Administrators, learning designers, and teachers are facing a new kind of learner – someone who has control over the learning tools and processes. When educators fail to provide for the needs of learners (i.e. design learning in an LMS only), learners are able to “go underground” to have their learning needs met.
This happened in a program I was recently involved in as a learner. An LMS was the main learning tool (which was a good choice for the program – many of the learners valued the centralized nature of communication and content presentation). After a short period of time, however, groups of learners “broke off” from the program and started holding discussions through Skype, IM, wikis, and other tools. Learners selected tools that were more tightly linked to the types of learning tasks occurring. When the learning was content consumption or simple discussion threads, the LMS was fine. As the learning became more social, learners started using tools with additional functionality. The learning required by the instructors – assignments, discussions – still happened in the LMS. But much more meaningful, personal, and relevant learning happened underground – outside of the course.
This was a great example of the foraging dimension of learning – we keep looking until we find tools, content, and processes which assist us in solving problems. Our natural capacity for learning is tremendous. We overcome many obstacles and restrictions to achieve our goals. It’s also an example of the short-sighted nature of some learning programs. The problem rests largely in the view that learning is a managed process, not a fostered process. When learning is seen as managed, an LMS is the logical tool. When learning is seen as a function of an ecology, diverse options and opportunities are required.
What is the cost of learning “going underground” (i.e. off the radar of the institution)? The biggest impact is that the group of learners no longer has access to the thoughts of the entire group. Small communities form – but are not linked back solidly to the main group. Groups form due to ineffective learning design (tools, content, and process). Second, the organization loses its central role (this isn’t all bad – learners should have the capactity to play and mess around with new tools – an area for experimentation is very valuable…but the core learning requirements should be provided by the school). Learners who are less likely to experiment receive a different level of value from the learning process. Perhaps this is fine…as much of the underground learning is an “add on” to the main intent of the program. Still, for some, as was evidenced in the program discussed earlier, the move to underground resulted in frustrated learners who felt that they had missed part of the conversation.
This happens consistently in K-12, college, university, or corporate learning. When teachers don’t provide tools, learners take their learning process to new (user-controlled) spaces. Those who are most passionate and informed are the learners who are most likely to create new spaces of learning – and as a result, leave with much of their best insight.
Some types of learning (particularly brainstorming) are often best handled through small private groups. This isn’t the concern here. The concern is that the failure of the organization to provide tools results in a less effective learning experience for all learners (i.e. we aren’t privy to the numerous, valuable, “other space” conversations). Learners should have expectations about the type and quality of the experience. Many people will find solutions to inefficiencies, but others may simply continue trying to use the wrong tools for the wrong task. It is the responsibility of the school/college/university to provide the ecology in which learning can occur.