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.

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