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.