Personalizing the Learning Conversation

After last night's Teaching Rails BOF at RailsConf, I couldn't help but reflect on how much people's expectations for learning about technology have changed in the last twenty years. The old model of "here's the information, go do something with it" isn't enough any more, as we become more and more used to a social style of gathering and working with information.

Twenty years of change are shifting technology from top-down broadcast-model documentation and training to a more conversational approach that shrinks the social distance between teacher and learner, personalizing our experience.

In the beginning was the book, and documentation more broadly. Whatever the source, printed material was what we wanted twenty years ago. Training and classes were wonderful, of course, but expensive, and imposed on time in ways that printed books didn't. Books and documentation gave you a foundation, but you had to build your own experience with the books, often reading them repeatedly, focusing on or marking up sections, and praying for a useful index.

Fifteen years ago I encountered Microsoft's documentation CDs. The amount of information, even then, was staggering, but suddenly there was a search function. It wasn't perfect, but it gave me much more flexibility to interact with the material. It wasn't social yet, but it already felt much more open than the book.

Ten years ago, documentation was in a much more social space. A lot of the formal documentation that had been in those CDs and print was online, yes, but suddenly people were posting their own material, sharing their experiences. Online forums and email lists were common, no longer the preserve of a few brave pioneers on newsgroups. Search engines gave the flexibility I'd enjoyed with the CDs, but now these documents had creators I could contact by email. The nature of the conversation could also shift, from just learning to talking, arguing, and creating.

Five years ago, the social space for those conversations was decentralizing. Content had always been scattered across the Internet, of course, but the rise of blogs and their comment systems changed the dynamics. Commenting on a blog entry let you ask questions in a space tied to a particular subject and creator, getting responses in that context. It wasn't as intimidating as sending an email to someone, or sending an email to a list of people with a broad interest in the surrounding field.

Over the last five years, the distance between information creator and information consumer has shrunk even further. Podcasts and screencasts let you hear the voice of their creators. Even when they're distributed as broadcasts, there's a sense of closeness there that just isn't available through text. They have the key advantage of documentation - you can go back over them easily, watching until you get it - but they feel very different.

Which brings us to last night. The various projects everyone discussed all involved groups of teachers and learners working together. Yes, projects still need people with enough motivation to get them started, but once started, the dynamics change. The teachers don't just teach from a lectern or a book, but rather listen to their students to find out what they want. They teach by taking requests, by encouraging their students to teach, by pointing students to answers their peers have given in the past. Classrooms that don't achieve those dynamics can't compete today.

Even beyond the group dynamics, though, we talked about possibilities that offer even tighter feedback loops, personalizing the conversation. A few of the pieces mentioned were online mentoring, remote pair programming, small groups of learners working together and occasionally bringing in a mentor. Mentors don't have to be the experts - professors or the folks who in the past would have written books. They just have to be a few steps ahead of the people they're mentoring.

Getting here took many small steps, and this last piece isn't quite here yet. I don't think it's far off, though. If this kind of small group learning within a relationship can take off, supported by the larger universe of the older forms of information, though, I think we may see learning take on a whole new DIY cast.

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I wish I had written that post, Simon. You caught so much of what I've heard and observed.

All I can add is that getting mentors is a whole job in itself. It's like recruiting board members for a non-profit or volunteers to run a conference. Some people will fall naturally into the guiding and mentoring role, but a community manager can identify knowledgeable and positive-minded community members and present to them the possibility of being mentors.

How much of the discussion was about teaching the Rails community itself some of the non-technical skills they seem to be lacking?

Greg -

There was definitely discussion of non-technical skills. Conversation requires social skills, right?

Even before last week's explosion, Rails had a difficult reputation. It wasn't so much because of the software itself, but because the conversation was pretty intimidating. Lots of smart people moved software forward rapidly, but outreach and welcome were lower priorities.

The Rails community has been gearing up for the last few months, though, to reach out to a lot more people. The folks gathered last night were definitely the leading edge for reaching out. Folks were talking about teaching Rails to beginners, even kids - we definitely didn't fit the stereotype of open source hotshots.

There was more discussion of last week's explosion at the end of the Women In Rails discussion panel. Matt Aimonetti and David Heinemeier Hansson were both there and both got some chastising, but I'd say in general it was pretty calm.

So I guess overall I'd say there was plenty of awareness of the need for better non-technical skills, but we all used those non-technical skills in the discussion. I think part of that's just the shift to face-to-face, which tends to make people deploy their social skills, but I think a lot of it was also that these conversations started with an awareness that there are real problems that need solving.

So what applications are there that can set up a 'classroom' for this type of learning Simon? Is it something that O'Reilly might experiment with? IRC can provide some of it, but not enough? Is something new needed? It would make a great experiment! A new social application? Social|Educational?

I don't think anyone I've spoken with has figured out which applications to use.

IRC seems unlikely to be the answer, or at least unlikely to the only answer. Maybe lots of small IRC channels with just a few participants would be less prone to the scrum effect that often breaks out, especially if there were ways to ensure participants would be in the conversation for the long term. There's definitely a comfort factor to work out.

I'll think about what a new social application to do this might look like. I can imagine something like Campfire providing a service behind an interface that lets people find each other to set up conversation and mentoring relationships.... but there's a lot involved in getting that right!


This is an enjoyable and useful potted history of how learning has evolved with technology over the recent past.

However, the evolution of learning has finished yet - if we extrapolate current trends then it seems possible that the roles of teacher and learner may eventually merge - becoming more "symbiotic".

Teachers will be those who wish to learn by sharing their knowledge, skills and experience with others

I've been pursuing a concept I've been calling "Collaborative Publishing" or "Participatory Publishing" where the roles of reader, writer, editor, and publisher blur to maximize effective transfer of knowledge. At this point I believe that the editorial function is the key: a way to raise the signal-to-noise ratio: does the teacher fill an analogous role?

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