Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching

About four years ago, I wrote an article on Learning Ecology, Communities, and Networks. In many ways, it was the start for me of what has become a somewhat sustained dialogue on teaching, learning, knowledge change, connectivism, and so on. Connectivism represents the act of learning as a network formation process (at an external, conceptual, and neural level …and, as I’ve stated previously, finds it’s epistemological basis in part on Stephen’s work with connective knowledge). Others have tackled the changes of technology with a specific emphasis on networked learning - Leigh Blackall, for example). And some have explored network learning from a standards perspective (Rob Koper). While not always obvious, there is a significant amount of work occurring on the subject of networked learning. What used to be the side show activity of only a few edubloggers now has the attention of researchers, academics, and conferences worldwide. Networked learning is popping up in all sorts of conference and book chapter requests – it’s largely the heart of what’s currently called web 2.0, and I fully expect it [networked learning] will outlive the temporary buzz and hype of all thing 2.0.
Obviously numerous factors are at play here: the tools we use to connect (blogs, wikis, podcast, Facebook, Twitter, Ning), the theories of learning we adopt (connectivism, situated cognition, social constructivism, activity theory), affordances of tools and theories, and finally the systemic or structural changes required as a result of tools, theories, and affordances. We are well on our way in all areas, though systemic change is lagging. But I expect this is a temporary resistance as anomalies build under the existing system and weaknesses become increasingly apparent. Growth of information, new literacies, globalization, technology, open source philosophies, and collaborative mindsets are only a few of the change drivers.
The design of future learning institutions (both physical and pedagogical) is currently actively debated (see Christian Long, School 2.0, Chris Lehmann, Will Richardson, David Warlick and many others). The theory and act of teaching has a similar level of activity (I’m partial to work with connectivism, but there are many important conversations occurring). And we have much happening in terms of defining what is acceptable authority for information and knowledge (I’ll throw my own book Knowing Knowledge into this space, David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, and the practical example of wikipedia). In the corporate space, we have individuals like Jay Cross questioning training structures and approaches and Dave Snowden expressing knowledge and sensemaking as functions of complex systems and interactions. The convergence and cross over opportunity is amazing. All in all, it’s a rather delightful time to be in the knowledge, learning, education, technology field.
Here is our current state:
We are actively networking. Wow, are we ever. Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Podcasts. Mobile phones. We are hyperconnected. In some cases (I feel this way periodically) we are so connected that connection forming, instead of gleaning value from connections, is our predominant task. The connection becomes tyrannical. But connection forming is natural. It doesn’t need coercion. We do it with language, images, video. We create, express, connect. And software is now available that aids this innate activity with unprecedented fervor. We build competence, make sense, learn, and growth through our connections. Tools of connections are driving discussions of networked learning and organizational applicability. Surprising to see how quickly the network theme has spread into education and training.
We are discussing the spaces of learning. I use the term learning ecology. Dave Cormier has more recently adopted habitat. John Seely Brown suggests atelier learning, a concept Clarence Fisher adopts as studio learning. For me, an ecology, habitat, or studio is simply the space for fostering connections. Networks occur within something. They are influenced by the environment and context of an organization, school, or classroom. Certain ecologies are more conducive to forming connections. Take the internet as an example. If the barrier to connection forming were higher than a simple click, adoption would be greatly reduced. Connection barriers are aspects of an ecology. As a result, password protected sites and articles largely fly under my radar of resources. The nature of the ecology influences the ease, type, and health of networks created.
And, in the mix, I have paid little attention to the role of the “individual formerly known as teacher” in education. Well, that’s not true. I’ve paid much attention to our role as teachers and instructors, but I’m not satisfied with how the conversation has progressed. I’m rather sick of “sage on stage” and “guide on the side” comparisons. The clear dichotomy chafes. While power in classrooms has shifted from the teacher at the centre, it’s important to note that educators play a vital role not fully addressed by some of the current conversation. Clarence has adopted the term “network administrator” to describe the role of teachers. I like it. It’s the basis on which teaching and education should be founded. But I think something more is needed, something that places some level of value or interpretation on content, knowledge, and concepts being explored.
I’ve been involved with numerous museum organizations over the last few years. I’m always intrigued by the role of the curator – the hidden expert behind displays and artifacts. An ongoing discussion on the iDC list on curatorial roles in the digital space heightened the concept for me. Teaching, learning, and knowledge are obviously closely linked. The trio have different relationships in different contexts. A corporate trainer, for example, will likely be focused on creating clear, measurable outcomes that translate into increased organizational capacity to compete or innovate. A primary teacher will be focused on building basic literacies, skills, and mindsets to function in the society the learner will inherit. A professor is focused on extending these basic skills in order to prepare learners to be active members of a discipline (a field of experts) and a critical thinker and creative contributer to society. Those complex tasks cannot be solely accomplished through laissez fair approaches to learning. Sugata Mitra demonstrated the tremendous curiosity and self-motivation learners can display during his famous “hole-in-the-wall” experiment. Such experiments demonstrate clearly the natural potential of humans as self-selecting learners. But learners get into trouble. They sometimes walk unproductive paths (though any path leads to at least some learning) that someone with experience can readily direct them around.
Consider our happy little edublogger world. Some members have been blogging for a long time (notably Stephen Downes, Will Richardson, Jay Cross). Through their established networks, they can serve important roles of guiding and directing others to resources and concepts. Their experience enables them to put new developments into a historical context. They assist others to create networks…but they do more. They serve as curators of ideas, connections, philosophies, and world views. They create frameworks of interpreting and understanding history, new technologies, and trends through their work and public dialogue.
The joint model of network administrator and curator form the foundation of what education should be. An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored. While learners are free to explore, they encounter displays, concepts, and artifacts representative of the discipline. Their freedom to explore is unbounded. But when they engage with subject matter, the key concepts of a discipline are transparently reflected through the curatorial actions of the teacher.

