Informal learning through online platforms

Neil Selwyn, Professor of Education in the Digital Education Research group at Monash University, produces a podcast called Meet the Education Researcher where he interviews researchers during his travels about the things they are working on and find interesting. A few months ago, Neil, who has been a visiting professor with our research group, came back for a visit. During his visit he interviewed me about the work I am doing on the ways informal learning plays out on online platforms.

NS: Now, first off before we get into projects and things that you’re working on, what’s the big idea that your research addresses? What are the big questions that you’re interested in?

TH: The big thing I’m interested in at the moment is networked learning. I would say my interest has evolved over time and now I realise that I’m quite interested in the phenomenon of collective intelligence and wisdom of the crowd, but not so much at scale. Instead I’m interested in bridging what we know about these phenomena from scale down to the individual level. To try to understand what the experiences of the individual are, and what their relationship is with the systems they use, how the platforms that they use assemble these knowledges and work as a collective … and kind of break down these phenomena in a way that gives us something more tangible we can work with.

NS: So this is a really interesting approach to take to education and technology, and I guess a lot of it is not school-based. So, your background I guess is not in school teaching?

TH: No, it’s not. My background’s actually in industrial design, and I worked as a computer interaction designer and as an industrial designer doing things like furniture and sporting goods and lots of weird things. And, then I worked designing museum exhibits and technologies for education, and then got into graduate school that way, realising that I actually knew nothing about learning or what people were doing, and I was designing for them, and making it up as went along! And that’s where my interest has emerged, and so I do tend to look at a lot of out-of-school learning situations, on the internet, in museums. And, partly I do that because I’m not sure school is actually the best place to look for learning, and I think maybe we can learn a lot of applicable things to formal schooling from so-called ‘informal’ learning.

NS: I wanted to go through some of those examples of informal learning. Now, you’ve done a few projects that I’m aware of that have really fascinated me. The first one is citizen science. Can you explain what citizen science is, and what sort of platforms and networks does it take place on?

TH: Yeah, we had a project studying the phenomenon of citizen science and citizen social science, citizen natural science, citizen humanities … there’s a large umbrella of these projects now. Traditionally citizen science has been people counting birds in their backyard, or using buckets to test the water quality in their local stream. But, in the recent decade or so, online platforms have sprung up and the kind of activity that people are involved in has changed. And, there’s been a lot of classification projects, where scientists have huge data sets that they need analysed in some way, and they ask volunteers to log into platforms online and to code them. So, one of the big ones that we’ve looked at is called Zooniverse, which is a platform for doing lots of different kind of citizen science projects, and in particular it started with this galaxy classifying project. So, people looked at pictures of galaxies, and over time got more and more advanced. People picked out whether there were spirals or circles or what shapes the galaxies were. And, they oriented the scientists in which pictures they should be looking at.

NS: So, presumably, these members of the public identifying galaxies are not all professional astronomers? I mean, how are people actually engaging with this content?

TH: No, mostly they’re not professional at all. In fact interestingly, most of the people that we’ve talked to as part of the project have no background even in amateur astronomy. Most of them were first just interested by the fact that they got to see these pretty pictures. Because, these are quite beautiful pictures of galaxies, and then they develop this interest in astronomy over time. So one of the things we’ve been doing is to study the discussion forums that go on around these activities, and to see what kind of knowledges these people develop over time, kind of to the side of the main activity they’re asked to do. The main activity they’re asked to do is very, very simple. Generally speaking, these citizen science projects build on the fact that you don’t really need a lot of background in order to do the classification work of deciding whether a galaxy is circular or oblong.

NS: So, what are people talking about on the discussion forums?

TH: They’re talking about all kinds of different things. So what’s interesting is often they’re using the pictures they’re presented on the platform, not to go through and classify as many as they can quickly, but to stop and do their own analysis and discuss different scientific databases and the scientific papers they can use to do analysis. There’s even examples of volunteers using the material they find on the system to produce their own scientific articles and get them published. With a colleague, Dick Kasperowski, I’ve recently published a paper looking at how they develop knowledge about the imaging processes. So when the telescopes take these pictures and when the different computational processes process these images, often-times artefacts appear – little errors in the images. And you’ll actually find quite a lot of discussion where people are learning to identify these errors and break them down and learn to read what that tells them about the kind of instruments that have been used to produce the images. And, that’s often a gateway into breaking down images in the way that a professional astronomer would do. So, professional astronomers generally don’t look at the visual images that much, they look at graphs and they look at different wavelengths and it’s a much more complicated process. And, so looking at these errors in the images is often a kind of gateway into looking at different representations of the images and taking a much more analytical approach.

