Seeking inspiration yesterday, i ventured into the Stedilijk museum in Amsterdam. It promised to help me in two ways: a world class collection of modern art and unlimited free WiFi. The perfect destination.
We appreciate art on two levels: the object and the meaning. Our exposure to it is often through photographs in books or online, but the experience is very different in person. You can only appreciate the object itself when it’s in front of you, when you can see the textures, view it in context with other objects, when you can spot the flaws. In books, we see a representation, but it’s not the real thing. The colours, whilst good, will be different. The texture in a print, whilst detailed, can never be as detailed as reality. Any representation of art is but a shadow.
So much of our ability to learn is based around the abstraction of ideas: we rarely learn ‘things‘ so much as ‘associations of things‘. A key is an object, but my front door key is an object with meaning. ‘Keys‘ in general open doors, my front door key opens my door, it’s meaning is beyond the generic. It’s why an active imagination is never a bad thing in learning: our ability to abstract, to associate, to create meaning, is central. It’s why we collect things, because of their associated meaning: the hat that Lincoln wore is more ‘valuable‘ than my hat, because of the association, the metadata if you like! Even if our hats were identical, even if mine were an antique, manufactured by the same person on the same day, Lincoln’s hat will always be more valuable. Or at least it will be if you know who Lincoln was.
When we look at social learning, learning that takes place in virtual communities, it differs from learning that takes place in the real world. When we use simulations or roleplays, they differ from real experiences. They are but shadows. There is great value in them, but they are mirrors of reality, not reality itself, and that’s why it can sometimes be so hard to take learning out of the classroom and into our everyday reality: because they are different things. It can be hard to make the links.
Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter who, through the thirties and forties, produced a series of large scale painting based on large swathes of colour. In print, they are simple: solid blocks, but represented on postcards. In print, for me, they have no power. In real life, they are different: for a start, they consume your visual field. Stood in front of one, it’s pretty much all i can see, but it’s not a solid block of colour: i can make out brush strokes and areas that are darker where more layers of paint have been applied. Then there are the ‘zip’ lines as he called them, vertical lines that create a focal point in the image. When viewing at this scale, we cling to these as recognisable points in an otherwise bland image. It’s true of all learning: we cling to that which we know whilst we venture into the unexplored.
The experience in real life is much different from the virtual: it has meaning.
Effective learning design will encompass the strengths of all media and methodologies. It will do things in the virtual world that can’t be done in the real one, such as forming persistent communities and facilitating conversations, and it will do things in real life that can’t be done in the virtual, feeling the textures, capturing every nuance of look and expression. Together, they compliment each other, together they are stronger than one alone.
As i was walking around the museum, there was a group of American students there, art students. They were interested in the gallery space itself, i could hear their lecturer talking about the way galleries are funded, the way that the staircase we were on had been sponsored. She talked about how even the toilets at the Met in New York were sponsored. I found the conversations between lecturer and students as interesting as the art around me: the way that they had taken their conversation out of the classroom and into the real world. Truly social learning. Then, after their ‘formal‘ learning experience had finished, they wandered around in twos and threes, continuing the conversations. These groups took the knowledge and worked amongst themselves to create meaning. As i walked through the light and airy galleries, around modern art installations, i saw these groups colliding, something reforming, sometimes sharing stories, making recommendations, challenging each others interpretations: classic examples of role formation, support and challenge in social learning spaces.
Museums are artificial constructs, they have no meaning other than to hold collections, to creation superimpositions and construct narratives around them. They are places that hold stories, but as i walked around and as i heard the students talking, i saw it in a much more dynamic space, a spiders web of meaning, of conversations, with each of us interacting in the real world and online, creating meaning, learning.