Monday, July 20, 2009

Social attention and interactions are key to learning processes

I just finished reading a long article in the journal Science on how social factors are increasing recognized as extremely important in a new science on learning [1].

Learning is fundamentally a social activity, the article partially argued. "Social cues highlight what and when to learn." Meltzoff et al. summarize a whole slew of recent research that showed how young infants learn by imitation and copying others actions, and they build abstractions and models of others' behaviors. In fact,
"Children do not slavishly duplicate what they see but reenact a person’s goals and intentions. For example, suppose an adult tries to pull apart an object but his hand slips off the ends. Even at 18 months of age, infants can use the pattern of unsuccessful attempts to infer the unseen goal of another. They produce the goal that the adult was striving to achieve, not the unsuccessful attempts."

One point made in the article is how much the greater environment outside of school is becoming an important part of the ecology of learning.
"Elementary and secondary school educators are attempting to harness the intellectual curiosity and avid learning that occurs during natural social interaction. The emerging field of informal learning is based on the idea that informal settings are venues for a significant amount of childhood learning. Children spend nearly 80% of their waking hours outside of school. They learn at home; in community centers; in clubs; through the Internet; at museums, zoos, and aquariums; and through digital media and gaming."

Social learning, of course, is a major part of the social web. Wikipedia was designed to be an easy-to-use and freely available reference, and all of the social interactions offered by various online forums are rapidly becoming a part of the educational experience for secondary school pupils. I would argue, for example, that Wikipedia has done more for continuing education for all adult learners than any educational institution could have done by itself. ASC's research have purposefully been focused on learning and information access, instead of entertainment, because of our recognition of the importance of social factors in various kinds of learning.

As an example, social learning was explicitly part of the design of our prototype, which is now just being offered in limited beta software to Firefox users, was announced at the recent CHI2009 conference. It streams the annotations you make as you browse the web. The stream is collected into your notebook, and by default this stream of annotation is made available to anyone interested in it. This makes it possible to aggregate social attention later.

[1] Foundations for a New Science of Learning. A. N. Meltzoff, P. K. Kuhl, J. Movellan and T. J. Sejnowski. Science, 325 (5938), 284-288. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1175626].

[2] Photo: Alan Decker and the Machine Perception Lab, UC San Diego.


Jon Awbrey said...

TWISI (the way I see it), Wikipedia has wasted this decade's chance at a real internetional learning community arising on the Web. The only question is whether we learn from its mistakes or waste another.

A research question, a point of view, and the beginnings of a discussion that we very much need to have, here or elsewhere, can be found on this thread.

Ed H. Chi said...


Wikipedia was a giant experiment, and to the surprise of its creators, it sort of worked.

We have learned a great deal how we might be able to harness a community to gather lots of knowledge that can then be redistributed to lots of people. What we still don't understand is how to architect the community, so that it remains healthy over the long term.

ASC's research is aimed at trying to understand what it would take to do that.

Jon Awbrey said...


Being a pragmatist, I appreciate things that work, but working is relative to an end. The Wikipedia cum Wikia mix may be working for some of its co-creators, but many folks of good will who have seen the belly of the beast up close and personal have come to believe that their aims are not to the purpose of public education and unbiased information.

But I can see that remote observers will probably not see the belly of the beast until it rolls over on them, so all I can say at this point is —

Watch Out For That …

Jon Awbrey

Ed H. Chi said...

Jon: I can appreciate what you're trying to say. Wikipedia, for some, is a religion, and as a religion, it has not entirely stood up to the scrutiny of the principles for which it stands. On the other hand, I'm a big fan, because I use the material in Wikipedia on a daily basis, and generally, it has been a useful reference for me to get a handle on the basic bits of information in a topic area.