Monday, November 01, 2004

Campfires in cyberspace

There is a must-read paper by David Thornburg at the International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, titled Campfires in Cyberspace.

Thornburg talks about the importance of storytelling as an instructional medium, something which most instructional designers (or those who manage them) have yet to get their heads around. In a paper rich in metaphors, Thornburg describes three learning spaces: campfires, watering holes, and caves, which are the most relevant and appropriate places to share information, conversation, concept, and context.

His emphasis in this paper is on storytelling.
One of the distinguishing features of humans is that we are storytellers. In fact, with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence. This capacity of humans is so important that Jean Houston has referred to myth as the DNA of the human psyche.

While storytelling, and the environments that foster it, are sadly ignored by those responsible for creating and enabling learning experiences, Thornburg does not see this as a problem. In his view people will find a way to do what they need to do whether or not the formal gatekeepers make it easy for them.
First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don't, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system.

I have often said that the proportion of corporate learning that takes place informally is not only significantly larger than that which takes place formally, but that unless trainers start to “get” the internet, people will use the web to their advantage in ways which may end up disintermediating formal trainers completely. Whenever I have made that argument I have been focused on advocating experience sharing and peer-to-peer communication within communities of practice, which is in effect all about storytelling. But maybe my concepts to date have been too formal. Thornburg’s notion is much more liberated.

Maybe it is because he is not himself immersed in today’s technologies. Reading between the lines of his paper, his perceptions appear in many instances to be outdated, and his content simply old. His references to the internet and to multimedia read as if he were writing in 1996, not 2004. But while his grasp of technologies may not be too current, his conceptual framework is timeless.

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