The art and meaning of collaborative and peer learning

Participatory culture is one way to label and characterize the art and meaning of collaborative and peer learning in a digital age. Participatory culture has a focus on creating and sharing productions with others and by being prosumers – being producers and consumers in one and the same process responding to productions of others and remixing, repurposing or circulating them. As prosumers people find ways of expressing themselves artistically or engaging in civic matters, people become co-creators and part in a participatory culture where problem solving and the ability to meet challenges are key competencies. To learn yourself to write fanfiction, to play a certain massive online computer game or to learn how to make a film very easily involves participatory culture today, as you reach out online to find peers to share and discuss your work with. Both making content, evaluating it, remixing and reusing content and sharing it is part of online life today, and participatory culture is one place to meet collaborative and peer learning at work in shaping participatory culture as a networked online space for learning.

Participatory culture is collaboration through online communities across distances and within “structures of informal mentorship, mostly involving learning by doing and creating within a shared social context.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:8). So participatory culture can be seen as communities of practice where people are connecting with each other through technology and social media, creating social knowledge at the same time. This makes it obvious to see participatory culture as informal networked online spaces for learning that could have a positive part to play in formal learning in schools and education, as Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley and their collaborators in New Media Literacies point out in their book “Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom” (2013).

I introduced Jenkins, New Media Literacies and very briefly the book in my last blogpost. The book outlines basic principles of design, implementation and assessment when you want to draw on students’ social knowledge and expertise with communities of practice to develop a “community of readers” in your classroom building on participatory culture. In many ways the real thing is happening online, when it comes to the New Media Literacies’ project on how teachers can change how they teach canonical literature in schools, and the “Teachers’ Strategy Guide” for working with Moby-Dick is to be found on the web alongside with the open educational resources, “Flows of Reading”, developed for the project. This intention to work with participatory culture in school and education is going to be my example for discussing collaborative and peer learning in participatory culture as communities of practice in this blogpost. But first to the concept of communities of practice and learning in a digital environment.

Communities of practice and learning in a digital environment

Participatory culture can be seen as communities of practice where there is a shared interest in a knowledge across the community and in the community. And as such communities of practice are communities of learning and to be realized as “part of a broader conceptual framework for thinking about learning in its social dimensions.” (Wenger 2010:1). In his model of the progression in modes of learning from Learning 1.0 to Learning 3.0 due to the development in society, technology, media formats and platforms and education, Steve Wheeler posits communities of practice as a mode of learning belonging to Learning 2.0 and developing into Learning 3.0:

Learning Modes Grid

The model is also to be found on Wheelers blog “Learning with ‘e’s”

A community of practice extends good collaborative learning according to Wheeler, in the sense that people situate themselves as learners while moving from a legitimate-peripheral position, observing and learning from their peers, to become full participants who have gained access to all the knowledge the community can offer. To be full participants mean, that people have acquired the skills, competencies, ways of participation and producing resources (words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, links to resources)(Wenger 2010:1) and have obtained insight and understanding of the culture, so that they can take part in negotiating the meaning of personal experience in relation to the social defined competencies. That is the essence of communities of practice, and the platform where collaboration practice is deep and meaningful according to Wheeler. To become an apprentice of tailoring and learn how to make pants in Algeria, to learn to become an east coast rapper in the USA, or to become a self-guided student in school and higher education, all of these learning processes involve situated learning, collaboration practice and the development of skills to become full members of and participants in communities of practice.

These continuing processes of situated learning constitute what communities of practice are to Etienne Wenger in his exploration and evaluation of the concept proposed and elaborated by Jean Lave and himself (Lave and Wenger 1991).:

“Participation and reification represent two intertwined but distinct lines of memory. Over time, their interplay creates a social history of learning, which combines individual and collective aspects. This history gives rise to a community as participants define a ‘regime of competence’, a set of criteria and expectations by which they recognize membership. This competence includes

  • Understanding what matters, what the enterprise of the community is, and how it gives rise to a perspective on the world
  • Being able (and allowed) to engage productively with others in the community
  • Using appropriately the repertoire of resources that the community has accumulated through its history of learning.

