From Micro-blogging to Micro-learning

I recently came across a posting by Marcia Conner discussing how micro-messaging applications such as Twitter can support learning in the enterprise. I reflected on the learning component in my personal use of Twitter and had opportunity yesterday to discuss this further with a friend who teaches computer science at York University. As a result I came to realize that the strength of micro-learning goes well beyond the enterprise.

I always felt that the division of knowledge in specialties was caused by rather arbitrary circumstances. Take for example the division between computer engineering and computer science. Both could have well been one specialty had it not been historically so that computer engineering emerged in electrical engineering and computer science emerged in the math department.

The reasons such divisions appear in the first place are rooted in the storage limitations of the human brain and the constant drive to increase productivity. As more and more knowledge is produced, individuals find it increasingly difficult to store all that knowledge. Hence, the familiar labor division allowing individuals to learn more about an ever narrowing subset of knowledge, a process we call specialization.

Whether in the production of material goods or of knowledge, this continuous drive for higher productivity has a significant impact on the social structures of its environment. It has dictated the necessity of collaboration at ever increasing scales: First within the local boundaries of the one production unit (whether it was the farmer’s family, the village community, or the industrial factory), then expanding to regional, national, and international levels. Globalization is only the expression of that necessity across national boundaries. Think about its many familiar forms: United Nations and its constellation of specialized organizations, multinational corporations, standardization organizations that bring together competitors in one and same industry, international conferences on… etc.

While the structures have been evolving, one feature has remained unchanged, until now that is: The delivery has been generally through hierarchical organizations. So the boomers and bust generations learned in hierarchical universities, institutes and colleges following the specialization structures inherited historically. In each specialty the students had to learn a large amount of a variety of subjects that should last them long enough in their careers. Initially, it was supposed to last them throughout their productive life. As the pace of knowledge production increased, the need emerged for updating that knowledge regularly along the way. So we invented higher degrees of education, Training, Continuing Education and interdisciplinary projects.

But it seems the ever accelerating rate of knowledge production has brought the current delivery model to a new barrier: the hierarchical specialization. Hence the emergence of new processes of learning, which are not supply driven through the still too rigid specializations of learning institutions, but rather demand driven, that is, through the needs of the students and across any spcialization lines.

Imagine how more efficient it is to learn what you need and what interests you as you go in small rapid increments delivered by a dynamic collective of similarly interested people. This is why I see Twitter as representing a new paradigm in learning: micro learning!

We are of course at the early stages of this emerging phenomenon. Not everyone tweeting sees him/herself as a “teacher” or “student” in a dynamically changing and individually varying curriculum, and these terms may be also obsolete in this context. Everyone is a “learning contributor” in this new model and you pick up quanta of knowledge as you need and as you go, following those who provide you best with what you need and inspire you most through their curiosity and interest.

This is how I see this micro-learning emerging from the micro-blogging that Twitter pioneered. It’s potential is fascinating but no surprise. After software, hardware, and services, it’s education’s turn to delve into crowd sourcing. The implications will be felt for years to come.

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