AU profs argue for a new online learning model in Teaching Crowds book

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Students learning in classrooms are usually doing some online learning as well.

Thanks to online learning and crowd-based social platforms where people freely share their knowledge with each other, more and more learning is taking place outside the traditional classroom.

In the new book Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media, co-author Dr. Jon Dron makes the case for an online learning model that places a high value on social media and the connections that technology helps to create. But if you ask him about the role of technology in his own life, his response isn’t what you’d expect to hear from a technology enthusiast.

The cover of the book Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media

The cover of the paperback version of Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media. Download an e-version of the book for free from AU Press.

“I’m on the side of the Amish,” he says. “If you’re going to use technology, then you need to think carefully about the consequences — not just for yourself but for your community.”

It may not be what you expect to hear, but it exemplifies the careful approach that Dron and his co-author, Dr. Terry Anderson, take to the issue of social software in their new book. While the authors call for traditional education to change, they also call for it to change wisely.

Holistic technologies challenging the old learning system

Teaching Crowds is about technologies that celebrate the creative partnering of human beings and harness the enormous amount of information on the web — what noted physicist and theorist Ursula Franklin calls “holistic technologies.” These holistic technologies, Anderson and Dron argue, will soon challenge the traditional, institution-based approaches to education that we know so well.

And according to them, that’s a good thing.

“Our teaching institutions are medieval in both origin and form,” says Dron, adding that even modern online universities like Athabasca University have a structure that was originally designed for medieval Europe. “(Teaching institutions) were practical solutions to resource constraints, and they evolved pedagogies, accreditation and other processes to fit those constraints.”

“They’ve evolved to ‘kind of’ work as a learning system,” he continues, “but at great cost and with limited effectiveness — not to mention that they have a limited capacity to adapt to the changing conditions and needs of students. It’s time for a critical review.”

The new online learning model: Networked learning

It was this need to review the old system that drove Dron and Anderson to write the book and to develop their own vision for online learning, one that considers social software. They call it networked learning, and in their book they explain how the model is derived from their observations about crowds of learners and how they benefit from one other’s actions.

“Students looking for answers on Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, Moodle … those are all crowd-driven media,” says Dron. “(They) create environments or spaces for interaction … that are enriched by each visitor’s contributions.”

Learning that meets the needs of the learners rather than the needs of the institution

Dron and Anderson propose a number of changes to traditional education — changes that make room for the expanded possibilities that online crowds and networked learning provide. Some of these changes include:

  • offering courses of variable length
  • using competency-based assessment tools instead of end-of-term exams
  • dissolving the boundaries between disciplines

The goal, as the authors write in the final chapter of their book, is to “provide methods of learning that are fitted to the subject and people learning them, not the needs and capabilities of institutions teaching them. This is what (networked learning) allows.”

The Landing: Social learning technology at AU

Dron and Anderson, who are also both professors at AU, believe so strongly in the potential of social learning technology that they developed the Landing, a social platform for the AU community. The Landing is featured in Teaching Crowds and serves as a case study for the way social technology can be used to support formal university courses.

Since they developed the Landing, similar tools at other institutions have been shut down. But Dron and Anderson don’t think this will happen in their case. Their position is that the users of the Landing are its owners, and there is no hierarchy at play. This makes it a piece of technology that everyone can get behind, they hope.

Buy Teaching Crowds or download it for free

You can order the paperback or download a free version of Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media from AU Press. Dron and Anderson also hope you’ll join in on some social learning over at, a website devoted to discussing the book.

What do you think about using social media to learn?

Before you go to for in-depth pondering of the book, how about making a comment below? Got any tales to tell about learning through YouTube, Wikipedia or some other social platform?