I am taking a workshop with a colleague (Anne Trewern) on Tuesday with the title â€œEmerging trends in online learning communities – challenges of learner centred approaches to lifelong learning.â€ and have been thinking what we will cover.
I am certain that need to draw out the difference between formal from non-formal learning communities and I think that I also want to try and cover the challenges from the perspectives from people with different roles in these communities. For example, this could include the learning facilitator/researcher relationship in the Ultraversity online degree project, or perhaps facilitators trying to engage participants in non-formal communities in discussions around professional practice. And clearly, we will have to address some of the technological challenges as well.
Anne has just completed a great piece of research into non-formal learning communities for teachers on a programme called Information Communication Technology Professional Development that uses the NCSL Talk2learn software. We will certainly use some of this in the workshop.
I am thinking that the theme that we might develop to hold the workshop together might be that of alignment. There is certainly research evidence that points to importance of stakeholders understanding and agreeing a purpose and the problems that can ensue if this is not the case. Certainly some of the recent experience in have provided me with much food for thought!
So how do those who are tasked with leading these communities make sense of this? Indeed is leadership of these communities a helpful notion at all?
The notion of leadership might include a range of styles (coaching, directing etc), roles (inspire, facilitate, co-ordinate, moderate) and models (single leader, group, elected, assigned). Its a complicated business – even in our least formal communities at the Lab where at first glance there is no sign of leadership, we all subscribe to shared values which derive from a leader’s vision. Alignment without leadership might look like school of fish (or as Lennon said, a university of whales).
Do you need a leader in a learner centred approach?
I can see Shirley’s point about the school of fish. I don’t know much about a school of fish and how it is organised but … with migrating birds, there is a change of leadership at the head of the flock, as one tires another takes over – they have a common purpose and direction but no one individual as ‘leader’.
If there is a leader then the community will, most likely, develop in the way that they envision – the learners may not choose that particular direction at all? A guiding hand may seem just that but can so easily influence.
Left to develop the learners may choose their own leader, or the position may develop leaders consecutively. How will you know if you ‘lead’?
Interesting example, a shoal of fish is essentially a peer-to-peer network whereby each individual fish detects the movement of its neighbours through the unique sensory organ called a “lateral line’. The group behaviour of the schoal emerges out of the interconnected individual behaviours, not through any kind of rotating leadership which may be the case with flying geese, but not all flocks of birds. These kind of intrinsically mathematical natural beahaviours can be simulated quite spectacularly with object-orientated computer languages, net-logo comes to mind:
The Right Stuff
Having worked with the ICTPD Cluster project for a while now, as a group of facilitators, we have observed the development of a wide range of leadership styles and practices.
I remember watching a TV programme some years ago entitled “the right stuff”. Its theme was about the changing style of airline pilot leadership in the cockpit and how, in the case of many air accidents, the voice recorder transcripts often showed individual pilot error to be related to leadership attitude… the notion of “I have control and know what to do”, frequently overriding the collaborative and shared leadership role where all in the cockpit took shared responsibility for decisions being made.
Bringing this back to the leadership debate in the clusters then, we have so often seen the success of a shared leadership model, over an individualises one.
Devolved and shared leadership becomes an effective and empowering methodology for achieving significant transformative change because it encourages “ownership” with in the cluster community. Leadership is expected and encouraged at every level of cluster operation.
The equation is simple and relates to the common acceptance of vision and goals through ownership, resulting in a wide ranging acceptance of responsibility across the cluster for the development being undertaken, in this case a change in learning/teaching pedagogy to make a difference in outcomes for the kids in the schools.
Thanks all for your thoughts. I think we might agree that what we understand by the term leadership is important. Shirley Blogged about the concept of ‘negotiation of meaning’ the other day, and I think this is a good example of where this kind of negotiation is vital in a group or organisation.
I have read and heard John West-Burnham on a number of occasions talk about leadership. As I remember it he sees a continuum with shared leadership at one end then delegation, followed by empowerment, and at the other end control.
I’m not sure why but I seem to be getting vaguely irritated by the notion of a continuum to explain everything – of course I can’t just complain without thinking of a better solution so I need to do that 🙂
Leadership is a funny thing. I don’t claim to know much about it except some observations of my own – I hate strict hierarchical structures where those in charge think they can keep control by keeping those under them down – my most recent memories of that being in UK schools actually – but it’s a weird thing – the pupils almost expected it and almost seemed to like it as then they could blame all their woes on their oppressors. When I tried to give them a different way, not all understood or could handle it. The power of tradition?
And I’ve worked in places where a flat structure is talked about a lot but even then there seems to be hidden levels of hierarchy.
We as humans seem to need a leader. And the leader colours the whole organisation for good and for bad.
The closest thing I can think of to a good model is Christ’s actually (I know it’s highly unfashionable to speak of such things but it’s a shame how we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater) – he spoke about the leadership role being that of a servant. He made his followers let him wash his feet and they were horrified.
How does an idea like that translate into modern leadership? I’m not advocating feet washing 🙂 But there’s something in here of breaking down levels and barriers and expectations. It requires the leader and the follower to challenge their own fears and expectations.
This is a short passage from chapter XIII of C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
Creation seems to me to be delegation through and through.Â He [God] will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures.Â I suppose this is because He is a giver.Â And he has nothing to give but Himself.Â And to give Himself is to do deeds – in a sense, and on varying levels to be Himself – through the things He has made.
God doesn’t do for the creation what the creation can do for itself, that is, God made us to do things – we should be doing them.Â It is the only way to grow up isn’t it?
Very insightful Gina, thanks for this. a quick Google identifies some good quotes to support this.
Sorry – forgot to identify my quote:
I had to go up and supervise teethbrushing mid post!
I think that in order to be a ‘servant’ leader you would need to be very secure in your identity within and without the group in question.
But surely the very act of serving helps the community to grow – I’m thinking of FC, and possibly harking back to Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community – where there is a lead taken by some in areas they feel confident in and other areas where others take a lead. Hope this makes sense – it’s late!
This in contrast to the idea put forward by Nick, where ‘outsiders’ “make a difference in outcomes for the kids in the schools.” – surely the whole idea is for the children [not goats] to be able to assume ownership of their own outcomes.
Imposition of leadership from above will just lead them to dependency? Sheep that follow and then become leaderless when the Shepherd is no longer aropund [ to go back to the biblical imagery again].