Thursday, 1 November 2007

Collective Learning

Over the past few weeks a few of us in the Caledonian Academy (Allison Littlejohn, Anoush Margaryan and Colin Milligan ) have been thinking about future learning models and environments quite a bit. This post summarises some of our ideas as we begin to formulate a vision of Collective Learning. We'll first describe the concept as it relates to corporate learning, but longer term, we are also puting a lot of thought about how it may shape our conception of learning here at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Knowledge, and knowledge management has become increasingly critical to the successful functioning of an organisation. The organisational knowledge needed to solve key challenges no longer resides in the mind of one individual or even one team. Instead, knowledge is complex, and constantly evolving: and the individuals who use that knowledge must constantly strive to keep their knowledge up to date and to develop their own overarching understanding of a topic.

Traditionally, technologies have primarily supported knowledge consumption, but emergent Web 2.0 tools and virtual worlds also allow rapid and easy creation and organisation of knowledge, both for individuals and groups. How does this affect the lifecycle of knowledge within an organisation? In particular, how can these knowledge processes and technologies help us address some of the key challenges faced by large organisations such as:

  • Development of staff competencies and skills necessary to deal with the increased complexity of the knowledge within a given domain;
  • Knowledge retention and redistribution within the organisation;
  • Increased ‘time to competence’ for new staff;
  • Increased diversity of the workforce and the need to accommodate individual needs and preferences.

Organsations can solve these challenges by adopting a radical, new approach to learning that empowers and equips individuals to draw upon and feed into the ‘collective conscious’ distributed across the organisation and beyond.

Collective learning is based upon a metaphor of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ (Surowiecki, 2004), the idea that large groups of connected people are better able than an elite few to produce knowledge to solve problems and foster innovation. Within this metaphor the consumption and creation of collective knowledge is the responsibility of all individuals, rather than the organisation. Although this metaphor has been contested (e.g. Keen, 2007), it offers great potential for knowledge generation and for learning, especially when the crowd brings greater diversity of viewpoint to bear on a given problem.

The term "collective" in realtion to learning was first mentioned by Jon Dron in 2003 in a
paper presented at the e-Learn conference. In this paper, Dron was drawing on ideas of the ‘collective’ conscious developed by a group of students using a piece of software to generate a shared picture of group understanding. Then in a 2006 ICALT conference paper, Dron considers social software within a framework of transactional control and distance theories. This paper didn't mention the notion of ‘collective’ learning directly, but considered how social software enables an extra dimension to (online) learning, in addition to traditional interactions between learner, teacher and content.

Collective learning is a phase in the evolution of understanding of the mechanisms underlying learning. The first three stages were outlined by
Terry Anderson in his recent EDMEDIA 2007 conference keynote . These were explored by Dron and Anderson in further detail here , here and here.

Traditionally INDIVIDUAL LEARNING focussed on the learner as a consumer of courses and codified knowledge resources.

The advent of Learning Management Systems supported GROUP LEARNING where the learner exists as a member of a defined group (the archetypal group is a class) with a clear focus (passing the same exam) and sharing a limited set of tools which allow them to communicate and share their knowledge (for example through bulletin boards).

New tools such as weblogs and wikis have heralded the arrival of NETWORKED LEARNING. Here, the technologies enable the learner to take control of their learning, providing tools which allow them to structure and demonstrate their understanding, and to generate (either individually, through weblogs) or collaboratively, through wikis) direct evidence of their ability.

Extending beyond networked learning, COLLECTIVE LEARNING recognises the value of the wider community in contributing to the learning process – and recognises that knowledge based systems develop a richness and deeper value as they are used and continue to develop.

The individual is recognised as a key contributor to the wealth of collective knoweldge – not just in terms of discrete resources, but also through reflection, gaining experience, emerging reputation, forming trust based relationships, and benefitting from emergent patterns and information in the system such as ratings and usage data, to provide additional cues as to quality and utility of resources. The process of collective learning is continuous: others will learn from your reflective practice; others will benefit from seeing how you solved problems, the resources you used and the routes you took to learn.

Collective learning closely integrates formal and informal learning. It is recognised that different individuals may learn the same skills in different ways. Moreover, a learner is likely to learn through a variety of sources in parallel. Therefore the rich tapestry of learning opportunities within the organisation (both formal courses and informal opportunities provided by the collective knowledge of the company) is all available to enhance the learning process.

Collective learning encompasses the following key components, which represent a set of intertwined activities rather than discrete steps:

  • Consuming knowledge - individuals need to be able to effectively identify and source knowledge residing within the collective - the whole body of data, information, competences and skills that organisation uses to solve problems. This means that the organisational knowledge base must be transparent and accessible in order to allow individuals to find relevant knowledge. Consumption of knowledge can be facilitated by emergent technologies, for example RSS feeds, that support resource identification, selection and sourcing.

  • Connecting knowledge - the success of collective learning depends on whether different knowledge resources and components (both those residing in systems and individuals) can be combined efficiently. Essential to connecting knowledge are tools that support retrievable, reflective and embedded communication around knowledge creation and consumption.

  • Contributing knoweldge - creating and sharing knowledge are a vital condition for collective learning. The goal is generating new skills, solutions, processes and feeding these back into the collective. This transition of knowledge from individual or group to oirganisation can be facilitated by emergent technologies, for example, the collective can produce knowledge resources like Wikipedia or share resources within The cyclical process of consumption and contribution, producing and using knowledge (some have called this process "produsage") is essential for retention of knowledge and its effective utilisation for learning within organisation.

