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Learning Ecology, Communities, and Networks
Extending the classroom

George Siemens
October 17, 2003

Summary

Learner-centered, lifelong learning has been the cry of knowledge society visionaries for the last decade. Yet learning continues to be delivered with teacher-centric tools in a twelve week format. Society is changing. Learners needs are changing. The course, as a model for learning, is being challenged by communities and networks, which are better able to attend to the varied characteristics of the learning process by using multiple approaches, orchestrated within a learning ecology.

Overview

What we know is less important than our capacity to continue to learn more. The connections we make (between individual specialized communities/bodies of knowledge) ensure that we remain current. These connections determine knowledge flow and continual learning.

To remain relevant, education needs to align with the needs of learners and the changing climate of work. Courses are not effective when the field of knowledge they represent is changing rapidly. We need to respond to these changes in a way that meets learner's needs and that reflects the reality of knowledge required in the work force.

Learning Stages and Types

Not all learning is just knowledge acquisition - often it is a process of several stages with several distinct components. Exploration, decision making, selecting, deselecting are all preparatory activities before we even enter the learning experience (the learning experience being defined as the moment when we actively acquire the knowledge that is missing in order for us to complete the needed tasks or solve a problem). During (and following) the learning experience, evaluations and assessments are occurring that measure if the learning needed has occurred. Each stage has different requirements. Preparatory learning relies more on informal tools, the learning experience most likely utilizes structured content and dialogue with gurus, the evaluation stage requires informal discussion, reflection and self-expression. One tool or approach does not adequately address the entire process.

Learning can also be defined by type. Some learning shapes our thinking. Some learning helps us complete a simple task. Other learning gives us the understanding to innovate. Or it helps us to better perform our work. Other learning is recreational...or professional.

We need to ensure that we do not talk about learning in its entirety when we are really only referring to a certain stage or a certain type of learning. For example, if I were to say "learning communities are great for learning", but fail to specify that I'm referring to the preparatory stage of learning in order to foster innovation, my ambiguity makes it difficult to dialogue with others on the concept. The listener may have a different focus of a particular learning stage or learning type, and will attempt to engage/refute my comments from her/his own perspective. We end up talking past each other. When we talk learning, we need to state the stage, the type, and the process we are referring to.

The manner in which we learn (courses and/or communities) needs to reflect the seamless nature of our learning: informal, structured, knowledge sharing, and just-in-time.

Course Limitations

Learning is multi-faceted. The task determines the approach. Often, learning theories are presented as being the only solution to a concern, when in reality, even the best theories are only accurate some of the time. In certain settings, constructivist learning approaches work well (learning new ideas and concepts), in other settings, rote learning is needed (often in compliance training). Neither is always the best choice, or always the worst choice. To apply varying methodologies, a construct is needed that houses and fosters different aspects of the learning process. Communities offer much potential in meeting learner needs in this regard.

A course is an artificial construct presenting a one-sided view of a subject (the instructor's or course designer's) and is typically presented in isolation. While, very effective for providing structured learning and feedback (see Why Courses are Good), courses do have several limitations that make them impractical in all learning circumstances.

  • Antithetical to today’s environment in terms of speed of change, flexibility of learning, and dynamics of content.
  • Life of knowledge changes too quickly. Some courses in the Information Technology field have complete content displacement within two - four years.
  • Caters to the norm. Formal education is geared towards the average student. Students with exceptional skills or with high needs typically suffer.
  • Life long learning doesn’t fit into twelve weeks.
  • Knowledge is intertwined. Learning in one area causes ripples in other areas. Courses present content in isolation

New views in education are also adding additional pressure for course reformation. This chart details some of the transitions instructors are making with regards to learning (changes that are much more difficult to accommodate in a course model, than in a community model):

From

To

Lecturing on factual information
Working as an individual
Teacher was the primary source of knowledge
Teacher and print media served as the primary means of communication
Learning was separated from the rest of the community

Guiding, motivating, and facilitating
Valuing working together
Many rich sources of immediate knowledge
Learning using a vast variety of media including the Internet
Learning now occurs globally

What is needed?

We need to bring elements into the learning experience that allow for extension beyond classrooms…and integration with “real life”

We need to be able to "tap into" a means of staying current within our fields. Courses can't serve this function when information is rapidly expanding.

