My Scholarly Reflections

This is where I tell what I think, so that I see what I say

Collective indwelling in Petri Dishes!

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Two things about the Internet tickle my imagination as a learning professional: the almost limitless information sources accessible on a click, and the ability to connect, with like minded people, through social media.

Authors of the book A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change   also invoke this affordance of connectivity as part of a new culture of learning. But for them, the word ‘culture’ invokes the imagery of a culture grown in a Petri Dish by a scientist (never saw this word used like this before!). The essential argument of the authors is that the current internet based social interactions, akin to the dynamics of organic growth in a Petri Dish, are a complex, uncontrollable social reality. We are engaged in this social reality through what the authors call ‘collective indwelling’. This term implies two things: We create online communities around a particular highly motivating common interest; and we embed ourselves in online environments created by such communites such that we have a symbiotic relationship with our environment. We collectively ‘play’ with our environment, alter it, and in this process, create learning opportunities. In this situation, the old linear ways of passive information processing akin to an input-output production line become obsolete, given the constant change in this internet mediated complex world. Learning happens in this context through three ways: knowing, making and playing.

This grand (re)vision makes sense. I see it all around me! But not in formal learning environments. Converting an undergraduate classroom into a fluid learning environment….well… lets consider the following issues:

The student side:

1) Students are (mostly) driven by extrinsic motivations: exams and a final piece of paper! I do not find reason to believe that students are studying, say, ‘Governance and Strategic Leadership” for a burning desire to become the Steve Jobs of this world! Free flowing, playful enquiry, through discovery learning mode does not fit the picture here.

2) Student expectations appear to be culturally and materially fixed: “I am here to be lectured, and spoon-fed knowledge, because the person standing in front of me is a powerful/knowledgeable figure with half a dozen degrees, he/she is older hence wiser, and, above all, I have paid money for that!”   13 weeks of contact is too short a time to change these expectations.

The ‘iron cage’  of the university:

1) Collective play and fluidity in complex adaptive systems akin to a petri dish is constrained by the intrinsically linear dynamics of highly institutionalized instruction considered ‘best practice’ in higher education (phew! sorry!). If this were not the case, lectures would have become extinct long time back. Donald Bligh asked the question What’s the use of lectures, when I was in my mother’s lap long time back; This question is still being debated, when my children are too big to fit my lap! see this.

2) More importantly, the incentive structures facing the instructor do not facilitate playful learning. Facilitators do not often have the skills and the attitude to take risk and explore new skills and new instructional design. Experimentation may backfire, exposing the facilitator to adverse student backlash(a.k.a feedback!). Attention of the facilitator is spread out thin over a number of activities (research, anyone!).

I will try to unpack issues and opportunities such as the above in the coming weeks and months.

Post script: Universities are indeed waking up to the aforementioned online possibilities, perhaps capturing some of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in terms of pedagogy and content, for example, MIT’s MITx and Harvard’s  OpenCourseWare,   Now who could face such formidable competitors!

p.s. My Swinburne Sarawak friends, the above mentioned book A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change  is available in our library.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Happy learning and teaching!


Written by Amer Khan

March 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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