rainbow magic

Learning in the Collective

In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant ChangeDouglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write, “Embracing Change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a set of new possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion” (43). The changing landscape of education in the digital age asks us to reconsider what, how, and where we learn. On May 3 at 1pm EST, Hybrid Pedagogy will host #digped discussion about peer-to-peer learning and how we can shift from thinking about educational institutions toward thinking about learning collectives. The following is drawn from Chapter 4 of Thomas and Brown’s book. While our Twitter discussion will center around this section, we also encourage you to read the first three chapters in PDF formatbuy the entire book, and explore other resources the authors have made available online.

The new culture of learning is based on three principles: (1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world. (2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural. (3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media.

We demonstrated the first principle in Chapter 3. Let us move on to examine peer-to-peer learning and the idea of the collective.

Peer-To-Peer Learning
In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity. In this environment, the participants all stand on equal ground — no one is assigned to the traditional role of teacher or student. Instead, anyone who has particular knowledge of, or experience with, a given subject may take on the role of mentor at any time. Mentors provide a sense of structure to guide learning, which they may do by listening empathically and by reinforcing intrinsic motivation to help the student discover a voice, a calling, or a passion. Once a particular passion or interest is unleashed, constant interaction among group members, with their varying skills and talents, functions as a kind of peer amplifier, providing numerous outlets, resources, and aids to further an individual’s learning.

Learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions. The college experience is a perfect example. When students set foot on campus in their freshman year, they begin a learning experience that is governed only in part by their classroom interactions. Assuming they live on campus, sleep eight hours a night, and attend classes three hours a day, students are immersed in a learning environment for an additional thirteen hours a day. Simply by being among the people around them — in study groups, for instance — students are learning from their environment, participating in an experience rich in resources of deep encounters.

The Emergence of the Collective
Our ability to produce, consume, and distribute knowledge in an unlimited, unfiltered, and immediate way is the primary reason for the changes we see today. One no longer needs to own a television station, a printing press, or a broadcast transmitter to disseminate information, for example. With just a computer and access to the Internet, one can view or consume an almost unimaginably diverse array of information and points of view.

But equally important is the ability to add one’s own knowledge to the general mix. That contribution may be large, such as a new website, or it may be a series of smaller offerings, such as comments on a blog or a forum post. It may even be something as trivial as simply visiting a web site. But in each case, the participation has an effect, both in terms of what the individual is able to draw from it and how it shapes and augments the stream of information.

This core aspect of education in the new culture of learning presents a model for understanding learning in the face of rapid change. Teachers no longer need to scramble to provide the latest up-to-date information to students because the students themselves are taking an active role in helping to create and mold it, particularly in areas of social information.

We call this environment a collective. As the name implies, it is a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts. For our purposes, collectives are not solely defined by shared intention, action, or purpose (though those elements may exist and often do). Rather, they are defined by an active engagement with the process of learning.

A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.

In the new culture of learning, collectives, as we define them, become the medium in which participation takes shape. They are content-neutral platforms, waiting to be filled with interactions among participants. As such, they are well designed to facilitate peer-to-peer learning, their raison d’etre. And once they can no longer do so, their demise is similarly well designed. Since there are no bricks-and-mortar investment costs associated with their creation, collectives can simply cease to exist.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him as long as the fish supply holds out. But create a collective, and every man will learn how to feed himself for a lifetime.

Learning in the Collective
In a collective, there is no sense of a core or a center. People are free to move in and out of the group at various times for various reasons, and their participation may vary based on topic, interest, experience, or need. Therefore, collectives scale in an almost unlimited way. In fact, they improve with size and diversity, providing access to an increasing number of resources managed by a technological infrastructure. Participation in a collective does not necessarily require a standard notion of contribution, such as explicitly creating content, but instead may be something as basic as following and rating posts on a website.

Thanks to digital media, the range of available collectives — along with their shape, design, and composition — is almost limitless. They constitute, in effect, an ocean of learning, providing innumerable possibilities for how people fish. What’s more, since virtual collectives are not bound by physical or geographic constraints, they are generally available to anyone who wishes to participate.

The power of a blog, for example, rests in part with the author or authors who start it; in part with the readers who leave comments; in part with those who link to, cite, reference, or respond to it; and in part with the readers, who may do nothing more than have their presence recorded by a web server. None of those events alone is sufficient for understanding the phenomenon; it is the combination of the active and passive (such as comments, ratings, and links) forms of participation that make a blog or website successful.

Blogs are a medium for learning, but they do not teach. Rather, they generate the space for a collective to emerge. It is impossible to predict what that collective will look like, and once it forms, equally difficult to manage it in any traditional way. Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture, the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself.

At this point one might be tempted to ask how we might harness the power of these peer-to-peer collectives to meet some learning objective. But that would be falling into the same old twentieth-century trap. Any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.

[Photo by qthomasbower]

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