Real Social Learning or "I promise, I'm not a modernist, really"

Most nights for the past few weeks I’ve been working away from my home office in a local coffee shop with free wifi. Partly I find it easier to work on ‘after-hours’ projects out of the house, away from the family, but in truth part of the reason I like working here is that it is full of students. Unlike people located directly on a campus, I don’t see students everyday, so it still gives me a buzz, especially because I am seeing them where and when they are learning. Everywhere I look there are groups of 2, 3 and 4 students with textbooks and laptops open, working, talking, studying, together.

It brings back really good memories too; I was the type of learner who liked to talk (no kidding!) and I was fortunate to fall in with a gang of 5 or 6 others in first year (at the time we were ‘The Smokers’) who met every Sunday afternoon to go over our philosophy work. What some might have taken for arguing (and sure, there was some of that) was really peer teaching, and as I sit here in the café and look around, I see it everywhere.

I got a double dose of this recently down in Logan. I guess working in your basement really makes you notice and appreciate it. I feel really lucky to have a large and supportive online network of friends and colleagues who I interact with regularly on a daily basis. There’s very little I don’t feel I can share anymore (just ask them, they’ll tell you – king of ‘Too Much Information’ ;-) and we learn together everyday.

Yet over the space of 4 or 5 conversations in Logan, especially in two where I talked with Justin and Joel from the COSL team, my thinking and learning on a huge spectrum of issues expanded more than it had in a year of banging my head against the keyboard in my basement. While I was jamming with them (because that’s how I think of it, improvisation, the only music I know how to play) it felt like three or four foundational chunks just fell into place, thunk, so that what had previously been something I’d heard and processed at one level, became deep understanding, knowledge, internalized so that it is now part of my rapid decision making structure. I’m sure you know the feeling too. If only the other 3 had known had far gone I was by the end of the trip, they would never have let me drive the mini-van back to Salt Lake City!

The experience hardly seems noteworthy these days; you can’t swing a cat online without hitting someone stressing the ‘social’ nature of learning, how it’s conversational. But as someone who actually does most of his learning and interaction online, the gap between the dynamism of the peer learning and conceptual jamming I’m talking about and the kinds of interactions we mostly see online still seem huge. Maybe this is the way it will always be. Maybe this is the way it should be. But I kind of doubt it. I talked with Alan on Skype today for about 45 minutes; that was productive and creative, but still, it paled compared to the times we’ve been together and let the ideas flow.

This isn’t meant as a lament so much as a clarion call and pointing to opportunity (and also just a warm up exercise for the 1000 words I need to crank out tonight ;-) And also I guess, as a small bit of resistance to what sometimes feel like people trying to make the current paucity of conversational interaction into an asset of online communications. I’m not arguing that it has to be the same, and indeed the different forms of communication and interaction we’re inventing and discovering online throw uncritical notions of ‘real life’ presence and identity into doubt in productive ways. But it still feels like we’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the learning that 4 people “in flow” around the table can achieve. Oy vey, who knew I was such a modernist?! – SWL

10 thoughts on “Real Social Learning or "I promise, I'm not a modernist, really"

  1. Stephen Downes

    Yeah, this is what happens to me at conferences. I work alone in an office, no student, no coffee shop. Talk about your industrial research.

    I’m not social, so it’s hard for me. And it is with no small amount of irony that I realize that the biggest piece that fell into place for me – the whole ‘groups’ vs ‘networks’ thing – fell into place during one of the crappiest days.

    A long bus trip by myself and a new city helped me see it in a different perspective. But still.

    There’s totally a lesson there, but I’m not going to find it today…

  2. Chris Lott

    In one of the few glimmers of technological optimism you will hear from me, I suspect this can only get better. I mean, we have refined our abilities and methods of interacting in person for thousands and thousands of *years* while we’ve been riding the Clue Train for what– a decade? I have no idea what the outcome will eventually be or what will end up being “Best” but I suspect we will all be winners. But it won’t happen unless we are all doing it.

