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“Riffing” and Social Learning

February 19, 2009

While there are a number of posts piled up for me to write, this one jumped to the front this morning.  I’ve been blogging a lot about our recent webinar on social learning (I’m starting to think this a great unrecognized value in doing webinars — nearly limitless follow-up posts… : 0).  Anyway, in my last post, I wrote at length about the pro’s and con’s of open chat, and specifically how we tried to model good social learning behavior by asking the learners to participate in the chat even during my “formal” presentation.  The goal was to give participants some insights into the pro’s and con’s of two key social learning concepts:  multiple channels and learner control.  For the most part, I think we succeeded in this.

Today, I want to talk a little about “riffing” or more formally, “derivative works.”  A curious thing happens once you open up lines of communication, give learners control, and ask them for their idea and opinions — they give them to you.  One of the ways they do this is to directly respond to what you say or do.  Another is to take what you say, combine it with what their own experience and knowledge, and create something new.  In Jazz, muscians often take a riff and improvize on it, extending it, twisting it, and making it their own.

This same process happens in virtually every other aspect of our lives, whether it’s YouTube videos, parody commericials, writers referencing or signifying against existing works, artists copying techniques and then extending them, musicians or producers remaking existing songs and movies.  Web 2.0 further extends this with the concept of “mash-ups” where not only do I riff on Thing 1, I also add in a data set or experience from Thing 2 to get something new and unique.

Interestingly, this also happens anytime someone learns something new.  New learning is always incorporated into existing knowledge and experience frameworks.  There is no tabula rasa, no Nurnberg Funnel — learners only learn contexually within existing frame of reference.  And often the resulting behavior or skill change is a kind of mash-up — learners mashing-up previous knowledge and experience with new knowledge and experience to create new behaviors or skills.

What’s different with social learning is the encouragement and expectation that learners will share this contextual learning, personal understanding, and unique perspective with others.  And in so doing, enrich the discourse for all learners.  So what the heck does any of this have to do with the webinar?  Well, one of my webinar attendees, Ben Ullman, riffed on my material.  In the process, he created a really cool SlideShare presentation that’s a more concise and slightly tweaked version of my deck.  He emphasized and added in points that I didn’t make, or made as an aside.  Ben’s also active on Twitter @budesigns and participates in the @slqotd Twitter group that Kevin Jones launched and I help to moderate.

So in a webinar about Social Learning, people participated in social learning through the chat, and then afterward created social learning by riffing on my core material.  This new material was created through Web 2.0 sharing technolgies and through profiles, I was able to find out that I’m already connected to this learner / teacher in other ways.  Pretty cool stuff.  Imagine how much cooler this might be if we let our learners do this inside our organizations.

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