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Learning as a social process?

I’m getting a bit frustrated with the continual statements that learning is a social process. Certain types of learning certainly require a social process. Other types of learning are not at all socially enabled. I’m a strong advocate for the value of individuality in learning (especially group learning). My interest in learning networks stems from the individuality of each node in the larger network. For example, if a corporation designs an effective learning network (effective being defined as having diverse features with high level of learner control – i.e. blogs, wikis, mentorship, communities, access to resources, etc.), then any one node within the network can increase the value of the entire network simply by learning. If I’m connected within my organization, when I expand my knowledge, the entire organization benefits.

What does this have to do with social learning? Well, most learning is actually not social. When I wish to improve my own competence/learning, I may take numerous approaches – reading, researching, searching online, thinking, etc. The social element of learning occurs when I engage my network for feedback and understanding. It’s very important that each node within a network brings value to the network, rather than simply attempting to learn together with the network. When an individual comes to the network as an individual with unique ideas, beliefs, and experiences, she is able to challenge and learn from/with the larger network. However, when an individual simply enters the network, without contributing individuality, she is largely an unnecessary node (as she simply reflects the existing content of a network).

As I’ve stated before, different types of learning are important for different learning needs. Plugging someone with no knowledge of a field into a network is probably not the best approach. Some base level of learning (even if only the terminology) needs to be present before meaningful interaction and contribution to the larger network can happen. This isn’t to say that a newcomer to a field would be completely lost in a network…but that a base level of competence often needs to exist before the full value of the network can be utilized.

As well, a primarily social view of learning also overlooks many of the affordances of technology. I can learn (learning defined as actuated or actionable knowledge) from a computer program, an intelligent software agent, or a contextually appropriate learning resource (i.e. when I need to do the task, the learning resource is mediated by technology). So, yes, learning does have a social component, but anyone who has spent much time learning and interacting with technology will assert that it is not the only (or perhaps even the dominant) aspect of learning. My biggest issues with constructivism center on the emphasis that learning is social and largely subjective. As stated, yes it can be…but it’s only a part. A large, more integrated model is needed to adequately express learning today (shall I plug connectivism again? :) ).