False frontiers

Collaboration is where two or more people work together to achieve a common objective. In education, the common objective is usually to learn specific content, skills or competencies within defined areas. Ostensibly, learning is an individual goal, and each student does tend to learn in their own way, using their own favoured approaches and tools. We refer to this as personalised learning (a video explains). However, as we become increasingly connected to each other through technology, and our social ties strengthen, so there is greater scope for students to learn together, sharing their resources and ideas, and approaching their study collaboratively. Collaborative learning does not undermine or contradict personalised learning. It simply amplifies it.

When it comes to learning with others, space is usually required. There is plenty to say about collaborative spaces. I can think of at least three kinds. There are the formal, classroom based collaborative spaces and there are the informal, non classroom spaces where we learn most of what we know in interaction with others. Then there are the virtual, online spaces where many of us are increasingly spending our time collaborating, conversing and sharing with our personal learning networks. I guess I could represent these three kinds of space in a simple Venn diagram below, which would then indicate that there is a lot of crossover, fuzziness, and boundary incursion between the three. You could see where we might place formal learning using a VLE, or where students might meet to chat using Facebook, for example. But it's far from perfect. Ultimately such a diagram serves one purpose - it reveals that where there were once very real boundaries, now they are many false frontiers.

The boundaries are blurring between formal and informal learning. Increasingly, traditional educational spaces are being revised, replacing rigid rows of seats with 'group friendly' clusters or simply enabling all room furniture to be moved and reconfigured in whatever way users see fit. The aim is that reconfigured collaborative spaces allow free flow of all room occupants so that any amount of engagement between individuals is possible during formal learning. Learning can then occur in any part of the space, not just in the area where students are sat. You can read more on collaborative learning space design approaches in this article.

With the increasing popularity of such movements as the Flipped Classroom, and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), other more radical formal learning space configurations are taking place. Students are increasingly learning through formal activities outside the classroom, usually on the move, using their mobile and handheld devices. They are preparing for in-class sessions by watching videos, discussing ideas online, creating their own content such as blogs and podcasts, and learning much of the stuff outside their classrooms that they would traditionally have learnt inside the classroom. This, according the Flipped Classroom theory, frees up a lot more time for discussion, specialist tutor input and collaborative work around the subject being studied. The Flipped approach ensures that the classroom is no longer the only space where formal learning can take place. There are other spaces to use.

MOOCs take learning even farther away from the classroom. Where the Flipped Classroom still maintains some role for the traditional classroom, MOOCs replace them completely. The general premise of the original MOOC programmes was to assume that all participants mediate their learning through technology, and learn in an open, collaborative and personalised manner. In the loosest sense, the MOOC promoted the community more than the curriculum, and privileged context over content. This kind of space has no boundaries, and every frontier then opens up. Learning is learning. It doesn't matter whether it takes place in a pub or a university lecture hall. What matters now is that each learner finds their own space, is comfortable within it, and uses it to its optimum.

Image source

Creative Commons License
False frontiers by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Shalini Talluri said…
Thanks for the information on Collaborative learning.
Cristian Opazo said…
Having taken a couple of MOOCs as a student (or rather a lifelong learner) I'm intrigued by your assertion that "in the loosest sense, the MOOC promoted the community more than the curriculum, and privileged context over content." In my experience, and contrary to my expectations, the learning experience focused heavily on content over context and community. Can you elaborate on this?

Steve Wheeler said…
Hi Cristian, and thanks for your important question. I believe that you have probably participated in one of the institutional or commercial MOOCs that have recently emerged. These are commonly referred to as xMOOCs and can be differentiated from the earlier, non-commercial and non-institutional versions known as cMOOCs (e.g. Coursera, Udacity). cMOOCs such as those organised by the likes of George Siemens and Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, David Wiley, or Jim Groom, are the kind of MOOCs I refer to above. They tend to be looser in their construction, and depend on the students to organise themselves, participate in developing the curriculum which is often agreed by the community, or simply follow their own personalised pathways to learning. Sometimes, students also assess their own work and that of their peers. Hence my statement that community is privileged over curriculum. This is explained in greater depth in a previous blogpost here: http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/whos-afraid-of-big-bad-mooc.html
Cristian Opazo said…
Makes sense. It seems that the overwhelming pervasiveness of xMOOCs in today's educational landscape led me to believe you were using the general term as a synonym for xMOOCs instead of cMOOCs in your post. Do you think that xMOOC's current supremacy (as measured by indicators of supply and demand, at the very least) will reduce the genuine impact of their connectivist counterparts to a mere footnote?
Steve Wheeler said…
I think both c and x versions have something to offer, and see each as fulfilling different roles and purposes, so I reject any suggestion that xMOOCs hold any kind of supremacy. (It all depends on what you mean by supremacy of course). What I expect to happen will be new hMOOCs emerging - hybrid xcMOOCs that will feature the best of both worlds, to cater for new markets as they also emerge.
Steve Ediger said…
Steve, I would put Coursera and Udacity in the xMOOC category. At least the Coursera courses are more traditional in nature, with a standardized lecture/homework/test pedagogy. The Siemens/Downes/Cormier/etc. courses are more connectivist in nature and less bound to a specific syllabus.

On spaces, we should include Sugata Mitra's SOLE (Self-organized learning environment) units.
Roy Williams said…
Steve, thanks for your insights on changes in the relationships between different learning spaces, and on shifts in focus, as in: "the MOOC promoted the community more than the curriculum, and privileged context over content".

I agree that the boundaries between learning spaces are becoming wonderfully fuzzy. I have attempted to get to grips with these changes in three ways:

1. Working in knowledge management, I tried to find a way to describe the way knowledge is constructed, based on a concept of "ante-formal" knowledge, which appears in all three segments of your Venn diagram, and is simply "provisional knowledge and information which has not yet been formalised" (hence the 'ante'). This can cover conversations, notes, emails, twitter, and all the rest of the social media, as well as posts in online learning forums and MOOCs. (http://eprints.port.ac.uk/5609/)

2. Working on academic writing and research, and the ways social media create new opportunities for writing across all the segment of you Venn diagram, we put together some ideas on 'writing across public and private spaces' (http://www.slideshare.net/dustcube/presentation-5-narrative)

3. Doing research on MOOCs over the last few years,we were interested in, precisely, the blossoming of the community, along with self-organisation, and self- and collaborative-development of (some of) the content. To do this we had to broaden out our framework, from the technology and practices of MOOCs to the more general issue of emergent learning, which we then found applies not only to MOOCs, but to all sorts of other learning spaces too (http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/home).
What is the diagram software/tool that you've used to create this venn diagram. Is there a template that I can use? Is it creately
Steve Wheeler said…
Hi Shalin. I simply used PowerPoint and made the circles transparent using the onboard tools.

Popular Posts