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on January 22, 2006 at 1:55:22 pm

Social Theory: A social theory of learning




Over the past couple of decades, Social Software has become a growing feature of higher education. Student enrollments in distance learning and elearning programs is steadily increasing across the globe, allowing students to attend class while being physically separate from the instructor and classmates. By studying social software, we are able to make visible and trace what before only occured via physical human contact. As such, concepts such as Wenger's communities of practice help us to reconsider and re-evaluate how education and learning environments should or could be designed (depending on your point of view).

What is worth noting, is that social software employed by educational institutions in the form of virtual learning environments (VLEs) or course management systems (CMSs) are not a "bottom-up" or "subscribable" form of technology. VLEs and CMSs are "top-down" and "prescribed," and thus can be thought of us instructor-centered or institutional in nature. Yet, VLE- and CMS-supported courses can offer the learner a host of opportunites to connect with others, develop personal and meaningful relationships that occupy a more learner-centric model. Perhaps all social software could be co-opted to some degree by those who construct and codify virtual communities. "Do no harm" is a great motto for a company such as Google, but given enough pressure by goverment agencies and/or capitalist forces, a motto like "Buyer beware" has, perhaps, more meaning.



In Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger (1998) makes the argument that learning is a process of social participation.


Wenger starts with four assumptions about learning, knowledge, knowing, and knowers:


1) We are social beings.... this fact is a central aspect of learning.


2) Knowledge is a matter of competence with respect to valued enterprises.


3) Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises, i.e., of active engagement in the world.


4) Meaning -- our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful -- is ultimately what learning is to produce.(p. 4)




Wenger (1998, p.4) insists that


"Participation here refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities


with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants


in the practices of social communities and constructing identities


in relation to these communities. Participating in a playground clique or in a work team,


for instance, is both a kind of action and a form of belonging. Such participation shapes


not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do." (author's emphasis)








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