In a position paper by Allison Littlejohn on “Connected knowledge, collective learning” (#change11), she states that “… real-world problems are now too complex to be solved by a single person” and that we therefore have to look for collective solutions. And this is where collective learning comes.
With the increase in the range and use of a variety of technologies; networked and collective learning and problem-solving become increasingly valid and necessary options. Littlejohn further states that “Our grand challenge is that people have to learn to solve real-world problems faster and more effectively to keep up with demand”. If I understand Littlejohn correctly, she does not question under which circumstances collective learning is possible or appropriate; but rather interrogates “how people learn by navigating the collective knowledge”.
The position paper raises some interesting questions (at least for me):
Firstly, is it really true that “Our increasing reliance on technology has led to an unstoppable demand for new knowledge”? Is it our reliance on technology that has led to this demand for new knowledge, or does technology assist us in constructing and contributing to new knowledge? I am afraid I do not buy into the notion that our reliance on technology increases our demand for knowledge – this is simply too simplistic. The demand for knowledge is the result of interdependent but different factors such as the fact that technology makes access to already-produced knowledge possible. I am furthermore not sure that having access to ‘knowledge’ that is available on the internet necessarily results in the creation of ‘new’ knowledge. Having access to the abundance of data on the Internet is (most probably) related to the consumption of knowledge, but I am not sure it necessarily results in the creation of new knowledge. [Maybe an interesting question is to xplore the notion of 'originality' in a digital age...]
When students use a variety of Internet resources to reflect on or achieve individual, collective or commissioned learning goals, does it really constitute the creation of new knowledge? Yes, it may be ‘new’ for them, but original knowledge, I am not sure. Yes, if individuals or a collective intentionally act on knowledge found on the Internet and reframe, adapt or critique the ‘found’ knowledge, then we are moving from consumption to production. But this is not always the case.
My second concern is that the notion of “collective learning” is disembedded (if I understand Littlejohn correctly) from socio-economic, gender and geopolitical power relations. Knowledge consumption and production are not neutral acts. These acts of knowledge consumption and production do not take place in a vacuum but are in service of established power relations between individuals and groups, whether formed on the basis of socio-economic, geopolitical, cultural or gender criteria. In following Gray (2004), I believe that there is no basis for the wide-spread belief that progress in knowledge and science will necessarily result in a more just and compassionate society. Gray (2004, p. 70) warns that knowledge and science cannot (and will not) “end the conflicts in history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide”.
Accepting therefore that “knowledge [production and consumption] is not an unmixed good; it can be used as much as a curse as a blessing” (Gray 2004, p. 70), the important question is whether collective or connected learning will serve justice and compassion, or selfish interests and injustice.
The use of ‘collective learning’ to spread and create lies and stereotypes resulting in the massacres in Nazi Germany and in Rwanda are eerie reminders that ‘collective learning’ is not a panacea. It often (mostly?) serves dominant ideologies. But it can also be used to confront and question dominant ideologies as in the recent example of the Arab Spring.
Which brings me to my third point regarding Littlejohn’s position paper, namely the assumption that collective and connected learning is ‘new’. Although technology and access to technology do increase the possibilities for collective and collaborative learning; it is not necessarily ‘new’. Humans, throughout the ages, have always shared knowledge production, albeit based on class, gender, tribal or geopolitical criteria.
Whether in communal gatherings on the African plains, or in the great libraries of Timbuktu or Alexandria, knowledge was shared and disseminated. Existing knowledges were critiqued, endorsed, adapted and shared. Yes, institutional and personal online learning environments do create more opportunities for collective learning than ever before, but it is not ‘new’.
Notwithstanding the comments above, an important issue for those of us in higher education on the African continent is “how” to utilise the potential of collective learning on a continent where the digital divide is slowly being eroded by the immense increase in mobile technologies. Yes, there are vast parts of the African continent where the digital divide still reigns supreme, but access to mobile telephones and internet access through mobile technologies do necessitate that we urgently engage with the ‘how’.
And finally, are we ready for assessing and accrediting ‘collective learning’ or is most of the learning in higher education still in service of our obession with individual performance? Or maybe the question should rather be in which cases are individual performances and evidence of competence still appropriate and when and where can (and should) we encourage, enable, accredit and celebrate collective learning?