Reflections on the value of MOOCs

A few weeks ago, Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch) asked me to contribute my perspective to a piece he was writing on MOOCs for a new L&D magazine (“LEO”). Aside from it being a fun thing to do – write a few words, record a short video intro – it prompted me to think a lot about my MOOC experiences, and how they’ve contributed to my professional practice.

I’ve since come across some more perspectives and online conversations on corporate MOOCs, which have further helped flesh out my initial reflections. Conversations on MOOCs definitely seem to be creeping from the domain of higher ed and into the corporate sphere. Some of the items on Corporate MOOCs that caught my interest lately were:

Whilst the IMC report includes some interesting ideas on using MOOCs as part of an organisation’s recruitment strategy, much of the current conversation on the use of MOOCs for learning and development within the corporate context centres on application of the (x)MOOC model for:

  • employee professional development
  • ‘off the shelf’ alternatives to complement existing training offerings and/or
  • incorporating as part of a broader formal learning program.

All of these are certainly promising, and potentially viable for immediate application within a corporate context. And where you have well defined learning objectives or aim to support the development of ‘foundational’ knowledge, highly structured, content driven (x)MOOCs may well be a good option. The (x)MOOC format is also very much aligned to the way formal learning / training is both used and designed in the corporate environment (i.e. specific, well defined learning objectives, structured, linear content-focused course with defined start & end points).

And if we’re talking about introducing MOOCs into (conventionally conservative) corporate environments, starting with MOOC models which don’t dramatically diverge from existing pedagogical frameworks is a sensible approach (or at least an easier pitch to the execs).

However: I am most excited about the possibility of what might happen if we took a (c)MOOC framework and adapted it for a corporate context – how & what it might look like, and what could be achieved. As Michelle mentioned in her post, the social and project aspect of the MOOC is usually the most engaging. But this is often peripheral (if present at all) in the xMOOC format. In contrast, cMOOCs have connection (with other participants, with ideas & concepts) at the core – pedagogy and structure is explicitly designed to support this: it’s primarily about connection rather than just content access and individual knowledge acquisition.

My MOOC experiences

I’ve actively participated in 3 MOOCs:

Whilst the Gamification MOOC via Coursera wasn’t bad – I found the content interesting, the assignments were designed to support real world application of concepts, I  completed all requirements as stated, and even applied some of the concepts in my work. But: I never felt deeply moved, challenged, or inspired. Nor did I connect with anyone in the course. Yes there were discussion forums, and I did visit them once or twice but found the sheer number of disparate conversations overwhelming and hard to follow.

cMOOCs as vehicle for inspiration, behaviour change & community building

In contrast, #xplrpln and #rhizo14 – both ‘c’ (‘Connectivist’) style MOOC experiences have primarily provided the opportunity to meet, engage with and be inspired by a bunch of unique individuals from a range of diverse contexts and backgrounds (higher ed, k-12 ed, academia, not for profit, corporate and more); people who are driven to continually question, challenge, disrupt, explore, change, and improve themselves, others and the status quo.

cMOOCs are usually smaller (not massive – 100s rather than 1000s) – so conversations tend to be more constructive, meaningful and stimulating rather than chaotic, disorganised and inaccessible as they are in the more massive xMOOCs. This combined with a generally low structure, connectivist approach, focused on exploring and reflecting on complex, ill structured problems, or issues with no single or clear answer (thus necessarily requiring collaboration and in depth discussion with others to make meaning of the ambiguity); and conducted out in the open web (rather than on closed, private platforms) – all helps to both attract people who thrive in these environments, and to support the rapport building that results in close PLN relationships which persist long after the ‘course’ ends (> since the MOOC is conducted on social platforms participants already use, conversations simply continue on those platforms after the course ‘ends’).

