The educational system is constantly evolving in order to address the changing challenges societies have to face. The contemporary educational contexts are now characterized by the focus on such aspects as diversity, collaboration, knowledge construction, and the development of skills necessary for the successful integration in the society (Gee, 2008; Iyer & Reese, 2013). Educators have a myriad of instruments to achieve established goals, and the use of situated learning or networked learning approaches is one of these tools.
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The two paradigms can be applied in many settings and contribute to the achievement of established goals, but they also have certain limitations. This paper includes an analysis of the two approaches with the detailed consideration of their benefits and limitations, the learning communities that arise, and the professional educator’s role within the communities. Such concepts as knowledge construction, identity formation, peripheral participation, bonds and ties, and connectivism will be applied to evaluate the two approaches under consideration.
The situated learning or community of learning approach is used in such countries as the USA, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand that are characterized by a considerable degree of diversity (Iyer & Reese, 2013). Gee (2008) claims that this framework is an alternative to the traditional view of education that is deeply rooted in cognitive theoretical paradigms. The cognitive models that are still often employed in the educational context are aimed at exploring learners’ individual peculiarities and capacities.
Nevertheless, these paradigms, ironically, lack the focus on individuals’ prior knowledge that often shapes the way knowledge is constructed (Gee, 2008). Learners never acquire skills in isolation as they are affected by many factors, and sociocultural theories and related concepts (such as situated learning and community of learning) are instrumental in addressing the gaps mentioned above.
The situated learning approach explores the ways the established communities influence the learning process of newcomers. This model is closely linked to the concept of identity as newcomers tend to lack the agency to ensure their proper self-identification and development. Iyer and Reese (2013) emphasize that newcomers often lose their identities due to the influence of the existing community they have to operate in. Newcomers who have a different cultural background are often marginalized, and legitimate peripheral participation is common in the present-day educational contexts. This type of participation implies the uneven distribution of power and responsibility among the members of the group. In simple terms, children’s needs are not addressed equally, and some individuals or groups feel more comfortable within the developed environment.
In contrast to this model, the situated learning or community of learning approach ensures that every member of the community has their voice and is able to share ideas and meanings. In communities of learning, newcomers move from the peripheral to full participation in the community functioning (Hodges, 1998). Grey (2011) notes that the dialogue, being a characteristic feature of such effective communities, “can enhance professional identity and practice” (p. 24). Linguistic and cultural differences transform into meanings that interact and shape every participant’s development. It is noteworthy that members of such communities feel free to explore their identities and incorporate them into their learning process.
One of the primary benefits of the use of the situated learning approach is its contribution to the establishment of inclusive education. This model is instrumental in giving voice to diverse populations making learning communities enriched by multiple meanings (Hodges, 1998). Barron (2009) holds the position that the modern educational system (although targeting inclusion) tends to marginalize various groups whose voices remain unheard and largely ignored.
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This is often the case with ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other underprivileged groups. The situated learning or community of learning approach can help in addressing this issue. The use of the dialogue that results in participants’ move from peripheral to full participation is one of the strengths of the model in question. True inclusion becomes possible when people are ready to listen to each other and accept each other’s peculiarities. Seeing differences as opportunities rather than challenges is one of the benefits of situated learning.
In addition, each participant has a chance to develop their identity and build their own views of other people’s perspectives, which is essential for the teaching and learning processes. When applied to the professional development and the community of teachers, this approach paves the way for educators to “extend their professional identity” and align their teaching philosophies with their teaching practice (Grey, 2011, p. 28). Esteban-Guitart and Moll (2013) shed light on the way identity enhancement can be beneficial for students. The researchers argue that educational resources are often disconnected from students’ lives, which impairs the learning process (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2013).
Cooper and Hedges (2014) also add that teachers should ensure that children are free to share their beliefs and views, which can be facilitated by close collaboration with students and their families. Therefore, it is critical to encourage and inspire students, as well as their families, to participate in the dialogue and share their meanings, which will help educators to incorporate these meanings into the curriculum.
At the same time, the situated learning and community of learning approach is characterized by certain limitations. One of the issues yet to be overcome is related to the way differences are handled. Hughes (2007) remarks that participants of communities of learning tend to strive for harmony, trying to avoid conflicts. Nevertheless, the latter is a more effective learning experience as compared to “harmonious interaction” (Hughes, 2007, p. 20).
