Social Software

Social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road

The Swedish phrase says that one should always look for the golden middle road. The official Sweden puts it in their web site: “in the choice of two roads, we travel the third”. I love our neighbours!

A while ago I discussed with my brother about our students’ attitudes towards learning. My brother is a teacher of philosophy and psychology and I teach some courses in the MA program of the Media Lab in Helsinki. I also have done and still do once in a while some teacher training and workshops in different places. We both also have a formal education in pedagogy. This is to say, that what I write now on is not research results from any study, but some insight from practical experiences of two people working in the field of education. By using Fle3 vocabulary I could say that this is our “working theory”.

We have recognized that our students can be located to three dimensions related to their attitudes towards learning. We claim that learning may take place only between the extremes of these three dimensions. Another working theory is – if the first one is correct – that meaningful use of social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road, between the extremes of the dimensions.

The three dimensions of attitudes towards learning are: (1) Attitude towards myself as a learner (subject); (2) Attitude towards the knowledge under study (object); (3) Attitude towards the learning situation (instruments & community).

(1) Attitude towards myself as a learner (subject)

This dimensions is about how students see themselves as learners. Some of them think, that they already know everything they ever need. There is no reason to study because the course will not teach or give them anything.

On the other hand some student’s claim that they don’t know anything about the topics studied, and for this reason they can’t participate to the learning process. They don’t have anything to say.

(2) Attitude towards the knowledge under study (object)

The attitude towards the knowledge under study can vary between total dogmatism and scepticism. Student may search for single right answers and they claim, that it is all one needs to do to learn and know. For these people the most knowledgeable person is the one who remember by hear the largest part of the Bible, the Koran, Collected Works of Lenin, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Wikipedia doesn’t work in here because it is not dogmatic, but relative and dynamic knowledge source) or some other source of information that is raised by some community to the position of being the dogma.

Once again there is the other extreme: the rigid scepticism and relativism. These students claim that there is no reason to study because everything is changing all the time and nothing is permanent. These students are asking: why should we study, if what we study will tomorrow be anyway wrong or at least different?

(3) Attitude towards the learning situation (instruments & community)

The third dimension of attitude is related to the situation where the learning is taking place. Learnin may take place in classroom, online or in a small study group. Some students are very pedant and want to focus only on some specific theme in their studies. These students are those who are very good in something and for instance in a group-work they always want to do only those things they already master. They want to get better and better in their own narrow field. In Swedish (and Finnish, too) we have a name for these people. They are called “fackidiot” / fakki-idiootti (in Finnish). The Swedish world fack (facket fack, facken) means a box and a compartment. The word comes from the same Latin origin as the English word faculty.

In the other end of this dimension is total overlook and ignorance of the specific topics in the studies. These students feel that there is no need to get into the details. They think that all that matter is the overall picture and that there are always special experts who will taker care of the details. In a group work situations these people try to be the leaders of the group without any real participation to the process or with practical tasks assigned to them.

And then few words about social software. I believe that use of social software (blogs, wikis and Fle3 kind of CSCL systems) may help students to have the right attitude that supports learning. With social software students may find it easier to stay on the golden middle road.

Firstly, the social software makes it very clear for all, that it is hard to be the most knowledgeable person in any field. The social software also shows that often the brightest people are very into learning more about their field than to show off how clever they are. On the other hand social software gives all the users voice to tell their interpretation of the topics under study. They almost scream: “speak up your opinion!” And people speak up. This way it is difficult to claim that you know nothing.

Secondly, in social software systems there are hardly dogmas. There are often rules related to the functioning of the community, but no idea that one should first agree on some set of facts before having the right to participate. A total scepticism doesn’t work either. When you build on top of other peoples thoughts you must trust on them. You must believe that what they are saying is based on something. This requires that you are critical and all the time evaluating other peoples thoughts relevance.

Thirdly, in social software systems the pedant specialists – or the fackidiots – of some narrow disciplines do not get a lot of points. If you are not able to explain the relevance of you work for other people it easily ends-up to be just useless tinkering. Like in music the technical virtuosity of one instrument is useless if it does not server the entire composition. But, like in all the other dimensions, there is the other extremity in this one, too. Also the people who are just overlooking are easily caught in social software systems. You can’t compose for a symphony orchestra if you do not know what tunes you get out of different instruments of the orchestra.

Is there anyone interested in to do some empirical study about these topics?

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