    I guess we can’ be on the happy edge of every tech curve at once. So we get cool mp3 players, twinkies, television and PCs that fit in our carry-ons but stilted conversations and only the most minimal movement toward achieving any kind of real tech mediated presence…

  3. Scott

    Stephen, part of the lesson for me is that, whether we are talking about groups versus networks or whether we are talking about cognitive ‘jamming’ versus solitary contemplation versus new forms of network-based interaction, it’s not an either/or proposition but a both/and. This is probably obvious (another honorary title I hold, “Captain Obvious”) but what realizing that is helping me to do is make more appropriate suggestions. That was something hammered home to me at OpenEd as well; there are times when the new, network-based forms of connection *aren’t* the most appropriate solutions given the specific context of the problem. Cheers, Scott

  4. Scott

    You are absolutely right, Chris, and good to be reminded. Ironic in that I tend to end up being the one often urging some patience and perspective of my more revolutionary brethren (you know who you are!)

  5. Lanny Arvan

    Scott –

    I believe there is a substantial amount of research to show this is the real benefit from college, why the residential experience is so important, and why the quality of faculty may matter less than the quality of the other students. I’d be curious to learn whether you think most of these conversations are coming out of some course obligation or if they are happening entirely outside of courses.

    Also, wearing my social science hat, I’d make the point that sitting in the coffee shop you are observing those conversations that do happen and not seeing at all those conversations that can’t happen because folks schedules don’t overlap enough (unless there are a lot of students sitting alone doing IM, but at least here those students seem to get their drink to go).

  6. Stephen Downes

    > it’s not an either/or proposition but a both/and.

    People say that, but it doesn’t mean a lot. because when it’s a both/and as in A and B, the question becomes, ‘when A?’ and ‘when B’?

    For groups and networks, for example, I have argued that group affiliation is emotive, while network affiliation is intellectual. Both are vague terms that I have an obligation to define, but I can set that aside for the nonce.

    So, pick a situation: talking philosophy around the table, for example. Your buddy, P, makes a statement. Do you (a) defend it, because you have an emotional affiliation with a (ie., you belong to the same group, are the same nationality, etc).

    Or do you fee free to oppose it, on intellectual grounds? Given such a situation of conflict (which very frequently happens) which prevails, group or network?

    Note that we’re back to the original question. Which is why I say that the original statement doesn’t mean a lot.

  7. Scott

    Lanny, in the particular scene I was describing, the vast amount of the conversations were around formal course work (but not *obligated* as part of the course, as in “ye shall study together or work in groups.”) Just students getting together to study (and sometimes just enjoying each others company while studying, but that seems valid, and even pertinent, too!)

    And your second point is absolutely right; I was not meaning to imply that the affordances of asynchronicity that the network provides aren’t important nor that face to face conversation is the only way to learn. Only that sitting there I was again struck by the richness of that experience that it feels we are largely not touching in many of our current efforts.

  8. Scott

    > question becomes, ‘when A?’ and ‘when B’

    That’s exactly right. Which is why I was talking about it helping me making ‘appropriate’ choices, ones based on the context. And. I’d offer, in the situation you describe, not one or the other but both – I alienated a huge number of folks in my life before I realized that not everyone had or enjoyed ‘intellectual’ arguments, which isn’t to say that I don’t still have them but I regularly balance it in any situation with the emotional impact what I am saying is having (and how important it is in the end to say it, a lot of times realizing “not at all.”)

    Wish you’d come to the Northern Voice next year, this is the kind of thing best talked about over a beer ;-)

  9. Lanny Arvan

    Scott – thanks for the quick response. I know this is an unfair question to ask you, but I think we all want to know what type of in-class teaching best promotes those out of class conversations and whether what you are observing at the coffee place happens because of the instructional design or if instead it is largely independent of the instructional design.

    In any event, I think we should champion face to face even as we promote online. It is much harder to build a bond of trust purely online, at least that’s my experience. But this particular thread, as example, has some interest to it and it couldn’t happen any other way.

    Time to switch gears and watch some baseball.


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