Pelican learning

I have been reflecting on the differences between professional learning and professional development and what this means in a professional learning community, an immerging e-Pedagogy, and the characteristics of an individual that ‘learning organisations’ will increasingly value.

Professional development can be characterised as a ‘disempowering’ model of learning that takes the responsibility away from the learner and places it in the hand of the trainer. Courses are offered that individuals either subscribe to or are required to attend. This trainer is expected to ‘deliver’ knowledge through programme of learning activities. Frequently, the programme does not directly address the needs of the learner, is not available at the time that it is required, and is not contextualised in the work setting – in short it lacks relevance and authenticity.

Professional learning can be characterised as an ‘empowering’ model of learning that sees the learner as the heart ‘driving’ the process. Learning is not confined to schools, universities, and other organisations (although it may include this), but takes place both formally (courses), through action inquiry (work focussed learning), these could be at work (reflecting on daily practice) and through work (learning activities with a specific intention), over a cup of coffee in discussion, or perhaps reading a magazine on the bus. The list is nearly endless, but the common factor is the learner taking responsibility.

When we move away from the individual and start to think of communities there is a great deal of literature to draw upon. Two theories that have informed my thinking areCommunities of Practice (CoP) and Activity Theory. Put simply (apologies for being reductionist), both recognise that a significant component of learning is social interaction, but CoP with a community focus and Activity Theory with a focus on the object or problem at hand.

This is an interesting distinction, whereas the strength of a CoP is the ‘community knowledge’ continually developing through a process of repeated negotiation of meaning through social interaction. This knowledge is passed on in a way that is analogous to an apprentice model. The strength of the activity theory model is in bringing a diverse set of individuals together with different experiences and backgrounds to share and apply their knowledge to a particular instance and hopefully generate a creative spark that creates new knowledge and understanding.

Some interesting research into voluntary online learning communities by Trewern (2005, Computers in NZ School March 2005) builds on work by Collis (2004, ICCE conference, Melbourne 2004) that seeks to understand the different groups of online communities in terms of CoP and in particular the notion of ‘Peripheral Participation’. Collis identified three groups:

  • I know (non-participant group)
  • I know what the community knows (read only participant group)
  • I contribute to what the community knows (contributor)

    For Collis, the label ‘I Know’ was significant as it described the group’s perception about what they know about their work role – namely everything there was to know!

    However, Trewern identified a significant ‘learning exchange’ between the minority contributing group and reading group in the online community and the larger non-participant groups in the workplace. In effect, those who chose not to participate in the online community were in fact doing so vicariously through conversations with the contributors and readers of the online community.

    Trewern’s research identified that many non-participants offered their lack of understanding about how an online community could afford them an opportunity to learn as a reason for not participating. To what extent this was a genuine lack of understanding about how to use online learning communities specifically, or because, for whatever reason, they didn’t adopt a professional learning stance is a good question.

    Professional learning communities as a concept have been around for some time offering a model by which groups can collectively move forward in their work.

    This article on Professional Learning Communities neatly summarises their history and encapsulates the key ideas as:

  • supportive and shared leadership
  • collective creativity
  • shared values and vision
  • supportive conditions
  • shared personal practice

    The link between extension from an individual professional learner and someone who participates in a professional learning community and the CoP theory is clear to see.

    Drawing these threads together, it might be that what is starting to immerge is a new e-Pedagogy that rests more than ever on the individual’s ability to take responsibility for their own learning but also for the learning of their colleagues. Understanding how online technology can offer opportunities to:

  • work as professional learner
  • work as a part of a professional learning community
  • consciously deploy an understanding peripheral participation for a wider impact on organisational learning
  • draw into the community people from divers backgrounds to help spark original thought

    What value should an organisation place on someone whose beliefs, values and practices draws upon elements taken from the list above?

  • 3 thoughts on “Pelican learning

    1. Gina

      I understand that words develop connotations. I have to confess though that I always get a little nettled when a term which has is singled out and defined by what the author has assumed it means. So, you take ‘professional development’ and differentiate between that and ‘professional learning’. Professional development has not been a disempowering thing for me. And will a new term make a difference anyway? Eventually the new term will take on more connotations which will be pleasing to some and not so pleasing to others for all sorts of complex reasons. Wouldn’t it be better to just define effective professional development?

      Perhaps a side issue to your main point 🙂 (what was that again?)

    2. Stephen Powell

      I do think there is a significant difference between professional learning and development that is worth pursuing. It might be that you had the mindset of a professional learner when you undertook PD activities which can be great opportunities for learning. The key for me is were you the one driving this process?

      I like the pelican picture and I am also making a detremined effort to not grab images and use them out of context.


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