Educational Science

Part II: 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

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

Part I (Abstract and Introduction)

2……… Learning, Knowledge, and Competence:  Terminology Shapes Thinking. 7

2.1             A New Learning-Culture. 8

2.2             The Process of Learning in a New Learning Culture. 11

2.3             Redefining Knowledge for a New Learning Culture. 14

2.4             The Question of Competence through the Lens of a New Learning Culture. 17


      2 Learning, Knowledge, and Competence:  Terminology Shapes Thinking

“It is not at all unusual for the theorists of behavioral science to commit errors which are precisely analogous to the error of classifying the name with the thing named.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 280)

There is a strong relationship between language, the way of thinking, and the way of behaving. As information is expressed in codes, and language is such a code, terminology therefore includes, respectively is a symbol for experiences. To be conscious about this means to be conscious that the same terminology, or the translation of terms, can have a totally different meaning for others than for oneself. But it also means, one has first of all to be conscious about hidden or underlying assumptions of one’s own language and to recognize that the choice of words may affect the way others respond to communication. This is a high-level learning process.

The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education) lists “using language, symbols, and texts” as a key competence[1] and states that students, being competent in this area, also “confidently use ICT (including, where appropriate, assistive technologies) to access and provide information and to communicate with others.” This statement does not use the terms »Learning« and »Knowledge« but it nevertheless defines them, and therefore is a good example for the correlation of terms and their subliminal transportation of a specific meaning or definition. Applying this to the above definitions, these could be read as follows: Students learn. Knowledge is information. Being competent means to know how to learn efficiently and effectively. Learning means to access and provide information using communication.

The relationship described above seems to turn traditional relations between learning and knowledge bottom up. Those usually define »Teaching« as a process, where knowledge is transferred and imparted on students and »Learning« as a process of memorizing and adopting contents.  In contrast to these definitions the above description defines learning as a process where contents are critically reflected, transferred into other, wider contexts, and new knowledge is generated.

Such a change in the way of thinking implies to be conscious about the above described relation between terminology and the herewith transported underlying definitions. A new learning culture, as it will be defined in the following section, implies a high heterogeneity of its participants, and therefore a high risk to fail in communication by using terms that do not have the same meaning and definition for all of the participants. Communication in global online courses which represent the praxis context for this thesis takes part using a language that is the native language for a part of the learners, and a foreign language for the other part. But even being able to communicate fluently in a »common« language (which still remains the mother language for one part and a second language, respectively a foreign language for all the others) does not automatically imply to have a common understanding of definitions and interpretations of the used terminology. Therefore this chapter reflects definitions of Learning (2.2), Knowledge (2.3), and Competence (2.4) in respect to a new learning-culture which will described in the following section.

“Define something in terms of its relationships using contrast and context instead of isolating it with a name” (Bateson, 1972)


          2.1  A New Learning-Culture

“Because of the profound nature of change in learning styles, organizations, methods, tools and technologies, forms of participation and interaction and globalization we refer to the change as being a change of cultures.” (Ehlers, 2013, p. 2)

Recent discussions, dealing with »learning in clouds«, already tend to speak about a new culture of learning. Regardless if they focus on pedagogical, methodological, or technological aspects, they have one thing in common: The new learning culture shifts its focus from teaching to learning. The question is no longer how to teach as efficiently as possible, but what learning is, how to learn to learn. According to Langer (Langer, 2013), typical elements of this culture of learning[2] are: peer-to-peer-learning, changed roles (tutor, facilitator), the attribute »open« (to share and participate) and situated learning.

The fact that communities of learners become more and more heterogeneous, due to impacts like a call for lifelong learning, and fast-paced changes and innovations in technology is without controversy. And not only the community of learners gets more and more heterogeneous, but also the group of those who take an active part in sharing and creating information presented in the cloud. Roles change, and differentiations like teacher/learner, expert/layman or producer/user seem to vanish. Big data cause the necessity of new kinds of skills and/or competences (see section 2.4), to be able to critically deal with all this information.

All these fast paced innovations lead to changes in what is called the process of learning. New criteria that go beyond the aspects, listed by Langer above, require an enhanced and enlarged understanding of learning processes and culture. They connect three levels, those of Educational Science (Research, Discourses), Educational Praxis (Conception, Implementation, and Evaluation of academic online courses) and Educational Policy and Politics (societies, institutions). This thesis and its research questions and findings will be about the two first of those, but nevertheless one has to keep in mind and to be conscious about the fact that the latter has great impact on both, theory as well as praxis.

