BOOK: Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media

About the Book

Within the rapidly expanding field of educational technology, learners and educators must confront a seemingly overwhelming selection of tools designed to deliver and facilitate both online and blended learning. Many of these tools assume that learning is configured and delivered in closed contexts, through learning management systems (LMS). However, while traditional “classroom” learning is by no means obsolete, networked learning is in the ascendant. A foundational method in online and blended education, as well as the most common means of informal and self-directed learning, networked learning is rapidly becoming the dominant mode of teaching as well as learning.

In Teaching Crowds, Dron and Anderson introduce a new model for understanding and exploiting the pedagogical potential of Web-based technologies, one that rests on connections — on networks and collectives — rather than on separations. Recognizing that online learning both demands and affords new models of teaching and learning, the authors show how learners can engage with social media platforms to create an unbounded field of emergent connections. These connections empower learners, allowing them to draw from one another’s expertise to formulate and fulfill their own educational goals. In an increasingly networked world, developing such skills will, they argue, better prepare students to become self-directed, lifelong learners.


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Transactional distance and new media literacies

Moore’s theory of transactional distance describes the communications and psychological gulf between learner and teacher in a distance education setting. The theory was formulated in a correspondence era of distance learning and matured in an era where discussion forums and virtual learning environments reduced transactional distance in a closed-group setting that enabled interactions akin to those in a traditional classroom. In recent years the growth of social networking and social interest sites has led to social forms that fit less easily in these traditional formal models of teaching and learning. When the “teacher” is distributed through the network or is an anonymous agent in a set or is an emergent actor formed by collective intelligence, transactional distance becomes a more complex variable. Evolved social literacies are mutated by new social forms and require us to establish new or modified ways of thinking about learning and teaching. In this missive we explore the notion of transactional distance and the kinds of social literacy that are required for or that emerge from network, set, and collective modes of social engagement. We discuss issues such as preferential attachment, confirmation bias, and trust and describe social literacies needed to cope with them.

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Agoraphobia and the modern learner

Abstract:Read/write social technologies enable rich pedagogies that centre on sharing and constructing content but have two notable weaknesses. Firstly, beyond the safe, nurturing environment of closed groups, students participating in more or less public network- or set-oriented communities may be insecure in their knowledge and skills, leading to resistance to disclosure. Secondly, it is hard to know who and what to trust in an open environment where others may be equally unskilled or, sometimes, malevolent. We present partial solutions to these problems through the use of collective intelligence, discretionary disclosure controls and mindful design.

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Soft is hard and hard is easy: learning technologies and social media

Published in Form@re, 2013

This paper is primarily about the nature of learning technologies, with a particular focus on social media. Drawing on W. Brian Arthur’s definition of technologies as assemblies of phenomena orchestrated to some use, the paper extends Arthur’s theory by re– specifying and extending the commonly held distinction between soft and hard technologies: soft technologies being those that require orchestration of phenomena by humans, hard technologies being those in which the orchestration is predetermined or embedded. Learning technologies are those in which pedagogies (themselves technologies) are part of the assembly. The consequences of this perspective are explored in the context of different pedagogical models and related to social learning approaches in a variety of contexts, from correspondence courses through to MOOCs.

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Three generations of distance education pedagogy: the Portuguese version (trans: João Mattar, 2013)


Este artigo define e examina três gerações de pedagogia de educação a distância. Ao contrário de classificações anteriores de educação a distância, baseadas na tecnologia utilizada, esta análise centra-se na pedagogia que define as experiências de aprendizagem encapsuladas no design da aprendizagem. As três gerações de pedago- gia, cognitivo-behaviorista, socioconstrutivista e conectivista, são examinadas utilizando o conhecido modelo de comunidade de investigação (GARRISON; ANDERSON; ARCHER, 2000), com foco nas presenças cognitiva, social e de ensino. Embora essa tipologia de pedagogias possa também ser aplicada com proveito na educação presencial, a necessidade e a prática de abertura e de explicitação do conteúdo e do processo em educação a distância tornam o trabalho especialmente relevante para os designers, professores e desenvolvedores de edu- cação a distância. O artigo conclui que a educação a distância de alta qualidade explora as três gerações em função do conteúdo de aprendizagem, do contexto e das expectativas de aprendizagem.


Teoria. Educação a Distância. Pedagogia.


