Learning as a Contextualizer

Note to reader:  This is written as a personal learning journal, but it ends with a specific and practical digital age teaching strategy.

As I noted in earlier articles, I’m currently participating in an online course on the Literacy of Cooperation at Rheingold U.  The readings alone make for a powerful learning journey, but the class interactions and learning from the knowledge and experiences of co-learners contributes to the cultivation of a potentially high-impact learning community.

Each week, Howard hosts a live session where he introduces key concepts for the upcoming week and allows co-learners to have more spontaneous real-time dialogue.  As a way to encourage cooperation, volunteers sign up for one of a variety of roles.  This week I signed up to be a contextualizer.  This role involves collecting all the links shared by co-learners in a chat tool during the live session.  These are typically links that build upon or illustrate ideas that come up in Howard’s lecture or the group interaction.  After the session, the contextualizer saves the chat log, pulls out all the links, and provides some annotations that place them in the context of the class discussion and/or the broader theme for the week.  During a one-hour live session, the group produced over twenty relevant links to a variety of resources.  Since we were discussing institutions of collective action, the links included everything from books about designing spaces that promote creativity and collaboration to lectures on the lessons learned from Balinese rice farms.

When I started reviewing the links, I was immediately drawn into the essays and videos.  Some of the videos were over an hour-long and some of the essays took an hour or two to read.  By the end of less than three days, I realized that I just spent over a dozen hours reading, watching, ordering new books, and reflecting further on the topic for the week.  I even developed plans to contact a couple of fascinating organizations with the hope of flying over to visit them for a couple of days.

What made this especially fascinating was that these links were not originally produced as a reading list by an instructor, but that they largely represented the intellectual footprints of our group during the live session.  As such, there were multiple layers to my thinking as a contextualizer.  On one layer, I was reading an article or watching and video and thinking about the distinct ideas and how they related to the theme for the week.  On another layer, I was reflecting upon how this fit into our live session…into the group discourse.  Often, after exploring a source more in-depth, I had a heightened appreciation for and understanding of the point made by Howard or a classmate.  On yet another layer, I was continually interrupted by amazement at the power of this simple teaching strategy, one where the instructor starts us with a short introduction to an idea, but then an informed and thoughtful group collectively produces a “reading list” for the week that provided me with more insight and understanding than the standard required reading list in the course.  To maximize the impact of this group share, it might requires each learner to set aside processing time after the live session; time for reading, watching, reflecting, writing, and interacting with one another.  This is definitely a strategy that I hope to explore further, and one that could be a great option for traditional face-to-face courses, blended courses, as well as fully online learning communities.