Conflicts make people more attentive to other individuals’ arguments and contribute to forming the understanding of different views and perspectives. The diversity of meaning is valued in such contexts, which creates a more favorable environment for knowledge acquisition. Moreover, participants’ effort to persuade or defend their views or beliefs also helps them to enhance their own identities, which is essential for the learning process. Therefore, it is pivotal to make sure that teachers employ effective methods to create communities of learning through exploiting conflict situations rather than avoiding them.
Another limitation of the approach is related to the concept of identification. Hodges (1998) suggests that the diversity of meanings might lead to the loss of identity or the replacement of the participant’s identity by a new one. The researcher argues that it is essential to ensure that no dominant groups develop within communities of learning. It is also important to make sure that all participants take an active part in the dialogues. However, even these strategies may be insufficient to help the members of communities of learning maintain and enhance their identities. Researchers should explore different ways to help participants accept differences, voice their needs, share their beliefs and ideas, but keep their identities and develop them.
Networked learning is another framework within the scope of sociocultural theories. Networked learning is concerned with the way learners connect to each other and learning resources (Siemens, 2004). The concept of connectivism is central to this model as researchers are interested in the ways people orchestrate their own peculiarities with the learning process. Connectivism implies knowledge construction manifested in different domains as it starts with the individual who has prior knowledge and learns from the network (Siemens, 2004). The network knowledge is also enhanced by the individual’s ideas and beliefs.
Online learning is associated with the increasing use of this approach as technology shapes the way connections are developed. Mackey and Evans (2011) investigate the ways weak ties are instrumental in constructing knowledge. It has been acknowledged that learners acquire knowledge from their immediate circle of relatives and acquaintances. Learners try to remain in the circle of like-minded people, which is beneficial for the development of the appropriate environment. Close bonds assist in the creation of trusting relationships and a friendly atmosphere that are necessary for effective learning.
However, less close bonds are also influential as they tend to shape the way learners gain knowledge and acquire skills. Mackey and Evans (2011) emphasize that loose ties are central to diffusing new ideas and information. In the study conducted by Mackey and Evans (2011), teachers tended to rely on the opinions of people who could be regarded as their close bonds. Nevertheless, they were also eager to try new strategies and approaches coming from the participants who were not a part of their close circle. Therefore, it is possible to assume that weak ties facilitate learning by contributing to the dissemination of data. People may explore the ideas articulated by new participants of the community, which enhances their professional practice.
One of the primary strengths of networked learning is its focus on the source of knowledge rather than the knowledge per se. For instance, the situated learning approach is concerned with the impact learners to have on each other, but the way this kind of interaction occurs may remain under-researched. The networked learning approach unveils some of the channels within which interactions occur, and identities are shaped (Mackey & Evans, 2011). The extent to which social ties and bonds affect people is examined, and it is found that weak ties are as influential as tight bonds.
Another benefit of the model is its wide application. For example, Siemens (2004) describes this approach as it is employed in online learning. Mackey and Evans (2011) also explore the ways networks can be utilized in digital learning, but the focus is on professional development. It is stressed that people benefit from both types of bonds, weak and tight, especially when it comes to constructing knowledge.
Nevertheless, the networked learning approach is not confined to online learning. It can be employed in a variety of settings, including early childhood education. Brennan (2007) argues that connectivity is critical for the sustainable development of children and their further integration into society. Throughout their life, people develop different types of ties in order to construct knowledge necessary for functioning within society. These ties occur in different dyads, including but not confined to teacher-child, child-child, child-parent, teacher-family, and child-knowledgeable adult.
At the same time, the networked learning approach is also associated with some limitations that have to be considered when the model is employed. Regarding the early childhood educational context, this model does not address in detail such issues as the abundance of information and the way it can be handled in different settings. Adult learners (especially professional educators) can search for the necessary data and use relevant information (Mackey & Evans, 2011).
However, young learners are rather vulnerable as they are bombarded by a plethora of signals that can often be misunderstood. Children learn from each other, their families, peers outside the school environment, educators, other adults, as well as the Internet and television. Some of these sources of information are not safe or may be less desirable than others. Therefore, it is pivotal to develop strategies and frameworks that could regulate the impact and the use of different sources of knowledge in the early childhood context.
