Saturday, 8 December 2007

Collective Knowledge , Learning, Networks and Charting

Following a chat with Allison yesterday, and my reading of Kinchin & Hay's paper on the myth of the research-led teacher, I(Isobel) am wondering whether in our thinking about collective learning, we haven't remained tied to the traditional view of knowledge as residing in the heads of people. And I think this is the origin of some of my unease with Kinching and Hay's arguments - they present concept maps for novices and experts, but there remains a gap between the two which we cannot address: we don't know how/why a novice map transforms itself into an expert map, and thus we cannot chart the path from novice to expert.

I'm wondering whether a helpful way to think about collective knowledge and collective learning (and to distinguish between the two) is to view collective knowledge as a network with people (or machines) at the nodes. Then on a traditional view (as in Kinchin et al) the knowledge all resides within the nodes and the purpose of the links between the nodes is somehow to transfer knowledge from one node to another (learning) and we don't have a good handle on how this happens - ie. we don't really know what links the nodes. The learning remains an individual thing and essentially all that is collective about it is the number of nodes that an individual has access to. We could chart the way to increase the number of nodes, but this doesn't necessarily turn the novice (characterised by a simple concept map) into an expert (characterised by a complex concept map).

I'm wondering whether a more fruitful approach is to consider knowledge as residing in the interactions between people (or actors if one wants to include the machine) - this is a Wenger-like CoP view of collective knowledge. Then on a network view the difference between a novice and an expert would be in the interactions they had access to but more importantly the way they managed those interactions. One role for an expert might be to expose the way they manage interactions to the novice (this is the rationale that several of the blogging lecturers at Kathy's last learning sandpit based their use of blogs on). As a novice becomes more expert (learns) the network around them will change as they contribute knowledge to it and change their management of it.

This latter view of collective knowledge is by no means new, but has the advantage for us that these things are all, in principle, observable so we can research them and, hopefully, begin to chart the route from novice to expert. We might want to use ideas like actor network analysis, transactional distance, discourse practices, etc.

Or am I completely off the wall?

2 comments:

Colin Milligan said...

I'd definitely subscribe to the latter view of collective learning. Much of my recent work has been driven by the desire to 'empower the learner to take control of their learning': specifically by providing tools to enable them to organise their learning in a way that makes sense to them, rather than having to accept a structure which suits their tutor. In terms of a personal learning environment, this would translate to tools which facilitated annotation, upload of additional resources, reflection, tools to allow communication with fellow learners (and record that communication) etc. There is also an implicit temporal dimension here - that the learners knowledge landscape will develop over time - not just through amassing more resources, but by repeated re-synthesis of ideas to accomodate new knowledge. I'll try and write more on the blog sometime.

Anoush said...

Isobel says "on a traditional view the knowledge all resides within the nodes and the purpose of the links between the nodes is somehow to transfer knowledge from one node to another (learning) and we don't have a good handle on how this happens - ie. we don't really know what links the nodes."

From my recent readings of the work of Collins and others representing the school of thought known as theory of practice, the knowledge is transfered through social interactions between the nodes and engagement with practice itself (obviously not when the machines are concerned; machines enhance the connections between the human nodes). Maybe then what links these nodes and provides a context for interactions are specific activities of practice that experts and novices jointly engage in - eg joint projects, experimentation, etc - i.e "jointly carrying out the practice", in a cognitive apprenticeship sort of way? In this way, "interactions" are interpreted not only as verbal or written interactions (discussions about practice) but as a productive activity of engaging in practice .