The discussion topic on my online learning class was networks. Personal learning networks. That was interesting because most of my current research work uses network theory in one way or another, I use networks to study complex systems. But never stop to think too carefully on their role in education. Some of my classmates were a bit irritated by the amount of jargon around some of these terms in pedagogics, which to some extent I agree with. But pass the jargon barrier –where educators call everything a network– and start thinking how networks are created, evolved or nurtured in the physical class room as opposed to the virtual reality.
When I was at MIT I took a class taught by Cesar Hidalgo, it was an introduction to networks. The class was open to students from MIT, Harvard and other universities in the area; and their backgrounds were all over the place, from physics and engineering all the way to the humanities. I knew about networks at the time, at least the introductory material. But I was interested on how Cesar teaches, because sometimes I teach similar content, to a way less diverse groups of students. Cesar, at the time, was the leader of a research group on collective learning. Cesar is a physicist by training, but he has always be passioned about problems in the social sciences: from how economics and information grows, to how people perceive artificial intelligence. I was inspired by Cesar research, but also curious of his teaching style.
We learn in networks, Cesar knows that. In fact, he researches how countries, cities and businesses form networks to hold knowledge, skills, and develop new ones. What economist term a knowledge economy. In the classroom we would always start by discussing 2-3 papers that were supposed to be read before the class. Given the diversity of backgrounds, and the usual one or two free-riders that didn’t read, every one had a different level of understanding of the content. We would reflect on some questions for 10-15 minutes and report back to the class what the group thought of the topic. That exercise would catch up the lazy ones, and also start a collective conversation on what is the fuzz about. After some discussion and scoping a few key questions, he will then go on lecturing for 20mins or so before the next exercise. By the time the lecture arrived, we were all warmed up and collectively tackled questions, problems, and different interpretations.
But how do one reproduce such high quality discussions online? How does one deal with the zoom fatigue or the cameras off? The conversation is not the same. On the other hand, there are alternative channels where conversation can happen. Twitter is one I often use, not in the context of class, but in the context of following scientist whose work I find interesting. I use twitter to keep myself updated with papers, opinions, and sometimes ask the sources what they think about some scientific question. It is a network. This blogging exercise, for example, is how the Online Network Learning course creates the sandbox for casual but content oriented conversations.
There are creative ways of nurturing such networks. In my class at Stockholm University we heavily use flipped classroom to make sure the conversation gets ongoing within groups, and then with the larger class. Similar to the discussion reading groups Cesar uses. On a different teaching class I’m taking, we use Athena, an online platform where we can upload resources and multimedia. It has chat functionality and people can comment on each other’s contributions (e.g. an essay, an exam). The class space is restricted to students and teachers, so it is less public that then blog format for example. Another option are online forums. They are widely use in the programming communities to exchange problems, tips and solutions. They can be both open or semi-closed like stackoverflow, stack exchange, the studio community, or the Earth System Data lab forum. All of them are networks that people use to learn, exchange knowledge, or just trigger curiosity.