Learning Trajectories

Learning Trajectories

Amoebas and not arrows: trajectories and multimemberships

In terms of our learning and identity and motivation, we are all amoebas and not arrows. We push on all sides, some more than others. We do not follow straight lines towards predetermined targets. We are gelatinous and not rigid.

I am on to the data analysis and writing stages of my thesis and things are coming together quite well (well=manageable). I have always set out to employ Lave & Wenger’s Community of Practice (CoP) theory as a way of illustrating that much of the behavior and learning activity of graduate students are to a large degree dictated by the community norms and practices of whatever community they have allegiance to. I chose graduate students as my focus working under the assumption that their allegiance to the disciplinary community would be greater than undergraduate students. My data has not really born that out as I have collected data from undergraduates (who expressed a desire for an academic career) with stronger disciplinary allegiance than the graduate students (at least half of which have no intention of pursuing an academic career) I have collected data from. Intention trumps current position, not surprisingly. It is not where we are, but where we want to be that dictates our adherence to community norms. Or more specifically, which community we want to be a part of.  Here are a few of the basic texts if you want to learn more:

  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.
  • Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.

So, I have shed a lot of the CoP focus on certain aspects and instead targeted my analysis on learning trajectories (Wenger, 1998) which chart movement towards, away, or in parallel to the center. They are movements to, from, or alongside a community. They help me blow past informal/formal and individual/social learning delineations as has always been my desire to do. I tend to believe that learning doesn’t respect boundaries all that much and curiosity will carry us over the semi-permeable membranes of the silos of learning space (Potter, 2013). I believe that the highly self-regulated learner doesn’t even see these distinctions (informal to formal, in particular).

t am influenced, as always, by the work done by the University of Edinburgh MSc in Digital Education team on movements through online learning spaces and the role of geography, particularly these two articles:

Both of these articles influence my thinking in terms of seeing movements in online spaces as being messy, volatile, constructed or assembled, and influenced by a diverse set of motivations. In mobile learning, this complicated movement is especially acute. So I am looking to chart movements as one might chart constellations (which are relative to time and space). I want to chart a movement across all the different communities and states of learning, identifying as many motivating influences along the way.

As such, my is quite concerned with a few specific trajectories, The first, inbound trajectories, are trajectories from periphery to center, or from peripheral to full membership in the community. This thesis began under the assumption that the graduate students involved in this study are moving from periphery to center much more than the average undergraduate student might be. This proved to be incorrect. It was assumed that several of these graduate students will be on an even stronger inbound trajectory as they move from graduate to doctoral school. This was true, for those pursuing doctoral study. For the others, allegiances were entirely elsewhere.

Peripheral trajectories, defined as providing access to the community but not achieving full membership, are of great interest to this thesis as well. Several of the students in this study will remain on the periphery in their relation to the community, or will favor membership in another community over their engagement with this disciplinary community and choose to remain on the periphery. This represents legitimate peripheral participation and is included in this thesis to define the community itself as series of movements, some inbound, some peripheral, and some boundary. About half of the participants in my study were peripheral in their relationship to their disciplinary community (but presumably inbound towards another community (or communities).

The third trajectory, boundary trajectories, are of critical interest to this thesis as they involve the participation in more than one community which may provide links between these communities and potentially for processes or practices to be shared. An explicit concern of this thesis was to follow these students from informal to formal spaces, through informal and formal learning communities, and across informal and formal participatory processes. As such, this idea of multiple community memberships, which Wenger cleverly refers to as “multimembership” (1998), is critical to following this path. These additional communities include social and resiliency building informal communities, as well as the technological communities and media communities involved in mobile technology and the media being produced there. They include friends, family, local and regional communities. They include almost any group that exhibits a pull on the individual. And there is merit to these multimemberships.


Granted the following Heinlein quote is a bit flippant as there is a need for balance between specialization and generalization in the individual, but it does get close to summing up my view of education and a need to be involved in seemingly contradictory activities or pursuits:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects- Robert A. Heinlein

Wenger believes there is considerable effort involved in the “reconciliation necessary to maintain one identity across boundaries” (1998), but I might suggest that this isn’t the point. Multiple identities are crafted to fit particular communities and their reconciliation suggests a discomfort with identities that are seemingly in conflict. No such evidence of this discomfort was found in the data (my data). What was more critical, or at least more evident, was the development of learning processes to participate or prepare for participation in many communities simultaneously. Consciously or unconsciously, learners fully expect, I suspect (I am the Dr. Seuss of academia) to participate in many different communities simultaneously, projecting many different identities along the way. That is a tacit understanding of the modern learner, however fatiguing it might be (again, no evidence of this in my data, but I suspect it is there if I were to ask the right questions). It is not about being stretched thin, per se, but just positioning oneself at the center of that Venn diagram, overlapping worlds converging in me.

Multimodal Representation vs. Composition

This came out a lot not only during the interviews, but also from the multimodal artifacts, which were admittedly more subjective to my interpretations. The submitted artifacts basically fell into one of two camps: compositions or representations. Compositions were submitted as examples of disciplinary knowledge, how meaning was drafted and presented. They were authentic in that they were being used to pursue the aims of the discipline or the future career. Some composed assemblies of all sorts of media and said that they would circulate this through their communities for feedback. So these were compositions of disciplinary meaning or participation. The others were representations. They represented their engagements with the discipline rather than the substance (material) of the engagements themselves. So, a collection of images demonstrating a collaboration with fellow students towards a particular group work. All the hallmarks of the shared set of processes (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in the community, all projections so that they know that I know what they are talking about. I am a member or I ascribe to be.

The compositions were different, though. Some were wild acts of creativity attempting to serve two masters (one disciplinary, the other for their careers) These students didn’t seem entirely troubled that these compositions were received in the discipline with some confusion or consternation (several reported this); they didn’t seem to care as it was preparing them for a world outside the discipline, their other community trajectory.

Pragmatically, I always bring this back to teaching. What trajectory are your students on? If they are real people, then chances are they are on several trajectories simultaneously. What is their trajectory in relation to your instruction? What am I activating through my learning design; which trajectory am I accelerating? I think the research (in online learning, in MOOCs, in mobile learning) and my experience are teaching me that inbound isn’t always better. Some will always take energy and motivation from existing on the boundaries, charting a course that runs askew of everything, or skimming off the surface of several community boundaries. Some will never require depth in the subject you are teaching, preferring a broader scope of familiarity over in-depth expertise. There is great energy in this approach, like the static caused from the friction of fabric.

So we are amoebas, pushing outwards and folding inwards incessantly. Another good read but one I had difficulty slotting into the post in any coherent way is the following:

  • Oliver, M., & Carr, D. (2009). Learning in virtual worlds: Using communities of practice to explain how people learn from play. British Journal of Educational Technology40(3), 444-457.



By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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