Skip to content

Learning communities and learning networks

Humour me with these thoughts:

Courses are artifacts of a learning model that is becoming obsolete. Courses work in an environment when knowledge/information is fairly static and developing slowly. The more rapidly information develops, the more quickly courses cease to serve the needs of learners. The information is outdated before the ink is dry.

I’ve previously discussed CoPs (communities of practice) (an example of a learning community) as an alternative to courses (CoPs are one part – other components include searchable archives, tools for dialogue/debate, access to gurus, forum for self-expression/reflection, etc.). These learning communities allow us to become knowledgeable in a specific area of interest…much like courses teach one specific subject matter.

Most of us belong to more than one learning community. These multiple communities form a personal learning network. If a learning community equates somewhat with a course, then our learning network is equivalent to a degree program. Each community is a node on the network.

Basically, a node is an interface/connection point to a larger network. In terms of computers, a network is the connection of two or more computers in order to share resources. As such, a learning network can be defined as the connection of learning communities with the intent of sharing experiences/resources (cross-pollination…serendipity)…and our ultimate self-defined goal of competency/knowledge (much like a degree is the final intent of a program in higher education)…i.e. we define what we want/need to know…and we sculpt our network to achieve these goals.

A few thoughts on learning networks:

  • Learning networks seamlessly blend elearning, knowledge management, and just-in-time learning needs (EPS – electronic performance support). The various components of a community (as listed above – access to gurus, etc.) serve to update knowledge (KM) and provide access to information when needed. Structured exposure (tutorial) provides more formal learning. It’s a cycle that updates and feeds itself.
  • We need a portfolio that allows the ability to track and manage our own learning network. This portfolio is the equivalent of what we know call a transcript. It needs to be learner owned/controlled. Workshops, seminars, projects, etc. – these learning experiences are not captured in existing processes of determining employee/student competency. When an employee leaves a company, he/she should be able to take the personal learning portfolio along as proof of past learning.
  • We need a shift in thinking about what it means to be “educated” or competent. Currently, most employment adds list education level as a main determinant of competency. A piece of paper proves a learner’s worth. Yet, having attained a degree does not equate with knowledge/skill. Our personal learning network proves worth based on reputation and past work.

I sincerely believe that communities and networks are the future of learning. Course and programs will continue to face pressure to adapt…and institutions that fail to grasp this reality will be unable to continue to meet the needs of learners. It might sound too extreme right now, but all the indicators (technology, social, learner needs, viability, trends, etc.) point to this model. As much as society and technology have changed, it seems odd that how we learn is still modeled on an environment that no longer exists. I think we are at the beginning stages of rapidly accelerating adoption of (and creation of tools and methodologies for) communities and learning networks.


  1. Headshift wrote:

    Learning networks and learning communities

    George Siemens in Canada posts some thoughts on collaborative network-based learning

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  2. jeff wrote:

    I feel very aligned with these thoughts but get confusion or contempt from my learning collegues. Perhaps I am not explaining it well – because I can’t see what it will “look like”. There is a lot of vested interest (and $$$) in “courses” too.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  3. charlie wrote:

    “We need a shift in thinking about what it means to be ‘educated’ or competent.”

    Seems as if this may come from the bottom up with the movement toward eportfolios in education. But the academy needs an eportfolio system which would allow students to take their portfolio with them, so that they can modify it and add to it throughout their careers.

    In this respect, seems as if OSPI would be good to get involved in. I have not evaluated it myself, but as an open source project it would have the potential adaptability to support long term portfolio construction and maintenance.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  4. John Tenny wrote:

    I do think that learning communities are a good thing, and will be more prevelant in the future. However, I do think that there is a difference between the child-as-learner, the adult learner, and the self-directed adult learner.

    The child-as-learner is building the tools for learning, including the static base of foundation facts, vocabulary, lower level ways of thinking. While children are intensely curious, their curiousity does not always, actually seldom, lead them to any depth of knowledge or thinking skills. A blantant example – sex. Children (I’m including into HS) are very curious about sex, but that does not lead them to explore the psychological or scientific areas of knowledge about sex. That’s natural, as their are so much more interesting things to explore, and at this stage in their physical development (brain and body), they’re still building the basis of experience and ways of thinking.

    The adult learner, later HS through college age and beyond depending on the individual learner, has a maturing brain and is ready for complex thinking. However, my experience has been that they don’t automatically seek out complexity beyond their current level of interest. A person may want more information and enjoy/benefit from being in a community of like interests to exchange information and ideas, but only occasionally will that result in a major shift in ways of thinking.

