Saturday, May 4, 2013

Learning is Social: Emergence of Collaborative Education


Knowledge, almost always, begins with a basic question, an inquiry, a problem or an idea - and when we seek the answers, we gain it. It's kind of like a little seed, and what I see inside this little seed is a potential for creation, innovation and evolution; to grow into a majestic tree of knowing, attaching its branches infinitely to other trees. According to Vygotsky's 1978 Social Contructivism theory, knowledge is contructed by being in contact with existing knowledge developed by experiences of other people. It says the learning is an active, social process -  achieving maximum learning through interactions of different human potentials, experiences, strengths and skills. Since knowledge is a product of our human nature, therefore further knowledge is constructed by means of our social nature and actions.

Somehow, it's similar to the way we bring in and share knowledge these days, whether trivial or relevant (trivial in most cases), through influential and addictive social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Let's look at Facebook. Since we all know that you, me, the rest of the planet, and more recently my cool grandmother, are already on it. We have the latest "news" delivered conveniently each day to our social "walls" in the form of short status updates, photos, videos or links, in real time, posted by friends or people we didn't even know but they're part of our network anyways. By also sharing this information, we make it very convenient to others as well - and so on and so forth. Why, these days, students even get information faster than the average teacher who does not log on to his Facebook account as often. 

Instant notifications make information even more convenient. And to top it all, as if we are not already pampered crazy, Facebook uses a hidden algorithm to make sure what we see on our walls are the ones we are actively participating in, and how relevant the information and friend is to us. It gets even crazier. Even as personal as the perfectly cooked sunny side-up that we devoured for breakfast becomes public news, attaching professional looking photos or videos captured by our latest web-enabled devices. Actually, most of the time, everything you see on Facebook is about our perfectly Photo-shopped lives, duckface and all. I mean - for something so open and public, we wouldn't want to show the negative side of our lives, would we? So I guess you shouldn't believe everything you read or see on Facebook. I am therefore aware of the danger of a non-truth becoming a truth - just because a particular post garnerd thousands of "likes", "shares" and comments from self-proclaimed users. 

There's more. We have unknowingly grown accustomed to just being able to digest little bite-sized information instead of reading long, verbose texts. In fact, one of the most used online communication tool now is the social wall of Facebook, with email and blogging trailing behind.  By scanning our walls for hours in a day with ninja eye skills, and quickly selecting like a robot what we want to spend our time on, we are able to retain personally interesting data in our heads, probably sharing it with people on our network as well. Our discrimating brains decide on what to read based on several factors - such as the number of comments from the community, number of "likes", who shared the information, how interesting the photo or video thumbnail is, whether I was tagged or not, and how relevant it is to my current life situation. Also, the more I read the comments, the more I learn about the topic, and the more I find it compelling to contribute as well - if I can relate to it. Sometimes, I see hightened emotions and tones coming from the comments, because of disagreements. This just means that communication between humans is somehow getting more and more likened to brick and mortar, face-to-face conversations.

Let's talk about relevance and context. Do you know notice how our eyes quickly choose content on our social walls, despite the thousands of wall posts that appear each day. We may choose based on the number of likes, number of comments, who shared the information, how interesting the thumbnail is whether it's a photo or video, or how relevant it is to our lives such as health or inspirational posts. If it affects me or other people, I actually put my comments or share my two cents worth. Those posts that we really don't care to look at, we just ignore. I have come to realize that the information that we digest during the day retains in my mind more when it is relevant to me, the more it is taken into content, and the more I can participate in a particular conversation, the more I can learn about something. However, I would like to point out the danger of what I call "distorted universal truths". So many rumors, untruths and lies spread on Facebook, because sometimes, people perceive information as a universal truth, based on the number of likes, shares, comments and how credible the sharer of the information is. Of course, the danger of this, is a corruption of knowledge, because there is actually really no one we can rely on to correct this, other than other users online.

I'm always thinking how this generation's online behavior can help in education. I'm not an educator, nor am I person with any type of degree in education. However, I've been intensely studying and experimenting on eLearning for a few years now through our different failed and successful attempts at creating online learning environments, both for public and private schools, as well as corporate organizations.

Social Learning starts with a basic idea, that is formed by an initiator. An initiator can be a teacher that lifts an essential block of text from a book, or a student who just saw something interesting on TV. We are all initiators, because we all have stories to tell. If an initiator throws a textbook at a student, and tells him to read it for next day's class, chances are, with today's kids' attention spans, it will be less effective. So in social learning, the teacher chooses an "essential text" or "learning block" from the textbook, and grow the discussion from there through conversation, showing of preference, collaboration - and all these things, will be synthesized by the intiator. until the entire idea of a chapter or a lesson is fully covered. The role of the teacher in this aspect, has changed dramatically. Instead of becoming the only source of information, he or she has to manage now the wealth of information and experiences coming from all the participants. The question is, how can they be trained so that they can keep up with the "speed of thought"?


Initiation - The Initiator is the one with the basic idea, and initiates a social learning object. A status post, a video, a photo, file upload, or link sharing demostrates a person who can initiate any particular thought. 

Conversation - reflection, opinion, feedback and contribution of a user within a particular learning object. This can be in the form of comments. This allows users to become "experts" themselves based on their own experience, and share with other participants. Each one becomes a mentor and a student. 

Preference - Rating the basic idea allows the intiator to know the general view of the learners

Collaboration - discussion in real time about the basic idea, using collaborative tools that allow simulation of face to face engagements.

Following - Saving the activity for future review

Sharing - revealing it to others, and making it convenient for others to find relevant information

Synthesis - a summary or rationalization of the learning object, including its conversations, preferences and collaborations. The initiator brings everything into context, which is very important in learning. This is important, because in social networks such as Facebook, there is no one to synthesize the information. Sometimes, a thousand likes or a thousand comments may dangerously turn that information into a distored universal truth. 

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense, that today's social applications can be powerful tools in education, not only because of it's convenience in sharing information, but because behavior of online users has to be taken into consideration. It makes sense, that learning is no longer about absorbing knowledge from a single source of information such as a teacher or a video-based material, but a convergence of our experiences and expertise, because of our social nature and culture, providing there is a mentor that synthesizes this information to prevent distorted truths.

This generation's social networks and collaborative tools have achieved this in the social context, how can we achieve this in the context of education?

Jason dela Rosa, Virtual Campus

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