CKK09 Can Learning Networks (partly) replace the teacher?

This is my response to Can Learning Networks (partly) replace the teacher? as posted in the Hot seat of Networked Learning Conference 2010.  I wasn’t able to participate in the conversation.

Here is my last year’s post (CCK08) in response to George’s question.

I suppose that’s what George and Stephen would like to see… we are actively building up the connections through forums, blogs, wikis and other various tools, which is all part of the learning process.  And we are proactive in peer teaching as practising “teachers”: to explore what is distributed in the web and networks and people, to be inquisitive, to challenge each others’ perspectives by postings and responses based on reasons (not just passions – with emotional control) in a network.   Some of us have used our own writings, postings, others have used podcasts, videos on Youtubes, pictures, powerpoints, and mind maps etc.  to share the knowledge and learning.  In other words, modelling and demonstration as a teacher and connecting and practice as a learner (as cited from Stephen in various forum discussion).

When such connections and exchange of perspectives are coupled with personal reflections, I think it could generate powerful learning amongst the individuals – with valuable emergent knowledge shared and developed.   For me, it has already changed the way I learn.

In the forum I often like to learn the views of the participants, mainly because here you are: George, Stephen, Jon, Frances, Bob, Lisa, Old Socs and others… the lively ones whose quotes and perspectives are more relevant and important than those quoted in “theories” in OUR discussion.  Your views are based on years of experience and knowledge, and are equally valuable when compared to those findings coming from applied research done by great educators, researchers and professors.

In this connection, I think the exploitation of ICT in the mining of distributed network knowledge and network sharing and discussion could often outperform that of an individual “teacher” or “professor”, as the process could more readily crystallise the essence of connected knowledge, which is emergent.

Such deep learning is often more valuable to the participants because the emergent knowledge is a result of “co-construction” by its network individuals.  The diversity, autonomy, interactivity and openness, in a connective knowledge network is both encouraged and forged under such learning ecology (adapted from Stephen).

So in this network, is everyone a leader and instructor in learning?  If you want to enlighten and share the learning, what are you going to do about it?  Lead from the front?  Keep each other excited! Stay current with knowledge upfront!  Is it what most professors are doing? Isn’t it in line with the principle of life long learning?  Is that the spirit of emergent leadership – exploiting the learning via technology and network (artefacts and people) ? Sorry too many questions already.  Your turn…

It seems a similar learning pattern has emerged in CCK09, though there are significant differences in terms of forum participation.  There were some CCK08 participants joining back in CCK09, and I noted a few have acted in the role of “helpers” or “mentors” to each other rather than “teachers” in the blogs, twitters, forum, Ning and various other media.

Can I come to the same conclusion as that in CCK08?  I think I still need more time to observe and reflect….

If I were to answer the question in general, then my response would be: it depends on the situations.  Under certain circumstances, learning networks could replace the teacher partly for some learners, but not all.

I think it depends on (a) the learning context (formal, informal or non-formal learning, or a hybrid/blended learning or institutional learning, (b) the curriculum or learning outcomes required, (c) the roles of the “teacher”, (d) the expectation of learners, (e) the skills, expertise, experience, and learning styles of the learners, (f) the tools and technologies and connections that are available to the learners to support the learning, and (g) the time factor.

Though the learning network may be able to provide guidance, facilitation, mentoring and even expert advice on ICT tools and techniques for the learners, it is important to realise that we have made huge assumptions here.

What sort of learning network is the learner engaged in?   Are the  networkers coming from a diverse field of interests or expertise? How about the learning readiness of the learners?  Are the network members ready to support each others?  Have the learners mastered certain metacognitive skills (including technology literacy, critical thinking and communication skills)?  Would the network be able to provide the emotional support that some learners need on a confidence and trustful basis?  Does the learning network fit into the learners’ needs?

Due to the complexity, changing and emergent nature of learning in networks, there are difficulties in guaranteeing the results of learning.

Can a network of individuals replace a teacher or professor?  Your conclusions…..


CCK09 Which is better – Results-oriented or process-oriented?

Stephen Downes asks: Is it better to be results-oriented or process-oriented? What if it is very hard to guarantee results, due to change and complexity?

Hi Stephen, would it depend on what you (and your customer(s)) want? In learning, you want both, but the process may be more valuable to you, as the results can’t be guaranteed, due to complexity in learning. But in real professional life – work, the organisation wants results, our supervisor wants results, our customers, our stakeholders (including government, education authorities) want results, and they want us to ensure the process is “right” (follow policies and procedures) too! That is quality from a customer’s (our employer and stakeholders’) perspective!

So in learning, we could afford to make (minor) mistakes, so far if we could learn, and we could improve our learning through reflection on mistakes and taking corrective actions.  At work, our organisation and supervisor would therefore like us to achieve the results.  That is reality.

May be a few minor mistakes would still be tolerated in the learning process, but not a big one. And still one needs to learn from that to ensure the results are achieved at work.


