I just finished reading a long article in the journal Science on how social factors are increasing recognized as extremely important in a new science on learning .
Learning is fundamentally a social activity, the article partially argued. “Social cues highlight what and when to learn.” Meltzoff et al. summarize a whole slew of recent research that showed how young infants learn by imitation and copying others actions, and they build abstractions and models of others’ behaviors. In fact,
“Children do not slavishly duplicate what they see but reenact a person’s goals and intentions. For example, suppose an adult tries to pull apart an object but his hand slips off the ends. Even at 18 months of age, infants can use the pattern of unsuccessful attempts to infer the unseen goal of another. They produce the goal that the adult was striving to achieve, not the unsuccessful attempts.”
One point made in the article is how much the greater environment outside of school is becoming an important part of the ecology of learning.
“Elementary and secondary school educators are attempting to harness the intellectual curiosity and avid learning that occurs during natural social interaction. The emerging field of informal learning is based on the idea that informal settings are venues for a significant amount of childhood learning. Children spend nearly 80% of their waking hours outside of school. They learn at home; in community centers; in clubs; through the Internet; at museums, zoos, and aquariums; and through digital media and gaming.”
Social learning, of course, is a major part of the social web. Wikipedia was designed to be an easy-to-use and freely available reference, and all of the social interactions offered by various online forums are rapidly becoming a part of the educational experience for secondary school pupils. I would argue, for example, that Wikipedia has done more for continuing education for all adult learners than any educational institution could have done by itself. ASC’s research have purposefully been focused on learning and information access, instead of entertainment, because of our recognition of the importance of social factors in various kinds of learning.
As an example, social learning was explicitly part of the design of our SparTag.us prototype, which is now just being offered in limited beta software to Firefox users, was announced at the recent CHI2009 conference. It streams the annotations you make as you browse the web. The stream is collected into your notebook, and by default this stream of annotation is made available to anyone interested in it. This makes it possible to aggregate social attention later.
 Foundations for a New Science of Learning. A. N. Meltzoff, P. K. Kuhl, J. Movellan and T. J. Sejnowski. Science, 325 (5938), 284-288. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1175626].
 Photo: Alan Decker and the Machine Perception Lab, UC San Diego.