Network Learning: an Initial Summary

A new Model of Learning: from the Classroom to the Network

Learning has always been multifaceted, but where the old concrete model of learning activity was exemplified by the classroom, a new concrete model of learning activity will be exemplified by a network. It’s not a change in what learning is, but more of a change in the why, where, how, and when learning happens.

Why New Ideas for Learning are Needed.

  1. The pace of market change and creative destruction is increasingly requiring innovation and adaptive responses just for business survival.  John Hagel points beyond product and process innovation ot the need for institutional innovation is we are to counter the movement of innovation to Asia.  The complex understanding and responses needed requires greater access not just to to innovative ideas, but also the social spaces that contain both knowledge flows and the diverse capabilities needed to actualize those ideas.  Businesses need to move beyond the traditional boundaries of the firm.
  2. Human development, once thought to be relative unchanging after age 25, now highlight the ability for all kinds of growth in mental complexity and ability throughout one’s active adult life.  In response, new theories of performance are now available to support development and increase performance throughout one’s career.

In order to achieve complex adaptive change in activity, we must further our own development, improve the tools we have available, and make sure we are applying them and attending to the correct object or focus. This entails

  • Human development – The ability to grow to meet new challenges
  • Tool development – psychological and technical tools matched to our complex adaptive challenges
  • all with concrete opportunities for application and feedback

The next section explain some background behind this categorization.

Where will Learning Occur

Traditionally the classroom was led by an expert who was guided by a set curriculum and a transfer metaphor of learning.  In contrast, the network contains a diverse array of individuals interacting with learning as an emergent phenomenon.  This is not to say that experts, classrooms and the transfer metaphor will disappear, and learning, as a psychological and behavioral phenomenon, will not change.  It’s just that the most valuable and ongoing form of learning will emerge through network participation and will emphasize it’s natural connection with relationships and activity instead of focusing exclusively on knowledge content.  It will bypass the problem of learning transfer through learning in situ, in a just in time manner.  Instead of teachers, we will depend on a variety of people who’s role will be more like a guide, facilitator or collaborator.

Network learning has a built in efficacy benefit in that it’s so closely tied to activity and action in which the learning subject is engaged.  In a recent Charlie Rose episode Daniel Wolpert mentioned that the only purpose for a brain is to enable complex adaptive behavior through the motor systems and that the motor cortex and muscle system is the end-path for all of our sensory systems.  To think of content and knowledge as separated from activity is to ignore the way the brain is inherently organized.  Just in time network learning is tied closely to enabling action, which is more in line with the natural organization of brain systems.  If for no other reason, this type of learning is productive because it replaces the huge amount of knowledge that is committed to memory just in case it might be needed in the future with targeted knowledge that leads directly to action.

While learning is just in-time, building robust and diverse networks is the preparation we need. When you need resources is not the time for network building.  The network building that taps us into vibrant engaging relationships and social spaces should be an ongoing activity.  The support needed for this are learning institutions, but not like institutions of the past.  Not the institutions that horde experts, but ones that foster these vibrant and engaging social spaces and excel at building business relevant social networks.  This does not succeed by some network magic. Networks need to be filled with passionate and talented people.  You need to be hooked in with the smartest people on the block, just as they need to be hooked in with talented and passionate you.

What will be the focus of Network Learning

I believe that learning as a psychological and social phenomena is not substantially changing, only the focus of learning will be on the activities and challenges we face.  I will rely on an older model of Vygotsky and Leonte’v to explain a model of the architecture of human activity.  Vygotsky gave three poles that combined to drive human activity: a subject, a mediator (tool) and an object, all leading to an outcome.   This table gives examples for a carpenter and a loan officer.

8-29-10 post table

Therefore the focus of learning is on:
  • the development of the subject’s identity and capabilities (achieving one’s developmental potential)
  • the development of tools (especially mental tools like frameworks, theories, concepts, etc. . .)
  • making sure we are focused on the right objects with the right tools
  • People who can guide us and give us nudges in the right direction, in a timely fashion while on a self quest to complete this mission.

What Ideas are Emerging to Meet these Needs

  1. The idea of “pull” (Hagel Brown & Davison, 2010) encourage us to get involved in relevant networks and tap into the knowledge flows existing there.
  2. Richard Florida points out the importance of vibrant and engaging social spaces as a key driver of innovation related to business growth.
  3. Developing psychological based performance supports systems such as interventions to develop individual psychological capital (Luthans, 2008) or developing the psychological means for personal and organizational change (Kegan, 2010).
  4. Opportunities for collaborative practice -based research (eg. localized unconferences) to maximize development and learning within or around one’s specialities.
  5. Opportunities for creating and maintaining mentoring as well as other diverse types of relationships within one’s local environment.
  6. Networks that are institutionalized to allow you to pursue and developmental goals and identities while conducting business.  I say institutionalized to mean that the infrastructure may need to be created and supported.  Like Hagel’s “Pull”, we rely on serendipity for opportunity, but we plan to make serendipity more likely to happen.

This is not the end of my “theorizing” but a good summation from which to begin a more active research process.

More posts on Network Learning (in reverse chronological order):

A Research Compilation on Inter-firm Networks

The Shape of the Future of Learning: Seeding New Institutions

From Push to Pull: It Will Change What Education Means

Architecture for Learning: The Importance of the Built Environment

Why are Networks the Learning Platform of the Future

A Lifelong High Level Learning Platform: Some Initial Thoughts

Professional Networks as Learning Platforms: A Idea for Lifelong Learning