Monday, November 8, 2010

Why social networks are powerful for learning.

Talk about the power of the new technologies for learning... MIT researcher Damon Centola has been studying online social networks to see how they can be used to change behaviors for the better. Not to determine if they can change behaviors for the better, but the best way to do it. This is huge, and I'll tell you why.

But first, let's take a quick step back, to get a little bit of perspective. Typical instructional design and pedagogy focus on breaking down a subject into component parts, gaining mastery of those parts, whether they are steps in a process or techniques or parts of the anatomy, and then reassembling them in the learner's mind and in practice so that the result is overall mastery of the broader subject. That may be oversimplified, but this basic approach goes back to Aristotle, at least. It's not debated in education, it's assumed that this is the best approach for learning anything, including complex processes or highly nuanced behaviors in shifting contexts. This is the way education is done in Western culture and we don't even notice it, much less question it. But suddenly there's an elephant in the room.

Centola's conclusions. He studied positive changes in people's behaviors regarding health care, changes that resulted directly from placing subjects in carefully designed social networks with the goal of improving their health decisions. What he concluded was that smaller, tighter social groups had more success improving health behaviors than larger, looser social groups (ie, the typical Facebook connections). Maybe you already see what it took me a while to notice. Both of them had success. Social networks designed for a specific purpose can do something pretty amazing: They can change people's behaviors. Any educator or trainer whose goal is actually to impact both thinking and behaviors (to change lives!) rather than just getting people to pass a test or check a box, should be paying close attention. And maybe getting a little excited.

Researchers in education have long known the power of social groups to alter behavior. Brown, Collins, and Duguid made this case a while back:

"From a very early age and throughout their lives, people, consciously or unconsciously, adopt the behavior and belief systems of new social groups. Given the chance to observe and practice in situ the behavior of members of a culture, people pick up relevant jargon, imitate behavior, and gradually start to act in accordance with its norms." (From "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" 1989)

In fact, these three went on to say that highly complex behaviors are picked up, absorbed, through relatively informal social exchange more quickly than they could be if they were "taught" in the usual break-it-down sense. We're talking about complex behaviors. Processes. Highly nuanced interpersonal interactions. Centola's study suggests to me that we now have an online tool, the social network, that is fully capable of carrying the power of culture to shape behaviors and establish norms. And it can be done on purpose.

Virtual elbow-rubbing is clearly more limited than actual elbow-rubbing. But if you think about it, social media carry a lot of the same capabilities. Jargon is obviously transferred, if not created. And this habit of openly discussing what I am "doing right now," down to an almost absurd level of granularity, is unique to social media. A lot of people (mostly over 40) find this exceedingly strange. But this is precisely the sort of intimate knowledge of other people's basic life patterns and thought patterns that allows one person's behaviors to be observed and absorbed by others.

And what about showing or demonstrating behaviors? This is happening, too. Take a look at the most-viewed videos on YouTube on any given day, and fully half of them are either someone talking unscripted into a camera or behaving in an unscripted (albeit often planned) manner.

It's not that I think we should abandon classical, or scientific reason and rationale in our teaching. Social networks are not going to replace content. But content can be incorporated into social media, which is exactly what Centola did. It's what SalesDay does (my previous post). The point is that social networks have enormous untapped potential to help people learn and propagate important and complex knowledge and behaviors quickly--through sharing of thoughts, ideas, even life patterns.

I've said it already, but it bears repeating. This is huge.

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