Although I’ve only participated in two cMOOCs, they may be two of the most impactful personal and professional development experiences I’ve had – not simply because they exposed me to a whole range of new perspectives – and changed my perspective, thinking & mindset on a whole load of things (which has had a flow-on effect on the way I approach what I do at work). But what has been absolutely critical has been the people I have met, conversations I’ve had, collaborations I have engaged in, and stuff I’ve made . Many of these connections have become close members of my PLN and led to number of ongoing collaborations after the event which have contributed far greater to personal and professional development than any conventional course. Many of these collaborations are focused on building networks and communities, bringing people and ideas together:

cMOOC_Collaborations

My cMOOC collaborations – click on the image for the interactive version via ThingLink with more info on connections and collaborations > http://www.thinglink.com/scene/536820231192969218

What I get out of the cMOOC experience is not necessarily practical strategies, ideas or actions that I can apply directly to my workplace (which I might get from say, an industry event, workshop, conference targeted to the field of corporate L&D that I work – or indeed, an xMOOC targeted to a domain of knowledge or skill I have a need to develop). Yet it’s something that actually has greater value than practical application: it’s the shift in mindset that results from engaging with people who are driven to continually question, experiment, explore and improve -> it’s that you start to adopt this mindset yourself too. Start to see challenges as opportunities to explore possibilities, become a little braver, make the leap from thinking about experimenting to actually doing it. No longer (as) afraid of being challenged, but open to it – inviting challenge rather than being defensive. It’s more than just being inspired. It’s inspiration + action to = change. Change in the way you think, learn and act – about life, work, learning, and yourself. It is the personal, human connections and inspiration that Clarissa speaks eloquently of in her posts on #CLMOOC and #Rhizo14.

It’s the type of engagement that most conventional courses and programs dream of achieving, and it’s the reason why I get so frustrated with the continual focus on ‘completion’ as a means to evaluate the effectiveness or value of MOOCs. It’s not about completion; it’s about engagement. And thought-provoking, behaviour-changing engagement can be triggered even through one conversation or experience – as long as it’s with the right people, at the right time, and at the right level.

cMOOCs as a framework to support workplace goals?

So: how might cMOOCs be adapted to add value in a corporate context?

I’m wondering if the MOOC framework could be set up such that it directly supports the workplace goals: by using a connectivist, problem based learning approach, where participants collectively work on a relevant, ill defined problem; where objectives aren’t always clear from the outset (or defined by participants rather than the instructor) – and where there certainly isn’t any single ‘correct’ answer to the problem >> much like in the real world. This was the approach used in the ‘Exploring PLNs’ cMooc and it was very effective. And if the experiences ARE actually open, there is the potential to support global, cross-organisational / cross-context, (as well as intra-organisational) collaboration and knowledge/experience sharing – which could be the most exciting of all > not just breaking silos within organisations but across organisations and contexts (e.g. institutional: where you might possibly have say ppl from higher ed, teachers etc collaborating with corporate). We know that innovation comes from taking ideas and applying them in novel ways or contexts – it commonly happens at the boundaries of CoPs or in open, diverse networks – thus this *could* be a way of pitching it to corporates who are generally pretty guarded about ‘sharing’ organisational knowledge. Sure we might be a little way from this and yes there may be barriers to getting there, but as Maha reminds us in her email signature:

“We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.” –
Derrida

Reflections on xplrpln

Well, it’s been over two weeks since xplrpln (Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar) finished, and I finally feel ‘ready’ to sit down and write some final reflections.  I’ve been considering how to approach this for a while. There’s much I could say about it – hard to know where and how to start. I’ve also been enjoying getting into other people’s artifacts, and continuing some of the conversations.

But here are some of the Big Things I learnt from xplrpln.

About PLNs and organisations

Although I ended up doing a ‘cautiously optimistic’ pitch to the CEO in my final artifact, I still wasn’t entirely comfortable about the idea. The problem I had/have wasn’t with the idea of PLNs in organisations, or individuals utilising their PLNs to meet their workplace learning needs. This is something that is already happening now. Per tweet I posted in the final xplrpln twitter chat:

PLN_Org_wk5tweet

And I think this sums up my (current) position: I’m comfortable with PLNs in organisations – but on individuals’ own terms. The discomfort I had was with the idea of pitching PLNs in orgs to the CEO. Because the likelihood is that the CEO or other leaders / managers in the organisation will want individuals to ‘use’ their PLNs exclusively to meet the organisation’s needs and goals. This is in conflict with the fundamental tenet of PLNs: that they are Personal, developed and maintained by the individual. So it’s the individual who gets to decide how they use their network, and who they include in it. Not the organisation.

