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Technology or social policy or both

Trying to catch some of the ideas from this morning’s supervision.

Discussion about whether my DPhil is actually social policy or whether it does rightly belong in informatics.  My last blog had given the impression of moving away from technology, and we examined whether or not this is actually the case or not.

Some key areas I identified a week or two ago are:

  • informal learning in virtual communities
  • motivation for learning in virtual communities
  • understanding motivation for informal learning
  • what motivates informal learning

One of my concerns is the real world relevance of what I want to do. I am dis-satisfied for various reasons with the material I have read about informal learning. Much of this dis-satisfaction is related to the problem of what informal learning is and and the way it is measured. All too often, it seems to be more about informal adult education than informal learning – the consultation document produced by the UK government in 2008 is a good example of this. It starts by saying it is about “structured and unstructured adult learning for enjoyment, personal fulfillment and intellectual, creative and physical stimulation” but the focus is more on reducing inequalities and opening new pathways into learning and much of the discussion is about adult learning in general. It is recognised much informal learning is self-directed, but asks, expecting an affirmative, whether the government has a key role in maximising and sustaining current arrangements (arrangements which the government has had no part in establishing or nurturing).

Virtual environments have been used as a petri dish for much research over the past 25 years. Although none of what I have read is specifically about informal learning (and apart from the specifically education based research, little is about learning), informal learning is implicit in most of the accounts of virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds are also interesting in the role they cast the user in when they first enter a virtual world.  Although an analogy can be made with a speeded up version of human development, it doesn’t hold together well, but entering a virtual world, as opposed to an interactive game, does present a rapid learning curve. It is necessary to learn how to walk and talk, how to move to new locations, how to alter appearance and a myriad other things before being able to function in the virtual world. Many of these actions are not intuitive. Inadequate technology, eg a low spec graphics card, can compound the difficulties. What is is that keeps the newcomer to the virtual world continuing to learn to use the environment when they have stuck a box on their head 3 times and still don’t know how to extract the hair?

So where does this leave me? I am still wanting to focus on what and how people learn in virtual worlds.  I think this will tell us something about how people learn in real life and about what motivates such learning. It is possible it will assist in refining the definition of informal learning and differentiating this from informal education.

The question remains whether virtual world experiences are transferable to virtual worlds and vice versa.

Technology provides the virtual environment, whether it is one of the early MUD or USENET based communities or the 3-D worlds we are more familiar with now. But virtual communities do not exist in a vacuum – behind  every avatar or nickname is a person who is living in a physical world environment.

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