Social Learning

I’ve been reading The Social Life of Information. Published in 2000, it is a kick to read a book that talks of search engines without mentioning Google, or that refers to Amazon as a book store. Still, it makes some points that are interesting today.

For instance, the book speaks of the critical role of social information sharing in learning. It describes, for instance, situations where businesses have attempted to re-engineer help desks at printer companies (one of the authors is from Xerox) to make them more efficient (more automation, resulting in less direct access to human techs) and to give support staff sophisticated troubleshooting systems that tell them exactly what to ask and how they should respond. After these changes, worker and customer satisfaction both plummeted. The book talks of one case study of a rare success story under this arrangement, a call worker right out of college who was thriving. It turned out that she was thriving because her cube was right next to someone who had been there a long time, long before the changes went into place. She would listen to how he handled calls, he would teach her things, and her skills quickly eclipsed the other new workers.

The people working the help desks hated the new system because customers don’t follow the scripts, and customers hated it because it was obvious the person was reading from a script, which makes it sound like they don’t know anything–which wasn’t far from the truth since when the call workers started using automated systems to assign techs to jobs, it cut them off from an incredibly useful source of information and learning. Techs and call center workers were no longer having conversations like, “Oh, you know that job you sent me on last week–that was an easy fix. If that comes up again, just tell the customer to….”

Instructional designers tend to ignore the role of the social in learning. We think more in terms of things we can control (formal learning), which ignores where most learning happens.


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