Tim on Etienne (Part III: Design for Learning)
This post constitutes the second of three endeavors in preparing myself to lecture the Knowledge Management 2009 course at the University of Amsterdam. Again, this part is based on Wenger’s (1998) seminal work on communities of practice. Whereas the previous post dealt with Learning in Practice in extensive detail (and the role of Communities of Practice as favorable social configuration to support such enterprises), this posts actively explores the background on Design for Learning.
Because of our fast pace and changing society, ever increasing adaptability and competences need to be gained via processes of (social) learning. Albeit, understanding what design is, and how to design learning infrastructures is key in fostering the virtue of learning. Learning is a rich phenomenon, implying that it is impossible to objectively pinpoint the variables necessary to achieve successful learning. Or in other words learning is ‘indeterminate’ and therefore a ‘wicked’ problem (Rittel and Webber, 1973). To understand what this means, it is important to recognize that indeterminacy is quite different from undetermined. Indeterminacy implies that there are no definitive conditions or limits to design problems (adjusted from Huizing, 2009). Rittel and Webber (1973, p.15) defined wicked problems as “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”. With some characteristics the wickedness is easy to grasp, yet difficult to deal with:
- Wicked problems have no definitive formulation, but every formulation of a wicked problem corresponds to the formulation of a solution;
- Wicked problems have no stopping rules;
- Solutions to wicked problems cannot be true or false, only good or bad;
- In solving wicked problems there is no exhaustive list of admissible operations;
- For every wicked problem there is always more than one possible explanation, with explanations depending on the Weltanschauung of the designer;
- Every wicked problem is a symptom of another, “higher level,” problem;
- No formulation and solution of a wicked problem has a definitive test;
- Solving a wicked problem is a “one shot” operation, with no room for trial and error;
- Every wicked problem is unique, and;
- The wicked problem solver has no right to be wrong-they are fully responsible for their actions.
This inevitably leads to the wisdom that learning cannot be designed, but it can only – at the very best – be designed for. Practice itself is not amenable to design. In other words, one can articulate patterns or define procedures, but neither the patterns nor the procedures produce the practice as it unfolds. The latter coincides with the axiom that learning is a tendency, inherent to human nature (p.226).
Design is defined as “systematic, planned, and reflexive colonization of time and space in the service of an undertaking” (p.228). Wenger also states that design is about “producing affordances for the negotiation of meaning, but not the meaning itself”. This statement adheres more closely to definitions postulated by popular design theorist, like Buchanan and Jones. Buchanan (1992, p.14) states that design “the conception and planning of the artificial”. As this definition elucidates, is that design is about conceiving and planning of all things created by humans (instead of by nature) that is currently non-existent. Jones (1992, p.21) defines design as “to initiate change in man-made things”. Both articulate the difficult problem to create something that needs a certain result, yet is has no predecessor and it is a single shot, in that in cannot be designed anew. Thus any bits of design theory could us with the arduous task of design. Furthermore, the need for a fresh perspective on learning was already justified in the previous post:
“Perhaps more than learning itself, it is our conception of learning that needs urgent attention” (p.9). Wenger argues that our ‘modern’ conceptions of learning are indoctrinated with classroom settings, exams and cognitive teaching styles. Learning in these conceptions, is not seen as a process, but as object that can be decontextualized and fired when necessary. It leads us away from objectivistic simplifications, towards more subjectivistic wickedness, and although the latter teaches us that no simple recipe for success exists, the first is even more deceptive because it arouses false expectations (Huizing, 2007). Wenger argues for a more realistic adoption and expectation of learning, and challenges us to rethink learning, by introducing a ‘new’ social learning theory that is centered around social participation, being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities (p.4
In building an architecture for learning, Wenger sums up four spaces of affordance that provide a designer with necessary design interventions. These design interventions are dualities that need to be balanced to spur learning. For instance, By reifying and participating we create objects and unfold these which lead to ‘epistemic practices’ (Schatski, Knorr Cetina and Von Savigny, 1997). For instance in the class room assignments are handed over (reifications), that need to be answered – and perhaps challenged – in small groups (participation), which leads to learning practices around the paper summarizing questions. These dualities or dimensions offer spaces to look at design problems. The dualities that need to be addressed in learning are:
Four dimensions of design for learning (Wenger, 1998, Figure 10.1, p.232)
Reification and participation (a duality to negotiate meaning)
Social software make a great case for these design dimensions. For instance FlickR is in itself a reification of an photoalbum, display window and discussion fora, yet FlickR requires the act of participation by its members, to actually add value to these static photo’s by adding new series, new comments, replying on others favs et cetera. Yet, in order to structure the act of participation FlickR provides the tools via its website. This ultimately results into object-centered sociality pure sang, in which people sustain their group formation and actually experience FlickR as an object “to live with” (Turkle, 2007). This becomes the case with Hyves and youngsters, which really need Hyves to maintain and organize their social life and identity.
Designed and emergent (a duality based on time)
As is the case in Last.FM it was originally designed as ‘the last radio station you ever need’. However its users started using Last.FM not as a radio station, and so it emerged as a social recommender of music, to find kindred spirits and other artists they might like, based on collections and recommendations of others. Last.FM reacted by rebranding its website as ‘the social music revolution’. Thus although the website is a result of design, the practice awakening on the website is actually a response. The uncertainty behind it, is because of the wickedness of this design, because, response and result mutually influence each other, and not necessarily reinforce each other.
