Monday, July 14, 2008

Phoning it in

In response to some of the contributions to this month's Big Question (Lead the Charge?) on the Learning Circuits blog, I don't see this as a question of technology itself or even technology literacy. It's more a question of cultural shift.

When, more than a century ago, there were only a few telephones around, most people wondered how those damn things worked and some even wondered out loud whether they could serve any useful purpose. When I settled in France straight out of university in the 70s, telephones were few and far between. My wife had never had a telephone in her home! While she had no problem with the technology itself - thanks to pay phones! - she and her circle of friends definitely didn't have a telephone culture (in contrast to my own, acquired instinctively throughout my childhood in California). On the other hand, as soon as France modernized (very quickly), the whole population adopted a strong telephone culture. Nobody analyzed; nobody "organized" the cultural shift; nobody pro-actively developed telephone literacy. It just happened, though it took a few years. (I did, however, a decade later, work on an interactive video training program called “Make the Telephone Work for You” in the UK and “Le Téléphone à Votre Service” in France, which focused on telephone etiquette with clients).

Does the example of the telephone sound trivial? Perhaps it does to baby boomer nerds who have invested so heavily in building their own cutting-edge knowledge of all things digital that they are unwilling to admit that those who don't spend their days and nights meditating technological innovation are condemned to living in analogue un-networked hell. For them (i.e. us, or at least some of us), yes, it's complex, otherwise it wouldn't be worthwhile. But as Professor Mitra's "hole in the wall" experiments have shown, you don't need to be initiated into an exclusive club to use it... and to use it creatively and collaboratively!

The social Web has started off in a predictable way within the consumer society, with an emphasis on narcissism and self-indulgence. This puts it clearly at odds with corporate culture. That could be considered a more serious problem than complexity. But that reminds me of the work I did in the 80s when I was saddled with the task of trying to kickstart a PC culture in companies. My analysis of the Mac-MS-DOS war, ultimately won by Microsoft, was that enterprises chose IBM/Dos over Mac because it was LESS attractive than the Mac. You weren't likely to have fun with it, so it was less of a threat to the command and control culture of the corporate world. Senior management and IT departments were worried sick about the dispersal of authority that might occur if everyone was managing their own data and free to use such flexible tools. So what happened? Two things:
  1. Client-server applications took over, creating a whole new culture for almost the entire workforce, a culture which is with us to this day.
  2. Dos was replaced by Windows and PCs evolved, culturally speaking, into carbon copies of the Mac, with more and more multimedia frills (for a while Apple was even left behind as the much more democratic Windows concept produced more significant innovation).
Then of course came the Web, peer-to-peer technology and an emerging netcentric culture with the Web 2.0. The model hasn't changed yet, and there are numerous concerns and worries on the part of those who feel their authority may be threatened, but there's little doubt that it will happen. Pushing it through official channels may be the worst thing to do, because it will provoke resistance. I would put my effort into making it work from the bottom up and demonstrate how it can achieve other things than self-promotion.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The definition of informal learning

My friend and colleague, Jay Cross, on his Learning Blog has challenged the community with the question “what is informal learning?". Here's my definition in a nutshell:

Informal learning is perception mediated by social interaction and converting into behavior, which in turn converts back into perception.

How do children learn their language? Answer: by actively constructing it informally. Second anwser: by staying free of any formal learning until the age of 5 or 6! A child's language learning goes through stages but the process is cyclical. It always involves:

1. listening and discriminating those elements (sounds, phrases, sentences) that appear to be meaningful, whose meaning is indicated by both emotion (affect) and action (association producing both causal and descriptive links between things, events and language),

2. participating in language production experimentally (speaking) before mastering the rules, starting with repeated syllables and growing incrementally as proprioceptivity develops,

3. Interacting in varied situations of real and simulated need (play), judging the value of the reactions provoked and adapting.

How the brain builds language competency (sentence forming capacity) only God and Noam Chomsky can tell us. But the easily observable fact is that the only way it can be achieved is informally. When children get to the phase of formal language learning (i.e. school, with a little bit of useless parental coaching before that: e.g. “not 'he goed' but 'he went'), it is style that is taught formally, not language. Why the educational systems of the world fail to recognize this is beyond me, although I can think of some good political motives for perpetuating this error. All of which may explain why it's so hard to learn style and so few achieve success with style. There are too many people teaching it and not enough learning it. This is also why no amount of formal teaching can result in the learning of a foreign language. At best teaching provides a map that gives enough spatial orientation for the learner to begin interacting with a real environment in a state of minimized confusion. And spending too much time on the map before confronting the real informally will distort perception of the real. But how many teachers think of their work as first of all provoking the growth of spatial orientation?

Informal learning can be thought of as the kind of mental map making we all end up doing on our own in any area where we feel minimally competent. Our map evolves significantly as we continue to explore our world and refine our skills through our interactions with people and things (think of Columbus's mental picture of the globe over the span of his four voyages). If we lack confidence in our own map and cling to the belief that the official map (e.g. curriculum) proposed in formal learning is the only valid thing, we end up learning... nothing! And although it's a notorious myth that Europeans believed the world was flat before Columbus proved otherwise – a falsehood that I was taught formally at school! - the formal learning of the time taught that there was nothing but a vast ocean between the west of Europe and the east of Asia. Thanks to Columbus's experience and evolving mental map we now know otherwise.

Franz Ackerman, Mental Map: Evasion V