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Tim Cliffe - Blog

Socrates and Social Learning in the Mobile Environment

01 Target Audience

(01.1) Anyone involved in e-Learning, social learning commissioning, Design, and related roles.

02 Executive Summary

Image of a bust of Socrates.


(02.1) Socrates spoke of the 'conceit of wisdom' out of concern that over reliance on the written word would produce a false sense of security in knowledge acquired in the absence of human discourse. The opportunities presented by Social Learning can address such concerns, when implemented effectively.

03 Structure of This Article

  1. 04 Introduction
  2. 05 Socrates - The Conceit of Wisdom
  3. 06 Socrates was Correct - Relying on the Written Word Leads to a Conceit of Wisdom
  4. 07 Examples
  5. 08 Should we Destroy the Written Word?
  6. 09 Incorporating Social Learning into Formal Learning
  7. 10 Capturing the Outcomes of Social Learning
  8. 11 The Nature of the Social Learning Network
  9. 12 A Lesson from History
  10. 13 Using Appropriate Devices

04 Introduction

(04.1) The emergence of supportive technologies to enable social learning, within the context of on-line mobile learning, presents opportunities largely lost to established learning methodologies. However, to fully exploit such opportunities, there must be an investment in moderation and curation by humans, not by automation. This requires a paradigm shift.

05 Socrates - The Conceit of Wisdom

(05.1) This posting is inspired by an excellent article by Harold Jarche - The 2020 Workplace (Access the LinkedIn website, The 2020 Workplace page (External link, opens in a new tab/window)), which I respectfully suggest you read to provide context to this article.


(05.2) I wanted to expand on a reference included in Harold Jarche's article, which I believe is worthy of further consideration. The reference appears in the second paragraph of the 'The 2020 Workplace', and reads:
  • "...Socrates felt that men who relied entirely on the written word would be a burden to their fellow men, as 'these artefacts' (words) would give them a ‘conceit of wisdom’."
(05.3) I imagine, like many, I read the reference above and quickly continued with the remainder of the post, without giving the words of Socrates much attention, in fact, if anything, I subconsciously dismissed them as, "obviously wrong" (what an insult to the great man, albeit unintended). It was not until I had finished the article, I gave Socrates the consideration he deserves.


(05.4) The purpose of my article is to propose Socrates was, and remains, correct. That is to say, excessive reliance on the written word, and its attendant assessments, tests, and certifications, does indeed result in a 'conceit of wisdom'.


(05.5) As Jarche discusses, working practice has changed over millennia, and reflects the changes in communication technology. Such technology evolved from the 'Oral Tradition' into the 'Written Word', then the 'Printed Word', moving to electrical transmissions, such as the Telegraph, Radio, and Television, and finally, modern-day digital communications such as the Internet.


(05.6) Importantly, and especially so for the purposes of my article, Jarche continues by illustrating the relationship between evolving communication technologies and concomitant social/workplace structures. Namely, tribal societies, institutions, markets, and today's networks. Those networks make available to us, the opportunity to re-discover, appreciate, and benefit from more ancient methods of information exchange (for the purposes of this article) within the context of learning. Be that academic or vocational. That is, Digital Tribal Societies.

06 Socrates was Correct - Relying on the Written Word Leads to a Conceit of Wisdom

(06.1) 'Conceit of Wisdom'.


(06.2) Definition: Conceit - A favourable, and especially unduly high opinion of one's own abilities or worth.


(06.3) Definition: Wisdom - The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.


(06.4) I suggest you already understand the truth of Socrates' words. Let me give some familiar examples.

07 Examples

07.1 I have a driver licence

Image of a UK Driving Licence.


(07.1.1) In which case, one of the most memorable times of your life was your driving examiner turning to you and saying, "I am pleased to confirm, you have passed." Wasn't that a great moment!? I remember it well. Later, I would drive to the local shop, despite it being quicker to walk.


(07.1.2) Like me, you were probably young, newly empowered to be in command of a machine capable of great speed.


