Making sense of collective/connective learning – the plot thickens (#change11)


Somehow the notion of collective/connective learning (#change11) does not want to let me go. I attended (however briefly) an Elluminate session today with Allison Littlejohn as part of change.mooc.ca. On the bus back home the following question remained with me: “How, or/and when do people learn collectively?”

Firstly, the answer depends on whether you are part of the collective in question  or outside the collective. And this is not only about access to the location of where the collective is learning; but whether you share their epistemological, ontological or discipline frameworks. If you are not ‘part’ of the collective, you cannot learn. Therefore the notion of ‘collective learning’ is based on many assumptions regarding the formation, criteria and purpose of forming collectives.

Some collectives exclude up front e.g. institutional learning management systems which prevent anyone outside of the institutional firewall of participating.  But even if I am allowed ‘in’, my being ‘in’ is not as simple…

For example, even if I have access to an online learning experience on the subject of chemistry or neurology  and I have no frame of reference or have enough social and epistemological capital to take part in the experience; I am, per se, not learning; and not really part of the collective.  Another example: if the learning takes place in a language I do not understand, learning is simply impossible. Or if my gender or place in the organisation assigns me to a particular role in the collective, I can be, per se excluded (e.g. Spivak). The group may be learning, but not me…

Therefore, although learning in a collective is theoretically possible; it may actually not be possible.

Secondly, while networks are assumed to be inanimate, networks are formed and created by algorithms and coded by humans. While an algorithm runs automatically – it is inanimate – the ‘running’ depends on how it is coded or created. Although animate, the network is constructed by a set of assumptions that result in choices – which either intentionally exclude and include. Often networks exclude because of factors outside of the control of the network such as the impact of socioeconomic, gender, geopolitical power relations.  So the notion of a benign collective in which anyone can partake regardless of language, culture, discipline, or whatever other criteria you can think of; is not a reality that I know of. Even though our being part of the collective of the ‘human race’ is undisputed; some of us are more equal than others –the experience of being part of a collective is anything but homogenous or creates equal conditions for everyone to participate in.

So if we assume (for now) that learning is possible within a collective; let me turn to the question: “What conditions make learning in a collective possible?” I am not sure I will provide the answers, but let us explore the following questions:

My advance apologies for making this difficult, but just because you are part of a collective do not imply that you will necessarily learn, or learn as much as the others.  It would seem that a prerequisite for collective learning to take place is the precondition that the collective exists for the purpose of learning. Or is it possible that collective learning or collective sense making can take place even though the collective had no reason to search for meaning or to learn?

I suspect that learning (whether as collective or as individual) can happen either as a result of direct intentions or indirectly, spontaneously or unintentionally. The other interesting aspect is that although you (and/or the group) had the intention to learn; it does not necessarily mean that learning will take place.

The other interesting aspect of collective learning is knowing how to assess whether collective learning has taken place. Does learning (whether as individuals or as collective) always result in changed behavior or is learning possible without a change in behavior? If the criterion for learning is the accumulation of knowledge then we have to assess how much knowledge was accumulated. If the criterion is changed behavior, then we may assume that if behavior has not changed, that learning has not taken place. Does this make sense?

It would furthermore seem as if the application of (new) knowledge can either result in the confirmation of existing practices or in practices being changed. In both cases, the evaluation of learning does not depend on whether there has been a change of behavior, but whether there was an application of knowledge. No application – no learning? Therefore even when there was no change of behavior, but rather an affirmation  existing practice – it is still learning?

A final question (for now…) is whether collective learning can result in ‘new’ or ‘original’ knowledge. I think that Littlejohn is correct in proposing that the challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century necessitate that we, collectively, look for answers and solutions. I don’t think that this excludes individual genius. It can happen that an individual discovers a cure for HIV/Aids or cancer. It is possible that an individual can broker peace in a war-torn region. But the possibility of solutions being found in teams or collectives, just make sense.

In returning to my question at the beginning… If learning and new knowledge creation is possible in collectives; what conditions will make it possible?

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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One Response to Making sense of collective/connective learning – the plot thickens (#change11)

  1. Pingback: Week 4 Mooc: more reflection and synthesis #change11 « Learning in the workplace

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