    I was/am an intense, engaged learner and clearly remember thinking that, at the start of every course, every instructor in my college courses was either boring (what they offered was either something I already knew or was no challenge to my thinking), or idiots (their ideas seemed ridiculuous or what they wanted me to do was a useless waste of my time). I was frequently really angry at this intrusion into my mental world, and would have left these groups except for meeting some graduation requirement. However, as many/most of my courses progressed and I remained engaged if only to argue and fight with them, I was, I now know, intentionally led into new ways of thinking and approaching knowing that were so far outside my existing level as to be unimaginable. These experiences enlarged my view of the world and gave me tools for solving my life’s problems that I don’t believe I would have gained without them, or at least not as quickly and efficiently as through these ‘courses’.

    Those experiences have brought me to the stage of being an adult self-directed learner, one who understands and readily engages in communities of learners, even when the ideas and approaches are significantly foreign to me. Now I’m brought to these communities by some job or task necesssity as well as by simple curiousity or interest. Technology has made access to these communities available and easy, and that will grow.

    In conclusion, two thoughts: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Communities of learners is a new tool for learning and engaging with others, greatly enhanced by the advancements in technology, but that doesn’t make all previous tools of no value. And as good as communities are as places of learning, everything has a cost. It’s important to look for, examine closely, and make choices about the value of what will be lost as society evolves into technologically connected communities of learners.

    Peace, John

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Ed Bilodeau wrote:

    From the original post: “CoPs are one part – other components include searchable archives, tools for dialogue/debate, access to gurus, forum for self-expression/reflection, etc.).”

    I would say that all of those are components of a CoP. In addition, the ‘course’ can also be thought of as a component of a CoP. That is, a ‘course’ might be an accepted and formalized part of learning within a community.

    Of course, a ‘course’ can be and is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you are talking about the course as a means of one-way distribution information to a number of people, then I agree that it should disappear. That model of teaching comes out of a time when it was difficult to duplicate and distribute information. Getting everyone together and having someone read or recite material to them was the most economical way of doing things. Today, of course, this delivery mode is unnecessary. However, there are so many other ways to spend those face-to-face contact hours that to throw out the concept of the ‘course’ would be a shame.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  6. Cindy Lemcke-Hoong wrote:

    This is what I read from Will Thalheimer’s newsletter tonight (not directly quoate) — finally we realized e-learning is a tool.

    I hope we look at Community of Learning with the same thoughts, and this time do not repeat the same mistakes we did with e-learning.


    Tuesday, September 30, 2003 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  7. gsiemens wrote:

    Hey Jeff, I agree – moving to community-based/network learning is a system shock…and it has more to do with change management than any thing else.

    Here’s a great quote by Tolstoy on this: “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives”.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi John…good distinction about various learner needs. You list them by age…I’m sure a similar distinction could be made by culture as well.

    I’m not against the dynamics of a classroom (i.e. face to face learning). I’m against the inadequacy of a model of learning that no longer reflects the real world. To have issues with courses does not mean I have issues with classrooms.

    I generally have several different courses that I’m taking – some personal interest, some professional. I enjoy classroom sessions the most when it’s a very new subject to me. Classrooms, however, have a price – mainly in terms of time. When I take a new course, it’s always a matter of selecting the environment I think would be most beneficial.

    I think a significant value of “community learning” is that it has been around far longer than classroom learning. The gather of elders/youngsters, used to be a foundational process of sharing and transmitting knowledge. It’s not learning communities that are moving into classroom territory…classrooms have moved into community territory…and some educators want to change this – primarily (I hope) for the benefit of the learner.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:27 am | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Charlie…got your comment on Drupal as an alternative to fighting spam…it’s not nice to kick someone when they’re down…:)

    Thanks for the reminder of theospi. I’ve seen it before (and linked to it)…but I haven’t gone beyond that stage. Perhaps it’s time…

    take care

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  10. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Ed…
    “Of course, a ‘course’ can be and is a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

    Yes, I agree. I think courses can be a part of an overall community. Boiling a course down to its basic form, it’s really only structured exposure to an idea(s). A well-crafted community needs these “structured exposures” to bring new-comers up to speed…so communities should provide this. Courses do have their place…but they certainly are effective as their excessive use indicates…there are other models – none perfect for every situation…but all perfect for some…

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:36 am | Permalink
  11. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Cindy…your caution about communities is justified. The problem with any “new” idea is that people flock to it and over-hype it – raising expectations far beyond what the idea can fulfill.

    The one solace I take with learning communities is that they are not new. As I mentioned in a previous comment – communities have been a learning model long before “courses” and “classrooms”. As always, the task should determine the tool and the approach. In some cases, exploratory, informal, social learning is preferred…in others, more structured, planned content is needed for learning.


