|Informal Learning in a Virtual Community: TYWC
Abstract: Mention learning and most people think of school, but in fact we learn some of the most important lessons outside formal education. Moreover, informal learning can turn out to be much more fun, rewarding and thorough. Allowing learners to follow their own interests and providing communities that support them in this endeavour, holds out much promise. This paper looks at an example of a virtual -Internet- community and the sorts of informal learning that it has played host to. It suggests a number of "lessons" that may be drawn from this.
Özet: Ögrenme söz konusu oldugunda çogu kisinin aklina okul gelir, fakat en önemli derslerden bazilari egitim sisteminin disinda ögrenilenlerdir. Üstelik okul disinda ögrenim daha eglenceli, tam ve faydali olabilir. Ögrencilere ilgi duyduklari konulari arastirma firsatini vermek ve çesitli topluluklar kurarak onlari desteklemek, gelecekte faydali olacaktir. Bu makale bir sanal -internet- toplulugunun okul disi egitimdeki yerini örnek aliyor ve bu örnekten çikarilabilecek bazi "derslerden" bahsediyor.
Keywords: informal learning, virtual community, social capital, formal education, Internet
School days are said to be "the best days of your life." Yet for most people formal education conjures up images of boredom and frustration, of studying hard for examinations and then forgetting everything the following day! Schooling seems to have become entangled in the past, unable to cope with the onslaught of a rapidly changing world; more of a social necessity than a genuine learning experience. Education is something one is forced to endure for its long-term benefit, the certificate that is one's passport to the real world of work.
Compare this view and the sort of learning -or non-learning- that goes on in formal education, with what often happens informally. When people follow their own curiosity, when they set their own goals, something amazing can happen. More often than not, children and adults alike actually enjoy learning, they actively seek it out, and what they so learn stays learnt!
This paper looks at one remarkable example of what can happen outside of the classroom. It describes TYWC (The Young Writers Club [TYWC] ) a virtual community, that, over the past six years, has grown from a personal homepage into a major international website with tens of thousands of pages and members. This website, maintained by the author, raises the possibility that the major educational impact of new technologies may come from the opportunities they present for informal learning, rather than from their use in the classroom. The paper examines the learning experiences of the members of this virtual community (the author, his daughter, and those who regularly visit the site) and based on these observations, suggests a number of important "lessons" that educators might learn!
Formal and Informal Learning
Education involves activities that are intentionally designed to foster learning. Parents of small children could thus be said to educate their youngsters and we might even say that we educate ourselves when, for example, we get a book from the library. Normally, however, the term education is considered the realm of schools and of teachers. As such, it has also, regrettably, become associated with lessons, with boredom and with a lack of real learning! Formal education today might be likened to factory mass production lines. It tends to lump students of a similar biological age together assuming that they have similar mental abilities and background. It then proceeds to treat them as empty containers that must be filled with knowledge as they progress down the curricula production line. On this view, teachers are the source of all truth and wisdom. It is their job is to transmit to the student whatever it is that they need to know, subsequent testing revealing the degree to which this transfer was successful. Failures can only result from the teacher being unable to properly communicate the knowledge or the student not being bright enough to assimilate it or, perhaps, not paying attention!
For most people, then, learning is almost invariably equated with education and with school. But learning doesn't require a teacher, just a willing "student." "Learning is like breathing, we do it all the time." [LET 2002] Arguably the two most difficult things we ever learn, how to walk and how to talk, are learnt before starting formal education. And this informal, out of school, learning continues so naturally throughout our entire lives that we are often unaware of it and don't even think of it as learning at all. At other times, though, it does shine through.
I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING - the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his 'cruiser'. [Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19]
Little wonder, then, that educators try desperately to stimulate similar enthusiasm within the classroom. Occasionally, a few students will become engrossed in a topic, their imagination caught, perhaps by a puzzle or by something that they hadn't previously even dreamt of. More often than not, though, the demands of the curricula have priority and override and negate what might have been, so that eventually most of the enthusiasm and natural curiousity are drained away.
Between the extremes of formal school-based learning and informal curiousity-centered learning, lies what is sometimes referred to as non-formal learning. This may include extra-curricula activities -like drama, photography & debating- organised by the school to broaden the educational experience; youth clubs and similar associations or communities that exist outside the school system but which may offer similar experiences; and, increasingly, experiential-learning offered on an ad-hoc basis by institutions such as museums and touristic/commercial enterprises like stately homes, wildlife parks and garden centers! All of these dispense with the teacher, but recognise that learning can be facilitated by mentors and/or appropriately designed environments.