Gregory Bateson’s theories, not only those focusing explicitly on learning, but also those on communication and changes within these processes, constitute a crucial part of the theoretical frame of this thesis. They were developed at the »School of Palo Alto«, which became a name that stands for a group of researchers, including Gregory Bateson, who worked in Palo Alto, a small town in the south of San Francisco, focusing on three large contexts of research: A theory of communication, a methodology of change and a therapeutically praxis. All of them, but especially the two first ones had great influence on the development of Gregory Bateson’s Theory of Learning: “The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication” (Bateson, 1972, p. x). These will be discussed in detail in section 3.1, while this section will discuss and establish the importance, influence and interconnection of his thinking for today’s research, innovations and questions regarding a new learning culture which is adequate not only to describe these changes, but also to be adaptable to their fast paced continuity. They show that this goes beyond the recent use of the buzz word »New Learning Culture« in the sense of »to learn to learn« – a level that Bateson called Deutero Learning, or Learning II and about which he wrote: “In the strange world outside the psychological laboratory, phenomena which belong to the category Learning II are a major preoccupation of anthropologists, educators, psychiatrists, animal trainers, human parents, and children.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 297).

Whoever remains on a level of Learning II would come to an “economy of the thought processes” (Bateson, 1972), where premises that proved to be helpful will be retained, others, following a structure of trial and error, corrected but never frankly be called into question per se, in principle. One could assert that Learning II enables to transfer knowledge on a different context, to change behavior to adapt the means to the end, but the premises underlying these actions, their emergence and rootedness, will not be reflected, doubted or changed.

Bateson always emphasized multidisciplinarity, and tried to fuse findings from natural science, especially mathematics and logic, with research in humanities. He separated between digital processes and analogue processes and already used terms like feedback and self-organization (Marc, Picard, & Holl, 1991, p. 16), all of them of crucial importance and high actuality in today’s educational science and practice.

As already mentioned above, important parts of Gregory Bateson’s work took part as a member of the School of Palo Alto which used primarily a systemic (cybernetic) approach and tried to transfer this onto human and social relationships. A systemic approach was not regarded as new science or discipline, but rather as a new kind to perceive reality, a method to analyze complex phenomena (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, p. 27).  The theory of communication developed in Palo Alto emphasized that communication is a process that always includes interactive and relational processes, and therefore one would not have to analyze the elements (individuals communicating), but the relations between those. They aimed to come to a synthesis by regarding elements of communication (and learning) as pieces of a puzzle that is assembled in a new structural and holistic way (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, pp. 25ff).

This approach is basis for this thesis’ idea of fusing theories and terms to come up a to a new understanding of learning processes that take place in environments consisting not only of individual learners and teachers (or coaches or …),  but also of the cultures and societies (contexts) those »bring with them«.

This is what really makes the difference and defines the learning culture that constitutes this thesis’ foundation. The following section downscales its focus on changes and specifics within the processes of learning, taking place within and constituting such a learning-culture.


      2.2      The Process of Learning in a New Learning Culture

“It is necessary to rethink the foundational principles that can guide policy and practice for the future of learning in a changing world.” (UNESCO, 2009)

Nora Bateson[3] (Bateson, 2010/2010) defines the moment you realize that you used to think about something in a special way, but now start to think it could also be otherwise, as the moment you have learnt something. Regarding the aspect that the process of learning does not only occur in individuals, but also in societies and cultures, underlines the high importance and potential of learning in heterogeneous learning communities. Bringing together learners from all over the world therefore has an enormous potential to enhance individual and cultural learning-processes by reframing patterns, redefining definitions, and setting commonly found new punctuations in interaction – which is what Gregory Bateson calls »context markers«.

Marc and Picard (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, pp. 67f) give a good explanation for what can be understood as »context markers«. Bateson and Jackson (with whom Bateson worked together at Palo Alto) picked up the expression “punctuation of patterns of patents” from the Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorft[4], to describe aspects of communication by analyzing the way participants use to subdivide communication into several segments of »actions causing reactions«.  A common cause for failures in communication is that the structure and classification is set differently. So different participants make different punctuations of cause and effect and therefore feel like victims of the other ones, and unable to influence the relation within the interaction. And it does not matter if a punctuation is right or wrong (if this category exists at all) – but what matters is that this organizes behavior and therefore is part of every relation and interaction (ibid, p. 69f). This can also be described using the term context-marker instead of punctuation. And as long as context markers remain unconscious, it will be impossible to change behavior.

