Real learning, like innovation, is a participative activity. Insight and ideas come when people collaborate, compare, argue, build and rebuild.
“Through the Web and other technologies, we have new ways not just to connect with other people who are sources of ideas, but to develop ideas together and to share and to potentially create new ideas and new forms of knowledge,” said Charles Leadbeater, author of We-Think, a book exploring how social technology and mass participation can be used to harness creativity and create innovation.
Leadbeater is set to deliver a keynote address in December at Online Educa Berlin, an annual e-learning conference that brings together 2,000 people in Berlin. He said while technology opens up new ways to learn and create innovation, it is the means and not the end. Learning and innovation are inherently social and creative activities, not technological.
Thomas Edison is commonly perceived as a solitary inventor, but in reality he managed a team of collaborators who developed the phonograph and electric light bulb. Going back even further, the epic poems of the ancient Greeks were actually developed collaboratively and orally over a long period of time. It was only later that scholars applied the name Homer to them.
“As most of these things were, [it was] the product of people in a community sharing ideas whilst also competing to get better at using them,” he said. While these human tendencies have long been with us, what is different now is the technology to enable them on a mass scale.
“What the Web produces and what this communicative culture produces is the possibility that you might be able to find just the right other person to do something with; you might be able to find just the right source of knowledge; [and] increasingly with collaborative tools, you might be able to organize yourselves in a creative way to analyze complex problems, to agree on what should be done, to develop knowledge in different ways,” Leadbeater said.
New social and collaborative technology has created huge opportunities to connect people for collaboration, innovation and learning, but it’s still only one piece of the learning puzzle.
“Were we to become completely dependent upon a mixture of Wikipedia, Google and YouTube, and that was the only way we could ever imagine learning, then that would be dreadful,” Leadbeater said.
What’s needed is a way to harness technology to connect people and extend our capacity to sustain collaboration for innovation and learning. In constructing the ideal environment for collaboration — technological and personal — it’s critical that leaders establish a structure, give collaborators tools to engage with one another and create a sense of community.
“If it simply becomes another tool for people in authority to deliver, ‘This is what you need to learn,’ then it just becomes a sort of delivery vehicle, like a postal system or a teacher standing at a blackboard, except it’s using a computer,” Leadbeater said.
Most importantly, collaboration requires an interesting problem or question to spark people’s interest and pull them in. If all the answers are known in advance, there is no room for innovation.
“If learning is just pushing stuff out at people, it’s not very effective,” Leadbeater said, “but if you allow people to pull knowledge to them because they’re really interested in the question and trying to find out the answer, it’s much more effective.”
In that environment, a good teacher or leader recognizes when learners need new information, when they might need a new challenge, and when they need guidance or no guidance at all.
“Good teaching and learning is like a duet for piano — it’s a sort of interplay,” Leadbeater said. “Properly used, technology can really help that interplay, but if it’s clumsily done, then it becomes dull again.”
The goal and challenge is to create learning in a much more fluid and open way. A leader sets the tone and direction and then knows when to get out of the way, motivating learners to solve problems rather than instructing them what to do. The sad truth about much learning right now is that it’s just not very interesting, Leadbeater said.
“If you want people to voluntarily commit to learn things when they’ve got a lot of other pressures on their time,” he said, “then you have to make it really interesting, you have to make it fun or give it a payoff or that they’re going to meet other people.
“If there is one thing that you really need to do, it’s to tap into people’s motivation. You could have all the tools you’d like — networks and platforms and wikis — but if it’s not really interesting and it’s not doing something for them, then they won’t really come.”
Mike Prokopeak is the editorial director for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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