Anti-social software

Social software is good for learning if, and only if, the society of learners is, or can be persuaded to be, positive towards learning. But what if you’re a teenager in a peer group in which learning is uncool? Perhaps we need software that expressly excludes the peer group?

I was at a meeting in Birkbeck, London, November 18th, called “Workshop on Personalised Technologies for Lifelong Learning”, which included outcomes (I missed) from the MyPlan project – generally to do with e-portfolio systems, lifelong learning, etc. In the general discussion, “Next Generation Environments for Lifelong Learning”, it was Andrew Ravenscroft (who manages the fascinating InterLoc) who came out with the phrase “antisocial software”, but I thought is was so apt, even though a bit extreme, that it needs popularising.

There’s enough of a serious point there to be well worth thinking about carefully. The general assumption that social software is a potential positive force for learning (among those keen on social software) needs challenging, not because is isn’t often true, but because it isn’t true always. Rather, you have to start by thinking about what the social group norms and values are. It has been said that in some school environments, achievement is a serious handicap to social success in the peer group. Surely, in these environments, it is not a good idea to use social software for learning, in the sense of doing learning in a group which involves all the peer group by default.

Instead, learning ideally needs to be done out of the view of the peer group, or in a setting where the peer group social norms and values do not apply. One way of doing this for traditional classroom learning is to introduce strong behaviour rules that are very different from behaviour outside the classroom. This approach would be the one proposed by various “old school” teachers, and there are books which I remember from teacher training days where these approaches are promulgated. Another way of doing this, which could also now be thought of as traditional, is through a more personalised approach, where learners work on their own worksheets. But for e-learning in these environments, what is needed is to separate the learning experience from the social group, not link it.

Of course, learning software that works that way would not really be “antisocial”, and this for two reasons. Firstly, one could have social software with varying degrees of privacy. Learners could use the more openly social facilities with the peer group, and private ones with teachers. Indeed, learners actually interested in learning might benefit from support in their interactions in the peer group. Secondly, social software with these capabilities could help learners find those other minority individuals who also want to learn, and smaller groups could be formed, outside the view of the majority.

A wider point relates to other things of interest to me, particularly about the multiplicity of personality. Teenagers in particular have different “personas”, or whatever you want to call this phenomenon of behaving in different ways in different contexts, and being embarrassed if behaviour displaying the values from one context slips through into the other. E-portfolio tools, as I will be describing in my book, could be used to help young learners to recognise the differences between the different contexts they find themselves in, and to adapt their personality differently in those different contexts.

To end with a much wider-reaching question, could we use anti-social software, not only in schools, to subvert social norms which do not value learning, but also perhaps as an aid to subversion in an organisation where the peer culture has turned against really effective work, or a country being ruled by a force which is fundamentally against democratic and accountable government?

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