NS: So, these are really powerful forms of informal learning and, as you say, the system is acting as a bridge into these other forms of knowledge.

TH: Exactly, and it’s a completely unexpected form of informal learning. So it’s not at all something planned by the project, or it’s not part of an initiative that the scientists have to inform the public that they’re working with. It’s very much a grass roots re-assemblage of the platform and what’s available to them.

NS: Now, you’ve done another project on teachers’ use of Facebook groups. And, just for anyone thinking that we’re talking about a few hundred people here, I know this Facebook group was 18,000 at its peak.

TH: It got up to about 18,000. When we actually assembled our corpus of data from the group I think it was about 13,500 users. We assembled three years of activity from this Facebook group where teachers talked about a particular kind of pedagogical approach, and we looked at the patterns in their usage, and also the character of their discussions. We did analysis of how the norms in the group functioned and how they were put in place, and the different footings that teachers took in the discussions, and the kind of topics that they worked with.

NS: Now, you’re making this sound very straightforward, but I guess methodologically assembling data from 18,000 teachers on a Facebook group’s quite tricky.

TH: It’s not easy … and I should say, this was pre-Cambridge Analytica when we collected the data, so I’m not even sure you can do it in the same way we did. So I actually wrote code in the Python programming language to query the Facebook database through what’s called the application programming interface – the API – and downloaded the information we wanted. Of course, we had permission from the group owner, and we’d posted in the group to show that we were doing it, and we encouraged members to let us know if they didn’t want to be part of it. If so, we deleted their data from the data set if they wanted to be removed from the project. Now it’s a lot more difficult to get that kind of access to the Facebook database.

NS: So,this is ethically tricky, you had to teach yourself to code. But all those caveats aside, what did you actually find out? What learning was taking place?

TH: A lot of the literature on these kind of social media teacher groups suggests that it’s quite superficial – that it’s a lot of tips and tricks and sharing of apps, and that kind of thing. But, we actually found that if you dig a little deeper into these seemingly superficial threads, you find a lot of exchange of pedagogical ideas and it isn’t uncommon to have quite serious discussions. But we also found that it was very uncommon to see anyone challenging norms of the group. The pedagogical principal that this group was framed around was the Flipped Classroom. Anyone coming in and challenging the Flipped Classroom as an approach really was met with quite a strong response. There was very much an intention to maintaining cohesion in the group.

NS: But there was no trolling or flaming?

TH: There was very little trolling or flaming, and that’s interesting because it’s very different than you would find on a Reddit group or a more general internet discussion forum, where a lot of the moderation is actually policing behaviour. In this kind of professional space, similar to how it is in the Citizen Science projects … possibly because you have this professional or thematic orientation. Most of the moderation work is actually to do with kind of supporting or guiding or mentoring, maintaining certain norms. But not in the ‘hard policing’ of bad behaviour ay that you would expect with a lot of internet forums.

NS: So was this a case of 18,000 teachers all learning, all participating?

TH: No, I’m not sure you could say that. Our data shows that it’s a core group of maybe 25 teachers that are responsible for the vast majority of activity. So, the data breaks down to show that about half the teachers in the group over the three-year period had either posted, commented or liked something. It’s a private group, so you have to apply to be a member and to see the posts. But about half of those members had never actively contributed to the group in any way.

NS: Never clicked at all?

TH: No, and you could construct that as them being ‘Lurkers’. But on the other hand they may be getting a lot out of simply ‘reading’ the group.

NS: That’s really interesting … and then your third project which caught my attention was your research regarding YouTube and informal learning. So, how on earth is learning taking place on YouTube?

