Whilst driving yesterday, i was thinking about the nature of relationships. Some of the people in the car i knew well, one i had never met before. With those people who i knew, there was a dialogue based on understanding and shared experience, none of which we could draw on with the new member of the group. There’s no doubt about it that familiarity changes the nature of communication.
I’m working on a research project at the moment to quantify how relationships formed in the real world differ from those forged in the virtual one. I think it’s hugely significant for organisations as they start to include increasing volumes of social learning within their methodology: when do we get people together, how and why? Is there a true value in face to face? Are virtual relationships different or stronger? What are the issues of integrity, trust and collaboration?
Part of understanding these dynamics is to understand what it is that we look for in communities of learning, either in the real world, the virtual or combined. Support? Challenge? Friendship? Probably all three and possibly more. We come together in adversity as well as for collaboration.
We know that people engage in spaces that are relevant, but that’s not why we enter friendships. Whilst there may be a practical element that we want friends so that we don’t have a BBQ alone, we also practically draw upon their guidance, advice and expertise, to help fit a kitchen or to advise on that uncomfortable rash. Or maybe that’s something that goes beyond friendship, but it’s certainly something that you’d draw on a different relationship about: that with your doctor.
Medical relationships are a great example of how the real and virtual differ. People are far more comfortable disclosing embarrassing personal information in the virtual world than the real one!
Understanding the dynamics of relationships and how they support and challenge learning is complicated, but that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t try. Too often we just focus on the historic relationship between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, but in an increasingly social world of learning, we need to broaden our viewpoint right back at the instructional design stage. We need to incorporate our understanding of how relationships are formed and what purposes they serve, both in the formal worlds of the office, the informal worlds of our social lives and the grey space where both collide.