Networked Teaching

Abstract for my “Internet Research 11.0” paper, to be presented this coming October…

Networked Teaching: Institutional Changes to Support Personal Learning Networks

Much of the educational literature of late has made a marked shift to the perspective of the individual learner at the center of a network of learning resources in the form of other people, environments, and information artifacts. These provide affordances for learning, shaping a highly individualized environment that corresponds, in many cases, only imperfectly to the structures of educational institutions that the individual may engage. With the attention on the learner, and on informal learning, the words “education” and “teacher” seem somehow archaic. Yet schools, including institutions of higher education, have always supported learning networks to some degree. We are rapidly encountering a crisis in higher education: structures that were established (and ossified) over the last two centuries to formalize and standardize knowledge seem ill-suited to the needs of today’s citizens.

Faculty in universities who attempt to support what have come to be called “personal learning networks” often find their institutions to be challenges rather than partners in attempts to better serve the broader learning environment. Part of the reason for this is that, despite digital media and learning research that has examined networked learning in situ, particularly over the last several years, there is not yet a consensus regarding the appropriate role of the teacher in a learning network. Particularly in schools during the years of compulsory education, and especially in the United States over the last few years, there has been a renewed effort to assess students along the “fundamental” skills of reading, writing, and mathematics, leaving more comprehensive understanding and areas like art and music unassessed and generally ignored. Higher education has provided more opportunities for experimentation, but has also been influenced by new efforts at standardization of process and assessment. Without strong evidence of the mechanisms of informal learning and their benefits, working against such policies is difficult.

On the other hand, many of these policies exist largely as a result of inertia and tradition. Conservative views as to what a good education consists of are rarely evidence-based, but are privileged by policy-makers because they represent familiar “common knowledge.” This paper presents the current state of understanding regarding personal learning networks, and suggests ways in which university policy makes it difficult for university faculty to actively engage in such networks. The suggestion is not that universities should necessarily retool their curricula to engage networked learning environments, but rather that small changes in policy, and particularly changes in the ways in which teaching is assessed for junior scholars and for departments, will provide greater room for experimentation with new forms of learning. The evolution of open source within the traditional software industry provides some indication of ways in which openness can be allowed without radical shifts in values or practices. Efforts at opening up the education process, beginning with open educational resources and open access to research, have already gained a foothold in many institutions. By building on these successes and creating incentives for teacher-scholars to engage in broader learning networks, it is possible to provide for new spaces for teaching experimentation.

The paper concludes by suggesting some concrete measures that can be taken by faculty and by students to encourage policy frameworks that provide for networked research and teaching. Equally important is bringing together these experiments with the means to assess their effectiveness and communicate this with broader publics. The best teachers have always engaged in experiments within their own teaching, often without the consent or notice of the institutions in which they teach. There is a danger–as we have seen with the charter school movement in K-12 institutions in the US–that working models will not find their way back into the mainstream of educational practices, and that failed models will not be shared widely enough to avoid reinventing a broken wheel. By creating spaces for engaging personal learning networks within universities, and by creating the infrastructure for sharing this active experimentation in teaching and learning, we can ensure the relevance of the institutions of higher education to the new learning society.

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One Comment

  1. mathieso2000
    Posted 5/8/2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Nice work!

    One point, though. You write:

    rather that small changes in policy, and particularly changes in the ways in which teaching is assessed for junior scholars and for departments

    At my university, that would be a BIG change. A good one, IMHO. But it would be a significant culture shift. Some faculty suspect, “Teaching is for people who aren’t good enough to do research.”

    It might be better – again, just at my school – to focus on grizzled faculty like myself, to let us do the experiments. We have tenure, and are less likely to care what others think. We’re going to die soon, anyway. :-)

    But I do like your ideas.


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