argued in his ‘theory of cooperative freedom’ that many students seek freedom not only from place and time, but also freedom to choose type of media and content, times of access, and pace.  Economics prove important here, but such a theory puts little faith into something like social learning theory.  We see resistance between face-to-face education and theory (which puts importance on relationships and environment) and distance education and theory (which puts importance on individual freedoms and economic scale).  The importance of social learning (or, in the distance ed lit, learner-learner interaction) is then commented on in the subsequent paragraphs of the paper.
  • This paper spells out the differences between face-to-face learning theory and distance learning theory beautifully.  Constructivism (the most recent learning theory to gain traction in the last 20 years) believes the knowledge bases of individuals in a cohort/community/learning group are integral in the development of communicating and working with new content, and help in the creation of learning artifacts, or symbols and tools that denote increased competency or skill.  Without community, there is no constructivism; ergo, how could independent-minded distance ed people subscribe to constructivism?  There is literature on asynchronous debate and discussion in distance/online ed, but little else (and would a message board be considered pedagogical constructivism?).
  • Dewey (1916) is quoted here as in favor of something like individual learning…which runs very counter to my experience of him.
  • I’ve seen two mentions (both by Anderson) of literature that says students look for learning opportunities that minimize contact with individuals (teacher or student).  Important to note, but also important to note that learning perceptions (and preferred learning method perception) is not necessarily an indicator of optimal learning.
  • In a survey to faculty, some expressed the need for a critical mass of students for community to form in an independent learning system.  Might that critical mass be the MOOC?  Oddly enough, the MOOCs in practice have taken from traditional education to create start and stop times for courses.
  • Within the model the paper attempts to create:  There is little evidence to suggest that effective learning is dependent upon a cohort of students moving together in strict temporal sequence.  That might be true (or may have in 2005), but the statement is so acutely specific yet sounds so grand it is a meaningless piece of content.  Does the statement mean little research has been done (cohort learning is relatively new), does it mean the existing evidence is ambiguous, or does it mean the authors are making a value statement void of factual basis?
  • The paper finds students perceive the most value in student-teacher interaction.  I have found this to be the case in my specific Pepperdine cohort, but again we are dealing with perceived value.  The faculty find the most value in student-student learning, and often when my cohort seeks lecture-style content from a teacher, I am happier to interact specifically with the content, later to seek out the teacher for individual questions.  Perceived learning and perceived ideals are both questionable to base research off of.
  • The paper makes the following recommendations:  better instructional design of learner-content interactions (they are the cheapest), provide an environment to create learner-learner relationships (the paper does not say how this will happen, and says its benefit is as much in retention rate as it is in learning outcomes), de-emphasize moderated discussion boards, and encouraging students to use their personal social networks to find community, creating an LMS that will allow for spontaneous community. Most of that exists today, and I don’t know the research, but I would imagine success to be varied.  I have seen LMS where people can see others enrolled on-line and can start a group, but without an institutional environment that supports and encourages that, the technology is fallow.

The paper notes that their research is a work-in-progress, and future technologies and trends must be followed in order to see self-paced community come to fruition.  It’s admirable, but I do wonder if there need to be greater changes involved…not just from a technology of 1 to a 1+, but from technology of a 0 to a 1.  

6 thoughts on “Social Learning in Independent Spaces?

  1. LIndax

    Hey Rolin, good stuff. I think an important element that isn’t explicitly being addressed here is the content and purpose of various “educational” experiences. People who get doctoral degrees don’t do it for their work. They seek deeper knowledge in a field of interest. You don’t sign up for 4 or more years of school in order to do a better job at the workplace on Monday. Heck sometimes doc students don’t even know what they’re going to do with it all when they grow up (I’m sure you remember that interview question from me during the application process, eh?). OTOH, when I look at friends and colleagues engaged in MOOC activities right now — in instructor or student role — I see them focusing on very bounded chunks of content, almost packages in a sense, that are being delivered to or sought by people with very, very, specific interests right now. SNA, the course Judi and Patti and others are in… very specific skill set, for a specific research use. They’re tooling up. They’re not seeking deep theoretical knowledge. So a question I have, the one that saves me from totally savaging the whole MOOC thing, is my sense that it serves or can serve or should serve a different purpose than a “program” of education (whether at a bricks ‘n mortar or hybrid or online institution). In a sense it’s really more like continuing education or professional development or other such activities typically described under the banner of “lifelong learning.” What are your thoughts on that?

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      First, I agree with you on the potential of this thing we call MOOCs in professional and non-formal learning spaces (professional development, continuing ed, conferences, museums and libraries, etc.). Right now most everything (certainly on the xMOOC side, but also on the cMOOC side though I think they would like to disagree) comes in the .edu packaging because 1) that’s how it’s always been, 2) that’s what we “need to save,” and 3) .edu already exists, so this is a way we can compare and assign relative values. If a MOOC is just a massification of existing distance practices, it’s going to be a student-content interaction buffered to the hilt by instructional design and bereft of peer and mentor communication, meaning bereft of environment, culture and space. They want it to be Neo plugging the Kung Fu module into his brain and fighting Laurence Fishburne.

      The cMOOC on the future of higher ed (#cfhe12) is a MOOC where people aren’t necessarily looking for bounded chunks of content…they want to be part of a discussion or conversation, in this case on the future of higher education. I have yet to run across someone who is not bound up in years and years of graduate school, so it’s all about deeper knowledge, but there is no end zone in the course, so a problem I am having is grounding myself and my growth (and any perception of gain) when there are no horizon landmarks. In an xMOOC on search engine design, it makes sense that you will enter with prior knowledge A, put it together with new knowledge B to create C. In a cMOOC questioning the direction of higher ed, everyone has different prior knowledge A, they read B and we all end up with a unique C. I know that might sound ideal in some ways, but of A is faulty, there is no mechanism for knowledge gaps, so you could end up with a whole host of whacked out Cs.

      So the model seems to fit various modes. Questions left to answer: how is it better than the status quo? Does such massification lessen the quality of education for all? How can we use such technology and ability to coalesce tens of thousands to make it a greater experience for the student rather than a more cost effective one for the institution? How do we bridge the divide between contemporary learning theory and the pitfalls of distance education?

  2. LIndax

    ps And what I meant to say was that a lot of the earlier research you’re looking at (eg, Anderson) is about “programs” going on line, not inservice or CEU offerings.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I bet there is some research out there on how people use Twitter for CEU and Inservice…that is the closest I can think of in terms of critical mass and non-formal learning. The MOOC in a lot of ways is just a much larger organism that provides the same functions.

      1. LIndax

        As a matter of fact I am chairing a student looking at microblogging in/for the workplace. I was thinking originally about “learning by following” after some cool insights I got from people I don’t know that I follow on Google Plus. Problem is I sorta lost interest in Google Plus, which is sad, because Twitter’s 142chars makes most things into drivel.

  3. Pingback: Hodgepodge – Links on MOOC Parallels | All MOOCs, All The Time

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