When learning goes underground…

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.

7 Responses to “When learning goes underground…”

  1. Amy Scatliff says:

    I have just come upon your blog so forgive me if you’ve discussed this before. I often prefer small, protected groups to share and learn with outside of formal education, seminars, classes. The topics discussed and learning objectives can be ones that bring conflict and misunderstanding to the larger group when presented for debate.
    Sometimes the content brought to the group as a whole is ‘dumbed down’ so that everyone will be able to process a certain societal, cultural, what have you topic. If you want to progress at faster pace with colleagues you can get stuck in training and explaining modes to the whole rather than really learning (although I know it is effective to train and be exposed to diverse opinions as well!) I’ve been thinking a lot about underground education—I’ve run into the roadblock again and again. How do you create safe spaces for people to study topics that in some shape or form threaten the societal standards? I believe in many cases instructors or facilitators may not have the knowledge base to advance the learners at the pace they want to go nor are they caught up to ‘life on the outside’.
    Thanks-great blog.

  2. Denham says:

    We do not fully appreciate the dynamics of informal learning, the shared meaning, sense-making and explanation that happens with peers outside of the class and LMS.
    My guess is this is where most of us acquire our ’smarts’, not quite as strutured as a community of practice, but a hodge podge of questions, examples, analogies, metaphors and stories listened to from the periphery or shared via a P2P ‘teach to learn’.
    That ‘ecology’ with its connections, relationships and dialog flows is indeed the critical piece.

  3. jason says:

    George,
    I just found your blog and, given its content, figured you (and the folks who read your blog) would be interested in (okay, I hope you’ll be interested in) checking out the work I’m doing for my Masters thesis.
    I work on a project called TeacherBridge (http://www.teacherbridge.org), which is a tool developed to facilitate online collaboration among teachers. We gave surveys to these teachers over the course of a year which sought to get some ideas of teachers’ collaborative habits.
    I built a tool that enables dynamic visualizations of the survey data results. It also allows teachers to post comments regarding the results in the same tool, right next to the visualization.
    If you, or any of your readers would like to check it out, please do! Here’s the link to the visualizations:
    http://anxiousplanet.com/thesis/SurveyViz.php
    After using the tool, if you wouldn’t mind taking a brief survey, I’d really appreciate it. The survey can be found by clicking the Feedback link at the top of the page.
    I am hoping that knowledge management tools similar to mine will become more prevalent as the years progress as teachers deserve all the help they can get.
    Thanks!

  4. I have had a similar experience in my own studies wherein learning went underground.
    Frankly, I liked it.
    Yes, many colleagues were left out. But this was due to their inability to take responsibility for their own learning. People knew of the underground group. If they did not participate, it was of their own choosing.
    I think this points to the existential nature of our new pedagogy. Social softwares afford new opportunities to connect and share.
    No one invited me to post this comment. I had to make a conscious effort to join in.
    I think formal learning ecologies are suffering today because students/learners are so used to being required or forced into action rather than volunteering or taking the initiative.
    Will this type of social software affordance create another digital divide/digital decadence?
    Thank you for another great post.

  5. While I can understand your concern about learning become fragmented and lost as it becomes decentralised, expecting the institution to provide the tools to fix this problem isn’t necessarily the only solution, and it simply may not happen.
    The teacher can create a online learning environment complementing the LMS using those tools some learners would end up using anyway.
    They can set up a class wiki, get all students to set up a skype account and share usernames, require all students to set up a blog and a Bloglines account and subscribe to each others feeds etc.
    Those who choose to participate less can, but this way no-one will miss out on any learning as the “underground” learning gets integrated into the class process.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I’m fascinated by that split, and remember it from most of my online courses as well. I can picture institutions/vendors/instructors responding by attempting to include more features in the LMS, or following Terry Anderson’s lead in trying to provide non-LMS spaces for students to connect (a worthwile attempt)…but I really think those actions will be missing the point.
    It’s not as much about the tools themselves (although the old WebCT interface was brutal); it’s more about issues of control and the desire of motivated learners to determine their mode of learning. I tended to learn more in e-mails/chats with classmates than I ever did in the “official” discussion forum, partially because there was never any fear of offending anyone or having to write what you thought the instructor wanted to hear.

  7. I completely agree that these groups do form and they are good. I also find they are where most of my learning takes place… I really don’t see these “underground” groups are any different than traditional study groups of the past. During my undergrad years I remember informally creating study groups where we would get together and assist each other… How are these different from traditional study groups. Only now they exist online…