lundi 5 janvier 2015

[edX] Week 4 - Collaboration and learning communities

Finally, I got some « free » time at 10pm at night after almost 12 hours of meetings and teaching to write about week 4 of edX course 11.132x on Design and Development of Educational Technology.
This week is all about collaboration and social/collaborative learning.


On the first video, Professor Klopfer introduces the idea of social and collaborative learning with following characteristics:
  • making your thinking visible to other learners - share information
  • taking risks but value one another's contributions,
  • asking questions - inquire together and mentor one another,
  • sustained interaction, shared interests and desire to learn.

These imply that a community of practice should form around a common interest or domain with a goal to develop a shared set of tools such as experiences, stories, solutions and methods.

Example: Samba schools

One example of collaborative learning or a community of practice are Brazilian Samba schools where students of all ages are learning together and collaborating on projects they really care about. In contrast to traditional schools targeting more or less narrow common range of knowledge before and after taking a learning activity, Samba schools are live communities of experiences and novice users engaged in various ways to various degrees in social personal and multimodal learning.

After exploring this topic, I just wonder why such communities are rare in education(see my earlier post in [EDPE 640] topic). They do exist in one or another form and some are quite active at times but they are pale examples of multiple thriving communities of practice in a computer field (for example). Many programming communities go well beyond sharing solutions and applauding someone for a good idea: solutions are scrutinized, analyzed, improved, referenced and reused again in various related subdomains. Authors often receive comments with suggestions for improvement. In short, the process of learning and sharing of knowledge is truly bidirectional. The author and the readers deeply engage in improvement of a solution (product or idea) rarely seen in education field.

Example: Vanished

Another example presented this week is a game called Vanished. In reality, it looks more like a one-time project that has invited students to explore multiple scientific problems through a collaborative effort with experts and other students. While I have visited the website and have explored the bits and pieces that are left there, I was not really able to appreciate all the beauty of the activity.

However, from the explanations of Caitlin Feeley and Scot Osterweil, I think that the project was an authentic effort to:
  • reach out and share knowledge
  • stimulate learning across all age groups and invite them to go farther and learn more

From the overall description of the project and the results, I think that it was a great success because it reached all goals that where set and more! Rapidly cracking a code that a few PhD students had difficulty with is an amazing feat for many students. Of course, they had all the power of Internet at their fingertips but aggregating all this information and using it is one of the top level skills that I want my own students to learn.  

However, there is always one thing that bothers me with such projects: they present only a part of reality. For instance, many teachers like to teach and see the light in the eyes of their students when they finally understand something. However, the life of a teacher is also composed of such things as professional meetings, parent-teacher meetings, grading, course preparation and many more administrative things that many may hate. Similarly, the reality of a scientist may also be composed of a rainbow of personal likes and dislikes creating an ever changing multicolored landscape of everyday life.

In the case of Vanished, the problem is in the process, in the accountability, in the traceability and the proof. Again, the results mentioned above are amazing but could these students write a detailed report of their accomplishments with a proper introduction, methodology, theoretical references etc.? That is, can they leave a trace of their learning experience that could be explored farther? I think they could but most projects I know of, including Vanished, avoid it because it is boring… because it is not science. It is true, IT IS NOT ENTIRE SCIENCE! IT IS A PART OF A LIFE OF A SCIENTIST, ENGINEER and any other professional required to maintain a minimal level of accountability and collaboration. The process in the commonly accepted format, the standards and methodology have to be presented on the same level as the other part of the science we commonly promote in education. 

A balance between formalism in communication and a creative process itself should be found if we want to avoid future frustration: professionals that are unable and are unwilling to engage in a formal community of practice bound by more rigid rules than those that are found in Vanished. IF we do not find an appropriate balance, we risk to see specialists that often use inappropriate level of formal language and are unable to adapt their written and spoken discourse. Specialists that are unable to leave a reusable trace of their findings following a standard implemented at their work. Specialists that are simply unwilling to make an effort and communicate their solutions to those that are not experts and do not have time to go into details and read thousands of small notes and ideas (forum like format). In short, we should teach flexibility of thought and practice through a common acceptance of work, sometimes boring work, as means of personal growth and evolution of communities.

Ideas are not everything: they still need to be shared and implemented.

Additional Readings

A more detailed introduction into the concept of communities of practice can be found here: .
More on Samba schools

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