Understanding How to Easily Get People to Learn in Networks

In my last post, I discussed my thoughts about networks vs. groups in online learning. In this post, I want to share my thinking about what it means to foster networked learning in online (or even hybrid context) in higher education. There are so many places to explore with this, that I finally just decided that I could literally pick anyplace and just go from there. So I thought I would start with what I saw as the most common problem (for me) as it relates to networked learning – a cultural shift in what we think it means to teach and what students think it means to learn.

Addressing Networked Learning Through Teaching

As I read¬†Teaching Crowds: Learning & Social Media¬†(Dron & Anderson, 2014) it gave me language for what I have been struggling with for about five years now in my teaching. Without really understanding it, I was trying to shift from a group learning mindset into a networked one. And while I could promote this within any given class that I might teach, that was really never fully going to work. In order for networked learning to work well, I believe it has to be embraced programatically. In my previous position, I think it’s fair to say that no one was interested in doing this, but everyone was happy to let me go play in my little corner. The reasons no one was interested in moving towards a networked learning approach varied but consisted of things such as:

  • I’m not interested in learning new technology
  • I’m not technologically savvy like you
  • I don’t want to learn a new tool
  • I don’t have time

To be fair, I didn’t realize that I was trying to move an entire program out of a group learning format into a networked learning one. So I didn’t have the necessary language or understandings to help them even consider such a shift. However, if you are interested in thinking about trying on networked learning I think it’s important to assume that most people will not understand what you are talking about. If folks you work with are limited in how they use technology, then that likelihood is even greater. You have to be prepared to run into not necessarily resistance but rather lack of understanding and vision.

If someone has not played around with the concept of networking in their instruction, hasn’t heard about it, or hasn’t used it then it is reasonable that they will not be able to envision what you are striving for. Now, that doesn’t mean they will be closed to the idea. I have encountered people who have no understanding of this concept but are curious about it and interested to see how it might play out. And I’ve encountered the other end where people tell me they don’t care and don’t want to consider it at all. And the fact is, the freedom that you will have regarding networked learning will depend on the extent others are willing to play.

Keep in mind that if you want others to play you may need to help them understand the difference between what they typically do (group learning) vs. networked. Additionally, keep in mind that you are significantly altering the way teaching has been done for their entire careers. While you might be super excited about such possibilities, not everyone will be. It’s best to go into these discussions prepared with information and examples of what networked learning could look like at the class level or at the program level (those discussions are for the next post). My recommendation would be to start discussing what this looks like at the class level since the program level can get complicated and overwhelming real fast which can turn people off.

Related: The Scary Part About Being a Student

Students & Networked Learning

While I do think networked learning can happen within a single class you teach, keep in mind it will be limited in what it looks like and can do. This is because it’s being tightly bound at the class level. However, having been left to my own devices for many years, I have played around with the concept. In doing so, I ran into some challenges with how students viewed networked learning. Now, as I describe these challenges keep in mind that, again, I did not have the proper language and understanding of what I was doing. This means that I was not able to fully articulate to students what we were doing and why we were doing it. That may have helped a bit, but I am pretty sure I still would have run into some issues.

A central component behind networked learning is that learning doesn’t stop when the class ends or when the program ends. While students may not need to do anything for a grade/degree, they can still be part of a group (because, recall, networks are a type of group). In this group, they can still access information, mentor others, and get help in their professional lives. How they participate and what they learn simply shifts, and their level of involvement is even more up to them.

When this happens on a program level, it becomes the cultural norm for interacting. When it happens on a class level, as it did with me at my previous institution, then, if anything, I’m socially situated as either the weirdo who won’t get with the program or the cool professor that is trying new things. I tend to invoke one extreme or the other.

Related: Being Ok with Discomfort

Moving into networked learning is generally not the norm for our students either. They have experienced a group learning approach since they first entered school. Switching this approach will make them uncomfortable – and how uncomfortable they are will vary. Part of your job becomes acknowledging this discomfort and letting students know it’s normal. Eventually it will likely pass. Likely. Maybe. Sometimes students are varying degrees of uncomfortable the entire semester. If students do not know how to be ok with discomfort, if they do not know how to acknowledge it and sit with it, then you should expect some of these feelings to start getting directed at you. Don’t take it personally.

I always see my classes like a lab, like a playground. A place to push myself in my teaching which in turn means I am disrupting students’ cultural and social norms around school constantly. Over the years, I have had the following occur:

  • someone once told me that, upon reading the syllabus, they threw a full on tantrum (their words) because they were so angry at the ways they were expected to participate
  • i’ve been told I should teach like everyone else
  • i’ve been thanked by students who appreciate the opportunities a networked learning approach offers them
  • i’ve been told by students that there is no way they can figure out what it is they are supposed to do, they will likely fail, and it will be 100% my fault

I tend to get more negative comments at the start of a semester and more positive ones at the end. But I do always have students that strongly dislike how I teach. They never argue that my teaching effects their learning. They simply do not like the methods and tend to explicitly state that I should do it the way it’s always been done.

I share this because: (a) I think it’s a normal response and (b) if you can anticipate this then you can likely help students over the hump. Now that I have better language around what I am trying to accomplish, I believe that will help provide students with greater clarity as well. However, as long as networked learning is done on at a class level, it is important to understand that students will see it as something that is outside the cultural norm and not something they have to fully invest in.

In my next post, I’ll give some examples of how I have attempted to use networked learning on a class and program level.