Sure, you can try to put measures in place for mitigating this risk (and I made some recommendations in my artifact around this) but ultimately, the problem is the existing structures within organisations  (incl leader / management attitudes, power issues, performance management processes, hierarchies, closed networks….) simply aren’t set up to support wide scale, networked learning and working in this way. Kristen Corpolongo’s tweet in one of the final twitter chats really brought this home for me:

@KirstenCorpo_PLN_reflectionstweet

It goes back to what Maureen Crawford said early on about society’s move towards networks as a paradigm shift:

MaureenCrawford_PLNs_paradigmshift

And unless an organisation has made that shift, it’s doubtful whether a pitch for PLNs to a CEO will actually ‘work’.

That said, I still believe that individuals can and should continue to develop and draw on their own PLNs to support their workplace learning needs – and encourage others to develop their own. And perhaps, once the groundswell of bottom-up action on PLNs reaches critical mass, leaders within organisations will start actually taking some notice and realise that this is something they need to do themselves too – and support – within their organisation. Because until leaders know the true value of PLNs (and they can only realise this by developing, maintaining and using their own), pitching to them on the benefits of PLNs is likely to lead to ‘exploitation’ of an individual’s PLN – as described by Helen Blunden in her final reflections:

HelenBlunden_PLNreflections

I’ve really appreciated Helen’s sharing of her personal experiences throughout xplrpln (e.g. in her blog post above, plus G+ discussions). It provided unique (and timely) insight into the very real tensions between the individual and the organisation regarding PLNs. It’s been big in helping me  see how much work there still is to do before we get to the paradigm shift that Maureen refers to.

About cMOOCs, connection & conversation

Open attitude + mutual engagement
I’m starting to think that an open attitude to learning / sharing, and mutual cognitive engagement is what drives learning in connectivist online learning environments. It was without doubt, the in-depth conversations that made this so interesting. But this couldn’t have happened without participants being equally interested, passionate and engaged enough in the topic to participate.

Meaningful and authentic conversation
I’m amazed at the depth of conversation we were able to achieve in this space, and all without ever meeting face to face. I think contributing factors included: open attitude +  mutual engagement, the presence of complexity and ambiguity (providing much scope for exploration) and a certain level of comfort with online tools and social sharing.

Diversity of learners
A diverse pool of participants led me to learning things I otherwise would never have known about. I loved how the xplrpln community included those from corporate, higher ed, not-for-profits, freelancers and more. Through Kay Assant’s brilliant ‘PLN House of Horrors’, I learnt that university management have the same control issues as corporates, and Karen Jeanette and Stephen Judd schooled me on Cooperative Extension organisations.

Twitter and G+ as conversation spaces
I’ve been introduced to new experiences with Twitter: as a space for thought provoking, even perspective-changing conversation (which I wrote about previously), and using Hootsuite (thanks to Keeley Sorotki’s excellent post) to follow streams and check in on what’s happening in other MOOCs, chats, conferences etc has improved my Twitter experience a lot. I’ve also discovered G+ as a place where interesting and in depth conversation seems to happen. As a largely open space (but with the option for privacy), it seems to offer a good balance to support online communities. It’ll be interesting to see what our G+ xplrpln community evolves into.

