How to define Networked Learning for Professionals?

While writing on an article for the Alt-C conference, I stumbled across a problem that I keep having when I start writing, namely the problem of clearly defining and delimiting what it is that I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis at CELSTEC.
As member of the research programme on Learning Networks for Professionals, I am researching technologies to support learning networks and trying to apply some of the ideas and concepts – developed within the programme – within internal and external projects. For a recent publication coming out of our research programme, I ‘d like to refer to this recent book (Available at Springer – and Google Books).

Now why do I keep having this problem? It might be because (a) we’re dealing with an area that is rapidly developing, and hard to pin down, (b) an area that is on the crossroads between a number of traditional definitions, or (c) my own thoughts are not yet clear enough to explain clearly to my wife or kids what it is that keeps me at the computer for days on end.
Within the research programme I am not the only one facing this issue of defining and limiting our concepts, as witnessed by the discussions in this Cloudscape. In my search for clear definitions to start the paper with, I came across two interesting online thesauri concerning Learning for Professionals, which I would like to share.
  • The first one is the European Training Thesaurus, developed and maintained by CEDEFOP, the European centre for the development of vocational training. The number of items in this thesaurus is rather limited, and I was unable to find a good match for the work that we’re doing.
  • The second one I found rather more useful, the VOCED – Thesaurus. It is part of VOCED, a free research database for technical and vocational education and training, produced in Australia by the NCVER, and supported by UNESCO-UNEVOC.

Below, I want to just list some of the descriptors from the VOCED Thesaurus that are relevant for my work.

  • Learning: The process of acquiring knowledge attitudes or skills from study, instruction or experience.
  • Education: is mentioned as a related term, but not defined. Interestingly, one can find the following terms among the list of narrower terms. At CELSTEC, we prefer to use the terms Formal learning, Informal Learning, and Nonformal Learning, but VOCED uses the following terms.
    • Formal education: not further defined
    • Informal education: The unorganised process whereby everyone acquires knowledge skills or attitudes through experience and contact with others.
    • Nonformal education: Organised and systematic learning activity often directly associated with work provided outside the formal education system.

  • Lifelong learning: Process of acquiring knowledge or skills throughout life via education, training, work and general life experiences.
  • Continuing education: A comprehensive term referring to all forms and types of education pursued by those who have left formal education at any point and who entered employment and/or assumed adult responsibilities.
    • Continuing professional education: Education of adults in professional fields for occupational updating and improvement; usually consists of short-term intensive specialised learning experiences often categorised by general field of specialisation.
    • Continuing vocational education: not further defined, but is related to Vocational education: Vocational training given in primary or secondary schools or in higher educational institutions designed to develop occupational skills.
    • Continuing vocational training: Further vocational training undertaken by those who have already completed basic or initial training in order to supplement acquired knowledge or skills.

  • Workplace learning: Process of learning through experience at the workplace both formally and informally and through different forms of working arrangements – teams one-to-one. Also the creation of a learning environment in the workplace.
  • Work based learning: Learning that takes place within the work environment using tasks/jobs for instruction and practical purposes. It may be structured as a formal session (see On-the-job training: Training within the enterprise given at the work station and using jobs of commercial value for instruction and practice purposes.) or be an information learning situation. Instructional programs that deliberately use the workplace as a site for student learning. These are formal structured programs organised by instructional staff employers and sometimes other groups to link learning in the workplace to students’ formal learning experiences. They have formal instructional plans that directly relate to their career goals.
  • In-service education: Course or program designed to provide employee/staff growth in job related competencies or skills, often sponsored by employers, usually at the professional level.
  • Distance learning: Refers to learning in an environment made possible by the convergence of information and communication network technology where the learner may choose from a greater number of convenient learning opportunities irrespective of geographical location to meet their learning needs at any given time.
  • Distance education: A mode of education in which students enrolled in a course do not attend the institution but study off campus and may submit assignments by mail or email.

  • Learning community: A (geographical) community where individuals work in partnership with education, business and community to address the learning needs of the whole community, using learning as a means towards social cohesion and development, recognising the value of learning for all and supporting lifelong learning.

  • Online learning: Interactive process in which a computer and connection to the Internet are used to present instructional material enable communication between student and coordinator monitor learning and allow individual learner needs to be supported.
What we are trying to do in projects such as Biebkracht and the Library School, has aspects of all the terms listed above. Our goal is to design, develop and implement a collaborative professional learning network that is a blend of online and offline activities, artefacts (learning resources) and people, similar to the Rob Jacobs’ Professional Networked Learning Collaborative.

Connectivism as one learning mode amongst others

The online course on connectivism and connected knowledge (Edition 2009) started again this week. I participated last year, but mainly as a mega-lurker due to an overload of other projects. This year, I intend to participate more actively, hence this post.
Last year’s short introduction gave me a bit of a feel for connectivism as a learning theory, and it got me thinking. How do learning theories relate to each other? Are they mutually exclusive or rather complementary? Last year, I developed a first thought about this, that goes along these lines (and extends the summary that George Siemens wrote for the course).

