As educators, we want to teach in ways that support our students to be the best that they can be. We yearn for the lightbulb moment. We are so proud of them when they surprise us. We scream as loud as anyone when they break a record. We live vicariously through their successes. But in the contemporary, connected world the ability to stand out from the crowd is becoming more and more difficult. We want our students to stand on the shoulders of giants, but that model is pretty unsteady. Maybe the key is to teach them to collaborate — to weave a web, strong, networked, and expansive. Perfect for catching the elusive creature that is new knowledge.

Students bring a large array of interests and expertise to classrooms, but often these ideas are laid aside in the panic to ensure curriculum requirements are met, and often complex ideas are tackled through direct or scaffolded instruction. I have done this myself. But as Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris have written, we are obliged to include students in the learning process and let them try to mix it up with the experts. To learn from each other and to become experts themselves. Isn’t that the point of learning?

But where to start? How can teachers capture and utilise the rich and random knowledge students bring with them?

One idea is to begin to think of the classroom as a web of knowledge and relax into the students’ divergent ideas. To disrupt the linear, curriculum-oriented approach to learning.

Teachers are creative and sophisticated facilitators of learning, but they are trapped in a logic of conformity enforced by performance and competition expectations. Unfortunately, when the majority of education research is contextualised in classrooms it is difficult to differentiate between the results of curriculum implementation or the messier and more nuanced enactment of learning. Social media provide opportunities to  investigate learning outside the classroom using data generated in relaxed environments. By observing people as they learn through online activities, I have begun to question whether we truly understand just what learning is. The way teachers are trained to organise curriculum and pedagogy doesn’t seem to fit neatly into how people are learning (at least in online contexts). A couple of online experiences have led me to these questions about the present construction of schooling.

Webs of knowledge

I have recently been involved in a relaxed scholarly conversation with Deborah Netolicky and Helen Kara. Helen, Deborah, and I do not know each other outside of Twitter and our WordPress blogging accounts. Deborah and I live in different locations in Australia and Helen lives in the United Kingdom. Recently, Helen challenged me to write a blog from a #blimage, (blogging about an image) the brainchild of Steve Wheeler. The image was a photograph from Helen’s garden of a spider web, pictured here.

Photo of intertwined spider webs by Helen Kara
Photo from Helen Kara, used with permission

I wrote a post about the messiness of research. I thought out loud about how the web is a truer representation of how knowledge is accessed than the linear representation in most published research. In my post I challenged (as per the linear rules) Jenna Condie with another image.

That was supposed to be the end of the thought. But Deborah jumped in (not out of the blue, out of the network) and wrote a post about the spider web. Deborah wrote about how technology is being used to connect educators all over the world, particularly through Twitter and blogging. Deborah’s post inspired me to write another post about the image. I wrote about how we tend to still think of knowledge as linear despite decades of online connectedness. I explained how I was pleasantly surprised by Deborah’s breaking of the #blimage rules and mused that there needed to be more of that in education.  My post inspired Helen to join in too. Helen wrote about positive disruptive practice and that privileging print media is not doing research any favours. Jenna has not yet posted, but is keen to discard her allocated image and also draw inspiration from the spider web. Each participant broke the linear rules of the exercise and started weaving a circle of networked learning.

I began wondering what would happen if many more bloggers wrote about the same image. What type of knowledge could we begin to generate as a relaxed networked collective? Wikipedia is an excellent example of knowledge curation as a networked collective, but there is a strong possibility that social media, like blogging and Twitter, can help us make new connections between old ideas. The beauty of the above interaction was in its randomness. Each participant was inspired to write a new blog post because they wanted to and enjoyed the ideas.

How could this experience translate into education? What might student experts look like in an educational context? The following example is from an empirical study that is informing how my thoughts about this question are continuing to develop. The students participated in a very informal and voluntary capacity to help me develop a curriculum that better targets their needs. I don’t yet have the answers, but this study has helped me to confirm my belief that social media are a good place to start looking for them.

Using the web

Social media can teach us more about how people learn by participating in online learning activities but also by noticing how people interact and react to educational experiences. These networked collaborations can inform our pedagogic practice. The first rule of good pedagogy is knowing your students and how they learn. Social media provide new avenues for exploring that learning because we can watch it happen and develop over time (while the users are frequently posting).