We need to create a knowledge construct that is adaptive, self-sufficient, and permanent (at least until the learner not longer needs it).


Learning is an ecology, community, network

In order for learning institutions to be relevant in an era of life-long learning, they must move past the concept of start/stop learning. Learning is fluid. It impacts other areas of work and life. It's ongoing. Courses are start/stop. As stated previously, a course is an artificial construct, erected at the start of the term, that assumes to provide learners with the information and knowledge they need...and is torn down twelve weeks later. A learner who has a knowledge need six months later doesn't have access to the environment where he/she initially learned. After four years, the entire environment (i.e. the program) that awarded the degree is gone (inaccessible by the learner). A learner certainly still has the ability to contact Instructors after the program is finished, but the richness of the learning environment has largely faded. In this situation, not only the knowledge specific construct (course), but the entire ecology (program) is gone. A better, more permanent, option is required.

What is the Role of Technology?

Technology as an enabler of learning...and of creating connections. The Internet has revealed that large fields of knowledge are given value when connected. Technology in communities is essentially just a means of creating fluidity between knowledge segments...and connecting people

Where do people go to learn today?

Through a variety of means, formal and informal, we seek out to meet our own information needs. This may include research in a library, searching on the Internet, asking a colleague (or posting to a listserv), taking a workshop, or taking a course. Each approach is valuable when properly matched with the knowledge need.

What is an ecology?

An ecology is an environment that fosters and supports the creation of communities. The definition applied to gardening applies well to learning communities: "“Ecological gardening is about gardening with nature, not against it.” A learning ecology is an environment that is consistent with (not antagonistic to) how learners learn. John Seely Brown has written extensively on the concept of a knowledge ecology. He defines an ecology as an open system, dynamic and interdependent, diverse, partially self organizing, adaptive, and fragile. This concept is then extended to include the following characteristics of a learning ecology:

  • A collection of overlapping communities of interest
  • Cross pollinating with each other
  • Constantly evolving
  • Largely self organizing

Learning ecologies can certainly exceed the characteristics presented by Brown. In more formal education environments, the concept of self organizing gives way to a more structured process for knowledge transmission. The Instructor plays the role of gardener.

What are the needs of learning ecology?

Learning/knowledge is more than static content. It's a dynamic, living, and evolving state. Within an ecology, a knowledge sharing environment should have the following components:

  • Informal, not structured. The system should not define the learning and discussion that happens. The system should be flexible enough to allow participants to create according to their needs.
  • Tool-rich - many opportunities for users to dialogue and connect.
  • Consistency and time. New communities, projects and ideas start with much hype and promotion...and then slowly fade. To create a knowledge sharing ecology, participants need to see a consistently evolving environment.
  • Trust. High, social contact (face to face or online) is needed to foster a sense of trust and comfort. Secure and safe environments are critical for trust to develop.
  • Simplicity. Other characteristics need to be balanced with the need for simplicity. Great ideas fail because of complexity. Simple, social approaches work most effectively. The selection of tools and the creation of the community structure should reflect this need for simplicity.
  • Decentralized, fostered, connected...as compared to centralized, managed, and isolated.
  • High tolerance for experimentation and failure

What is a community?

A community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together.

Virtual and physical communities share many similar traits:

  • A gathering place for diverse people to meet
  • Nurturing place for learning and developing
  • A growing place - allowing members to try new ideas and concepts in a safe environment
  • Integrated. As an ecology, activities ripple across the domain. Knowledge in one area filters to another. Courses as a stand alone unit often do not have this transference.
  • Connected. People, resources, and ideas are connected and accessible across the community.
  • Symbiotic. A connection that is beneficial to all members of the community...needed in order for the community to survive.

These aspects of community address our social needs as learners. Much of our learning comes through informal, social means (see The Other 80%). Learning processes can capitalize on this through design of materials and learning environment. Rather than strictly being content presentation by the Instructor, learning should include knowledge sharing between learners. These connections are the real source of value - not the content itself. Since rapidly developing knowledge continues to render much of what we know as obsolete, we can no longer derive our value from what we know. Our value is in our capacity to stay current. It's the connection to continued learning, not existing learning, that is valuable.

