a way to improve your English

Monday, 5 April 2010

Social enzymes

Learning has rarely been a solo activity. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have learnt something significant without the help or influence of others (and counting on my fingers wasn’t learnt without help, believe me). No, we are not isolated learners, but learn our most important lessons whilst in conversation with others. Conversation is of course often technologically mediated in this digital age. You and I no longer need to occupy the same location to converse. We can use text, audio or video in a number of modes and through a mind dazzling range of technologies. And there is a record – an archive – of our conversation if we want one.

This is how the current tools and services found on the Web are being used in so many new ways to connect, share and converse. Wikis, blogs, podcasts, social bookmarking, RSS feeds, microblogs, social networking… all are very powerful tools for people to use to make connections with each other… and to learn.

Formal learning is not the only type of learning possible, you see. More often, we are learning informally, while playing a massively multi-player online role playing game for example, or listening to a podcast about a news item. You are learning something new now by reading this blog post, and I learnt something new while I was writing it. We are aware of each other. When we search for an item on the web and get sidetracked down one or more other routes because they look more interesting… we are informally learning something new. When we eavesdrop on Twitter conversations, and simply ‘lurk’, we are learning informally. When we watch a YouTube video because several thousand people have already given it 5 stars …. we are learning informally. You may see this as serendipity – a kind of happy accident – and you may be right. Informal learning, more often than not, is unplanned. But that does not make it less worthwhile than formalised methods of learning.

The rhizomatic nature of Web 2.0 is making it easier for all of us to connect together, and to learn informally within a socially rich environment which is strewn liberally with the digital footprints of those who have gone before us. We are in effect, constructing our own informal learning pathways simply by following what others have done before – and here is the neatest trick. When we take what others have created (thanks to creative commons and a loosening of the grip or ownership and copyright) and we repurpose them for our own use, our own informal learning… we are creating new footprints for the next informal learner to follow. And on it goes. Informal learning and Web 2.0 need each other. They have synergy and we should not forget the social dimensions each relies upon for their success.

Andy Clark provides a very evocative metaphor when he talks about snail trails in his book ‘Natural Born Cyborgs‘. Clark shows that snails and slugs lay down slime trails that are rich in enzymes as they seek food sources. The second gastropod that follows the trail expends less energy and enzymes to reach the food, and so on until by the time the tenth snail slides down the pathway, the journey is almost effortless. In the same way, as we travel down digital pathways we leave a trail – perhaps a social bookmark, a Delicious tag, a Stumbled Upon note – which points the way for others to find your nugget of information. WE are in Michael Wesch’s terms ‘teaching the machine’. But we are also teaching each other. The more we lay down these pathways, the more we are building the community of practice that is Web 2.0.
Right. That’s this blog post finished. I’m off now to lay down some social enzymes.

This article was first posted 11 January 2009

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