Social learning can change the world
Professor Sugata Mitra (He won the $1 million TED Prize in 2013) tells a striking story about an experiment he carried out with Indian children who were teaching themselves to program computers. To give them an extra motivational boost, he asked one girl to stand behind the kids as they worked and play the role of a grandmother, offering encouragement as grandmothers do all over the world. “My goodness that was clever - I couldn’t have done that”, and similar grandmotherly admiration.
From this experiment was born The Granny Cloud, which uses broadband to put British grandmothers in front of children learning English in remote parts of India. Two hundred grandmothers and retired teachers fire up Skype for an hour every week and guide kids through the finer points of the subjunctive.
The Granny Cloud has attracted the attention of educators all over the world in their quest for innovation. But in one sense, the idea of learning from friends, relatives and peers is hardly revolutionary. Think about some of the most basic learning you have done and how it happened: the best way to get on with people, how to keep fit, how to look after a pet, and even how to speak. These are things you pick up by observing, copying, listening and discussing, rather than sitting in a classroom or reading a textbook.
Nonetheless, technology – and particularly the web – has massively expanded the scope for this kind of social learning. Theorists explain how by showing that the web not only allows for traditional one-to-many communication, but is a many-to-many network (PDF). It is a means of broadcasting from the centre, but also for peer-to-peer communication.
This has encouraged some radical ideas in education, not least of which is that traditional forms of instruction are obsolete – the classroom is defunct and the lecturer is dead. This is surely an exaggeration, but one doesn’t have to share this revolutionary spirit to recognise that networks expand the circle of people you can learn from to include your colleagues sitting next to you on a course, non-traditional experts, and people all over the world.
TinCan is one example of the many frameworks allowing this to happen. Trainers will already be familiar with SCORM, the XML-based industry standard for packaging and ordering e-learning courses. TinCan is the next generation of SCORM, and is designed to capture and record your learning at a granular level. It is attuned to the way people are starting to learn nowadays – building on formal and structured courses with activities and materials gleaned outside the textbook and classroom. Though it was only launched in early 2013, it has already been adopted by numerous training providers including Serco and Maersk.
At its most basic level, TinCan consists of statements in the form “I Did This”. I completed module 2 of Advanced Accountancy, for example, or I scored 78% in the Health and Safety test. Hence it offers a way of gaining validation and what the academics call social affirmation by recording actions for the learner and (if desired) making their achievements transparent. If you followed a section of a structured course leading to a professional certificate, it can record that and give your institution or instructor a paper trail. Equally, if you get a sudden insight from a video on YouTube about accounting it allows you to log it as part of your learning, then share it with others.
Already we can see that TinCan is suited to social learning in interesting ways. It offers a structure through which you can share resources with your colleagues, ask your instructor or classmates questions, help your peers and even learn by teaching. Just as tumblr and twitter are a way of sharing links and discussing anything under the sun, any TinCan statement can be made open to your instructor, your group, or the world.
This means you can learn from your peers and colleagues – the people who are studying the same things as you and can help out if you’re stuck with a particular problem. It opens the door to collaborative learning in which people who are not traditionally regarded as teachers help each other. It also opens up the possibility of discussion alongside formal training materials, guided by instructors or ad-libbed by learners.
And finally TinCan is a convenient springboard for teaching back – the process of explaining or showing what you’ve just learnt to another learner. This is an excellent way of reinforcing both factual knowledge and mastery of processes.
All this, it should be noted, will not happen spontaneously just by generating a series of statements that conform to the specification. Instead, TinCan should be seen as a framework on which more complex applications can be built. We’re one of the early adopters here at Coracle, and this has given us the opportunity to think up imaginative uses reflecting the current interest in digitally recording then sharing personal achievements and progress.