A learning community is comprised of different spaces. Each space address a type of learning, as well as a stage in the learning process. The major spaces needed in an community are:

A space for Gurus and Beginners to connect (master/apprentice)
A space for self-expression (blog, journal)
A space for debate and dialogue (listserv, discussion forum, open meetings)
A space to search archived knowledge (portal, website)
A space to learn in a structured manner (courses, tutorials)

The particular space needed by a learner is determined by the knowledge need and the level of competence of the learner. Learners new to a community or subject matter will find structured content the most effective place to start. After an understanding of the language, the terms, and the concepts of the community, the learner advances and begins to participate in other spaces of the community.

The use of communities as a construct for learning (within the larger construct of an ecology) results in additional benefits that are often concerns in classrooms. Peer-to-peer learning is as valuable as teacher instruction. Much learning happens in small group discussions, and this allows instructors in a community environment to play a facilitative, rather than instructive role. Small communities, loosely joined, are the future of effective life-long learning (connected specialization).

One of the most significant values of communities is the concept of serendipity. John Seely Brown details the concept when explaining how Xerox was unable to capitalize on its development of a graphical user interface (which was subsequently popularized by Apple and Microsoft):

"However, this famous "fumble of the future" was not the result of a grand miscalculation or obvious oversight (not obvious, at least, at the time). It was a failure of divergent communities of practice to turn ideas into knowledge that others could act on. Few people in 1978 understood the commercial potential of the personal computer. And PARC's small, eccentric community of researchers were as uncommunicative with outsiders (including engineers from down the hall) as we were inventive. Likewise, most others in the company (whom we as researchers derided as "toner heads") focused narrowly on what they knew best -- commercial copiers. It took a then tiny community of practice outside the firm -- personal computer designers -- to recognize the potential of the personal computer.

Yet even an uncommon ability to coordinate diverse communities of practice is not enough to move from invention to innovation. Organizations play two key roles in that process. The first was articulated by economist Kenneth Arrow 25 years ago: "innovation by firms is in many cases simply a question of putting an item on its agenda before other firms do." And setting an agenda that reflects the skills, capacities, and mission of the organization means recognizing that what is right for one organization may not be right for another. The second task of organizations, of course, is to execute their agenda. Here again, leaders must attend to social patterns and practices, not just to strategy and technology. "

What is a network?

A network consists of two or more nodes linked in order to share resources.

A node is a connection point to a larger network.

Learning communities are nodes.

Courses need to be redesigned to reflect networked economy.

A network, in the context of an ecology and communities, is how we organize our learning communities...resulting in a personal learning network.

Drawbacks to Communities

As effective as communities can be for sharing knowledge, connecting with others, and learning, drawbacks and concerns exist for those who wish to use them as learning tools:

  • Difficult for new members to get up to speed.
  • Lack of Structure. The very strength of communities - the flexibility, lack of structure - make it difficult for some people to participate. Communities favour self-directed learners who are aware of what they know...and what they need to learn. (Lilia Efimova)
  • Feedback. Rich, pointed, developmental feedback is often missing. Most feedback is in the form of discussions and dialogue, which are not as effective as a focused feedback.
  • Curriculum of the Commons (Jeremy Hiebert). How are errors handled in a community? Misinformation? Personal learning agendas? Curriculum of the commons may be positive if it's in response to the needs of learners, but negative if the commons is focused on misinformation or personal agendas. It may be difficult to manage for an Instructor.
  • Motivation. Self-directed learners who are self-aware (they know what they need to learn) have an advantage in this environment. Less self-sufficient learners may find it difficult to function in a community-based environment.
  • Evaluation. If learning communities are used in education, Instructors need the ability to evaluate the progress and activities of participants.

The solution lies in selecting a variety of tools and utilizing different approaches and methodologies. One solution won't work in every situation. Lifelong learning is not a plug and play activity. It's a living, vibrant state of functioning.

Conclusion

Variety is a central requirement for learning. There are certainly times where formal, structured courses are required. Some times the knowledge requirements are such that the course model is best - if learning needs have a start and an end. In other cases, learning needs are complex...and difficult to anticipate. The more complex the learning needs, and the more quickly the field of knowledge evolves, the more valuable a learning community and network becomes.

The task of managers, administrators, and Instructors is to create the ecology, shape the communities, and release learners into this environment. Segments of the community can bring in other members (potential employers, graduates) allowing them to grow and learn with existing learners. Through the process, each learner is connected to a network allowing for life-long learning and the ability to care for their own learning needs in the future.

   

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License