Powerful Tips for Engaging Students In Networked Learning

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about the concept of networked learning and what it means to learn in networks. In my courses, I’ve played around with the concept of learning in networks for years without fully realizing what I was doing. I attempted to enact this concept in both face-to-face and hybrid courses. In this post, I want to share what some one these attempts looked liked. Keep in mind this was a rough attempt, and I didn’t explicitly understand at the time what I wanted to achieve.

The Expert Project

The Expert Project was an assignment for an introductory qualitative research methods course. I only taught the course twice (who got to teach it was super political!) which is a big reason why this assignment didn’t get the chance to see its full potential. I like this as an example because this class was 100% face-to-face.

I think it’s easy to assume that networked learning happens in an online context, but that’s not the case. Networked learning is about creating and fostering networks. You will see in this example that I did use technology to facilitate the network because that was the only way to achieve it.

Here are the directions for the project:

The purpose of the expert project is for you to become an expert in some aspect related to conducting qualitative research. You and your team will lead a 30 minute session on the area you are an expert in. Through your work on this project, you will deepen you own knowledge in your selected area, and you will expand the knowledge of your peers. Your 30 minute session will be followed by a 15 minute discussion and Q&A.

The Expert Project has the following requirements:
(a) Select a topic and get it approved
(b) Create an annotated bibliography of 10 readings associated with your topic.
(c) Post your annotated bibliography on the course wiki
(d) Provide a 30 minute session sharing what you learned with the class. You may structure these 30 minutes however you wish. Post relevant materials on the course wiki
(e) Answer questions about your topic for 15 minutes

You should consult your readings for ideas about a topic. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Ethical issues in qualitative research
  • Interviewing
  • Gaining access to communities
  • The role of the researcher in data collection
  • Developing and sustaining relationships with participants
  • Approaches to data analysis
  • Writing up qualitative research
  • Working with vulnerable populations

Project teams must contain a two-three people.

By the end of the semester, groups had curated and created a great deal of information on their topic. This information was available to the class, but then it was lost forever. When the next class came around the information was gone. The fact that the information was only available to a limited number of people for a limited amount of time falls under the concept of group learning and it’s what we normally experience in our classes. I thought this was ridiculous and decided to create a repository where students could post their work. My thoughts on this were:

  • students from a current class can share their information with others
  • other students from the class can access this information at any time – even after class has ended
  • when a new class begins, students can utilize the information already posted

In thinking about a new class, I imagined that students who entered might do a project on a topic that students before them did. For example, in the project students could choose to learn more about the role of interviewing in qualitative research. No one is truly going to become an expert on interviewing in one semester. Another group of students might have the same interest. They could access the materials already on the topic, and then they would add to them. We learn from what exists and then we add to it and leave it for others. There is no point in recreating the wheel.

I created a site using wikispaces (free for educators). The site I made was only for storing Expert Project. Each topic had it’s own page on the wiki. For example, if you were interested in Interviewing as a topic then everything about it was centrally located on the page titled Interviewing. Students didn’t need to add to the project site while they were doing their work. I saw it as a space where they put their final product. Ultimately, groups could organize and reorganize a space as they wished.

What Happened

Getting students to do the project wasn’t difficult. It was required and part of their grade. When I made contributing to the repository voluntary, no one did it. Not one single person/group. I know that right off the bat some of them saw no value in having these materials available or even being able to access what other groups had done.

I am sure that getting access to the materials others made wasn’t needed at that moment. But I assumed that as they moved through their program having access to this work would become relevant to many of them. To accomplish getting a baseline for the repository created, I had to resort to requiring students to post to it.

Initially, I did not like the idea of requiring people to post their materials and publicly share them. I thought that if you created these materials (or curated them) then you should decide who gets access to them. However, I learned very quickly that students are not used to the concept of networked learning.

To them, I suspect, this seemed like an extra thing to do at the end of a semester. They wanted to be done. They wanted to move on. Why add materials to a repository if it wasn’t required?

A key concept of the creation of this repository was shared learning. Shared learning goes beyond a class. It transcends classes. But if you do not typically learn this way, then you are not going to arrive at this conclusion by default. While I was able to articulate the purpose of the repository, I was still the missing language and conceptual understanding (networked learning) I needed to communicate this well to my students.

Take Aways

If you are interested in applying the concept of networked learning to your instruction, I recommend the following:

  • introduce students to the concept of networked learning from Day One
  • make sure you communicate the value of networked learning
  • be prepared for students to push back – for any reason
  • let students know that their names do not need to be on publicly available documents (always optional)
  • require participation

As much as I struggle with the require participation aspect of it, I think it’s necessary. If students are not used to to doing this, then they won’t. They have a lot on their plates to do. If contributing to an assignment that follows a networked learning approach is in anyway voluntary, then most of them simply won’t do it.

Finally, I think you have to be ok with them not seeing the full value of this at first. Some of them may never see the value, and they may never engage with the materials/ideas at the end of a course. But other, over time, will, and they will start to understand the purpose. It takes patience.