Local and global (a duality based on the spatial position of a practice)
The global is a constellation of interrelated practices, yet a designer can only directly influence the locality. This argument lies very close to Giddens’ (1984) structuration theory in that the localities are constantly renegotiated by members of a community, yet they are restrained because of rules, policies, agreements of the global. Yet by acting locally and brokering with other localities, they ultimately influence the global, which in itself needs to adept to changing localities.
Identification and negotiability (a duality dealing with power)
Identification is about how people define their membership with a group, while negotiability is about the meaning we attach to this membership. With regard to this duality we can think of Digg. Members can identify themselves with the Digg community by adding posts to the sites, in which they are seen as professional amateurs in casu journalism and perhaps editors in setting the title page. However, the members can negotiate the meaning of Digg’s posts, by the rather naive option of ranking, called ‘digging it’.. Thus both ways set the meaning of a post for its readers (in terms of importance).
Besides a perspective on design interventions, and choosing your focus, we also need modes of belonging that help people participate and interact in social learning systems. Especially we need to design facilities for belonging. We already discussed engagement as mode of belonging, but Wenger also introduces imagination and alignment as additional modes of belonging.
Three infrastructures of learning (Wenger, 1998, Figure 10.2, p.237)
Engagement refers to the active involvement in processes of negotiation of meaning (p.173). Facilities for engagement should focus on:
- mutuality: The possibility to affiliate with others and perform joint tasks. For instance, we can observe the act of mutuality on Kenniscafé, on which members can start a ‘kring’ on a certain theme and set off a discussion.
- competence: The ability to relate to others, because of subject matter expertise. For instance Expert Exchange brokers between problem owners and solution seekers, based on competences indicated on profiles.
- continuity: The encounters with both explicit repositories and implicit trajectories. Although the explicit repositories are easily found, for instance the best practices of ITIL, the implicit trajectories are often the use of apprenticeship and generational encounters. This is rather difficult to facilitate in social software. E-Learning should behave in this way, but the medium is far to naïve to deal with these rich complexities.
Imagination refers to the creating of images of the world and seeing connections through time and space by extrapolating form our own experience (p.173). Facilities for imagination should focus on:
- orientation: The ability to be conscious of a certain situation and to clearly demarcate the situation. The example that comes to mind is the early use of tag clouds by Del.icio.us, a way of visually structuring information so that helps people to judge the relevancy and completeness of topics.
- reflection: The sensitivity to deviations between the current situation and alternative/ideal scenarios (according to theory, general opinion or your own best guess). Social software works a lot with algorithms to find ‘similar’ themes, posts or objects, which could trigger and simplify reflection.
- exploration: The quality to combine aspect of the current situation and the alternative scenarios to create opportunities for improvement. Although competence is inherently human, Last.FM, Hyves and LinkedIn increasingly provide facilities of exploration, by triggering the mechanism of surprise ‘you might be interested in’, ‘others also found this’, ‘are these also colleagues of’ et cetera.
Alignment refers to the coordination of energy and activities in order to fit within broader structures and contribute to broader enterprises (p.173). Facilities for alignment should focus on:
- convergence: The “the double process by which information artifacts and social worlds are fitted to each other and come together…a process of mutual constitution” (Star, Bowker and Neumann, 1997, p.4). Although this definition deviates from Wenger’s vision, in that it sees convergence not solely as a process of bringing together the interest of many to channel towards a common interest, but as a process of objects and practices reciprocally influencing each other
- coordination: The process of standardizing processes via norms, while providing feedback loops to correct anomalies.
- jurisdiction: The use authoritative sources to issues of legitimacy and truth. Social software especially attempts to avoid the use of jurisdiction, but relies on the negotiation of meaning to settle issues. For instance Digg.com opposes to authoritative setting front pages news, as exercised by established news papers, instead it provides a voting mechanisms to set news on its front page.
Combining both the design interventions with the modes of belonging, leads us to a learning architecture to design social configurations that foster learning (like learning organizations, communities, of practices, social networks or other spatial arrangements). Martin Kloos his Master thesis already illustrated the practical relevance of Wenger’s learning architecture, by applying it to various classes of social sofware, like blogs, wiki’s and social bookmarking, to ground his hypothesis that social software offers ample facilities to support the formation of communities of practice and triggers learning. It has also been applied in a similar setting by Hoogenboom, Kloos, Bouman and Jansen (2007). A short introduction can be found here.
Learning Architecture with three modes of belonging (Wenger, 1998, Figure 10.3, p.240)
Wenger applies his design interventions and modes of belonging to two practices, that of organizing and educating. Wenger claims that education is about opening up new dimensions for negotiation of the self (p.263). By emphasising on identity formation, instead of acquiring instrumental baggage – as is commonly done in classical educational theories, one might wonder if education is a privilege or obligation solely at the start of our lives, or should it actually be an enabler for identity formation throughout our lives?
To (re)design learning from this perspective Wenger refers to its four design continuums to intervene, and its three modes of belonging to form our identity. The first duality on reification and participation brings back the age old question on how many text book are required for students to enable learning, and if the former is left out, how much participation is prerequisite to understand any written content. Although it might be possible to reproduce reified knowledge, yet one might doubt the actual ownership of meaning by the students. Thus the challenge for educational design is about balancing reificative material and participation, instead of relying on mechanisms of information transmission and acquisition. The second duality on designed and emergent and illustrates that teaching and learning are not necessarily synchronous. Lectors have to reckon unintended consequences of teaching, while learning is an emergent process which rely on more processes than learning. The third duality focuses on global and local. While teaching takes place in a localized practice, their competence should fit within the broader structures of organizational practices and relevancy. The fourth duality focuses on identification and negotiability …
More to follow
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- Sunday, 2 August 2009 at 22:15
- Tim Hoogenboom
- communities of practice