Compete, collaborate or connect
Are you competitive when you learn in a group, hoping to be the number one performer? Or do you prefer to collaborate, giving your own knowledge to others and taking from your fellow learners as needed?
Traditionally, education at school encouraged competition. Pupils were ranked according to their performance in end-of-term tests, and anxiously compared their own exam results with their classmates. Today, that idea persists but has given way to other ways of learning.
An ethos of collaboration may be spreading into learning, enabled by the networks that can be formed online. Instead of looking suspiciously at fellow learners out of the corner of their eyes, many people are helping their peers and seeking help from them to plug their own knowledge gaps.
Peer-to-peer learning, a component of social learning, allows those with knowledge or experience to help their colleagues.
Youtube is stuffed with videos made by experts in their fields, as well as by knowledgeable and self-taught people. Sure, some of them do well out of advertising, but the majority only make pennies or nothing at all out of helping others to learn.
Strangely, there is even a learning theory claiming that in a fast-changing world, our connections (in other words our network of friends and colleagues) are what counts.
The researcher Karen Stephenson puts it like this:
Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.
But does collaboration lead to complacency and dependency? What's wrong with providing one of the most compelling incentives known to man – outdoing one's neighbour?
After all, competition in other areas keeps prices low, leads to sub 10-second sprints, and may result in great things in the classroom or workplace. This is true, but some people believe that there's a place for both competition and collaboration. It's interesting to note that a lot of competition is really about competing with oneself (to record a personal best time in a race, for example), or even with a machine (to shoot as many aliens as one's computer can fit on the screen).
In the end, it may come down to what motivates individuals. Some people find validation for their achievements by comparing them to the achievements of others. Others, equally, find validation when they help others learn things they already know.
This has implications for course designers, and perhaps makes their lives more complicated. It means that they should think about how to motivate both types of learners at the same time. And it means being open to those who want to be top of the class, while offering all the benefits of social learning and mutual aid to others.