Marc and Picard therefore reason that the phenomenon of punctuation (or in other words: The setting and existence of context markers) shows the importance of meta-communication which functions as regulation, by bringing the existence of those context-markers into consciousness. This enables to eliminate misinterpretations, and to set new – common – context markers; which is what represents learning-processes in the sense of the described new learning culture. And it is crucial to emphasize that not only »students« are participants of these learning-processes, but also »teacher«, scientists and their respective contexts, including society and institutions.

Gregory Bateson was a scientist who took all this into account, and the systemic approach seems to be a perfect background to reflect learning processes (including research and science as being learning processes!) in a new learning culture.

In cybernetics and system theory, both, individuals and systems, are regarded as being homoeostatic, thus self-regulating-systems. „Basically these systems are always conservative of something […] changes occur to conserve the truth of some descriptive statement, some component of the status quo” (Bateson, 1972). On the other hand, enhancement is change and transformation, and learning is nothing else than to enhance oneself. Thus new theories, didactics and models are always confronted with the implied antagonism, or – to speak in Bateson’s words – with the “Double Bind” (Bateson, 1972) of enabling transformation within systems being geared to conservation. Conscious as well as unconscious acts base upon (totally different) patterns and structures that were imprinted in one’s memory while enhancing oneself, and used to be productive and helpful within specific individual and/or cultural contexts. From a global point of view they can reflect only a marginal and distorted part of reality. „Culture and Religion filter and frame our perception“(Bateson, 2010/2010). So »context of learning« can be something totally different, depending on the various and different frames and context markers.

Bateson’s scientific work started with research on anthropology and very early he came to the conclusion that anthropology should take a transcultural and interdisciplinary point of view. He included findings and own research on sociology, psychology, and politics, as well as natural sciences, like biology and mathematics, in his work and always kept in mind that all these points of interest had to include relations not only between individuals but also (and even more important) between individuals and society (respectively cultures) (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, p. 12). Crucial parts of his work dealt with research on communication, especially on the level of meta-communication, and its impact and influence on learning(processes) which Marc and Picard describe as a “methodology of change” (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, p. 22). Even if Bateson’s work bases on analyzing behavior, it goes far beyond what is known as behaviorism.

A new learning culture, as defined above, regards learning-processes as constituting elements of each system and can be defined as follows:

Functions of a system are always connected with the system and its environment, and systems that communicate with its environment imply “feedback-loops” which means input and output have impact on the system (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, p. 32). Therefore meta-communication about learning and knowledge does not only bring information about different understandings and definitions (input), but also enables to set new context markers (output). Interacting individuals are basic elements of an interacting system, and bring with them not only their individual actions and reactions, but also their context (cultural and social norms and patterns) (Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, pp. 33f) which influence (input) learning activities as well as it is influenced (output) by those and therefore have to be considered.

The best way to do so is by making them conscious to all interacting elements (learners and teachers and course-setting/environment, communication-technology and tools). Such learning-processes inevitably lead to a changed point of view on the use of the term »Knowledge«, an aspect that is discussed in the following section.


        2.3    Redefining Knowledge for a New Learning Culture

Risku & Peschl (Risku & Peschl, 2010) consider the premise, that knowledge is a thing that can be transferred from one person to another, to be the reason for being stuck halfway becoming a knowledge society. Only if such premises as well as  their emergence and their consequences to all fields of economy, technology, and science become aware, a new comprehension of knowledge, and generating knowledge, can come into being. Not till then can new forms of cooperative learning lead to cooperatively generating knowledge (Risku & Peschl, 2010).

To capture such a comprehension of knowledge through a theory, and to implement it into the praxis of learning-courses, science and didactics have to become aware of their internal premises too. They have to get rid of limitations, to step back and stand beyond innate contexts, to include interdisciplinary findings and hence a level of learning that comes up to what Bateson named Learning III[5], and what was described above as defining learning processes in a new learning culture.