Over time, a history of learning becomes an informal and dynamic social structure among the participants, and this is what a community of practice is.” (Wenger 2010:2)

Wenger explores the uses and the critiques of the concept of communities of practice in his article “Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept” (2010), and among the perspectives that make him evaluate the concept is the critique, “…that there is too much emphasis on community for an adequate account of learning in a web-enabled globalizing world.” (Wenger 2010:10). Wenger comments the critique like this:

“Again there is an important insight to this critique. Some of us have probably overemphasized community in our attempt to account for the directionality of learning. But it is a mistake, I believe, to think of communities and networks as distinct structures. I am often asked what the difference is between a community and a network. Rather than contrasting a community here and a network there, I think it is more useful to think of community and network as two types of structuring processes. Community emphasizes identity and network emphasizes connectivity. The two usually co-exist. Certainly communities of practice are networks in the sense that they involve connections among members; but there is also identification with a domain and commitment to a learning partnership, which are not necessarily present in a network.” (Wenger 2010:10)

“More generally, I find it more productive to think of community and network as combined in the same social structures – but with more or less salience. So the question is not whether a given group is a network or a community, but how the two aspects coexist as structuring processes. This is not only a richer way to think about social structures, it also has useful practical implications. Network and community processes have complementary strengths and weaknesses; they are two avenues for enhancing the learning capability of a group. If a community becomes too much of a community, too strongly identified with itself, prone to groupthink, closed or inbred, then fostering connectivity to generate some networking energy is a good way to shake it up and open its boundaries. There is something random and unpredictable about the dynamics of networking processes, which is a good counterpart to community.”(Wenger 2010:10)

Thus, Wenger acknowledges the existence of an approach to learning like Connectivism, with a  concept proposed by George Siemens. Connectivism recognizes the impact of technology on society and ways of knowing, and so connectivism is a theory of or an approach to networked learning where the individual is at the center like a node in a network: “From his viewpoint, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition, storage and retrieval; rather it relies on the connected  learning that occurs through interaction with various sources of knowledge (including the Internet and learning management systems) and participation in communities of common interests social networks, and group tasks.” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009).

The main goal in connectivism is to establish your own personal learning networks, to find current resources and to integrate them in your own learning network. The resources can be other learners, ‘peers’, experts, online resources like documents and other digital services (Krokan 2012:130). Knowledge does not just exist in our head but among us, and if we can connect to others who know something different from us, communities and networks facilitate important information and knowledge sharing and enhance co-creation of knowledge (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009). But the main issue must be a question about the quality of access to distributed knowledge:

“From this perspective, learning consists of retrieving information from self, others, and machines, collaborating to create knowledge, and applying information to current contexts. Hence, Siemens’ (2005) learning theory is about individuals connecting with each other and with technology. Effective learners are those who can cope with complexity, contradictions, and large quantities of information, who seek out various sources of knowledge, and who can create and sustain learning communities and networks. According to Siemens (2005), learning ecologies (communities and networks) facilitate important information sharing and co-construction of knowledge while encouraging life-long learning in the individual as well as the group.” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009).

A landscape of learning in an online networked world appears, and Wheeler maps the various positions like this (Wheeler 2014):

Connectivism                                                                                                                    Paragogy

Distributed cognition

– among others communities of practice –

All of the three positions have emerged from the mode of Learning 2.0, and there are similarities and overlaps between them, but according to Wheeler all three are suited for developing into Learning 3.0. With Wengers combination of community of practice and network in the article mentioned above, the concept of communities of practice can adapt to the mode of Learning 3.0 dominated by rhizomatic structures (Wheeler 2014). In the line of Deleuze and Guattari, rhizomatic structures go everywhere and mean exponential growth that results in exponential connections in multiple directions in multiple levels.

So communities of practice are still adequate forms for analyzing and understanding collaboration practice and pathways of learning in a digital age, but they are also practical guidelines into establishing learning partnerships:

“The concept of community of practice is a good place to start exploring a social discipline of learning. From an analytical perspective, it is the simplest social learning system. From an instrumental perspective, a community of practice can be viewed as a learning partnership. Its learning capability is anchored in a mutual recognition as potential learning partners. The discipline of such a partnership deepens and builds on this mutual engagement:

The discipline of domain: What is our partnership about? Why should we care? Are we likely to be useful to each other? What is our learning agenda? What specific set of issues does it entail?

