Thursday, January 31, 2008

Technology Enhanced Social Learning and post-industrial knowledge development (Part 1)

The industrial model of learning was based on the notion of competitive individual achievement. It implicitly and often explicitly encouraged the hoarding of knowledge, a certain form of passivity (or refusal of interaction) and a suspicion of colleagues and fellow practitioners who may be seen as potential rivals. On the positive side it also encouraged the ambition of leadership, but the practical problems associated with leading a group of individuals tend to diminish the effect of leadership, which is always easier to develop within collaborative teams. If I had the time, I would explore how the ideological individualism of the industrial age – in which individuals existed as resources to be allocated to profitable ventures (this capitalist logic is still the driver of an economy that is now global) – tends to create leaders whose most valuable skills are manipulation and various forms of collective brainwashing (the “science” of Public Relations). The twentieth century provided some stunning examples of masters of manipulation and the new century seems to have numerous examples of “leaders” ready to perpetuate the tradition, though there are a number of reasons for thinking that some kind of change is in the offing. One of the reasons for hope is that there are signs of a significant shift in the way culture (i.e. people’s behaviour) interacts with the economy.

Although the terms have been bandied about for some time, we have only recently entered a phase of transition from the industrial to the post-industrial age in learning, which will be characterized less by the instilling pre-defined authoritative knowledge than by managing the evolution of the capacity of performance in real contexts of production and social relationships. More than the mere transfer of knowledge, it involves the dynamic creation and restructuring of the myriad of things we know (more than what we traditionally think of as “knowledge”) accompanied by the generation of skills rooted in a rapidly changing context of performance. Although many experts and the media have focused on the extraordinary impact of information technology, which increases our ability to store and retrieve knowledge, the technology that has had the most radical impact on learning and indeed productive behaviour of all types is communication technology, both synchronous and asynchronous. It can of course be directly linked to knowledge creation and retrieval.

Recognizing the true source of knowledge development

The basic reality of human societies is that people learn from each other as complex social beings; not as repositories of bodies of knowledge, but rather as practitioners of professional and social skills that mobilise in non-linear fashion a wide range of forms of knowledge: gesture, attitude, perception, the ability to localize information, complex mental networks of association, visual, acoustic and kinaesthetic memory, etc. The post-industrial age has opened the channels of communication that until very recently were clogged by penury, handicapped by time delays and inhibited by unit costs that no longer exist. Bandwidth has ceased to be a problem; both spoken and written communication can be instantaneous; and the factor of cost has melted into the constantly diminishing price of access to the technology. This opening of the floodgates of communication is a far more radical change than all the advances in programming and storage, however impressed we may still be by tools such as Google Earth. One of the reasons this change is so radical is that, unlike programming and software manipulation, communication is a natural human skill that can be perfected, certainly, but doesn’t need to be formally acquired.

The transition from an individualistic model of knowledge acquisition to the much richer and more dynamic notion of “learning organizations” that create and transform as well as simply consult knowledge has only just begun. Our contexts of work and habitat, our routines and hierarchies, our behavioural expectations in our interactions with others are still modelled on or heavily influenced by the old paradigms, though the pressure is increasing on a daily basis to move towards something far more fluid. The advent of the Web 2.0, the Social Web, has opened up for the first time the possibility of shifting the model for learning away from the traditional institutional framework and the individualistic paradigm towards a model that embraces collectively constructed and shared knowledge.

Peering into the future

The challenge of the new paradigm is organisational, methodological and to a much lesser extent, technical. Software, networks and media must be conducive to easy appropriation and use, but that is already the trend that will undoubtedly continue as technology providers are obliged to make their products more attractive and usable at an increasingly rapid pace. New research will be concerned with design and production of optimally adapted technical environments, but the most urgent requirement – before optimisation can be achieved – is the social and methodological design that can incite organisations to renovate their practices of knowledge development.

The reality of the Social Web can be summarized by the notion of “gregarious exchange”, what Jay Cross usually refers to as “the art of conversation”. Interestingly, if the initial impulse behind Web 2.0 was typically individualistic consumer-orientated behaviour (expressing personal taste in music and entertainment, as well as “sharing” cultural content, legally or illegally!), the Social Web has already evolved into an informal publishing platform of ideas, opinions and personal cultural production. This means that users are spontaneously adhering to a culture in which an optimal balance between input and output will be progressively defined. For the training world, this is a major step forward in the culture of learning. Output becomes visible for the group to profit from, judge and criticize and (according to the wiki model) to evolve and perfect. Where for at least two centuries teachers and trainers have either struggled to incite the production of output of minimal quality and intended for the eyes of the teacher only, spontaneously formed social groups are producing and learning to refine the quality of their production thanks to what are now self-imposed and group-defined expectations. This constitutes the basis of a revolution in learning methodology whose long-term consequences do not yet seem to have been taken into account by most active decision-makers in the field of education and training.

Observation of current practice on the Social Web shows that while it is usually individuals who act (often driven by the kind of pride and ambition associated with past individualistic educational practices), the key to performance is the creation of groups, usually defined by some common interest or other principle of cultural proximity. At the same time the global nature of Internet based communication has changed the notion of “proximity” to one that it would be more appropriate to define culturally than geographically. The new geographical spread created by an increasingly “virtual” and therefore global environment that redefines cultural relationships is both a major opportunity to develop stronger relationships (commercial, cultural and even political) across borders and a potential source of discomfort if not disarray. A serious effort is required to define and secure the operating principles and social bearings of these newly acquired input/output reflexes.

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