Emergent Learning Networks

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For the past chunk of time, I have been doing research into the emergence and evolution of learning networks in learning environments of all kinds. In my slightly (okay more than slightly) schizophrenic way of doing things, I have been looking at secondary science and high ed settings for this work.

Thanks to Stephen Downes, I have been thinking a lot about the differences between groups and networks. This this video and this presentation for the distinctions he makes between these two entities.

While I was still a secondary science teacher, I spent the last two years in the middle school in which I taught having redesigned a high school biology into a completely self-directed experience (or set of experiences) for 8th grade students. They could choose which unit to start with, their pathway through the set of units for the course, with whom they worked (or not), and when they considered themselves ready to be assessed.

Despite no prior experience with this degree of autonomy and accountability, all of those 50 students completed the course successfully and did extremely well on the state mandated final exam.

Most interesting to me was the emergence and evolution of the connections they formed over the course of the year.

Figure 5

This image depicts the arrangements of these students at two points of the school year. The diagram on the left illustrates their working connections (which I have taken to calling “student learning networks”) in about week 3 of the school year. At this point, as with most secondary students doing group work, they have organized themselves into dyads and triads, with a couple of singletons. The diagram on the right illustrates these student learning networks at about 3 weeks before the end of the school year (9 months later). At this point, we can see that some these dyads and triads have evolved into some more complex networks.

So far, I am fairly confident that two things are essential for the evolution of these student learning networks:

  1. Autonomy/Competence Supportive Learning Environment. As Self Determination Theory (SDT) predicts, these students responded positively to have a great deal of autonomy over their learning environment.
  2. Authentic Work. There is much debate about what constitutes authentic work for students. Some argue that authentic work is work that looks like that done by practitioners in the content area being studied. For example, in science this might look like students designing and conducting experiments and then analyzing and sharing their findings.  I have come to think that students are not necessarily budding scientists or historians or writers (although they might be). I am now thinking that the learning environment itself must seem authentic to them. They seem respond to being authentically challenged as learners.  I am still working out what that means.

The next big hurdle is to figure out how to capture and document the emergence of these learning networks.