The discipline of community: Who should be at the table so the partnership can make progress? What effects will their participation have on the trust and dynamics of the group? How do we manage the boundaries of the community?

The discipline of practice: How can the practice become the curriculum? How can it be made visible and inspectable? What should participants do together to learn and benefit from the partnership?

The discipline of convening: Who will take leadership in holding a social learning space for this partnership? How can we make sure that the partnership sustains a productive inquiry? Who are the external stakeholders and what are their roles? What resources are available to support the process?” (Wenger 2010:12

To Wenger the focus is on “understanding and enhancing learning capability in a social system” (Wenger 2010:11-12), and this is the reason why participatory culture as communities of practice become relevant to schools and higher education: working with participatory culture in education is a way of negotiating what the meaning of network, collaboration and peer-to-peer learning is and can become in the context of school culture and education, and a way of developing digital competencies, curriculum and the design of learning opportunities in school subjects. In other words, working with participatory culture is a way of developing subjects, schools and education as communities of practice and helps developing regimes of competencies in the ongoing social history of learning. And here New Media Literacies take off:

Moby-Dick and reading in a participatory culture

In their project on Moby-Dick, New Media Literacies are taking steps towards reading in a participatory culture by forming communities of practice:

“In this view, the new media literacies could supplement and expand traditional print literacies in ways that enriched our culture and deepened our appreciation of classical stories. New media platforms and practices were giving students much greater opportunities for communication and expression than could have been imagined by any previous generation. But to participate meaningfully, young people needed to be able to read and write; they needed to know how to connect their contemporary experiences to a much older tradition, and the literature classroom represents a particularly rich environment for fusing these different ways of learning.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:5)

“Our students need our help in making sense of a period of profound and prolonged media change that has affected every subject we teach. Ideally, each teacher would take ownership of those new media literacy skills that are part of his or her professional and intellectual domain. The literature teacher, thus, has an obligation to help young people think more deeply about what it means to be a reader and an author in a world where more and more of us can create and circulate what we create with others. To do this, though, we need to negotiate a new stance toward both print and digital culture, embracing new opportunities, even as we preserve older practices, texts and values.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:9)

“The new media landscape has as much to do with new social structures and cultural practices as it does with new tools and technologies. And as a consequence, we may be able to teach participatory mindsets and skills even in the absence of rich technological environments. Teaching the new media literacies means helping young people to acquire the habits of mind required to fully engage within a networked public.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:10)

New Media Literacies lean on collective intelligence as a core concept in their understanding of learning, and state “…that a networked society is one where each participant develops a distinctive  expertise that can contribute to the group’s common ventures. People working together and sharing information are able to address questions far more complex and arrive at answers far more quickly than any single member could do. Such a social structure places great value on diversity: If each member contributes his or her own expertise, the community is strengthened by the diversity of its participants.” (Jenkins 2013:86). And in this passage, Jenkins also implicitly celebrates distributed cognition which he and New Media Literacies also state as a core social skill, as I mentioned in my last blogpost. In their project, New Media Literacies  use collective intelligence as an organizing construct while they change from “…a traditional conceptualization of reading as an individual practice and toward a conception of reading as a collective, and even networked, activity” (Kelley, Jenkins, Clinton and McWilliams 2013: 27)

The project “Reading in a Participatory Culture” intend to form the classroom as a ‘community of readers’ with Moby-Dick as their model text. And at the center of the effort to develop curriculum and participatory practices while fostering traditional reading and writing, too, is the “Teachers’ Strategy Guide” , where a visualized model of The Participatory Model of Reading is to be found at the last page of the Introduction to the Reading Teachers’ Strategy Guide.

In addition to the “Teachers’ Strategy Guide” the open educational resources contain of four units:  1) “Motives for Reading”, 2) “Appropriaton and Remixing”, 3) “Negotiating Cultural Spaces”, and 4) “Continuities and Silences”. Each unit has links to a detailed lesson plan, to a part with related expert voices and background material for the teacher, and to “The Network of Cultural Materials” with videos to integrate in the lessons. The crucial unit to start with is Unit 1: “Motives for Reading” .

