One thing that has always struck me as particularly fascinating about social learning is how it is often at its most effective when its direction is provided by the learners themselves. Just as water will always find its own level by the path of least resistance, individual learners, working in collaboration and unhampered by the precepts of authority, tend to do an excellent job of finding and sharing what they need to know efficiently and effectively, even if they don’t necessarily know what they are looking for to begin with.
A remarkable example of this phenomenon can be found in Wikipedia, a completely user-driven Collaborative Knowledge Support System (my own term) that has become not only the most all-encompassing compendium of knowledge in world history, but increasingly the resource of choice for information on current events.
A truly excellent article by Matt Thompson, titled An Antidote for Web Overload, addresses the reasons behind Wikipedia’s increasing replacement of traditional news sites as the go-to source for breaking news items. Not only does the site possess an “army of amateur editors” able to synthesize information quickly, but it also provides the easily accessible background knowledge, in the form of wikilinks, that non-expert readers crave. Given their own ability to delve into a topic, and armed by the efforts of their colleagues with the resources to do so, readers quickly and efficiently become aware of the main subject and the background knowledge they need.
In this way, information is disseminated and internalized far faster and better than it might if a user were left to piece together background information mentioned in a single traditional news article. And yet all this information comes from the small contributions of countless individuals, none of whom on their own can necessarily see what the end result will be.
This same effect is seen in ant colonies and bee hives, as noted in another fascinating article I found in a post by Gisela Jonsson, titled “Ants are stupid, ant colonies are smart.” On their own, ants and bees can rarely see the big picture, but as a community they make the right decisions, time after time. The trick of course for trainers is to harness this energy but not try to co-opt it. By supplying the resources, the connections, and a little bit of know-how, we can guide our charges to not only profit from the greater knowledge around them, but also to make their own contribution, as well.