Networked Learning Conference 2010 
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International Tutor Perspectives on Undergraduate Networked Learning Environments

Symposium Organiser: Gale Parchoma
Educational Research, Lancaster University


Understanding selective adoption of specific models for technologically mediated learning environments (TMLEs), as well as the groups that form and adapt these environments—interact with and through them, and re-form the technologies within them—can begin with an examination of what makes theoretical constructs underpinning specific TMLEs desirable and/or adaptable. Desirability is an overtly subjective term, which can be related to preferred epistemological or pedagogical stances. Adaptability can be defined as the resilience of a desired TMLE—in this case, networked learning—in new places and cultures. To what degree can networked learning environments remain epistemologically and ontologically resilient across varied contexts? This view of adaptability affords the possibility that degrees of resilience are tentative: the ‘same’ design for a TMLE tailored for one teaching and learning setting, implemented in a new context, may become ‘wild’ (Engeström, 2009) or ‘different’ (Parchoma, in press). As academic disciplines can be defined as cultural settings marked by shared “practices, meanings, and discourse” (Mützel, 2009, p. 872), a networked learning environment, conceptualised for use in one or one group of disciplinary settings, may become either wild or different but still resist—in variant degrees—becoming either epistemologically or ontologically compromised or expanded in new geo-cultural or disciplinary contexts.

This symposium brings together a collection of papers where we examine an international group of tutors’ perspectives on designing undergraduate networked learning environments and teaching through these environments. Empirical and theoretical investigations, grounded in this group of tutors’ stories from the field in Wales, Canada, Sweden, and Greece, are included. All of these papers are co-authored by student-tutor groupings of members of the e-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning doctoral programme based in Lancaster University. Each of the papers focuses on how ideas from selected networked learning literature, which originated primarily in UK and EU investigations into postgraduate teaching and learning settings, have come to influence this group of tutors’ designs for and experiences of teaching in undergraduate networked learning environments across a variety of national settings. Networked learning-specific conceptualisations of collaborative learning and assessment models are critically examined through this sample of implementations across a range of geo-cultural and disciplinary settings.

Bell, Zenios, and Parchoma examine the challenges that campus based undergraduate students’ in a Welsh university experienced in moving from familiar face-to-face exchanges of voiced reflections on their learning into a networked learning environment where text based asynchronous discussion forms were the predominant form of communication. This empirical paper reports the findings of a small-scale action research study of the processes and actions of the learners as they reflected on their experiences of conducting fieldwork for a research methods course. The paper discusses how the learners grappled with collaboration in the online learning environment, describes the coping strategies they adopted, and questions the efficacy of relying upon written communications in networked learning environments.

Bonzo and Parchoma explore paradoxes between institutional and student expectations for using social media to support learning in an undergraduate distributed medical education programme in Canada. This theoretical paper examines principles of social media, and how those principles relate to social constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Three points of potential conflict between social and academic criteria for authentic knowledge construction in a networked learning environment are identified and explored.

Oberg, Zenios, and Parchoma report a small scale study of Swedish tutors’ perceptions of and approaches to assessment in online undergraduate programmes. The paper opens with a literature review on trends to move from traditional multiple-choice, essay question exams, formal papers and scientific reports toward alternative methods which follow constructivist ideas, such as the integration of assessment into teaching and learning. While all participants in this study had training in the use of peer-assessment, the study findings indicated that peer-assessment was primarily used for formative assessment. Participants reported that large classes in undergraduate courses can lead to more traditional testing as a means of assessment. A major reason given by the teachers is also that students need to know about the subject area in more depth before being given responsibility over assessment. Being gradually acculturated and assimilated into the research community in the form of an apprenticeship is part of that process. All participants, in one way or another, conformed to the notion that students need to be ‘taught’ in their subject before being trusted with assessing their work. The essence of these findings is not to point out but to direct towards a new horizon. Through showing one interpretation and understanding of teachers’ perceptions of assessment, readers can meet the researcher’s interpretation of study data and then follow their own path forward toward comparing the outcome with the tenants of networked learning.

