Minds on Fire by John Seeley Brown and Richard P. Adler:
"The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning.
What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this
concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding
of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content
and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems
or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are
The author suggest that learning is more about interaction and discussion rather than the content. They write :
"This perspective also helps to explain the effectiveness of study groups. Students in these groups can ask questions to clarify areas of uncertainty or confusion, can improve their grasp of the material by hearing the answers to questions from fellow students, and perhaps most powerfully, can take on the role of teacher to help other group members benefit from their understanding (one of the best ways to learn something is, after all, to teach it to others)."
The most profound change in these participatory learning environments is that students are expected to assume the role of "teachers." Although good F2F teaching includes opportunities for student to give peer feedback and work in small groups on problems, etc. online participatory communities extend these roles even further such that students can be linked across typical classroom boundaries and across semesters. These ideas have prompted my thinking about a model for learning communities and the types of roles that can be created which fosters more responsibility for teaching and increased amounts of interaction.
Another aspect of these "learning 2.0" environments is that students can be linked to the more sophisticated tools of scientific research. The common example is the ability of students to use telescopes and electron microscopes remotely. But this is really just the beginning is what is possible. Scientists can increasingly open up their laboratories to allow students to watch science in action and/or to gain access to databases and other tools to conduct at least some aspects of science on their own. I often tell this story about my son's involvement in the Folding@home work at Stanford.
Brown and Adler suggest that these "communities are harbingers of the emergence of a form of technology-enhanced learning-- Learning 2.0-- which goes beyond providing free access to traditional course materials and educational tools and creates a participatory architecture for supporting communities of learners." One of the key challenges is that the software platforms for managing these participatory learning communities is not there. At present there are powerful tools for participation (blogs, wikis, social networking, etc.), adequate instructional platforms (WebCT, Moodle, Sakai, etc.), but there is little support for building the laboratory and/or discovery side of things (OpenWetWare is one limited example) and no platforms that integrate all of these levels of activities into one seamless environment.
Again Brown and Adler emphasize "participation" as a central part of this development:
"But the Web 2.0, which has emerged in just the past few years, is sparking an even more far-reaching revolution. Tools such as blogs, wikis, social networks, tagging systems, mashups, and content-sharing sites are examples of a new user-centric information infrastructure that emphasizes participation (e.g., creating, re-mixing) over presentation, that encourages focused conversation and short briefs (often written in a less technical, public vernacular) rather than traditional publication, and that facilitates innovative explorations, experimentations, and purposeful tinkerings that often form the basis of a situated understanding emerging from action, not passivity."
Brown and Adler describe this approach to learning as a "demand-pull" approach which they describe this way:
"The demand-pull approach is based on providing students with access to rich (sometimes virtual) learning communities built around a practice. It is passion-based learning, motivated by the student either wanting to become a member of a particular community of practice or just wanting to learn about, make, or perform something. Often the learning that transpires is informal rather than formally conducted in a structured setting. Learning occurs in part through a form of reflective practicum, but in this case the reflection comes from being embedded in a community of practice that may be supported by both a physical and a virtual presence and by collaboration between newcomers and professional practitioners/scholars."
They conclude their article with this optimistic view:
"This new form of learning begins with the knowledge and practices acquired in school but is equally suited for continuous, lifelong learning that extends beyond formal schooling. Indeed, such an environment might encourage students to readily and happily pick up new knowledge and skills as the world shifts beneath them. If they do, we could be taking a major step toward creating a twenty-first-century, global culture of learning to meet Sir John Daniel’s challenge and the demands of our constantly changing world."