Week 2: The inspiring concept of networked learning

The concept of networked learning is very new to me. I have reflected on my learning and researching for many times because I have had a very difficult time transferring from an undergraduate to a graduate student, or from mainly a learner to a researcher.  I have never looked at it from the perspective of teaching and learning. This new perspective, the concept of networked learning, have given me a much clearer insight into what was wrong before.

To be concise, learning and researching are not totally different things. Therefore, they should not be treated differently. By nature, they are both recursive processes of (1) exploring, obtaining and understanding information, (2) gaining experiences through exploiting the information, (3) internalizing the information and experiences into one’s own knowledge base, and (4) interpreting more information or creating new knowledge by making use of and reasoning upon the internalized knowledge.

I remember as a kid, I enjoyed learning the most because I am learning only for myself and for my interest. It was so natural how we explored the world as a kid. However, when we entered the uniform education systems, the learning objectives, the coverage of contents, the format and scope of tests were all pre-set by the teachers. We were frequently compared with each other, awarded or punished by certain criteria. Learning started to become compromised and confusing in these requirement-oriented education systems.

In the context of the uniform and requirement-oriented education systems, the learning of knowledge is limited to the receiving of information from the teacher. Even how to solve the problems in the tests becomes information that is imparted to the students. Creative solutions and different opinions are somewhat discouraged. It is very easy for the students to switch from (a) the initial intuitive motivations of learning to (b) learning just for tests, grades and employment. Without the complete learning process being achieved, the students will not really internalize the information or be able to use the knowledge effectively.

When the students are just receiving information from the teachers but are not internalizing the information into their existing knowledge base, they tend to get misled that cognition is standardized and static, and that the solution(s) to a problem is standardized and static. However, cognition is dynamic, progressive, and non-linear. Even when one is accepting the same information, the understanding differs from the last time. Similarly, for the same problem, it is not just about having a solution, or giving up when there is not an existing solution. Instead, problem-solving involves reflecting on what is already understood, reasoning about what needs to be understood, and looking for more information to advance the existing understanding until a solution is figured out. No wonder many people give up their trial not knowing that they actually can make it.

On the other hand, cognition is also unique because everyone is progressing upon their own accumulation of knowledge and experiences. For the same information or the same problem, each person can come up with unique understandings or solutions. This is why creativity matters. Creativity is not just about being different. We are already different by default. Creativity is making use of our differences. The differences stemming from varying cognition status can inspire other people and contribute to the creation of new knowledge or the new usage of knowledge (problem-solving solutions).

After explicitly reflecting on the nature of learning or the more general cognition and on how it has been compromised under a standardized teaching and testing system, it is obvious that students are losing curiosity and interests to the predefined expectations of the teachers or parents. Do not blame the students for getting lost, because the way of teaching needs to be reformed at the same time to help the students rewire themselves to fit with their intuitive nature of cognition and problem-solving.

Networked learning gives the space of creativity and engagement back to the students by allowing each student to share their unique understanding and cognitive progress. It positively connects the students through collective cognition, rather than the comparison of grades. The diversity and amount of information generated by the students are beyond what is possible in a traditional classroom. What the students share to each other online is a representation of what knowledge they have internalized and to what level they are able to use. This pulls their attention of each other towards grades or evaluation criteria back to the exploration and exploitation of knowledge itself. They are enjoying others’ understanding of their progress, getting more motivations because they are “heard”, and benefiting from the recursive reinforcement wherever possible in all the communication. They are also getting inspirations from the differences and deepening their understanding correspondingly.

In the mean time, the networked learning also allows the teacher to explicitly see how the students’ cognition have advanced and how they contribute to each other’s learning progress in a fully engaged environment without the teacher’s intervention or judgment. In consideration of the students’ diversified reasoning characteristics and background knowledge, the teachers can get a better sense of the students’ progress and reflect on how to adjust the teaching materials and teaching styles to facilitate their collective learning.

In a larger scale, the students will feel comfortable to treat the world wide internet as a large class of learners progressing towards higher level of knowledge. Afterall, they have already got used to exploring and extracting information from a world without any boundaries in a networked learning environment.

Last, be noted that networked learning does not get rid of independent thinking. Independent thinking and critical thinking always play an important role in the effectiveness of learning. The context of networked learning just provides a space for the students to be exposed and linked to each other’s learning process, in addition to the initial information triggering all these processes. Learning in itself is a flexible and non-linear process. No matter what information is available and how knowledge and experiences are accumulated, the key is whether it is internalized and can be utilized by the students. The students are progressing collectively, but learning independently. In addition, in the context of the internet, independent thinking is even more motivated and supervised as the students are connected and engaged in learning itself. The constant communication of thoughts and getting feedbacks and inspirations from their peers drive them to be devoted to developing and polishing their thoughts and languages.

As of the blogging and twittering for academic purposes, it is worth a try to first start publishing the work that is already completed and to experiment with the networked academic communication. After we get a sense of how it is like and what it results in, we can have a better knowledge on what to share and what not.

The concept of networked learning is really eye-opening to me as a student, a researcher, and a teacher. I can not agree more with Dr. Michael Wesch in the TED video that “learning is not about making a living , but about how to make a life worth living”. Learning starts naturally when we were young, and will be a lifetime thing. Good teachers will try to protect the passion of the students in real learning as well as their passion in life. I look forward to experimenting networked learning in this class with all of you and hopefully in the future it can bring positive changes to us and to our students.