Embedding social learning into texts and enterprise software

Learning is social. Business is social. People are social. So why are so many of the forays into learning technology anti-social?

Friday afternoon I had a delightful conversation with a kindred spirit, Joe Miller. Joe has been marrying people, technology, and learning since the early days. He worked on the PLATO system for Control Data. He did early stuff with Atari, EPYX, SEGA, and Leapfrog. He ran Michael Milken’s Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio before he became VP, Platform & Technology for Second Life at Linden Labs.

Joe’s take on learning is a good fit with mine: Learning is a uniquely human experience. Most of our pitiful attempts to enhance learning with technology have been focused on the technology, not on the social or collaborative aspects that make it successful ultimately.

One of my aspirations for this year has been to find a way to embed what we know about learning process into social business environments. Overcome the forgetting curse with spaced reinforcement. Give personalized suggestions to users. Incorporate personal goals and aspirations. Use collaborative filtering to suggest new areas of interest. Joe adds social to the mix. Since we learn with other people, let’s use technology to help them collaborate.

Joe has the technical chops to prototype his ideas. (Mine remain on paper.) He told me about an iPad app he’s working on that will support study groups. We talked in general terms, but the concept is to turn the traditionally solo experience of reading a textbook into a collaborative affair.

Imagine you’re studying, say, Roman History. The app connects you with other people studying the same topic. You talk about the lessons. You explore the content together. Perhaps you share notes or highlight passages in concert. What was once a lonely drudge becomes an engaging activity.

Wisdom of the Ages
These aren’t new ideas, but they’re concepts that have fallen by the wayside. Joe told me the PLATO system had a key which enabled you to page the author of the material you were working with. Another key put you in touch with other people studying the same material online no matter where they were. Another key shared your screen with others in your group. This was taking place in the late seventies! Why not now?

In Ottawa a few years ago, I read a letter from an angry parent in the newspaper. The school board had announced that they could not afford to buy a computer for every student. Pairs of students would have to share a computer. The parent had it wrong. You learn more in the company of other people. Two kids per computer make for a more effective learning experience.

Joe described an elite group of engineers at IBM that replaced their bi-annual face-to-face sessions with meetings in Second Life. Most preferred the virtual meetings. They were top engineers, but they were engineers. Many lacked the social skills to thrive in the room with 300 peers. Online, this was not a issue. Second Life became a great equalizer.

By the way, here’s Tony O’Driscoll talking about the affordances of virtual worlds for learning. Joe sent me the URL. The video reminded my of an article Tony, Eilif Trondsen, and I wrote for eLearn magazine, Another Life: Virtual Worlds as Tools for Learning. Ancient history; that was four years ago.

Learning in a Virtual World
Joe talked of three necessary ingredients for learning in a virtual world: the users, the community, and pseudonymity.

That last one threw me. I learned virtual community practices on the WeLL. One of our foundational beliefs was YOYOW, “You own your own words.” This didn’t mean you own them as if you had a copyright. It meant that you took responsibility for what you said. You might post things under a pseudonym but clicking a pseudonym brought up a profile that detailed who you really were.

Most of the bad behavior on the open internet is perpetrated by anonymous spammers, trouble-makers, and outright crooks who cloak their identities. When a disrupter intrudes on purposeful activity in Second Life; they’d be dealt with. However, it was not a big problem. The value of freedom of expression far outweighed irresponsible behavior by the few.

People, growth, and community are the bedrock of humanity. My gut tells me we are on the cusp of an amazingly great era.

Next? The Embedded Learning Salon
To really get into high gear, imagine a session at the Internet Time Lab in Berkeley where we engage Joe, moi, and a group of seminal thinkers in a Bohmian dialogue about baking learning into work, iPads, texts, etc. Corporations would pay to participate. Video the discussion. You can imagine the potential outcomes. I’ll forward this post to a few people who might be interested.

Joe’s coordinates on Twitter: @JoeMiller

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