And not only does everyone have a different sense making of what knowledge is, definitions of knowledge have also changed within history and societies. A correlation between the definition of the term »Knowledge« and social changes can be explained by means of the German expressions »Ausbildung« and »Abschluss«, the first one meaning apprenticeship, the latter documenting the successful training qualification. The words »aus« (ended) and »Schluss« (end)  both stand for having finished something finally, so »Ausbildung« and »Abschluss« stand for a comprehension of learning as a clear-cut period, and a static content of knowledge – in German »Wissensbestand«  which literally says: a knowledge which endures and is sufficient for the whole professional life.  There is no doubt that this definition of knowledge does not fit the needs of a society, defining itself as Knowledge Society. There is no cut, no fixed point, when learning is finished and working starts. A vita in which learning is limited to a defined period in life, or in which attending university follows subsequent to school attendance, is no longer standard and will become more and more an exception than a rule. Leisure, work, and learning periods will melt and alternate, and knowledge is no longer regarded as (only) expert knowledge that is collected and transferred, not as a static thing but as a dynamic process. Lifelong learning is not a political or social phrase but a premise precedent to social participation.

Of course there will still be information that constitutes a kind of basic knowledge[6] (that may differ from society to society!), a background for understanding and reflecting historical and social development but „more and more of our knowledge [is] rapidly changing, complex, connected, global, social [and] technologically mediated“ (Siemens, 2007). Concepts for knowledge-based learning will have to come up to both, the new definition of learning (learning culture) and the new definition and emergence of knowledge.

What was described as »terminology shapes thinking«, also fits to Bateson’s examples for “sets of events [that] fall within the category of context markers” (Bateson, 1972, p. 290). He list symbols that represent more complex sets of meaning, and lead to specific kinds of actions, or behavior (for example the observance of etiquette). As language is also a set of symbols, terminology can be used as “digital context marker” (ibid, p. 291). So in traditional settings »professor« may imply that a professor’s statements are not be questioned, and resulting from this, »Knowledge« (depending on former and often unconscious experiences and resentments) becomes a context marker for content that is not to be questioned and is defined as being static, general and unchangeable.

So prior to considerations about didactics, methods, and contents there have to be ideas and concepts how to enable and allow learning communities to recognize different premises about what knowledge is, and to set  new, commonly found and shared context markers (Bateson, 1972).  And before asking what knowledge is and how to manage it, we should ask how we know, how knowledge comes to be, how we acquire knowledge.  This affordance resembles recent discourses that emphasize the importance of media competence and especially its dimension of media critique[7].





And this in turn leads to section 2.4, reflecting and discussing the use of the terminology »Competence« through the lens of the described new learning culture, as:

Competences in general are not static, but change […] Thus the aim of competence development is to analyze the qualities, strengths and weaknesses of an individual and to help to develop or compensate for them. This implies that competence development is characterized by learning processes, which lead primarily to a change in the individual’s ability to act. (Vogt, Machwitz, & Zawacki-Richter, 2015, p. 1419)


      2.4     The Question of Competence through the Lens of a New Learning Culture

“Students who are competent users of language, symbols, and texts […] recognise how choices of language, symbol, or text affect people’s understanding and the ways in which they respond to communications. They confidently use ICT (including, where appropriate, assistive technologies) to access and provide information and to communicate with others.” (Ministry of Education)

The New Zealand Curriculum states that a competence (the competence to use language, symbols, and texts) results in trust or confidence (confidently use ICT).

Even if there are various and different competence models or competence profiles, they usually describe a set of skills, and knowledge, and abilities one is capable to use in different contexts and situations, which are visible as performance, and which are results of a learning process. So »Learning« leads to generating »Knowledge« and to gaining »Competence« which in turn results in confident acting in various contexts.

Discourses on »competence« can be found in almost every discourse of educational context, and it shapes those because the use of terminology shapes thinking; and therefore discourses often tend to be more about defending a specific terminology as about what this is used for.

Within the context of academic learning, a recent (2014) discourse on »the question of competence« between Liessmann, an Austrian professor for philosophy and educational science (German: Bildungswissenschaft) and Erpenbeck and Heyse, professors for philosophy and physic (Erpenbeck) and psychology (Heyse) provides a demonstrative example. It shall be emphasized that this description will not aim to take sides – both texts offer arguments that fit this thesis’ emphasis and others that don’t – as part of this section they only serve the purpose to demonstrate up to which level the mere choose of a term can impact scientific discussions that pretend to be about the question to improve learning and enhancement.

