28 January 2011

On professional development in Learning Networks

In the present day and age professionals cannot afford to stop learning after their graduation, they should continue to learn incessantly throughout their professional lives. They need to do so in order to secure their own continued employment, but also to ensure the viability of our modern knowledge society. The latter is of course a societal responsibility rather than a personal one. Where knowledge becomes obsolete at an increasing pace because of technological and societal innovation, knowledge workers need to yield an ample supply of new, relevant knowledge and share it widely with each other lest the innovation grinds to a halt. And innovation is needed for the continued economic health of modern, Western society.

These observation are not new, they have been made by several people in all walks of society, from academics to politicians, from educationalists to labour union representatives. However, it is not easy to unpack all that it implies. In particular, it is hard to ensure that ways are found to yield new and more knowledge. At first sight, it seems plausible to rely on the educational establishment for this - schools, colleges and universities. However, a moment’s reflection reveals that one cannot just the rigid structures that they represent to exercise sufficient flexibility to live up to these expectations.

Necessary Conditions
Because of the challenges our current society sets professionals, they can only be expected to develop themselves professionally if three conditions have been fulfilled. First, they need logistic flexibility, that allows them to learn wherever and whenever they want as well as to take charge of their own learning. Second, they not so much need set degree programmes, but rather agile learning opportunities. These should address their specific problem in exactly the right depth (level complexity), have exactly the right extent (size), and be offered in ways that are commensurate with their preferred learning modes. This one may call content flexibility. Third, the metaphor of knowledge transfer between someone who is in the know (a teacher) and others who are clean slates (the students) is inapt. Professionals are all experts in some way, be it all on slightly different topics and in differing degrees. So they alternate between the role of teacher and student, depending on what the topic is and who asks. This one may call didactic flexibility, the ability to see learning as a social process of knowledge creation and exchange.

This list of demands shows why traditional forms of learning with ‘sages on the stage’ who lecture in halls of brick-and-mortar building for one hour at weekly intervals do not work. There’s limited logistic flexibility as the institutional calendar dictates the students calendar, rather that the other way around. There’s no content flexibility as learning opportunities are packed in lectures, courses and curricula. And finally, there’s no didactic flexibility because teacher and learner are not roles but occupations. The rapid switching of roles that knowledge sharing and creation demand is significantly hindered this way. I do not claim that schools, colleges and universities are in principle unable to change and offer these needed flexibilities. But I do argue that it is notoriously hard for any institution significantly to alter its organisational structure and products, particularly if it comes to the kind of paradigmatic shift I believe is needed. It is my conviction that we need to approach things from the other end. We should not start with educational institutions as we know them and wonder how we can make them fit the demands of modern-day professionals. Rather, we should develop - conceptually first, practically later - a novel learning environment that does suit professional development. The question whether and, if so, how extant educational institutions could adopt this, is secondary. The learning environment sought, I call a Learning Network.

The nature of a Learning Network
Learning Networks may be defined as online social networks that have been designed specifically to facilitate professional development. They may be likened to the familiar online networks we all know, networks which form around such generic social networking applications as Hyves, Facebook, LinkedIn, but also around more specialist ones such as Delicious, Slideshare, Flickr, Academia or Yammer, to name a few. A Learning Network is a social network like these but different in that it is centred around a particular topic that lies at the heart of the interests of its users, i.e. professionals. It is important also to note that a Learning Network is different than a community of practice. Communities are relatively small (tenths of users), networks are larger, (hundreds of people). Community users share a common goal, network users share a common interest and typically have a diversity of different goals. Community members are strongly tied to each other, fellow network members maintain both strong and weak ties. Importantly, the weak ties allow them to connect with new people, thus accessing new knowledge. Communities of practice (and learning) may be part of a Learning Network. They arise if a group of users has a shared need (through their common goals) and vanish if that need disappears; they may overlap since users typically have a variety of goals. Thus a Learning Network user typically is a member of zero to several communities, the number changing as function of opportunity, need and demand. This way, a Learning Network becomes a dynamic collection of communities, that wax and wane, come to overlap and drift apart in response to the participants needs and wants. In such a community professional development (learning) and being professionally active can become two sides of the same coin.

Networked learning, what does it look like?
In a Learning Network, learning (professional development) takes place by accessing relevant resources. These are are in the first instance the Learning Network’s participants themselves. They are the primary sources of expertise. They then adopt a teaching role and direct fellow participants to (online) artefacts - such as texts, presentations, videos, blogs, Twitter feeds, shared bookmarks - relevant communities they participate in, or other experts they know. However, they will also act as providers of all kinds of support - as learning coaches, mentors, critical friends, business contacts. All of this is quite labour intensive, however. As explained, the potential of Learning Network lies in exploring the weak links between its participants. They are the as yet unknown sources of new knowledge and support. Being only weakly linked to them, participants do not know whom to contact for what. Broadcasting request for help to the entire Network of course would rapidly overload its participants, significantly decreasing their willingness to contribute. Participants therefore need to receive requests for expertise and support that fit their profile, and recommendations that fit their requests. This is achieved by equipping the Learning Network with a variety of request-and-recommend tools that support its participants in every needed way. To the extent that these tools function adequately the Networks continued viability is guaranteed. Many of these tools are similar to what existing social network sites offer. However, such tools typically leave something to be desired when it comes to their supporting typical learning (knowledge sharing and creation) functions. These tools are unique to Learning Networks and need to be developed specifically. So a tool is needed that helps a participant find fellow participants in the Network who can honour requests for expertise or support; a tool is needed to help participants find fellow participants who would be suitable to jointly form a topical community; a tool is needed to help participants find artefactual resources and perhaps concatenate them in sensible ways; etc. The design element in the definition of a Learning Network refers to the design of these tools, although the way they are orchestrated to work together and are operated on by the Network participants should not be left out.

The need for further investigation
A Learning Network thus designed is able to fulfil the demands for flexibility discussed. Being an online network, logistic flexibility is guaranteed almost by definition. Content flexibility depends on the Network’s composition, on the people and their expertise and experience. It is the participants joint expertise that will allow people to develop themselves further and to engage in activities that produce novel insights. It is the participants joint experience, professionally and with these form of knowledge exchange and building, that dictates how smoothly this all goes. Also, a degree of heterogeneity is required. Participants should be different enough to make for a rich user experience, but similar enough to ensure cohesion. Didactic flexibility, finally, is guaranteed by the overall design of the Learning Network, by using the power of online networks and of tools custom made for networked learning. The overall design ultimate determines the quality of the Learning Network as an environment for professional development. If the network design leaves to be desired, any potential for knowledge sharing and creation that is hidden in the participants will not come to fruition.

There is a host of questions which have not been addressed yet. Most of them are detailed ones, having to do with the social aspects of networked live and learning, and the technical aspects of creating adequate tools. Answering them is the subject of ongoing research. Some of the most pressing issues, however, relate to the question of how one actually employs such networks. Are they compatible with existing virtual learning environment (VLEs)? (I don’t think so.) Can they be built on top of existing social networking sites? (It depends, but it will be difficult to realise their full potential.) Can they be built on top of an integration of a variety of different social networking tools amplified with custom-made tools? (That’s an interesting challenge, they should.) Will existing educational institutions - schools, colleges, universities - be agile enough to adopt and embrace such a model? Time will tell ….