Community Learning

We give up the illusion of our power as deriving from some notion of individual collecting data, and find out that having access to data through our network-enabled communities gives us an entirely more living flow of information that is appropriate to the ever changing circumstances surrounding us. Instead of growing high, we grow wide. We become pancake people. (Douglas Rushkoff)

Today there are more people creating and sharing more information than ever before. It’s impossible for any one person to know all of the techniques, theories and practices of any given field, let alone parse the immense amounts of available data. Coupled with this expanding knowledge base is a human sphere that is changing at an ever increasing rate. What does this mean for our social and work-specific structures? We must at last discard the fallacy of all-knowing experts and embrace the more effective and honest approach of communities as providers of knowledge.

Connectivism offers one take on this increasingly important aspect of learning. The website offers interesting and well developed theories of how learning can be achieved effectively in informal, network-based (A.K.A community-based) learning environments.

Connectivism is a learning theory for the digital age. Learning has changed over the last several decades. The theories of behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism provide an effective view of learning in many environments. They fall short, however, when learning moves into an informal, networked, technology-enabled arena. Some principles of connectivism:

  • The integration of cognition and emotions in meaning-making is important. Thinking and emotions influence each other. A theory of learning that only considers one dimension excludes a large part of how learning happens.
  • Learning has an end goal – namely the increased ability to “do something”. This increased competence might be in a practical sense (i.e. developing the ability to use a new software tool or learning how to skate) or in the ability to function more effectively in a knowledge era (self-awareness, personal information management, etc.). The “whole of learning” is not only gaining skill and understanding – actuation is a needed element. Principles of motivation and rapid decision making often determine whether or not a learner will actuate known principles.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. A learner can exponentially improve their own learning by plugging into an existing network.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Learning (in the sense that something is known, but not necessarily actuated) can rest in a community, a network, or a database.
  • The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. Knowing where to find information is more important than knowing information.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate learning. Connection making provides far greater returns on effort than simply seeking to understand a single concept.
  • Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning happens in many different ways. Courses, email, communities, conversations, web search, email lists, reading blogs, etc. Courses are not the primary conduit for learning.
  • Different approaches and personal skills are needed to learn effectively in today’s society. For example, the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Organizational and personal learning are integrated tasks. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network and continue to provide learning for the individual. Connectivism attempts to provide an understanding of how both learners and organizations learn.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate impacting the decision.
  • Learning is a knowledge creation process…not only knowledge consumption. Learning tools and design methodologies should seek to capitalize on this trait of learning

Also on that site is a rather concise introduction to the concept, “The Network is the Learning.” I would argue that most of these principles are not necessarily new (community-based learning is the oldest form of learning, predating civilization), but whether we are returning to more effective learning methods or creating new ones is of little consequence. What is important is recognizing the benefits of a wider range of learning that a formal education, with the inherent limited sources of learning, can not alone provide.

If we view a network as a community’s storage and sharing place for knowledge and learning, it shouldn’t be hard to see the benefit of being connected to a network, to being part of a community. One person’s knowledge is incomplete, no matter much he/she may have learned. However, the more connected a community is the more complete its base of knowledge can be. A community of communities (whether geographical or field-related, cities in a province or a sharing between related vocations (electricians and carpenters, perhaps) ) increases the scope of knowledge, becoming incredibly broad and useful (holistic) as it transcends specialization.

The easier we can share and access knowledge and learning, the better we can operate in whatever fields we find ourselves working in. The internet provides an incredible tool for this. We have free access to passive and interactive sources of knowledge on every topic and quite often this knowledge is as current and diverse as any other source we have. Especially through sites which offer two-way communication (blogs and forums come to mind) the sharing of knowledge becomes a natural and mutually beneficial activity that improves personal ability and knowledge as well as a community’s overall flexibility and strength.

One excellent example of community learning (and, outside the scope of this entry, free resource sharing) is the open source movement. The open source movement is a community of professional and amature programmers and software users that produce programs that are free of cost to the user and very often better than anything that can be produced by proprietary, corporate software makers. All code of open source programs is shared with the public, specifically programmers in the open source community. This leads to faster development, quicker bug fixing, and the ability for anyone to suggest or create improvements to the software that they desire. A company has a finite number of employees but an open source project is limited only by the number of people who hear about it and choose to contribute. People making other projects can adopt any open source code they find useful, which speeds up their own project and contributes back to the community. It’s a sort of tested honour system that proves to be incredibly useful. A fine open source project is Firefox, a web browser that in nearly every way outperforms Internet Explorer and other proprietary browsers (safer, better, faster). Firefox has been available as a public release for only a few months and has already captured a substantial share of internet users (well over 25 million).

Community learning is our natural method of learning as a process. Not only this, it also may be the most efficient and beneficial way to learn. As we wake up to the fact that we live in an interconnected, inter-reliant world with ever-increasing sources of knowledge we need to break from the limiting education structures we have and adapt to a changing world. Knowledge is not static, it’s evolving.

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