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 10, 2011

Collective Learning - Final Thoughts #change11

After my epiphany regarding collective learning, I've taken a chance to rethink my views on the topic and Professor Littlejohn's work.  Due to meetings, I was unable to attend the presentation on Friday, and hope to view it later this week.

First, collective knowledge is a reality.  No human holds the sum total of all knowledge, so we have to use external sources of knowledge to supplement our understanding of topics.  In the sciences, collective knowledge has been tapped for centuries, as can be seen with the correspondences between intellectuals and scientists since the 1600s (and earlier if you keep going).  In our modern world though, there seems to be disparity between academic disciplines in how, when, or even if, collective knowledge is tapped.

During a meeting on Friday, I had an opportunity to talk to people from English and Art about collective learning.  It was agreed among them that they preferred to work alone.  Collective learning, if any, was relegated to conferences and meetings.  From reading Professor Littlejohn's work, it seems that this is also the case in business and corporate collective knowledge.  I also realized that in academic settings, this can also be the case.  It can be amazing how many faculty members (both new and older) don't know how a university is administered.  There are at times some strange misconceptions that could be solved simply by asking.

This brings us to my first key in Collective Learning:  ask questions.  I feel we have built a culture that really does not like to ask questions, that it is seen as some type of weakness to look for knowledge from those around you.  Even my students are at first hesitant to ask questions, but it is the fastest way to access collective knowledge.  If one person doesn't know, they may at least know someone or some reference that can provide the information.  Does asking a question show a lack of knowledge, yes, but it also shows that you are cognizant of your lack of knowledge and are actively trying to correct that lack of knowledge.

My second key in Collective Learning: ask for feedback.  Culturally, we are also afraid of criticism, and this leads us to the self-destructive path of trying to be a lone wolf in our work.  Instead of going over to a colleague and saying "could you look this over for me?", we will sit alone and go over the work again and again until we convince ourselves that it is perfect.  This comes for a meeting I just had (about an hour ago) with a student over a lab paper, and then another about a test.  Instead of getting feedback from an external source, both just convinced themselves that their work or knowledge was perfect only to find out that it was not at the expected level.  We tap into collective knowledge when we get feedback.

The third key in Collective Learning is be open to new ideasI was at a meeting with other faculty members from around the university working on a new idea for the college.  What I discovered was that the older faculty members mainly focused on "tried and true" methods of doing things, while younger faculty members wanted to do projects that would carry with it name recognition (making a name for themselves).  None of the ideas were new, none were revolutionary, none were going to go to that mythical "next level."  Would they work?  In their own way, but there was limited openness to anything untested, untried, or innovative.  Collective knowledge is not stagnant, it is not codified and unchanging.  It grows as individuals and organizations grow, and you should experiment.  That is why being open to new ideas is so critical.  New ideas allow collective knowledge to adapt and expand.

Finally, be willing to answer questions and give feedback.  The worst thing for an eager learner is to come face to face with someone who won't help them.  Always take time to answer questions and to give feedback.  This is the only way for collective learning to be provided to the next generation.

Yes, I have focused on person-to-person communication of knowledge, but that is because people will know where to go for the information.  You could do a Google searches for information, and get back 1,000 sites of varying degrees of relevance.  Instead, you could go to someone in the "know" and ask them where they would start looking for the information.  In general, you'll get a better way of finding a useful site, and you will be a connection in your individual learning network.


  1. Thanks for your continued posting on this topic. I have been struggling with the idea that knowledge exists outside the individual. I keep thinking that what exists in books, machines and art are representations of knowledge and therefor information that another must reinterpret to make his or own knowledge. My own definition just might be just too narrow. It can't accommodate some of the ideas of connectivism and collective that do resonate with me.

  2. @Tai: Your welcome. You are right that external knowledge must be reinterpreted by the recipient, hence the phrase remix which comes up in these discussions. In Professor Littlejohn's work, the act of remixing would be the creation of new knowledge artifacts.

    The important part of collective learning for me is that knowledge also exists in people. We learn from instructors and mentors, people in our offices and departments know who the best person to talk to when you have a specific question, and we learn from our colleagues.

    I think learning from others is what makes collective learning as a concept different from other ideas ideas of knowledge accumulation and creation.

    There is a great deal of Professor Littlejohn's work that I don't necessarily agree or resonate with. Some things, like crowdsourcing, may not be reliable for long term learning. In these cases, I think my resistance is not due to any inherent flaw, but the fact that our goals or outcomes are different. I see Professor's Littlejohn's process as temporary, though people may learn and use it regularly. My goal is to help students learn a topic and in the process gain the skills to become lifelong learners.

  3. Hey there, I'm glad that you brought the topic of collective learning into "real world" examples. Part of my objection with Littlejohn's focus was that she is describing a style of learning that is ideal in any setting or environment, but she speaks of it as something almost invented by the internet. I may not have read enough of her stuff, but that was my impression. I agree with her and others that the many tools on the internet seem to be promoting a more efficient learning environment (if one knows how to use the tools), but the points about a new education paradigm may be overblown. People have learned through very similar processes before and in other settings, although perhaps slower. I suppose the hope is that the educational attitudes of people adapted to the internet's environment will lead to educational reform across society, but somewhere people have to make that leap and bring the strategies of using collective knowledge out to the face-to-face world, just like you are talking about. So again, thank you for writing so coherently on this topic!