  • Charting knowledge - empowering learners to chart their own learning paths for consumption, connection and contribution of knowledge, benefitting from others who have gone before them. Collective learning engenders a lifelong approach to learning, focused on authenticity, employability, inquiry, reflection, and self-improvement.

Charting in particular is a key aspect in collective learning. It is a process whereby an individual determines and executes their individual learning paths. In doing this, individuals assess their current competence and set precise learning and developmental goals. This process can be supported by a guidance team, comprised of the learner's workplace supervsior, the coach, an experienced colleague, and a training specialist. In charting a learning path ideally suited to their needs, learners take advantage of the knowledge within the organisation, through a process which empowers them. In doing this they should be able to use their own tools, networks and resources alongside those of the collective. The approach requires learners to both create and share knowledge, to allow others to build on and improve the collective knowledge for the benefit of the organisation. The relationship of these four components is shown in the figure below:

Here are two examples to illustrate how charting might work in practice.

Collective learning in Higher Education: Some issues

  • Many HEIs, unlike corporations and large companies, lack collective knoweldge repositories and processes for capturing and sharing pracatice within such repositories
  • Many HEIs lack appropriate ICT infrastrauture to enable collective learnin
  • Issues with critical mass of knowledge
  • Fit with existing teaching appraoches and types of learner behaviour that these approaches encourage

We are still working on these ideas, and our thinking develops, we will be posting more over the next weeks. Meanwhile, we would appreciate your thoughts, suggestions and questions.

Some questions for discussion

  1. What are likely to be the issues facing Collective Learning?
  2. What are the implications for learning within higher education?
  3. At what levels would ‘charting’ have to take place and what would it look like?
  4. What would a platform to support charting/Collective Learning look like?
  5. Is Collective Learning possible when knowledge is nowhere near being joined up?
  6. Is Collective Learning possible before an appropriate ICT and knoweldge management infrastructure is in place?
  7. What skills are required for Collective Learning and how can students and teachers acquire these skills?

This work draws extensively on the following sources:

  • Terry Anderson: Social Learning 2.0, EdMedia 2007
  • Dron, J. (2003). The Blog and the Borg: a Collective Approach to E-Learning. In G. Richards (Ed.), Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2003 (pp. 440-443). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
  • Dron, J. (2006). Social Software and the Emergence of Control. Proceedings of the Sixth IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT) 2006 (pp. 904-908). IEEE Computer Society. Washington, DC, USA.
  • Dron J., and Anderson, T., (2007) Collectives, Networks and groups in Social software for e-Learning. eLearn 2007
  • Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture. Doubleday/Currency: New York.
  • McAfee, A. (2006) Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration:
  • Surowiecki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds. Random House Inc.

as well as the work of Tony Karrer , Dion Hinchcliffe, Jeremy Hiebert, Teemu Arina and George Siemens and the CETIS PLE project and EU TenCompetence project: .


steve said...

Collective learning for formal and informal content is an idea whose time has come, but it requires a platform that is open and free, AND will facilitate the production of free informal courses with monitized formal courses. Our new site, has been designed to facilitate social or collective learning. Like Blogger, it is free. Each person who desires to teach creates their own site, just like on blogger. All courses are available on the site, or may be located on the MyiCourse search engine. This way, the "learner" is able to search the collective courses from all of the MyiCourse sites at the same time. Students are empowered by being able to rank each course on a 1-5 scale for future students to see.

We believe MyiCourse will rapidly provide a wide selection of formal and informal courses on many subjects. We have further facilitated the student experience with our "traveling" enrollment page. Each course the student starts remains accessible to the student even if they move on to another site. In short, once the course has been started, the student can access the material even if they never return to the site that originally offered the course.

Please come to see us at and click on the learning center link for courses and user manuals on how to work the system. "MyiCourse, flattening the world one course at a time."

Nils Peterson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nils Peterson said...

You might want to look at Dave Cormier's Rhizomal Education I think it connects to your ideas about rapidly expanding information.

Anoush said...

Many thanks, Neil - incidentally this paper has been in my to-read list for the past couple of weeks! I will definitely read it over the weekend.

Koos said...


This made me expand my definitions of information, knowledge and collective learning, and think through some things, hope this makes sense...
A problem I still have with collective learning is the question: 'where is the tacit knowledge'? Is it floating somewhere in between participants? It can't be on the web, as, to me when knowledge is written down this is information, or explicit knowledge. Someone else who reads then could make knowledge of it (can't think of another place for tacit knowledge then somewhere in -someones own- head). So: charting is a great way to make tacit knowledge explicit?
"I store my knowledge in my friends" (, yes ok, love that title, and think I do that.
But what really happens? You leave bits of information with friends, and trough your interactions you build explicit knowledge? That knowledge gets tacit with some people?

What about proof of collective learning? How do you measure if it worked?
Could it be that the proof of collective learning is to collectively create? In other words: you solve a problem that requires new knowledge? Together you build a new type of car? This would be proof of collective learning that has been going on?
None of the participants could solve this alone.
So, the 'create' step of charting involves the final test, where you measure whether the collective knowledge creation was effective?
Mhh, questions...



Nils Peterson said...

Your example of "proof" of collective learning hits at the only interesting (in my mind) proof of any learning -- the ability to think or act differently than you could than prior to the learning. The same transformation and demonstration could apply to a group that applies to an individual.

Portfolios are in vogue for documenting learning, for example these from our recent contest. See also invitation to the contest linked from that page.