cMoocs & open online learning experiences
Finally, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about cMoocs and what makes them work – and particularly, how much of the experience can be ‘designed’. I do think there needs to be the right balance of structure vs freedom, and I think Jeff and Kimberley achieved this balance. Parts of the ‘design’ that I think were critical to its success (at least for me) included:
  • Overarching structure: this helped to maintain focus, and provided a framework for moving forward (if left to our own devices we might still be in the throes of week 2, debating the differences between PLN, PLE, CoP, NoP, OLN, PKM, and the multitude of other complementary concepts out there!).
  • Artifact assignment: although I thought at one point I might not even submit one, the process of thinking through how I’d communicate my current position and thinking WAS helpful.
  • Encouraging ‘half baked ideas’: pitching the course as an ‘exploration into ambiguity’ was a brilliant strategy. It acknowledged up front that nobody knew any of the answers, that coming up with ‘answers’ was going to be complex and challenging – and that there might be more questions than answers by the end. And that this was ok. Moreover, this exploration was something we would be doing together. And that actually, this was kind of the point of the seminar. This was a master stroke because what it did was open up the conversation from the outset, by making it ok (in fact, desirable!) to put forward ‘half baked ideas’, and to ask lots of questions of each other without feeling stupid.  In the same vein, Jeff’s positioning of the artifact as a representation of thinking….for now – was what encouraged me to actually create one. Thinking about it as something that could evolve took the pressure off: it didn’t have to be perfect, just an articulation of my current thinking.
  • Intentional recruitment of awesome people: I’m aware that (at least) Jeff was quite intentional in scouting out people for this seminar, and I think this had a significant impact on the quality and depth of conversation. There was an energy and level of engagement that you only get when you bring together group of people who are equally interested, enthusiastic, and open to exploring and sharing ideas on a common topic of interest. And whilst this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this level of engagement and depth of conversation in an online space (it has been reminiscent of collaborative learning experiences from my Masters in Learning Science & Technology), I think the big difference with an open online experience like this, is that these people become part of your PLN. And this opens up potential opportunities to continue developing relationships beyond the learning experience.  This has already started to happen (thanks to a somewhat timely opportunity to meet Helen Blunden at the Learning@Work conference last week!), and there are others who I’ll definitely be following, and finding opportunities to continue conversations with.

Inspired by Kimberly Scott’s opening blog post I was actually going to construct a haiku out of a brilliant tweet from Helen Crump defining PLNs to close this post…however I can’t seem to find the tweet now and it’s Very Late – so might have to wait until next post (tomorrow!).

xplrpln: final artifact

The PLN ‘pitch’ to a CEO. Originally posted on Google docs/drive here with some commentary. Although the zoom function on Google seems a bit difficult, so decided to post here as well. There are meant to be some links out to other content within this infographic artifact (which was why I posted it in Google docs to begin with), but the below is just an image. Will look at adding these back in (think I have to do an ‘image map’?) at some point.

Will no doubt write more stuff about this (and other people’s artifacts!) in a later post.

xplrpln_PLN_Pitch

Emergent thinking through conversation: week 2 #xplrpln

What has stood out for me so far in #xplrpln has been the power of participation and conversation.

Coming into this event, I’d already discovered the potential of blogs as a means of connecting with people and exploring ideas – in fact I originally came across Jeff Merrell (one of the event coordinators) through commenting on one of his blog posts. That comment led to our discovering we were interested many similar topics, which eventually led to Jeff tweeting me about this event.

As  result, I’ve been quite intentional about commenting on other people’s blogs, and participating in Google+ and twitter conversations, with the mindset of putting forward, and exploring ‘half baked ideas’ (as inspired by Jeff).

Some of the conversations that have led to new and emergent thinking for me in weeks 1-2 included:

The nature of PLN connections – transience and the impact of f2f connections: Matt Guyan’s O week blog post

Matt's O Week post

Matt’s post and comments on it raised questions around the transience of some PLN connections and how existing personal and face to face relationships might impact interactions your PLN. Emerging threads and questions I found interesting included:

  • What are the factors that influence how PLN relationships develop or evolve? (weak > strong ties and vice versa)
  • Are connections that originate through face to face relationships (or that later involve face to face meetings) qualitatively different to those that originate (and only ever exist) online?

Ownership of PLNs: Maureen Crawford

Maureen Crawford - Ownership of PLNs

The question of ownership of PLNs was another major thread that emerged from Matt’s post, leading to Maureen Crawford (@jmc3ualberta) to question the notion of ownership in networks. The subsequent thoughts on Maureen’s blog changed the way I viewed PLNs – and I’m inclined to agree with Maureen that whilst an individual creates, develops and maintains their PLN, the concept of ‘ownership’ is actually (semantically) irrelevant when we’re talking about a series of relationships.

(….although I’d add that this doesn’t necessarily stop organisations perceiving ownership, or individuals feeling a sense of ownership of PLNs they develop and maintain > and this is where the tensions between individuals and the organisation may emerge in the irritatingly illogical Real World in which we live).

