Real Social Learning or “I promise, I’m not a modernist, really”

Most nights for the past few weeks I’ve been working away from my home office in a local coffee shop with free wifi. Partly I find it easier to work on ‘after-hours’ projects out of the house, away from the family, but in truth part of the reason I like working here is that it is full of students. Unlike people located directly on a campus, I don’t see students everyday, so it still gives me a buzz, especially because I am seeing them where and when they are learning. Everywhere I look there are groups of 2, 3 and 4 students with textbooks and laptops open, working, talking, studying, together.

It brings back really good memories too; I was the type of learner who liked to talk (no kidding!) and I was fortunate to fall in with a gang of 5 or 6 others in first year (at the time we were ‘The Smokers’) who met every Sunday afternoon to go over our philosophy work. What some might have taken for arguing (and sure, there was some of that) was really peer teaching, and as I sit here in the café and look around, I see it everywhere.

I got a double dose of this recently down in Logan. I guess working in your basement really makes you notice and appreciate it. I feel really lucky to have a large and supportive online network of friends and colleagues who I interact with regularly on a daily basis. There’s very little I don’t feel I can share anymore (just ask them, they’ll tell you – king of ‘Too Much Information’ 😉 and we learn together everyday.

Yet over the space of 4 or 5 conversations in Logan, especially in two where I talked with Justin and Joel from the COSL team, my thinking and learning on a huge spectrum of issues expanded more than it had in a year of banging my head against the keyboard in my basement. While I was jamming with them (because that’s how I think of it, improvisation, the only music I know how to play) it felt like three or four foundational chunks just fell into place, thunk, so that what had previously been something I’d heard and processed at one level, became deep understanding, knowledge, internalized so that it is now part of my rapid decision making structure. I’m sure you know the feeling too. If only the other 3 had known had far gone I was by the end of the trip, they would never have let me drive the mini-van back to Salt Lake City!

The experience hardly seems noteworthy these days; you can’t swing a cat online without hitting someone stressing the ‘social’ nature of learning, how it’s conversational. But as someone who actually does most of his learning and interaction online, the gap between the dynamism of the peer learning and conceptual jamming I’m talking about and the kinds of interactions we mostly see online still seem huge. Maybe this is the way it will always be. Maybe this is the way it should be. But I kind of doubt it. I talked with Alan on Skype today for about 45 minutes; that was productive and creative, but still, it paled compared to the times we’ve been together and let the ideas flow.

This isn’t meant as a lament so much as a clarion call and pointing to opportunity (and also just a warm up exercise for the 1000 words I need to crank out tonight 😉 And also I guess, as a small bit of resistance to what sometimes feel like people trying to make the current paucity of conversational interaction into an asset of online communications. I’m not arguing that it has to be the same, and indeed the different forms of communication and interaction we’re inventing and discovering online throw uncritical notions of ‘real life’ presence and identity into doubt in productive ways. But it still feels like we’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the learning that 4 people “in flow” around the table can achieve. Oy vey, who knew I was such a modernist?! – SWL