Dewey’s conception of collateral learning and platform socialisation

I’m unsure whether ‘collateral learning’ is a throwaway phrase used by Dewey in Experience and Education or whether it’s more fully developed elsewhere. However I’ve found it a really useful concept to make sense of informal learning through social platforms and their impact upon the socialisation process. As he describes it on pg 47 of the aforementioned book:

Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place. The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life.

This raises an obvious question: what are the “enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes” which tend to be generated through engagement with social platforms? The worrying thing about what Seymour calls The Twittering Machine is how platforms are designed around encouraging forms of collateral learning which serve their own interests. In fact we could see behavioural science through platforms as a vast exercise in collateral learning, pulling and prodding users to encourage them to return more frequently, stay for longer and engage with more material while they’re there. This doesn’t treat users as agents but rather as bundles of quantifiable human behaviours which can be influenced through mechanistic micro-interventions. There’s a naive humanism which would suggest the former should be rescued from the latter but a serious attempt at digital humanism has to recognise that we are in an important sense both. The susceptibility to these interventions, which can be made through platforms at a much greater frequency with a much greater degree of granularity, is in an important sense part of our human nature. The fact the technology to intervene in this way is relatively novel means it was easy to avoid confronting this aspect of what we are previously.

In this sense social platforms operating on commercial lines tend to generate undesirable forms of collateral learning as a function of their business models e.g. encouraging a concern for quantifiable popularity, engendering a delight in being quantifiably recognised and encouraging a preoccupation with the endless delights of the stream. However this doesn’t define platform culture because users develop their own understandings of these architectures through their interaction which can, as Burgess and Baym document in the case of Twitter, act back upon the platform itself through their influence on user activity and recognition by platform engineers. For this reason we need to balance a sense of the cultural pathologies inherent to commercial social platforms with a recognition of the possibility for more constructive user cultures which scaffold interaction on the platforms, encouraging their positive use and mitigating their harmful effects.

What sorts of collateral learning would a healthier user culture encourage? To what extent could this outweigh the harmful effects of platforms? It’s important to understand these questions because social platforms have become a potent site of informal learning in their own right with emergent effects for formal learning, both because of the accumulated dispositions which – so to speak – students carry into the classroom but also because social platforms are used within and across schools. So there are two causal trails we need to follow here, each of which necessitates an understanding of the social-developmental matrix which the platform constitutes.

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