During the winter semester of this year, I took a course on distance education and discovered Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning On-Line by by Linda Harasim, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Lucio Teles, and Murray Turoff. I finally finished reading the book earlier this month.
I was excited by the title, “Learning Networks”. The authors’ state based their work in the book on foundational values such as (p.241):
- “The goal of making it possible for anyone, anywhere, at any time, at any age to engage in the learning process.”
- “The value to the learning process of active and collaborative learning.”
- “The ability of computer mediated communication systems to support the full range of human and social relationships.”
- “The belief that improvement of society is tied to a concept of lifelong learning.”
These beliefs are consistent with the concept of personal learning networks, but the book the didn’t provide much insight on informal learning. Instead, it’s advice was more relevant for the use of learning management systems and the design of distance education courses.
Harasim et. al. identified three models of networked learning in higher education, training and informal learning. Adjunct mode was the most common use of learning networks in 1994, the date of the book’s publication, and based on my experience studying the use of course management systems, it probably still is. In adjunct mode, learning networks are typically optional and are used to extend classroom debate, increase access to the instructor, and submit assignments electronically. In mixed mode, learning networks are fully integrated into the curriculum and are a regular part of course activities and the course grade. In online mode, computer mediated communication provides the primary environment for course dicscussion and interaction. The online course that I am teaching this semester provides an example of using learning networks in online mode.
According to Harasim et. al., there are seven models of learning approaches that one can take in the design of learning networks:
- Electure (Each of my lessons includes a 3-6 minute video, presentation, and/or podcast orienting students to the week’s topic and activities)
- Ask-an-expert (I’m not explicitly using in my course, though I am going to encourage my students to contact practicing educators by commenting on blogs.)
- Mentorship (I have not assigned my students to mentors or asked them to find mentors on their own.)
- Tutor support (I’m providing my students with online office hours through instant messaging)
- Access to relevant information (I’ve provided links to help guides and to reference materials for each topic. I’m also trying to suggest search terms for individual students to pursue on their own.)
- Informal peer interaction (I have provided student discussion groups through a Ning network to encourage informal peer interaction.)
- Structured group activity (I am requiring my students to participate in several structured group activites before they start working on thier individual projects.)
The authors take time to elaborate on several types of structured group activities including
- small group discussions (I’m using this one)
- learning partnerships or dyads
- student work groups and learning circles (I’m using this one)
- team presentations and teaching by the learners (kind of using this one–might try to use it more in future semesters)
- simulation or role play
- debating teams
I found the advice in this book to be very useful for planning distance education lessons. I also think that the book provides sound advice for instructors looking for ways to improve their use of course management systems.
On page 273, the authors predict that “Network learners of the future will have access to formal and informal education of their choice, wherever they are located, wherever they are able to participate – early morning, during the day, or late at night.” It’s been 14 years since they wrote that statement and I think their prediction has proven correct. However, the quality and quantity of these opportunities is still somewhat limited. The authors’ lament on page 238 that “These activities . . . have not yet been incoporated into a strategic plan to restructure schooling. They occur as a result of the initiative of some teachers, librarians, and staff,” is still true. I’d really like to be part of a strategic plan to restructure schooling. Where would we start?