Popup learning: emergent communities and dynamic engagement

It’s not just books that popup these days: in empty shop units across the country we see art galleries, cafes and even theatres popping up, bringing life to empty units and then moving on as their season ends. Popup culture is everywhere, even, it seems within learning.

For some time i’ve been interested in the concept of decoupling ‘learning’ and ‘place’. The older, formal, notion where we owned both the space the learning took place in (the classroom) and the structure of the learning (the syllabus) has been replaced by a new dynamic where formal learning still exists, but is surrounded by progressively less formal social learning layers. In other words, there is the learning, then the learning that surrounds it!

The things of interest here is that, whilst we tend to ‘own’ the formal learning spaces, the informal ones are facilitated by technology that we may not own. The learning pops up where engagement fertilises it. It’s emergent learning and dynamic engagement that settles wherever the branch will take it’s weight.

Organisations are often obsessive about owning spaces: it’s the first and last resort of the desperate to try to buy their way out of a situation, and social learning is no different. We try to buy the space, to procure the space for the community to exist in. Then we wonder why nobody settles there.

I sometimes use the analogy of the New Towns: social engineering experiments where we build infrastructure, houses, shops, railway lines and schools, pavements and football pitches, and then wait for people to settle. Building infrastructure first looks great on town planning documents, but in reality, communities build and enlarge their infrastructure over time, according to dynamic needs. If you try to race ahead, there is no guarantee that you will get it right: you may simply end up with a ghost town, a space with no population, no community.

It’s the same with social learning spaces: if we try to implement technology solutions to what are, in reality, social communication dynamics, we run the risk of building our own ghost town. The technology facilitates the conversation, but it doesn’t cause it, it doesn’t drive it, it doesn’t own it. The conversation will take place with or without the right technology: it will just pop up.

But this isn’t supposed to be a desperate plea not to invest in infrastructure, rather it’s a call to invest where the community wants investment. Instead of white elephant building that dominate communities and remain unused, we should be investing our time and money in those spaces and activities that demonstrate the greatest growth: a kind of evolutionary approach to investment.

We know the things that drive engagement: if something is relevant to me in my everyday life and role, if it’s couched in my language, my tone of voice, if it’s timely, something that is of interest to me now. Conversely, we know what will drive people out, what will prevent them engaging: no ownership of the message, little relevance, too much complexity unclear terms of engagement. Generally speaking, in social spaces we need to play by social rules. We can no longer make the same demands of people as we can within the more formal spaces of work.

You’ll note that none of the factors above, none of the things that will cause people to engage or disengage are particularly dependent upon who owns the environment, upon which technology is used. Sure, you can keep people out with badly designed and overly complex systems, but generally speaking, the key dynamics are social: is it working with how i like to communicate, with how i like to work, or does it work against me?

Popup shops emerge where there is a need, a desire to do something, but a desire that is unconstrained by those factors that would make it permanent. It’s seasonal, driven by a need that exists today but which may have changed or evolved by tomorrow. The shop unit itself is permanent, but the concept within it changes. Popup shops are reactive and, by their nature, transient: they serve their purpose and leave. And maybe whilst they are there, the people running them learn something that they take forward for next time.

Popup learning spaces exist wherever we come together to learn: in groups on email, on Yammer, on Skype, in cafes, on trains. This morning, on the commuter train, a little group of us had a chat about IT, about how laptops compare to iPads, about the challenges of corporate IT, an informal sharing of ideas and a social encounter all rolled into one. Popup communities occur around us everyday, we call them conversations, but they are part of the informal layer surrounding our formal learning.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Communication, Community, Engagement, Environment, Formal Learning Spaces, Formal Spaces, Informal Learning Spaces, Informal Spaces, Learning Technology, Ownership, Social Learning, Spaces and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Popup learning: emergent communities and dynamic engagement

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