The concept of agency is also under-represented within the networked learning approach. Siemens (2004) notes that managing resources, as well as leadership, is a considerable challenge. Mackey and Evans (2011) claim that the participants of their study tended to rely on close bonds when receiving information, while they extended their knowledge through the use of loose ties. It is clear that some resources are utilized more often as compared to others.
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The focus on a limited number of resources and reliance on specific sources of knowledge can lead to the marginalization of some ideas and information. It is important to explore the concept of agency in more detail as it relates to the community learning approach. Strong leadership can neutralize the adverse effects of this aspect, but educators may lack the necessary skills. They may be unable to cope with the issues related to diversity, which will potentially result in the peripheral participation of some members of the group of learners.
The difference between the two approaches is manifested in the type of community that arises when this or that model is utilized. As far as the situated learning approach is concerned, it contributes to the development of the community of learners that is associated with meaning sharing, peripheral participation, and identity formation. Rogoff (1994) argues that communities of learning ensure participants’ empowerment and identity formation.
Learners share meanings, build their preferences and interests, become responsible and able to manage the learning process within such communities. Learners also receive a substantial degree of autonomy that facilitates their empowerment and ability to manage their own learning (Nimmo, 1998). Nimmo (1998) also adds that young children learn how to cope with conflict situations as a result of their autonomy.
The concept of conflict often emerges when situated learning is discussed. Researchers note that effective sharing of ideas and information is related to the occurrence of conflicts. Nimmo (1998) argues that conflicts are not something to be avoided but another instrument facilitating learning. In communities of learning, conflicts arise due to participants’ desire to bring out their ideas or feelings as well as persuade others to share certain views or simply interact in certain ways. In communities of learning that function properly, conflicts are regarded as opportunities to learn and acquire skills. When applied to early childhood education, adults do not try to resolve all the conflicts that arise between their learners (Nimmo, 1998). Young children have an opportunity to find their solutions on their own.
In the context of situated learning, communities of learning are characterized by full participation rather than peripheral participation. Each learner has equal chances to voice their needs and ideas in such communities (Iyer & Reese, 2013). Barron (2009) states that some educators are still concentrated on the use of traditional models and Western-centred frameworks. Some groups become marginalized in such situations, and the learning process is impaired. Participants are deprived of the opportunity to share views freely and build their identities through effective interactions. The functioning of such communities is disrupted but can be repaired if the participants obtain the right or chance to share meanings.
The communities that arise from the use of networked learning are linked to such concepts as knowledge construction, bond-building, connectivism, and culture development. The establishment of ties and bonds is central to the proper functioning of the community emerging from the utilization of networked learning (Mackey & Evans, 2011). These communities can be regarded as sets of networks within the boundaries of the groups as well as extending them. The participants in such communities elicit information from various sources, building loose and tight bonds with other members of the group and outsiders.
Connectivism is the primary characteristic feature of the communities that result from the use of the networked learning approach. Culture development is another important trait common for communities arising from the networked learning approach. Lash (2008) notes that through the development of different ties, children within the community of learning create their own culture. In some cases, these cultures are rather inconsistent with the desire academic outcomes. However, the creation of the culture is a positive sign as it indicates the effective collaboration of the members of the group.
Knowledge construction is another peculiarity of communities associated with networked learning. Knowledge construction is multilevel as each participant learns from others and teaches other members of the group (Mackey & Evans, 2011). In such communities, the participants are ready to take different roles and construct knowledge in different forms (Tamati, 2005). Tamati (2005) claims that learners develop the understanding that they have certain responsibilities and rights. They support each other and seek other participants’ assistance. It is also noteworthy that communities created within the networked learning approach are characterized by the empowerment of participants (Keat, Strickland, & Marinak, 2009). Learners feel free to guide others, so knowledge is not only constructed but co-constructed by the members of the group.
Apart from the differences related to the communities that emerge, the two approaches under consideration are different in terms of the roles played by professional educators. At this point, it is necessary to note that teachers have the leading position, but their leadership is transformational. They empower and inspire irrespective of the framework used. Educators lead and guide but are ready to take different responsibilities. The primary difference between the roles of educators lies in the focus of their activities.
