Sunday, December 04, 2005

Online Learning Communities: PerlMonk

I had linked to this paper the other night, but didn't get to dig into it until tonight -- Self-Organizing Social Learning Through the Monastery Gates. It's an in-depth analysis of the informal learning taking place in PerlMonks, an online community formed around the programming language Perl. From the conclusion:
"PerlMonks is an example of a emergent, self-organizing system that promotes learning without overt management in a large, distributed community mediated by the global Internet. In what is essentially a self-directed learning effort, PerlMonks participants organize their own learning around authentic, real-world problems which they choose."
I poked around on the PerlMonks site and indeed there is ample evidence of an incredible learning environment for techies who are immersed in Perl and related technologies. It appears to be total gibberish to anyone who is not -- this is a very focused and active community with a well-defined purpose. It does offer tutorials for beginners, but the level seems more advanced overall.

The paper connects the type of learning to constructivism:
"Seen from the perspective of learning system design, PerlMonks encompasses some useful constructivist conditions for learning. A few conditions evident within PerlMonks (many more are embedded) include: (a) authenticity, (b) real-time quality, (c) distributed knowledge creation, (d) social construction of knowledge, and (e) induction into a learning community through staged participation."
This all got me thinking about how the same general topic is treated it 43 Things, where I found that 109 people want to learn Perl and 12 of them have written entries about the goal. Most of those are quick statements of intent, but others are more interesting. 50 other users have reported completing the goal and 18 of those have written posts either encouraging or discouraging the pursuit of the goal. Only one "expert" offered a link to an online resource -- their class outline and notes from an introductory course. Almost nobody received any comments on their entries except one pretty girl who got five in a group that seems to be mostly guys (coincidence?).

If you type "Learn Perl" into Google, the related 43 Things goal page is one of the top results, and PerlMonk shows up at about result 350. Isn't that odd? The coverage of the topic on 43 Things is minimal, without much reference to the actual programming language, while PerlMonk has been around at least five years longer, has an active tech-savvy community, and covers the topic in unbelievable depth. Perhaps this says more about the Google ranking system than anything substantive about the relative value of the two sites, but it's still interesting to me.

There's something ephemeral about goals -- they can be whims or or indications of an interest that may never be followed up. The type of learning that takes place on 43 Things may be less focused teaching the content of the learning goal (like "Learning Perl"), and more focused on the process of learning about and deciding which goals you should actually pursue. Instead of answering the question, "How do I learn Perl?", it's helping answer questions like:
  • Why should I learn Perl?
  • Who else is learning Pearl and what are they saying about it?
  • What related programming languages might or should I be learning instead (or together with it)?
  • If I was going to learn Perl, where would I start?
  • Would others recommend that I pursue this goal?
These are much less focused on the content of the learning itself and are much more concerned with the purpose (the why) of the pursuit -- in this type of informal community, deciding what to learn (or not) may be as important as how or when you actually learn it.


Randal L. Schwartz said...

I don't think that Google is that far off on the "learn perl" results. Keep in mind that Google is a literal search (almost), not a semantic search. In my many years of reading and posting on monks, I've rarely seen the words "learn perl". The site is about learning, but like "don't talk about fight club", you don't keep saying the word "learn".

It would be a bit like searching for "united states", which would show the sites that talk about the country as a whole, but certainly not the sites that are located within the united states, because they never mention the name of the country.

Jeremy said...

Thanks much for this note, Randal -- much appreciated.

My reference to Google's ranking was more about how social software like 43 Things (and most blogs, apparently) tends to get ranked up in Google because of the amount of interlinking going on.

Your point about the specific search query is spot-on, though. And there's something interesting about the contrast. Although PerlMonks is a much better place to go learn how to solve a specific problem in Perl, that 43 Things page probably isn't the worst place for beginners or dabblers to figure out if they should be learning it at all.

Jeremy said...

A little thought experiment of the types of learning evident in 43 Things and the PerlMonks online community compared with the traditional education approach:

1. In university, 150 second-year students are taking a required web-development course. They've all had to buy two $80 textbooks, one of which covers Perl because the prof is a fan of the language. He's devoted two weeks to Perl and assigns a small, contrived Perl-based programming project. They'll get exposed to the information, but how many of those 150 students are going to value this learning as part of who they are becoming, and to what degree could this be considered authentic learning?

2. An experienced web developer needs to create some code to help him do a batch operation on a database-driven site. He's on a tight deadline and thinks Perl might be the right tool for the job, but he hasn't ever used it before. He finds the PerlMonk FAQs to make sure he's on the right track, then posts a request for help that gets a response from someone in the community with a solution in less than three hours.

3. A graphic designer is getting more complex requests from clients for web development projects requiring more than her basic html and graphic skills. A friend at work suggests that Perl can be very helpful for certain kinds of web programming tasks, so she goes to Google and types in "learn Perl". One of the results is the "Learn Perl" goal page in 43 Things and she reads the recommendations from people who want to learn and others who have already learned it. While reading, she sees that she might be better off learning a combination of PHP and MySQL for the kinds of projects she wants to work on, sending her in new directions. She's learning what she wants to do, and maybe even what she wants to be.

Perhaps these are oversimplified examples, but they're helping me conceptualize the relative value of these online communities in contrast to traditional views of education.

Randal L. Schwartz said...

"three hours" for a response from monks? More like 30 seconds. {grin}

Jeremy said...

HA haha...don't ignore the "..less than..." part of that sentence.