The network is the learning: an interview with George Siemens

Original Interview made by Stefano Besana –

What do you think about this new “Social Learning” trend? Is it similar to what you have defined – some years ago – as Connectivism? Or do you think these are two different themes? How can we reconcile, or overlay, the two areas ?

Social learning isn’t a new trend. Guild and apprentice models of learning have long relied on social learning. Going back even further, early philosophers relied almost exclusively on social learning, as the lineage of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle affirms. What is new today is the scale at which we can be involved in social learning. The web reduces many of the barriers learners faced in the past – such as time and geography. With the development of social networks and communication tools such as Skype, Google Talk, and mobile devices, the scale at which we can be social has increased dramatically. In this regard, the “social learning” trend is really more of a return to more natural ways of learning and interacting with others.
In terms of connectivism and social learning – I view social learning activities as part of connectivism. Both concepts address how knowledge is distributed and emphasize that complex problems can  best be addressed through relying on connected specialization. Where connectivism differs is in its emphasis on non-social information sources. For example, new ideas are often “assemblies” of ideas that span centuries. William Rosen details the heritage of new ideas and inventions the steam engine and industry in general in his book The Most Powerful Idea in the World. How people connect ideas is not always social. And how organizations create their managerial structure determines how information will flow through the company. Connectivism is concerned with how these broad information, technical, and social structures contribute to individual and organizational capacity for innovation, invention, and adaptation.


Speaking again of Social Learning I believe that could be roughly defined as an emerging phenomenon that originates from  knowledge networks  and value streams whether formal or informal. What do you think? What is your definition of Social Learning?

I have a fairly unconventional view of social learning. Most pundits and consultants emphasize the social dimension and how new technologies – Facebook, Twitter, blogs – contribute to helping people be “social”. They treat the social aspect as the most critical aspect of the learning process. I don’t. I believe that humans are first and foremost information-driven beings. We process information constantly. From infant stage onward, we seek to make sense of the world by taking in, evaluating, and connecting the information that we encounter. This is an evolutionary trait – we are information-based beings. We develop in relation to the information around us. Back in hunter-gatherer era of human history, incoming information could be in the form of which plants to eat, which animals were dangerous, and so on. Those who were capable of making sense of the information in their context survived.
My argument is that humanity’s dominant trait is information acquisition, processing, and creation. We employ social aspects to the extend that it enables us to manage information. Too many people advocating for social learning see the social dimension as the end. I view our sensemaking and wayfinding attributes as primary and that we employ social mechanisms to assist in our evolution and survival. Which leads me to my definition of social learning: The reliance on social networks and interactions to assist us in making sense of the information in our context.


Talking about the future of learning (and also about organizational learning) what do you think will be the “next big thing”?

I have little doubt that the next big thing in learning – schools, universities, and organizations – will be based on learning and knowledge analytics. We produce data trails in almost everything we do – a process amplified by the prevalence of mobile devices. Our ideas, our locations, what we’ve read, and who we interacted with are captured on Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and our blogs. Most companies fly blindly in terms of organizational knowledge and learning. Recognizing the incredible value of the data trails that employees produce is the first step toward an analytics-based  approach to organizational goal achievement and capacity building. By analyzing data trails, organizations can understand how information flows through the network, how people collaborate, which people would best work together based on previous activities in organizational teams, and how to cost effectively address complex problems (such as entering a new market, acquiring a new company, or rolling out a new product). Analytics helps organizations to understand themselves.


How do you think could be evaluated this new model of learning we are talking about? It is clear that is not possible to simple apply old methodologies to new paradigms. Instead – I believe – we must completely reconfigure and redesign our assessment framework. Many studies are underlining the value of Social Network Analysis (SNA) to assess training processes and to better unrestrained the whole organization, trying to define new metrics and a way to measure the ROI. What is your experience in this field? And what do you think about this approach?

I agree with your statement of a need to reconfigure and redesign assessment frameworks. In early 2000, I lead a social network analysis project of a department at a major US university. We evaluated over 100 members in the department and tried to evaluate how people connected with each other, where they went for information help, and how they used social networks for solving problems. Understanding the networked-backbone of the department was an important first step in making organizational changes.
Similarly, organizations today need to consider advanced analytics models as the basis for reconfiguring their company. The knowledge that exists in most companies is not well connected. Often people are working on similar problems without awareness of the work of others. To address quality of learning and knowledge growth, we need to do a better job of knowing what we know and who in the company knows what. Analytics play an important role in mapping organizational knowledge. In a sense, analytics provide us with a blueprint for reconfiguring a company. In the past, leaders made decisions with large blind spots in their vision. For example, merging two departments was done because it made sense financially. Little attention was paid to how knowledge, learning, and capacity building would be impacted by the merger, which could produce unintended drops in productivity, and loss of key staff. With analytics, we can eliminate some of the decision blind spots involved in reconfiguring departments.


Your speech here in Milan is planned for the next 8th of June: which themes you will address?

I will take the controversial stance that most organizations misunderstand the purpose of social learning (as detailed earlier, I view the social aspects of learning as being a sub-component of sensemaking and wayfinding in complex settings – i.e. our genetic and evolutionary disposition for interacting with information). After making this argument, I will detail the role that analytics can play in improving learning and knowledge development in organizational settings.
This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.