This paper defines and examines three generations of distance education pedagogy. Unlike earlier classifications of distance education based on the technology used, this analysis focuses on the peda- gogy that defines the learning experiences encapsulated in the learning design. The three generations of cognitive-behaviourist, social constructivist, and connectivist pedagogy are examined, using the familiar community of inquiry model (GARRISON, ANDERSON, & ARCHER, 2000) with its focus on social, cognitive, and teaching presences. Although this typology of pedagogies could also be usefully applied to campus-based education, the need for and practice of openness and explicitness in distance education content and process makes the work especially relevant to distance education designers, teachers, and developers. The article concludes that high-quality distance education exploits all three generations as determined by the learning content, context, and learning expectations. 

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Analogue Literacies (2011)

ABSTRACT: The continuous co-evolution of digital technologies and the skills needed to use them makes the concept of ‘digital literacy’ a slippery and moving target. Tools in themselves do not technologies make: it is the combination of phenomena, tools and purposes which, in a never ending and always accelerating dance, constantly shift what Stuart Kauffman calls the ‘adjacent possible’ to enable new and unforeseeable trajectories, both good and bad. Traditional literacies are based on an assumption that skills are transferrable and capable of improvement in incremental steps, that we can become experts in their application. Digital competencies, on the other hand, may (with some limited exceptions) become outmoded, unnecessary and defunct, sometimes in weeks or months rather than years, as the pace of technological change moves the goalposts as soon as we reach them. Often, a new generation of digital technologies will render our hard-earned skills redundant almost as soon as we have attained them, meanwhile opening out new vistas of adjacent possibilities that demand the acquisition of new competencies. The so-called ‘digital generation’ is no less immune to this effect than older generations, as witnessed by their enthusiastic but unreflective tendencies to embrace social media without regard to the consequences of persistent digital identity and emerging norms of privacy and public disclosure. In this paper I argue for a different way of thinking about digital literacy that is based on a richer understanding of technologies, following W. Brain Arthur, as assemblies of other technologies, both soft and hard, human and machine. I suggest that the need for literacy should not be focused on the hard, digital media but on the soft, malleable edges of the adjacent possible that each new technological/social/human assembly provides. 

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The Blog and the Borg: a Collective Approach to E-Learning (2003)

This paper describes the use of tools and procedures to encourage reflective learning in a blended-learning postgraduate course. Its ethos encourages self-organized collaborative learning with little taught theoretical content. Students use a variety of Internet-based communication technologies and reflect on their experiences in an online learning diary or “blog,” The course is successful but its limited theoretical foundations, and technical and organizational problems caused by its blended delivery mode have led to student anxiety and have affected learning. The problems have been overcome through structural and methodological changes, sometimes at the expense of compromising the course’s ethos. A new solution is proposed combining the use of blogs with CoFIND, a kind of “group mind amplifier,” leading to a technologically enhanced variant of Kolb’s learning cycle that may serve as an informative model for other technology-assisted courses.


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On the stupidity of mobs (2006)

This paper explores the implications of social navigation used to assist online learning communities. It presents an experiment in social navigation employing a treasure map, comparing the behavior of users provided with social navigation cues and the behavior of those with no such cues. The experiment suggests that social navigation may cause poor decision-making in its users in two distinct ways. Some users may follow the actions of others (even poor ones), while others may actively try to behave differently. Neither strategy is useful at all times. The paper goes on to discuss approaches to limiting the dangers of such systems. 

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PHD Thesis: Achieving self-organisation in network-based learning environments (2002)

Link to my thesis

This thesis is an investigation into how to exploit the unique features of computer networks (notably the Internet) to support self-organising groups of adult learners.

The structures of systems influence the behaviour of their parts whilst those structures are in turn influenced by their parts’ interactions. Effects of structural hierarchies in popular systems of education may lead to poor learning experiences for some students. An alternative way of organising such systems is to decentralise control and to allow a structure to emerge from the combined actions of learners: a self-organised learning environment.

The functionality of a teacher often has the largest effect on the dynamics of an educational system. This is therefore a good place to concentrate efforts to encourage emergent structures to develop in adult education. The thesis attempts to classify of what that functionality consists, abstracting the roles a teacher may perform.

The Internet (especially the World Wide Web) has more of a network than a hierarchical structure and, being a virtual space, provides relatively virgin ground on which a less centralised model of educational organisation might develop. The thesis considers how self-organised learning may arise in existing Internet-based environments. It identifies a key weakness of existing systems to adequately address the varied and ever-changing needs of learners.

A number of studies performed as part of this investigation centre on the construction of a series of software products explicitly aimed at enabling the self-organisation of learners. They achieve this through the adaptation and evolution of metadata at different structural levels, thereby dynamically adapting to learners’ needs as those needs develop.

The thesis concludes with a set of guiding principles for those seeking to build self- organisation into learning environments.