Educational Science

Part I: M.A. Thesis Globally Networked Learning-Processes in Higher Education

StructureMindMapMaster Thesis

Rethinking and Fusing Terminology and Theories in the Context of Digitalization and Technology

With my last post I published the content and the presentation of my Master Thesis – today I will start with the publication of the abstract and introduction. And – as always – feedback is highly welcome 🙂 !!!


A raising amount among of discourses in educational science are about keywords like »Knowledge Society«, »Digital Society«, »New Learning Culture« and about the herewith connected claims for continuing education, and individualized, lifelong and self-organized learning. Institutions of Higher Education have to deal with claims like to become more open (OER, MOOCs), competence-oriented and/or including international aspects and modules. But they lack discussions and reflection of underlying processes of learning, and definitions of learning, knowledge and competence, which differ more and more, as learning communities become more and more heterogeneous and global. This thesis will analyze and discuss learning-processes, concepts, evaluation and research on the above aspects in the context of this claims and of a new learning culture.

Keywords: Learning-Process, Knowledge-Generation, New Learning-Culture, Competence, Heterogeneity, Online- and E-Learning, academic learning, Knowledge-Society, Digitalization, Network

 1       Introduction

“Remember, if you educate one, you can change a life. If you educate many, you can change the world!” (University Of The People, 2012, p. 7)

There are many keywords being characteristic of Western societies on their way to become or to be a »Knowledge Society«: Lifelong Learning, Continuing Education, independent or autonomous Learning; a raising amount of them linked to digitalization, as Digital Society, globally available knowledge-networks, global access to knowledge, and education through networked means of communication. All those are related to questions about learning, respectively how to measure, evaluate and analyze learning-scenarios. Or more provocative to the question: Can one »measure« learning-processes in global learning-communities and global courses at all? And all of them take clear-cut definitions for granted, about what is perceived as learning, as knowledge, as competence, and as learning outcomes.

The number and variety of definitions and theories proves that there are no clear-cut definitions but a deviating terminology. Looking at learning-processes and knowledge requires views from different angles, needs to include contexts (individual, cultural, linguistic, social), and first and foremost there has to be an awareness of these different contexts and their influence on definitions and expectations.  This is (or should be) a crucial precondition for developing criteria to conceptualize, change, or evaluate learning-processes in »Knowledge Societies« that claim to be open, and globally available, and fostering democracy in learning-chances.

Another term which is increasingly used in an inflationary manner and related to the above terminology is »Competence«. Competence is often compared or set in contrast to terms like the German »Bildung«[1] or Knowledge and its definitions are as fuzzy and as various as those mentioned above. Therefore models and criteria of competence can only work in subject to contexts and require a critical reflection of underlying aspects. This may be difficult, but manageable, as long as it is possible to define a frame of competence for a specific job, similar to a skillset. But what about so called »Key-Competences«, such as »Social Competence« or »Intercultural Competence«; competences that should be transferable to totally different contexts and challenges?

One reason, for discourses on these topics being highly controversial, can be found taking a closer look at the focus of their underlying questions.  A common thread of nearly all of them is the question how to measure learning, knowledge or competences; how to set and define learning goals; and how to deal with a growing heterogeneity in communities of learners, and to enable all of them to reach specific learning goals. The answers given range between being different in particular aspects to being totally antithetic, particularly when talking about innovations in online-learning-scenarios and concepts in the context of digitalization and networking. These have the potential to be disruptive[2] and therefore threaten established and traditional models and institutions.  So the answer is likely to be looked for in didactic settings, in the design of learning-environments or platforms, and in various facilities featured through technology, social media, and Web 2.0, as these »solutions« are associated with the illusion of being able to control, transfer, or measure learning-processes, knowledge, and competences, and that way they seem to provide security against existence-threatening innovations.

Talking about preconditions enabling learners to efficiently use these didactically designed learning-scenarios, often gives the impression of apparently homogeneous learning-communities which do not exist. They do not exist within western societies and even less they will be found in global online courses. If education and educational settings really aim to close, or at least narrow, the knowledge-gap, they have to stop regarding heterogeneity as something to be overcome, and start using it as resource and potential to foster a new culture of learning and teaching.

Such a new learning culture has to go beyond theories and approaches focusing individual learning and learning-outcomes. It has to cover individual as well as social and cultural knowledge and learning-processes; ontogenetically as well as phylogenetically development. Both depend on each other and each of them influences and effects the other one. Social and cultural knowledge is basis for and result of individual learning-processes.

Neither standardized didactical design nor propaedeutic courses (aiming to switch heterogeneity to a pretended homogeneity, to a common level, enabling to participate in a subsequent program of study) will meet the affordances of such a new learning-culture. Just as traditional and standardized tools and methods cannot measure, compare, or evaluate such innovative courses, it cannot be proved that learning has been successful at the end of (or a fixed point within) a course.  You cannot just aggregate student data, calculate an average and find a solution fitting to a problem. A new learning culture requires reflection, change and enlargement of tools and methods, a fusion of terminology and theories; which will be possible only by assuring and designing a new understanding of learning, knowledge, competence and heterogeneity. Gregory Bateson’s[3] theories and interdisciplinary approaches to these questions build the theoretical frame of this thesis.

The embedding and fusion of already existing approaches, tools, theories, and methods enables to take use of the advantages, to compensate weaknesses, and to  counteract criticisms to individual theories by incorporating arguments and other aspects of balance, and thus to arrive at a emergence. The above contradictions regarding discourses on terms, definitions, and the question of whether and to what extent new theories and paradigms are necessary (or already existing) can be followed up and analyzed particularly well by mirroring Bateson’s findings on Connectivism’s attempt to offer a new “learning theory for the digital age” (Siemens, 2005), and on the example of academic online-courses. Subsequent growing attempts to offer »academic education for all« through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) startled scientists and educational institutions as well as learners interested in academic education. Whether it adequate to talk of a revolution or evolution, of a digital tsunami, or to negate their disruptive potential by calling these attempts »selling old wine in new bottles« will remain a question this thesis does not aim to find an answer to. But irrespective of one’s position on this, there are many points hardly controversial which underline the relevance of these aspects for future learning, and for individual and social-cultural enhancement.

