In the E-literate blog, Michael Feldstein has recently had a couple of jabs at the burgeoning interest in emergent learning, as enthusiastically promoted by Jay Cross and others. I suspect that he’s overthinking it and just doesn't get it.
He says “When people talk about “emergent learning” these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. “ He goes on “Nevertheless, if we want to figure out how the concept of emergence can (and can’t) be applied to the domains of group decision-making, then we need to get it through our individually thick heads that peer-to-peer education in a networked environment is not the same thing as emergence.”
He’s using “emergent” in the Steven Johnson sense of the increasing collective smartness of dumber parts, as in smart hives of dumb bees or smart brains of dumb neurons. And by that rather narrow use of the term, he’s right – emergent learning is something of an oxymoron. But “emergent learning” is not used in that sense, at least I have never heard it used that way. Those talking about emergent learning are not talking exclusively about how groups of people get smarter by being connected with each other, though it’s part of the discussion. And they are certainly not talking about rapid consensus-building.
More typically, they are using emergent in the sense that most dictionaries would define it – coming into being or coming into notice. What they are looking at is how emerging technologies (and unexpected applications of them) are changing learning strategies, learning organization, learning implementation, and generally changing the way we go about learning as individuals and as organizations. Learning, and the way it is promulgated, is evolving visibly as it becomes a persistent survival skill. And we need to understand what is happening so that we can recognize it, influence those developments, or leverage any emergent opportunities. (That is, opportunities that are coming into being or becoming recognizable). One of the challenges of emergent learning (and I guess of business generally these days) is to recognize what among all of the chaos coming at us is significant and to exploit it before it is a speck in the rear view mirror.
One of the interests of emergent learning does have to do with connectedness, leveraging the power of collective knowledge and experience in ways that were not possible before, discovering how technology-enhanced collaboration can help to improve performance, and trying to make sense of the way technologies are impacting informal learning.
But I don’t think anyone is looking to emergent learning as a way to create some kind of hive-like smartness in worker bees. The opposite is true – collaborative technologies allow individuals and cross-discipline teams to become more valuable and more prominent, as the employing hive and its collective knowledge become less structured, less hierarchical, and more porous.