Ravelry: a knitting community as a site of joy and learning

That lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne

The Parliament of Fowls by Geoffrey Chaucer

Evidence that learning starts in the womb is revealed when babies hear lullabies that they will respond to after birth; and learning continues throughout life, as Chaucer says of love. We can all remember from an early age the social nature of learning – learning from family, friends, and subsequently peers from study and work contexts.  This is a community perspective, in contrast with a more typical view of learning as being chiefly the outcome of formal education.

Social Technologies

Social technologies have focused attention on networks and online/virtual communities. Virtual communities can be traced back to 1985 (and probably earlier) when the WELL started as a dial-up bulletin board. Early adopters of virtual community needed dial-up and later Internet access for their largely text-based communication: initially this was available to a minority, even in the global north. Despite this, bulletin boards existed for a broad range of hobbies and interests.

A parallel stream of development in virtual communication was in formal education: bulletin boards, web pages, and then groupware, and virtual learning environments.  Provision of Internet access at universities and colleges meant that students had access in educational institutions before it was commonplace in their homes.  The use of digital technologies in education and learning has moved from being conducted by pioneers and enthusiasts to being standardised as part of institutional administration, such as institutional virtual learning environments, and registration and student records systems. Much research effort (some of it to good effect) has been focused on the use of technology within online/offline classrooms and according to approved curricula.  This is research that tends to focus on what is provided, rather than how and why learners learn.  Even less attention has been paid to ways in which people, who would not identify themselves as students, are learning to do things that interest them with the help of the Internet.

The current context in the global north is of more people, across demographics of age and gender (if not class), having access to the Internet via broadband and mobile services.  Simultaneously, the variety of devices that we use to access the Internet contributes to a broader demographic, more people having access, devices and software becoming easier to use – smartphones, tablets and laptops. The combination of faster Internet access and devices with digital still and video cameras has enabled more people to create and consume multimedia – images, videos, audio and text.  Internet access then becomes less of an end in itself and more of an adjunct to what we do.

Knitting – Interest-driven learning assisted by social media

People of all ages follow their interests via the Internet – learning cartooning, playing games, studying esoteric topics. Of all of these interests, let’s look at a craft that has material, knowledge and social implications – knitting.

moebius strip
Knitted Moebius Strip by Pat Knight CC BY-NC 2.0

 

In an era when the local wool shop is becoming rarer, the Internet offers opportunities for purchasing yarns, needles, and patterns but going beyond that, what do knitters do on the Internet? Like other makers, they enjoy the opportunities to celebrate the products of their creativity: garments, knitted moebius strips, artefacts for the home, and public works of art. Such celebrations are visible on photo sites and knitting blogs, often interlinked so that the blogs can facilitate networking of knitters (via commenting, blogrolls and links within posts).

 

Knitters share ‘how-to’ videos on Youtube and other video-sharing sites.  If we don’t have a grandmother to stand behind us, helping our hands learn a new technique, the next best thing is watching a video, and trying out the stitch at the same time.  Video- and image-sharing sites become knowledge repositories but not solely dedicated to knitting and crochet.

Mason Dixon washcloths
Mason-Dixon Washcloths by Frances Bell CC-by-NCSA

 

Knitters have adopted social media with enthusiasm,and experienced unexpected consequences.  Mason-Dixon Knitting comprises Kay Gardiner who lives in Manhattan and Ann Shayne who lives in Nashville.  They came together via blogging through their shared interest in knitting that has led to a successful book, an iconic dishcloth pattern and a very useful web site.

 

 

 

Saltburnolympics knitting
Knitted canoeist – Saltburn pier by Hove9 CC by 2.0

Knitters have taken their passion to the streets (and piers) by engaging in guerrilla knitting or yarn-bombing to create street art.  This may be for self-expression or just fun, or for a reason : often anonymous and cloaked in mystery. One of my favourites is a celebration of London 2012 Olympics at Saltburn pier. There is no obvious activist reason for creating this pier art but the result was joyous, enjoyed by pier visitors and became a tourist attraction in Saltburn, North Yorkshire. Craftivism ( a mix of craft and activism) is about connecting beyond the individual crafter, and acting for broader issues.

When we unpick these achievements, we see that they go beyond the stereotype of the lone, gifted knitter. Knitters, like others, engage in learning networks and communities.  One of the places that knitters congregate online is at the knitting and crochet community site http://www.ravelry.com .

