Braided Learning – a theoretical background

Abstract

The professional network of MirandaNet has, over its lifetime since 1992, grown into a mature community of practice that has its own model of learning and passes that on to new members of the community, and beyond. The textual basis of this community affords visibility of ideas, and creation of braided and reflective texts. The community is able to create interim summaries and re-positionings through braided texts and continue these into more refined braided artefacts that reach outside the community. Overall, this community shows a new way of learning – braided learning – that builds on the affordances of digital technology to effect and support a learning community of practice that can engage in the highest levels of collaborative thinking, developing theory and policy.

 

Author: Christina Preston

Publication Date: 2009

 

Summary

The professional network of MirandaNet has, over its lifetime since 1992, grown into a mature community of practice that has its own model of learning and passes that on to new members of the community, and beyond. The textual basis of this community affords visibility of ideas, and creation of braided and reflective texts. The community is able to create interim summaries and re-positionings through braided texts and continue these into more refined braided artefacts that reach outside the community. Overall, this community shows a new way of learning – braided learning – that builds on the affordances of digital technology to effect and support a learning community of practice that can engage in the highest levels of collaborative thinking, developing theory and policy.

Braided learning is a theory that has emerged from the observation of modes of online learning as the MirandaNet community of professionals has matured in digital competence. The MirandaNet Fellowship is a professional organization of educators, researchers, policy makers, and developers of software who have a uniting conviction that teaching and learning can be transformed by the use of digital technologies. Established in 1992, the Fellows began their association online in 1994. Over the last 12+ years, MirandaNet has developed into a mature, online community of practice (Preston, 1999: Preston, 2005: Stuckey, 2005). This history reveals a three–dimensional process of learning and practice that entails coming to understand and participate in a creative, progressive ‘braiding’ of text, opinions, and ideas. These processes reveal how learning by professionals, for the purpose of strengthening both the profession and individual understanding, unfolds in the online context.

There are three identifiable stages in the process professionals in MirandaNet adopt and practice in their professional, online, learning. In the first stage the community engages in creating a braided text online that supports diversity and change of opinions. Some members act as e–facilitators or braiders who help to shape the argument, provide interim summaries and change the direction of the discussion (Preston, 2002: Cuthell, 2005; Cuthell, 2005; Preston, 2002). These are stored along with forum discussions and teachers’ case studies in the MirandaNet Braided E–journal (Preston and Cuthell, 2000–2006). In the second stage, braiders demonstrate meta–learning by constructing braided artefacts, which re–interpret the online debate in different styles for different audiences, e.g., newsletters for their local communities and reports for their school senior management team. In the third stage, accomplished fellows take the initiative to set up working parties to explore a subject in more depth. At this point the participants become active professionals, using collaborative knowledge to build new theories and policies that will impact their profession in the longer term (Preston, 2007).

The following draws the elements of this braided learning process together in more detail through an exploration of MirandaNet practice.

A community of practice as a nucleus of learning

This concept of a Community of Practice (CoP) is key to understanding how braided learning works online. The term CoPs was coined by Lave and Wenger (1991) with acknowledgement that it refers to a human process of working and learning together that has been operating for centuries (e.g., as in medieval craft guilds). However, newly explored in a socio–cultural context, the concept provides a useful perspective on knowing, learning and knowledge building in professional life, and has been particularly useful for online contexts for focusing attention on the interests and practices that keep communities together rather than just the geographical co–location (see also Wenger, 1998; and the sections in this paper by Kazmer, and by Montague).

MirandaNet is such a community of practice. It has been described by researchers as a CoP “with an active and passionate core” (Stuckey, 2006, p. 66), and in a UNESCO report as a successful CoP that effects change in teaching and learning worldwide, using digital access to provide a platform for the disenfranchised:

Such collaborative problem solving is important to many ICT teacher educators, who have relatively little access to technical support or to view new developments. Exchange visits between countries have strengthened community members’ resolve. The exchange of information is two way, as it flows from the wealthy to the less well resourced and back again. (Resta, 2002, p. 29)

MirandaNet’s CoP is founded on voluntary, informal participation, and active, directed learners. Members decide on their learning agenda rather than waiting passively to be taught from a curriculum decided by others. This active learning accords with Sachs’ (2003) belief that educators, like doctors, should be active professionals closely involved in the development of policy and practice (MacGilchrist, et al., 1997). In MirandaNet, this active practice moves further out into the community as educators in the more mature stage of their collaborative, braided learning come to influence professional policy and create theories and policies of their own.

Staged models of learning

Braided learning joins other models and research that describe stages in online learning (e.g., Salmon, 2000, 2002; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins and Shoemaker, 2000) and/or group dynamics, but differs in representing a community that is not delimited by the need to complete a course, write a final exam, or deliver a product. Braided learning does have in common with these models stages relating to access, motivation and socialization in joining the community, exchange of information and experience relevant to the joint venture, development of joint practice, and development of shared meaning. In particular, Braided Learning is grounded in Salmon’s seminal five–stage model for online learning, developed in relation to business courses (see http://www.atimod.com/e-moderating/5stage.shtml).

Salmon’s stages address:

  • Individual access and motivation to use computer–mediated communication
  • Online socialization and formulation of online identities
  • Information exchange among learners relevant to the courses
  • Knowledge construction through collaborative discussion and interaction
  • Development of meta–thinking and application of knowledge and online skills to learners’ goals and purposes that are often exam related.

