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Ecological aspects for learning theory of new Digital Age

March 25, 2008

Recently, the widespread public use of social software has triggered for the need to theoretically ground the learning phenomena in this new environment.

Siemens (2005) has suggested Connectivism as the learning theory for new Digital Age. Connectivism focuses on how information, situated externally from people in the web, and creating meanings publicly in social software environments, aids through connective processes the new creative learning- and knowledge-building cultures.

Besides information-centred view to learning, what Connectivism carries, the other view should explain how learning is triggered by the involvement into the activities or by the observation of the activities of other individuals and groups. This view suggests that embodied cognition could be also considered as part of our knowledge.

Thus, while modelling the learning theories the new social software environments call for, an activity centred view to learning would be of same importance as the information-centred view, and should be theoretically entwined with the latter.

In order to extract the new principles of learning, while considering the activities that are part of the digital culture in social software environments, the web of social software tools with its inhabitants as an evolving and ecological environment must be described. The interrelations between individuals, and the real and virtual places they adopt for themselves in the process of manifesting their ideas, and engaging themselves into various learning activities in self-directed manner should be theoretically explained. This new ecological perspective to learning in social software environments can reside on the ideas of Gibson‘s and his followers approach to ecological psychology, elaborated approach of Engeström’s Activity Theory, rising theory of embodied cognition, but also on the Lotman’s school of cultural semiotics.

Some aspects to be considered and elaborated:

It is generally accepted that learning and tools used by certain culture from one side, and individuals of this culture and their learning and tool-using habits from another side, are influencing and shaping each other mutually (see Vygotsky, 1979). By definition the more social software tools are used, the better they become adjusted to the cultural habits of their users. The more user-defined interrelations between the meanings exist and can be activated by certain social-software specific microformats, the better the systems get for social retrieval of information. The more users‘ activities in social environments are externally marked by the users, for example with machine-readable formats describing people, the links between them and the things they create and do (FOAF), the better the access to the activity-related information and people becomes. The positive side effect of it is also, that the systems obtain new qualities for monitoring and getting awareness, that would open the gateway to the otherwise non-traceble communities in which the members are not personally related into social networks through shared activities. They may or may not have an awareness of each other, but they share similar meanings or perform same type of activities. Access to such people in new environments is potentially opening a multi-dimensional place where individuals can learn from each other or where shared group activities can be initiated for learning purposes. The more people get involved into the similar activities while evoking for themselves certain functions the social tools offer, the stronger the pressure gets of developing the systems towards facilitating this activity, and the more this activity becomes part of the learning culture in this environment.

This presumes the ecological relationships between people and their objectives for action in certain learning environments, and the personally differentiated perception of meanings and tools in their surrounding environments which would all-together dynamically shape the social software environments as places for learning. In particular, the focus is on how social software systems become accommodated with their users through evoking different affordances in the environment, discussing the multi-dimensionality and dynamicity of such places, and explaining how creativity and active participation are triggered in these places ecologically through different types of interactions.

The inhabitants of social web are characterised as distributed selves between different real and virtual social spaces. They express their identity as part of indistinct activity patterns, involving different social tools and different people. They influence social environments by virally spreading ideas that weave people and social places into invisible meaning dimensions. They leave activity traces as cultural prompts for new similar activities within certain dimension of the environment. The personal meaning-space and activity-space may be or may not be transcendent for the other individual learners in the web if the learner is distributing one‘s self between different social software tools.

The awareness of different dimensions of the social web as places for creative learning is obtained by perceiving the other inhabitants of social web as similarly distributed wholes. Tracing the meaning-spaces and activity patterns of other people twined between the distributed real and virtual places they inhabit, the dimensions of social space become unfolded and usable for our own self-directed learning.

Two aspects here are important. The meaning centred aspect suggests to use distributed self to be aware of more communities and their meaning spaces, and to create conditions for transferring information from one conceptual dimension to another. This precondition for cross-border meaning-building activities has been focused both in cultural semiotics as well as in the theory of Connectivism. Weaving one’s own coherent meaning web on top of such connections in distributed places is part of learning practices individuals do in social web to propagate their own self. Second aspect is finding people to learn together with. To be involved in the similar activities, similar spaces need to be used for interaction. The activities the members of such lose communities get engaged with, do not necessarily have to be centrally coordinated, but rather may emerge and exist as social patterns.

Learning through meaning building, and learning from participating in socially shared activities can be explained all together as part of emergent hybrid ecologies. The architecture of such environments interrelates various meaning dimensions, activity dimensions, and the distributed selves. By distributed self people can access different dimensions, propagate their meanings and activities into these dimensions, and use crossing borders of different dimensions for creative knowledge-building, as well as, for embodying and embedding cultural practices of new social web.

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