  • Learning theories can be argued to be related to different stages in human life, and different learning theories are better suited for explaining learning at different stages / ages of learners. I prefer therefore to call them learning modes, rather than learning models or theories.
    • Behaviorism can be applied to the way very young children learn, when neural connections in the brain are just being formed. Learning takes place in situations like: “When I cry long enough, Mommy feeds me”, “When I smile at this nice man, he cuddles me”. Stimulus-response based learning can be argued to apply mainly to more basic levels of skills and knowledge that can be subdivided into small chunks in a logical and structured way. As such, the behaviourist approach can be argued to lay the groundworks of knowledge and skills in humans.
    • Cognitivism assumes that knowledge schemas already exist in a human mind, and then focuses on how new information and knowledge is added to the existing (neural) network of knowledge. Focus is on the individual learner, and his or her knowledge creation, storage and retrieval. It can be argued that this learning mode starts at primary school level, when children learn to connect ‘loose items’ of information into more complex schemas, and begin to see how things are connected. Cognitivism’s focus on the individual coincides with the child’s attention being focussed on itself and its immediate surroundings, its core family.
    • When children start to become aware of context and social surroundings – often sometime around puberty- it can be argued that constructivism ‘kicks in’. The unshakeable thruths that they learned in primary school tend to be no longer unshakeable. Their general knowledge is being remixed and rewritten into a personal and social version of that knowledge. Information is now co-constructed, and no longer taken at face value. The social surroundings play a major role in this phase of life.
    • However, when students leave school / college / university, their existing social network gets distributed, and they need to enter a professional world, where they – more often than not – become (semi-) isolated experts in their field, who are required to put their acquired knowledge to good use, and monetise that knowledge. When they want to keep acquiring and growing their knowledge, they can enter their connectivist mode, and hook up with their extended online social network.
  • The previous is not to say that one learning mode pertains to only one stage in life, but it indicates the dominant learning mode at that stage. There is also a sort of chrono-logical order in the learning modes. Each new learning mode somehow presupposes and builds on the previous mode.
  • I think it’s worth to further explore these learning modes and see if they apply to different types of information, skills, knowledge, or competencies. It might well be the case that learning simple and medium-complex skills is best tackled in behaviourist mode, whereas complex mathematical models are best learned in cognitivist mode.

Well, those are my thoughts for now. Hope that we can further this line of thinking during the CCK09 course.

Community platform @ OU-UK

Tony Hirst wrote a blog post about the British Open University’s new initiative to foster a sense of community amongst its stakeholders, an initiative called Platform.
Platform screendump

Platform is a Drupal-based community site that brings together News, Blogs, Forums, Study-related Issues and some more informal stuff like games, competitions, etc. After the info, some comments – off the top of my head:

  • Platform is open for anyone to join – you needn’t be a student, staff member or alumnus to register. This is positive, because it allows others to get a bit of a feel for what’s going on On-campus.
  • The standard open blogging function in Drupal has been switched off for registered users, thus limiting the interaction possibilities. Users can, however, submit content to the site or participate in forum discussions, but both types of user-content are moderated by site supervisors. This has the effect that the site feels very much like a student bar, where the institution sets the rules and hands out the drinks, and users are only allowed to choose at which table they want to sit..
  • The added value of registering on the site is that you can rate, tag and comment on stuff that appears on the site. These user actions are not pre-moderated (they appear immediately after posting them), but they are probably scanned by the site supervisors anyway. This adds a nice touch, but – to stay within the metaphor.
  • Currently, the link with the institution’s virtual learning environment is non-existing, nor is there a clear link to the institutional website. As such, the community site feels a bit like an ‘in-between’ place to be. And not really integrated to form a ‘single user-experience’.

In short, Platform is a promising initiative that is quite relevant in the light of my own work. For instance:

  • In allowing rating, annotation and tagging – RAT, for short – Platform has achieved one of the goals of the OUNL’s goals in setting up new user-centered services.We also want to offer rating, annotation and tagging of items. We are not entirely certain of which items we want to open up to user feedback. The OU-UK has chosen to allow feedback on ‘safe’ items on the platform, and not items on their institutional homepage or in the virtual learning environment.
  • Our ideas of integrating the community aspects of the OUNL in an integrated personal workplace would bring together the formal and informal communication related to the student/stakeholder in one single place. We intend to minimise the barrier between the learning environment and the community environment, which will hopefully enhance the user experience of the OUNL as an integrated campus.
  • Finally, our idea of the personal workplace for all stakeholders starts from the main assumption that the user is in charge, and not the institution. We will be offering different information and interaction services in an integrated environment, but the user will be in control.

It would be interesting to be kept up-to-date on the usage of Platform, the success criteria that the OU has set itself and the future plans. Anybody?