7 Responses to “Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching”

  1. Laurie Burdon says:

    Hi George,
    I’m finally getting around to commenting on your post re: teacher (whatever) as curator for learners. This is an interesting concept, and one which I think benefits not only the concept of learner access to an “expert learner” online, but also for museums in their real and virtual spaces in terms of re-thinking curatorial roles as knowledge holders. Curators within museums were sometimes in the past not only holders of knowledge but also highly directive about what they perceived to be the main “point” or purpose of an exhibit, and what they wanted the visitor to take away. I believe that with virtual collections, audience development issues, and sustainability issues this is/has been changing so that your ideas on curatorship/network administrator are seeping into museum culture as curatorial relationships with visitors morph into something more collaborative, and, dare I say it, connected? Museum education has historically been seen as the soft side of the museum experience, and has been somewhat marginalized within museum culture, maybe educators were not seen as knowledge holders? But perhaps this is symptomatic of societal norms, in that “everyone’s a teacher”, and the “how hard could it possibly be to teach?” school of thought. Don’t know, maybe that’s a thought for another post…
    The other interesting concept that I’d like to drag in here kicking and screaming is that historically (way back when) museums were thought of as “cabinets of curiosities”, cabinets being the containers objects were displayed in. Disparate collections of seemingly unrelated objects in a (dusty) space. Interestingly (I think anyway), the web is also a “cabinet of curiosities”, albeit cleaner (less dusty). Eilean Hooper-Greenhill writes intelligently about the historical and societal role of museums, and their purpose in relation to visitors.
    Thanks for the idea George, I’ll stew over this one and perhaps generate further intelligent thoughts about it! I think you’ve made a good connection here that warrants further discussion and exploration with some museum input too. I’ll fire it off to some folks I know…
    Laurie B.

  2. Marilyn Bardill says:

    Hi George, You are describing a librarian-teacher. As a media Specialist I have guided children into this understanding where they are compelled to search further demanding more information and gaining knowledge. It began with my son Dan who has autism, showing him how to learn and understand, then followed with other students who I viewed as having the same empty void of no knowledge. It is just that other teachers, administrators do not understand. But, the children blossom, even the children from the Wayne County Jail, where I taught for one year. Thank you for restoring my faith in my own ability to teach. Marilyn

  3. [...] years ago, I suggested curatorial teaching (10 minute presentation): An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources [...]

  4. [...] Siemens, Connectivism ruminator, has explored the idea of teacher as a curator previously, and it has come up again today courtesy of a tweet from @hjarche. Even though I was a participant [...]

  5. [...] Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching « Connectivism [...]

  6. [...] A big discussion has been around Curation and Curatorial Teaching in the context of the role of supporting PLEs/PLNs. What does it mean? At first I thought it is just the American term for what Gilly Salmon calls ‘summarising’ in her work on the role of the e-moderator. But I can see that in a massive open online course (MOOC) it needs to be a little different to this and also that George’s definition of curator/curation has a different emphasis – http://www.connectivism.ca/?p=93 [...]