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Getting out of the fog – a bit

OK – I don’t know what people will make of my ideas at my thesis committee tomorrow, but I feel a whole lot clearer and more focused.  The last two postings have been helpful in clarifying some of my own thinking, identifying stuff I know something about and, more importantly, identifying some of the key thoughts that have meaning for me.

My focus hasn’t moved from virtual worlds, but rather than seeing them as the main focus and how their affordances can be used, I am shifting to seeing them as an environment in which people do things.  I have also realised that a primary interest of mine – and I have said it before is ‘ownership’.  By ownership, I am talking about whether we own our own learning and relational experiences or whether we are engaged in activities which are owned by somebody else.  For instance, the model of education I was brought up with in the 50s and 60s was essentially one of learning a lot of facts and then regurgitating them in an exam and being marked on how well I remembered those facts.  There was no real encouragement or enabling to engage with what I was learning in contrast to the more prevalent learning philosophy today where the emphasis is on constructing our own understanding based on a mix of previous experience, information and experimentation leading to an ownership of knowledge.

My main problem with social work was that there was too much emphasis on doing things for people – or pressuring them to do things in a way which met the approval of the professionals, rather than in enabling people to own their own problems and be actively involved in finding solutions.  Today, many older people or people with disabilities are given a budget and are able to determine their own care priorities (the direct payments scheme).  When we started having interdisciplinary meetings with ‘clients’ in the 1980s and letting them know in terms of hours what support they could have each week and asking how they wanted that support divvying up it was almost revolutionary. Yet it was only recognising we were dealing with adults with a right to own their own care agenda rather than having solutions imposed on them by professionals.

Self-determination theory suggests that people are intrinsically motivated from birth to learn and to respond to challenges, or set themselves challenges.  It also recognises that extrinsic rewards can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation. The education system has become very extrinsically focused over the past couple of decades – standards pre-date New Labour even though New Labour has gone in for target setting with a vengeance. During the same period there has been a steady decline in adult education – all recent surveys by NIACE suggest fewer and fewer adults who are not actually in education undertake any educational activity.  This may be reflective of the decrease in adult education leisure classes – many classes have ceased because they lead to no recognisable qualification – but it may also be how those being questioned understand learning and education. The more education is certificated in one way or another, the less aware we are of the learning we engage in daily in our interactions with others in the communities where we live and work.

Two things that struck me when I first started looking at Second Life were the amount of learning that was going on and the existence of a gift economy.  Learning was sometimes semi-formal – attending building classes given by other residents – but it was also informal – asking questions in a sandbox or just when trying to move around.  It was the same learning we do when we live, however briefly, in a different country or even a different place in our own country. The gift economy represents the way information was freely given with no expectation of reward.  Not only was information imparted, but gifts of various sorts.  When I set up an area for the Sussex Learning Network, I was able to rent a large sky platform and have it fully equipped with all manner of things for a relatively small sum of money which in no way covered the time that had been given to build the facility.

Although Second Life has been colonised by educators and there is much formal education taking place there, there is a continuing community of people who use/live in Second Life and undertake a range of activities there.  I am interested in exploring what can be learned about informal, intrinsically motivated learning in this setting. I suspect that community development theories will help in understanding what is happening.  It is likely there are similar behaviour patterns in other virtual environments, including child facing ones.  What can we learn from these settings about what motivates people to learn?  What can virtual worlds teach the physical world about re-enabling basic values of wanting to learn and be challenged.

That last bit sounds a bit woolly and pompous – need to work on it.  But basically, I am interested in informal learning, intrinsic motivation, ownership and community and the virtual world offers a place to look at this and relate stuff to the physical world.

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