This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Collective Learning #change11

I've read over the position paper posted by Allison Littlejohn, and listened to the interview points she posted on her blog site Little by Littlejohn.  After going through this, I feel like I am missing something.  I am left wondering if the author and her colleagues are trying to codify a process that could be better described as fuzzy or emergent.  It seemed an unnecessary complication with a lot of jargon that describes something that has been going on for years.  I know that it is looking at Web2.0 technologies, but for over 50 years this concept has been tried and true in the sciences, long before digital social networking.

In science graduate programs, when you start, you are coming into an environment where there is a strong pool of knowledge.  This collective knowledge is not only about your chosen discipline, but the research in the lab and all of the lab protocols.  As an example, when I first started my Ph.D. research, I needed to learn Gas Chromatography (GC).  I learned from the person currently using the instrument, then I read the manual and article pertaining to what I wanted to do, and eventually I became the expert.  So I started teaching others as they came into the lab.

It was also not uncommon to start corresponding to people in other labs who worked on similar projects, or who were doing things (procedures) that would help in your research (which I had to do during my Masters).  With email, the response time became quicker.  With a stronger internet, companies started putting documents on line.  We shared bookmarks and links between members of our lab, and with other labs.  Now with social bookmarking the process is faster.  If we really needed to learn a new protocol, it was not uncommon to visit the lab of someone who was doing that work.  Now we they can show the technique via skype.  While you may be taking classes, most of the education at the graduate level is done through networking.  So, I would have to say that based upon the model of collective learning, this is something that has been done for a long time in science; it's just now faster and broader.  Now with labs building websites with demonstration videos, blogs, and access to papers, we have broader access.  Still, you may never know about these resources unless you first talk to people in these labs.  (Even my major professor talked about correspondence and visits with colleagues back during his graduate experience...hence the 50 years or so of doing this type of work).

This is why I'm saying that I am missing something in the current discussion of collective learning.  I am not sure why the attempt to codify an emergent social process save to make it more marketable for the masses.  Even then, as a teacher, I'm not sure I can sell it to my students as a canned package.  It seems better to set up a baseline system and then with monitoring, let the interaction develop.

I'm going to continue reading, and I'm looking forward to Allison Littlejohn's presentation.  As I've said, I just feel like I'm missing something about the idea of collective learning.


  1. I agree with you. I thought the same things as I was reading her position paper. Collective learning has been around since printed text became widely available. Someone had to write that text before you could read it, and if you were doing any sort of research at all, you were likely reading multiple sources (which, in turn, likely had multiple writers/editors). It was all part of the collective. Multiple viewpoints and facts were available to you in the library. With advances like the telephone, email, blogs, online databases, etc., collective learning is certainly broader and faster, but it is not new.

  2. I'm sorry that the seminar did not go off today. I was hoping for an Ah-Ha moment about Allison Littlejohn's concept of collective learning.

  3. Agree with all of this. If anything is "new" about collective learning, it's the ability to connect more broadly and quickly given new technologies. I do think THAT is significant -- but the underlying bits describe stuff that has been going on for a long time.

    And that's a bit of my frustration when I look at different professional practices involved with learning or knowledge sharing: training & development, knowledge management, HR, higher ed teaching. Example: Training practitioners continue to hammer with instructional design. Ok...that works in some cases. But why is it that many still cannot wrap their heads around the process that Littlejon describes (and seems so obvious to the Robert and Sharla here)? Trainers have a really hard time envisioning a larger context for learning.

    Same goes for KM. Etc. So the usefulness of Littlejon's work is in many ways as a framework for describing the environment and getting practitioners to reframe their thinking. I see it as part of a mix of views on this same topic that - combined together - help describe and define this larger learning context.

  4. Thank you Jeff! What you have said is really helpful. Part of my misunderstanding is the intended audience of the work. This really shines a new light on the whole issue, and gets me reconsidering Professor Littlejohn's work on collective learning.