So-Called Social Learning Platforms

Truly the phrase "social learning" is a bit like the phrase "wet water." I personally don't recall attending school alone. Yes, we did homework alone. Anything else was called "cheating"; nowadays it's called "collaboration."

But most of the time I was in school, I was in groups. We attended lectures as a group. We had discussions as a group. We had partners in labs. We did projects in groups.

This was not because we were lemmings. You watched fellow students make mistakes you would not, and you felt better that you were a bit ahead of the game. And you watched fellow students make mistakes you would have made--and you quaked a bit inside that you were Not Getting It.

Yes, people learn in part from watching. Learning is social. Some reading and drills can be done alone: go to a library, and you'll see students doing this. But much learning is social. So much learning is social that there's little point in calling some learning "social"--as if to imply there's some "non-social" learning. (At the exact historical moment when some people are obsessed with the brain and its role in learning, others are insisting on networks rather than brains.)

But the phrase "social learning" is not going away. And it underlines something important and connects with major trends, so we need to make our peace.

Almost every web site now needs a social dimension. This means: I don't just listen to music or buy things; I rate songs and artists, share my ratings, view my friends' ratings, meet new friends through their ratings and reviews. And the same goes for buying things. I can announce to my social networks what I just bought--or hide the fact, and of course getting the sharing/privacy part wrong is the big pitfall.

On the one hand, all this truly makes one long for the days when listening to music or reading a magazine was a blessedly solitary affair. You listened to music alone because it would be rude to listen to music while with others. (Ahem.) You complained about your new toaster to the air, your wife or anyone within earshot at work.

Now online social learning platforms are beginning to bubble up. Most 'social learning platforms' get it wrong. Giving people a wiki no more makes social learning happen than giving pens makes people writers, giving them whisks makes them cooks, or giving them bongo's makes them musicians.

But social learning happens. It is real. People learn by watching others. People learn by hearing stories of others' learning experiences. People learn by formulating and sharing their own stories. That's three ways learning can be "social" in a non-trivial sense.

But what does a social learning platform look like?

We've all been in one: it's called a classroom. Or if you've been to a line dancing group, you did some social learning. You watched others, tried it yourself, got feedback, gave pointers where you could.

Try joining a writer's group, and you'll see how it works. Nothing magical happens there--except learning. People share their work. You see others practicing their craft. Writers get feedback and give feedback. And you learn from all these: what other writers do well and poorly, what other writers believe is good feedback, what you experience as good feedback. That's the heart of the matter. It works.

Emerging social learning platforms we're seeing now are a bust for three reasons: tasks, criteria, curriculum. There's no learning without tasks. If you can't perform a task at the end of the learning process, a task you couldn't do before or couldn't do as well, there's no demonstrable learning.

You can go to a writer's group forever and learn to make some very clever comments. But until you pick up the pen and try to write a sentence, no one can say whether or not you can write. (Another remarkable thing about writer's groups: often pretty much everyone agrees 'this is good,' even when their own style or goals are different.)

So a meaningful curriculum is a series of tasks with criteria. Barring this, no social learning platform can really do anything meaningful. They're all just a blackboard and some chalk--and no one ever called a blackboard and chalk "a social learning platform."

Admittedly, this is where our K-12's are having problems. A pencil-and-paper test with multiple choice questions has become the only benchmark for demonstrating learning. Basically, when someone comes up with better, more nuanced tasks, tasks that are interesting, involving and even social, tasks that both help make learning happen and demonstrate it, and when there is a back end to track task performance, the pencil-and-paper tests that educators hate so much--partly for the right reasons--will be history.

As to what such a curriculum or software would be like, that will have to wait for another blog post.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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