What Are Cultural Norms For Online Personal And Community Learning

Contemporary online Personal and Community Learning raises a variety of questions about how, what, when, and whether to participate in PCL when it has the potential to so shift cultural norms.

By Kate DuBois Longoria, Lecturer in Digital News Innovation, The New School

Distributed learning models like Udacity or Codecademy are fun but break the rules. By the time students have mastered one term of a literacy course, the internet will make it into another one.

Startups find ways to create “learning villages” from scratch rather than teaching a class with other students. Within the three years after Codecademy started in 2008, it had more than four million students. By 2019, it’s estimated that over half a million students will have registered. Udacity started with 120 courses and now offers more than 50,000. In September 2015, Tumblr launched Laconica, a video-based course about the developers who helped build the company. And each month, dozens of courses are added.

These sites “learn” students on platforms that have been adopted by thousands of other courses. The sites have the same capacities to learn, with the same new learning technologies and tools, but they have different strategies and points of view.

Who decides what is necessary for a course? What makes a good course? What are the right kinds of documents? How do you evaluate learners’ engagement and performance? And how do you make sense of the streams of public and private learning in which learners engage?

These are the questions that graduates are still grappling with as they emerge into the world after pursuing their master’s degrees online. A changing job market, thousands of online courses, and an opening at the top of the political ladder are shifting traditional notions of higher education. For people at different stages of their careers, learning has often become the main way to stay abreast of new skills and technologies. And as new data reveal the benefits of learning digitally, the traditional gatekeepers are moving towards agility, outcomes-based programs, and change-oriented models of higher education. Yet there’s no clear definition of what a course is. Its meaning continues to evolve.

Plans for collaboration and development are another standard these days. New engineers in Silicon Valley start off one project with a specific goal, then, several months later, a new team brings in new mentors, new classmates, and new ideas. Designers hire freelance experts who, in turn, bring in more hires. The model assumes that there is someone capable of coordinating project activity. And according to an MIT survey, 87 percent of respondents would rather collaborate with other people rather than have one person hold the position. Meanwhile, even formalized organizations have made this kind of collaboration easier. Etsy, Facebook, Spotify, and Tumml have all found models that allow online components to flow out of and into formal interactions.

Online learning opportunities are a microcosm of today’s ever-shifting world. One “open source” course uses a new artificial intelligence engine to match learners with math concepts. The other combines a new low-code system for improving software development skills with a new approach to personalized learning and social learning. Similarly, apps and websites provide personalized advice to help learners tackle a single problem. Many of these approaches center on features that allow people to share professional information, information on other people, and knowledge about what can be achieved.

Can the new ways of sharing learnings enable new pathways for learning? Or are the approaches merely superficial playthings in our rapidly evolving social world? No one is sure yet what the latest models are going to look like. Traditional frameworks like university and graduate school do not appear to be responsible for these changes. Internet technology made many of these novel approaches possible. Yet there are challenges to learning everywhere: in classes, in their pre-class discussions, on campus, and in our inboxes.

Educators are also uncertain how to think about the emerging promise of online learning—and potential pitfalls. For now, the goal is to identify the best methods and platforms for engaging learners, which is going to be a huge challenge given how quickly learners themselves are moving through the learning process.

On platforms like Udacity, we are seen as students, learners, creators, creators’ creators, and readers. We have to imagine how educators and administrators can manage how we all collectively focus, re-focus, and reflect. There’s a world of difference between what a single learner can do in a day and the multi-level layers of learning you would need to design a new education model. And do a self-assessment to understand how you are going to manage all of this—most of us would probably look up at the sky and wonder, “If I can do this, why can’t I?”

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