Networked Learning and the Training of Future Historians

This week we are talking about networked learning. The first thing I thought when I began going over the readings for this week was “what in the world is networked learning?” It has the sound of one of those education buzz words that everyone talks about, even though no one actually does it, or even really understands what it is. As I got into the readings I discovered that it was actually a lot simpler than I expected. As far as I can tell, ‘networked learning’ basically refers to creating learning situations where students interact in creative ways, both with each other and with a broader community. Now this is something I can apply to my own teaching methods and teaching philosophy.

As a historian, I think that networked learning could be especially useful in helping students to understand the nature of the historical discipline. At one point in his article, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning,” Gardner Campbell describes books as a pre-internet form of networked learning, referring to a walk through the stacks as “tracing nodes and connections.” (Campbell) This reminded me of a lot of the discussions in my graduate seminars, where professors have encouraged me to see history books not as individual works, but as pieces of an ongoing historical conversation and to see my own research not as a task to be completed, but as another piece in this network of ideas. Tim Hitchcock’s article, “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.” also helped me to see the connection between networked learning and the concept of the historical conversation. Hitchcock argued that humanist scholars should see platforms like blogs and Twitter as a logical extension of more traditional forms of publication. Furthermore, he argued that engaging in these platforms can help scholars to maintain a focus on the communal aspect of their work, as posting on these platforms forces scholars to remain reader-focused through various stages of their work. (Hitchcock)

Working as a graduate editor for my department’s undergraduate research journal, I can definitely see that undergraduates struggle with the concept of a “community of scholars.” (Hitchcock) The most consistent advice that I have to give to undergraduates submitting their work is that they need to help the reader understand how their research contributes to the broader historical conversation in a novel way. I believe that by using internet-driven methods of networked-learning, teachers of history can help their students begin to see their work as a piece in a broader conversation rather than an individual assignment.

Blogging is a good example of this method in action. Last semester, I participated in an environmental history seminar where each student blogged about the weekly readings. Over the course of the semester, I found that each student approached the material based on their own area of focus. As a result, every week we would all see the same reading analyzed and discussed in a number of different ways, leading to a multifaceted understanding of the reading and its place in the field. This collaborative approach to learning took place via classroom discussions as well, but reading the blogs and comments really drove home the collaborative nature of our class. I believe this approach can be especially beneficial for undergraduates. Helping students understand historical conversations is difficult, especially since an undergraduate workload does not allow for the amount of reading that is required to begin to see conversations unfold. However, by creating a mini-conversation via a class blog, students can begin to see how each other’s work relates and to think about how this process plays out on a larger scale.

Blogging might be the most obvious instance of networked learning, but I think that there are several technologies and approaches that lend themselves to this process. Something as simple as collaborating on a google doc for a class project forces students to think about their individual tasks in light of a broader context and it also gives students experience with trying to integrate different perspectives and approaches. In addition, this sort of project also has the potential to force students to learn to have a robust but civil conversation about the merits of conflicting perspectives and methodologies.

I began this week questioning the relevance of ‘networked learning’ but after reading this week’s articles and thinking about how this concept could apply to my field, I find myself seeing networked learning as not only useful, but ultimately essential to training young scholars.  I have a feeling that this will be a common theme throughout the semester.

5 Replies to “Networked Learning and the Training of Future Historians”

  1. You post reminded me of a class that I took my freshman year of my undergraduate studies. It was a 3 hour class that met twice per week late in the afternoon. To put it mildly, it was hard to get through the class sometimes, simply for how long it was. The class was made even harder by the fact that it was dual taught, with one professor teaching one day and another teaching a different day. Not only were their teaching styles naturally different from each other, they had entirely different perspectives on how the course was supposed to be taught, which turned surviving the class a challenge on its own. However, the big redeeming quality of the class was that one of the professors really wanted us to have a lot of time for discussion every week. These discussions were student-led and were supposed to be about the class material, of course. But all too often, we’d launch into entirely different subjects, reflecting on today’s society and our own personal experiences. Through these conversations, we became one of the most well-connected classes I’ve ever become a part of.

    This mental tangent triggered by some of the things you mentioned in your post made me wonder: is this perhaps the ideal goal in networked learning? In creating blogs and trying to foster online communication with classmates? There are certainly online communities that are well-connected and help foster communication on a variety of topics. But how is a community made? I would argue that it’s not enough to create a blog alone; there must be that discussion. There has to be that continuation and development of ongoing conversations to really have that impact.

    I think the TED Talk started touching on this a little bit in the sense that everyone is different. Everyone comes into class with their own experiences, desires, and expectations, and, therefore, not everyone thrives in “standardized” environments. While Michael Wesch has found a way for creating a better environment for all his students in the classroom, how can we do such a thing for networked learning? In other words, how can we foster community and continuous discussion online, especially for classes?

    1. Michelle,
      You make a good point about the need to foster discussion. In any class that I have blogged for, reading and commenting on each other’s posts has been part of the requirements. I don’t know that this alone is enough to really foster discussion. To a degree, I think this is probably something that we have to figure out on a class by class basis, as each class will have its own unique characteristics.

  2. Hi Heath!

    I really enjoyed your blog post.–especially when you were using examples of how you can actually apply networked learning practices in the classroom. Networked learning works really well when the right technology is in place to facilitate learning and discussion for groups of students. I like how blogging continues the conversation outside of the classroom. It seems to work really well for helping students develop relationships in the classroom, too.

    1. Sara,
      I like blogging as well, although all of my examples come from my own experiences in graduate school. It would be interesting to see how these compare to the experiences of employing this technology with undergraduates.

  3. This: “‘networked learning’ basically refers to creating learning situations where students interact in creative ways, both with each other and with a broader community.”
    Thanks so much Heath!

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