Saturday, October 25, 2014

Teaching and Learning: the Internet as Community Technology

As I’ve indicated in two previous posts, Authority, Trust, and Responsibility in Online Education and Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars, I’ve got some misgivings about what we’re being offered in Connected Courses. After a fair amount of discussion in the “meta” discussion I’ve managed to resolve these issues. This post is about that resolution.

As I indicated in the Learning/Teaching Styles post, to exaggerate a bit, the course is presenting itself in universalist terms – as an alternative to MOOC mania – but seems to take its key examples from a restricted “region” of the pedagogical “space.” The question then arises: Will these principles generalize beyond that region? My problem is not so much that we don’t know, but that I hadn’t so far seen or heard an explicit statement of this issue. Once the issue has been explicitly stated, we can set about explicitly facing it in whatever ways are available.

The key insight, I believe, is that the educational dynamic has to change so that much of the learning takes place in interaction directly among the students. That, I believe, is what Howard Rheingold means by a “learning community” in which the participants are therefore “co-learners.” That, in turn, requires that the instructor take a different role, one that includes facilitating student-to-student interaction in addition to setting out the basic guidelines and materials for the course.

Stated in those terms, my misgivings dissolve. Why? Because I now have an explicit recipe to follow: Figure out how the students can help one another most directly and do whatever I can to help them. This seems simple and obvious, and no doubt would have come out later in the course – in the last two sections – but I needed an explicit preview to reassure me that things would work out.

With this in place I’m in a position to think more effectively, not only about how technology facilitates this, but about using the technology both allows and forces us to think more explicitly about what we’re doing. To digress just a second, we know that writing isn’t merely speech frozen in time by marks on a surface. The emergence of writing forced people to think about language and communication in a way they hadn’t done before and so, among others, incubated the birth of philosophy. And, as the act of writing forces you to conceptualize your interlocutor without that interlocutor being present to guide your speech, so teaching through an online community both allows and forces us to conceptualize the nature of community and makes communal dynamics visible in a way never before practical – the online record.

Online technology relieves all actors – students and teacher – from the necessity of physical co-presence in order to enact the community. The community can now live in asynchronous communication. The students are always available to one another on some basis, and the teacher can always monitor and intervene if and where necessary or helpful.

The Internet is community technology, technology for creating and nurturing communities. But to use it we have to think about communities and their growth in terms we’ve not had before. That, for example, is why there’s been so much discussion of trust. Trust is essential to communities, but it becomes a real issue in a community where people may never meet face-to-face. To some extent we’ve got to become sociologists and anthropologists of our own activities.
That’s tricky stuff.

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This is, alas, rather dense and abstract. It’ll unfold over time.

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