How can we bridge informal with formal learning? Is this the wrong question???

The biggest challenge for me in writing my research proposal has been weaving the various streams of literature and theory together, and then relating it back to my research question. This has been a trying process that has made me dizzy as I think and question in what seems to be circles. Today, it stuck me that perhaps I was asking the wrong question.

The primary question of my proposed research is “How can graduate students harness the potential of online social networking sites as a powerful informal learning tool?” I explore this question through a connectivist lens of networked learning. Secondly, the research also address the question, “How can educators bridge informal learning through social networking sites with their formal instruction?” It is this second question that is currently pestering me. The issue surrounds my use of the word ‘bridge’. It struck me that using the word ‘bridge’ conceptualizes formal and informal learning as two separate and distinct entities, or silos if you will. Our task then as educators is to find ways to bridge them to each other.

However, from a connectivist viewpoint informal and formal learning are not silos, they are connected nodes within a learner’s existing learning network. Connectivism emphasizes the connection between those nodes and the weight placed on them (Siemens, 2005). Therefore, the focus shifts now to how much value is placed on the connection between formal and informal learning. And I (along with many others I’m sure) would argue not enough. From this perspective, informal and formal learning could be visualized in this way:

I align myself with the second conceptualization, and am now contemplating if the language in my research question needs to change to reflect this. Instead of exploring formal and informal education as something to be bridged, should I be asking, “How can educators and learners strengthen the connection between informal learning through online social networking and formal instruction?”

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. Learning Circuits. Retrieved from http://www.asted.org/LC/2005/1105_siemens.htm

Questioning the ‘virtual’ in virtual ethnography

Interested in studying graduate student’s informal learning experiences facilitated through social media, I was drawn to ethnography to study online cultures. I began exploring a lot about virtual ethnography, a form of ethnography that has been adapted to studying people, culture and social interaction on the Internet.

Initially, very excited about this term ‘virtual ethnography’ I begin to describe my own research plans as a virtual ethnography. However, as I have been exploring its approach, I have become less excited about this term. The ‘virtual’ in virtual ethnography is used to distinguish research done in the virtual world on the Internet from ethnographic research done in person. But should the Internet still be considered a ‘virtual’ world? My problem with the use of the word ‘virtual’ is it insinuates or has an underlying connotation that it is not real. However, peoples’ interactions on the Internet, the relationships they form, and the online communities that exist are indeed very real. As pointed out by, Garcia, Standlee, Bechkoff, & Cui, 2009, people’s actions online and offline can no longer be easily separated. Instead online and offline worlds now intermingle with each other. Our time spent online is very much real, and very much a part of our daily lives.

Ethnographic research on the Internet has been described with other terms such as netnography, digital ethnography or online ethnography. Netnography is often used more in the field of market and consumer research. Digital ethnography has been used to describe online research, but also includes in-person research using digital technologies, such as digital cameras. I’m not sure what the better term is, and I question whether ethnographic research carried out on the Internet requires a distinct and separate term. It does require some different considerations than conventional ethnographic approaches, but it is still just ethnography being adapted to the times? I am now left pondering, ‘Is virtual ethnography how I want to describe my research?’

References:
Garcia, A. C., Standlee, A., Bechkoff, J, & Cui, Y. (2009). Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication. Journal of
Contemporary Ethnography, 38(1), 52-84.

Translating Grad Research into Plain Language

I found this article, Translating ‘Grad Student’ Into English, by Kevin Kiley, to be very refreshing. Kiley describes a new initiative at Emory University that requested PhD students to summarize their research and its significance in 100 words and “in a way that ‘a friend who wasn’t in their field’ could understand” (para. 4).

This idea of translating PhD dissertations into ‘plain language’, so to speak, was particularly refreshing to me after reading one of Creswell’s (2009) text on research design early this week. I was struck by one of his suggestions that everyday language was not appropriate for defining terms within one’s literature review and should be avoided wherever possible (p. 41).  Instead, students are encouraged to use language that is familiar and common in the research field and literature.  Although, I understand the reasoning behind this suggestion (it grounds the terms in the literature), I couldn’t help but wonder what the implications were of writing strictly for the academic and research community. My question is, if one of our goals as educational researchers is to improve practice within schools, institutions, workplaces, etc. then should our research not be readable and ‘make sense’ to those outside of academia who have the opportunity to put our research into practice (teachers, administrations, adult learning instructors, workplace trainers, etc.)?

I like the new initiative started at Emory University and I think it has some good merit behind it.  As captured by one student who participated in the exercise, “”In a field like business, it’s important to get people to understand that the work academics do has a lot of applications to real-world business settings,” he said. “We’re exploring why we do these prevalent business practices, what might be wrong, and how things can be done better” (para. 10).

References:

Creswell, J. D. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, And Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Kiley, K. (2011). Translating ‘Grad Student’ Into English. Inside Higher Education News. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/13/emory_marketing_department_asks_phd_students_to_explain_dissertations_for_a_mass_audience

Defining Educational Technology

Here is the current Association for Educational Communication and Technology’s (AECT) definition of educational technology given by Januszewski & Molenda (2008):

“Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (p. 1).

One of the things that I like in particular about this definition is its emphasis on ‘facilitating learning.’ This emphasis, as pointed out by Januszewski & Persichitte (2008) is a shift from the initial 1963 definition which described educational technology as “control[ing] the learning process” (p. 260).  For me, this is a key point because I believe that learning (of those of all ages) needs to be less controlled and more self-directed.  This idea of educational technology facilitating learning (rather then controlling learning or being used to teach) encompasses all learning, including informal learning. The classroom is definitely not the only place that learning is facilitated through technology, informal learning occurs daily through lived experiences outside of formal educational settings.  The topic I am particularly interested in studying for my doctoral studies is the informal learning experiences occurring through the use of social media.  Therefore, a definition of educational technology that is not restricted to situations of teaching or controlling learning is key for me.

Another highlight of this definition for me is it’s emphasis on improving performance (although I have to admit that I am somewhat partial to the wording of the 1963 definition that referenced developing the “learner’s full potential” (Januszewski & Persichitte, 2008, p. 261)). Why I like the emphasis on improving performance is that technology should not be an add-on that is incorporated into classrooms simply because 21st century learning means having technology in the classroom.  Instead, technology should be harnessed to enhance learning. Essentially, the technology should not determine the learning experience, instead the learning experience should drive the design and use of the technology.  This emphasis on learning is also addressed by Hlynka & Jacobsen (2009) in their commentary on this definition. They state:

“The fourth stage of the definition tells us what we work with: technological processes and resources. Here is where the common tools definition fits comfortably… as resources. It is almost as if the tools concept just barely makes it into the definition… at the very end. For those of us who regard “educational” as 90% of what we do, and “technology” as 10%, the primary focus on learning and performance and a secondary focus on technological processes and resources is a good fit” (para. 12).

Hlynka & Jacobsen (2010) ask, what could be missing from this definition? This is a question, I will continue to contemplate as I continue with my research and doctoral studies and consider how others are defining educational technology both theoretically and operationally.

References:

Hlynka, D., and Jacobsen, M. (2010). What is educational technology, anyway? A commentary on the new AECT definition of the field. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 35(2). Retrieved from http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/527/260

Januszewski, A., & Molenda, M. (2008). Chapter 1: Definition. In Januszewski, A., & Molenda, M. (Eds.), Educational technology: A definition with commentary. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Januszewski, A, & Persichitte, K. A. (2008). Chapter 10: A history of the AECT’s definition of educational technology. In Januszewski, A., & Molenda, M. (Eds.), Educational technology: A definition with commentary. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.