 

Ravelry is free to members, funded mainly by advertising but also by merchandising, pattern sales, Amazon and other affiliate programs.  Ravelry also engaged in donation drives at an earlier stage of its community development.

saartjeravelryRavelry – individual view by Frances Bell

Ravelry offers interesting affordances for becoming and being a knitter, learning in an active form.  Members can find patterns and yarns with the help of Ravelry, and create projects to record ongoing and completed knitting projects Figure 4.  Ravelry has a highly connected architecture, automatically displaying links to other projects using the same pattern and yarn. This means I can easily click a link to find the pattern, or images from one of the other 13900 projects using that pattern (to give me ideas on other yarns or colourways). Project owners are encouraged to rate patterns and yarns for sharing with other community members; and errors are soon corrected in this open community.  Ravelry is an international community with over four million members, who not only volunteer to translate popular patterns into other languages, but also moderate forums and collate help pages on collaborative wikipages within Ravelry itself. The whole thing runs with only 4 staff, one programmer and three editor/moderator/merchandising staff.

The Ravelry shop showcases Ravelry merchandise such as t-shirts and bags; the Marketplace where members offer supplies and services for knitting and crochet; and a Pattern Store where members sell their patterns.

The strong social element to Ravelry goes beyond member profiles and display spaces. Members can organise into groups to have local meetings, swap yarns, engage in knit-alongs (all making the same item), or associate with a particular shop.  Other groups are organised around a common interest, say in machine knitting or spinning.  Less formal opportunities for conversation are offered by forums, where members can help each other to solve problems or engage in general chat about knitting or crochet.

In our comparison of Etsy.com with Ravelry.com, Gordon Fletcher and I found that Ravelry had strong community aspects and exhibited a permeable boundary compared with Etsy.  Ravelry seems to be a community that is happy to acknowledge activity and objects elsewhere, thus increasing its networking and social potential.

This openness and support for the community member makes it a source of good ideas for those wishing to support other learners in a community setting. Facebook, the very successful social networking site (SNS), would superficially seem to support the social aspects of learning, but a learner wishing to keep track of what they and others have created and learned might become frustrated with the ephemeral nature of sharing there. Ravelry exhibits a strong focus on the learning and doing of knitting, where social interaction becomes the glue that helps this happen.

Designers and implementers of learning environments aiming to promote learning community could learn a lot from studying Ravelry, especially if they are tempted to delegate the social aspects to a self-organised group on a general purpose SNS.

Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit, either. – Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting without tears.

 

Acknowledgement

Many thanks to Suzanne Hardy (Ravelry id: glittrgirl) for improving my interpretation of Ravelry. All errors are mine.

 

This article, written by Frances Bell,  is used under Creative Commons license  BBy-BY-NC-ND  from ISSUE 10 JUNE 2014
Using Social Media in the Social Age of Learning
Guest Editors Chrissi Nerantzi and Sue Beckingham  http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/

Rhizo14 – Cheating and Learning

This is my introductory post for the MOOC Rhizo14.  I have joined because I want to understand more about rhizomatic learning.  I have been quite interested in MOOCs in general (less so in the enormous MOOCs run by high-profile universities and then spun out into commercial services.  What interests me is the comparison between informal learning that can be enabled by the Internet and social media platforms, and more formal forms of association such as MOOCs, forums, online communities, etc. that seem to me to sit between the informal associations that learners make and formal education institutions.

What actually prompted me to join at Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum was the excellent post by Jenny Mackness Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics.  Both Jenny and Chadia (in his excellently titled post I do not agree with Dave Cormier ) question whether cheating is the same as rule-breaking.  I went to Dave’s video and Things to Do via Jenny’s post, and it seemed to me that dear Dave was being a teeny tiny bit provocative by choosing the idea of ‘cheating’ to link to learning.  Cheating is a great concept – definitions can be personal and it definitely evokes strong feelings. So it was really good to kick things off in week 1.  Then I noticed that Dave (in his FB  comments on Jenny’s post) was gently redirecting discussion of the posts back to the source, her post – a practical act that displayed his ethics by modelling a behaviour.

Dave asks of us:

What does it [cheating] say about learning? About power? About how you see teaching?

I suspect that cheating is more about assessment and ‘winning’ than learning.  I noticed that several people have spoken about gaming. Whilst I am sure that playing games can be an important activity in learning, if winning the game became a surrogate for learning I would question the value of the learning.

Power relations in teaching and learning are complex and it’s such an important topic that I hope we will look at power relations and rhizomatic learning.

