Creating Authentic Learning Through Online Personal Learning Networks

Creating Authentic Learning Through Online Personal Learning Networks

Erin Gratz (Orange Coast College, USA), Bettyjo Bouchey (National Louis University, USA), Megan Kohler (The Pennsylvania State University, USA), Monica L. Simonsen (University of Maryland, Global Campus, USA) and Jessica L. Knott (Michigan State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/IJOPCD.2021040103
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As educators face challenges in creating and cultivating authentic learning experiences in online education, a new paradigm for peer-to-peer learning has emerged: personal learning networks (PLNs). This article outlines autoethnographic research conducted in summer 2019, in which six participants from distinct virtual PLNs reflected on the benefits of PLNs as a model of peer-to-peer learning, how their experiences within PLNs aligned with Rule's themes of authentic learning and ways PLNs can be incorporated into online programming to create deep, authentic learning environments. The study findings align with the core principles of authentic learning: (a) real-world scenarios, (b) inquiry and thinking skills, (c) discourse with the community, and (d) empowerment. The study makes a strong case for the incorporation of PLNs into traditional online programming as a means to create unique and authentic learning experiences.
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With advances in technology and rapidly changing societal needs, and the growth of online programs, educators are challenged with creating learning experiences that are authentic, relevant and meaningful to students (Ashbaugh, 2013). In order adapt to the learning expectations of students as well as evolving pedagogies and technologies, educators have a responsibility to shift learning dynamics from traditional schemas to approaches that provide enhanced learning capabilities to students, particularly regarding new strategies and models for online course and program design (Ashbaugh, 2013). One such model is peer-to-peer learning, a known critical aspect of online learning (Adams, 2016; Garrison, 2016; Nussbaum-Beach, 2012). Peer-to-peer learning can take many forms in an online course though online educators are now paying more attention to personal learning networks (PLNs) as a practical means to enhance learning as well. In a discussion of adult learning, Moreillon (2016) identified “a ‘connected’ community [that] provides support for getting specific needs met, solving personally relevant and meaningful problems and developing professional expertise” (p. 65). PLNs challenge traditional, highly structured and formalized education and guide educators toward informal, constructivist learning models. While few studies have made the direct connection of personal networks as a model of peer-to-peer learning, this connection is alluded to in existent literature and through the use of adjacent learning theories and models such as alignment to the community of inquiry framework (Garrison, 2016), as well as through social learning theory (Bandura, 1971) and in the rise of social media for professional growth (Kukulska-Hulme, 2012; Wenger, 1998). The authors used PLNs as a model of peer-to-peer learning in this study.

PLNs are ideal scenarios for fostering authentic learning (Bowers et al., 2014; Cooke, 2012; Kennedy, 2018; Rajagopal et al., 2011; Robertson, 2017; Sie et al., 2013; Tu et al., 2012). PLNs allow learners to achieve a deeper understanding of course material by applying newly acquired knowledge directly to complex challenges rather than to simple challenges constructed for a classroom (Hung et al., 2006) and to develop the critical thinking and collaboration skills necessary to successfully engage in their professional field (Herrington et al., 2014). PLNs also create authentic learning experiences in online programming by connecting learners to each other and creating personalized and intentional dialog to deepen learning (Bowers et al., 2014; Herrington et al., 2014; Wagner & McCombs, 1995).

Authentic learning is “student work that is ‘real, actual, genuine’ in all aspects experienced by students” (Knight, 2013, p. 225). The framework of authentic learning serves as the conceptual framework for this study. Specifically, the four themes Rule (2006) found through a content analysis of 45 authentic learning journal articles. These four ways in which authentic learning occurs are: (a) real-world scenarios, (b) inquiry and thinking skills, (c) discourse with community and (d) empowerment. Together, these themes promote active and engaged learning contexts that help students acquire relevant knowledge and skills. These four themes of authentic learning align with key qualities of PLNs.

Real-World Scenarios

PLNs offer personalized guidance and allow participants to obtain key pieces of information to resolve personal or professional challenges. PLNs provide opportunities for individuals seeking continuing education options in informal learning environments (Agbesi Wornyo et al., 2018; Hung et al., 2006; Robertson, 2017). Each PLN member can gain knowledge specific to their needs regardless of considerations that often limit the ability to engage in professional development, such as location, financial resources and time limitations (Cooke, 2012). This informal approach to personal improvement offers access to knowledge that can be applied directly to real-world challenges. Students who engage in this type of authentic learning are able to more effectively transfer acquired knowledge from the classroom and apply it to a wider range of real-life contexts (Agbesi Wornyo et al., 2018). Furthermore, PLNs can be used for training, development and advancement within a student’s organization or upon graduation (Kennedy, 2018; Robertson, 2017; Sie et al., 2013; Tu et al., 2012; Wenger, 1998).

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