Observation of MirandaNet practice shows that both individual members, and the CoP as a whole, progress through stages of access, motivation and online socialisation, information exchange, and collaborative knowledge and meta–knowledge building. Braided learning processes begin to appear when members engage with MirandaNet, revealing who they are. As a community, the relevance of such disclosures was recognized after a few years, and profiles for members, which would now be called blogs, were introduced in 1999. They continue in the information exchange stage when members begin to publish their case studies and articles in MirandaNet’s e–journals. The CoP as a whole began to see and benefit from this kind of publication in 1999. Although braided learning begins in these stages, its most important contributions come in the stage of collaborative knowledge building. Thus, Braided Learning as a theory of learning practice most significantly addresses the way in which knowledge is jointly construction through online texts created by and for their fellow CoP members. In MirandaNet, this kind of learning has been observed since 2000, when the community had gained a mature capacity to use the listserv to enrich their professional learning.

Braided learning stages

Stage One: Braided text

The first evidence of Braided Learning is the appearance of braided text. Debates can be started by any member on any subject relevant to the group. In these braided digital exchanges, members interweave their comments, judgments and evidence to create shared insights, which have influence on current professional thinking, formally or informally. (Text is the primary medium of exchange in MirandaNet as it provides a means that is accessible to as many users as possible; it is possible that, in the future, communities may see braiding occurring in use of other means of communication).

This dynamic process of braiding depends on trust between the participants, plus humour and passion; it builds over years with knowledge of past exchanges that cannot be communicated easily to the outsider. This kind of online closed publication can support contradictions and disagreements. Conflicts are not necessarily smoothed over or resolved in the pursuit of greater understanding. Nor is the style homogenised, as it might be in a more public presentation. Individual approaches can be recognised which is not possible in official publications or reports.

This stage of building a collaborative online text is a form of learning by collaborative knowledge building. Members learn by participating in this jointly owned braided text, and by observing the process. There is evidence of learning when particular participants post about their increase in knowledge on the topic or about a change of opinion as a result of the online debate. The validity of the text depends on the full membership of the e–community having immediate input to the debate online.

Braiding, in the form of posting evidence of learning, is of key importance to this CoP. Without posting about learning, i.e., without reflection on what has been gained from online discussion, the texts remain undistinguished and no more collaborative than a question and answer forum. Braiding is important as more than an image; weaving individual threads of text together makes a stronger knowledge fabric, one that represents, and creates the representation of the community as a whole.

Learning to braid text

In MirandaNet senior Fellows contribute by promoting braiding. They run courses for learner–braiders in order to enrich the group discussion. Others volunteer for this role either because they have the confidence as senior members or they have a natural talent for understanding how braiding is done and when the skill is needed. Braiders may show their meta–learning by changing the direction of the debate or bringing it back to the subject; they may summarise the debate at various stages to remind the participants what has happened or draw out the conclusions signalling the end of the period of online collaborative knowledge construction. These braiders also encourage reluctant discussants to explore their theme further, calm the agitated and revitalise areas of discussion by clever questions that suggest they know less than they actually do — all good teaching techniques. The difference is that the braider cannot see the participants and must, therefore, be more sensitive to other clues. The braiding helps to clarify aspects of the e–community vision on a particular topic and increase a sense of participation and ownership.

Stage Two: Braided artefacts

The second stage of braided learning is associated with Salmon’s fifth stage of development. In this stage braiders reinterpret text for a variety of purposes, creating a braided artefact. MirandaNet braiders create these texts for those outside their CoP, reaching a wide range of audiences depending on the circumstances of the braider. Such artefacts are also often summarised for the MirandaNet online newsletter and archive, which means they also reach and act as example for the CoP members as well.

Stage Three: Influencing and making policy

There is a third stage of learning in which the braiders, individually or in groups, learn to use the braided artifacts that express the meta–thinking of the group to have influence over the policies which affect them professionally locally, nationally and internationally. The speed of creation and the international outreach of MirandaNet braided artifacts have group authority that is enhanced by the reach of digital technologies, and the permanence of the online archives.

Some artefacts have been used as the basis of an article in the educational technologies section of a national newspaper. For example, a synthesis of a debate about the reasons for a sudden reduction in the numbers of regional advisers in digital technology in England was reported in the U.K. Guardian newspaper. Other artefacts have been used by teachers in reports written to influence the decisions of senior managers. For example, an ICT coordinator summarised the advice he was given about social software on school networks to inform the head teacher who was threatening to close down these network services. Another artefact was sent to the government in response to a request for contributions to a consultative document on e–learning (Department for Education and Skills (U.K.), 2003). Since members come from 43 countries these patterns are repeated internationally.

Moreover, some uses suggest that braiders are not just influencing policy, but are also creating new theories and policies. For instance, sometimes working groups are convened as a result of a braided artefact composed by a member who wants to take the topic further. These working groups then raise funding to explore the subject more thoroughly in research projects. They build face–to–face events into the funding whenever this is viable because collaboration at this level online requires high levels of group understanding and trust. Although young learners may be able to strike up this kind of relationship entirely online, MirandaNet professionals find they still need some social interaction to underpin collaborative theorising. At this point the professionals begin to create policy and theory through their evidence, rather than merely influencing the policies developed by others. At this third and final stage the braiders emerge as active professionals, taking charge of their professional destiny.

References & Contacts

The information above is an extract from a First Monday paper by Caroline Haythornthwaite: Volume 12, Number 8 – 6 August 2007 – Articles

For references email : christina@mirandanet.ac.uk or refer to the paper below

Theories and models of and for online learning

Caroline Haythornthwaite, Richard Andrews, Michelle M. Kazmer, Bertram C. Bruce, Rae-Anne Montague, Christina Preston