    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  12. John Smith wrote:

    I think there’s a middle way. Community of practice ideas can influence the way learning is organized, whether under the auspices of some organization or not. In the end there’s always a community of practice of some sort that design and approves a curriculum.

    Here’s a description of an attempt to reconcile a community of practice perspective with the idea of a workshop that has a limited duration.

    Some conclusions — A history of the Foundations of Communities of Practice

    On some level I think communities of practice can be the masters of their own future. Schools can not:


    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 2:18 am | Permalink
  13. Horses for courses (are my titles getting inane?)

    George asks us to humour him for a moment…

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  14. The curriculum vs. the personal learning network

    George Siemens on learning communities and learning networks: Courses work in an environment when knowledge/information is fairly static and developing slowly.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  15. eLearning

    What’s wrong with learning communities? .

    Thursday, October 2, 2003 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  16. Remolino wrote:

    Curriculum vs r

    Thursday, October 2, 2003 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  17. Mopsos wrote:

    The motivation for learning is the desire to have access to a community

    In Learning communities and learning networks, posted on September 30. and commented on by Sebastien Paquet, George Siemens opposes two learning environments: course work and learning communities. As I strongly support the development of CoPs in my com…

    Thursday, October 2, 2003 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  18. Ruminations anglophones

    Will s’interroge, James trouve qu’il a raison de se poser des questions et George initie la conversation m

    Friday, October 3, 2003 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  19. Some conclusions

    Quote: “As communities of practice provide a social mechanism to situate conversations, individual learning, and collective efforts, they also provide special challenges for software developers.

    Monday, October 6, 2003 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  20. Mathemagenic wrote:

    Learning: communities vs. courses

    There is an interesting post by George Siemens and follow-up discussion on learning communities vs.

    Sunday, October 12, 2003 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  21. Rory McGreal wrote:

    Community networks are not necessarily a substitute for a course. Courses can be (and are) used to create such networks of common interest. Also, who the ^%&** wants to read somone’s portfolio? Who has the time? I have worked in the portfolio mad world and I would prefer a simple test and/or paper anytime, both as a learner and as an evaluator. At our university we charge a large fee for portfolio evaluation for prior learning. We do so because it is a difficult time consuming process. An employer or other gatekeeper prefers credentials because they save you time. Credentials are valuable precisely because the save evaluators from the boring task of examining people’s portfolios. As a general rule, evaluators can assume that a person with a degree has attained a certain level and therefore is “probably” a better candidate than one who hasn’t got one. This is not always correct, but it is true enough of the time to make it a worthwhile criteria for judgement AND one does not have to spend time pouring over portfolios. (In addition the applicant does not have to spend time putting one together – an onerous task in itself!)
    My opinion is based on bitter experience, once as a great supporter of this “novel” portfolio idea more than twenty years ago.

    Sunday, October 12, 2003 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  22. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Rory, I appreciate your comments on the role of portfolios. Obviously, you’re very qualified to speak on their limitations, given your experience with them…and, like you alluded to, real world efficiency always trumps idealism.

    Just a few thoughts:

    - I mentioned portfolios as a means of “proving” learning in a community environment. When we aggregate as people, our reputations are determined by our former work. Listservs for software communities exemplify this…the opinions of certain members are much more valued because the have a history of insightful comments, excellent code, etc. Within the community, competence is not measured by degrees/certification. However, outside the community, competence needs to be demonstrated in other ways (people not in the community don’t have access to the history). Portfolios are one way of demonstrating this. Is there an approach (other than simple testing that you feel is able to achieve a similar task?).
    - My focus with the community vs. course post was not to present a whole replacement for degrees. It was to indicate that knowledge sharing and learning happens better in communities than in courses. Evaluation, as you’ve highlighted, is not something I’ve thought about significantly. I imagine that a university/college that structures learning in community/network models will still find a way to issue the degree to the employers/gatekeepers (and if porfolios are too much work to evaluate, then in other ways – perhaps as the instructor as an active community participant marking learning/participation against needed competencies).
    -”Community networks are not necessarily a substitute for a course. Courses can be (and are) used to create such networks of common interest.”…Yes…courses can adopt these networks and communities. The problem with courses, however, is that they end. Communities evolve to meet the needs of members. It’s funny how we talk about “learner-centered” and “life-long learning”…and then give the learners an instructor/institution-centered course that ends after 12 weeks. If colleges want to be relevant in an era of life-long learning, they must stop thinking of start/stop learning. Communities that involve past students/current students/employers (maintained and fostered by the college) can go a long way in extending the learning…


    Monday, October 13, 2003 at 1:47 am | Permalink
  23. Des rapports diff

    Sunday, October 19, 2003 at 1:58 am | Permalink