(07.1.3) Off you went, driving alone for the first time. Sooner or later, finding yourself in a situation when you discovered your 'certification' did not provide you with the skill to handle that bend (in the wet perhaps), you had approached far too quickly, having failed to notice the telegraph poles or hedgerows at the side of the road, indicating the bend was turning sharply. Perhaps you braked hard on the bend? That's a big mistake, isn't it? Perhaps you didn't brake, out of fear of putting the vehicle into a spin, and found yourself on the wrong side of the road. Most of us have been there, and most of us have been lucky, in so much as we lived to learn from our mistake.


(07.1.4) A perfect example of the 'conceit of wisdom'. I've read the books, and passed the test. I'm qualified, I know what I'm doing.


(07.1.5) Even your driving examiner was subject to the 'conceit of wisdom'. Your examiner had an assessment sheet, against which, they recorded your performance, with respect to written criteria, the 'bible' of 'passing the test'.

07.2 I have a degree

Image of a mortarboard hat and certificate.


(07.2.1) Another one of life's great moments. Wearing your cap and gown, clutching your certificate. You've joined the elite, and justly proud of your achievement. You've read the books, completed the assignments, and passed the test. You're qualified, you know what you're talking about. But of course, you quickly realise, hopefully, you are only qualified to start on your chosen path. Work, life, and society soon teach there is much to learn.


(07.2.2) How many of us have encountered those individuals, possessed of their 'conceit of wisdom' vaunting their superiority, what remarks have you heard? "Just because they have a degree they think they know everything."


(07.2.3) You know Socrates was correct, and I am sure you can think of many more examples.

08 Should we Destroy the Written Word?

(08.1) Of course not. Hopefully, you recognise that is not my point.


(08.2) The written word is excellent for conveying knowledge accurately, consistently, over great distance, and without the need for the 'master' to be present. The written word makes possible the democratisation of knowledge. It also makes possible the enforcement of ineffective dogma, generally labelled 'accepted wisdom'.


(08.3) When Socrates made his statement, he was not suggesting the written word lacked merit, but that OVER RELIANCE on the written word would result in the loss of an essential aspect of learning and the development of wisdom. The loss of social discourse, counter proposal, rebuttal. It removes the opportunity for ANYONE to contribute to the collective wisdom, regardless of their 'qualifications' or lack thereof. History has proven him correct.


(08.4) If something is claimed, and cannot be supported by an authoritative text, it is often dismissed. You have certainly been in a situation where, your position opposed 'accepted wisdom'. It mattered little your position was borne of personal experience, or informed intuition. If you had one of those really reliable gut feelings, you may have well committed blasphemy. The position Socrates adopted is, such aspects of learning, and acquiring wisdom are essential, and the opportunity to discuss and reason, collectively, are vital.


(08.5) It cannot be denied that opportunities to discuss etc. do exist, but they are secondary to 'accepted wisdom', which has become founded in OVER RELIANCE on the written word.


(08.6) If Socrates were to return today, I believe he would recognise the potential for digital social networking, allied to knowledge systems, to re-establish the balance he was so concerned would be lost by OVER RELIANCE on the written word. That is, the ability for anyone to contribute, for contributions to be discussed and reasoned, and for participants to leave with much more than knowledge alone could impart. Of course, there is need for moderation and curation.


(08.7) For Socrates, the human moderator and curator would have been himself, listening to the discussions of citizens at the Agora of Athens, as they presented their arguments, considered contributions from many perspectives, subsequently refining their arguments, and so on.

09 Incorporating Social Learning into Formal Learning

Image of social media logos.


(09.1) For digital social learning to be effectively incorporated into 'formal' learning, a human moderator and curator must be present. This cannot be automated, as automation would simply impose programmes and algorithms on the activity, re-imposing the OVER RELIANCE on the written word, Socrates had such concern for. Equally important, we know intuitively, automation of such activities cannot be effective.


(09.2) "We know, intuitively."


(09.3) For Socrates, this is a valid declaration, as it is the foundation of questioning, testing, and modifying.


