Monday, August 2, 2010

Social Learning and the Bazaar

We are witnessing the advent of the social media revolution and a crisis point for educators. The students of today and tomorrow have access to more information and are connected in more ways to more people than any previous generation. This is an extraordinarily disruptive change in our society and educators need to recognize this change in order to diagnose the challenges, respond to the changing landscape and execute more effective classroom strategies.

The good news for educators is that we don’t have to construct a new model from scratch; we have templates for social learning models all around us. Some educators have already started to adjust and they engage each other regularly on social networks in an effort to self-educate and take the responsibility for improvement into their own hands. Teachers use social networks to form Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs. In a PLN there is no set hierarchy, no boss. Everyone, regardless of title can contribute to the knowledge and skill of the group. The only way people are measured is by their impact on others. In many ways it is a pure meritocracy.

This is quite different from the traditional classroom model. The role of the teacher needs to be re-evaluated in this context. Hopefully the teacher is still the person who contributes the most knowledge and skill to the group and hopefully they have a larger impact than the students we trust them to teach, but how they view their role needs to shift.

For those of you that have not read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond, it is a book about Linux and the Open Source Software movement, but it is also an extremely valuable conceptual resource for educators looking to transition from dictators to facilitators. Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux did not write all the code that went into creating Linux. In fact, he wrote very little. Raymond summed up Torvald’s contribution on p. 47 by saying that a coordinator of a project like Linux doesn’t need to have great ideas but they need the ability to “recognize good design ideas from others.”

Raymond goes on to discuss how when enough people look at a problem, all problems are easy to solve. The power of the crowd is that individually we may only have a small piece to contribute, but once you gather together a collection of people who all have a different piece, the product can be quite impressive. Wikipedia is another example of this crowdsourced knowledge production model.

In an area of Brooklyn, NY called Gowanus, there are two people who enacted this social learning style where groups of people can get together, share small bits of knowledge and learn from each other in a leaderless environment. Jen Messier and Jonathan Soma started the Brooklyn Brainery as a way to offer classes that used to require an expert to teach but now take advantage of the social learning model. Here is a little video I created that tells their story: