A weekend of sunshine has reminded me of one of the crucial differences between the real world and the virtual: the weather. Whilst we build relationships and friendships in both real and social contexts, whilst we manage challenges and reflect on learning in both, we only get rained on in the real world.
When considering social learning spaces, online environments that can be used to surround and support learning, it’s worth considering what carries across from the real world and what is fundamentally different in the virtual. The weather, well, that’s definitely something for the real world, but what about other things such as trust, identity and success? Do all of these things carry across the digital divide unaltered, or do we need to consider a more fundamental shift in our mindset?
The clearest differences between real and social learning spaces are the lack of geographical barriers and the opportunities provided for reflection and feedback. Our physical communities tend to be grounded in a location, be it an office, a country or friend group, whilst our social media, digital relationships tend to be based around common interests, but are independent of location. The nature and permanence of written communication, increasingly so in an ever more indexed and search engine optimised world, also changes the dynamics of relationships as our conversations in reality remain unrecorded, whilst our nattering in the virtual world is captured for posterity.
We know that we have more chances for introspection, reflection and self moderation in the virtual world, more chances to write something and then edit it, so that our broadcast ‘self’ is less spontaneous (sometimes) than our ‘real’ selves. I believe that this greater opportunity for introspection can fundamentally change the types of conversations that take place in the social learning space: neither the truly spontaneous conversation we have face to face, but neither the fully formalised dialogue of an exam or a paper. I like the idea that we can built our social spaces to be neither one thing nor the other, neither fully formal, but not informal either, but rather a third space where conversation is moderated and steered, but provides greater opportunity for exploration and reflection and, hence, learning.
Some dynamics carry across from the real world: partnerships, support, empathy, all of which we see in the behaviours of people in forum spaces, where collaboration can be spontaneous and generous. Indeed, generosity of spirit can be seen equally in social or real spaces.
Trust and identity are more fluid online, subject to more interpretation and with greater potential for abuse or unintended mistakes. The semi formal worlds of social learning spaces are both the same and different from what we are used to. Enough is the same to give us a sense of security and familiarity, but enough is different that this sense of security may be misplaced. It may be that we should be keeping our guard up somewhat higher.
As both organisations and individuals delve further into the potential of social learning, which means much more than just putting up a forum or chat room, or starting a Twitter feed, we will see far more successes, but also far more errors and mistakes. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, but social mistakes are costly at an emotional level and once bitten may make you thrice shy. We need to be bold explorers of the potential, but paying due regard to the comfort and familiarity of our learners, trying to ensure that we are all clear what is the same and what’s new. We can no longer assume that people know.