While Erpenbeck and Heyse are well known for their works on various aspects and questions of competence, Liessmann represents a field of education that sets the terminology »Bildung« in the center of discussions about learning and knowledge. In Germany, respectively in German speaking countries, the term »Bildung« plays an important role regarding learning- and teaching processes and the definition(s) of knowledge. Its definition is almost as complex as those of the terms Learning, Knowledge and Competence.  A commonly found part of these definitions is that it is used to describe a goal of education that goes beyond learning skills and content and focusses on a holistic human potential to reflect and to enhance in a life-long process.

Therefore, as Liessmann’s text (2014) does, discourses that focus on »Bildung« even tend to describe competence-models as antipode to a tradition regarding »Bildung« as utmost   result of learning. So Liessmann wrote a scientific pamphlet that focusses on the discussion about universities having to become more “competence-oriented”.  He argues that competence-models would root in Economy and not Pedagogics; would not only focus on skills and capabilities (instead of knowledge, cognitive awareness, and inquisitiveness) but also aim to control and regulate mental and social behavior and motives. A shift to competence-orientation in higher education would lead to the opposite of what is defined as »Bildung«, to »Unbildung« (which can be translated as lack of education, or illiterateness).

Erpenbeck and Heyse (2014) on the other hand counteract Liesmann’s polemic to be an apology of “dead knowledge” (translated from ibid), not aiming to enable critical thinking and reflection but rote learning and uncritical reception. They write,  “Liessmann  seems to have missed at least 20 years of intensive work and research on the development of knowledge and competence” and conclude that “anyone, separating knowledge from the capacity to act in learning processes, belongs according to our opinion, to an extinct species” (translated from ibid).

“Nowadays, the expectation of ‘competence’ is almost exponential in terms of both theory and practice, and shapes schools, colleges, economic enterprises and organizations” (Vogt et al., 2015, p. 1417) …

… and it’s definition depends on interest and objective targets of the scientific family, the institution, theoreticians or companies, models, patterns and profiles. Therefore even the definition of so called key competences differs in various ranges. It is also of great importance to consider if a competence model originates from a job-related and therefore activity oriented, a psychological, or a pedagogical point of view. The following definitions, quoted from Kaufhold (2006, pp. 31ff) represent a small excerpt of the existing width of definitions:

Kaufhold (Kaufhold, 2006, p. 13) describes competence as a conglomerate of the elements knowledge, skills, motives and emotional dispositions and emphasizes the aspect of the development of a competence, and consequently the importance of stages or levels of development have to be included and reflected. She describes the development of competence as “holistic learning process” (translated from ibid p. 14).

Heinrich Roth (as cited in ibid) separates three »dimensions« or criteria to distinguish – professional competence (meaning aspects like technical knowledge, professional qualification in a rather narrow field), social competence, and self-competence, to which Reetz (1999 cited in ibid) added “methodical competence”.

Psychological definitions of competence focus less (or not at all) on an aspect of usability, but focus on potential and individual aspects of the (individual) learner (compare Kaufhold, 2006 p. 14).

This thesis will focus on a pedagogical view, but nevertheless will choose – through a denomination in section 3.4 – a description and definition of competence that is fundamental for all of the above and therefore per se has to take an interdisciplinary point of view and has to include not only pedagogical but also psychological and sociological aspects.

The terms »Learning, Knowledge and Competence« therefore are inseparably related but to use them as synonyms, or in a way that does not reflect on relations and interconnections, hinders to foster and to come up to a new learning culture. “You have to change the way of thinking” (Bateson, 2010/2010).

Figure 1 places the term »Competence« in a position where it links learning-processes and existing knowledge (information), knowledge generation. It depicts the interrelationship, building a spiral process instead of well-defined and separated aspects.

Figure 1: Terminology for a new Learning culture
Figure 1: Terminology for a new Learning culture


[1] »Key-Competence« itself is a symbol – an aspect that will be further discussed in the sections 2.4 and 3.4

[2] The following chapters will reason and work out that (and why) neither these aspects (alone) nor the competence »to learn to learn« will be adequate and sufficient to constitute the new learning culture this thesis focusses on.

[3] Scientist, Daughter of Gregory Bateson,


[5] Bateson’s Levels of Learning will be described in detail in section 3.1.

[6] As well as »new learning-culture« does not imply that all learning-processes included will be »high level learning« as Learning III (3.1), but still include learning-processes of the levels zero to II.

[7] Section 4.4 will discuss media-competence and its dimension of media critique more detailed in respect to the affordances of the described new learning culture.




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