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?

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  1. sirilak says

    Future of Learning? it is to offer what student’s need and interest. I agreed with some comments ‘

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

    If a student asked to design degree. University should be grateful student is interested in learning and being inventive. ‘Dissolving boundaries between disciplines’ is such a brilliant idea. Here is an example: All Geography courses combined with Computer information system in Arts degree, Geography courses combined with social science … I really hope I will be granted for these courses

    • says

      Thanks Sirilak – absolutely. Such flexibility is a good thing and some such courses do already exist, but I’d be inclined to go further than thinking of courses, degrees and qualifications of such a fixed nature. That’s a producer-led distinction that has very little to do with learning, and it leads to some fundamental systemic problems. Among the most notable of these are the effects it has on motivation, leading to the terrible idea that the purpose of learning is to achieve grades and, ultimately, qualifications, rather than being as natural to us as eating and sleeping. When we had to concentrate teachers, books and other resources in a single physical location, courses and institutional methods used to be the most cost-effective way to spread knowledge around and to accredit it. But we don’t have those constraints any more, so it’s time to think differently.

  2. says

    I haven’t yet read the book but the ideas here seemed to be geared towards university students. I teach college students of school going age ie 16 -19. The students are supposed to do 1 hour of e-learning a week. Although the students are proficient at using social sites, when it comes to using e technology they seem to be at a loss. I believe e technology in education is a form of literacy. Without the literacy e technology remains a dangerous gimmick in schools. I would like to know if there are any thoughts on how this literacy is developed in the modern school going student.

    • says

      Thanks Colin

      We’re not experts on teaching *much* younger children, but the book should certainly be applicable to 16-year-old learners.

      In all such things, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Lectures and books are dangerous gimmicks too if they are not thought through with inordinate care, the more so because we come to them with a set of assumptions that are seldom, but should be, challenged. It’s all about learning – I don’t much like the term ‘e-learning’ because the ‘e’ is not the most important thing. Online tools offer lots of new opportunities and freedoms, as well as new constraints and barriers, but that’s all. What matters is how it is done, not the medium. Institutional teaching always needs to be adapted to the context and tools that are available or mandated, whether they are classrooms and timetables or learning management systems and social media.

      One of the main problems with the notion of ‘literacy’ when applied to skills in using online tools is that it is remarkably context-dependent and that it changes all the time – this is not like the ability to read and write. The fact that your students have proficiency at using social sites demonstrates very clearly that they are pretty smart at using at least some online systems, but no one is proficient in all and, in many cases, lessons learned in one system can actively work against gaining proficiency in another. I have written a few thoughts on this at

      If students are having difficulties with the tools that you are using and you do not wish to (or cannot) change your pedagogy or learning design, then you have two clear choices: either to support them by helping them to better understand and use those tools, or to improve the tools themselves. It sounds like the tools and/or site design may be at fault in your case but providing tuition (not training) is likely simpler, if more prone to error and time-consuming, than changing them. Often, a bit of explicit help at the point it is needed can be enough. This is not about generic literacy – it’s about helping students to overcome specific obstacles in using the tools that you are providing for them.

      Alternatively, and likely better, would be to change what you are doing with the tools. Design your teaching so that the tools don’t get in the way, and so that they actively enhance the process. Like all technologies it is how you orchestrate them that matters much more than the tools themselves. There are infinitely many ways to do this successfully as well as unsuccessfully. Flipping the classroom, constructively aligning assessment, giving more control to learners, providing adaptable paths, leveraging the value of crowds by making students active contributors, and so on, can all be enabled in more flexible ways using online social tools, but only if the whole thing works together. The book may help with this.

      As a final alternative (and one that our book may help with too) you could use different tools that are freely available to adapt to the students skills rather than forcing them to learn new skills. This might offer the scaffolding needed to help them attain higher proficiency in other tools too. It may, for example, be possible to create a group or space on one of those social media sites that students already use well, and to adapt your pedagogy to fit. I have seen some quite successful uses of Facebook Groups and Googledocs, for example. Beware legal concerns though – it would be risky and, in many countries, illegal to require students to give up their privacy by subscribing to a commercial site. You also need to be wary of entering the students’ own space – social boundaries are important. Partly because of this, we built our own social system that provides a safer, more focused space. We’d be very happy to share the code (it is all open source) if you have the server to put it on.

      Jon Dron


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