The Role of Community in Learning

Defining community in a learning context

I’m a whole week behind everyone else on eLearning 3.0 and frantically playing catch up. So, that means this is probably going to be a short(ish) post.

Much of the material for “community” week has focused on consensus and the place of technology in the process for arriving at consensus. The conversation with Pete Forsyth , and Stephen’s video on the role of Blockchain in distributed decision making was an interesting exploration of this. Pete’s accompanying blog post was also an interesting exploration of how Wikipedia avoided the many issues around breach of trust and misuse of technology which have plagued social media of late.

But, rather than delve further into those areas, I want to take a look at what we mean by “community” in a learning context: What is the role of community in the learning process? Is consensus the optimum environment for learning and developing? Is technology the central issue in this area?

Is community really about technology?

Let’s start with the last question first. Whilst it’s hard to argue that the technology used to provide online spaces for communities of various kinds isn’t important. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the potential of blockchain etc in providing viable and desirable alternatives to the Web 2.0 platforms which are in the news so much these days. That focus, in my opinion, risks taking us down a parallel path to the data debate – removing consideration of people and their behaviour from the process. Let’s be clear – technology is just a tool. It’s how people use the tool which ultimately helps us decide whether the tool is beneficial to us or not.

So, I’m going to take the view that community in a learning context isn’t really about technology. It’s about people and conversations. Harking back to a comment I made in a previous post, content is everywhere. People aren’t always good at identifying the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’, but it’s out there. What isn’t always readily available is a space to help individuals make sense of all of that content. For me, this is where community comes in. Facilitated discussion of learning with peers can be the key to helping individuals make sense of the material they are exposed to. These conversations allow us to explore the ideas we’re trying to integrate and the various viewpoints and experiences others bring can help us arrive at a deeper and more reasoned approach to building our new learning into our existing schema.

Which brings me back to consensus. I’m not sure that consensus is always the optimum environment for a community in a learning context. If we only participate in communities with others whose views mirror our own, are we not in danger of creating echo chambers? For me, strong, vibrant and interesting learning communities are those where there is diversity of viewpoint; where we are encouraged, as learners, to challenge received wisdom, not simply absorb it. In this scenario, it’s the moderators/facilitators who play the key role in creating an environment to foster debate in a safe, constructive manner. The technology is only a tool to support the process.

Making sense of learning

Sometimes we need props to help us with all of this – we need scaffolding on which we can hang our developing or changing understanding of the topic(s) we’re studying. This blog, for example, is my personal prop to encourage and enable me to reflect on the content of eLearning 3.0.

Some years ago, I worked in higher education as a lecturer and tutor on an undergraduate social work programme and part of our curriculum was set aside to help students learn how to differentiate between fact, opinion and judgement and how each would impact their future roles in social work – after all, if you are in a a position where you are making life-changing decisions about citizens, you’d better be clear for the basis of those decisions.

In the years that have followed, it has occurred to me on many occasions, that the teaching we did on this, shouldn’t be viewed solely as developing a professional ‘tool’, but rather as developing core, essential life skills (especially in light of recent issues surrounding social media).

As someone who spends all of their working life attending to the development of social service workers of all types, it also is impossible to ignore the role that reflective learning plays my work.

In human services education, this reflective style of learning is seen as one of the core learning methodologies not just for initial education, but for continuing professional development. Yes, it could be a solo effort (much like I am doing here) but, in my opinion, is best done in dialogue with others and/or in groups (ie in a community of practice). It is the analysis of the whole learning process (content, application, outcomes etc) which is seen as the optimum state offered by the reflective learning process and community can provide the wider context in which to place the individuals’ learning experience. After all, we all need to know, “Is it just me?” or, “Is my experience shared by others?”.

So, to wind this up – I’d make a plea that we don’t lose sight of the importance of conversations and dialogue in our definitions of community. I believe that it is diversity, healthy debate and discourse which pushes learning forward, not technology. It’s only a tool and though it’s clear that many of the current tools aren’t really working, I’d argue that’s down to the human element – those providing the tools and those using them. Will blockchain and other Web 3.0 tools provide the answer? Only time will tell.

Recognition, Assessment & Realising the potential of open badges

I’m so happy that eL3.0 has finally moved in to an area where I feel like I know what I’m doing. This week on eLearning 3.0 we moved on to assessment and recognition of learning. The conversation between Stephen and Viplav Baxi (Director – Product and Digital Transformation at Oxford University Press in New Delhi, India) highlighted some issues I’d like to address in this post:

  1. Using simulations for assessment of skill/competency based learning
  2. Using Open Badges for recognition of learning.
  3. Can interactive eBooks be badged and is it possible to link them to your LMS?

Using simulations for assessment of skill/competency based learning

Assessing knowledge acquisition online, if not ‘easy’, is at least something more L&D professionals are familiar with, although there is an over reliance on using quizzes to assess learning (rather than reinforce learning) which is, in my view an entirely flawed approach. As Stephen and Viplav discussed, assessing skills based/competence based learning online is an entirely different thing and needs a different approach. The suggestion of using simulations and serious games to deliver and assess skills/competence development is clearly a more appropriate route to explore, and there is a wealth of research available in this area. However, I found myself disagreeing with Stephen’s view that you need to use expensive technology and high level skills  to really exploit these approaches. This feels like it assumes that, in order to be successful, the game/simulation needs to ape the sophisticated 3D worlds which are common in the leisure industry. Whilst I’m sure this helps but, in my experience of designing four online simulations using only HTML, video and audio material, it isn’t really necessary. In the simulations we created, it was the authenticity of the situations and learner tasks (ie how close they felt to the reality of the job) which created the immersion. As Jan Herrington points out,

