Social aspects of learning

This blogpost reviews a small spectrum of the available literature on epistemology, notions of knowledge and the relation to the social nature of learning. It is actually a re-publication of a chapter from a working paper for my master thesis. As this weeks topic in the cck08 course is about learning theories I found it worthwile to publish this again. I will elaborate on two worldviews, the positivist and constructivist view. Within these views several cognition theories are explained. Further, a connection is made between the constructivist view of the world with the use of digital media and web-technology. In addition to the original article I’ll eloborate on how connectivism and rhizometic view on knowledge fit in these perspectives.

Positivist view of the world

From the positivist point of view, the world is seen as an objective reality, a pre-given state in which “the aim of the cognitive process is to create the most accurate presentation of this reality” (Harrison & Kessels, 2005; pg. 142). The cognitivist view of knowledge is rooted in this positivist view of the world. It views knowledge as abstract, task specific and oriented towards problem solving (Von Krogh, Roos & Slocum, 1994). Learning is seen as acquiring knowledge by reshaping your personal view of the world through the assimilation of new experience (Von Krogh et al., 1994; Akkerman, 2006). Within the cognitivist view, knowledge, as the managers representation of the world, can be stored and retrieved in organization wide repositories or content systems that give organizational members a shared perception of the world (Von Krogh et al., 1994).

Constructivist view of the world

The constructivist point of view sees the world as an objective external reality, a not pre-given state (Harrison & Kessels, 2005). A powerful cognitive theory rooted in the constructivist view of the world is the autopoiesis theory. Originally in the field of neurobiology, autopoiesis theory was later developed in the field of social science as a theory of knowledge of a social system. Autopoiesis theory views cognition as a creative act of bringing forth a world (Von Krogh et al., 1994). It views knowledge not as abstract, but as embodied in the individual. Or, as Brown and Duguid (2002) put it: “knowledge entails a knower” (pg. 119). The autopoiesis theory makes also a clear distinction between data, information and knowledge. In this view, the mere storage and availability of knowledge in organization wide repositories as within the cognitivist view is not sufficient. (Digital) materials stored in repositories are viewed of as data. People create information of these data by not only retrieving it, but also discuss it and file it for later use (Von Krogh et al., 1994). Pieces of information are used to actively construct knowledge trough a process of personalization and adding meaning to it.

Under influence by the ideas of Vygotsky, the social-constructivist and the socio-culture perspectives emphasize more on the social nature in which the construction of knowledge takes place. The two perspectives differ in their notion on where information processes lie. The social-constructivist perspective makes a distinction between the learner and the environment, but the socio-cultural perspective sees the individual as part of that environment (de Laat, 2006). Also Akkerman (2006) outlines this specific situation of the socio-cultural perspective in a comparison with the cognitive theory and notes that with the former, information processes lie within social interaction. The construction of knowledge lies within the social interaction, such as might be found in work related learning networks as networks of practice and communities of practice.

Networks of practice are networks of people who have a shared practice and knowledge in common, but these people are mostly unknown to each other (Brown & Duguid, 2002). Web-technologies have extended the reach of such networks, in which information can know be transmitted with higher speed to a larger audience of people. An example is a network of people established through Wikipedia. The content of this encyclopedia is produced by the members of the network, everyone who surfs on the web and wants to make a contribution.

Communities of practice are smaller units within the networks of practice. These are small groups of people who work together and mostly know each other also in the real world. Communities of practice are emergent, they evolve around a shared topic of interest. Within these communities, some members are core participants, while others act more peripherally (Brown & Duguid, 2002; Lave & Wenger). Whereas the learning that resides in networks of practice remains more static, in communities of practice allow for rich creation of knowledge through collaborative learning activities between members. Social software or web 2.0 technologies made these rich collaborative learning activities also possible trough the web, thereby enhancing the reach of such communities and the ability for people to form communities that don’t know each other in the real world. Especially weblogs or blogs might be a great opportunity to facilitate such networks. Obviously, the network of CCK08 learners can be called a community of practice.

Connectivism and the rhizometic view on knowledge show many similarities with the views of knowledge that reside under a positivist view of the world. I havent had the chance yet to study the ideas of Vygotsky very closely, but i do find it intersting to see that the socio-cultural perspective on knowledge very closely represents the connectivist ideas. As connectivism sees learning occur when distributed within a network, the socio cultural theory sees that it lies within the social interaction that can be found in a network. Perhaps the artifacts that are used nowadays are different, but that shouldnt neccesarily affect the view on knowledge.

Akkerman, S.F. (2006). Strangers in dialogue: Academic collaboration across organizational boundaries (Doctoral dissertation, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, 2006).

Brown, J.S. (2000). Growing up digital. Change, vol. 32, no 2 (March/ April 2000).

Brown, J.S. Duguid, P. (2002). The social life of information. Harvard Business school press, Boston,

De Laat, M. (2006). Networked learning (Dissertation, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands).

Harrison, R. & Kessels, J. (2004). Human resource development in a knowledge economy. An organizational view. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.

Von Krogh, G. Roos, J. Slocum, K. (1994). An essay on corporate epistemology. Strategic
Management Journal. Vol. 15, (summer), pp. 53-71.

9 Responses to “Social aspects of learning”

  1. 1 Mike Bogle

    Hi Joost,

    That’s brilliant – thank you very much for this.

    You outlined several points that I find really interesting and will be looking into further – not the least of which are the social-culture and networks of practice (both of which I was previously unfamiliar with).

    It was also a really valuable overview of some of the other learning theories that have come up.



  2. 2 Joost Robben

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks and great that you’ve found this post valuable. If you like you can read some more on networks and on the socio-cultural perspective in Maarten de Laat’s dissertation. It’s also on the reading list:

    With regard to you not being familiar with these: I find in amazing to see how many views and theories are described out there. For me, Stephen’s article on learning networks this week is one big abracadabra. I’ve never read most of his citations. I feel it has a lot to do with geographics and community: your know the stuff that’s been brought to you and people around also read. That was also a reason for me to write this post and be able to connect connectivism with the theoretical framework i’m familiar with.

    Gr. Joost

  3. 3 sammy

    thanks for this really educative

  4. 4 Joost Robben

    @sammy, your welcome. Glad to be of help.


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