co-learning and higher education

On Smart Mobs, Gerrit Visser employs the terms co-learning to describe a practice being articluated by James Corbett and Teemu Arina, which Corbett describes in the following way:

the kind of learning that takes place outside of educational
institutions, outside of the campus, outside of the constraints of
textbook and syllabus, where learning is achieved not for the purpose
of grades or social standing, but because people want to learn
something, together. Just like you and I are hoping to learn something
about coworking, about the future of work, about working together as
equals. Informal learning is learning together as equals.

Of course this is the kind of thing that Will Richardson and others in education have been talking about for a long time. Arguably it is an idealized version of basic constructivist learning principles. That said, few, if any, would argue practices such as this have been widely applied in classrooms. What’s a little strange is that academics themselves often practice a kind of co-learning through the sharing of research. But that’s about as close as it gets.

So doesn’t/won’t co-learning work on a campus. The answers suggested above are both structural and social: structural in the sense that the institution insists on certain practices that shut learners out of shaping their own education. For example, I’m supposed to order my books for next semester before students enroll. What if I wanted to wait and offer students the opportunity to have some input in the book order? Well that would upset some folks, but I guess tenure means never having to say you care, right? And that’s just a minor example.

The other part is more interesting and maybe less obvious. Co-learners "want to learn something" and something in particular that brings them all together. Do college students want to learn something? Maybe… sure… why not? Can they name what it is they want to learn? In my experience, usually only in the most general sense: e.g., I want to learn to be a teacher. This isn’t meant as a knock on college students, not really. In order to be able to name what you want/need to learn, you have to be out there doing something that creates an exigency for learning.

So this is why my colleagues and I often talk about curriculum in which students need to define their own learning goals and share those goals with others. Our job as both students and faculty is to develop a public community where we say "This is what we are doing and why we are doing it. If you think you might be interested in joining us, then come on in." Though I would never require my students to read my blog, I know some of them have on occassion, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them to see what I am working on and thinking about.

I do think this notion of learning without "social standing," learning "as equals" is somewhat curious and perhaps naive. Equality may work as a juridical concept, but in any social interaction someone always has the upper hand. Get a group of people together, online or FTF, and some will emerge as more expert, some will be more comfortable following other people’s initiative, and so on. In a college setting, students are obviously paying to receive some guidance (even though, somewhat paradoxically, they sometimes reject or resent that guidance). I believe you could have an effective co-learning environment where some participants are leading the way and providing some direction for the community. In fact, it’s hard to imagine preventing such structures from emerging.

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