Each lesson plan includes descriptions of the design for the unit, background information on core concepts and perspectives on subject didactics and worksheets to the activities in the suggested lessons. The lesson plan is not meant as a normative plan to follow for the teacher, but a suggested plan to develop and discuss with in developing participatory practices and ‘a community of readers’. Some of the videos mentioned in the lesson plan for Unit 1 cannot be found by clicking on the links in the plan but can be found by searching for them online. I add a few links here to make an impression of the lesson plan for Unit 1 more accessible:

New Media Literacies actually manage to design a lesson plan for Unit 1: “Motives for Reading”, that succeed in what it aimed for:

“This expanded conception of reading thus allows students to understand the reading they do in the classroom as a particular reading practice with its own rules and goals. Rather than judging students’ reading practices from the standpoint of a hierarchy, whereby students are taught to devalues the forms of reading that they do in their everyday lives, a participatory understanding of literacy recognizes that there are many ways of making meanings with a text and that all “count” as valid forms of reading.” (Kelley, Jenkins, Clinton and McWilliams 2013: 28)

Connectivity and dialogue are essential to this expanded conception of reading, and the core principles that has guided the design of the “Teachers’ Strategy Guide” set off from them:

Adress the Participation Gap

Access to technology is necessary but not sufficient: all learners must be supported in learning how to contribute, in believing that they can contribute and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

Bring New Expertises and Perspectives into the English Language Arts Domain

There are many different forms of literary scholarship, and ‘literary analysis’ is not a monolithic set of practices and skills.

Begin with Core Literary Concepts/Practices and Expand

Traditional literacy practices take on new meaning when extended into participatory cultures.

Media Studies Approach

Comparative perspectives encourage an exploration of the intersection between literature and other media, often deepening an appreciation of the cultural impact of classic texts.

Stance on Popular Culture

Popular culture offers a culturally contested and therefore valuable and necessary avenue for developing new media literacies skills.

Stance on Technology

There are multiple avenues to participatory culture, and many barriers that limit students’ access to these cultures. Our hope is to offer a range of activities, both high- and low-tech, to support as many different kinds of classroom communities as possible. (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:14-20)

When it comes to a question of the ability to building learning partnerships through working with Unit 1: “Motives for Reading”, Wengers four disciplines of partnership mentioned earlier can be used as the analytical lens: 1) the discipline of domain, 2) the discipline of community, 3) the discipline of practice, and 4) the discipline of convening. And it turns out, that Unit 1: “Motives for Reading” works thoroughly on establishing an understanding of these four disciplines of learning partnership with the students. Unfolding participatory culture also implicates building a community of practice and getting aware of its elements while becoming a member. The process of elaborating the meaning of collaborative and peer learning in a digital age has begun.

This leaves the concepts of culture, the intertextual practice, the comparative readings and the building of a historical consciousness with students to be discussed in evaluating the “Teachers’ Strategy Guide”. But that must be some other time.

This blogpost has been edited on 4. December 2015 to remove a link.

Further reading:

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Clinton, Katie, Henry Jenkins and Jenna McWilliams (2013): New Literacies in an Age of Participatory Culture In: Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley (eds.): Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, Teachers College Press and National Writing Project

Jenkins, Henry (2013): Motives for Reading In: Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley (eds.): Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, Teachers College Press and National Writing Project

Kelley, Wyn, Henry Jenkins, Katie Clinton and Jenna McWillams (2013): From Theory to Practice. Building a “Community of Readers” in Your Classroom In: Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley (eds.): Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, Teachers College Press and National Writing Project

Krokan, Arne (2012): Smart læring. Hvordan IKT og sosiale medier endrer læring, Fagbokforlaget

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London

Wheeler, Steve (2014): Learning with ‘e’s

Elna Mortensen

The art and meaning of collaborative and peer learning

3 thoughts on “The art and meaning of collaborative and peer learning

  1. Ebba Ossiannilsson says:

    Dear Elna! you have made it again!
    A very interesting and comprehensive blog and very interesting reflections. you are very deep in your reflections. There is a lot to reflect and to discuss further on. You have also integrated text, video and Wheelers slide for example, and some quite many citations boxes. I will love to read it further on and to discuss. Maybe one can just say that to be a blog it is quite long:) It is again suitable for an article. Keep going!
    Sharing is caring, caring is sharing


  2. Ebba Ossiannilsson says:

    The blog post v´can be due for the whole course, seems that you have put a lot of reflections together in one post, thats also why the post is very rich and comprehensive


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