Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Setting up a learning community? Consider this.


You've perhaps noticed that I haven't posted in a while and frankly I have no excuse. I'm just slacking off - it's a bad thing to do as a blogger, but I must confess that my participation in the real world is affecting my contribution to the virtual world. For those interested in news about me - I'm back China now and I'm unsure how that'll again affect my Internet usage. In the mean time though there's really no reason for me to not share what I've learnt about learning over the last month or so. In today's blogpost I want to share some epiphanies I've had as a consequence of my experiences over the last month or so. These are only theories and I'd love to know what you think about the validity of these thoughts.

There's no pace better than your own pace

I'm the kind of guy that tour guides hate. I meet them with a "No" almost each time. There's a part of me that likes exploring places at my own pace. I must say though, that I've developed this tendency through my prior experience with tour guides. Tour guides have the tendency to give their standard spiel regardless of who they're with. Often this is a mouthful about the history of the place full of facts, dates and information that I struggle to remember. In the end I remember only the highlights, which are usually signposted by tourism authorities near the monuments themselves. When in China, I just got myself several pages of information on each of the sites I was planning to visit and carried them along with me on my iPad. When I thought I needed more information, I pulled out my iPad and found what I needed. From the perspective of learning and recollection, I found this to be a more effective, tailored approach than following a tour guide's pace and narration. I wonder if there's something in their about learning in general. Do we really need teachers and trainers for most learning? If most knowledge is in the public domain and people have the motivation to learn, do we really need the trainers as middlemen? I don't think the role of a trainer or teacher is dead but I do think these roles need some redefinition.

Empathy is a big connector in group work

There was a point in China, where I was really depressed. Despite all the great sights and colourful culture, I think the language barrier had just gotten to me. Plus my iPad had gotten stolen, so my easiest way of communicating with the rest of the world was lost too. I think I'd hit a brick wall with how much I was willing to do all by myself. By my last weekend in China I think I was well and truly at that brick wall. When I look back at the few really memorable days in China, it was perhaps the nights that my Chinese colleagues took me out for dinners; hanging out with Dave Worthington, Anita and Adam who were foreign ThoughtWorkers like me in China and hiking the Great Wall with Emily Ghan, a fellow tourist who I befriended. I think in several of the situations the feeling of empathy was the glue that made the activity hold together. My Chinese colleagues displayed a sense of empathy towards my situation as a first time China traveler and took me put for some of the most fantastic meals of my life. Emily and I had a sense of empathy towards each other as we chatted away about China, India and our hike on the Great Wall. Even when I cramped up and fell, Emily was nice enough to give me a helping hand. And I had the best times with Adam, Anita and Dave because well, we had so much in common as foreigners working in China. Going through bucket loads of chicken wings with them was such a great experience! Now that I'm back in the country with a team of my own, I can't tell you how enjoyable the experience is. We have two Mandarin speakers in the team and four of us are of non-Chinese origin. That's a great mix to connect to the culture and learn about it while having a group that can be empathetic to each other's situations. As we look at technology to connect people, I wonder how we bring together the empathy glue that truly helps people engage with each other. There is a point where just being self driven isn't enough, is it?

Strong ties are crucial for the success of a social network

I'm running a few little communities on Facebook. Two of these communities are quite interesting. One of them is a photographers group and another a group of naturalists. If you go to the Naturalist's group, it's buzzing with activity. On the other hand, the photographers group is a bit quiet. I don't believe that the photographers are any less inclined to sharing than the naturalists, but here's the deal. The core of the naturalists' group is a set of us that share a great friendship and have extremely strong ties. While there's part of the article I disagree with,  Malcolm Gladwell wrote sometime back as to how at the centre of revolutions and high risk activism you need people with strong ties. I suspect there's something similar with online communities too. It's tough, though not unprecedented to build communities on the basis of weak ties and acquaintances alone. On the other hand, communities with a core of people with strong ties is a lot more likely to attract and support weak acquaintances. Something for us to investigate further and think about as we spawn newer communities.

There's still nothing that beats the real world

One of the reasons the naturalists group has a lot to talk about, is because we a lot of us meet very regularly for nature trails and birdwatching expeditions. Every trip has a trip report that follows and requests for identifying birds, butterflies, insects, plants and fungi that we couldn't recognise. This heartbeat ritual ensures a regular channel for communication in addition to the adhoc collaboration on the group.  Had it not been for the real world activity, we would have had nothing to discuss in that forum. This is where the photography group suffers - we have little in common in terms of shared experience and while photo critique is an interesting activity every now and then, the lack of common context makes a big difference. There's something to be said about the value of real world meetings and activities, don't you think?

So, I've tried to give you my view on these theories of mine. Now it's your turn. What do you think about these theories? If you agree how do you think they influence the way you design communities and learning experiences? If you disagree, what's your view?

43 comments:

teknicsand said...

Self-paced learning ensures that you optimize your learning experience. But for people who are not great at self-motivation, you might need some structure to support the learning.

By the way I can now see why you carry that tablet with you wherever you go. I've been addicted to mine ever since I got it. It's absolutely fantastic for consumption and sharing information.

I've been reading Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken. I'm trying to relate the last three points you made to what she calls 'happiness activities'.
They are inherently social unlike the self-help activities which are personal and private. When you connect with people on social networks and share meaningful interactions based on real world activities, it adds so much more value. Social networks should not exist in a vacuum; it must have strong connection to real world activities.

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