Nowadays, information and opportunities for gaining new skills and knowledge are everywhere. Not just in a library, education center, university or company but also in the internet. Online learning as a phrase has even become part of marketing campaigns, politics, and civil initiatives. Typing the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Learning Course) into Google, gives 11,900,000 results in just 0,4 seconds. Isn’t that a lot?! But can people really LEARN online? The answer that I got at the BEtreat workshop, which took place in September 2016 at the CEF in Ljubljana, was YES.
“Online learning is not for everyone,” said Nancy K. Hoke, Instructional Technology Coordinator at Khalifa University of Science, Technology & Research, Abu Dhabi, at the EDULEARN16 conference. Who are the people and what are the characteristics of those who apply for online courses? I was trying to find the answer only in psychology, until I had a chance to participate in the BEtreat workshop, where we learned about the theory of social learning, communities of practice, value creation stories, designing for social learning, leadership groups, etc.
The beginning of BEtreat was tough for me, as we really dug into the theory of social learning. “What are these communities of practice, landscapes, boundaries, contestability, knowledgeability and learning imperative that Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner are talking about?” were my questions. The first two days were tiresome, as I was really trying to understand the theory of social learning. Even some other participants, coming from different landscapes (countries, backgrounds, professions) faced the same challenges as I did. We kept going together and at the end all the information got its place in our heads. The whole workshop was of a transformative value for all of us.
However, we wouldn’t have been able to get to that point if the whole community of practice (the whole group) hadn’t crossed boundaries that we were facing: expectations, different level of understanding the theory of learning as such, not speaking the same language (understanding the meaning), etc. During work the group dynamics changed. We became better acquainted with each other and began to speak more about our reflections, thoughts and opinions. For me, this was one of the most valuable and transformative learning experiences ever, and since then I have been able to understand the importance of community and community building during a learning process even more.
How does that relate to online learning and my previous question? After BEtreat I cannot think just about internal mental processes (cognition, motivation, memory) of each learner anymore. For sure, they are very important, and before designing a course we have to consider some very individual aspects of different learners (what are their expectations, what do they already know about the course topic, how skilled are they in using computer and different applications, how and when will they learn, how to prepare learning materials for the course, etc.). However, I believe there is much more than that.
When people decide to take part in an online learning course, they actually decide to be part of a community who has seen some potential value in being part of the same online course. If they hadn’t, there would be more chance of them going through the course just as individuals and not benefit from learning from other learners. However, if the facilitator understands what social learning is and knows how to apply this in an online course, learners can step further and start to learn from each other through commenting and questioning in forums, messaging to other colleagues, using the chat function in webinars or applying other interactive applications introduced in the course.
The best online learning platforms have developed solutions where people interact: learn from each other, exchange thoughts and opinions, and this way help co-design the whole learning process. The facilitators’ role is crucial here. They have to listen and read what the learners are saying, and they must know how to use online learning tools in order to attract people’s attention, engage the whole online learning community, redesign the learning course when needed, and bring value to the people. They really can learn online. Their cognition can change, their skills develop, and online learning can be of a transformative value to them.
Read more to learn about the theory of social learning and value creation stories:
- Discovering social learning from within the learning scenery by Kaja Jurtela and Matija Čarman
- Value Creation Stories by Luka Zupančič