The tension between individual and the organisation (+ the impact of personal connection): Helen Blunden G+ conversation

Helen Blunden G+ convo

I had a really interesting and personally engaging conversation with Helen Blunden in the #xplrpln G+ community off the back of her week 1 #xplrpln post. It started with a comment from Helen on the importance of PLNs a seamless part of an employee’s workflow. This is a thread I picked up on as I also recognise it as critical (but also one of the biggest challenges). In the conversation that ensued, we covered broad ranging themes including organisational openess, trust & transparency, organisational restructure, management support and barriers, the impact of organisational culture and systems on org change, and fear. But – perhaps the best part – in the process, Helen also related some of her personal experiences of open sharing, and the tensions it created between herself and her organisation. Parts of her story did have an emotional impact on me, and perhaps this element of personal connection may have spurred the conversation further than it otherwise might have.

So, (again) from this, I’m considering questions like:

  • How does personal connection impact reciprocity in PLNs?
  • Is personal connection a critical factor for strengthening ties within PLNs?

Reciprocity in PLNs & what motivates people to reciprocate: Ess Garland @essigna twitter convo

EssGarland_twitter

This is perhaps my favourite #xplrpln conversation so far – not just because it was one of the most thought provoking conversations I’ve had on twitter, but because it was spontaneous, incidental, serendipitous. It was a Friday evening, and I was going through the #xplrpln twitter chat that had occurred earlier, picking out threads and thoughts that I found interesting, and responding to them. I wasn’t expecting a response – but to my suprise, got one. From @essigna – who hadn’t even been part of the original conversation I’d responded to.

But she picked up on a theme that had been buzzing in the #xplrpln community all week, and one which I was also wrestling to come to a position on: whether reciprocity was a necessary and defining feature of PLNs (e.g. could former authors / influencers be considered part of your PLN? > as suggested by this excellently articulated post by Bruno Winck).

And so Ess and I actually had a thought provoking conversation. Spontaneously. Serendipitously. On twitter. This is pretty significant for me, because although I think twitter is an amazing tool for discovering content and people, I’d never really had more than what I’d describe as simple exchanges.  I don’t really count tweet chats, as these feel more like broadcasting thoughts and reactions. A conversation, for me, is a one-one focused interaction.

I also love that this was pure serendipity; we were simply both in the same (virtual) place at the same time, and the same headspace. Seriously, what are the chances? It certainly doesn’t happen often (as far as I can tell).

And, what’s more, she raised some really interesting points and questions, that are still influencing my thinking, and promoting the emergence of related questions:

  • What motivates people to reciprocate in a PLN?
  • What is the impact of online experiences like MOOCs in developing PLN relationships?
  • Do events like MOOCs act as catalysing events for developing stronger, long term PLN ties?

Disclaimer:

There are actually many other conversations and interactions that I’ve participated, and blog posts I’ve read in over the first two weeks which have influenced my thinking and had an impact on me.  But in the interests of brevity, these are probably the four that have had the biggest.

Now week three is just about over…it’s actually been a little quieter compared with the first 2 weeks, but certainly no shortage of interesting thoughts emerging. Might save for the next post though…Really gotta get to bed!

Emergent thinking in #xplrpln

One of the most interesting things about participating in #xplrpln is observing how our current thinking evolves and new thinking emerges as a result of engaging with others’ ideas – either through reading and/or commenting on blogs, participating in a discussion forum, chat session, or reading and responding to tweets.

It’s fascinating, this process of wading through the threads of thought, picking and teasing out the threads that you identify with, playing with them,  to work out how they fit in with your own, and – as has happened more often than not over the past 3 weeks – integrating new thought-threads to evolve and tweak your own thinking.

I’m as interested in the process of how learning occurs through participatory open online education experiences like #xplrpln, as I am in the content being covered. One of the things I’d like to do is to observe and describe the interactions and experiences that have the most impact on my learning and thinking as we progress, to try to better understand the open online learning process (more to come on that….)

