Enhancing Connected, Distributed Learning

This is the last of the four-part series that draws from our experiences of completing a Mentored MOOC called “Managing the Arts” with the Goethe Institute at the Leuphana Digital School this spring. In the first part, I argued that distributed learning might conceptually help us better than connected learning, as it shows the seams, and promises not connectivity but consolidation as the role of technologies of online learning.

My colleague Mariam Haydeyan detailed the idea of a distributed learner and her fragmented learning processes that become consolidated when we imagine the learner not just as an individual unit that needs to be networked with other such entities, but as a set of distributed practices of learning that need to be consolidated into the profile of a learner.

The project manager and collaborator on the Mentored MOOC, Ann-Kathrin Watolla gave her take on distributed teaching — reminding us that many teachers and educators, when faced with the immense amount of work that is required in managing learning, teaching, pedagogy, work-flows, meta-data, and extra-curricular references, often get intimidated. She argued that if we think of the teacher not as a single person, but as a complex system of multiple expertise, which can be distributed across different knowledge work and platforms, we think of a more sustainable ecosystem, where the teacher is not just one person, but a set of related actors (human or otherwise) that work as a unit toward distributed learning.

In this last entry, I have a conversation about distributed learning resources with Christian Friedrich, who has been the head of project management at the Leuphana Digital School and centrally involved in administering the Mentored MOOC – or as I like to call it, the OOCAM – Online Open Course, Accidentally Massive. Even as I introduce Christian, though, it strikes me that in his own introduction of his work, he often downplays what he and the core team do in running the MOOC. He was listing the distributed resources of learning that become a part of an online teaching project: Institutional support and substantial funding that both the Goethe Institute and the Leuphana University have to invest in making sure that the course remains free and open for any learner globally interested in it; the course directors (Felix Seyfarth who worked in tandem with me on this) who give it vision and shape, helping with the coordination and the facilitation of the different academic processes; the team at Goethe Institute and especially pivotal colleagues like Nico Dgenkolb who connected us with the four different case institutions – the BACC in Bangkok, HAU in Berlin, CCA in Lagos and Trafó in Budapest — as well as these four institutions themselves, who opened up their processes to make video case-studies for the learners, all get mentioned. He is quick to recall the technology providers like Candena and the video documentation team Bilderfest in Munich that gave the visual aesthetic and insight in making these learning resources. However, he did not mention the role that he and his colleagues play in this structure.

Question: What about the people at the Leuphana? You, Mariam and Ann-Kathrin? What role do you see yourself playing? Aren’t you a part of the learning resources too?

Friedrich: Not directly, no. Of course, we do mix content, we engage in discussions with mentors, tutors, teachers, experts. This, hopefully, has an impact on the overall course design in general and sometimes can be found only in little details (provided readings, assignments structure, team matching, etc.).

But, from a learner’s perspective, we are not visible at all and cannot be tapped as a resource.

Christian’s argument, premised on what is seen and what is observed, is exactly the problem that I have been facing with connected learning as a conceptual metaphor. Connected learning can only connect that which is visible. It establishes transactional relationships and ignores the people, resources and institutions that become the preconditions and often the invisible bodies of labor that support such learning. Connected learning infrastructure favours conversations about platforms, User Interface, content management systems, the role of the learners and teachers, but the administrative resources that are not visible and, hence, become infrastructure are often dropped from these conversations. Distributed learning, because it requires us to locate the agency that is needed and the labour that goes into the making of consolidated learning, allows us to identify these actors much more significantly. However, as I prod him for more details he shows how significant the team was to the actual materialisation of the learning processes.

Friedrich: Okay, so what we (Ann-Kathrin, Mariam and I) do is that we are the central point in the network of our courses. We orchestrate the work of mentors, teachers, experts, film crew, publishers, university administration, IT infrastructure and we make sure that we don’t overstep any boundaries, when it comes to legal issues or certification, for example.

So, while maybe overstating our importance, we could be seen as the backbone of our courses.