Themelis, Parchoma, and Reynolds’ theoretical paper explores classical Athenian democracy as a conceptual framework for participatory learning and design in undergraduate networked learning communities. The authors examine the social structures and policies of classical Athenian democracy for potential insights into the design of networked learning communities. Structures and policies, including the ephebes and the power of reward, are interpreted in ancient and digital eras. Networked learning discussion forums, e-community managers, and tutors’ roles are examined under the lens of classical Athenian democratic ideals.

Symposium presentations will briefly highlight ideas and issues around international, intercultural tutor experiences of designing networked learning environments and teaching undergraduate programmes in international contexts. Given the degrees of wildness or difference networked learning communities may acquire through translation into new geo-cultural or disciplinary contexts, questions on the extent to which they can or do honour the basic tenants of networked learning community theory remain open. If they cannot or do not retain networked learning principals, is networked learning community theory in-practice becoming compromised or expanded via implementations in new geo-cultural or disciplinary settings? Sufficient time for delegates to engage in a critical debate with symposium presenters will be provided.

Introduction - .pdf


Undergraduate experiences of coping with networked learning: Difficulties now, possibilities for the future

Alex Bell
School of Computing Business & Tourism, Trinity University College, Wales

Maria Zenios, Gale Parchoma
Educational Research, Lancaster University


UK Higher Education’s recent focus on enhancing learning through technology has taken root in educational policy. The Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW, 2008) has stressed to universities in Wales that “we will ask you to report on your use of technology-enhanced learning in future Learning and Teaching Strategies.” Trinity University College, Wales matriculates largely undergraduate students and is faced with the challenge offered up by the funding council. Considerable research has already been conducted on the use of ‘networked learning technologies’, but is often based in the context of post-graduate professionals undertaking more flexible off-campus delivery modes of learning (Asensio et al., 2000; McConnell, 2006; Fung, 2004).The aim of this study was to examine campus based learners’ reflections of their experience when they were moved from the familiar face-to-face learning to a networked learning environment. To achieve this, the following questions emerged: How do campus-based learners initially react to using discussion forums? What did they offer that traditional face-to-face approaches did not? How did they cope? What benefits did they gain? What did they lose? What can be learned from the experience?

The methodological approach adopted for this was qualitative and based on the grounded theory method provided by Charmaz (2006), as the research seeks to explore and examine a complex and detailed phenomenon from the perspective of the learner’s experience. From the results of this grounded study four themes were identified from the reflections of the ‘lived experiences’ offered by full time undergraduate learners participating in a research methods programme. The themes identified were categorised as: Familiarisation with the networked environment; grappling with collaboration; learning anew the ‘text as talk’ medium and coping strategies – reverting to the familiar. Networked learning often places great emphasis on text as the medium of mediation between learners, their tutors and their resources. The findings identify benefits from networked learning that face to face interactions rarely offer. However, the study questions the efficacy of relying solely on a text based medium for communication with undergraduate learners and offers possibilities for the future.


Full Paper - .pdf


The Paradox of Social Media and Higher Education Institutions

Justin Bonzo
Assessment and Curriculum: Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia

