Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Questions about Co-Learning

What do you get when you mix connected courses, thinking about academia, and cold medicine?  The answer is a blog post (which I hope makes sense) :-)

As I was jotting down my initial thoughts on co-learning in the previous post I completely forgot to address some of the initial thinking questions for this module.  Here are some initial thoughts on co-learning and how I would address these questions:

What is co-learning and why employ it?
For me co-learning is when two or more people are working together to solve a problem and learn something new.  As I wrote in my previous post, the individuals in this community do not all need to start from the same point. There can, and will, be learners that are more advanced in certain areas as compared to others.  This is perfectly fine, and it's realistic to expect this.  This can be a community of practice, it can be a broad network of learning, or a loosely connected network of learning that centers around a hashtag.  The reason to co-learn is, for me, three-fold.  First you have a variety of learners in the classroom their lived experiences, and previous knowledge, can be beneficial in this learning experience. Second, by having learners co-learn (and in my mind co-teach) they are learning not just the material but they are deconstructing it so that they can explain it to others. This act of deconstruction allows a closer analysis of the subject matter and, hopefully, a more critical view of it.  Finally, this is something that came to mind when engaging in #dalmooc this week - when looking at Social Network graphs of courses, in some cases we see the instructor as a central node, which is a quite privileged position. However this isn't good for learning, so having a course where there is a high degree of connections among many nodes, and the instructor becomes just another node in the network, this spells out good things for learning (or so research says - don't ask me to cite anything, I wasn't taking detailed notes when I was viewing Dragan's presentations)

How can teachers empower students as co-learners?
This, for me, has been the most difficult thing. I teach a course that is an upper level graduate course, which means that students come to my course late in their studies and thus their habits are formed.  Most expect weekly asynchronous discussions with the familiar 1-post, 2-reply scheme.  Many students seem to go beyond this (anecdotal evidence from teaching this course over the last 3 years), however some do not, and there are many reasons for that.  Having co-learning occur means that learners need to be more present, and to some extent their schedule isn't fully their own.  They need to see what their peers are doing so that they can bounce off those messages, riff off them, respond to them, and, when necessary, pertrube them (in educational ways).  I think teachers can empower students to be co-learners by slowly stepping back and scaffolding students to take on that role.  How quickly or slowly you step back depends on the group of learners that are in the classroom.  I don't think that there is a magic formula here, however we are all beholden to the academic calendar, so I would say that it happens somewhere between week 1 and 6 (for a 13-week semester). Even as instructors step-back, it's important to maintain a noticeable teaching presence, and a social presence.  Nothing annoys learners more (I find) than having an instructor that's not there.

How does this pedagogy differ from traditional methods of teaching and learning?  How does the instructor support a co-learning environment? What obstacles might educators encounter in this paradigm shift?  What obstacles might students encounter in this paradigm shift?
I guess here it depends on how one defined "traditional". If traditional means lecture then this approach of co-learning is like night and day compared to lectures.  However, if we encompass Vygotsky's social constructivism, or concepts like Wegner's Communities of Practice as "traditional" then I don't think that co-learning varies a ton from these.  I think that co-learning is a natural extension to constructivism, connectivism, and communities of practice.

I think the key thing, as I wrote above, for support is that sense of social and teacher presence going back to the community of inquiry model. The idea here is that an instructor is just a node  in this learning network.  Sure,the instructor by virtue of being older and having had more learning experiences (and time to read and digest more) is a more knowledgeable other in this aspect. However, his knowledge and voice isn't what drowns out the voices of the learners.  The instructor is there to help people navigate the network, wayfind, provide appropriate scaffolds, advise, and when necessary promote certain content. I don't think we can get away from content and certain "core" knowledge, so the instructor as an MKO in this area has a responsibility of sharing what they know with others, without being overbearing. 

The trick here is having that sense of when to share something and when to let learners struggle a bit. Again research points to the fact that when learners struggle a bit they tend to learn better. I think this is also an area where the instructor might potentially face some obstacles by the learners themselves or their own superiors.  If the learners want content (or *gasp* lectures), then there might be a push from the learners to ask the instructor for nicely packaged answers to their questions. I have seen this in exit evaluations at my own department.  Since we are a department of applied linguistics we don't deal with classroom management (our students are, for the most part, teaching professionals or they go into teaching). We provide the applied linguistics theory, and a space to think about it, criticize it, deconstruct it, and utilize it. However our faculty don't provide cookie-cutter solutions to language learning problems because the answer (as usual) is "it depends".  However learners, in their previous learning experiences, are used to getting nicely packaged data bits, such as "World War I started on ____" or "The first president of the United States was _____" and so on.

This obstacle is something that also affects learners because they need to discover ways in which to not only take the knowledge that they gain in their courses now, but to be able to continuously go out, read the updated literature in the field, deconstruct it, analyze it, and put it back together in meaningful ways to solve their own problems.  The classroom environment provides a nice laboratory where co-learning can be practiced, however once students graduate they need to discover networks in which they can continue to actively co-learn.  This is a literacy that we, as educators, need to help our learners cultivate.

I think that's it for co-learning for now.  Thoughts?

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