***

Post script: Inspiration

This rather short post was inspired by Maureen Crawford’s awesomely poetic suggestion (challenge?) to wite more regularly in order to get out of being too precious about your writing.  Her own thoughts-in-progress style reminded me of the reason I started this blog in the first place: to explore, experiment and reflect on ideas. Narrating thoughts in short regular bursts seem like a perfect way to do this.

So there’s my “try something new” for this week. Thanks Maureen!

#xplrpln: Week 1: try something new

Well, we’re now at the END of week 2 of the ‘Exploring Personal Learning Networks’ open online seminar…and I’ve finally got to getting down a post on week 1 (BlogFail!).  Have been WAY too preoccupied with exploring, commenting and conversing on all of the interesting stuff that others have posted. Which is Good, and kind of the point of this type of (cMOOC) experience, but I recognise it’s also important to leave time for individual reflection and take stock of what I’m learning.

And…since I’m doing this, I might as well start at the begininng.

Why I’m doing this seminar

I was really excited when I saw the overview of this seminar / cMOOC. This was not just because it was on PLNs – something I was interested in exploring further – but because it focused on exploring PLNs from an organisational perspective, and the impact of networks both internal and external to the org.

I immediately saw a link with some of the ideas and themes I was discussing with my supervisor for my Masters research: knowledge creation-sharing- management / organisational learning / innovative teams / open innovation / Communities of Practice. I had an ‘aha’ moment when I realised the external connections in an individual’s PLN could potentially function as sources of open innovation for organisations, and the proposal in my previous post is my initial delve into the academic literature on this.

So: my main motivation in participating in this learning experience is primarily to enhance my understanding of PLNs to inform my Masters research. Another goal is to experience a connectivist MOOC (cMOOC). I’ve had #etmooc envy since reading about Jeff’s experiences on his blog, and been itching to get into one. I’m keen to really explore complex ideas in depth with smart people who have an open attitude to learning (and in doing so, expand my own PLN). So far, it’s certainly shaping up to be exactly this.

Try something new

The theme of week 1 was ‘try something new’. I love this theme. What I love about it is that it introduces spirit of adventure, and invites a mindset of experimentation upfront. It reminds me of the creative headspace that #DS106 encourages. Most of the new things I’ve tried in the last week have been inspired by the #xplrpln community:

  • Exploring and engaging with communities in Google + for the first time (main site of the #xplrpln community)
  • Now using HootSuite to follow twitter streams (now following #cicmooc, #ooe13, #DS106, #ds106dc, #lrnchat!) and to find interesting stuff more easily – thanks to this post by Keeley Sorokti
  • Finally participated in a #lrnchat (something I’ve been intending to do for YEARS, but never seemed to be ‘able’ to make time…until I caught the ‘try something new’ bug)
  • Exploring interesting ideas with a bunch of new people who have totally inspired and stimulated my thinking
  • Used Pinterest for the first time – to chart a narrative of my PLN (or perhaps, more accurately PLE) – see below for more.

A view of my evolving PLN/PLE – on Pinterest

I was quite inspired by the posts from others reflecting on their own PLNs. I liked how some attempted to map their PLNs using mind mapping tools to provide a visual of their network (Kind of like a basic SNA diagram). I was also taken by Helen Blunden’s narrative approach, describing her experience meeting her PLN, using a tool she’d never used previously (Shadowpuppet).

I liked the idea of using this exercise as an opportunity to experiment with a tool I’d never used before. And ever since I read about Jane Bozarth exploring Pinterest to create narratives, I’ve been interested to try this too. So I attempted to map a narrative of my evolving PLN on Pinterest:

Pinterest_PLN

Reflections in light of week 2

I started mapping my Pinterest PLN idea last week, and over the week, as we’ve debated and discussed the definition of a PLN in week 2 of #xplrpln, I’ve come to realise that what I mapped last week, was probably more my PLE (Personal Learning Environment), with portions of PLN distributed across this PLE.

