Learning on the social web

June 18, 2009 | Leave a comment

ScienceBlog reports that on Saturday, Carl Whithaus will announce the preliminary results from a California Department of Education study into increasing academic achievement using computers in 4th grade classrooms (emphasis mine):

During the first year of the two-year study, student achievement increased 27.5 percent, according to Whithaus, who is principal investigator of a study to evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

Computer use – and particularly, online community engagement – increases engagement with formal learning, which is great news for the e-learning software market. But I’m particularly interested in the effect of networks on informal learning – specifically, learning from our activities on the web.

Learning happens when two sets of experiences and assumptions are exposed with each other – in other words, when we communicate. The web is the most globally efficient communications method the world has ever seen, and as a result, I believe, may rapidly transform our world culture for the better.

Last month, I met with J. Nathan Matias from the World University Project, a project that aims to evolve higher education by shedding light on how people learn and teach around the world. His intent is to highlight experiences that people in the west have largely not been exposed to, and in so doing advance mutual understanding between our academic systems. It’s a brilliant idea, which takes advantage of the potential of a universally accessible global communications network.

Recently, the Iranian election swamped Twitter, to the point where they rescheduled maintenance in order to minimize the effect on dissidents in the country. Suddenly, because Iranian dissidents were online and conversing with people from the west, Iran seemed less like a scary, far-off country filled with terrorists and more like – gasp – a country filled with actual human beings. Clay Shirky had this to say:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

On a smaller scale, we’re now interacting with people from other walks of life, with markedly different sets of skills and interests, on a daily basis. The opportunity available to us is not just to get our message out on an unprecedented scale – but to get other peoples’ messages in, and in the process make ourselves more educated and informed than we’ve ever been. On a personal level, it can help us with our fourth grade homework; on a societal level, it’s a revolution.