From my own experiences in working with them, I know that he is not overstating the critical presence of the team. However, because the interface is only about that which is visible and that which can be consolidated, it hides the distributed labour and effort that goes in the making of a connected learning environment. It makes the learners and teachers feel as if they are on their own, because the presumption is that the invisible is also not important. At the same time, the costs and efforts that are invested in the making of connected learning environments are hugely underestimated.

Connected learning environments often suggest that there are no hierarchies or information assymetries between the learners and, sometimes, not even between learners and teachers. The environments are often set up in a very coequal way, which is supposed to enable collaboration and downplay eventual barriers in participation. Christian, however, makes a point that hierarchies are implicit at many different levels, though they become invisible under the rhetoric of flattened equality that digital learning comes with.

Friedrich: I think that when a course community has been working in the course for two-three weeks, some hierarchies evolve, both within a team of five participants (one has more work experience, one might have more theoretical knowledge, one might be a design wizard, etc.), as well as within the larger community.

Q: Right…. and is there a particular strategy to reconcile these hierarchies?

Friedrich: There are always “power learners” who try and convince the rest of the class of their opinions and interpretations, which sparks interesting discussions. And during the course, this creates perceived hierarchies. An opinion of one of the more active students is probably valued more than the opinion of the silent type of student (at least to a certain extent).

Q: You also said that the hierarchies emerge in the work and how different people are perceived? Are these desirable or is this something we need to change?

Friedrich: I think that this is basic human behaviour. We can always stress the fact that, within a course, we are all learners, which is something that you, for example, have done consistently. That then helps in closing gaps between the more active students and the rather silent ones, and it also makes teachers appear more approachable. But, this is just one example. Another one might be that mentors also make mistakes, they will not always have the one correct answer (sometimes, because we don’t have it either, and sometimes because we choose to let them figure it out on their own).

And it becomes important for us, who are implementing and envisioning these systems, to have infrastructure that recognises these differences and hierarchies. Positing the learner as the same kind of learner is to overlook the fact that learning is about negotiation with peers, teachers, and with resources. Distributed learning makes us aware, not because of the seamless connectivity, but because of the distances that need to be bridged, both in terms of geographies and time zones as well as in providing spaces for students to engage with each other’s work. Christian calls this the “closed shop” model — where learners are identified through their credentials and cannot engage in anonymous activities which can sometimes encourage harassment and bullying, and at the same time, they are offered safe spaces where they can rant, or express discontent, with control over who gets to access these expressions.

Friedrich: I think that the fact that we provide a closed environment (students have to register without costs), students have the impression that what they contribute is somewhat private (which, of course, is only true to a certain extent). But, being sure that my reply in a forum, in which I rant a bit about the assignment, is not indexed by google and visible forever, can be a good thing.

On the other hand, by providing a closed environment, we exclude many people who might be able to provide additional resources, insights, feedback or comments. The scaling of this course could have been much greater (and maybe the learning impact, too) if we had given eveyone access to the course environment, the resources, the work by student teams and the forum.

So, there are two sides to this and we were bound by several factors (legal, copyright issues, privacy issues) to locking most of the content and resources away from the public.

And the see-saw is perhaps, exactly what we need to appropriate as the metaphor for online learning. Maybe it is not connected versus distributed. I don’t want to now take up distributed learning as the new buzzword. Instead, the idea behind this series has been to show what happens when we dislocate the sacred and central authority of a metaphor like connected and find contraries to it. As Christian points out, we are all allowed to make mistakes and we make those mistakes a generative part of the learning, not only for the students but also for the mentors and the teachers. Emphasis on connectivity has resulted into where we are right now, but we are beginning to see that a shift from connectivity to distributedness offers us new modes of experimenting with peer learning, mentorship, and pedagogy. We want to be connected and distributed — we want to be at the centre of the see-saw, where all these processes pass through, connecting and distributing, consolidating and disbursing, helping us understand the different processes and the possibilities of enhancing them in building digital learning environments.

Banner image credit: Leuphana Digital School