“the use of authentic tasks encourages and supports immersion in self-directed and independent learning” (Herrington J, Authentic E-Learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks (2006)

This is equally true of applying game mechanics to learning situations – we shouldn’t feel we have to create a ‘game’ with leaderboards and prizes etc., but rather we should look at the approaches game designers use and apply them to our learning designs. I’d suggest we could learn a thing or two from game designers around,

  1. Emotional investment
  2. Incentivising learning
  3. Using failure as a learning tool
  4. Immediacy of application
  5. Feedback

I won’t go in to each of these here – that’s a whole other post …

Looping back to making the learning experience related to real-world situations, I believe L&D professionals should make much greater use of authentic learning approaches. In the world of work related learning (and in formal education settings), there is ample evidence available that authentic learning approaches drive up engagement and, if you couple that which what you can learn from the game designers, You can create some very powerful learning experiences … and, increase learning transfer:

Authentic learning exercises expose the messiness of real-life decision making, where there may not be a right or a wrong answer per se, … Such a nuanced understanding involves considerable reflective judgment, a valuable lifelong skill that goes well beyond the memorization of content. (Lombardi, Marilyn M., 2007, Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview, Educause Learning Initiative, available from February 2010

Open Badges and recognition of learning

Before going any further, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. In my day job, we have been working with Open Badges for four years and have invested heavily in developing a badge issuing platform and implementing a strategy for designing, creating and assessing badges for a workforce and potential user base of approximately 200,000 staff. This video was created to describe Open Badges to people new to the concept:

In our experience, done right, Open Badges can be highly effective in capturing learning and linking new learning to changes in work practices. The key to this is the the criteria you set and the expectations and guidance you give regarding the evidence you will require of the learner before awarding the badge.

In our work we are keen to maximise learning transfer. Simply ‘knowing’ stuff (in case you need it) isn’t enough – we want learners’ practice skills to improve/change/develop, so we draw on the research focused on situated learning: i.e.

situated learning and situated cognition … describes learning that takes place within a culture of practice where the knowledge is deployed in the same context as the learning (Smith Peter J, 2003 Workplace Learning and Flexible Delivery, Review of Educational Research Spring 2003, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 53–88)

Situated learning requires authentic contexts, activities, and assessment (Dede Chris Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles: Implications for Investments in Technology and Faculty, Eduause)

This has led us to build learner activities into our resources which require the learners to apply what they’ve learned in their working environment as soo as possible and to write a reflective account of this action in order to claim the badge. Given the very wide range of prior educational experience and capabilities, this means we often write badge criteria which ‘scaffold’ the reflective writing process – with a significant degree of success!

In our experience, our approach to Open Badges has had significant benefits for learners, e.g. Open Badges recognise and reward learning that is otherwise hidden and our system of learner owned badge accounts puts the learners in control of their own learning and helps build a sense of personal ownership of their own CPD.

For Learning & Development staff Open Badges,

  • can motivate people to learn and encourage a culture of learning.
  • will give you a wealth of qualitative evidence of learning.
  • learner evidence will give clear, demonstrable and replicable evidence of impact of learning on practice.
  • deployment, done right, will develop staff abilities in reflective learning.
  • will start staff on the road to becoming self-managing, self-motivating learners.

Of course there are other key factors in making your badge system a success. For example – making the system easy to use (think about the end user first, not last!) and using short video walk throughs to support learners and so on.

Learning occurs as a result of motivation, opportunities, an active process, interaction with others, and the ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation … The ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation enhances the application of knowledge and leads to enduring understanding. (Oblinger, D. & Hawkins B.L., 2006 The Myth about No Significant Difference EDUCAUSE)

eBooks, badges and your LMS

The final issue from the conversation between Stephen and Viplav Baxi I wanted to reference was, the discussion about whether or not interactive eBooks can be linked in to (a) Open Badges and, (b) your LMS. From the discussion, there seemed to be a view that the answer to each was up for debate.

However, from our experience, the answer is pretty straightforward. Interactive eBooks can (and in our work, do) link to/accommodate Open Badges – see the example eBook referred to below. It’s simply a matter of planning your learner activities appropriately, as described above, and linking out to the location of the badge criteria and application mechanism on your badge platform. As you know from previous posts, I’m not a fan of getting under the hood and tinkering around and in this case you don’t have to – if designed well L&D staff with limited technical skill (like me) can designing deploy highly effective badges and link to these from their eBook(s).

As for the second issue (linking eBooks to the LMS) again, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Using xAPI and the Sidgil eBook editor it’s a fairly straightforward task to add statements which will connect learner activity in your eBook to an LMS, providing it is based on Learning Record Store (LRS) technology. There are a growing number of learning record store based LMSs becoming available and HT2 labs have developed an excellent LRS including an open source version – “Learning Locker‘. I’d encourage you to take a look.

This week’s task – build a badge

The task for this week was to create an Open Badge. As I’ve said above, as part of my job, I have managed the building and development of a badge issuing platform and the development of learning resources, all of which are badged. So, rather than one badge, I’d invite you to have a look at our badge platform –

And, as one final example of how all of this can come together, I’d encourage you to have a look at one of our interactive eBooks – “Making the most of mobile learning“: each chapter covers a different aspect of using mobile technology for learning and links to an Open Badge which can be claimed from our platform once you have submitted the evidence required.

This is not technically difficult to do, you just need to make the right design decisions and, in our case, create activities for learners which encourage them to apply what they have learned to real-world tasks.