If the production line metaphor can be applied to formal education, then informal and non-formal learning may be viewed more like a garden ecology. The learner is recognised as an individual with different abilities, background and motivations. And like plants, learners have no need of teachers, just a suitable environment and some "tender loving care" is all that it takes for them to grow and blossom quite naturally. On this view, learning is something personal -their individual growth. It is not something that can be done to or for them, although it can obviously be facilitated. Given the right stimulus and support, learners, like flowers, may grow faster and produce more stunning displays than they might if left entirely on their own. However, people, unlike flowers, interact with each other and, as a result, their learning (growth) can be helped (or hindered) by the community in which they find themselves.
Real and Virtual Communities
Communities are alliances of people who share a common interest and value system. Community members have a commitment to, and so (generally) accept the rules and duties of, the community. Informal and emotional relationships tend to form between community members who thus provide support for each other, further cementing the bonds. Communities have historically been comprised of members who live in close proximity to one another, towns and villages, for example, and smaller groups within them, schools, farming co-operatives, youth clubs, political parties and the like.
All communities build up what is now termed social capital. "Social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. ... there is considerable evidence that communities with a good 'stock' of social capital are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement, and better economic growth." [Smith 2001] See also [Putnum 2000, Preece 2002].
The advent of a reasonable postal system enabled loose forms of community to be established between people in different geographical regions, the scientific community being, perhaps, the best example of this. The emergence of electronic communications, in particular the Internet, has led to the growth of many such disparate communities, now known as virtual communities [Rheingold 1993] Any skepticism that may have existed over whether such social aggregations really were communities, was quickly dispelled when similar examples of commitment and emotional bonding between members were seen to arise. The growth of the Internet and the cheap communication facilities it offers, has sparked a veritable explosion of virtual communities, perhaps reversing to some extent the decline in community participation that had begun with the spread of television. A networked computer now allows people to stay within the privacy of their own homes and yet still actively participate in any number of communities whose members may span the globe.
TYWC - A Virtual Informal Learning Community
TYWC (The Young Writers Club [TYWC]) began almost by accident in September 1995. The author's daughter, Derya, having received a creative writing program for her 10th birthday, wanted to share her work and ideas with others. Unfortunately, in the neighbourhood, there were practically no children of a similar age who knew English, let alone expressed any interest in writing. As luck would have it, however, the world-wide-web was just making its debut (at least in Turkey) and seemed to offer the hope that one or two like-minded friends might be found. A simple web page and a number of emails did the trick. Derya, encouraged by the prospect, quickly learnt to send email and make web pages herself, and was soon publishing her new friends' stories and poems on the web. The addition of a simple html-form-handling program meant that anyone visiting the site could not only read the work they found there, but could also easily make comments and suggestions on it. During the first month only a few visitors strayed upon the site. During the second and third months many more came by, and gradually as news of TYWC begun to filter across the Internet world, like a snowball rolling downhill, it got bigger and grew even faster. Soon it had hundreds of members, then thousands. Today more than ten thousand people have joined the club, most sending in their own work as well as commenting on that of others. With more than 20,000 pages, TYWC has become a major educational resource, one that continues to grow. Every day an average of 15 new members sign up, at least 20 new poems, stories, or other works are sent in for publication, and more than 200 comments and suggestions are added to existing works. The site now includes not just members stories and poems, but also storybooks, activities and even an online magazine, Global Wave. Like all communities TYWC changes, with members coming and going continuously. Members are generally in the 10 to 18 age group with the majority being female. The club is still maintained by the author, but now members around the world do most of the jobs. Derya, while still helping out occasionally, has moved on, getting more involved in web site and graphic design and starting a number of other virtual communities. Although it is impossible to be sure what gave rise to her interest in literature, the bedtime stories read to her each night when very young, may well have had a big influence. She (and her father) derived great pleasure from these brief episodes, which quickly progressed from simple toddler's books to Roald Dahl, and on to Connan Doyle and Charles Dickens. Today, her fascination with literature continues to flourish and mature as she avidly reads the likes of Shakespere and T.S. Elliot. From little acorns grow...
Learning in TYWC
From the member's perspective:
TYWC's aim is "to encourage children of all ages to enjoy writing as a creative pastime by getting them to share their work and help each other improve their writing abilities." It offers a place where budding writers can publish their work and know it will be seen and read by others. Equally important, readers can actually tell authors what they thought of their work and give suggestions for how to improve it. Even a simple "nice" or "liked it" serves to encourage. More negative comments may be off-putting, but can hopefully provide the incentive to improve and publish something better that friends do like. Ideally, of course, comments should be of a more constructive nature. Learning to critically evaluate literary pieces is one of the primary skills that all writers need to develop and it is generally easier to be critical of other people's work than of ones own. Through practice and seeing other critiques, children may naturally begin to apply the same criteria to their own writing as well.
Criticism is also much easier to take from ones peers, than it is from a teacher or parent. This is particularly so in a pseudo-anonymous setting such as TYWC where the potential stigma of ridicule is almost non-existent. This, combined with the obvious pride that comes from having ones work "published" (albeit on the Internet) encourages young writers of all ages to continue writing and sending their work to the club.
