According to the Dublin Descriptors, learning skills are one important learning outcome in higher education. At the end of the the second cycle (e.g. Master’s degrees), students should have the learning skills to allow them to continue to study in a manner that may be largely self-directed or autonomous.
One instrument that has the potential to be of high value for higher education students is their Personal Learning Network, which we describe as purposefully designed and maintained social networks to support to support their continuous professional development (adapted from Rajagopal, Joosten-ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep, 2012).
One context that can instigate the start of such a Personal Learning Network is the HE student’s work on the Master’s thesis. A current practice in the supervision of Master’s theses is the use of thesis circles. A thesis circle is a group of up to 3 or 5 Master’s students, often with the same supervisor, whose academic work are partially related to a same subject. The structure allows thesis supervisors to manage the information flow and feedback to the students, but also allows the students to collaborate, exchange information and work practice or even jointly define thesis foci together.
Why is a thesis circle an example of PLN? A thesis circle can be seen as a hub where the students’ PLNs meet. All the students in a thesis circle have their own academic network of colleagues, supervisors, respondents etc. who they interact with, but also have access to their specially designed club of peers with whom they share both content and practice (in their thesis circle).
A PLN is an example of a persistent informal learning space: the learner maintains the relationships persistently for social support, trend-watching and (peer) feedback required; the learner and her peers do not necessarily share a formal learning context in which the learner interacts with the peers.
In this work-in-progress session, we look at an ongoing study around the research question: How do learners use their PLN for feedback?
(Peer) feedback are well-researched topics (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), but often discussed within the context of formal education (Thurlings, Vermeulen, Bastiaens & Stijnen, 2012) and in relation to an established curriculum (i.e. design units to fit the institutional system). How feedback works in informal and non-formal learning contexts is much less researched. The aim of our study is to uncover how feedback works in an informal setting such as a PLN. In particular, we are interested in understanding what role PLN relationships play in defining learning goals and learning paths, in monitoring progress and reviewing and checking validity of learning goals and how the learner considers who to ask for feedback.
In this work-in-progress session we will present some work on the instrument that we have created and piloted. We invite feedback and reflections from the participants on the data collection. This session will be structured as follows:
5 min introduction of project
10 min participants work with the developed instrument
5 min intermediary results of project
10 min plenary discussion
Session content: evaluation and reflection
This session is based on a collaborative research project on an upcoming educational practice at the authors’ universities regarding the supervision of Masters’ thesis students. It stems from the interest of the authors to research a long-standing issue in research on learning networks, namely how does feedback take shape in informal contexts where the learner is self-directing and self-regulating their learning progress.
Benefit for participants:
Participants in our workshop will benefit in various ways:
1) They will gain more insight into feedback and the role it plays in their own practice of using their PLN.
2) They will have the opportunity to exchange ideas, thoughts and insights with others on how PLNs play a role in learning, knowledge development and feedback.
3) They will co-design the next stage of the research project by identifying the consequences of the study for the design of formal and informal educational practice, and for the design of learning technologies.
4) Additionally, they can consider how they could use thesis circles in their HE practice if relevant, or similar approaches for other target groups.
The concrete research outcome is a qualitative instrument (questionnaire) that measures how the PLN is used for feedback. This instrument has two goals: 1) eliciting learners’ learning experiences in their PLN, concretely linked to learning goals and interaction with peers, and 2) providing the cases to derive factors influencing the use of the PLN for feedback.
The contribution to theory will be a model of (peer) feedback for informal and non-formal settings.
The study will also contribute to educational practice: Understanding how (peer) feedback is implemented in PLNs, will allow for better network-based interventions to support learning. Also, as is the focus of the authors, this will also results in opportunities for better and more effective design of learning technology that supports PLNs for feedback.
The outcome of this study will have an impact on how educational interventions and learning technologies are designed. When we understand better how learners use their PLNs for feedback, we can make learning technology more effective in supporting learners’ PLNs.
The outcome of this research will directly help our departments reflect on the way networked learning practice is being embedded into the formal educational practice. We expect the outcome of this study will give indications to how PLNs can be effective for feedback.
We are submitting this work as a work-in-progress session as we want to gain participants’ feedback on our instrument, pilot design and results of the pilot. We are also looking for opportunities to replicate the study in different informal learning contexts.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.
Hsiao, Y. P. (2016, 23 September). Peer Support to Facilitate Knowledge Sharing on Complex Tasks; Doctoral thesis. Welten Instituut: Open Universiteit.
Rajagopal, K., Joosten-ten Brinke, D., Van Bruggen, J., & Sloep, P. B. (2012). Understanding personal learning networks: Their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday, 17(1).
Rajagopal, K. (2013). Networking for Learning: The role of Networking in a Lifelong Learner’s Professional Development. Open Universiteit.
Thurlings, M., Vermeulen, M., Bastiaens, T., & Stijnen, S. (2013). Understanding feedback: A learning theory perspective. Educational Research Review, 9, 1-15.