From connectivity to next-generation learning

By Chun-ming Leung –

We can apply elements of network theory to identify increasing connectivity as a driving force behind recent developments in higher education. This will also help us to understand the different characteristics of next-generation learning.

Connectivity and Learning

We define the connectivity of a network as a measure of the extent to which its components are linked to one another, and of the ease with which the individual components can interact with each other. Since learning generally involves thinking, communication, and human interactions, we may identify three types of network that are related to learning: a neural network, a communication network and a social network. The role of each is briefly described in the diagram below:

A. Learning progress: from data to intelligence

Data provides descriptions and facts out of context while information is data put into a meaningful context. On the other hand, knowledge is the reasoning, experience and know-how that enables us to interpret data or information, while intelligence is the ability to draw rational and wise conclusions (and make decisions) on the basis of that knowledge. Information is a result of identifying relationships among data. Knowledge comes from understanding the patterns exhibited by information, while intelligence results when one derives the principles behind knowledge. Learning may be viewed as a process of developing intelligence based on knowledge acquired by applying reasoning to interpret information that is derived from putting data into a meaningful context.

Research in neural science suggests that the brain constantly reorganizes itself differently based on the stimuli it receives (neuroplasticity). Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures. The brain maintains its plasticity for life and the supply of brain cells is replenished constantly. The capacity for learning and the learning proficiency of a person are related to how well-connected the neurons are in his/her brain, i.e. learning progress is governed by the level of connectivity in the neural network within a human brain.

B. Web development: from Web 1.0 to Web x.0

The evolution of the Web can also be described as a result of introducing different kinds of connectivity into a communication network. The initial Web (Web 1.0) was just for dissemination of information, i.e. a platform that connects information. When tools were introduced on the Web to facilitate communication, interaction, and collaboration among people, it became a Social Web (Web 2.0), a platform that connects people. The next phase is to elevate the dissemination of information to sharing of knowledge so we will increasingly have a Semantic Web (Web 3.0), a platform that connects knowledge. Eventually with the convergence of people and knowledge connectivity, a platform that connects intelligence, the Meta Web (Web x.0), will emerge. Hence increasing connectivity in the communication network will transform the Web from a platform for disseminating information to one for sharing intelligence.

C. Cultural change: from communication to innovation

In a free and open community or social group, increasing communication leads to more information sharing which drives the integration of communication channels, media and devices, thereby facilitating more interactions. Increasing interaction will create opportunities for people to work together to solve common problems, i.e. collaboration. Collaborative problem-solving often requires the creation and sharing of new ideas, i.e. innovation.

Facilitating communication in a social network will not only bring about better integration and more frequent collaborations, but will also help to develop a culture of innovation. The evolution of the Web from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 is a good example, as it gradually becomes a cauldron of new innovations. An example of the consequences of integration is the convergence of the three sectors, Business, Education, and Technology, or the ‘BET’ triad: corporatization of education when business and education converge; creation of e-commerce when business and technology converge; emergence of e-learning when education and technology converge.

The level of connectivity in a social network is often described by the degree of separation, i.e. the average number of social links required to connect two randomly chosen people. It is estimated that the present world population of 7 billion has 6 degrees of separation. A recent study suggests, based on data from 721 million Facebook users, that there are on average 3.74 degrees of separation between any two Facebook users. Social connectivity (or ever-smaller degrees of separation) is a driver for cultural change and an effective catalyst for moving toward a collaborative and innovative community.

Next Generation Learning

The shift toward Web-centric teaching and learning has led to new educational structures that require new institutional processes, new support services, as well as new skills and pedagogy. The fundamental values of the Web—freedom, openness, transparency, participation, collaboration, meritocracy, and flexibility—have challenged many tradition-bound principles and practices in higher education. Examples of emerging trends are: democratisation of information and knowledge; development of open educational resources; globalisation and internationalisation of education; blurring of boundaries in teaching/learning/research, real/virtual learning environments, formal/informal modes of learning, communication, and publication. With social and participatory media enabling open and collaborative practices in higher education, democratisation of learning will emerge that will embody the fundamental values of the Web. A key driving force behind these phenomena is the increasing connectivity in communication and social networks.

Driven by the democratisation, internalisation and globalisation of higher education, next-generation learning must focus on preparing students to acquire the basic skills of a responsible global citizen in an open and democratic community, i.e. to be a critical thinker, a problem solver, an innovator, an effective communicator, an effective collaborator, a self-directed learner, both information and media literate, globally aware, civically engaged, economically and financially literate. Note that four (shown in italics) out of the ten attributes are closely related to or arisen from social and communication connectivity.

Connectivity in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a densely populated cosmopolitan city with one of the best communication infrastructures in the world. Recent statistics indicate that there are over 13,000 public Wi-Fi access points and 83% of households have broadband connectivity. Mobile subscriber penetration reaches 193% (probably the highest in the world) and there are 3.65 million Facebook users (about half of the Hong Kong population; one of the highest proportions in the world). An average person spends 22 hours online per week; 63% of young people do social networking while 87% of young people own a mobile phone.

The continuing challenge for educators is twofold: (a) integrate technology and pedagogy for teaching and learning in a networked multimedia environment with keen local and global competitions for diversified learning and learners; and (b) create learning environments that promote active and collaborative learning, critical thinking and knowledge creation, to help students to develop the ten basic skills needed for survival in the 21st century. Despite the favorable infrastructure in communication in Hong Kong, it remains to be seen if the higher education system of the city can meet these challenges.

Chun-ming Leung is Vice President (Technology & Development) and Chair Professor of The Open University of Hong Kong. He oversees the operations of the Library, Information Technology, Educational Technology and Publishing units, and is responsible for the planning, co-ordination and development of technology infrastructure in teaching, research, library services, student-related services and administrative services for the whole university.

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