(09.4) Putting humans 'in the loop' is not a cheap solution. However, inappropriate automation is a complete waste of effort and money. Even more expensive are the systems needing to be established to secure the benefits of social learning.

10 Capturing the Outcomes of Social Learning

(10.1) The most valuable asset of any organisation is the knowledge of the individuals comprising that organisation. The ability of the organisation to adapt is reliant upon the ability of those individuals to learn and evolve. Something so important requires investment and planning. Assuming a Social Learning network is already established, that means:
  • The human moderator/curator cannot be someone who performs the task "when they have a spare moment". It must be a respected and dedicated resource;
  • The members of the social learning network must have, as part of the requirements of their role, a dedicated allocation of time to take part in the social learning community;
  • The organisation must have a mechanism in place to communicate outcomes, from the community via the moderator/curator, to decision makers;
  • Decision makers must change their 'conceit of wisdom' to ensure outcomes from the community are respectfully considered;
  • The organisation must have a mechanism in place to communicate DELIBERATIONS and DECISIONS to the community;
  • The community must have the opportunity to reflect on, and discuss deliberations and decisions, before decisions are implemented;
  • The community must have the opportunity to present counter proposals and rebuttals.
(10.2) This is not to say an organisation must be governed by unanimous consent. Decision makers are privy to knowledge the community lack, and are responsible for making the best decisions, in light of ALL the information available, including information from the community, which must be considered with no less currency than any other information.


(10.3) This implementation is not the cheapest. It is, however, the basis for a truly 'Learning Organisation'.

11 The Nature of the Social Learning Network

(11.1) I made quite an assumption above, that is "...a Social Learning network is already established..."


(11.2) Community members must have access to a social network via appropriate devices. If the devices are not suited to the purpose, any investment and planning, however well executed, will be undermined.

12 A Lesson from History

Image of a Nokia 7110 Mobile Phone.


(12.1) I remember, in the early 2000s, my director discussing the possibility of adding WAP websites to our portfolio of services. As the Web Manager, I had an intuitive reaction to this suggestion... "It's a waste of time".


(12.2) For those who do not remember WAP, it was a fudge to get around the fact that browsers on mobile phones of the day were rubbish. The iPad had not been invented, mobile phone screens were about the same size as a smart watch, and Internet connects were sedentary. WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) essentially gave lists of text (navigation) linking to blocks of text. Because of the very small screen size, using WAP was a nightmare, besides, people would much rather go home to their computer and use a 'proper browser', and benefit from the media rich content.


(12.3) Needless to say, WAP (in this form) was a flop, and quietly vanished from view.

13 Using Appropriate Devices

Image of a smart-phone with social media logos.


(13.1) My point is this. If social learning members are expected to use smart watches, they will not bother. The screens are far too small, and reading and understanding bodies of text is very difficult on small screens. This is because of the way the brain of an accomplished reader works.


(13.2) An accomplished reader may think they are reading word by word, but they are not. Their brain has already read/predicted was is yet to be 'consciously' read, but to do this effectively, there must be sufficient, and legible text for the brain to 'scan', and within an overall 'context'.


(13.3) For Example


(13.4) It doesn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a pobelrm. S1M1L4RLY, Y0UR M1ND 15 R34D1NG 7H15 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.


(13.5) Imagine trying to read the above when there are line-breaks every couple of words, and you need to scroll down the screen every three or four lines. This is why I knew WAP would not achieve significant up-take, when far better alternatives existed. This is also the reason why appropriate devices must be used to ensure participation in social learning networks.


(13.6) You may argue "Yes, but technology allows you to hear what people are saying. You don't necessary have to read."


(13.7) That is true, but until 5G (Access the Trusted Reviews website, What is 5G?... page (External link, opens in a new tab/window)) (5th Generation mobile connectivity) is fully rolled-out, that isn't going to be practicable for more than a small number of people at the same time, especially when using mobile devices.

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Socrates and Social Learning in the Mobile Environment by Tim Cliffe © 1997-2020.


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