I would like to consider how learning relationships develop in education. In this regard, what I will have to say will have immediate application to support for online university education, but I hope the discussion will not be limited to such. In fact, I hope what I assert here will become the basis for a community of life-long learning, in which on-going education is seen as the greatest indicator of personal democracy and a free community.
(Seth Godin's discussion of an enlightened marketing strategy provided a useful outline for my reflections.)
The goal of personal education is often seen as equipping for a marketable career (the first question asked by grandparents hearing that their (lovely and talented) grandchild is majoring in X at university--supposing that X is not equal to pre-med, pre-law, business, or similarly obvious income-generating fields-- is: "X? Is there any money in that?". While it might be possible to define a goal of life-long learning as the continual equipping in the area of marketable skills, people often choose areas of learning as much out of personal interest motivations as career opportunity. Many students study fields they have talent and interest in for many years while only marginally concerning themselves with the income potential of the field of learning they are engaged in. However, these motivations are all individual in nature. What if we chose more cooperative goals? Would these necessarily set aside or demote individual goals? Would these necessarily sidetrack financial ambitions?
When we engage in individual study and learning, we may have individual goals and motives for our learning, but when we enter the realm of relational learning, we step onto the path to the learning commons. In this community, we will succeed when collaborative relationships are evident throughout the group we engage. In such a learning commons, the terms colleague and collegiality express new levels of relational experience in education. Without a great deal of regard (necessarily) for the subject matter of the learning experience, we find ourselves caught up in the common experience and rich relationship that results from collaboration in research.
Because the progress of the group in collaborative effort becomes so important to us, and because our level of collaboration provides more enjoyment and fulfillment than individual effort does, we find that our communications tend away from the establishment of territory and (political) hegemony that tend to value conformity and agreement over variation and honesty. Rather, we prefer the multiplex perspectives and variety that arises from difference (and différance), even when disharmony seems to be produced in our experience together (communion).
When learning is engaged as a personal and individual experience, learners may or may not achieve the knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes sought. However, learning as a collaborative process removes the risk inherent in individual effort. Because 'all of us together are smarter than each of us is alone' (sentiments, if not actual wording should be credited to Will Richardson), the weaknesses of each individual are minimized because others are involved in the learning process engaged as a cooperative and collective activity. In addition, individuals with strengths in areas model those strengths to others, creating an environment of skill development in the learning commons.
The individual learning event is relatively simple to describe compared to the collaborative learning event. Collaboration in learning inherently involves multiple perspectives, multiple roles, and an almost inevitable excitement and celebration over every achievement, whereas individual learners must provide their own audience-for-achievement/celebration. The coordination of effort and accomplishment makes learning events a shared experience, rather than an individual one.
When the individual learns, the process is more necessarily linear compared to collaborative efforts, given that few people have rich multi-tasking abilities at a depth readily available to the learning commons. While actions of individual learners may be seen as 'beads-on-a-string' from the perspective of narration or 'time-line' studies, collaborative is necessarily dynamic, hypertextual, and multi-dimensional, owing to the multiple actions of participants in the learning commons.