If I saw teaching as about exercising power by means of assessment, sanctions and qualification I would not have stuck at it for so long.

The second part of the title of this course ‘community is the curriculum’ arouses a lot of curiosity in me.  What sort of community will we become? what will our curriculum be?  That will be practical ethics – what might ‘cheating’ be in our community?  I don’t know but I strongly suspect it won’t be defined by rules.

Poor sad schizostylus

Finally I offer you the poor sad schizostylis that is a rhizome plucked up from South Africa and deposited in the cold wet soil of Cheshire, bravely still showing a flower in deepest darkest January.  I have just discovered that it is only a rhizome by habitat and that others in the species are corms.  What does that have to say to us? that rhizomaticness might depend to some extent on habitat?

Knowledge Transfer: old wine in new bottles or how many contentious statements can I make in one blog post?

Punning wine

Punning Wine By Mike Knell

(includes edited content from a comment I made to Stephen Downes blog post)

I have been watching a ‘debate’ unfold over the weekend with increasing mystification.  I even posted a couple of comments but I didn’t really feel that there was much idea exchange taking place. If you want to check it out, George Siemens has some useful links here .

For me the first old wine in new bottles (itself a fairly stale metaphor but I love the picture)  is the idea of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – I thought that open fora and ‘free’ courses had been around for a  long time for example WebHeads in Action since 1997, open learning environments have been under discussion since mid 1990s at least (though open learning variously defined) e.g. http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~bwilson/wils95 and I am sure (though I can’t find links at present) there have been free courses online (e.g. in HTML) since mid 1990s too.  Don’t get me wrong the recent crop of MOOCs has generated a lot of interest and experimentation but this will be more informed if they acknowledge their heritage.

The second old wine in new bottles is the terminology and paradigm debate.  Quite a lot of the talk was about the meaning of learning, knowledge and even the term ‘knowledge transfer’.  This one really made me smile, as the term ‘Knowledge Transfer’ has a fairly well-defined meaning in UK HE, as it refers to a funded graduate recruitment scheme where businesses, graduates and academic work in partnership to transfer knowledge between them – very contextual and processy, unlike knowledge transfer as item of ‘knowledge’ passing from sender to receiver . The knowledge transfer being discussed this weekend sounded more like ‘transmission mode learning’  about which acres of text have been written, and clearly linked back to earlier work on communication, explained and critiqued rather well here in the transmission mode of communication.

This critique also neatly demonstrates how a model originating from a viewpoint different from one’s own can still be useful (up to a point) in one’s own meaning-making.  I am very interested in how those to whom ‘learning’ means something different can still have a productive and meaningful dialogue. I think participants would have to start by trying to explain what the word means to them and then listen to what others have to say. It would also help participants (especially given the context of openness) to enter the dialogue with the possibility of changing their minds even if only in a small way.  Maybe what is important about theories of learning and knowledge is what they mean to learners and teachers, as we personally theorise the world around us. Since that can often be in a social context we need to get the knack of sharing theories in dialogue. I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to connectivism to help them practice and reflect.  I spent a short time as a Maths teacher in school and saw the twin disadvantages of knowing your times tables without understanding how they were constructed and vice versa, whereas what practice of numeracy requires both that you know your times tables and understand what they mean.  This may be achieved by combining rote learning and discovery learning.

The last point I wanted to make was about the general tetchy tone of some of the contributions (notable exception being @dkernohan 😉 ) Stephen Downes using the term nonsense and David Wiley identifying a comment as the ‘snob’ response. Just what is this ?  are the writers claiming ‘truth’? ownership of ideas or concepts like MOOCs?  This seemed to me to a very ‘masculine’ debate (OK that’s my interpretation) both in terms of style and inclusivity.  I would playfully prescribe that the main contenders in this weekend’s debate assign themselves an OOC on Belenky’s Womens Ways of Knowing, since Belenky’s work challenged and grew out of Perry’s Model of Intellectual Development which emerged from a very restricted sample of white  middleclass male MBA students and was then generalised to others.

So here is my contention:

that if we want to grow and explore concepts like informal learning online, MOOCs and OERs for the benefit of all, we need to involve all – men, women, young, old, from different philosophical and religious perspectives, from countries all over the world, and acknowledge the contributions of earlier scholars.

Now that isn’t going to be easy, inclusivity never is, but I don’t think this recent ‘debate’ has contributed much – however good some of the individual contributions were, the whole left a sour taste, in my mouth at least.