CCK09 Open and closed systems thinking and Complex Adaptive System

When thinking about organisations it is necessary to distinguish between closed-system thinking and open-system thinking.
In closed-system thinking there is a tendency to regard the enterprise as sufficiently independent to allow most of its problems to be analysed with reference to its internal structure and without reference to its external environment.  This approach tends to lead to a static view which ignores imbalance caused by influences coming from the environment (and resulting change).
In open systems thinking, there is the logical implication that such systems may spontaneously re-organise towards state of greater heterogeneity and complexity and that they achieve a steady state at a level where they can still do work.
Organisational problems come from disturbances to regularity caused by (1) changing market environments, (2) changes affecting labour, materials and technology.
The flexibility of an organization’s technology affects its reaction to change.  Some organisations can simply change their internal technology in the face of change.  Others, with rigid technology, have to adapt by changing their structures.  Thus technology is an important boundary condition mediating between the organisation and its environment.  Because of its importance alongside the human factors it becomes useful to think of an organisation as an open socio-technical system (Emery 1969).
It is therefore imperative to understand the impact of ICT & Web 2.0 on organisations, the people and the systems.
A CAS is a complex, self-similar collection of interacting adaptive agents. The study of CAS focuses on complex, emergent and macroscopic properties of the system. Various definitions have been offered by different researchers:
A Complex Adaptive System (CAS) is a dynamic network of many agents (which may represent cells, species, individuals, firms, nations) acting in parallel, constantly acting and reacting to what the other agents are doing. The control of a CAS tends to be highly dispersed and decentralized. If there is to be any coherent behavior in the system, it has to arise from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. The overall behavior of the system is the result of a huge number of decisions made every moment by many individual agents.[1]
A CAS behaves/evolves according to three key principles: order is emergent as opposed to predetermined (c.f. Neural Networks), the system’s history is irreversible, and the system’s future is often unpredictable. The basic building blocks of the CAS are agents. Agents scan their environment and develop schema representing interpretive and action rules. These schema are subject to change and evolution.[2]

From wikipedia (complex adaptive systems)


Under connectivism, it is trying to explain the learning under an open learning system (the informal and non-formal learning (PLN/PLE), and the formal learning (LMS), face-to-face, blended based on various connections, and learning due to the immersion in the networks (real and virtual).  So this is cutting across the open and closed system and their boundary, and in most cases, it would be covering both the open system with Web 2.0 – social media and the closed system with classroom and the blended learning when online learning is involved.
That also explains why I would like to apply connectivism on organisational learning.  However, I think the application of an open-system thinking on a closed or semi-closed-open systems (such as an organisation or educational institution) will need certain adjustment, in order to balance the self-organised local relationship that may exist in an open system and the structured functional relationship in a closed system.
Due to the fuzziness and often overlapping areas of social media of these open-closed systems, there would be emergent leadership and learning  arising from such media and networks interaction.  In this Community of Practice (COP):
Diverse approaches to supporting communities of practice have been adopted by different organizations: some see them as largely emergent phenomena, others have adopted more deliberate strategies to design and manage their shape and purpose. A community of practice is fundamentally a self-organizing collection of volunteers. Knowledge is shared within the community based on relationships with others, rather than direct transactions. Hence membership involves an emotional as well as an intellectual component
So, COP is trying to accommodate for the close-system thinking (geared towards both the organisation’s and network’s needs, though trying to accomodate individual’s autonomy), where community members could still practise in an open-system thinking (a hybrid of open-closed system thinking) in a network.  In many COPs, many participants still prefer to be the legitimate peripheral participants (lurkers) rather than active participants.  Also the voices raised by the COP would be a perfect  way of letting people to “release their emotions and speak their voices”.  It depends on the organisations’ leadership and culture in terms of responses to such voices…
Think about your networks.  Your friends, your colleagues, your social circle.  How new networks take shape through introductions at parties, over coffee breaks, via email.  How your connections have helped you, supported you and hindered you. 

They are all around us. We rely on them. We are threatened by them. We are part of them. Networks shape our world, but they can be confusing: no obvious leader or centre, no familiar structure and no easy diagram to describe them. Networks self-organise, morphing and changing as they react to interference or breakdown.

Networks are the language of our times, but our institutions are not programmed to understand them.

As individuals, we have taken advantage of the new connections: to earn, learn, trade and travel. But collectively we don’t understand their logic. Our leaders and decision-makers have often failed to grasp their significance or develop adequate responses. We do not know how to avoid internet viruses or manage mass migration, structure urban communities, regulate global financial markets or combat networked terror.

So now we live in a world held together by networks, but lacking the language to solve its common problems. We’re left with a sense of unease – a governance gap that needs to be bridged.

In summary, I think using a complexity approach does help in identifying some of the aspects in organisation (when it comes to vision and mission statement development, strategic planning and action etc.  A COP may be an alternative approach to resolve some of the issues that arise from the impact of open systems (i.e organisational problems come from disturbances to regularity caused by (a) changing market environments, (b) changes affecting labour, materials and technology, and in case of education institution (changing needs of education (vision and mission), clients (learners), and employers).
So I think it is important to appreciate the differences between an open and closed systems thinking in order to ensure the proper application of connectivism or networked learning principles in education, business institutions and enterprises.
Networks are the language of our times.  We need to understand the language to solve problems.


1. Community of Practice

2. F.E. Emery (ed.) 1969. Systems Thinking, London, Penguin