learning in public and other musings on higher ed

Two things this morning – both touching on issues of digital learning, learning communities, learning socially and the big question – is higher ed closing students off from the kinds of tools and skills they’ll need to be lifelong learners?

Writer Response Theory provides this exercise to help students find their Social Bookmarking Soulmates. Basically the assignment is really, really, really simple — the student finds someone who shares an interest with them on a social bookmarking site, and then writes a profile of that person on their blog. So I think it’s really more of a brain-mate than a soul-mate that’s the goal.

While the output of the assignment is the profile of “here’s my soulmate” on the blog, what they learn about that specific contact is really not the point – the point is to show students that informal, asynchronous collaborative learning spaces exist and that finding these spaces and making connections within them is a part of learning today. And tomorrow – this is a major part of how they will need to learn when they leave the academy.

From the blog –

During the assignment, students are at first skeptical that they will find anyone with similar interest. Usually it is not till they find a “Gem,” or exciting link, through someone else’s tags that they see the value in the exercise. More importantly, the assignment hammers home the ways in which social bookmarking can help them become part of a network of scholars, collaborating albeit indirectly at times.

That’s certainly how this worked for me — I didn’t “get” the value of my del.icio.us network until I found some of those gems, and noticed that those gems tended to come from the same people over and over again.

I don’t think this exercise works if it’s not done in public – in an open, public, virtual space. There was a related post yesterday on Blackboard’s blog about their Scholar product – the social bookmarking service that exists within the Blackboard walled garden. It does look a lot better than it did to me when I checked it out about a year ago — the social networking features are easier to see and use, and there are instructions for exporting your scholar bookmarks out to another service (which didn’t work for me when I tried it, but I didn’t try all that hard).

But I still don’t think that this assignment could work as well within the LMS. Nothing could compare to del.icio.us’ user base, but it goes beyond that. There’s something essential about making these kinds of connections out in the world – interacting with experts, hobbyists, other students, professionals and everyone all in the same place. And in learning how to find those people who are useful connections because they are useful. Learning how to do that kind of information evaluation is, I think, a necessary 21st century information literacy skill – and one that can’t be supported by the closed-off LMS environment.

Which leads me to this story out of Toronto. A first-year student is facing academic honesty charges and expulsion because he is (was?) the listed administrator for a Facebook study group connected to an intro Chemistry course at Ryerson. He’s facing 147 counts – one for each member of the group. None of the other group members have been charged. After the course professor found out about the Facebook group, he changed the students grade from a B to an F and recommended action be taken against him, citing a rule that forbids “any deliberate activity to gain academic advantage, including actions that have a negative effect on the integrity of the learning environment.”

First – what does that even mean? Doesn’t studying in ANY form count as a “deliberate activity to gain academic advantage” ? I mean, the next clause makes it clear that penalties won’t be limited to just those deliberate activities that have an negative effect. But that’s not really the point. The student in question is maintaining that what is being attacked here is the venue – that this virtual study group is no different than the face-to-face study groups you’ll find in any university library on any campus any day of the week.

And it looks like he might be right. The Toronto Star article linked above quotes the student advocate in the case extensively, and she’s clearly advocating one side. But no one has come forward with any evidence at all that students in this group were doing anything more than time-honored study group activities like “I can’t figure out this problem. Can you help me.” No one has shown any evidence (and given that this is a virtual space, you’d think it would be there to be shown) that students were exchanging answers, doing each other’s homework, or passing work they did not do off as their own, which is the main point of this statement from Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law (crazy title).

Beyond this, the students in this course were apparently given different questions to prevent exactly the kind of cheating this student is being accused of facilitating. What’s really dismaying here, is that these students – if these initial impressions are true – are engaged in exactly the kind of learning behaviors we should be encouraging. There’s no evidence here that the learning that a student would do when it comes to these chemistry problems would be better if it was done in solitude, and I think there’s a lot of reasons to think that the learning could be better with collaboration.

I’m biased here – in favor of social learning and study groups. The Collaborative Learning Center in my library is one of my favorite parts of the whole building.

the CLC in the Valley Library

Tutors and graduate assistants provide drop-in tutoring in the evenings, and during the day they’re joined by supplemental instruction tables where groups of students enrolled in large courses with high failure rates work with a professional tutor on a weekly basis.

Ryerson has more to say in this CBC article than they did in the Star. This quote jumps out –

[Ryerson spokesman James] Norrie said the university understands the nature of Facebook and its groups.

“This is not a bunch of old academics sitting around a table saying, ‘Oh, this scares us.’ That’s not what’s happening,” he said.

They say that, but given what we know so far it really looks like the opposite of this statement is true. Not just that the university doesn’t understand the nature of Facebook and its groups (though it looks like maybe they don’t) but that they don’t understand the nature of social learning online in a much larger sense than this. Which is what brings us back to the social bookmarking ideas above. When these students leave Ryerson, their ability to find groups of people engaged with the same problems they’re trying to deal with — whether they’re professional or personal problems — is going to be a fundamental part of their ability to learn and solve those problems.

And like it or not, a lot of that networking and learning is going to happen online. And it might be scary to think of a world where the number of resources available to students goes beyond a study table in the library or the answers in the back of the book, but that’s the world we have. And our students deserve the opportunity to learn how to learn in that world.

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