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Emergent learning
what the Howard Dean campaign can teach us about online learning

By Kathleen Gilroy / February 2004

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Howard Dean's use of the Internet catapulted him into the top ranks of the Democratic candidates for President in the U.S. Whether Dr. Dean ultimately prevails in his quest for the nomination or not, his campaign's use of the Internet has been extraordinarily successful at creating a high-performance learning community. And there are enormous lessons to be learned here for designers of e-learning programs for corporations and universities.

The strategy of the Dean campaign is called "emergent" because it draws its power up from the grassroots. Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters. Emergence is the term coined by author Steven Johnson, whose 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software described self-organizing intelligent systems of slime molds, ant colonies, and cities. Johnson's principles are the philosophical basis of the Dean campaign site. According to Johnson, "Dean is a system running for President."

What follows are a set of principles working to great effect for Dean, which we think can be adapted to online learning programs with equally powerful results.

The Social Network

First and foremost is the value of the social network. According to Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, "The Internet puts back into the campaign what TV took out—people." Dean has become a political presence by building a social network on the Internet. As in the analogy with TV in political campaigns, people have also been missing from the majority of online learning programs. Most programs consist of individuals interacting (or better transacting) with static content. The absence of meaningful connections with other people in online learning programs accounts for their massive (60 to 70 percent) attrition rates. For online learning programs to succeed like the Dean campaign, they need to put people at the center of their learning model.

In the Dean campaign, people type in a zip code and find each other. In a learning network, rich databases can enable learners to make connections with other people, their contacts, and their ideas. Learning, particularly in the context of the professional workplace where our programs are run, is often about identifying the right person as teacher. To address this problem, e-learning programs are starting to incorporate social networking applications into learning platforms so that learners can tap into one another's contacts and expertise. It is also useful to build in synchronous sessions for learners to work together online and to incorporate instant messaging and presence awareness.

Feedback and Pattern Recognition

The Dean campaign web site is awash in data. The site features key metrics about the people participating in campaign: the number of identified supporters for Dean; the number of meet-ups (locally organized Dean campaign events); the number of contributors and how much they have given to the campaign; the number of letters written to voters in rural Iowa; the number of e-mails received by the campaign; the number of Blog entries posted and comments posted in response. Data collection and display are critical features of emergent systems. Deanspace—the term coined for the campaign Web site—is not really about Dean. It's about the people working in the campaign.

Data collection and pattern recognition can also be successfully integrated into online learning programs. One of the big problems in online programs is that people do not have palpable sense of others in the community. Virtual learning disconnects people from a shared context. But the Internet is particularly well structured to counteract this problem. It is basically a database with communications tools that makes it easy to collect information about the learning community and make it available.

In a recent program on conflict resolution created for a global engineering and construction firm, profiles of the participants' conflict styles were merged with survey data on how people are experiencing conflict in the workplace. Combining the profile and survey data with detailed personal examples demonstrates for participants that peers with very different profiles are addressing problems similar to their own, and that sometimes one approach is more effective than another. This reinforces in the strongest way possible the core lesson of the class: that it is possible to consciously choose a strategic approach to dealing with conflict.

All kinds of data can be collected and shared: solutions to problems; opinions about current issues facing the learning community; patterns of work processes; feedback about tactics and methods. An emergent view of a learning community would, like Deanspace, make visible critical information about the community's goals, needs, and expertise.

The Big Blog

The central intelligence of the Dean campaign is the "Official Blog." It is a journal of activity within the campaign. The blog reports, editorializes, hustles, and cheerleads its readers. Campaign managers post entries daily, which are read and commented upon by thousands of Dean supporters (and critics). Each entry contains multiple links to other sources of news and commentary. One of the Blog's innovations is its listing of other blogs linking to it. While some of these links are "official," (Veterans for Dean, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Dean), most are not endorsed by the campaign (Cyclists for Dean, Lawrence Lessig). By including unedited comments on its site and listing unofficial, independent links and blogs, the campaign makes its diversity and range visible.

We believe that blogging can be used in online learning programs. It is a terrific format for keeping virtual learners informed about what is going on in the community. A blog (authored by the faculty or learning managers) can be the central intelligence of the learning experience. It can be the history and repository of knowledge—anyone who reads it should be able to quickly learn what is going on. For programs that incorporate independent or team projects, blogs can be used by project managers and teams to keep track of their own progress, keep one another informed, keep faculty and executive sponsors informed, and to make connections to one another's work. Once a history has been developed, blogs can reference past experience and knowledge.

The blog can also serve to better integrate course materials into the discussion flow of a course. Blog entries can easily include links to Web-based materials, enabling students to quickly and easily reference specific clips from videotaped lectures or excerpts from readings in the context of an ongoing discussion. This overcomes the restrictions of a linear-organized syllabus.

At a technical level, blogs generate XML files based on a standard protocol called RSS (short for Really Simple Syndication), which allow them to be tracked and indexed. When new entries are posted, they generate meta-information, which can be ranked and referenced. Indexes like Blogdex and Technorati track inbound and outbound links to blogs and scan weblogs for quoted articles, ranking them according to the number of references. This meta-information can be used to understand how people in the learning community are connecting to one another and their ideas.

Emergent Learning Communities

No matter what you think of his politics—or the ultimate success or failure of his national campaign—Dean's Internet strategy has converted his followers from a mailing list into a high performance learning community. The key elements of Deanspace—activating a social network, displaying feedback and pattern recognition, and constructing a multi-limbed blog can be used in the design and development of "emergent" learning programs to achieve comparable results.


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