Regardless, it was quite a valuable exercise, as it made me reflect on where I learn stuff, who from, how, and the types of things I learn across the various platforms within my PLE. It also raised a number of questions for me, including:

  • What distinguishes a PLN from a PLE? There was a LOT of thought provoking discussion about this over the week. I think I’m leaning towards reciprocity or the potential for reciprocity as the difference between a PLN and PLE.
  • What differentiates a purely social network from a PLN? This is a slippery one for me, as I don’t particularly differentiate personal from professional learning when thinking about my PLN. And I also think, if we’re talking about reciprocity or potential for reciprocity as a defining feature of a PLN, having a social connection is integral to this reciprocity, or potential for reciprocity. So, for example, even though I define my Facebook network as largely a social network, there are people who I connect with (albeit occasionally) to exchange ideas about parenting. Thus they would form part of my PLN.
  • What are the different features and affordances of the various platforms that might make up a PLE, and how does this impact what, how, and who you learn from? For example, in mapping out my own PLE, I realised that my LinkedIn consists largely of a local professional network with whom I mostly learn and share stuff that directly impacts my day to day role (e.g. instructional design, elearning design / dev, training, job opportunities…). Whereas twitter is my connection to the global L&D community to learn about ‘big ideas’ that I’m interested in (innovation, creativity, org learning, change, open ed…).

There are a lot more thoughts and questions that have emerged from other interactions, discussions, blog posts in week 2…but I might save that for my next post!

MA research proposal: PLNs and innovation…the story so far…

A couple of weeks ago, as I emerged from the fog of reading a bunch of research papers to seeing how they might fit together to form a new whole…I saw this in my twitter feed:

@neilhimself

It was one of those moments of trippy serendipity when you feel like fate’s just crying out to be believed in. Not that I think my MA research is going to be anywhere near as riveting as a Neil Gaiman story, but his sentiments DID reflect almost exactly what I was feeling at that moment.

While I definitely don’t have all the pieces yet, I think I now have some idea where it might be going. So, here is my draft proposal:

[MA research proposal]

Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: an exploratory study

This research proposes to explore the nature of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), and their potential impact on an individual’s innovation in professional practice.

(A) Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs….often by information and communication technologies.

             Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

PLNs’ link to innovation

Recent research by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) on PLNs suggest a link between PLNs and innovation. In their study of the factors that people consider to be valuable to daily learning from their PLN, they found that the concepts scored most highly were: “different perspectives”, “Values”, “passionate”, “inspirational”, “trust”, “innovative”, “expertise”, “disruption”, “reality check”, “do things differently”, “familiarity”. Many of these relate in some way to innovation, suggesting that people utilise PLNs in some capacity to support innovative practice.

Further, research and theory on strong vs weak ties in communities and networks, suggest that PLNs may have the potential to foster both incremental and radical innovation.

Grabher and Ibert (2008, cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) propose that personal networks feature three layers with ties of differing strengths: a communality layer (strong ties), a sociality layer (weak ties) and a connectivity layer (very weak ties). Dal Fiori (2007) hypothesises that strong and weak ties propagate different types of innovation, arguing that communities, with strong ties and high degrees of trust, support the exchange of tacit knowledge (Ghoshal, Korine, & Szulansky, 1994; Hansen, 1999; Szulansky, 1996; Uzzi, 1996 – cited by Dal Fiori 2007) to foster linear, incremental innovation. In contrast, networks consisting mostly of weak ties, are sites for boundary-spanning learning which expose people to different perspectives on the same issue. This composition likely supports more combinatorial, radical and breakthrough innovation. Interestingly Dal Fiori goes on to suggest that broad social adoption and diffusion of each type of innovation still require both networks and communities: incremental innovation requires a network to propagate it; and combinatorial innovation needs a community to become socially rooted practice (Dal Fiori 2007).

How might PLNs facilitate innovation in professional practice?

Professional networking can be used to continuously support professionals’ life–long learning in practice (Johnson, 2008 cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Personal professional networks, as platforms in which conversations and dialogue can occur, support the type of individual (non–formal) learning (Eraut, 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) especially prevalent in practice, where tacit knowledge is built through experience and reflection and shared through social interaction with others (Bolhuis and Simons, 2001; Hearn and White, 2009 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Having the capacity to obtain support and converse with people when needed also enables knowledge creation in organisational settings (Von Krogh, et al., 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012).

