Infectious Learning

I’ve been musing a little about how learning spreads after coming across this fascinating article about how obesity can be seen as a socially transmitted infection. There are perhaps many parallels between the spread of a disease and the spread of learning within a body and within a community.

Learning is not always a localised infection: quite often it affects large parts of our minds and often (like this little nagging idea) takes over quite aggressively before being accomodated by our defences. Sometimes it results in a high fever, others in just a pimple in our brains that vanishes leaving barely a trace of its existence.

It is not uncommon to build up an immunity to some kinds of learning. I, for example, was vaccinated against physics quite early on in my school career by a particularly learning-hostile teacher (a great pity because I absolutely love the little that I understand of the subject) and I am acutely aware of the need to unteach some of my students to break down their acquired resistance to some forms of learning when they come to university. Of course, it can work in exactly the opposite way: schools (done right) should work like reverse-hospitals, infecting their inhabitants with the fever of learning. Sadly, the  nature of the system means that there are many examples of the spread of MRSA-like ignorance and antipathy to learning.

Learning spreads within a community. When I learn something, a bit of it rubs off on those around me. Sometimes it can spread like wildfire – memes are an obvious example of this, the learning equivalent of a sneeze in a crowded room. Perhaps more often, the infection can be quite mild: small changes in behaviour or outlook can affect conversations and other actions, which in turn spread through the network effect to those around us and those around them. Sometimes, like some kinds of wart, the learning can be localised and barely spread at all, or can break out suddenly after seeming dormant for years.

Unlike most traditional diseases, learning can spread through almost any medium of communication, though it thrives best in an environment where people are in close contact with one another.

Unlike most diseases, the vast majority of forms of learning are beneficial, perhaps like mitochondria or chloroplasts in animal and plant cells, protecting us against the worst disease of all: ignorance.

Just musing here. However, it suggests some interesting avenues of research. I’m sure there have been studies of the benefits of education in communities, but I’m not aware of any that take a quantitative look at how the benefits spread through social networks. It would be quite a tricky study that would probably have to be looked at obliquely. Learning mutates more than the influenza virus as it infects each individual differently. It would be relatively straightforward but largely pointless to look at the spread of ideas. Learning is about knowledge, which primarily exists in people and is more about the accommodation of information rather than the information itself, far more defined by the changes it brings about than by the content that is transmitted. This idle musing is an example of such an effect: a study about the spread of obesity has brought about learning in me that is quite different from the intended effects of the paper. One way to study this might be to look at a large population sample and see what changes happen when people from relatively uninfected communities make active efforts to get infected. Another might be to look at the differences in families with children in school compared with those who are not, taking account of social ties between them.

I need to think more about this, or maybe someone else can (or already has). It would be nice to think that this little speculation has started a new infection somewhere!

By: Jon Dron
Posted: July 27, 2007, 2:14 am

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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