For example, in my own research, I collected the Facebook status updates of first year university students to write a more targeted transition curriculum. I didn’t form a group, formulate questions, hashtag or even interact with the students beyond recruitment. I just wanted to know what they had to say, uninterrupted and raw. I watched them for a whole year as they learned to become university students.

I didn’t find anything revolutionary, but I did find that there were aspects of the transition process that were underrepresented in the research. There were slight misses in how universities were understanding the transition milestones. For example, traditional transition research situates orientation weeks as a time of loneliness. Some transition research that utilizes the online realm has shown that while students are alone, they are constantly in touch with family and friends as they explore their first days at university. What my research adds is that family and friends are deeply involved in secondary school students’ transitions to university. They provide advice, encouragement, and meetup opportunities continuously throughout the first weeks. This involvement drops off as the students settle into their routines and develop relationships with students in their classes, but outside-campus, online support rarely disappears. A further example is that transition research (in Australia) has suggested that early and low stakes assessment in the first year is a way to give students success and encourage them to stay at university. What has been largely missed in the tertiary assessment literature is that the students are looking for the value of their assessment. In fact, students are considering the value of their university education as a whole, whether they are considering the necessity of attending lectures or searching for the best coffee on campus. I’m hoping that better connecting those understandings between the policy makers and the students will lead to much more successful first year university transition experiences.

The beauty of my study was twofold. Firstly, the students helped weave a curriculum. No longer were the policy makers and researchers the only ones deciding what was important to know about transitioning to university. The students had a stake and a say in it. Secondly, I was able to watch students naturally learn without ingrained structures imposed by the industrial education system.

The potential for finding out more about how humans learn by using social media as data is very exciting for education researchers. More than any other technology has done before, social media provides examples of small- and large-scale interactions that can inspire face-to-face interactions in the classroom, the school, the community, the nation, and on the international stage. They can show us that some of the most intriguing ideas are not dictated by a curriculum. Most importantly, we can’t explore this learning unless we do it, engage in it ourselves, try it with our students, have successes and failures, and continuously reflect and refine.

Education technology must not be seen as the easy solution for finding new knowledge or new solutions to old problems. Anyone that has run group work in their classes knows that great collaboration is not the product of where desks are placed in a classroom but in the task given and the expertise brought to the table. By the same token, Twitter and blogs are not the solution for learning, though they have the potential to be a great vehicle for it.

The two examples above provide the basis for my ideas about what learning looks like. Learning is much messier and dynamic than scaffolded, compartmentalised education policy would lead us to believe. In classrooms, keeping on topic and task is an important structural and behavioral expectation. Random thoughts are actively discouraged. I believe that we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualized as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful.

Weaving webs in the classroom

Social constructivist trained teachers have experience in guiding collaborative problem solving. But instead of scaffolding the pathway to expertise, why not allow students to pursue their interests in a topic and then look for ways to synthesize what each student brings to the table? Effective collaboration is not about having students work together to find one solution to a problem, but rather having individual experts engage with  authentic problems and suggest real solutions, while understanding the complexity of getting there. Diversity of learning preferences, socio-cultural backgrounds, and learning abilities could effectively be catered to by allowing students to pursue their own expertise and contribute that expertise to solving a problem. Each student could also have a sense of success through their enactment of expertise.

John Hunter is onto something with his World Peace Game. He asks students to solve real world problems. He works on the principle of “out of the mouths of babes” and waits for that wisdom that only the young can provide. His only role is to facilitate rather than guide the learning. Imagine if this type of learning tool was done online between schools on different sides of the world. Imagine the differences in solutions that could be found through the differences in culture. Even between English speaking cultures.

There are lots of educators, like John Hunter, who are breaking down disciplinary walls and looking for new solutions to age old problems by accessing the diverse expertise of students. I believe that the more we compile that expertise, the more we’ll come to see that the future of learning looks more like a web. Educators that build webs of knowledge are the ones who will inspire generations of knowledge weavers, not just knowledge collectors.

Maybe my readers would like to write about the spider web and see what knowledge we can weave together. While we are weaving, let’s think about what we are doing and learning to see if there is anything that can authentically transferred into classrooms. The best way to develop pedagogy and be critical about it is to try it out yourself. Have a go and be inspired like I was.