Social technologies in education and a new Velvet Revolution
It used to be that for the numbers of students to teach and the time and resources available, learning was done on a group basis, characterised by all starting and finishing in the same place and time and following roughly the same journey. This method encouraged the development of convergent thinking as a mental discipline and a tool for further learning. The application of learning technology affords personalised learning behaviour and a unique learning experience for each student, based on the context of their situation and preferences. It also supports and encourages Divergent thinking as an equal partner, where imagination and the personal perspective can be captured and acknowledged.
This has led over the last few years to a ‘velvet revolution’ in education, where the changes are so smooth they are hardly felt. The introduction of Social Media into mainstream life and its possible impact on education is a case in point and is one of a long line of examples of education picking up on lifestyle changes and adapting them to learning rather than seeing them created within the education world.
It has led many to question what the changes are because it is difficult to disentangle personal behaviour choices from the orthodox approaches to the application of education as a work process. There are persistent voices clamouring for a method to measure Impact. But it is possible that we have been deceived in our search for the impact of technology, expecting it to be physically manifested and overt in everything teachers do. Nice neat clear edges, such that the application of technology can be seen as an overlay. But it seems that what we might call successful impact is evidenced by the opposite; technology use being one element in many artfully constructed student-centred learning experiences that are part of everyday practice, bleeding across all aspects of life, such that the technology is not really seen nor acknowledged, simply being used when deemed appropriate for learning as planned.
Now, with the Web 2.0 generation we see this going even further. We are facing the next major shift in the pedagogical application of technology. It is based on the realisation that when personalised learning is combined with the new social media, and the experiences are shared in common, it creates a collective consciousness that can, when directed by a teacher, be described as learning. It isn’t that people haven’t formed informal networks before; it happens in every group and project. The difference is the speed, immediacy and granularity of thoughts and ideas gives a new degree of frequency, leading to greater intimacy and nuance to that understanding. An illustration of this would be a book club who meet each week to discuss a book. And the same group tweeting each other as they read and react to each chapter or twist in the plot. There is less summary and more formative opinion that may need correcting with each turn of the page.
Social media can be capture nothing more than the daily banalities, but when focussed or given a deeper purpose and guided, it can stimulate thinking that converts to constant modified understanding which settles (until the next message) into learning. In part this has happened with other technologies in the administration of the learning but now we see this activity moving into the core of the learning itself.
This is the new frontier for learning technologies; learning being seen as a the development of a collective consciousness of a group of like minded students on a given subject based on their shared and on-going personal experience. We will need to develop personal learning space for students, which will include the redesign of curriculum delivery to allow all the confederation of learning experiences, but formally recognised as learning rather than social and guided by the teacher.
It is the opposite to traditional teaching which is the delivery of a collective truth, learnt as individuals, by cohort (class).
Facebook for example is a social tool in action but a collective conscience by experience. But it lacks a direction of summary points that a teacher might provide which is why it is more social than learning but it has both elements. Without a teacher, the learning could be described as ‘accidental’ and is no less valid for this. The teacher is like the conductor of an orchestra; it suggests a much subtler arrangement in leadership of the route, and the nuances of insight picked up on the way. This does not change factual learning but the understanding and application of facts. It supports both convergent thinking and divergent thinking.
So what might be the immediate ramifications for e-learning?
1. What is intriguing is how successful this approach is to learning as students become more adept at manipulating the technology on the one hand, and the degree of intellectual maturity they bring to a process that implies an ever increasing degree of independence and self management in all technological interactions of which education is but one.
2. Courses will develop a degree of organic life that will move from the peripheral to the mainstream, ebb and flow for the duration of the course., in part grown and given direction by the group.
3. Learning becomes more democratised but by consensual movement rather than by voting.
Students are gently but inevitably coerced into considerations of learning in the context of their life and circumstances. What is learnt is fined tuned to each individual in the group.
4. A new accommodation of curriculum design is required to accommodate these changes.
5. The changes will be sufficiently disruptive to alter the curriculum design.
6. The new understanding will include confrontations by the student of their approaches and attitudes to their learning. Social media often contains emotive communications because how one feels about learning is the operant motivation to communicate to others.
7. Issues concerning the responsibility for learning to the outcomes agreed for the course might be compromised id teachers aren’t able to keep control of both pace and direction of learning that concludes at an agreed point, time and cost. These remain core teacher tasks.
What teachers now need to do
1. Don’t give up on the core values of what is good teaching and learning. These technologies do not replace any of them, they simply offer new ways to express them that can be more engaging, exciting, interest and personal to the student.
2. Social media will not replace VLEs but will add another layer on top of what is already available. All formal learning requires a degree of home hosting so the teacher can control pace and direction (see above), but the ubiquitous nature of social media will allow student new ways and methods to express their learning.
This isn't e-learning as such. I would rather call it simply 'modern learning'.