The Learning Black Market

Last week I gave a talk about what I call the Learning Black Market at a Guardian seminar on the uses of Social Media for learning and teaching in higher education. It’s something that I have seen emerging from the data we are collecting for the Visitors and Residents project and from interviewing students for our study on the use of Open Educational Resources. In simple terms students personal use of the internet is generally very effective for their education but they are nervous that their practices are not valid and don’t reveal them to their tutors. The messages or lack of messages from educational institutions on these practices is generating a learning black market which masks the sheer scale of these new modes of engagement.

Scott Room at the Guardian
Printing press outside our Guardian seminar room

The Visitors and Residents project is capturing student’s motivations to engage with the web for learning in as broad a manner as possible. To guide our understanding of the interviews with students in the UK and the US we have added a vertical axis (see below) to the Visitor and Resident continuum. The Personal/Institutional axis allows us to plot student’s online learning activity and accepts that this activity is not bounded by resources and opportunities provided directly by the institution they are studying at. As the project progresses we hope to plot students trajectory through this digital landscape. It should also be possible to use this map as a tool to reflect on institutional approaches to digital literacy.

The learning black market exists largely in the Personal area of the map. Our data from the Transitional education-stage (Late stage secondary school + first year undergraduate) is indicating that learning activity in this area has two main elements:

Vistors and Residents map

1.    Emergency collaboration

Many of the students we have interviewed wait until the night before coursework is due then IM their friends in Facebook to confirm what they have been asked to do and to check they are taking the right approach. If they can’t find their friends in Facebook they text them to either ask for clarification or to encourage them to log-in to Facebook. There is an expectation that someone from their class will be in Facebook when they need them which is one of the reasons that coursework can be left to the last minute. I suspect that Facebook IM is used extensively for homework as it’s convenient and immediate. It’s also private and a very low risk way of collaborating with a fellow student. The extent to which coursework is actually completed via this method rather than just clarified is difficult to assess. There is a lack of understanding amongst students as to what constitutes plagiarism in this scenario and a consequential wariness around discussing this type of practice. The line between collaboration and plagiarism is not easy to define and I believe students would benefit from this area being openly discussed. This practice is also an interesting reminder that much of the activity in Social Media is not visible. Wall postings and twitter streams only represent a portion of the activity in these spaces meaning that platforms such as Facebook are effective at facilitating Visitor style approaches.

2.    G.W.R.

The majority of students activity is information seeking, this could be via another person but is usually a more direct engagement with ‘content’. What appears to be a common practice (we are still in the process of analysing our data) is this very simple process.

Google > Wikipedia > References

A search on Google to help complete an assignment commonly returns a Wikipedia article. As we know Wikipedia articles are pitched at an ideal level and length to get a handle on a new subject which is something our Transitional students have to do a lot. The problem is that most of the students in the Transitional education stage we have spoken to in the US and the UK have been told not to use Wikipedia and so keep this practice a secret. A simple way to do this without losing the value of the platform is to cite the references attached to the Wikipedia article rather than the article itself.  This appears to be a very successful strategy for coursework but can be done without any substantive learning taking place.

Learning Black MarketThere appear to be two main reasons that students have been told not to use Wikipedia. The usual, culturally acceptable, reason is that it’s not accurate because ‘anyone can edit it’. It’s difficult to support this claim and as Jimmy Wales said recently the decline in Wikipedia editing activity is partly because many entries are now so accurate that only key experts could add to them. There are examples of what I would call knowledge vandalism but these tend to be so farcical that they are easily identified. Even so the students are wary of Wikipedia despite rarely finding it lacking when they use it:

“…a lot of the times teachers say don’t use .com or don’t use Wikipedia, they like hate when we use Wikipedia.  But Wikipedia is always right, so I always use that. “

The second and more telling reason which is rarely expressed is because it’s too convenient. One of the US students asked a tutor outright why they didn’t like Wikipedia and got this response:

“The problem with Wikipedia is it’s too easy.  You can go to Wikipedia, you can get an answer, you don’t actually learn anything, you just get an answer. ”

The tutor then goes on to say that the process of learning is about collating and critiquing multiple sources not simply taking in a correct answer i.e. the path you take in forming a new understanding is as important as the resultant knowledge. The very valid ‘show your workings’ standpoint.

Student at laptopThis is fundamental to the debate around technology and learning and the real issue at stake. Describing the web or Wikipedia as ‘inaccurate’ or negating the use of sources that have been written by multiple ‘non-expert’ authors has little impact on the actual practice of students (or the success of those practices). The debate should be around how we evolve educational processes to take advantage of or to account for these new forms.  We cannot continue to teach the literacies that have been the mainstay of the educational system in their current form because the web smashes traditional paths to understanding.

There are good examples of the ways in which the web can be used to facilitate learning, new approaches which accept the situation has fundamentally changed and that learning is now less likely to be the result of successful information seeking. Many of these methods involve a more Resident approach to negotiating understanding and use classic scholarly notions of discourse to encourage learning over and above the now largely redundant retention of knowledge.  Unfortunately it appears that many practitioners are turning a blind eye to these issues and are stigmatising emerging learning practices by simply banning talk of platforms such as Wikipedia.

“They don’t fail you but you get ridiculed in front of everyone for sourcing Wikipedia.”

This is generating the learning black market in which is it all too easy to simulate understanding for coursework and formal assessments. Worse still, it is a market in which genuine learning can take place but is not being recognised because resources and practices are not seen as valid and therefore do not become visible to the formal education system. Students have told us that they learn from Wikipedia but also skim read the textbook to cover their backs in case they are asked a direct question…

Whatever the case it is clear that students need guidance on how to engage with the web for their learning and would greatly benefit from clearer messages around what it means to learn in the twenty-first century and how their practices may or may not intersect with the formal educational frameworks they find themselves in.


Scott Room – David White – CC attribution
Visitors and Residents map – CC attribution
Learning Black Market – Gilderic
Student at laptop – cindiann