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Making learning viral

4 min read


This post begins in a place that’s far away from, well, just about everything. We’re traveling to place called Zuni Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Zuni is miles away from McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and many other corporate flagships that permeate our society. For example, it’s a 45-minute drive down a one-lane road just to find a grocery store.

After arriving at this remote destination, I decided some exercise was in order. I popped on my bike shoes and headed to the Zuni Wellness Center for a biking class. The studio was about half full, and most people were already on their exercise bikes when I arrived. Within moments, a tanned, inked instructor with a long black braid entered the room. He told everyone to “Get ready!” and started blasting music.

He played “Gangnam Style.” Yes, “Gangnam Style.”

Everyone in the room cheered in response, and the class was instantly in motion. I was stunned that this tiny germ of an idea had touched such a remote place.

Clearly some ideas are viral.

But viral ideas should be much more than funny music videos or cat pictures. Our lessons and learning should be viral in the classroom.

So, how can we make important ideas and skills replicate them once they’re inside our learners? Well, based on my research and teaching experience, three qualities reappear in every instance of viral learning I encounter. They are:

1. Participatory

A learning experience that’s participatory invites people to join and contribute. There are access points for both the most novice and the most expert person in the room. Clay Shirky, in his text “Cognitive Surplus,” reminds us that humans are hardwired to get involved. We don’t want to watch life; we want to live it. Therefore, something to which you contribute increases the likelihood that it will be spread and shared. To cite the example of “Gangnam Style,” almost anyone can do the dance yet others may create their own spoof. There are different degrees of participation.

2. Plain

A learning experience that’s plain means that it’s simple. The entire concept must be distilled into a few key ideas that others can easily understand. This helps to preserve the message as it spreads from learner to learner. Again, to cite my experience with “Gangnam Style,” it’s a fun song that you can dance to. That’s it.

3. Powerful

A learning experience that’s powerful has the ability to make a large impact on culture and the way that people live their lives. This is especially important for our learners. What’s the point of learning and spreading this information? How will it affect society in the years to come? “Gangnam Style” appeals to our sense of play and brings joy to others. Viral ideas help learners to engage in something that bigger than themselves.

Viral learning idea isn’t new. Years ago, John Dewey spoke about the need for doers and makers in school. He said, “Learning has been put into circulation. … Knowledge is no longer an immobile solid; it has been liquefied. It is actively moving in all the currents of society itself.”

These three tenets of viral learning design have important implications for education. They also create some boundaries that we should enforce. Viral learning does not happen when we:

  • Expect students to give us back exactly what we’ve given them.
  • Talk at, not with students.
  • Fail to give lots of different ways to engage with a simple, elegant message.

So consider the learning you’ve planned for next week. Is it participatory? Plain? Powerful?

Make it viral.

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is a consultant for Authentic Education and an Edcamp organizer. Swanson is also a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher and an Edublog Award nominee.