The Networked Learner

A common joke these days goes something like this –

Child: “Dad, what is the meaning of the word omniverse?”

Dad: “Umm, I don’t know.”

Child: “That’s ok. Can you ask Google?”

We are living in an era that is often called the age of information explosion – which makes it impossible to know everything. But what does it mean, and what are its implications for the learners of today?

When knowledge explodes, there is a big gap between ‘what you know’ and ‘what you need to know’. During formal education, since you are tested only on what you have learnt, there is a clear boundary for what you need to know. However, in a work environment, the gap between what you know and what you need to know becomes much more amplified because you are supposed to know all that is needed to make good choices and wise decisions, but you know only that much. Plus, you need all this knowledge ‘just-in-time’. So how do you fill this knowledge gap, just-in- time?

You do it by becoming a networked learner.

According to corporate anthropologist, Karen Stephenson, “Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.”

One example that helps illustrate this better is the act of reading books. When we read about adventures that characters in books are taking on, we, as readers, “experience” them too, vicariously. In the process, we gain knowledge – about experiences and journeys that were hitherto unknown to us.

Today, we have social media to enhance this further. We can create a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) where there are fellow learners with similar learning interests, who can become our co-explorers and co-creators. We can look for and find mentors who can guide and motivate the group, have content curated by all the participants and conversations that bring coherence and deeper comprehension.

According to researcher and writer George Siemens, learning needs a coherent narrative, but technologies like the Internet fragment knowledge. ‘Connectedness’ i.e. how one learner connects with other learners or experts helps in creating coherence in the fragmented learning space. Tools like Wikis, Blogs and eLearning Platforms hence become tools for sense making because they are effective information interrogation systems and provide a social overlay to otherwise fragmented information.

Siemens writes, “Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organisation or a database), is focused on connecting specialised information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn are more important than our current state of knowing.”

A PLE comprising of a network of fellow learners and experts also helps us curate appropriate learning resources and knit them together in a coherent fashion which in-turn further facilitates deeper sense making.

Today when knowledge has become a commodity, it is deep comprehension, the ability to synthesise information, find the patterns and cultivate creativity that are of value. We need hindsight (ability to analyse information), insight (ability to synthesise information and find patterns) and foresight (ability to draw novel inferences).

To shine in the 21st century we need to work towards becoming a Networked Learner – one who is capable of creating a Personal Learning Environment and is comfortable becoming part of a tribe of learners with similar interests, who together fill a knowledge gap, in order to solve a problem or design a novel solution.

The idea then is to become your own Google, and crawl through the intricacies of the two big webs that matter the most today – the worldwide web, your own network – like the Google spider, and to be able to interweave them to your personal learning advantage.