Social Learning Centers and the Intersection at 39,000 Feet

September 18, 2012

I’m sitting next to Rob, someone I met a couple of hours ago at the beginning of an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport this afternoon. We’ve been talking about the work he does on data protection and retention and the training-teaching-learning work I do in helping people learn to creatively incorporate technology into their workplaces. And we’re having an extended Intersection moment—the Intersection being that phenomenon described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect, about how when people from different backgrounds briefly come together and share ideas, they walk away with more than they ever would have developed on their own.

Our meandering conversation is punctuated by periods of silence during which we return to reading material we brought with us on the flight—he on his Kindle, me within the pages of printed books and magazines. And each time we resume our conversation, we learn something new. Rob, for example, learns a bit about social learning as well as about how different contemporary libraries are from those he used to frequent. And I, a moment ago, learned about BookShout!, which Rob pointed out to me after finding it described in the inflight magazine he is continuing to browse.

BookShout!, it turns out, is a new social media offering for readers interested in sharing comments online as they read books together. Having been introduced to the marketplace earlier this year by Founder and CEO Jason Illian, VP of Technology Rick Chatham, and VP of Creative and User Experience Josh Stone, according to the inflight magazine article (American Way, September 15, 2012), the service is already accessible through its website and an Apple app for iPhones and iPads; an Android version is scheduled to come out in October 2012.

Users of BookShout!, Illian notes in an online interview, can have their online discussions in groups as small or as large as they want them to be. First-time visitors to BookShout!’s Google+ site or company website will quickly spot the service’s roots in promoting discussions of Christian literature, but a bit of exploration shows that this is a site with aspirations to provide discussions about books from a wide and wonderfully diverse range of subjects.

And that’s what makes Rob point the article out to me.

“I bet this could be useful in online learning,” he observes, already having gathered from our conversation how immersed I am in creative approaches to training-teaching-learning.

“It’s as if we have our own temporary social learning center right here on this plane,” I blurt out as I realize what is happening.

For in the space of less than two hours, we have met, talked, found enough common ground to have more than a passing grasp of each other’s interests, and we’re already sharing information with each other in the midst of the Intersection.

Whether our social learning center will continue online via LinkedIn or some other social media tool after we land at the airport and part ways remains to be seen. But the learning that occurred, in true Intersection fashion, is already on its way to being disseminated. Through presentations a colleague and I are doing two days from now on social learning centers. And through this article you are reading. Welcome to the Intersection and a budding social learning center. Let’s see where this can take us.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


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