Continuing my exploration of differing views of online learning, I came across a paper by Hodgson and Reynolds (2005) in which they question the propensity for learning communities to focus on harmony and the avoidance of conflict. They posit that many of the protagonists of learning communities emphasise collaboration, the building of trust and shared values, loyalty and the pursuit of common goals at the expense of recognising and valuing differences. As a result, students who hold differing opinions or values are often under pressure to either conform or effectively be ostracised by the community. This may lead some students to under perform (to lurk rather than participate as a dissenting voice), to undergo frustration or to feel marginalised.
In their critique of community, the authors suggest that the pursuit of shared beliefs, desires and goals in adult learning may be a reaction to the rhetoric of individual, autonomous learning (that we saw in the early days of elearning) and the sense of isolation and social fragmentation associated with it. The emphasis on social constructivism and situated learning in the context of culture (Vygotsky, 1978), together with the advent of social technologies supported by the web 2.0, have fuelled interest in the use of social groupings to support learners (learning communities, communities of practice, etc) and pedagogy that embraces group work (collaborative projects, peer learning, etc). This may entail joint responsibility for the design, planning and evaluation of course content and direction, with an emphasis on consensus. The authors question whether 'the concept of community as commonly applied is either realistic of desirable' (Hodgson and Reynolds, 2005, p.16).
In his paper on teaching online, Anderson (2008) emphasises the importance of discourse for effective learning and the value for individuals of occasionally experiencing cognitive dissonance. This concurs with Hodgson and Reynolds' view that the airing of differences is good and should be encouraged rather than suppressed. It also concurs with theories on innovation (OECD, 2008) and knowledge management (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) were variety is recognised as being good for generating need ideas and for ensuring that organisations have the necessary absorptive capacity to respond to change.
In proposing different forms of social groupings for learning, the authors refer to the 'politics of difference' (Young, 1986) and of participation in a pluralism of overlapping communities with differing philosophies, values and social relations. They envisage a situation in which sub-communities contribute to discourse, not just through 'sharing or reconciliation', but through 'talking-back', 'defiant speech', etc (Hodgson and Reynolds, 2005, p.18). They refer to Young's (1986) metaphor of 'city life' as capturing well the ethos of valuing and respecting difference. They reiterate that if pedagogy is to reflect less hierarchical, more participative principles, based on equality and democracy, it should also avoid the 'more coercive characteristics of community' (2005, p.18).
In terms of the virtual staff room that we are about to create for our future eTwinning Learning Event, this paper encourages us to think of several sub-groups in the room, with overlapping and flexible memberships, ultimately determined by the participants themselves according to their interests and values.
I finish with the quotation given from Kolb which I liked:
'Quiet places online are possible, and would be very valuable. But we also need busy yet educational places, and places that encourage deconstructive moves that foreground the process of inhabiting and being online, making this available for critical awareness and revision.' (Kolb, 2000, p.132)
Anderson, T. (2008) 'Teaching in an online learning context', Theory and practice of online learning, 2nd ed, pp.343-365, AU Press
Hodgson, V. & Reynolds, M. (2005) 'Consensus, difference and 'multiple communities' in networked learning'. Studies in Higher Education, 30 (1), pp.11 - 24
Kolb, D. (2000) 'Learning Places: Building Dwelling Thinking Online'. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 34, pp.121-133
Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.
OECD (2008) Innovating to learn, learning to innovate, OECD. (ONLINE - http://www.oecd.org/document/7/0,3343,en_2649_35845581_41656455_1_1_1_37455,00.html - accessed 17.03.2010)
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society, Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA.
Young, I. M. (1986) 'The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference'. Social theory and practice, 12 (1), pp.1-26
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.