Social Learning and the Re-bundling of the College Experience

Just a couple of hours after I posted on social network analysis and the LMS, Scott Wilson tweeted about an article from Wired Magazine that he correctly identified as having serious implications for social learning. An economic sociologist from MIT used social network analysis to show that behaviors spread more quickly in social networks of clustered close connections.

Clustered and diffuse network maps

From Wired Magazine

“There has been a lot of theory about the difference between information and behavior spreading,” said economic sociologist Damon Centola of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of the study published Sept. 3 in Science. “We’ve assumed that they are the same, but you can imagine that behavior is not really like that, that you need to be convinced.”…

…To do the experiment, he created an internet-based health community and invited people already participating in other online health forums to join. Over 1,500 people signed up to participate, and they were placed anonymously in one of two different kinds of networks: a random network with many distant ties (above left), or a clustered network with many overlapping connections (above right).

Users in both networks had the same number of assigned “health buddies.” They couldn’t contact their buddies directly, but they could see how their buddies rated content on the site, and could receive e-mails informing them of their buddies activities. Centola said he deliberately didn’t pay the volunteers, so they would participate out of legitimate interest in the site’s content….

…In the clustered network, 54 percent of the people signed up for the forum, compared to 38 percent in the random network, and almost four times as fast. Not surprisingly, Centola also found the more friends people had that also signed up, the more likely they were to return to the forum to participate.

In other words, we’re more likely to do something when we see a lot of our close friends (as opposed to distant acquaintances) doing the same things. That should include behaviors like staying in school and practicing effective study habits.

We’ve known for some time that forming social bonds the first year of school correlates with a higher likelihood of retention and graduation, but somehow that observation has remained relatively isolated from the trend to unbundle the college experience. The argument seems to go that either you want a stripped-down, cheaper, education-only experience or you want the elite, social, full college experience which is increasingly framed as a luxury and a social marker or, at best, valuable for the pre-professional connections you make. It seems fairly obvious, however, that at least certain kinds of social experiences (whether they are on-campus or online) can improve academic success. This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the same kind of campus life that we have traditionally seen can be justified by the impact on outcomes, but it does mean that we can begin to explore what kinds of extra-curricular activities tend to lead to the formation of close social cohorts that boost academic success. And it applies to teachers as well as students. This study seems to support the idea, for example, that teachers are going to be more likely to share course materials if they see their close peers doing so. Which makes a ton of sense if you think about it for a minute.

A third implication is something that viral marketers figured out quite a while ago, which is that if you want to encourage people to imitate their peers, you have to make the activities you want to be imitated visible. Think Foursquare or any of the bazillion annoying quiz games on Facebook. This suggests that, for example, NIXTY may be onto something with their idea of awarding karma points to faculty who contribute content for re-use.
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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to Social Learning and the Re-bundling of the College Experience

  1. Scott Wilson says:

    Something I’ve discussed a lot with colleagues is the aspect of modelling in education – as in, the educator acting as the model of a professional that students want to emulate. This is explicit in apprenticeships, and implicit in very “traditional” higher education, but something easily lost in mass-produced higher education where the emphasis is on curriculum and outcome rather than behaviour and identity. Also, there is a tension between the value of having authentic professionals vs professional teachers (they are rarely combined in the same person!)

    One of the interesting sections of Alexander’s original pattern language is a section on open workplaces to enable more casual modelling of trades and professions. While it could be argued that TV does a lot now to open up different work places and practices (think “American Hotrod” and other work-based reality shows) the transparency need to be coupled with the sort of clustered networking that comes from (for example) hanging around in a group watching the professional footballers practicing then trying out the same moves together later. Also, a lot of modern jobs consist of “invisible” work that is harder to expose as practices that can be modelled. (I’ve been talking to colleagues teaching computing recently about OSS communities, as this is somewhere where there is enough transparency of practice – and clustering – to make for good learning opportunities).

    Being able to emulate a good professional model, then reinforce that with consistent peer group behaviour also engaged in that emulation, is clearly something that happens at PhD level now, but can it be applied more widely without the high costs and exclusivity? Hopefully we can learn from research like this to figure it out.

  2. It’s interesting that you link the social networking to apprenticeship. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s a great angle.

  3. Hi Michael,

    Can you expound on what you mean by “re-bundling” of the college experience?

    This is top of mind for me.



  4. What I mean is that there is going to need to be a countervailing trend to this idea of stripping out everything except academics and providing a no frills (usually online, but could be F2F) education. Certain kinds of social experiences that aren’t strictly academic nevertheless positively correlate with academic success. We need to rethink campus life, and figure out how to make at least some of it virtual, rather than just throwing it out.

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