Social interactions and learning

A conversation on learning
(Image credit: Vandy CFT)

One of the trends with technology today is that it is beginning to redefine the means through which we are social. Prior to the invention of writing, social learning meant discussing ideas with someone in person, the invention of writing allowed social interactions to span geographic and chronological barriers. The trend throughout history has generally been to expand the distance between participants in a conversation and reduce the time delay in a response until today we can potentially interact with people on the other side of the planet via video link with almost no delay.

But what does it mean, "to be social"? If I leave a comment on a five year old blog post amongst hundreds of other comments, how much have I really interacted with anyone? If I see someone else’s response in a learning management system, is this social interaction? Technology has begun to make fuzzy what used to be a clear definition of social interaction. Can we come to a definition of social interaction which clears up some of this fuzziness? Maybe the exact definition of social interaction doesn’t matter?

There is plenty of evidence that learning works better in a social context. BF Skinner’s teaching machines and IPI, both attempts to automate learning, are failures without social interaction. The key affordable of social interactions in learning is timely, contextual feedback on the schema the learner is attempting to build. Without this feedback, it is too easy for our brains, designed to find concrete patterns more easily than abstract patterns, to construct an alternate set of schema that might satisfy all of the information we have, but which is too inflexible to add new information. It is my experience that we tend to more complicated, convulsed explanations of reality without feedback, than less complex but more abstract explanations.

This affordance of a social interaction will help us define what the minimum amount of social interaction should be in a robust learning environment. If the interactions between participants of a learning space lack timeliness and context, then they are unlikely to be useful as a social tool for learning. It may be that they are one-way timely (where you write or say something in a video, and when I consume it years later it acts as useful feedback to me in that moment) but these interactions lack the fore-knowledge of the non-interactive party of what understandings the interacting party has. A one-way interaction cannot give personalized feedback based on the interaction.

If social interactions are so critical to learning, why is it so many learning experiences are designed solely around content? Given the ability of technology to connect people across vast distances, why is so little of this technology available in the learning environments of today’s online courses which include, at best, primitive forum discussions? The primary difference between the MOOCs offered by Stanford, MIT, and others, and the more organically designed cMOOCs (like #etmooc and #oldsmooc) is that the first set of MOOCs treat social interactions as a side-line to the main show, whereas in the cMOOCs, the social interactions ARE the show.



  • I have a related question that is very much on my mind. I’m looking at taking a traditional paper-based remedial phonics program designed and built for the bricks and mortar world and “going digital.” How digital can we go? Most specifically, the group “oral reading” seems to be a key element of the program. Does anyone have any research or insights or even thoughts on whether, using a Google Hangout type technology (all 5 people are always on camera to maintain the sense of community) and a sustained relationship among the students, can achieve a similar community or social learning aspect?

    I’m john at time4learning dot com. thanks

  • David Wees wrote:

    Great question, John. I don’t know what research, if any, has been done on the effectiveness of video conferencing on communication. I do know that it feels like I’m having a conversation with real people, which suggests that this research (which asks if just belief you are part of a social group when learning affects your learning outcomes) should apply. Whether you get all of the benefits of social learning from a Google+ hangout, I don’t know. This research seems to suggest that it is no less effective than a traditional medium, but it is heavily focused on video conference as a deliver model, rather than the social aspects per se.

  • Hi David,

    Great post, i am on your page :-). I think you have summarised things very nicely here.

    Feeding off the social and linking into John’s point to me it is about making an emotional connection. So the google hangout, the real time facebook interaction, the emotion evoking blog are the motivators, the engagers for learning. I

    In many cases they can not only be as good as, but better than face to face learning or they offer different things that can further enhance face to face interactions.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Emotions are obviously an important feature of learning, but I think that they are important regardless of whether you are currently experiencing a social interaction or not so it makes me wonder – what is influencing what? Social interactions clearly influence emotions, and emotions clearly influence social interactions, and both of these are factors in learning. I’m not clear how to untangle this…

  • Thanks everybody, this really help me.
    I’d like to speculate a little bit about the nature and timing of social interactions. One aspect of a struggling reader trying to read aloud is that the nature of the teacher prompt and the social atmosphere is important. I’ve read articles which claimed a dramatic difference between the best practice of a teacher who encourages properly and helps students in a very studied way versus teachers who, seeing that a student is having difficulty with a word, just supply the word in its entirety to them by saying it. Does this insight make any difference?

    I know this is different than my original question which was about the public/social value of oral reading being achieved virtually.

    BTW, I’m trying to think how to build a “phonicscity” modelled on John, Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity

  • David Wees wrote:

    I would believe that research. As Dan Meyer would put it, be less helpful, ie; help students learn to think for themselves rather than always supplying the answer. It is one of the cornerstones of my teaching practice, and I have seen how it influences and helps student learning.

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