Social learning can change the world (Covid series: 14 of 15)
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.
xAPI, which started life as TinCan is an example of a framework allowing this to happen. Trainers working with online elements will be familiar with SCORM, the old XML-based industry standard for packaging and ordering eLearning courses. xAPI is the next generation of SCORM, and is designed to capture and record 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.
At its most basic level, xAPI consists of statements in the form “I Did This”. For example, “I completed module 2 of Advanced Accountancy”, 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.
xAPI is suited to social learning, offering a structure through which learners can share resources, ask an instructor or a classmate a question, help peers and even learn by teaching. Just as Twitter is a way of sharing links and discussing anything under the sun, any xAPI statement can be made open to an instructor, a 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 xAPI 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.
This post is an update of the original from Coracle posted on 8th August 2013.