Gale Parchoma
Educational Research, Lancaster University


This paper explores the paradox that occurs between institutional expectations and expectations held by student regarding the use of social media in support of learning in higher education settings. Specifically, the example is given of a disagreement that took place in a recent conversation in a distributed medical education programme in Canada. The current body of research regarding the incongruity of expectations about integrating social media into a higher education institution framework suggests that a widening gap is emerging and that conflict is taking place. The example from Canada exemplifies the difference that exists in people’s understandings and expectations of how social media can be employed for benefit in education. The paper looks at the principles of social media and the potential impact on many of society’s institutions, including government, commerce, media and education. Interestingly, higher education seems to have fallen behind in adopting and adapting to the new social media reality. The key points of social constructivist thinking are then examined with special attention to the following five points: learning requires active participation by the learner; previous experience is important when reinforcing new learning; individual knowledge construction requires a social interaction element; negotiation within the learning environment is essential; and, learning best takes place within a socio-cultural context. These principles are then addressed in relation to the social media principles of active participation, collaboration and that of reflection. Finally, three points are expanded as to potential sources and reasons why conflict may occur when trying to integrate a popular social media perspective into the established higher education setting. These are: existing hierarchical structure of higher education institutions; accreditation and quality concerns; and, formal and informal learning. Social media is more than computer application and programs and the technology behind them it is about transformation. At its core, social media is a collection of ideas about community, openness, flexibility, collaboration, transformation and it is all user-centred. If education and educational institutions can understand and adopt these principles, perhaps there is a chance for significant change in how we teach and learn in formal and informal settings. The challenge is to discover how to facilitate this change.


Full Paper - .pdf


Teachers' Views on Assessment in Higher Education

Hans Oberg
IT-service, University of Skovde

Maria Zenios, Gale Parchoma
Educational Research, Lancaster University


From a social constructivist viewpoint, learning is a constructive act of the learner. Several different assessment methods are used in assessing students, which have implications when discussing knowledge construction in higher education. Teachers’ views about different formats and methods of assessment were examined by interviewing teachers in higher education. This work-in-progress suggests that students' perceptions about assessment have considerable influence on their approaches to learning, but that organizational and teachers’ perceptions of institutional objectives are significant factors in choosing assessment methods. Although the teachers interviewed agree in the constructive act of the learner, the assessment is still more of a teacher-centred process for teachers with little experience of networked learning environments. This is also partly because of the restraints of university examination rules, as well as universities adaptation to the Bologna Declaration (1999). Being gradually acculturated and assimilated into the networked learning community in the form of an apprenticeship should help in making teachers more inclined towards a student-centred approach and to using peer assessment.


Full Paper - .pdf


Athenian Democracy & Networked Learning Communities

Chrysoula Themelis
Athens Campus, Hellenic-American University

Gale Parchoma, Michael Reynolds
Educational Research, Lancaster University


The Athenian democracy is worthy of study if for no other reason than that it was inspiration for many academic fields. This project highlights some institutions and policies of the Athenian democracy, during its flowering in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, in order to interpret them for the benefits of networked learning communities. Concepts such as ephebes and the power of reward can be applied to both the ancient and digital era, without implying an exact parallel. New members (ephebes) need training to create their e-portfolios, acquire digital literacy and epistemic fluency to be eligible to contribute to and benefit from community management. Discussion forums could be an arena for dialogue and information exchange. Allocating labor, e-community managers could fulfill the potential of technology-enhanced learning and tutors would able to select and distribute resources that could be useful and applicable. Praxis and democratic ideals are mirrored in the framework of an economy of knowledge. Epistemologically speaking, an economy of knowledge can be seen as a theory for acquiring the full benefits and costs of coming to know and use knowledge. This theory of knowledge could be a core concept in network learning. This theory does not presume full knowledge, but it does presume democratic social construction of knowledge. On ontological grounds, subjectivity implies that there are always some alternative constructions available to choose from in dealing with the world. The reliability of democracy increases as different points of views transformed into a socially ‘agreed’ way of interaction and participation. The dark side of democracy more closely related to NL communities could shade mainly the ideas of irrational decision, monoculture (single, homogeneous culture without diversity) and demagogy. To illuminate dark corners of democratic e-communities, a form of ‘aristocratic democracy’ is used as a metaphor for the social regime. The term, aristocracy, in the Greek sense of the word, means that the best rules in every domain. To top it all, cultural pluralism could light democratic e-communities, with creativity or conflict that can promote critical thinking and dialogue.Praxis and further research are required to test the validity of the theory presented.

Full Paper - .pdf




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