Complex Learning: a New Approach for the Age of Knowledge
Eleonora Guglielman firstname.lastname@example.org Laura Vettraino email@example.com
Complex learning represents the hybridisation among environments, languages and interactions ways in a learning community composed by the whole world wide web. Its characters make it an effective answer to the 21th Century knowledge society challenge and to the need to find educational frameworks that can guarantee personalisation of learning paths and valorisation of informal and non formal learning.
The age of knowledge
The changes that are taking place in our social and economical system give evidence that we are by now in the age of knowledge, and that knowledge represents the asset and the intellectual resource for the professional growth of individual to build an active citizenship. We are called to face the challenge of the obsolescence of the knowledge and to manage innovation through ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), in a Lifelong Learning perspective (European Commission, 2000). Learning is no more defined as transmission or accumulation of contents: subjects must become fully protagonists of the change, making education the strategic lever for their growth and making innovation the key for process of transformation. A lifelong education requires the ability of integrating different open and flexible didactic methodologies from a reticular and multidimensional point of view, for a meaningful learning where the subject is active and responsible for the structuring of his knowledge, know-how and existential competence, autonomously choosing his educational path (Calvani, 2001). The linchpin shifts from instructional agent to learner, which assumes a stronger control of the process to carry out choice, programming, resource finding and building, self-assessment: in brief, a customized learning process. E-learning often replicates a controllable learning pattern and a close educational model. Setting free from this model means to acquire and enhance the open character of the net through customized paths (Guspini, 2004) upsetting traditional schemes we usually implement when we begin a learning task. The acknowledgement of a different learning model can help us to discover the various and new opportunities offered by the net in an educational experience (Ferri, 2005).
Complexity as a strategy
The coming of new technologies has brought new “distributed learning” opportunities measured on the users’ specific needs. ICT are the catalysers of innovation and social change in educational field
and e-learning is becoming established as an approach that enters full capacity in all educational areas. From the European Lifelong Learning politics point of view, it is evident how the learning environment is to be interpreted as a flexible space made by a plurality of parts (communication media and tools, codes, materials and resources) in an interactive and complementary relation a social and cultural space where the learner moves, explores, draws on the opportunities around him to build his own experience, adapting the knowledge he acquires to his representations. In this perspective e-learning has developed, from the first behaviourist distance learning models, to the e-learning 2.0, becoming a part of everyday experience by the valorisation of informal and non formal learning dimension (CEDEFOP, 2004) and a fluidification of teacher, learner and tutor’s roles. The concept of platform seems to be old fashioned too: the web itself, as a whole, constitutes the personal learning environment where learners organise personal spaces and establish social relationships (Bonaiuti, 2006). Expanding this perspective to include the spaces of presence, we are in front of an approach that goes beyond blended learning – considered as the sum of virtual and presence dimension – and that represents the more up-to-date model, that is complex learning, with its multiplicity of actors, resources, patterns and communication media, where the result is bigger than the sum of its components (McDonald, 2006). The term “complex” explains the complexity of the dynamics that happen thanks to the added value, integrated to presence and distance, represented by the re-configuration among the different typologies of e-learning models, new links and new hierarchies among media, new languages and new interaction way, therefore “remediation” (Bolter, Grusin, 2002). In complex learning the objects look no more closed and self-referential, but they bring the sign, chronological too, of the transformations they sustain by virtue of the interaction with and among the subjects who change and build them, not only enjoy them. The role of subjects changes, it’s not fixed once and for all: everyone can express his competence and his tutorship in relation to the field he has an expertise. The presence of different kind of participants to this process (all people who take part in learner’s dialogue space) leads to a multiplicity of actors that goes beyond the course enclosure, putting it in a multiplicity of concrete and virtual places, inhabited places, that become real places. In a composite and multi-dimensional environment like this it is possible a learning distinguished by the acquisition of open, collaborative, process oriented competencies; the development of metacognitive, monitoring, managing, self-assessment abilities; the link among disciplinary knowledge, practical applications and scientific research; the knowledge sharing among participants (Seufert, Lechner, Stanoevska, 2002). The complex learning community deals with problems of knowledge reflecting the complexity of real world and the social relations that take place in it: multiple interactions among people, environments where they move and act, technologies, purposes (McDonald, 2005). Inside these communities it is possible to implement a meaningful learning, intended as situated learning; the category of complexity is regarded as a crucial element to represent the world and the structure of its cognitive fields (Spiro, 1991; Van Merriënboer, 1999). For these reasons complex learning is especially appropriated to the process of vocational training of professional communities composed of adult practitioners who share common problems or purposes.
