Why do (social) networks matter in teaching & learning?

After a week of increasingly intermittent engagements with Twitter I stumbled back into the Twitterverse this afternoon and one of the first things I see is this post from @marksmithers. It is Mark’s response to the call for help from @courosa for his keynote at the Melbourne PLE conference next week. Alec’s question is

Why do (social) networks matter in teaching & learning?

What follows is my response.

Apparent serendipity

It is largely serendipitous that I am posting this. Without Mark being in my network and me happening to dip back into that network today, I would’ve probably missed this thread altogether. I echo Mark’s though that with a network of the appropriate make-up (the balance between similarity and diversity so difficult to achieve) answers to questions crop up in the network as you need them.

For example, I’ve just about finished teaching teaching this course for the first time. There were a number of times during the course when purusing my Twitter feed would highlight some really good resource or example of a topic I had to “teach” that week.

Teaching by learning

Which brings me to a slight disagreement with Mark, though it is achieved by the typically academic practice of arguing about definitions. Mark wrote:

I’m going to ignore the ‘teaching’ word and just concentrate on the ‘learning’ word because that is far more important and far more enabled by the network.

I’m a fan of Downes’ basic theory of teaching and learning

to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect

The courses I’m currently teaching are focused on the inter-connection between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), networks and pedagogy (teaching/learning). So I am trying to “teach” these courses by showing the students how I learn about using ICTs and networks to teach them. The main approach to doing this is visibly engaging with and constructing networks. This includes reflections on my teaching posted on this blog, comments on Twitter, bookmarks shared via Diigo etc.

I don’t do this as much as I’d like. It’s difficult, but without these (social) networks it would be far more difficult to share this activity with the students.

Teaching as making connections

The flipside of Downes’ definition is “to learn is to practice and reflect”. Having students engage in (social) networks while they are learning is a great way of making this visible. Something I’m struggling and hoping to increase significantly over time.

I’ve often thought Erica McWilliams’ concept of the “meddler in the middle” (as opposed to the “sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”) might be an apt metaphor for this. At least as I conceptualise it potentially working in a networked “classroom” (which is really not separated at all from the broader world). i.e. with students actively engaged with (social) networks their practice and reflection – perhaps their knowledge – becomes visible and enables a teacher to meddle in their network but also more broadly in the whole class’ network by encouraging students to engage in activities that lead them to make new connections in their network.

Perhaps more importantly, it opens up the possibility of other students and people from outside the class to encourage students to engage in activities that lead them to make new connections.

Reducing isolation

Earlier this term I observed a student in my course in a tutorial struggling with a particular task. One that most other students had completed. As I watched the student continued on struggling, not making connections with the knowledge needed to complete the task or with other students. I did intervene, but I do wonder just how many of the 250+ students in this course had moments like this?

Following on from the above, I believe/hope that by making students (social) networks more visible it is possible to reduce this sense of isolation.