Online learning is not a modern version of the correspondence course. Online learners are physically distanced from each other and their instructor, but technology has forged dynamic new connections through online learning networks.
George Siemens coined the term connectivism in 2004 to acknowledge the complexity and chaos of digital networks and the corresponding fragmentation, dispersal and reconfiguration of learning pathways. Despite the upheaval to traditional modes of education, technology provides seemingly limitless potential sources of learning in an ‘ecology of knowledge’ (Siemens, 2004).
In networked learning, the pre-existing delineations within education are challenged as formal and informal learning opportunities coalesce in unanticipated ways. New educational opportunities are location-agnostic and atemporal, offering anytime, anywhere learning environment and connectivism acknowledges technology as the driving force that underpins this liberating and limitless form of learning.
The blur between informal and informal learning creates uncertainty for higher education institutions. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) reflect this ambivalence as universities simultaneously invest in and compete with MOOCs to attract learners. The appeal of MOOCs is their openness, affordability, and ease of access as they open a closed system for anyone to adopt new skills to suit their own interests and commitments.
MOOCs have not lived up to the hype experienced when the first MOOC, co-created by Siemens and Downes, appeared in 2008. In offering open, low or no-cost and flexible models, MOOCs sacrifice retention and structure, fuelling perceptions of MOOCs as lower-quality, less rigorous, and lighter-touch. Low retention rates in MOOCs reflect the lack of peer and instructor engagement and attest to their impact in incentivising and motivating learners. Furthermore, as evidence of skills or knowledge acquisition, MOOCs suffer from lack of recognition or value when compared to accredited learning. Common approaches to addressing these issues in the form of digital badging are insufficient motivational tools for many learners.
There is still scope for educational institutions to recognise more fully other sources of knowledge outside traditional frames of reference. Some instructors have incorporated informal learning opportunities into their prescribed curriculum in recognition of the value of these networks in nurturing inquisitiveness and exploration. Finding new ways of engaging learners, particularly in online learning, draws on social media, class wikis, dedicated peer learning tools, and new media, for example.
Networks allow learners to access endless points of collaboration and discussion that can be taken back into the classroom. The pandemic exposed flaws in transitioning transmissive forms of learning to endless Zoom sessions. Networked learning became a way of tapping into the affordances of online learning, allowing students to incorporate multiple sources of information and engagement into the virtual classroom. As students craved opportunities to interact with their peers during a period of intense physical isolation, integration of chat rooms and collaborative tools became an integral part of successful online courses.
Examples of networked learning that existed before the pandemic were brought to the fore during lockdown. Virtual exchanges represented one method of exposing students to cross-cultural communication and collaboration without ever leaving their homes. This circles back to the promise Siemens identified back in 2004: that learning networks facilitate more openness, difference of opinion, and diversity, by allowing a wider cross-section of students to get involved.
Communities of practice (CoP), as defined by Etienne Wenger, encompasses groups formed on varying levels of formality and structure through shared practice and common purpose. CoPs pre-date the digital shift, yet the internet has facilitated an explosion in virtual opportunities to engage in discussion around topics of interest. Virtual communities provide learners with immediate access to like-minded peers. These communities are diverse in both structure and approach and offer touchpoints for learners at all stages of their lives to connect with these networks, at the level at which they are comfortable.
Digital education continues to shape and be shaped by the constellation of formal and informal sources of learning accessed through dynamic learning networks. Networked learning takes education outside the classroom and offers limitless opportunities to pursue individualised learning paths. The way in which educational institutions and ed tech providers can harness these networks appropriately – if, in fact, they can harness them at all – remains unresolved. Networks are just one example of the way in which learning has become more open to interpretation, more complex and multifaceted, creating new challenges as well as new tensions in online education.