Learning … loosely?

“Sealion” flickr photo by wwarby https://flickr.com/photos/wwarby/16211398843 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I was catching up with episode three of Loose Learners whilst out running yesterday. Mariana and John were discussing the (mis?)use of social media for sharing, or what for some might be more accurately termed bragging, selling or self-promoting. It was suggested that people come to Twitter with different models of how they intend to use it. Some see it as a purely broadcasting medium, others amplify the content of others, whilst many see it as a place to interact. Perhaps it’s not quite so clear cut and many participants do some of each at different times? I tend to see the ‘fine line’ between bragging and sharing that Mariana and John were suggesting, as an awful lot wider … and fuzzier!. That fuzziness arises as a combination of the ‘intent’ of the user that Mariana described, and the expectations of the recipient. A particular user might have a specific purpose in mind when tweeting something out, but whether that’s perceived as sharing, bragging or self-promotion will also depend on the internal compass within the recipient and what they find acceptable.

It was agreed in the podcast that one of the activities less likely to cause offence is when teachers use social media to ‘share’ the activity that’s taking place in the classroom. This is often an accessible means through which to keep parents informed of what their young ones have been learning, or sometimes to celebrate achievements. I wonder though whether this is always the neutral act that it might appear to be on the surface? Some teachers may be more savvy with social media, so what impression will be created if certain teachers in the school share more regularly than others? I wonder too about those teachers who share their classroom activity, ostensibly to let parents and other teachers know what is going on in their classrooms, but perhaps with a subtext which says ‘look how good I am.’ This perhaps speaks to what John was saying about the reticence of some teachers to participate in this kind of activity for fear of being seen as a ‘show off.’ A fine line after all?

Interesting though the episode was (and I’m certainly looking forward to the follow up), it was one small, throwaway comment that John made that really set me thinking. It was during a discussion of sealioning, which John introduced as ‘sea horses’, saying he’d made the connection ‘in my head.’ I was taken back to a comment one of my supervisors made in a meeting some while ago – ‘Where is the learning?’ with reference to professional learning on Twitter. I’ve ruminated on that at some length, but not really got to grips with it yet. John’s comment set me thinking that his comment ‘in my head’ might suggest a cognitive conception of that learning episode, but when you begin to pick things apart, there was much more to it than that. Adopting a sociomaterial sensibility troubles that notion:

ANT offers us, finally, a way to challenge notions of ‘learning’ as a process occurring in individuals’ conscious minds.
(Fenwick, 2010)

Given that this was a social exchange between John and Mariana, maybe this might better be conceived as a social constructivist learning episode? When that brief observation is coupled with the shownotes and shared with a wider audience, that microlearning event extends outwards and draws in others. Some might call this connectivist, where the learning arises in the connections which are assembled as networks are formed. The learning is not in the people, but in the connections between them. There are parallels here with sociomaterial conceptions of learning. As Fenwick (2015) observes:

…knowledge, as well as subjects, objects and systems, is taken to be an effect of connections and activity, performed into existence in webs of relations.

Fenwick (2010), contests the notion that ‘things’ (including texts, objects, humans and concepts) ‘exist separately and prior to the lines of relations that must be constructed among them.’ Learning is performed and entangled within the practices in which people and things are engaged. When John makes a connection ‘in his head’ from the resources in front of him, but articulates that through an audio podcast which I subsequently reflect on further, a series of relations is opened. I go on further to find out about sealioning by following the link on the podcast blog post to another blog post, then on further to the comic which illustrates the principle. I save that into my bookmarks in Diigo, should I need it later, or in case those others with whom I’m connected on that platform might find it of value. Diigo now does its work as a social bookmarking platform and potentially notifies others of this update in my library. The connections continue to be activated as I draw them together in writing this post; subscribers to my blog may also be translated into this learning assemblage and extend it further. The learning is solidified, but endures … or does it? If there is no-one in a forest to hear a tree falling, does it make a noise? If no-one continues to enact this learning event, does it continue to be learning? My feeling is that it does, but I see a shift from learning as a fluid event, to learning solidified, temporarily awaiting being made fluid once more. If any of those aforementioned actors (podcast, posts, comic, John, Mariana, me) review, renew or readjust, or another actor is enrolled into the network (a blog comment, a tweet, a reader, a commenter), then the learning becomes fluid once more. Learning in this way produces what Sørensen (2007) terms ‘liquid knowledge’

It is characterised by its effectivity … by which I mean that it was the practical effects of it – how it could be continued, worked on and how it could make a difference.

Liquid knowledge is procedural and changes with the materialities involved. If someone tweets out a link to the podcast or to any of the posts, then the sociomateriality changes. (Re)Learning?
This is all still rather new for me. I was comfortable with learning as a mental process located within the individual, though could see its limitations. I became convinced by theories in which learning was conceptualised as situated within practice and communities. Later I became troubled by connectivist models, and yet now I find myself arguing for learning as a sociomaterial practice. Quite a journey, but one which currently finds me seeking higher ground from which to better see the route forward.


Fenwick, T. (2010). Re-thinking the “thing” sociomaterial approaches to understanding and researching learning in work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 22(1/2), 104-116.

Fenwick, T. (2015). Sociomateriality and Learning: a critical approach. The SAGE Handbook of Learning. London: Sage Publications, 83-93.

Sørensen, E. (2007). STS goes to school: Spatial imaginaries of technology, knowledge and presence. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 9(2), 15-27.

2 thoughts on “Learning … loosely?

  1. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for this, you articulate beautifully the way that ‘learning’ echos and flows around a network, sparking thoughts and ideas. Especially interesting is the way a ‘throwaway’ remark ripples out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks John. It’s interesting you use the term ‘ripples out’ which resonates with some literature I’m currently reading. If we think of those ripples encountering an obstacle around which they spread, or a gap through which they pass, then the subsequent paths they take are explained by the physical phenomenon of diffraction. This term and set of ideas has been ported across to qualitative research to offer different mechanisms through which to analyse data. The topic is not a two-minute read, but Veronica Mitchell provides a helpful summary here http://phd4veronica.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/analysing-analysis.html
      I’m looking forward to learning more about it and hope to have my own post ready in the next couple of weeks.


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