The TYWC website thus provides the focus for a virtual community where those with similar interests in writing can "meet" each other and exchange views with peers they would otherwise not be able to interact with. Being a global Internet-based club it has the advantage of bringing together people from starkly different backgrounds and cultures. Of course, this does sometimes lead to heated debates and even outright arguments, but even these can be beneficial. Witnessing or being involved in such discussions may hopefully lead to a better understanding of each others point of view and perhaps to increased tolerance. On the other hand, if a member should somehow break club rules then the others are often quick to point out the error and even socially isolate the offender. Community behaviour is also apparent in the case of a member getting seriously ill or even dying, with members becoming quite emotional despite having never actually met.
Interacting with people around the planet certainly helps children develop a more global understanding of geography, time and religion, and hopefully leads to an appreciation of how small the world is and how much we all have in common. When a member first notices that the time stamp on their entry is "wrong" (because it shows the web server's -Turkish- time, not their local time), is the beginning of an understanding that the time varies around the world. Watching, on December 31st each year, as members from around the planet post messages welcoming in the New Year, brings home an appreciation of just how small the world is. TYWC's online chat, which includes a world map showing local times as well as each member's location, serves to reinforce this idea.
Another aspect of TYWC involves its day-to-day administration. Members who stay around for any length of time usually end up volunteering to help run the club. This may involve helping preview submissions and editing them for presentation and content as necessary, organising contests, helping put together Global Wave -TYWC's online magazine, and running various special pages such as Word of the Week, Writing Tips and TYWC Classics. Such jobs help individuals feel both that they have a valuable role in the community and that the community is in some way theirs.
Occasionally, teachers will have their class all sign up for TYWC. They tend to do a number of activities and perhaps send in a story or two, but such usage rarely lasts. The students do what the teacher requires them to do and no more, this in stark contrast to normal members who join of their own free will and continue to visit regularly, often for many years.
From the author's perspective:
Keeping TYWC up and running takes a lot of time and effort. In the early days all the pages were created manually -a new one being made for each story or poem that came in- but it soon became apparent that the process needed automating if at all possible. Attempting to do so required learning various new programming skills. Indeed, coping with the club's mushrooming growth has resulted in a continuous battle to keep abreast of the rapidly changing web technologies. TYWC has thus been the stimulus for a number of student projects, indeed, some of the current software was originally written by one of my undergraduate students. Supporting thousands of impatient "customers," 24 hours a day, is a serious real-world task and hence good practice for them. And while the need to support members with older equipment makes it difficult to employ the absolute latest technology, it is still important to be aware of what is happening and what changes can and should be made.
Initially, my job and my primary research interests lay elsewhere, but the remarkable success of TYWC and the feeling that it really was something worth doing, provided the incentive to keep on learning and working at it. I was lucky in that my job allowed me the opportunity to pursue such interests and luckier still that it somehow evolved in a similar direction, making my new knowledge particularly valuable.
Being an active user of the technology helped me keep abreast of its rapid changes, but it also had another unexpected benefit. Like all communities, particularly ones with teenagers, TYWC has its ups and downs. Every so often certain members would "misbehave." Sometimes it was simply a matter of discussing topics that might be considered inappropriate for the younger members, but more often it was writing messages containing excessive profanity or abuse, which was even worse if it was directed towards another member. Such messages always spark off a storm of retaliatory messages, all of which must be quickly eliminated if normality is to be restored. Deleting or editing messages often provokes complaints about violating free-speech rights, whilst not doing so can result in letters from parents angry that their youngsters can see such "filth" on an otherwise excellent site! As the person ultimately responsible for the content I am well aware of the difficulties and try to interfere as little as possible preferring not to act as moral judge if I can. I generally warn offenders that their messages are perhaps "inappropriate" and, since they are usually well aware of this, simply asking for "restraint, whatever the provocation" often has the desired effect. In more extreme cases I used to track down the offender's ISP and inform them of the problem. I would usually request that the ISP take action to discontinue their user's access and even take legal action; there having been clear violations of their own usage policies. As far as I am aware none of the ISP's ever took any action, so I eventually decided not to rely on them, but to use whatever technological means were at my disposal to restrict access. Surprisingly, it turns out to be almost impossible since Internet users are essentially anonymous. The "best" solution was to cut off access from the offender's ISP to TYWC. This, of course, also affects a lot of innocent people who rightly complain to me (and hopefully to their ISPs) such that I generally have to restore access after a short period and hope that those responsible for the problem do not return. Luckily, the web is a very big place and those who display such immature behaviour tend to get quickly bored and move on to annoy other people!
