Letter to a learner

Right Stuff Thumbs Up

Our VCU summer cMOOC, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” has finished its first week. 12.5% of the experience is behind us in time (though not in memory and certainly not on the Web). I’ve already learned a great deal from all aspects of the experience and, more importantly, from all the people who have worked and are working to make this experience go. Chief among these people are those students who have committed time and thoughtful energy to the work they’re doing already. I’ve seen some extraordinary work, much of it splendidly blurring the line between creativity and analysis in ways that should remind us that any such lines are provisional at best and damaging at worst. The work these students have contributed fascinates me and encourages me. I am grateful.

At the same time, there are the inevitable frustrations that come with learning experiences that differ from the norm, as this one most certainly does. it’s understandable (if regrettable) that there will always be some frustration when one wants a learning experience that’s clear, tightly scripted, and doesn’t require consistent participation. Many college courses are like this. Such experiences, even when the work is difficult, are easily managed and can be compartmentalized, even walled off, from the rest of one’s life. There are at least three principal problems with such transactional designs:

1. The learning typically doesn’t persist beyond the final exam, which itself is often little more than cramming and regurgitating.

2. The learning typically doesn’t transfer well into other domains, As a result, there are few connections and fewer insights generated in other learning situations. The learning isn’t made “strong,” to quote Richard Feynman, who used to be very puzzled when his fellow students at MIT couldn’t see that, say, a particular chemistry problem and a particular biology problem were really two versions of the same set of concepts and questions.

3. Related to both of the above, the compartmentalized learning design (as opposed to a connected learning design) typically does not rely on, or encourage, meaning-making, Without meaning-making, the human significance of an activity dwindles to nearly zero, or perhaps to zero (I try not to speak in dogmatic absolutes, but in my heart I believe “zero” is correct).

The idea of “connected” learning as opposed to “compartmentalized” learning has been on my mind a great deal lately, prompted in particular by a special issue of The International Journal of Learning and Media. I’ve written about this issue before, but the abstract from one article in particular keeps coming back like a haunting melody, or perhaps a trumpet call to action:

What Is Connected Learning and How to Research It?

Kristiina Kumpulainen
University of Helsinki 
Julian Sefton-Green
London School of Economics and Political Science 

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

(I’ll put a marker here to say that I’ve gone back to my Bakhtin to investigate the connection with chronotopes, “time-space” as Bakhtin calls it, and the matter merits much further investigation.)

The rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular have given us an unprecedented opportunity to experience, and to study and learn from, the “dynamic processes of learning.” At this stage of my career, I find myself pursuing these goals with greater energy and focus in all my work. I even find that my specialization as a scholar of verbal art, especially that of poetry, relates strongly to efforts to understand these dynamic processes. While these connections and the very idea of connected learning itself are exhilarating, they’re exhausting too, because they require a lot of work to make them intelligible, and a lot of persuasion to encourage people to dive into the experience and make something of it themselves. There’s a lot of apparently successful compartmentalized schooling going on, and while I find it deeply frustrating and more of a tragic failure of the human imagination than anything at all successful, it is easily managed and it is familiar. It can also narcotize both teacher and student in ways I find very troubling, though I do not doubt that in most instances everyone is trying to do the right thing.

Which brings me back to “Living the Dreams” and the cMOOC learning experience this summer. After one week, it’s becoming clear to everyone that this is a very unusual course. It’s taking a great deal of time and energy to attend to the network that’s sprung into being, to learn from and within that network, and to reassure ourselves that something extraordinary is possible here (indeed, is already happening) that could transform the way we think about research, research writing, and the power of an Engelbartian intellect augmentations, a true dynamic knowledge ecosystem (DKE), a networked improvement community (NIC). One student–to judge by the writing, a very fine student indeed–communicated her frustrations in an honest, searching, and self-aware fashion that I found rather inspiring, especially as she continued to interact with me and her section’s professor over the course of a comment string. I won’t link to that post directly, as I don’t want to try to single her out; I’m sure she speaks for many students. But I did want to share the comment I just left as I tried to respond to her honest and thoughtful struggles with a course built on “social media” (are there other kinds of media?) that’s a pilot course (meaning that it’s a work in progress itself) and that looks and feels so very different from any course she’s taken before. I salute her because she’s truly trying to make something out of what she’s experiencing. And I dedicate this post to her.

Here is the comment I just left. It’s a follow-up to an earlier comment from me, so I’l start with a bit of her reply for context. You should know that she’s a science student, and that in an earlier comment she was wondering about what this learning experience had to do with preparing her for scientific research. The words in italics are hers.

Thank you, Dr. C…. I think I just need some time to adjust to this unusual course structure. However, as this is a pilot class, I really do feel that it may be useful to some students if there were some consolidation on the UNIV website. Perhaps that will also just take some getting used to though.

You’re very welcome! Coordinating the information is always a challenge when there’s an emphasis on variety and yet also on connection. Most face-to-face courses de-emphasize both because of limitations that exist in the physical world (though there are great things in the physical world too, certainly!). Online kinds of interaction present new possibilities. Some thinkers (including many scientists) believe online communication represents a new stage in human biocultural evolution, one comparable to the invention of writing itself. The Web itself was invented to improve research by enabling scientists to be in better communication, which also means to be able to build and work together better. It’s all about communication in the end. Once human beings got language, everything changed.

I’m just now watching a talk Martin Hawksey recommended to us on the Twitter stream: https://twitter.com/mhawksey/status/477781704762216448 (each new tweet is a web page–you can get the URL as I did above by clicking on the date or the “hours ago” numeral–I find this v interesting). I immediately thought of you and your interest in science. I also thought you might enjoy a book by a physicist named Michael Nielsen called “Reinventing Discovery: The Rise of Networked Science.” Science is all about networks. And social media are about much more than Facebook “like”s (though these too can be interesting).

Anyway, sorry to ramble on–but obviously your thoughtful engagement with some core issues has continued to elicit thought in me, so thanks for that. I’m also glad to see you’ve been in touch with [your section professor]. I think you’ll find [the professor] quite an engaging and provocative thinker.

Sincerely, and with best wishes,
Dr. C.

 Perhaps these thoughts will be helpful to others as well.

Oh, and here’s the splendid video Martin recommended. Many thanks to him for the recommendation as well as for all the crucial work he’s doing to contribute to the study and design of connected learning. Salute!

One thought on “Letter to a learner

  1. Pingback: Good Enough: The Pros and Cons of Learning for Fun | Ivy Run LLC

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