Topic 03: Learning in Communities – Networked Collaborative Learning

Why collaborative learning? It has always felt a little bit like a burden. But then individual learning can be a burden too. I guess it depends on each individual’s previous group work experience.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning in Harward University has published an article about group work 1 that lists several reasons working in small groups is suitable for students. Group work is good because it is a chance for students to work on a project that is too complex for an individual or allow students to teach each other. One reason I see value in the context of Open Networked Learning course group work is that it generates a broad array of possible alternative points of view.

Group work within a course is one thing, but networked collaborative learning is another. Students are ready to collaborate as long as they get their credits. Credits are the reward many students are often after in a university setting. Becoming and remaining a part of a learning network is something else because one is genuinely interested in a topic.

An international university can be a collaborative learning network. Zhao and Kuh 2 argue that interaction between students from different cultural backgrounds can encourage them to think differently. The diversity of a learning environment or a network promotes critical thinking and contextual learning. Here I can add my personal experience of starting my studies in another country (Finland) and suddenly be exposed to students from parts of the world where I never thought I would meet anyone from. Communication with them would quickly disintegrate stereotypes and false assumptions. As a result, I would learn to look at people as individuals, not based on their origins.

Once I graduated, the university would not feel like a collaborative learning network anymore. When I became involved with teaching, it started to feel like a learning network again. I firmly believe that teaching is one of the most effective ways of learning. Since I started teaching, I have appreciated every student as I always learn something new from them.

The Fab Academy 3 is something that I can consider as my personal learning network. I joined Fab Academy after I graduated from Aalto University. It might be because I did not feel like part of a learning network anymore. Being involved in a fab lab at that point did not make me feel like a part of a network. It was a fab lab that did not offer Fab Academy as one of its services.

Fab Academy works because students who graduate become part of the network. There are several levels to that. One can become an instructor on top of being an alumnus. One can build a new fab lab or become a part of an existing one. I decided to become a Fab Academy instructor after I graduated, and it allows me to join the course every year again. Participating in the class as an instructor every year significantly contributes to the depth of knowledge that one can get from a digital fabrication course such as the Fab Academy. It is not just about digital fabrication; it is very much beyond just that.

The guide on How to Build Collaborative Teams produced during my group’s group work during the topic three weeks can be a good resource for me to design and manage group work that happens during the Fab Academy. Some of the weeks have a group work component, such as the Machine Building and Mechanical Design weeks. Students have to work in groups and ideate, plan and construct a working numerically controlled machine. Some students who took the course this year complained about a group participant not being active enough. Next year I would like to try some of the guidelines for engagement discussed by Barkley and Major in their Student Engagement Techniques 4 handbook.

It can be that establishing a good balance between structure (clarity of task) and learner autonomy (flexibility of task) proposed by Brindley, Blaschke, and Walti 5 could improve the quality of group collaboration along with other proposed instructional strategies. Based on their findings, instructional strategies are more likely to improve the quality than grading.

I started writing this reflective blog post to respond to the proposed topic: Your own Personal Learning Networks – how have they developed and how one could take them further. I managed to describe my personal experience of being involved in learning networks. First, entering a study program in an international university and after becoming a part of a global digital fabrication course. Now both are blended. The Fab Academy network extends the Aalto University learning network and vice versa.

How to take these networks further? Opening up more possibilities to do something in the network is the key. You have the opportunity to join in and have an update on the latest developments. Being in touch with new people joining in and spotting the moments when something new appears on the table are core benefits apart from deepening your understanding of topics discussed in the network.

I am still not entirely sure what exactly motivated me to become a Fab Academy instructor and continue to participate in the learning network. It is probably a possibility to study all the topics in-depth in an iterative fashion. I must admit that I feel somehow similar to the Open Networked Learning course – I would love to stay a part of the network to gain a deeper insight into the topics discussed. It is just a matter of how much extra time I have to join another network actively.


  1. “Group Work.” (accessed Dec. 18, 2021). ↩︎

  2. C.-M. Zhao and G. D. Kuh, “Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement,” Res. High. Educ., vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 115–138, Mar. 2004, doi: 10.1023/ ↩︎

  3. N. Gershenfeld, “Fab Academy,” Fab Academy. (accessed Dec. 20, 2020). ↩︎

  4. E. F. Barkley and C. H. Major, Student engagement techniques: a handbook for college faculty, Second edition. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2020. ↩︎

  5. J. Brindley, L. M. Blaschke, and C. Walti, “Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment,” Int. Rev. Res. Open Distrib. Learn., vol. 10, no. 3, Jun. 2009, doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.675. ↩︎



Hi, my name is Krisjanis Rijnieks, I come from Riga, Latvia and am currently a part of Aalto Fablab, Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. I made this blog to document my participation in the Open Networked Learning (ONL) course.

I am interested in ONL because I am teaching another globally distributed course known as the Fab Academy. In ONL I expect to find new methods that I could use in my future practice.