Here, catch this…

It could be a sign that your brain needs to cool down, but in social settings, it may simply be a reaction to the people around you: a contagious yawn. It’s easy to stimulate a yawn, perhaps by showing a picture, even just by thinking of yawning (are you yawning yet?). The important notion to take from this is that one particular motive for learning and adopting certain patterns of behaviour comes from the desire to fit in with a social group. Humans are social animals after all. Consider this an introduction to the Social Learning Tools User Focus groups happening between 22 and 27 March.

Learning and imitation

In The Meme Machine (1999), Susan Blackmore proposes that learning by imitation is an important defining characteristics of the human species.  The runaway evolution of brain size seen in human evolutionary history she attributes to selection for the ability to imitate. Thus we can see an important motive for learning to be empathy and social affinity.

It has been argued that the function of consciousness is not to provide us with this feeling we have of ‘me-ness’, but rather it is the ability to run a simulation in our minds of just what it is like to be ‘the other guy’. This potential for empathy is the basis of our ability to understand the social world, and the motives of others.

Relationships as motivation

Social relationships and social contexts are central to the activity of learning. Human social relationships provide both a powerful motive and goal for learning, and also a supportive context in which learning can progress. We look to others for definitions of what is considered important in the world; just what it is that will be useful and relevant to learn.

For example, it is frequently remarked that students will only pay attention to work that is assessed and graded. This might be pessimistically viewed as evidence that the students are solely goal driven, not intrinsically interested in the subject material at all. We might also see it, however, as proof that students (who are busy people) are keenly seeking information about what their teachers value, so that they can direct their attentions accordingly.  What is, or is not, assessed on a course may provide at least one source of this.

So what does this mean for Social Learning Tools?

Well, let’s start by problematising the term ‘tool’. It implies an instrument to be used, separate from us. That’s fine, but be aware that this might trap us into a particular way of thinking about technology. For convention’s sake, we can certainly say ‘social learning tools’ when referring to certain portals of digital interaction, blogs, wikis, chats, forums; and yet keep in mind that the most powerful social learning tools are really us.

Sociomateriality. It’s totes a ‘thing’.

We may flippantly refer to something as a ‘thing’. But a thing is formed by relationships. The stronger the social networks are between the human and non-human, the more something can be called a ‘thing’. The ‘althing’ in Norse government was people coming together to talk about and reaffirm their relationships. We could say the more thingy a thing, the thingier it becomes.

So now let’s invite the non-human into the conversation. What we think of as social learning is undeniably embedded with a lot of material stuff. If we refocus on the connections and relationships that form through social learning tools, we can get a deeper appreciation of what Orlikowski calls “The constitutive entanglement of the social and material in everyday organisational life” (2007: 1483). Our questions tend towards ‘what happens when things connect?’ rather than ‘what happens when humans use a tool?’. Thus we can acknowledge the ways that “seemingly passive and inert objects act upon and shape us” in our everyday life. (Law, 1994: 101)

Actor Network Theory means something for education.

ANT is about tracking relationships between humans and non-humans. It’s about ceasing to privilege humans over non-humans and ultimately rejecting dichotomies that we take for granted: social/technical, human/non-human, community/individual by considering things relationally.

If that’s seems absurd or confusing, that’s because a key part of ANT is that it is to be sensed rather than defined. It’s about shifting understanding and retuning our reality. Not just using our brains but also our senses to analyse the social life of things – caring about rather than neglecting them.

You may be thinking, like I am: “We don’t really need to be caring more about Social Learning Tools in education, our minds, waking and sleeping, are already bombarded with social media notifications and distraction”; and my response to that is “aye, there’s the rub”, for in that ubiquity of media, what learning may come? If we as educators are not at the centre of it, fostering a critical awareness of how these systems operate, then we fail to help our students understand the power of owning, literally and figuratively, their digital identities.

The social metaphor is messy

We often think of the social as something ‘out there’ when what we’re really talking about is a messy, slippery, heterogenous practice of association that is constantly being made and remade. When we rely too heavily on particular metaphors like ‘social’ and ‘society’ to designate this messiness, we might actually be blinding ourselves to it.

Vygotsky is over…

Just kidding. Vygotsy’s ideas for social learning are the foundation. But we can take our understanding way further by starting to consider emergent concepts in post-humanism like Socio-materiality and Actor- Network Theory in the way we put social learning tools into play.

Nothing is ever finished

This means that reality is not something ‘out there’ to be captured, but is repeatedly performed into existence. This is something of the essence of why social learning tools matter for education. The social order is not fixed but actually the combination of “endless attempts at ordering” and there is something empowering about this for everyone involved in education.

Feature Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay CC0

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