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Howard Rheingold:

"I never call the people who sign up for the courses I offer online "students." We are all "co-learners." The terminology both acknowledges and inspires the kind of collaborative learning that turns a reading group into something much more exciting. In both formal, face-to-face, educational institutions and experimental online groups, I work from the first moments to persuade people that it's possible for all of us to learn together as a community in a more deeply satisfying and useful way than if students take responsibility only for their own learning. It doesn't take much persuasion - when everybody pitches in at the start, enthusiasm spontaneously combusts. When a sufficient number of people jump in and start contributing and building on one another's contributions, it becomes clear to all that it's not just about the teacher's performance and the student's ability to complete assignments. It's about our joint effort to make the whole of our encounter more valuable than just the sum of our individual learning.

The success of the situations I'm describing depends on the efforts of a core group of enthusiastic self-learners - or at least a majority of the group who are willing to try an alternative to the kind of schooling they are accustomed to. I'm not sure this method would work with lesser motivated students." (


"The Magic of Co-Learnerhood

In that first live session, the first magic begins to manifest as we all watch names appear on the whiteboard and the entire group of 10-20 co-learners self-organizes into teams in a matter of a few minutes. The only instruction I give is on how to self-organize. After we've divided up the roles, I talk about all the tools we will use over the next five weeks in terms of learning goals and methods. Knowing why we use forums, blogs, wikis, synchronous chat and video, social bookmarks, mindmaps is the foundation for the kind of active inquiry, culture of conversation, self-directed collaborative groups that bring a peer learning group to life. Slides with evocative illustrations and few words frame my audio-video lecture. At the same time that I push slides to the whiteboard and lecture via video, text-chats scroll up the simultaneous chat window. People can "raise their hand," which rings a chime and flashes an icon for the moderator's attention (and the entire group can have moderator privileges). I stop and hand the microphone over to co-learners who have comments or questions. Sometimes I see a text question in the chat and respond by speaking aloud. When anyone mentions a relevant term, tool, website, person, the search team puts a URL into the chat, the chat summarizers list the URLs with brief descriptions, and in their breakout rooms, the session summarizers and blog team confer, the mindmappers agree on top-level and second-level branching categories. We've been at it for ten minutes and we're already a collective intelligence. It's confusing at first, but it is also flowing.

Yes, we're a collective intelligence, which is exhilarating, but we're a toddler collective intelligence, stumbling around learning to walk and trying to figure out where we're going at the same time. A number of new skills are required in short order. Information and communication flow through multiple simultaneous channels. The enterprise is challenging - that's part of the exercise. Taking my direction from George Siemens' ideas about networked learning ("we emphasize that early course experiences tend to be overwhelming and chaotic") I assure co-learners early and often that we can relax, accept and even embrace the chaos, and regard our networked attempts to make sense of it as the scaffold for our co-learning.

Why not? Instead of seeking to put every fact in its place in an existing well-ordered taxonomy, why not seek to learn together by asking questions about what puzzles us, then organizing our discussions and mining them for knowledge? The summaries and mindmaps posted by co-learners the next day were stunning. I emphasize that these summaries and mindmaps should not be viewed as compositions, but as learning instruments. We take turns taking notes for each other. In both the note-taking and the note-reading, we re-encounter the subject of our inquiry, which we can further refine, analyze, interrogate in group discussions in the forum or individual reflections in the blog.

At the end of my audio-video-slideshow-webtour, I put up another blank whiteboard screen and the mindmapping team puts up the top-level categories they pulled out of the session. Others enter second and third levels, rearrange them, draw connections, style and format the text, add clip-art and place images they have found elsewhere. The magic in this simple whiteboard exercise is that multiple actions can take place simultaneously and nobody knows who is doing what. Words appear, are formatted, moved around, put on blue oval or red square backgrounds, connected with thin or thick lines - and the mapper behind the scenes is not an individual but the group. I've recorded these sessions - scrub to the end of the hour to see the mindmapping come to life during the first live session of a course. From the rough-sketched group mindmap we made during the live session, one of the co-learners made a more rigorously organized version." (