Friday, June 20, 2008

Social Learning and Technology

This week I have been reading an article by John Seely Brown from 1999 in which he discusses his idea of "learning ecologies". (Read the article here: Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age.) Learning ecologies are defined by him as "an open, complex, adaptive system comprising elements that are dynamic and independent" (Growing Up Digital 2002).

In reading this somwhat old paper, I have been struck by ideas he presents that relate closely to several different topics that I have been reading and researching on lately: the systemic or connective ways that education takes place, Web 3.0 and how our uses for information sharing will change in the future, the idea of a short attention span actually being connected with putting together new ideas on-the-fly rather than retaining information being input by others. Here are some quotes from the paper and how I see them as being connected to these ideas:

"Many of us tend to think that kids who are multi-processing can't be concentrating. This may not be true. Notice that the attention span of most top managers range somewhere between 30 seconds to five minutes, which seems to be about the right span for most kids that I know. And then think about the fast context switching that all of us really do but don't want to admit, because most of us seldom spend more than five minutes concentrating on any one topic, at least during the daytime. . . I believe that the real literacy of tomorrow will have more to do with being able to be your own private, personal reference librarian, one that knows how to navigate through the incredible, confusing, complex information spaces and feel comfortable and located in doing that. So navigation will be a new form of literacy if not the main form of literacy for the 21st century."

The idea of navigating through a wide range of information in a comfortable manner seems to have a lot to do with the current talk of Web 3.0 and what it will mean. Current ideas range from a semantic web (one that thinks intuitively and is able to determine the information needed by the user as well as weeding out information that does not apply) to simply a more highly personalized information experience in which the user determines not only the sources and topics, but also the technology used to access the information (not just computers anymore, but also other mobile devices, 3-D worlds, etc.). To read a fairly recent update on the idea of Web 3.0, see this article: 2008-2009 Web Trends - Web 3.0.

"Bricolage, a concept originally studied by Levi Strauss many years ago, relates to the concrete. It has to do with the ability to find something—an object, tool, piece of code, document—and to use it in a new way and in a new context."

Merriam-Webster defines "bricolage" as "construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand". This concept is very close to what I have been doing while reading this article - finding new ideas within a text I'm reading, but combining them with other ideas that have been in my head over the course of the week. In addition, I think that bricolage relates to the short attention span we have discussed. Many times I find myself distracted during reading or listening because I have come upon a new connection to other knowledge and ideas - for me it's a kind of connecting and creating on-the-fly.

"The catch, however, is that if you are going to become a successful bricoleur of the 21st century, a bricoleur of the virtual rather than of the physical, than as you borrow things you have to be able to decide whether or not to believe or trust those things."

Here again we have the utilization of something on-the-fly, this time of information literacy techniques. However, in addition to the traditional information literacy techniques we have been discussing and teaching for a few years now, we have an additional way of judging and assessing information and tools, which is addressed in the next quote.

"But how do we make judgments? Do you do that socially in terms of recommendations of others you might trust? Do you do that cognitively based on rational argumentation? Do you do it based on the inherent warrants of the institution that might have sponsored it? What's the mixture of ways and warrants that you end up using to decide and act? . . . More generally, today's kids tend to get on the Web and link, lurk and watch how other people are doing things and then try something themselves . . . Learning becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration. As such, the Web becomes not only an informational and social resource but it could also become a learning medium where understandings are socially constructed and shared."

This is a new way of assessing information and tools that has emerged within the online climate of discussion and connection. Just over the past couple years I have seen several articles addressing those students that lurk rather than participate, so we have actually seen this in action. It appears to me that this is a demonstration of the value of connectivism in today's society for aiding in judgement based upon purpose and real-life usage. However, those seeking outside input feel more free to do this on their own agenda and to make connections only with those individuals or information sources that they deem to be relevant to their search. And, then interact with these resources only to the extent that they feel they need additional input. With younger learners we often see this last aspect as a shortfall for them - they often don't know what they need to know, so they fall short of acquiring needed information. However, with older, or more experienced learners, this may not be the case.

" . . . whenever a tech rep gets stuck he calls in another tech rep and then, standing around the problematic machine, they start to weave a story, a story that starts to explain some of the particular symptoms of the machine. And then some fragment of the initial story reminds them of something else which suggests a few more measurements to make which in turn produces some more data that reminds them of another fragment of a story, and so on. Troubleshooting for these guys is really just weaving together a narrative, a narrative that eventually explains all the symptoms and test data of this machine. And when they have made sense of all the data, the narrative is finished and the machine is diagnosed."

Storytelling as a method for teaching has gained quite a bit of academic influence over the past couple years. This relation of how one group of tech service personnel solve problems shows the utilization of traditional anthropological methods in relation to technology - the same thing we've been doing for thousands of years to problem solve - but the important part is that it still involves community input. Sharing of personal experience in relation to a common problem helps to create not only solutions, but to construct additional knowledge that can then be shared and built upon again. This is classic constructivism in action.

So, what do all these ideas mean for the future of online learning? My new ideas from these readings makes me think that our future learning might well be arranged differently, more like George Siemens discusses in his Learning Development Cycle. Learning objectives will be more loosely defined in order to allow learners to work in areas of specific interest, or where their knowledge falls short of the expected outcomes. Learning assets of various design will be offered for users to pick and choose the ones that best fit their individual needs. And, sharing of ideas and knowledge will become more of a focal point of the educational experience, rather than lectures and expert knowledge input. Lastly, learning spaces will be adaptive to different user needs, whether it be simply an individual pursuit of lifelong education, or a requirement for a career choice, the same learning space will be able to accommodate users with a variety of different needs and goals. For an idea of how this kind of learning space might look, check out the upcoming Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Online Course.

1 comment:

  1. Heidi Ashbaugh? This is Seth Wallace. Remember me? I worked with you at the deplorable Denton Hasting's store. I went to the horseraces with you and Jason in Grand Prarie years ago. We also once visited a renaissance fair together.
    I hope this IS you. I saw you and Jason last night at the Tom Waits show in Dallas but was unable to get your attention as we were being herded through the entrance there at the Palladium. I looked for you guys before the show and afterward but could not find you.
    If you are this Heidi Ashbaugh I would love it if you guys could get in touch with me. I'm still in Austin, living with my girlfriend Ann, I believe you guys met her at that Queens of the Stone Age show in Ft. Worth three or four years back. The last time I saw you guys.
    My email address is "" I would love to get in touch with you and Jason. I get back to Denton now and again to visit my mother and have often thought about you two while visiting but don't have your telephone numbers. I hope you are both well and apologize since this post is not in keeping with the subject matter of your blog. Hope to hear from you Heidi. Give Jason my best. Would love to hang out with you guys again.
    Seth M. Wallace