Learning 2.0: Accelerating Learning

Learning 2.0: Accelerating Learning

Taking a conceptual look at the idea of "Social Learning", a string of ideas is apparent. Ease of access to information means that more people are on the network, and that information exists in more locations. This in turn causes more people to access information. At the next level: there is more interaction between people, and also, people and information have begun to interact. This in turn causes people to interact more with each other.

All this points to the concept of acceleration.

Coming to learning in general, and especially learning in organisations: For a few years now, we have been seeing the effects of acceleration. Ignoring the idea of such social learning would be like ignoring what will happen anyway. At the same time, drawing up a concrete plan for propagating highly-structured learning through a network is a difficult task. Let’s review some ideas that make sense of what’s happening, and what can happen, when learning is destructured.


Futurist Ray Kurzweil is often quoted for his ideas about acceleration: the kind of acceleration we’ve been seeing in the information/digital/Internet age. In a 2003 article, Kurzweil quantified it:[1]Because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace.

A second quantification to look at is the “80% informal” figure, which Jay Cross of the Internet Time Group popularised:[2]Research usually finds that around 80% of workplace learning is informal. This is of course an average … The studies that came up with the 80% were conducted before we had social networks or Google or YouTube or Facebook or ubiquitous email or blogs or smart phones. What proportion would you think Informal Learning accounts for in today’s connected world? These two figures have much background in common. They both represent real-world experience; they are both commonsensical; and they are not usually thought of in numerical terms. Factual in a sense, but also speculative, these two numbers give us a problem to solve, and new answers to look at. As a problem, exponential growth means that things are moving too fast, and knowledge/information (including the matter of formal training) gets outdated too soon. As an answer, exponential growth implies that nothing—including employees and learning—should be kept static. This goes well with the fact that people are now more open to unstructured learning.Let’s now briefly list some of the “informal” or unstructured learning tools that are becoming common.

The Tools

With smart phones, content can be “pushed” to learners, which means they don’t need to request it at periodic intervals, or they can “pull” it when they need it. These devices enable mobile learning.Social networking sites are good examples of the transformation of the web from a medium of “transmission followed by consumption” to a medium where content is produced, shared, processed, and re-transmitted.Social software supports communication, interaction and collaboration on the web. Examples are blogging tools and social bookmarking tools.Wikis allow anyone in a group to edit web pages without formal credentials. People can contribute and/or access knowledge as and when they want to, and one person’s knowledge is immediately available to everyone else.

The words “unstructured” and “informal” describe the nature these tools; on the other hand, what is their utility?

Smart phones allow ubiquity, that is, they make it possible for two-way learning to be independent of time and place. Social networking tools—in particular, popular sites like Facebook—can be powerful in a learning context because people enjoy using them; in a poetic sense, they mix business and pleasure. Much of the allure of blogging is that they make it easy to publish ideas while encouraging feedback; the same goes for wikis (with Information in place of Ideas).Among other unstructured learning tools, too, we see a similar utility. The common threads are collaboration, feedback, and the fact that they are not limited to a time or a place.

Information Flow in Learning

The benefits of structured learning are well-known, and the worldwide success of structured learning paradigms is testimony to those benefits, which we can quickly list. In a “typical” structured learning course, the learner is well-defined, and so are the learning objectives. In that regard, the outcome of the programme is predictable. Equally important is the fact that the learning material can be repackaged and repurposed as needed with a change in learners and with a change in time. The more modern e-learning platforms are equipped with a variety of tools, including those geared towards productivity and those that encourage student involvement. The platforms are extensible, and they can be integrated with specified database systems.

We cannot quickly list the complaints about such systems or courses; different people state them differently. They have some areas of intersection, and also areas of divergence. Looking for a common complaint: “The structurally rigid CMS container across the curriculum creates an ‘accidental pedagogy’ comprised of predefined content units, consistency of instruction, and an imposed organisation on previously independent pedagogical choices.”[3]

In simple words: Often, the teacher does not reach the student; what reaches the student is the course structure.

This being an inherent problem cannot be addressed within the framework of the course. Looking to address it outside the framework of the course would mean that the direct teacher-to-learner relationship must be discarded. When we accept that idea, we are led to Informal Learning.

Along this train of thought, we see that informal learning complements structured learning. That is, informal learning methods can supply what formal programmes cannot.Of the methods we’ve mentioned, let’s look at one example: learning through social networks, with an emphasis on how the teacher-student relationship becomes fluid—and what that can achieve.

The Utility of Social Networking: In Theory

Let’s look at the features of the best-known and most widely-used electronic social network as of 2010, Facebook. The current Wikipedia article called “Facebook features”[4] lists the following, apart from those that are frivolous by design:

  • Groups are a way of enabling a number of people to come together online to share information and discuss specific subjects.
  • Individuals or companies can create Like Pages which allows users to “like” (that is, to approve of) the individual, product, service, or concept.
  • News Feed highlights information that includes profile changes, upcoming events, and birthdays, among other updates.
  • New notifications (keep) the user up to speed with events as they are occurring.
  • Facebook events are a way for members to let friends know about upcoming events in their community and to organize social gatherings.
  • Questions is an application where users submit questions for their friends to answer.