Communities of Practice, networks of practice and PLNs

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger et al. 2002: 4, cited in Murillo 2007). They are composed of strong ties and characterised by direct and sustained mutual engagement between members on shared problems, concerns or topics. Learning is viewed as ‘the process of becoming competent practitioners in an informal community’, and knowledge is embedded in shared practices (Murillo 2011).

‘Networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000) comprise people who engage in the same or very similar practice, but don’t necessarily work together and may never even know, know of, or come across others in their network (Brown & Duguid 2000, cited in Murillo 2011).

As PLNs comprise of strong, weak and very weak ties it is conceivable that they may contain both embedded CoPs (that foster collaboration between strong ties within the PLN) and networks of practice (comprising of weak ties across the PLN). Therefore, when postulating how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice, it is useful to draw on the body of research and theory on Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998, 2000) and ‘networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000). And there has been considerable research and theory on CoPs (Wenger 1998, 2000 cited in Murillo 2011) which tie them closely to innovation. For example Murillo (2011) cites studies which present innovation as a defining feature of CoPs (Orr 1990; Brown and Duguid 1991, 2000a; Brown and Grey 1995; Prokesch 1997; Swan et al. 1999; Wenger 2000b; Lesser and Everest 2001; Fontaine and Millen 2004), as well as studies that provide evidence of innovation occurring within CoPs (Anand et al. 2007; Meeuwesen and Berends 2007; Schenkel and Teigland 2008). Networks of practice have also been linked to innovation (e.g. Fleming and Marx 2006, cited in Murillo 2011).

Boundaries as sites of innovation

Innovation in CoPs and networks is thought to occur more often at boundaries: e.g. Wenger (2000, cited in Murillo 2011) describes CoP boundaries as the intersection connecting different CoPs, where radical insights often occur. Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011 point to studies which show that connecting to people in other networks (including outside the organisation) promote innovation and creativity (Kratzer & Letl 2008; Perry-Smith 2006).

PLNs – supporting radical, open innovation in organisational practice?

Connections in an individual’s PLN may be both internal and external to the organisation the individual works in. External connections may be seen as connecting individuals to networks outside the boundary of their organisational practice.

PLNs may also include connections not directly associated with an individual’s professional practice (e.g. friends, relatives, acquaintances). These connections may connect individuals to networks and influences outside their professional practice.

Research on boundaries in CoPs and networks suggest that these connections may potentially act as sources of combinatorial, radical innovation in an individual’s organisational and professional practice.

This research aims to explore these potential links.

MA research questions

Possible research questions:

  • Are an individual’s interactions with connections internal to their organisation characteristically different to interactions with those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • Are an individual’s interactions with people connected with their professional practice characteristically different to interactions with those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on the implementation of innovative practice within their organisation?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice?

References

Brown J.S and Duguid P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.
Organization Science 1991 2(1): 40-57 http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Dal Fiore, F (2007) Communities Versus Networks The Implications on Innovation and Social Change. American Behavioral Scientist, March 2007; vol. 50, 7: pp. 857-866.

Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organisation studies literature. Information Research vol 16 (1) http://informationr.net/ir/16-1/paper464.html

Rajagopal K.,  Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat M, McConnell D,Ryberg T & Sloep http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

Rory L.L. Sie, Marlies Bitter–Rijpkema and Peter B. Sloep (2011) What’s in it for me? Recommendation of peers in networked innovation.  Journal of Universal Computer Science, volume 17, number 12, pp. 1.659–1.672.

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What’s next

I have a whole lot more research to review to refine this proposal. As there doesn’t seem to be that much research specifically on PLNs, I plan to draw on research on networked learning, networks of practice, CoPs, PLEs, & connectivist learning. Also need to review innovation research in the management literature.

The definition of a PLN is very broad and may potentially be difficult to operationalise. I’ll need to specifically define ‘innovation’ / ‘innovative practice’ and operationalise that too.  Looking to draw on Feldman, M. S., and W. J. Orlikowski. “Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory.” to define from perspective of microdynamics of everyday practice.

Currently participating in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar, aiming to get more insights and connect with people on the concept of PLNs and how they are used in organisations.