Learning Together

Different forms of social learning, from networks to communities of practice

All of life experiences result in some kind of learning, but it is quite clear that social interaction (possibly mediated by technology) is the key to meaningful learning. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky has said that “learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts” and indeed created the social constructivist learning theory and the concept of the zone of proximal development. Albert Bandura created the social learning theory. Let’s explore how people learn with other people.

From individuals to pairs

In the simplest setting, interactions happen between two people. An example can be found in the Socratic method, where a teacher and a learner argue, and where the teacher helps the learner to understand. Nowadays, the interaction between a teacher and a learner can be mediated by books, various digital and online content, communication tools and services, but the same principle still holds: the master helping the novice reach new levels of understanding or competence.

This diagram combines Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept, and Ericsson’s deliberate practice. Diagram by Tarmo Toikkanen, LifeLearn Platform. We’ll revisit this diagram in future articles.

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) encapsulates this interaction nicely. ZPD is the level of challenge between what the learner can do independently, and what they can do with expert assistance.[1] Whenever one is attempting to learn, the challenge of the task should be within the ZPD, and appropriate assistance should be available. If the task is too easy, no significant learning will occur. If the task is too hard, even expert assistance will not allow the learner to really learn.

ZPD also hints at the teacher’s role as the guide through a learning path. Their job is to help the learner, and to do that they need to know what the learner can do now, what their ultimate goal is, and what steps along that path are an effective and suitably challenging sequence to keep the learner in the zone and keep learning. A broadcast medium will never do this optimally for each individual learner.

From pairs to networks

The Socratic method can be considered the basic model: one teacher and one learner. To make the teacher’s work more effective, they may use various resources to offload some of their teaching responsibility, thus freeing up their time to do more valuable activities. A classic example is a textbook, which means that the teacher no longer is the single source of information. Various learning management systems (LMS) can perform many more functions a teacher would normally do, such as simple grading, monitoring of student progress, provisioning of information and assignments, and so forth.

Peers are a valuable resource often underutilized in education. Quite often having multiple learners just means the teacher must address them all simultaneously, instead of providing individual tutoring. But it is quite possible to guide learners to work together on learning tasks, allowing them to help each other, without requiring the teacher as the counterpart.

When you have several people interacting, you have a social network. Social network analysis is an established method of analysing different networks, although work on what features learning networks should have is still in its infancy. I refer the interested reader to a blog post and article of mine from 2009:

It should be obvious, though, that in informal everyday learning, we mostly learn with the people we work and live with. And as informal learning comprises most of our learning, we can safely say that the vast majority of learning happens with other people. The details of what kinds of network structures are most conducive to learning are still being figured out by scientists.

From networks to communities

Community is a buzzword. Everyone and their aunt wants a community around them. Nevertheless, communities do exist and provide huge value to their members. Let’s define a community first. And let’s do it twice, since the word is often misused and misunderstood. Of course, a community is a network of people. But something else as well.

  1. Lave and Wenger see communities as having a) members joining and leaving over time; b) new members starting in the periphery and slowly moving to more central positions; and c) each community having their own subculture.[2]
  2. Jono Bacon, the community manager of Ubuntu, sees communities as being a social economy where people create social capital by fostering trust and respect, giving them opportunities and the safety to engage in gradually more important interactions. Communities form around shared norms, values, and an identity, and elicit a sense of belonging.[3]

A community cannot be forced into existence. There has to be a need for it. Sometimes communities form online, but those happen only because geography has been a barrier to it forming offline. The need has been there, and an online space simply allows people with the shared identity to find each other, and start interacting. Interaction slowly builds social capital and turns that network of people into a community.

Strong communities allow more valuable interactions among their members than simple networks do. The learning opportunities will also increase dramatically. In a strong community, for example, another member may volunteer to mentor you, since they know you and the values you stand for.

From communities to CoPs

While there are many different communities (such as neighbourhood communities, religious communities, or political communities), from the point of view of learning, these communities can be seen as being communities of interest, where members share a passion or a common interest, around which their interactions revolve. Through these interactions, members learn more about the shared interest.

Perhaps the most involved mode for a group of learners is the Community of Practice (CoP), initially popularized by Wenger[4]. The main differences to mere communities of interest is that CoP members are practitioners, not merely interested individuals. In a CoP, active professionals who are experts (to some degree) interact, share knowledge, tips, and best practices, ask and answer questions, all in the context of becoming better professionals in their field.

Summary

While learning a new skill without any help from anyone else is possible, it is extremely slow. Just think how long it took human civilization to figure out differential equations (several millennia), and compare how quickly children learn it with help from others (under two decades). Having access to tips, knowledge, or guidance from experts speeds up the learning process. An expert in the role of a tutor or teacher is the most important social connection for a learner, but interactions with peer learners are also very valuable. Interacting with people in various groups, networks, communities, or communities of practice provide increasing opportunities of learning.

Any modern teaching and learning environment should allow and facilitate the interactions between learners and tutors, as well as the interactions of learners with other learners. While educational materials and various teaching and learning tools are valuable, they cannot compete with the value of fruitful social interaction. And if both the learner and the tutor get something valuable from the interaction, all the better.

References

1. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Bacon, Jono (2012). The Art of Community. O’Reilly Books. ISBN: 978–1–449–31206–0. http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/

4. Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Harvard Business Press. ISBN 978–1–57851–330–7.

About the Author

Tarmo Toikkanen is Chief Learning Scientist at LifeLearn Platform. He has over a decade of research experience in the fields of learning environments, participatory design, and educational psychology. His passion is to save the world by helping people learn and teach in better ways. This article is part of a series to explain LifeLearn Platform’s ideas on learning.