My Latest at AAC&U’s Liberal.education Nation: Learning from the AAC&U Network

February 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Originally posted February 8, 2012 at AAC&U’s Liberal.education Nation, http://blog.aacu.org/index.php/2012/02/08/learning-from-the-aacu-network/.

I’m seeing networks everywhere these days. There’s the obvious one—the Internet—but, there is also a growing trend in of studying networks, and not just social networks like Facebook , but also in literature, like the network of relationships between characters in Hamlet.  AAC&U has its Network for Academic RenewalNITLE works with a network of small liberal arts colleges, and our students are facing a world of webs and networks, as I described in a blog post last year.

One of my fellow bloggers, Shyam Sharma, a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville and winner of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award, describes the “responsibilities of an effective educator of the twenty-first century” and explains what this means for instructors: I help students develop and maintain broad and deep “personal learning networks”—webs of places, resources, and people where they receive and also share knowledge.

Because of the internet and online social networks, we tend to think these networks require digital technology, but learning networks aren’t new. Consider the “Republic of Letters,” now mapped in a new project that visualizes intellectual exchange via a different kind of network technology—mail. We all have our personal learning networks, whether they are supported by water-cooler conversations, conference attendance, journal articles, or twitter.

Sitting in an e-portfolio session on the last day of the conference, I was struck by the networked learning going on around me when the person sitting next to me leaned over, held out her smart phone, and asked, “Is this you?” She was playing one of my favorite conference games: follow the conference hashtag (#aacu12), see if anyone is tweeting in your session, and look around to see if you can recognize them. Then go introduce yourself after the session ends. Twitter is an excellent icebreaker because you’ve already started the conversation electronically. There’s some debate about what to call the experience of meeting someone in person after only interacting online; when I tweeted this question, crowdsourced suggestions included “meat-meat”, “disambiguation”, and “devirtualization”. While it’s fun to invent new vocabulary, for me these terms raise a distinction that isn’t necessary. It’s the network that is important, however it is instantiated—whether that is by twitter or face-to-face meetings.

During that same e-portfolio session, one of my twitter followers started talking to me about e-portfolios. She wasn’t at AAC&U; we had actually met in person at THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges, a digital humanities “unconference,” and started following each other. This is a great example of how information moves across the network; I knew her from another domain (digital humanities) but was able to pass information from this one (AAC&U) that she needed because her campus is considering e-portfolios. That makes me a “local bridge”, which Mark Granovetter has shown to be a necessary element in the diffusion of information across a network.

Because I am a heavy twitter user, I see the network at work in my twitter conversations. This example won’t work for everyone, and I’m not saying that you have to use twitter. In fact, if you can’t tap into a network in your area of interest on twitter, I would argue against it. You’ll just be disappointed. On the other hand, you might have a similar networked learning experience in a face-to-face conversation about high-impact practices at your next disciplinary conference.

But why is the network important? Why make all of these connections? And how do they help student learning? Let me share one more example from the conference.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m working on how to teach collaboration. I shared this work with one of those people I met at the conference via twitter when we had a chance to talk in person. He then pointed me back to a resource I already had but hadn’t checked yet—the VALUE Rubrics, specifically the one for teamwork, and described how it made him rethink group work. The last time I used the rubrics I was thinking about assessment. not teaching collaboration. Even if I had remembered there was a teamwork rubric, I wouldn’t have had the benefit of talking to someone who had already used it in his class for group projects.  For me, networking is a strategy for filtering information, a way to let the information find me when I need it. This is my just-in-time learning. And this is why I marked networking as my chief takeaway on the AAC&U conference evaluation.

In this post, I’ve tried to write very intentionally about how networked learning works because of how important it is for our students. The growing Anonymous and Occupy movements are powerful examples of what networking can do and its role in civic and commercial activity.  Yochai Benkler has written about the Wealth of Networks.  George Siemens, in Connectivism, his theory of networked learning, argues that in the current information environment, students need to learn how to learn from a network—they need to develop their own learning networks, in which some nodes are the classroom and fellow students, but others are extracurricular connections. In the vocabulary of the AAC&U network, this is integrative learning. Teachers, then, become both nodes on the network, but also connectors that help students build networks. We all (not just instructors) need to be thinking intentionally about helping students become networked learners and what our place in their learning network will be.

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