From that list, we can see how such a network might be used in learning. Since people can form groups of interest, collaboration is facilitated, and “teachers” and “learners” have the opportunity to select each other. Within groups and also across groups, individuals can point attention to topics of interest. This implies that interest in a topic—and in those that arise from one topic—becomes self-sustaining.

In such a network, every individual can be kept informed about every other. That is, individuals will, if they choose to, always be current about the activity, interests, and availability about others. This aspect is particularly useful in the context of learning: it does away with the idea of fixed time.

Learning can also be explicit (as in the Questions application), where one individual asks a question and multiple individuals answer the question.In sum, such a network has all the desirables mentioned earlier, those that are difficult in some structured learning environments and impossible in others: collaboration, feedback, and the fact that learning is not limited to a time or a place. No individual is explicitly a teacher, and no individual is explicitly a learner, but the system provides for implicit choice, by individuals, of teachers and/or learners.

The Utility of Social Networking: In Practice

Can a Facebook-like application really have practical value in learning? In academic circles, this has been attempted more than once. A good example is described in Merging Social Networking Environments and Formal Learning (King et al, 2005)[5], a redesign of a team development course to make the course more relevant. This was attempted by the use of technology to facilitate social networking. In fact, the theoretical model here looked at the trend of using “social” tools like Facebook and Second Life.

Let’s look at how this project illustrates the learning aspects of collaboration and feedback.

In its original form, the team development course allowed students to participate in teams and develop collaboration skills in an interprofessional setting. Students learnt about areas different from their own, implying teamwork.

An application called the Interprofessional Desktop (IPD)—roughly, an add-on that provided the “social” functionality—was developed to allow social interaction. The common element between the IPD and an application like Facebook is the concept of “community of practice.” The authors describe this as a group of people who share an interest in a specific domain and then engage in collective learning that creates a bond among them.

The Internet these days is used more for communication and sharing than for static information, so the idea of social networks seems a valid means of creating “communities of practice.”

One of the authors’ conclusions was that, in a structured social networking environment, students are encouraged to “join learning communities quickly and access course materials.”The other important conclusion was that the Interprofessional Desktop was not used to the best advantage. Reasons for the IPD not being “good enough” included:

  • The students selected their areas of interest by themselves, which is not the case in online environments like Facebook.
  • The facilitators were not very fluent with the IPD, and students did not find the interface easy to use.

Future plans—possibly in the next iteration of this project—indicate that the IPD will be made easier, and/or people will be taught better how to use it.

“Socialising” It

The study by King et al highlights the feasibility of “socialising” an application—that is, changing the learning environment such that allows social interaction. This implies feedback and collaboration. It also stresses the fact that, in an “informal” learning system, the user interface is critically important, in all its aspects—convenience, ease of use, and more.

Perhaps a system doesn’t feel informal when it needs to be learnt?

Without looking at the Why, we can guess that the informal feel is part of the allure of informal learning. Graham Attwell[6][7], of a Welsh learning research organisation, points out that collaboration and interaction in learning are more about what people are using than about the technology used. There might be easy steps to move towards the “socialising” of learning. As a knowledge manager or training manager, you know that social (and informal) learning might have potential. What can you do to find out?Encourage it. Educational institutions have very different, sometimes deeply negative, reactions to networking tools.[6] With the foresight that interaction is headed in this direction, try to use what exists—the motivation to be social.Look at the people, not the plan. What (virtual) social structure suits your team best?Focus on building the community. The simplest of methods—company wikis, for example, which start off as a blank page—have the power to make people join in and share what they know.Keep it simple. The principle is universal, and here it tells us not to make the technology a goal in itself. The inherent power of a community is that it can be self-sustaining under the right conditions.

References/Further Reading

  1. Kurzweil, R; Meyer, C. 2003. Understanding the Accelerating Rate of Change. Retrieved 10 July 2010 from http://www.kurzweilai.net/understanding-the-accelerating-rate-of-change
  2. Cross, J. 2010. 80+%. Retrieved 10 June 2010 from www.internettime.com/2010/06/80+/
  3. McGee P et al. 2005. Course management systems for learning: beyond accidental pedagogy. Pub. Information Science Publishing. ISBN 1591405122.
  4. Wikimedia Foundation. 2010. Facebook features. Retrieved 10 July 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook_features
  5. King S et al. 2009. Merging Social Networking Environments and Formal Learning Environments to Support and Facilitate Interprofessional Instruction. Retrieved 10 July 2010 from www.med-ed-online.org
  6. Attwell G et al. 2003. E-Learning in Europe: Results and Recommendations. Thematic Monitoring under the Leonardo Da Vinci-Programme. Pub. Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung.
  7. Attwell, G. 2010. Graham Attwell :: Blog. Retrieved 10 July 2010 from http://eduspaces.net/gattwell/weblog

What do you think about social learning as an idea? As a real-world method? Have you used a networking app in learning? DO comment below, or mail the author at conntect@focalworks.in.