Networked Learning as a classroom tool

When I was an undergrad student, most of my classes followed the lecture model, wherein we showed up to a lecture, the professor told us all of the information we were expected to know, and most if not all, of our grade was based off tests on that information. While this approach may be acceptable for some classes, mainly introductory courses where the main goal is to develop a solid foundation of knowledge on which more advanced classes will build, it is definitely not the best model to help all students develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills. For many students, grades based solely on tests are not an accurate representation of the student’s knowledge and skills. Even for the students who are good test takers, this system of learning can encourage a binge and purge system where students will study hard to learn what they need to know for a test and then move on to the next subject without retaining much of the information they just learned.

Another issue is that when students are handed information via lectures, and are not required to search out information on their own, even in textbooks (I can’t even tell you how many classes I took where I never had to crack open the “required” book), they don’t learn important skills. Students don’t learn how to ask questions and find the answers outside of asking a professor. From my own personal experience as a TA, i have found that many college students don’t know how to word the questions they have, and if they can’t ask a question, it becomes very difficult to find an answer.

Perhaps a better classroom model might be to encourage the use of networked learning. As an example, I think back to the first R class I took. For those unfamiliar, R is an open-source software for statistical analysis and data plotting. Because R is open-sourced and code-based, anyone can develop a software package to do any type of analysis, and as a result, there are a number of right ways to do any one thing. However, code-based statistics can be frightfully confusing. In my first R class, the structure was something like “here is the basic code of how to do [analysis], now you try to do it with this other data”. In order to prevent us from simply copying and pasting the code and changing a name, we were also expected to figure out how to add a little something extra in our code, usually something to make our plots work better. The internet has an excellent network of people using R at any skill level asking and answering questions on forums and websites, so this was useful in teaching how to ask a question, or more accurately, how to Google a question and find an answer on the internet. We were also encouraged to work together on assignments to problem solve. This often worked well, as usually the same bit of code would cause everyone problems, and so we could all search for answers and share solutions.

The networked learning of that particular course could have been taken one step further. If the students developed their own websites, on which they could create R code tutorials for the parts they had struggled with, it would help them to understand what had caused the problem, and how to avoid it in the future. By having their sites publicly available, they would be helping build the public resources for other beginner R students. Plus, they would have the information there in the future, avoiding the post-semester purge. Versions of this model could be used in other classes to help students take ownership of their education, allow them to showcase their accomplishments, and help them develop skills that will help them outside a classroom.

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9 thoughts on “Networked Learning as a classroom tool

  1. Kathleen

    I don’t think I have all of the answers, but I can definitely agree that the lecture/test format creates so many issues with retention. I previously taught high school, and many history teachers used this style every single day, and they wondered why the cumulative scores were so slow. This is definitely not the best way to learn. It has its place and can be effective at times, but education is not a one-size-fits-all platform; we need to have diversity in teaching because learning styles are definitely diverse.

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    1. I think you paint a picture of the classic undergraduate intro course so well. I can remember this model in my chemistry and physic classes. It was information overload combined with major test anxiety. This model is prolific and for me, was not my desired learning style. I agree that finding alternatives, like network learning, where the classroom becomes less defined and the right answer can be achieved through many pathways would provide new skill sets to the students. I personally do not have experience with R, but it’s a great example of how experiential learning can be applied.

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      1. I agree, although I try to repress my memories of general chemistry and physics. I think a lot of the challenges to implementing different teaching styles in intro courses comes down to class size. The grading alone for other assignments in a lecture would be a complete headache.

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    2. Thanks Kathleen! Yes, I’ve found even in classes that have cumulative tests, where students had to retain concepts from one test to the next, long-term retention is very low. I think student’s need something that gets them invested in the knowledge rather than the grade.

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  2. Good blog post! I agree, that there are sometimes problems with formulation in the way we ask questions. I don’t believe it’s solely an undergraduate problem as I myself still struggle to find the right words to ask a question, this becomes more apparent when working with multi-discipline teams. I agree with your view that there is a great deal of benefit in knowing how to ask the right question or google the right question. From my experience I find it more useful in technical matters like you mentioned R in your example, or coding problems. I believe the greatest benefit can be obtained when your search for an answer and do not find it, struggling through the process and finding a solution. Then posting it and sharing the solution, whether in a forum or a blog post! That sounds like networked and experiential learning to me.

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    1. I agree with you Antonio. There is nothing that makes me feel as proud as finally getting a bit of code to work the way I want to. Those are the moments that I find myself Snapchatting the awesome graph I just made to my friends who also use R. Its a great system for keeping me encouraged, because I have shown them my progress from the hilariously unreadable plots to the output I am proud of.

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      1. Arash

        Everything about the R-example is perfect. Free and open source software, with community developed documentation, tutorials and help. Stackoverflow is another example of where the dominant mode of learning is through forming a good question and helping provide answers to others.

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  3. Savannah Paige Murray

    Nice post! I appreciate your metaphor of the “binge and purge” system surrounding tests in your discipline and undergraduate learners. Although I teach writing, so I don’t often give traditional tests, that system very much reminds me of my own undergraduate courses in environmental science, when even though I found the material fascinating, I often did not retain very much after each major exam. The open access approach to your R course is also interesting to me. Often when students have very specific grammar questions, I show them how to solve those questions using online resources, especially if I personally am unsure of the specific rules! I think powerful education is often about helping students find the answers, rather than just giving them, in a lecture format, the exact information we deem “worthy” of their brain-space.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your R class experience. I wish that more classes take such an approach. Giving students the opportunity to rely on themselves to seek solutions and answer questions in remarkably valuable. It also enables students to have their own take on solving problems and encourages them to contribute to the larger community.

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