TH: Well, it’s a massive area, and what we’re specifically interested in is instructional videos. Instructional video has been something that’s gone on since the dawn of television, but the availability of instructional video is enormous now. The YouTube statistics are that there is 300 hours of footage uploaded every second.

NS: And are these instructional videos uploaded by educational institutions? These are formal offerings?

TH: No, not at all. They’re very rarely that. In fact, they’re mostly people that are interested in a specific topic. It’s generally manual skills – repairing your washing machine, putting on makeup, cutting your hair, doing all these mundane tasks. But it’s this interesting space where people are not just demonstrating, but they’re taking a kind of pedagogical agency and showing other people how to do things, explaining them.

NS: So, what sort of people are uploading videos about how to mend a washing machine or put makeup on? Who are the actual content creators?

TH: It’s interesting. There’s kind of two different types of creators, There are people that have an interest in washing machine repair perhaps, that’s their hobby and they’re just showing people how to do it. And then there are people that are really trying to make a career of doing instructional video. Because actually if you look at instructional video statistics on YouTube, there a relatively small proportion of these videos on YouTube, but they’re the second most viewed category. So, if you produce a successful instructional video, you generally get a lot of views on it, and then you get a lot of advertising revenue from that. For instance, there’s one user we’ve been following. She is a young woman that does makeup videos. She’s gone from being a student to all of a sudden doing about US$4 million a year in advertising revenue. It can be incredibly lucrative if you get a channel that really becomes popular.

NS: And, so what type of learning is taking place? You can earn $4 million doing it but what are people getting out of watching these videos?

TH: Well they’re learning to put makeup on, or they’re learning to get their washing machine working again [laughs]. Sometimes the videos can address a more abstract topic, but most often it’s a very concrete kind of activity. So, whether you’ve actually learnt something or not can be measured in whether you’ve fixed your bike chain or whatever.

NS: Are you finding anything interesting about this learning from the educational perspective?

TH: We’re finding quite a lot about how demonstration works and the sequentiality between telling someone to do something and showing someone to do something. There’s something about demonstration and video that works well. The video provides you with a specific case to work with, but the description that you give provides a general description of the kind of activity that’s going on. So, you have these two levels, with the visual and the audio working together. That provides a situation where, in many cases, you can learn something more than just the video you’re looking at. It’s not just learning how to fix your washing machine, you also learn something about how electrical components work together, because the person telling you is filling in aspects of that while they’re working with the specific concrete case of that specific washing machine.

NS: These are fascinating topics to be looking at in terms of education research. You’ve got millions of people online, engaging in learning every day. I’m interested what you’re going to look at next. You’ve looked at these particular projects, what’s on the horizon?

TH: Well I’m really interested now in these large-scale educational movements which are non-traditional in a sense. So moving away from things like MOOCs being the focus of trying to understand education online. Instead, I’m interested in things like Stack Overflow, where millions of people are learning to program together. There’s a whole suite of stack exchange platforms. And I’m interested by the platform mechanics and what these platforms can teach us about learning in formal LMS systems or classrooms even. I’m interested in looking at the way millions of people who have no extrinsic motivation to learn get engaged and in doing something.

NS: That’s absolutely fascinating … So my final question – as an industrial designer, what do you actually make about education researchers? It’s a very different industry to be working in.

TH: It is an incredibly different industry to be working in. Industrial designers are also a group that sometimes works quite conceptually, but is generally a group that ends up having to produce a product at the end. So you can’t really get away with just problematizing things when you have to actually produce something. I think we’re quite limited in educational research at the moment in the ways that we can represent our findings. Maybe educational researchers can learn something from designers in a sense that designers have tools and methods for reaching audiences in ways that are simple and elegant, and can sometimes cause people to think, but don’t do it in a heavy-handed way. I think that’s something that can be brought to educational research.

NS: But to end on a positive note, you are working as an educational researcher. So why do you do this job? What do you enjoy?

TH: I’m really, really interested in figuring out why and how people learn. This connection between learning and the German word Bildung – this lifelong pursuit of knowledge. I’m interested in everybody feeling that love of learning. I think that’s why I’m interested in these online spaces, because there’s evidence of people with a self-motivated love of learning, and these platforms work for them for some reason. I kind of want to know why.