Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stephen Downes on Learning Communities

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years. For anyone new to this area, this would be a good analysis and foundation about the important issues to be considered.

I am in general agreement with much of what Downes has to say and his article provides ideas and insights into issues that I don't understand, but there are some issues where I disagree. One of those issues is in his comments about learning communities. He writes,
"Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a ‘learning community’ – save, perhaps, the strained and artificial creations of educational institutions that try to cram classes into collectives, creating personal relationships where none naturally exist. Rather, people learn in communities, and what would make any given community a ‘learning’ community or otherwise is whether people in the community learn more or less well."
There are a couple of problems with this statement. First, Downes seems to be only thinking about online learning communities. Obviously, learning communities (see Wenger) have existed a long time before there were computers and the internet. In contrast to what he says, there are "strictly speaking" learning communities and in some cases these have been created explicitly for learning and they are not "strained and artificial creations of educational institutions." In this statement, Downes seems to have some particularly bad models of online learning communities in mind.

From these particular bad examples he comes to the conclusion that learning communities cannot be intentionally created stating,
"It is probably a truism today (though there still remain exceptions to be observed online) that communities are grown rather than constructed, and that (therefore) they are owned (and managed) by their members rather than by some external agency."
This is an unfortunate conclusion and wrong-headed. Again the problem here is that Downes has in mind particular types of learning communities, but he doesn't tell us exactly what these are.

Learning communities come in all types and have lots of different purposes. And they can be created or grown organically. It is not useful to think about learning communities in a very narrow way. We need to be thinking about these ideas broadly and begin to understand how to create effective learning communities for different purposes. In my mind it is perfectly reasonable for an instructor in a specific educational course to intentionally foster students getting to know each other and to communicate their ideas, get feedback, etc. in the confines of a a classroom on online forum. This experience may be time-limited and the depth of the interactions and exchanges may be limited, but this does not mean that the instructor has not created a learning community. (Elsewhere, I have described a range of roles in learning communities that provide a structure to creating communities.)

My concern about these comments is that educators will not create these limited, but valuable learning communities or will sit by waiting for communities to emerge without taking an active role in trying to create them. I don't think Downes intends this, but his focus seems wrong.

In some later paragraphs, he notes that "they [learners] will no longer need organizers to create communities." Here is focus seems to be on the fact that there are simple internet-based social networking software that is openly available. The challenge of creating and maintaining effective learning is communities is not a software problem, it is a social problem. Downes is overlooking the fact that successful learning communities are those in which members of the community engage in the social processes of engaging people in useful and interesting ways. See Butler and his colleagues discussion about who does the work in online groups and why some communities succeed and others fail. "Tools and technical infrastructure make online group communication possible and support the group’s interactions with the outside world. Social behavior sustains these groups over time" (Butler, et al., 2002, p. 4). (Also, see my summary of Butler.) Downes is naive to think that all learners at all times will create their own learning communities from scratch and that there will not have to be organizers and facilitators of learning communities. There is not one type of learning communities. There are multiple types that serve different purposes at different times.

1 comment:

mack said...

This is fascinating.
I’d been taught that left-aligned labels are preferred, to support the prototypical F-shaped eye-tracking heatmap of web browsing. The idea is that it supports easy vertical scanning.
online learning