Understanding the Context: Interview with Maarten de Laat

March 30, 2015 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

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Interview by Antonella Poce

Following the debate started by #EDENRW8 Research Workshop Rapporteur Tony Bates, we now meet Maarten de Laat, keynote speaker at the 2015 EDEN Annual Conference in Barcelona, who gives us some interesting hints for reflection in this pre-conference interview. 

Maarten de Laat is a full professor of professional development in social networks at Welten Institute Research Centre for Learning, Teaching & Technology, Faculty of Psychology and Education at the Open University of the Netherlands.



Antonella Poce: Maarten, first of all let me thank you for the time you are devoting to this interview. The field of research you are carrying out is really interesting and up-to-date. Can you tell us more about it?

Maarten de Laat: Thank you Antonella and thanks for the invitation to take part in the EDEN conference. It is true that there is a lot of interest in social networking and it’s relationship with knowledge and learning. There have been a number of great technological developments that contribute to new ways in which we interact, collaborate and learn together. The social impact these technologies have are interesting and it is not surprising that this paves the way for further research and development in this particular area. In the field of networked learning there is a lot of interest in understanding the underpinning pedagogical values of social networks for learning and the role technology can play to improve the design for learning. From a networked learning perspective it is interesting to study the impact social relations have on learning and what architectures support productive networked learning. Here the focus is not so much on technology per se but more on understanding the context in which networked learning takes place. In our own research on teacher professional development for example we focus on the networking qualities, skills and attitude of individual teachers and try to understand how their own network position is related to their professional development.

At a group level we like to understand how social aspects of networks and communities contribute to learning and value creation. What network structures are productive and what kind of networking roles and positions can we identify in relation to this. Another interesting question here is focused on how can we help networks to facilitate and improve their learning. We have developed a network toolkit for teachers for example, which provides of a lot of activity cards, information and tools for self-reflection to help networks to grow and improve their effectiveness.

Another issue we are focusing on is the impact professional networks have on organizations and the kind of leadership that is beneficial to them. Here the debate is a lot about informal emerging networks and distributed leadership within formal organizational structures and traditional ideas about professional development and planned behaviour. It is interesting to see how networks contribute to the emergence of open practices and new ways of working while at the same time we struggle with adapting to this new context in terms of leadership, accountability and professional autonomy. A key research topic here is to understand the value networks create and how do organizations benefit from them. In this respect I like the notion EDEN puts forward about the landscape of learning – which is a nice open description – and the development of learning scenarios to try to and think through how learning is changing and the role networking and networks play in these scenarios, as well as how this challenges our pedagogies, the role of the teacher and school leadership and the spaces in which this learning takes place.

AP: One of the main issues under debate within the EDEN community is related to the need for research in our field and to the direction research is taking at the moment. There have been 20 years' research and experience in credit-based online learning and over 40 years research in open and distance learning. Is any of this relevant to MOOCs and the use of OERs or are these complete game-changers?

MdL: I think you need to understand MOOCs and OER in the context from which it emerges. It can be partly seen as a reaction against more traditional approaches, but it is also interesting to see how these developments fit with the current zeitgeist and how it helps to transform education. Here the uptake of social media and Web 2.0 in general has of course played an important role. People expect nowadays more flexibility, continuity, participation and choice. Why talk to with someone locally if I can approach a world-renowned expert directly? This also has its impact on the perception of education especially in the context of professional development and lifelong learning.

On the other hand the issue of certificates and its credibility gets a lot of attention and critique at the same time. Point is that the current system that is mostly focussed on traditional educational standards and training identified with crediting institutions is under pressure due to the increasing attention more informally organized and acknowledged learning trajectories are receiving. Here the question seems to be how to acknowledge the value of these new initiatives. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this debate and what (mix)forms will (co)-exist in the near future.

AP: I am very keen on learning more about social and networked learning research. We are all connected 24/7/365, can we really make this permanent connectivity an added value in our lives?

MdL: I am not sure if permanent connectivity is something we would want or in fact I don’t think we can even handle this. What is important in my point of view is that people are able to make maximum use of social relationships in terms of their learning and development. Connectivity, openness and transparency can only facilitate this. Research shows however that participation social networks can have a positive influence on people’s productivity and learning.

AP:  According to your experience, in which of the environments you investigated, social and networked learning is more effective? If there is any difference, can you explain why, in your opinion?

MdL: Following up on the previous questions, it is important to me to understand the cultural contexts in which people behave and learn and how this culture is open to informal aspects of networked learning. In schools and organizations with a dominant top-down structure where management or teachers control the ‘learning’ agenda, there is little room and reward for self-organization, participation, co-creation and engagement with networked learning.

AP:  Another area of study you are engaged in is learning analytics. Can you tell us something about it?

MdL: To me learning analytics is interesting, especially in light of the issues we talked about. Networks are always about something. There is a reason for people to get in touch and start learning together, develop their knowledge and innovate the way they do things. We know that this kind of informal networked learning is somewhat invisible and to some extent left to chance – i.e. dependent on the people you know and have access to. It is difficult for me to see what area’s of interest you are active in, the networks you have access to and how they could be of interest to me.

Analytics can assist in raising the awareness of the networked learning activity around us and what these networks are about. This knowledge can in turn facilitate access to social networks to increase our ability to share information, learn from each other and create new knowledge. Learning analytics in other terms can help to understand and demonstrate the value of informal networked learning, show its presence and open up their practices to people who share similar interests. At the same time this kind of analytics can help transforming the way we think about professional development, its relation to daily practice and the way we manage learning and professional development. I think that learning analytics can put a real stamp on opening-up education and inform students and professionals better about interesting learning networks and events that are available to them.

AP: The international scientific community seems really focused on learning analytics. Can you tell us the key elements for which LA is to be considered as one of the most significant theme in the near future?

MdL: Increase our understanding of the way people learn and do things – especially in the digital learning landscapes – and use this information to develop pedagogies that ‘liberate’ students and teachers to design and provide learning scenario’s that suit peoples needs and expectations.

AP: Thank you so much again Maarten! I am looking forward to meeting you in Barcelona!





Antonella Poce is a full time researcher and lecturer in experimental pedagogy at  the University  Roma Tre –  Department of Education,  where she teaches Measurement in Education.  After her PhD  in Innovation  and evaluation of  educational system, she  obtained a post ‐doc scholarship  to carry out  research work on  the evaluation of e‐learning  models in university didactics. Her research  concerns innovative teaching practices in higher education at national and  international level.






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