Within the scope of situated learning, the educator ensures diversity, equality, empowerment, and meaning sharing. The teacher is responsible for the establishment of an environment where diversity is accepted and valued, which facilitates the development of the community of learning (Ritchie, 2010). Furthermore, they should advocate for the focus on such aspects in order to change the still existing trends in the educational system.
Teachers should try to contribute to the launch of policies that would effectively place diversity into the context of New Zealand education. Educators should also involve families in their children’s academic life, which will facilitate the creation of effective communities of learning (Cooper & Hedges, 2014). Teachers should be ready to learn from children and families to acquire knowledge concerning different cultures. The lack of knowledge is one of the factors contributing to the legitimate peripheral participation of some groups. Children’s interests and inclinations can also be elicited through effective collaboration between professional educators and families.
Equity is another priority for educators operating within the domain of situated learning. Minority groups are still unable to voice their needs or fully participate in the learning process and develop their identities (Barron, 2009). Teachers have the instruments necessary to ensure equity. They can provide space for all participants to express their feelings and share their views. Educators can encourage young learners to be proud of their differences and reveal them to others.
One of the ways to do so is to be knowledgeable of one’s own identity and peculiarities (Hodges, 1998). Teachers should be ready to accept their own peculiarities and feel empowered to develop and reveal their identities. Being a model and sharing own experiences and methods of self-identification can help young learners and their families be active participants in communities of learning. These strategies can prevent the occurrence of the marginalization of some individuals or groups of learners. Sharing meanings requires the creation of a corresponding environment where young learners can feel safe and empowered.
In networked learning contexts, educators should also play an active role. They should co-construct knowledge, assist learners in establishing bonds, and create the culture through negotiation and rules setting. Gee (2008) stresses that the traditional adult-run approach is widely used in many countries, including New Zealand. Some teachers are still unprepared and unwilling to share authority and responsibilities with learners, especially when it comes to early childhood education.
In networked learning, this issue is successfully addressed as educators use effective methods to ensure the co-construction of knowledge. Keat et al. (2009) show that teachers can and should co-construct knowledge. Children can be given the role of a teacher, which assists in their identity building. Moreover, this kind of empowerment often contributes to the involvement of families that has proved to have a positive impact on children’s academic outcomes.
Another important responsibility of a professional educator who employs the networked learning approach is building bonds or rather the provision of guidance and support related to this process (Mackey & Evans, 2011). Young learners may feel at a loss when being exposed to so many sources of knowledge. Teachers can guide their students when dealing with this variety of sources. However, it is important to be cautious and maintain children’s autonomy as they should have the right to choose and develop their own ties, although this right should be limited in certain situations. It is also important to remember that weak ties are as beneficial as close bonds are (Mackey & Evans, 2011). Again, diversity is a key to learners’ success and achievement of the desired academic outcomes.
Finally, professional educators should facilitate the development of a specific culture within the community of learning. These cultures should not be orchestrated by the educator but should be a product of the collaboration between children (as well as their families) and the teacher. Children develop their own cultures within classrooms or other communities, although they may seem undesirable by adults (Lash, 2008). Nevertheless, these cultures should be respected and incorporated into the larger context. The professional educator should negotiate and set certain rules that will be accepted by young learners. The development of such child-oriented culture can help the stakeholders collaborate effectively and achieve the established goals.
To sum up, the two approaches have certain similarities but are characterized by some peculiarities. Both approaches are deeply rooted in the acceptance of diversity and empowering children. It has been acknowledged that children’s (and their families’) voices matter and facilitate the learning process or can contribute to the development of the entire educational system. As far as the differences are concerned, situated learning is associated with sharing meanings, identity formation, and authority. The Networked learning approach is characterized by the focus on connectivity and bonds establishment, knowledge construction, and culture development.
These differences are manifested by the peculiarities of the communities that emerge as a result of the use of each of these models. The roles of educators also slightly differ within the contexts of the two approaches. However, in both cases, professional educators should acknowledge their own identities and facilitate the construction of children’s identities. Teachers should guide and assist instead of supervising and instructing. The responsibilities and power are shared among the stakeholders, which makes diversity possible.
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