Social learning: the freedom to act and cooperate with others

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy – Article #7 of The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999.

The Net, especially working and learning in networks, subverts many of the hierarchies we have developed over hundreds of years. Formal education is one example, as shown in this excellent article by Cathy Davidson:

Grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence. If we crowdsource grading, we are suggesting that young people without credentials are fit to judge quality and value. Welcome to the Internet, where everyone’s a critic and anyone can express a view about the new iPhone, restaurant, or quarterback. That democratizing of who can pass judgment is digital thinking. As I found out, it is quite unsettling to people stuck in top-down models of formal education and authority.

Thanks to Johnnie Moore for pointing out this article, but then that’s how much of my learning happens today. It’s social and comes via my online networks, in this case, Twitter.

Five years ago I wrote that a shift of focus (and development effort) away from the management aspects of learning and more on the social aspects of learning can only be positive for the learner. We need to better understand the social, network aspects of work and learning and build structures that support these. As we become more networked, status hierarchies are being replaced by task hierarchies [thanks to Esko Kilpi for these terms]. In both work and learning, our status in our networks is constantly changing and being renegotiated. We focus on tasks, and in doing these, our status changes. It’s no longer about who we are, but what we do. Isn’t this how our social networks function as well? Social learning, a key part of any community, is a dance with changing partners, each interpreting the music in their own way but influenced by every partner.

Social learning is the lubricant of networked, collaborative work. Therefore we need to redesign work structures that foster self-organized (social) groups for learning and working. If work is learning, and learning is the work, then shouldn’t the workplace be structured as a learning environment? And shouldn’t educational institutions foster this kind of integrated, collaborative, social learning? This is revolutionary. Peter Isackson describes the subversive nature of social learning in the Hole-in-the-Wall (HiW) learning experiments:

It seems to me that the fundamental key to the success of HiW is the notion of “self-organized groups” who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, as Jay suggests, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to reach them, entrusting the groups with this task. If educational gurus (authorities) notice that a group is neglecting what is considered “essential” in the curriculum (for whatever reason, whether it’s basic security, survival or inculcating an existing set of values), the group could be challenged to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it. Respecting the self-organizing group and its decision-making capacity is the sine qua non of success. It also happens to be the absolute opposite of the organizational principles of traditional education and training.

One current theme in the workplace and education circles is to “blend” social with the formal and structured. But social learning is not a bolted-on component of our formal educational and training programs. It is a sea change. It will disrupt institutions built upon the technology of  the printing press – all communication enterprises, including education. Yes, we have always learned and worked socially, but we have never had the power of ridiculously easy group-forming or almost zero-cost duplication of our words and images.

The network effect of the Web is explained in detail in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. Benkler describes the changes that a networked society can have on our governance, economic and cultural structures [bold added]:

The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. This enhanced autonomy is at the core of all the other improvements I describe. Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.

One final note for all those managers, directors and others in status hierarchies: social learning is about giving up control.

Mimi & Eunice cartoons by Nina Paley.

5 Responses to “Social learning: the freedom to act and cooperate with others”

  1. Norman

    The problem with these ideas is the employer desire for control of the “brand”. Everything is about control (much worse in schools) and proprietor products. Apple is a prime example. Branding is the enemy.


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