Learning in the open

Posted October 07, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of transparent learning or learning in the open. With blogs, twitter, wikis, and other social media tools, our ability to share what we’re learning with others has increased dramatically. The shift from learning in private to learning in public is dramatic and chaotic, much like swimming from the edge of a river into the fast flowing current. All of a sudden you’re being pushed and tumbled along much faster than before.

I’m reading a book by Albert Bandura this semster called “Social Learning Theory.” Bandura was a psychologist in the mid to late 20th century who researched the role of social modeling on human motivation, thought, and action. A lot of what I’m reading supports what I’ve experienced with learning in the open.

Here’s some of what he wrote on social modeling:

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless errors.

One of the best parts about being an entrepreneur in this day and age is the many great learning resources on the internet. My favorite place to hangout on the internet is Hacker News. There hackers (the good type) and entrepreneurs share interesting news and opinion posts and have conversations about them. Almost everything I know about entrepreneurship has come from joining and participating and emulating others within that community of makers who, to an incredible extent, learn in the open.

I started doing web development about three years ago — and at the time knew almost nothing really about building websites. But I made the decision then to join the Drupal community and learn web development using the Drupal social publishing platform. Since then I’ve learned an great deal about building sophisticated modern websites. I’ve been to two Drupal conferences and presented at both. I participated in the Google Summer of Code last year on a Drupal project. I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading blog posts from other Drupalers and hundreds more hours reading discussions between programmers about how to write different pieces of code studying how they think and solve technical problems. Almost everything I know about web development has come from my choice to involve myself in the Drupal community.

The problem with many classes in the University and K-12 is that teachers (and students) forget that learning is much more than the acquisition of facts and figures — learning is the process of becoming something. It’s the the process of becoming a full member of a community of practice.

To become a physicist one for sure must learn physics equations. But much more than that, the student must learn to be a physicist — think and act like a physicist would. Approach problems like a physicist would.

If teachers ask students to learn in the open — through blogging, editing wikis, public discussions, etc — the more advanced students will serve as models for the rest and the student’s progress at learning to become a chemist, a mathematician, a programmer, or whatever the community may be that they are trying to enter, will accelerate. The progress is even greater if teachers actively model the thinking and problem-solving skills of that community.

George Siemen’s explained the idea very well when he wrote, “Watching others learn is an act of learning.”

He continued:

Let me explain. When someone decides to share their thoughts and ideas in a transparent manner, they become a teacher to those who are observing. Social technology — such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook — opens the door to sharing the process of learning, not only the final product.

There’s a lot of promising educational ideas out there — but this one excites me probably the most of all of them. Why? because it’s so simple to implement. The teachers and students just have to do what they have been doing — but make it open. And then reap the benefits.

Tagged with education | social learning

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.