“It’s all around you”: spaces, tools and hybridisation
A complex learning community is defined, as well as by spaces of hybridisation, by the multiplicity of actors, the digital interaction of different communicative codes (images, texts, hypertexts, audio
and video, etc.) and by the opening to the creation of new creative ideas, synergies and opportunities toward the building of a shared knowledge base and the achievement of a “learnativity”: an action learning, authentic and vital, founded on collaboration, emulation and good competition, that gives place to a spiral process of knowledge transformation (Ferri, op. cit). The integration among different educational procedures, communication tools and technologies contributes to develop, enable and improve the knowledge/learning of organisations in the age of knowledge, generating value and competitiveness. We are in front of a deep change in the way of conceiving educational technologies: communication objects and tools in a complex scenario are no more conceived and produced to accomplish an educational task on the e-learning platform, but they are the objects and tools we daily use to search for information, talking, listening to the music, writing, having fun. Borrowing a recent advertising slogan “it’s all around you”: these tools are already available, they surround us, each one of us uses them, frequently without thinking about their potential. Technologies we are talking about are already existing: objects (laptop computers, PDAs, cellular phones, web cams, MP3 players, etc.) and communication tools (forum, e-mail, chat, wiki, blog, podcast, etc.) are normal for us and have a high circulation. It all consists of converging technologies to build a customised environment where everyone can chose the channels and the ways he wants to learn and make use of the available resources. Similarly, didactic methodologies are well known: frontal lessons, collaborative groups, sharing in learning communities, active labs represent usual activity in a constructivist approach. Again, it is a question of mixing, in a synergic way, the different educative ways and communication codes to create an action learning. The pervasiveness of these technologies and the overtaking of the concept of e-learning platform as enclosed place enlarge the opportunities to build sustainable complex learning: if the didactic technologies are sophisticated from the point of view of design, it isn’t necessary to have infrastructural complicated and expensive technologies. The platform gives place to a personal environment where the user can assemble the communication tools he needs and he can freely download from the net: all oh them are available as Free Software or Open Source Software or are totally online (let’s thin, for example, to the office applications we can use by connecting to a website with no need to buy them, like Google’s ones). The opportunity to create a customised environment deeply changes our learning process: the structure of a learning environment, in fact, directs the student to certain learning schemes, fostering from time to time dynamics linked to the space design and its features (Goodyear, 2001). Active involvement of the student in designing and building his space represent an innovation compared to models that offer prearranged learning environments.
In 2006 and 2007 Learning Community Srl conceived a complex learning model based on the assumption and the remarks we explained in this paper. The experimentation has carried out within project Comunet (Equal European Initiative), aimed to create an active and participative net among Non Profit subjects, by the activation of learning dynamics in a complex learning community. The learning space had the characteristics of heterogeneous web environment, with a deep hybridisation whose the strong point was represented by the openness to any resource the students wanted to use. The tools for the self-directed learning and the frontal meetings were the integration elements that have hallowed students to acquire the basis of a common language, to familiarise with technologies tools, to carry out group activities characterised by collaborative and cooperative work. Community, with the forum as his elective asynchronous discussion place, has integrated a multiplicity of actors, channels and communicative codes to construct a shared knowledge base
starting from experience. In the experimentation two continuing education courses have been enabled: the first one for teachers, aimed to develop and enhance the necessary competencies to perform the role of moderator in the complex learning community, that is complex tutor; the second one for non profit operators, aimed to create professional roles of developers of Open Source solutions for their field of work. In both instances virtual space of interaction was constituted by the project community, with its participants – partnership, experts, stakeholders: therefore, not a closed space but an open dialogue space reflecting the complexity of professional communities, as the specialists and Open Source software exerts ones. The learning process has configured as an open exchange, not relegated in a platform, making clear the characteristics o f complex approach, that advantages socialising and sharing of doubts, ideas and solutions in situated authentic context. Students were encouraged to interact outside their group and to consider the whole web as a learning and communication space to socially construct new meanings and making a direct experience of the acquired approaches, instruments and methodologies. In