  • In the context of higher education both, the heterogeneity of students attending courses and participating in learning scenarios, as well as of those, who actively provide and share information on the net, is permanently growing,
  • roles change, traditional boundaries between teachers/learners, expert/lay people or producer/user mix and merge, and thereby new learning cultures emerge,
  • new learning cultures create and require other, altered, and enhanced learning processes,
  • academic education can no longer aim to pass or manage static knowledge, but has to enable learners to generate fluid knowledge through and within new contexts,
  • »Big Data« (operationalized as the fact that an enormous amount and variety of data and information are both, distributed through different sources within networks, as well as being analyzed and used in a variety of contexts, and with diverse intentions) require altered and new competences in order to be able to use information in a responsible, critical and reflective way, as well on the part of students, as on the part of teachers and researchers.

Reviewing literature, to include the state of art into a thesis on academic learning »in the clouds« implies a questioning and re-thinking of formal criteria on resources being defined as »scientific quotable«. Grey literature[4] literally still remains a grey area. A manual of the academic library of the FernUniversität in Hagen about scientific writing argues under the rubric »grey literature«: “Working- and Discussion Papers are work in progress […] easily accessible as downloads […] of reduced relevance […] as theses should work on well-established scientific topics […] and most discussion papers never reach to become state of the science” (Bibliothek der Fernuniversität in Hagen, p. 7). This would exclude weblogs and internet-sites of scientists choosing to discuss their findings (also) using non-traditional media and fostering a culture of not only Open Educational, but also Open Research Resources[5] and would be contradictory to the emphasis of this thesis. Therefore this thesis enlarges the review of relevant resources, and includes scientific discourses taking place »in the clouds« and not being published using traditional media like printed books or scientific journals.

This thesis is a theoretical approach (literature work and conceptually work) and aims to gain epistemological perspectives for practical use in global academic online-courses. Methodologically this will be done by reviewing (state of the art), reflecting, and discussing theories, discourses, and methods/models of research and evaluation, and developing a competence grid for Enhancement-Competence in regard to the research questions:

  • To which extend does heterogeneity in global online courses lead to changed processes of learning and generating knowledge (a new learning culture)?
  • How to consider and to deal with the impact of digitalization and technology in regard to the changed learning-processes?
  • How to reach and to enable a competence that is needed and fostered through these changes?

The resulting theoretical findings and conceptions will constitute the foundation for consecutive empirical research[6] on learning-levels, in regard to individual and social development, and in the context of globalization and digitalization.

Chapter two will describe and operationalize the theoretical frame for this thesis by basing the idea of a new learning culture (section 2.1), of changed processes of learning (section 2.2), and »handling knowledge« (section 2.3), and of the interrelated »question of competence« (section 2.4) on Gregory Bateson’s theories on communication, learning, and behavior.

Chapter three gives a more detailed focus on specific theories that seem to have the potential to bring the above introduced new learning culture into being: It discusses and links Gregory Bateson’s Learning Levels (section 3.1) with the ideas of Connectivism (section 3.2), introduces theoretical core-ideas on communication as constituting element of learning-processes (section 3.3) and throws a glance on current discourses on, respectively definitions of competence (section 3.4).

Chapter four links the above aspects to the context of digitalization and technology. It gives a brief review on the herewith related development that was basis for this thesis’ idea of a global online university, with focus on paradigms and ideas behind technology (section 4.1), on the terminology used and its implications (sections 4.2 and 4.3), and on the question of competence (section 4.4) as a question of being (or having to be) competent for or through Global Online Academic Learning (GOAL).

Chapter five presents an interim-conclusion, resumes and bundles the discussed theoretical foundations and ideas, and leads over to the praxis context of academic learning scenarios online.

Chapter six discusses recent attitudes of institutions of higher education towards the discussed aspects of a new learning culture (which imply changed processes of learning, (re)defining knowledge and competence, and recognizing the potential of heterogeneity) in sections 6.1 and 6.2, and introduces the idea of a Global Online University as Learning Landscape for Enhancement Competence (section 6.3).

Chapter seven pursues the idea of a changed learning culture and consequently critically reflects and discusses »traditional« as well as putative innovative tools and methods (sections 7.1 and 7.2), develops a competence grid for Enhancement Competence (section 7.3), and reflects on the necessity of changes in  »Research (Methods) 3.0+« .

Chapter eight finally resumes the thesis’ findings, and presents prospects and targets to follow up in future research.

[1] The antagonism »Bildung« vs »Competence« will be illustrated in section 2.4.

[2] Disruptive innovations are approaches or models that succeed to disperse and replace further systems. These aspects and their impact on academic learning are discussed in section 6.1

[3] For details see section 2.2 and 3.2 and his works listed as references

[4]“That which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers.” The Fourth International Conference on Grey Literature (1999)


[5] Section 7.3 gives recent examples and discusses a shift in scientist’s attitudes to publishing.

[6] The desideratum will engross details


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  • admin

    Dear Commentor, thanks for your feedback. But I am not sure, if I really get the point – what do you mean by giving it to the public exactly? I want to share it as an open rescource, so I choose my community-Weblog. And I decided to split it into frames, parts that will be basis for my phd – so it is easier to discuss the diverse aspects and diffrent topics?
    Best Regards,

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    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting
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