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Virtual learning commons

As I merrily write about learning, networks, and technology, I’m often presented with questions of “but is it practical? Does it work? What does this look like in real life?”. I have a new favorite example of the connective properties of well-conceived learning/technology implementation. As I recently posted, I accepted a position with University of Manitoba (Learning Technologies Centre). Peter Tittenberger and others have created the Virtual Learning Commons (background: Forget Myspace, try a little VLC: ““We wanted to develop a site that recognizes that a student’s personal development is not separate from his or her academic development, that informal learning plays a crucial role in academic development, and that learning is a process of social participation,”).
VLC allows students to identify areas or subjects of interest…and then connect with others who have similar interests. It’s a great way to enhance social dialogue around learning activities (like 43 Things).
Obvious questions arise – how does this impact learning? How does this equate with learner success (and how do we define success?)? Are students who are socially connected more likely to succeed academically? (Tinto’s research seems to suggest this).
After only a few weeks, over 500 hundred students are doing over 100 things. Students are able to access “pre-seeded” to do’s tied to learning resources (writing an essay, fine tuning a thesis, using commas properly, etc.). At first glance, the project looks like a collection of various school tasks. But it’s much more. It sets learning in a conversational spaces…knowledge as a pathway through connections with others…learning as a constant in life. I’m confident that this implementation of social learning (integrated with institutionally provided academic support) is a first indicator of more prominent trends. Learning not as an explicit task…but as a constant action. (Additional resources are available as well – a calendar, online writing tutor, and assignment manager).
Looking at the main VLC page (only U of M students can post “to do’s” as an ID is required), it’s obvious that students don’t go to university only to learn (that’s axiomatic, but we have structured on courses and orientations on the assumption that learning is their main reason for attending our institutions)…students want to: make new friends, drink more espresso, make a meelion dollars, etc. The changing structure of to do’s – especially when a project like this is done on a large scale – can provide educator’s and administrator’s with valuable insight into student needs and interests.