Untrackable Learning

3 min read

Footprint in sand

I was up early today following along with the #altc hashtag (has it already been a year?) when a tweet from Donna Lanclos caught my eye.

As I followed the thread back to Anne-Marie Scott’s comment about the “hidden learning environment”, it got me thinking about the unseen spaces that learners often set up independent of their classes, hidden away from their instructor and their institution.

To echo Anne-Marie’s point, these hidden spaces are out of reach of institutional data analytics, which is important to remember if you use data analytics to try and quantitatively measure what is happening in your asynchronous discussion forums (which, as a quick Google Scholar search can attest to, is something commonly done in online courses). While the data can give you some insight, it is definitely only one small piece of information and is by no means a full or holistic view of all the activity that may be happening within your course. The data can only tell you what it can see, and much of the learning and interaction that is happening in your course may be happening outside your view.

I see this first hand, in both the graduate level online course where I teach and in the k-12 level with my own kids. In my graduate level course, for example, learners this term have a separate Slack team where they connect and collaborate. It was set up by the learners themselves, and exists independent of both the institution and me. In my high school daughters case, much of the convo about school with her peers happens over Instagram or text message, although last year my daughter was becoming quite infamous among her peers for her Quizlet making abilities and was often asked to share her Quizlet’s with others to help them study (which is a separate blog post that is waiting to be written).

Three quick points about hidden learning environments.

First, these types of informal learning spaces are nothing new. Students forming study groups have existed long before online learning. But, like everything else, the internet has made the creation of these types of independent learning communities much easier.

Second, as educators, we should see the development of these kinds of informal learning communities by our students as something positive. We want to develop lifelong learners who can proactively establish their own learning networks, and, just as importantly, be available as a resource to their peers. Indeed, as I (and others) have written before, in network learning the ability to both be a resource and draw upon others as a resource in a reciprocal manner is important. For me, one of the most encouraging findings that came out of MOOC-mania was just how important these types of self-organizing study groups are to student success.

Third, these are safe spaces for learners, away from the eyes of their instructor. Places where they connect with their peers as peers, and it is important they remain as such. Having their instructor in the environment changes the dynamic of those environments completely. It isn’t their space anymore, no matter how much you may frame yourself as a guide on the side or co-learner. You are still their instructor and those unspoken power dynamics do exist. So, it is important that students have these spaces away from us. But we need to be mindful that they do exist and are likely a rich source of learning for your students, in both online and face to face courses.

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