Social Learning: Online Resources And Personal Edification

At the UT Health Science Center, I’m involved in a group called PrISM SA — The Professional Interest in Social Media (PrISM) Group. It’s a collection of professionals who are primarily from the university who want to discuss, evaluate and share ideas related to the use of social media at a university institution. It meets monthly and is organized primarily through Twitter and the PrISM website.

In the most recent meeting, we had a short presentation and discussion about “social learning.”  In very simple terms, “social learning” is learning with and through others as a group.  So often, though, “social learning” seems to be intermixed with “social media learning,” which seems to focus on the idea of using online social media tools (and here I incorporate things like Blackboard or LiveMeeting into the broad definition of “social media”) to facilitate learning or, indeed, to teach whole courses.  There are an abundance of online courses now: from short webinars or tutorials from Linda.com to whole university courses or entire degrees.

I found the discussion very interesting as probably the number one question I have gotten from people when I have told them I am going to UT’s iSchool is “why aren’t you doing the [insert university name here] online course?”

Let me pause and say here that I don’t disparage online degrees in any way.  There are several really strong online library science programs (the ones I’ve been asked the most about are the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign’s and the University of North Texas’) and they are the best option for some people in certain circumstances, and I know many great librarians who have done or are doing their MLS in that way.  It’s just not for me.

Setting aside my desire to do very physical, hands-on book preservation (which doesn’t really gel that well with online learning), I find it really difficult to learn from a computer.  I love lectures.  I love classrooms.  I take notes by hand with a real ink pen on real paper in a real notebook.  My first experience with online learning was a Latin class (and I know, I know, taking an online language course probably set me up for failure, but it was the only way it was offered at my university) and I found the entire experience terrible.  Maybe part of it was my fault.  I found it very hard to manage my time when I didn’t have an external source (like travel time, parking time, class time, etc) around which to structure my day.  I also found it difficult to comprehend what I was learning and complete assignments.  I probably spent more time in the professor’s office talking to him about the coursework than I would have spent hours listening to a lecture sitting in a classroom.

In the end, I just don’t like it.  To me, “social learning” should be done in a way that is closer to the Socratic circle method or the one-on-one tutorial method used at Oxford and Cambridge.  I am the sort of person who thinks best when in conversation with other people.  I can’t arrive at a final, complete opinion or argument in a void; I need to have people around me to bounce ideas off of and to give me new and different perspectives to think about.  And this doesn’t just apply to my academic work: recently I’ve been teasing apart the intricate nuances of some characters in short stories.  I asked a close friend (also a writer) to look over my profile sketches and talking to her about her thoughts and interpretations led me to rethink and reinterpret my characters and arrive at deeper understandings of their motivations.  In my (admittedly limited) experience of online learning, I just haven’t gotten the same collaborative learning that I do offline.  It’s face-to-face contact that makes education enjoyable to me — and webcams don’t cut it.

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2 thoughts on “Social Learning: Online Resources And Personal Edification

  1. I think the ‘social learning’ craze (as it does seem to be now) also vastly overestimates the current availability of digital sources. There are lots of good digital archiving projects, but they’re really slow going, and (at least in my experience for Late Antiquities) face a never-ending series of political and legal obstacles. I would love for more sources to be available online, not just for online teaching, but also for international projects, but at least for Medieval history, I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it online because they’re just not going to have access to a wide-enough range of sources.

    /end rant

    • Are there a lot of online courses/degrees for medieval history? I have to admit I was really surprised by the number of online library science degrees, and especially by the number of questions I got about why I wasn’t going into one. To me, it doesn’t really make sense to do what I want to do as an online degree, since it’s so hands on and, like you say, the resources just aren’t there.

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