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Individual vs. Collective learning

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In a recent post – how we learn, and why we don’t, David pollard mentioned -‘collective learning’, a subject I was already skeptical about even then: I was, and remain convinced that learning is an intensely personal, individual experience, and that we all learn differently. He also mentioned that – The purpose of learning is ultimately Darwinian.

I agree David, but I think this individualism is not in built in our learning psychology. It is something our ranking and certification based education system implanted into us. And the same learning culture is carried forward by people into organizations after “warming the seat in classroom” type learning for 16+ years.

If we consider four phased organizational learning – Introduction, Assimilation, Translation and Accumulation*, every phase could be enhanced (specially the accumulation of experience) by collective learning.

*Charls L.Fred

Let me share an experience from my own life. 16 years of my formal education taught me nothing! Not even how to learn. I got moderate ranks and collected all piece of papers which only help me to get a job, not in doing one. After my collage days I joined a post graduate diploma course in computer science. That was a complete different learning experience for me. There the ranks and certificates don’t matter much; instead the actual application oriented knowledge took precedence. 5 of us formed a group of learners and started collaborative learning. Each of us used to study different topic and teach others in the theory and lab sessions. We were able to cover more with less time. We were also amazed to notice the depth we achieved by sharing knowledge.

Going back to David’s post – He quoted David Kolb from “Experimental Learning” – where he described a four-phase learning ‘cycle’: Experiencing, Reflection/Observation, Conceptualization, and Experimentation/Application. If this is indeed how we learn, it is not surprising that ‘on-the-job’ learning trumps ‘book’ learning. If we learn by doing, it is hard to imagine a worse learning environment than the classroom or boardroom. And it also explains how stories, which are so engaging, so participatory, are such effective teaching tools: You are sharing your experience in the story, not merely your observations and conceptualizations. It also explains the popularity of Case Studies in the classroom and best Practices in the workplace, though both of these are extremely poor substitutes for first-hand learning. Kolb describes four basic ‘Learning Styles’: ” Diverging: most learning comes from experiencing and reflection ” Assimilating: most learning comes from reflection and conceptualization ” Converging: most learning comes from conceptualization and application ” Accommodating: most learning comes from application and experiencing.

But my greatest take from this post where David listed top 10 constraints to learning in our modern culture:
1. We don’t allow ourselves (and society doesn’t allow us) enough time for wonder.
2. Our workplace activities and our home routines are often repetitious and stimulus-poor.
3. We don’t do anything together anymore.
4. We get too much of our life experience second-hand (from books & movies, and online).
5. We suffer from imaginative poverty — we won’t let ourselves imagine, and now we’ve largely forgotten how to imagine.
6. Our lives are too organized and too scheduled to allow serendipitous experiences and hence serendipitous learning.
7. In this world full of terrible knowledge and awful realities, we are becoming afraid to learn. We cannot bear too much reality, too much bad news, and we don’t want to accept the awful responsibility that knowing and learning brings with it.

8. Everything about the current Western educational system impedes and discourages learning.
9. The media have addicted themselves, and us, to facts rather than meaning.
We have ‘desensitized’ ourselves — we process everything mainly with our left brain, so we no longer really see, really hear, really smell, really taste, really feel.

Before going back to original Individual vs. collective learning let me mention another post by David Wilcox about Why people don’t share what they know where he suggested some key cultural change in an organization to enhance knowledge sharing –

  1. A culture that encouraged bottom-up ideas development and sharing
  2. Some online enthusiasts – existing or potential
  3. People with influence and resources in the organization prepared to join in, even if they weren’t leading
  4. Preparedness to take a few risks and get out of their boxes

Recently Jay Cross posted “Collective Intelligence” originated by George Por’s “The emergence of CI, an online experiment” where he asked – How can a group of individual intelligences become truly collective intelligence? How can they escape into a more complex and capable collective intelligence, without sacrificing their autonomy? “Collective intelligence is a distributed capacity of communities to evolve towards higher order integration and performance through collaboration and innovation.”

What’s necessary to foster this collective intelligence (CI)? George suggests it’s

  1. Shared learning agenda
  2. Trusted relationships among members,
  3. Frequent opportunities to participate in conversation.

Tugging in the other direction are these inhibiters:

  1. Ego and turf-battles
  2. Conversations are not connected and facilitated for emergence
  3. The community’s knowledge ecosystem is week or poorly integrated
  4. New technologies are not leveraged to balance the constraints imposed by cultural, geographic, hierarchical and other barriers.

I would like to add couple more points on obstacles on CI -

  1. Organizational culture supports hierarchy based “divide and rule” policy
  2. The fear of being dispensable associated with sharing knowledge (this become more and more relevant when we talk about core tactic organizational knowledge)

Finally I would like to mention an article by Jon Udell The social enterprise where he mentioned – If individuals agree to work transparently, they (and their employers) can know more, do more, and sell more.

Written by anol

April 10th, 2004 at 11:32 am

2 Responses to 'Individual vs. Collective learning'

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  1. A nice post. The insights are relevant for the kind of work I am doing.


    7 Nov 07 at 9:39 am

  2. Collective learning is similar but not identical to collaborative learning. In collective learning the development of knowledge is attributed to the system of human agents interacting dynamically with artifacts. This has been applied in the field of distance learning, especially in relation to Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) and other computer-supported learning tools. Collective learning illustrates the process of interaction between people and technologies in order to determine how to best represent, store and provide access to digital resources and other artifacts.

    Collaborative tagging on the world wide web is one of the most recent developments in technological support for collective learning. Beginning in 2004 and quickly becoming a standard on websites, collaborative tagging allows users to upload or select materials (e.g. pictures, music files, texts, websites) and associate tags with these materials. Tags can be chosen freely, and are similar to keywords. Other users can then browse through tags; a click on a tag connects a user to similarly tagged materials. Tags furthermore enable tag clouds, which graphically represent the popularity of tags, demonstrating co-occurrence relations between tags and thus jump from one tag to another.

    Collective learning can also be seen through cultures and communities. Learning certain habits or following certain traditions is seen as cognition distributed over a group of people. Exploring distributed cognition through community and culture is one way to understand how collective learning works.

    With the new research that is emerging in this field, the overarching concept of distributed cognition enhances the understanding of interactions between humans, machines and environments.

    [edit] Quotes

    Jose A. Fadul

    9 Mar 09 at 12:00 pm

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