Generative AI and the Potential for (Anti) Social Learning

As ChatGPT and it’s comrades take the world by storm, amazing and delighting us with their natural language and peculiar quirks, it is no surprise that both hype, and hyperbole are ripe, alongside opportunism and marketing. But make no mistake, a deployable technology with virtually no barrier to usability, a technology that is veiled behind that most human of things – conversations – will change almost everything.

Some of that change will be contextual: the Story Engines will erode legacy contexts, especially where structural knowledge, or infrastructure, or in many cases long held skills, were required, and make them things of the everyday. For starters, the creation of art, of story, arguably the construction of expertise, and even the languages of music and film. These things are not simply moving from the exclusive to the commoditised, they are moving into the flow of our imagination.

Many effects will be secondary: the thing that they directly enable will seem minor, but the change they effect at scale will be dramatic.

And much of this will revolve around learning: today i want to consider the impacts of the varied Story and Art Engines on Learning itself, and specifically on Social and Collaborative learning.

My own work around Social Learning really sits at the intersection of formal and social systems, and between the owned and the distributed ones. It takes a view that some learning is fully formal (a story told to us by the Organisation), some is fully social (stories constructed and held in our tribal communities), and some may land in the middle space – essentially tribal in origin (so grounded, authentic, lived, experiential, owned), but accessible globally (if we earn the right).

The mechanisms of this type of learning are varied, but we can pick out core aspects of methodology and operation: in Organisational contexts we would look at Scaffolded Social Learning, where we create some structure and a path, but allow learners to make their own way down the track, using a series of spaces and gateways to provide both freedom to explore, and the structural safety and assurance that Organisations require. This type of learning creates diverse capability: not everyone doing one thing one way, but potentially everyone doing the same thing their own way, but with a broad range of ideas and approaches, which gives a greater versatilely in capability. I have taken to calling this a Generalised Capability, and it ties int directly to notions of the Socially Dynamic Organisation: one that can adapt, that carries a diversified strength.

But what about the Story Engines?

Well: Social Learning takes place through a range of traits and circumstances, approaches and features, such as curiosity, challenge, storytelling, story listening, iteration, prototyping, rehearsal, action learning, looping, fracturing certainty, consensus, trust, consequence, and failure. And pretty much all of these things may be enhanced, replicated, or re-contextualised by ChatGPT and it’s ilk.

Take the most simple of features of a learning system: curiosity. Within a Social Learning scaffolding, we would seek to create space, and community, for curiosity. To facilitate the behaviours, and dialogue, of it.

Social Learning is essentially dialogue based: and it’s no surprise that a new technology, which is also dialogue based, would impact so directly.

Until this point, the specific discipline of the Social Learning designer was to create the scaffolding, which is essentially an information architecture role, and differed from the Instructional Designer per se in that it was focussed more on creating spaces and structure than assets and infrastructure. But the Story Engines do not just answer questions: they prompt and scaffold curiosity itself. They can signpost and direct. They can help you to be more curious.

This is a fundamental shift from something which had become so endemic that we allowed the miraculous to seem utilitarian.

For all of human history, knowledge has been power, and we went to great lengths to capture it, codify it, and control it. I have shared before my story of standing in Morocco before an 800 year old armoured library door, with three keyholes, and to gain access to said library you would have to debate and discuss your right with the three scholars who held the keys. But search engines demolished the boundary: knowledge became distributed and hence democratised, but in the process, knowledge itself evolved. Becoming more dynamic, socially co-created, fluid, and dare we say worth less? In parallel work i have argued that the creation of ‘meaning’ is now the key ability for an individual or group. To create ‘meaning’ out of knowledge, and to operate within it.

So the first point of fracture was twofold: the distribution of knowledge, but also the evolving nature of that distributed knowledge itself. And now we come to a second point of fracture, because the Story Engines have a bolt on module. They can be Curiosity Engines, and essentially act as Capability Engines too.

You could correctly argue that the search engines, and the spaces of co-created knowledge, like Wikipedia, or YouTube, have enabled this type of approach before, and they have. But the difference is that the experience is now essentially a human one, a conversational one. Not an act of search.

Which raises the notion of (Anti) Social Learning: collaborative, but not with others. Curious in company, but alone.

The notion that we can embed the Story Engines into the learning experience, not as repository of information, and not as searchable data, but as learning companion, and directly as ‘sense making’ entity.

Engines as Sense Makers.

Sense Making, the creation of meaning, sits at the heart of Social Learning, and the heart of learning more broadly, by whichever mode or mechanism it occurs.

Purists will continue to argue that creativity, curiosity, intelligence, art, storytelling, even true insight, are uniquely human traits. Just yesterday i took part in a seminar where we considered the spiritual dimensions of knowledge. But there is always a point where philosophical endeavour bumps up against practical reality.

Or to put it another way, if it sounds like a duck, and looks like a duck, it is, essentially, a duck.

Part of our human nature is to believe in our uniqueness. And unique we are. But not alone. And the place to focus may be on story and art.

We are made of stories: they are really the only way we share what is ‘inside’ with the ‘other’. When i tell you what i feel, think, want, these are all stories. My shopping list is a story, as is a poem i write, or a legal contract.

And now we share these stories, and not just in words. The latest generations of AI will give us almost synchronous image creation, the ability to ‘create’ music, to speak different languages (visual and otherwise) and to generate films of our innermost ideas. As we plug these systems together, we will be able to imagine sculpture, to dance poems, to write colours, and to breathe knowledge.

Within the context of Social Learning, we can create spaces for dialogue, alone. We can create scaffolding, but also switch to sharing prompts. Developing perhaps a guide for the journey that is less about structure, more about topics, questions, ideas, spaces, even images.

It speaks to an evolution, again, of the role of the ‘designer’, if that term even persists. Perhaps more the Learning Conductor.

And of course it will speak to an evolution of assessment and measurement itself. The ability for analysis and meta analysis of the ‘answers’, the ‘stories’ created within the learning experience will itself lead to further insight and understanding. The creation of new meaning.

‘Story’ has been liberated from the human. And with it we have the potential for collaboration itself to be more meaningfully held between Story Engine and Storyteller. Or Story Listener.

When people talk about bias, about limitation, and about inaccuracy or quirks, that is to miss the point. What has arrived is a new paradigm of knowledge and learning. Everything else is a kink.

These systems do not advance iteratively, an inch at a time: growth is exponentially powerful. Or to put it another way: the technology is already leaving almost all aspects of ethics, power, control, and structure, in it’s wake.

Most likely this will impact directly into Organisations: those that manage to grasp this, and to creatively utilise the Story Engines not simply as enhanced search tools, but tools of dialogue, problem definition, prototyping, and for the creation of direct meaning, will leap ahead.

Tools that can analyse the quality of documentation, can provide real time improvements in communication and human to human collaboration, which can allow for rehearsal of language and story, and which can provide contextualised challenge for leaders.

If our very human imagination does not get in the way, the possibilities are endless.

We are liberated, we are freed, we are stories.

There will be a rush to product, but we would be wise to remain agile. Whilst the roots of this opportunity are technological, the potential is social.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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