this frame incidental learning too gain centrality and effectiveness, so learning acquire a contextual form, meaningful and open to the valorisation of informal and non formal dimension (Guspini, 2007). The application of complex learning model requires the reversal of traditional learning patterns. The first students’ reaction has been of wrongfooting, defence and rejection, caused by the habit to live the educative process as relegated in a close and “protected” place like the platform, to move in a structured environment with preconceived contents, to think knowledge as an individual instead a collective asset. This wrongfooting is to be read as the expression of a cognitive dissonance and it represents a precious moment and a first indicator of the beginning of change process for the learner. The coming apart among environments and the heterogeneity of cognitive dimensions is part of the complexity the model attempts to interpret: this complexity is not to considered as an obstacle but as a richness of places, spaces and resources. The key to overcome these criticalities consisted in the acquisition and the improvement of the net competencies by the students, through support and scaffolding actions of the community moderators. The removal of classes and groups boundaries in institutional learning environment, thanks to a communication model “many-to-many”, allows the building of an authentic enlarged virtual learning and practice community, both on a level of project (interaction among students, tutors, staff) and on a level of the web (interaction among community members, interaction with other communities and Internet users). On a theoretical plan the approach has shown in the choose of an eclectic point of view, or rather a plurality of points of view to assume a paradigm capable of understand its richness. Net learning, in fact, is restricted to repropose in a simulation key the mechanisms of the presence teaching and learning (Maragliano, 2004). E-learning, in other words, would be a “practice searching for theories”, that uses theories peculiar of presence education to explain new didactic practices: a “new domain” that, however, still hasn’t its own epistemological statute. We have therefore preferred to maintain a point of view comprehensive and open, disposed to accept the commitment of a theoretical reflection that attempt to identify and highlight the authentic and innovative dimension of complex learning.
Guaranteeing complex learning efficacy
The experimentation of this model has highlighted some criticalities that, as we have seen before, can be related to the difficulty in coming off traditional educative models based on a formal transmissive teaching method. On the strength of the experience we made, we have drawn some
conclusion about three critical problems that look decisive to assure the model efficacy: tutor role, assessment and technological managing. Tutor role. It seems to be fundamental the role of complex tutor, who has the job of “cultivate” the community keeping track of its development process through assiduous and continuous interactions, offering scaffolding and well-timed feedback to the students and motivating them through the construction of an encouraging space with welcome actions. In complex learning, in fact, a “classical” e-tutor role would be unsatisfactory, because in e-learning courses there isn’t the habit to blend different environments, tools and actors of the process toward an extreme integration with the whole web community. So it is fundamental a custom-made training that schedules the development of valuable competencies, particularly about social support: emotional, affective and motivational scaffolding, safeguard of a reciprocal trust climate, stimulating collaborative activities, analysis of interpersonal relations, conflict resolution. Assessment. The model’s peculiarity and the difficulty to track the path when the student can live in different spaces and use any accessible resource make traditional assessment obsolete, leading it to the analysis of students participation and involvement, that is their ability to “be a net”. Assessment forms must be therefore oriented to the analysis of collective learning process, as well as the individual one, and to the specification of participation to the learning process indicators. So, the object of the assessment is the communication ability, the self-reflection and the acquisition of consciousness of the knowledge construction shared process. The indicators of these kind of learning are the number of interactions among the students, the ability to move with confidence in the various environments, the number of the proposals, ideas, shared doubts, founded solutions. Technological management. Complex learning model requires the ability to integrate heterogeneous environments characteristics, preserving the usability and the communication readiness, without be overcome by the technological tools. A simple online forum can constitute a basis for the interactions and can be the first “social zone” of a place the student build around himself, adding to it the useful resources. On a technological point of view the managing staff should make available to the student a modular space that he can manage and implement in a simple way and that allows the use of functions and tools like forum, dynamic knowledge repositories, messages, etc., in respect of accessibility and interoperability standards. December 2007 - Eleonora Guglielman, Laura Vettraino
Learning Community Srl, www.learningcom.it
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