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Parkin Space: Palaeolithic Learning 2.0


Godfrey Parkin
The fascinating thing about learning 2.0 is that though its unfortunate label gives the impression that it is all about bleeding edge technology, technology is not a prerequisite and never has been. The networking tools certainly help, and have projected this notion of informal learning networks onto our training radar screens.

But hasn’t all learning outside of the classroom always been learning 2.0? Even back in the time when the secrets of hunting mammoths or making fire were being taught by one generation to the next, it was informal, spontaneous networks of shared experience and wisdom that enabled the transfer. Palaeolithic learners just didn’t have the mobile web (though no doubt their IMs would have been just as indecipherable as those of post-millennial learners).

We all need labels to make our world an easier place to live in. We buy into categorisations, stereotypes and generalisations to help take some of the complexity out of the true diversity of things. We do it to people (“She’s an MBIT ENFJ”). We do it to companies (“They are a learning organisation”). And we do it to systems and processes (“We are using blended learning for that”).

There is nothing wrong with labels of convenience, so long as they are accurate and so long as we acknowledge that there are many other perhaps more important dimensions to the thing thus labelled. Attila the Hun was an ENTJ, but his Myers-Briggs classification is hardly the aspect of his character that one would choose to describe him by. We also need to be sure that everyone else shares the same understanding of what those labels imply.

As the complexity of knowledge accelerates, it is becoming increasingly necessary to label, or tag things. Apparently the volume of ‘new data’ produced in the world currently doubles every three days, as opposed to every three decades this time last century.

OK, most of that is spam and nearly all of it is addressed to me. But to deal with the rest we need to have a way of classifying it so we can store and retrieve what we need. On the web not too long ago, we had the Yahoo directory system, where a web page would get placed under one, and only one, subdirectory in a vast tree of classifications. Then search engines started reading the hidden headers on a page and letting you look for those. Later on, Google started reading the actual words on the page, and recording the number and importance of other pages that linked to each page, so you could get a pretty solid listing of important sources for any word or phrase of interest.

But even the best search engines can’t make value judgments about how ‘good’ a piece is: how ‘authoritative’ it is, how ‘well written’ and how well it fits the context of your query, or how to apply it. For that, you need to go back in time to the directory approach, where human eyes and human judgment can make those hard-to-programme qualitative decisions.

Google is primitive compared with the intuitive data retrieval system our own brains use to tell us what we know when we need it. Do we need a similar system that will let us access what others in our immediate and more distant networks know? Isn’t that what ‘learning 2.0’ (another expedient label) is all about?

That’s where ‘web 2.0’ phenomena like wikis, and Digg are starting to make inroads – places where individuals en masse can add tags and commentary to anything that they find on the web, can supplement the content where it is deficient, and where searchers can tap into that collective wisdom to find the really pertinent diamonds in the coal dust.

Our formal corporate training approach is often still a centrally-controlled structured directory into which we fit pre-conceived packaged training products. It’s all about preconception, limited ontologies, you might even say prejudice. But the informal learning which gets most of us through our careers is more peer-enabled organic, an unstructured support network that voluntarily shares its experience and wisdom, without needing any pre-determined frameworks or limiting pedagogies.

While the online tools help to facilitate this, they are not essential to it. In trying to understand how best to apply the tools or encourage their use, we need to understand why and how informal learning processes spawn in technology-free corporate ecosystems.

We need to be careful that in our passion to explore and understand corporate learning we do not get all tangled up in the technology at the expense of understanding the root human processes that make the technology usable and useful. If the processes we are nurturing would work in a Palaeolithic organisation, we can assume they would work extremely well in a tech-savvy one.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.


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