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Networks: Smart Mobs and ad hoc Learning

This is a long blog. Perhaps we could call it a blong or an oblong. Hopefully I won't receive a flogging for my blogging.

I just finished reading Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold as well as exploring the Smart Mobs Blog and thought it might be interesting to connect a few of the many interesting ideas presented to some thoughts about learning. The first part outlines some interesting ideas about Smart Mobs and the second part begins exploring some connections to learning...

Smart Mobs
A smart mob is a mobile ad hoc social network. "Mobile" refers groups of people that leverage mobile technologies in order to communicate. "Ad hoc" refers to the ability of the group to self-organize informally and on the fly. "Social network" refers means that each person is a node in a distributed system of trust, reputation and cooperation. The idea of being "smart" really means energetic or quick in movement, and not necessarily intelligent, clever or brilliant. Smart mobs are capable of stupidity. A mob refers to a loosely formed association of people or from a technological perspective and electronic crowd or throng of people.

There is a sense that a smart mob is the antithesis of virtual reality. A smart mob uses technologies that help them capture information from their everyday experiences and communicate those experiences via "always on" mobile technologies to their social network. In contrast, virtual reality was more about creating an alternate electronic reality or something radically different from everyday experience. In a smart mob computers are integrated with reality; in virtual reality, reality is built into computers.

A smart mob is decentralized. Instead of information being "pushed" from a centralized source out through the Internet (one to many or broadcasting), a smart mob will push information to each other through the Internet (many-to many or peer-to-peer). In other words, a smart mob will produce and distribute information; it is both a source of information and a user of its own information.

A smart mob is empowered not by its mobile technologies as much as trust, reputation and cooperation. "Reputation marks the spot where technology and cooperation converge." (Smart Mobs: p. 114) This means that a smart mob must have the ability to mutually monitor itself, impose graduated discipline/punishment on problematic members, openly share information (even gossip) about member's reputation, have a system for increasing membership, and have the ability to create clusters of common goals.

A smart mob is a liberating structure in that people do not have to be professionals or experts in something in order to express themselves. A smart mob is also a disabling structure in that people do not have to be civil, know what they're talking about, or able to communicate coherently. Both quality and crap co-exist together in a smart mob.

Smart Mobs of Learners
In The Experience Designer I wrote that the idea of mobility is about how communication and transportation technologies help us to go out into the world as well as how they help the world come to us (physically and intellectually). (The Experience Designer: pp. 34-39) For the learner this means that they are literally on the move in the world, and the world is on the move around them. And this movement is at least social and technological. We constantly hear about the idea of decentralization, yet our formalized systems of learning (schools, universities, corporate training programs, e-Learning products, etc.) remain highly and needlessly centralized and stagnant.

A smart mob empowered by shared learning goals would be a formidable force. It is not too difficult to imagine students (youth or adults) engaging in mobile ad hoc social networks (or smart mobs) in order to pursue common areas of interest. This is what smart mobs do. What is difficult to imagine is a learning, education or training system (as we currently know them) allowing students to do this. Systems of education and training, and certainly e-Learning, are centralized systems in which information is manufactured and distributed from a central source to many people. The individuals responsible for these systems derive their control and power from maintaining a closed system of stuff to be learned. This is largely achieved by maintaining closed over the technologies of curriculum, instruction and evaluation (yes - these are kinds of technology). Smart mobs of learners are open systems and would exist outside these rules and therefore pose a threat to their very existence.

There is too much being made out of the supposed differences between formal and informal learning. Is it really surprising that people will find ways of pursuing what interests them in spite of the system of control they find themselves in? No, it isn't. I am growing weary of hearing about the power of the water-cooler discussions. What is surprising is that many of the so-called experts are just realizing this. The problem is that these experts are often the same people that are close to the same source of control that prevents meaningful change from taking place. We are likely on the verge of new "learning" materials that allow us to peek into smart mobs without ever having the experience of being in one. I don't believe that it is a lack of good ideas, time or money that holds us back - it's fear itself.

Learning isn't just about observing and commenting; it is about actively seeking and exploring experiences in life that help us clarify our own identity and purpose. If we are to be serious about the implications of smart mobs, and I believe we should be, then we would use them to build new ways of learning. And learning is never something we are completely comfortable with.

What is the role of smart mobs in learning?

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