Arguing free speech issues and dealing with irate parents who feel that their young children should not be exposed to even a single swear word, requires considerable tact and patience. These, together with problems of plagiarism and questions about copyright, have occupied me a great deal during the years since TYWC began. As an engineer (by birth!), I am amazed to find that I have become deeply interested in and even passionate about such social issues. Attempting to understand and support my own (intuitive) position on these issues forced me to think seriously about them for perhaps the first time in my life! In clarifying my views I quickly realised that I was almost totally ignorant of the vast literature of this subject. Whether this resulted from never having been taught about it at school or my own indifference to it at that time, I am not sure, but running TYWC now provided the reason and the motivation to read and discuss it at length. I came to understand that the issues now were essentially the same as those hundreds of years ago when the foundations of modern English and American society were being laid. The Internet is changing society and in so doing is forcing us to re-examine our fundamental beliefs about how and why we should organise ourselves as we do. This revelation and the problems I saw in the virtual TYWC community lead me to question much of the prevailing wisdom. My research interests soon began to center on these issues and as a result I now have published works on anonymity, privacy, copyright and intellectual property issues. [Davenport 2002, 2003]
TYWC is now one of the oldest and most popular writing clubs on the web. Having rejected all offers to turn commercial, it continues to function on a voluntary basis, with Bilkent University providing the necessary computer and Internet facilities free of charge. Its success has made it a major international educational resource and it has provided the incentive for numerous similar sites. The multiple opportunities for informal learning that have arisen have greatly benefited all involved.
Summary and Concluding Remarks
This article began with a look at the notions of formal and informal learning, and community. It went on to show how TYWC offers a powerful demonstration of informal learning within the context of a virtual, Internet-based, community. Whereas formal school-based education may be said to represent a factory, mass production-line view of learning -students being empty containers filled by teachers as they move through the system- informal settings such as TYWC clearly function in a different way.
Out of school learning tends to be natural, spontaneous & uniquely personal. Like plants in a garden, learners are all individuals. They have different abilities, backgrounds and desires. They do not require a teacher to tell them how to "grow" and no one can "grow" for them! They all develop in their own way and in their own time, and all any gardener can do is attempt to provide the best possible environment and hope that they will take root.
Students who follow their own interests seem to learn more and be better and happier than those who are forced to learn something they have no desire to. The lesson is clear, schooling should change or, at least, take advantage of this. But moving towards a more personalised/individual style of education is not easy, it demands time, patience, encouragement, care & community, things that do not fit well with the strict requirements and conformity of modern schooling! Simply adding informal learning to schools in the form of extra-curricula activities and community work is unlikely to succeed, because the moment they are seen as part of the requirements the fun, ownership and learning potential of the activities can disappear. The same is true for technology. Teachers see the addition of networked computers as something that will encourage students, however, they can easily become just another part of the problem and then the incentive quickly vanishes, "...when people think about educational uses of computers, they too often look for new ways to transmit information— rather than for new ways for children to create, experiment, and explore" [Resnick 2000]. The Internet has the potential to allow students to easily find information they seek and to join virtual learning communities, like TYWC, but learners must be given the time and the freedom to "grow" the way they want. As the old adage goes, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink".
In a world where education is increasingly oriented towards employment and economic goals, informal learning seems to offer an alternative. By placing the emphasis on the learner as an individual and as a member of a community, it can help restore some sense of democracy and citizenship. It seems that "jobs for a lifetime" are now a relic of the past. Today, the only stable thing is change, so more than ever individuals and institutions need to become adept at learning, continual and lifelong. How might such a learning culture be achieved? Maybe we need to radically rethink schooling. One idea may be to try and give credit for prior experience and learning achievements, both institutional and private. A (limited) example of this approach and of its difficulties is provided by the UK's APEL report [Merrifield 2000]. Even more fundamental change might involve throwing out conventional lessons and examinations altogether, and replacing them with more flexible ways to demonstrate that the "real" lessons have been learnt -whatever they are determined to be: citizenship, self-control, social & cultural awareness, organisational ability, time-management, patience, methodology, linguistic fluency, independent learning? A less radical alternative may be to simply tone down the emphasis on individual achievement and on homework, examinations and formal qualifications. By establishing an environment in which a culture of community learning can take seed, and by allowing the time for it and the individuals that comprise it to grow and develop naturally, we may hope to reap the long term benefits.
There are some encouraging signs. Examples include America's "No Child left behind" initiative that at least recognises and supports community efforts (even if it is ultra-conservative in other respects) and their National Science Foundation which has been promoting informal learning activities for some years now as a way to improve and (re)inject a sense of fun and wonder into science. There are also an increasing number of websites, journals and conferences dedicated to informal learning, particularly within virtual communities. The seeds have been planted and are beginning to take root.
Computer Engineering Dept.,
Bilkent University, Ankara 06533 - Turkey.
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