17 July 2011

On learning in a technological age

No, this is not about the use of technology to enhance learning and teaching--it's a different angle.

Nicholas Carr's (2011) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (London: Atlantic Books) is a well-written popular account of what it says in the title. Naturally it is selective and tends to assume its conclusions from the outset, but its fair.

There have been a couple of substantial blog posts this week, too, exploring similar issues;
The Yong article seems to have been the source for a number of shorter pieces in the serious newspapers.

The very basic underlying argument is a variation on Dr Johnson (1775)
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. 
Broadly it suggests that since the net (or Google as its metonym) has made it so easy to know where to find out, it has made it unnecessary to hold the information ourselves. There is a further argument that just as Socrates argued against writing in the Phaedrus (274e-275b);
...writing is inferior to speech. For it is like a picture, which can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature. It has no power of adaptation, but uses the same words for all. It is not a legitimate son of knowledge, but a bastard, and when an attack is made upon this bastard neither parent nor any one else is there to defend it. The husbandman will not seriously incline to sow his seed in such a hot–bed or garden of Adonis; he will rather sow in the natural soil of the human soul which has depth of earth; and he will anticipate the inner growth of the mind, by writing only, if at all, as a remedy against old age. The natural process will be far nobler, and will bring forth fruit in the minds of others as well as in his own.
...so the adoption of technological extensions to human capabilities ultimately undermine those abilities. Calculators replace the ability to do mental arithmetic, for example. It's an old argument.*

And to a certain, nuanced, extent it is true.  As it has been through the ages. The introductions of writing, of printing, of local printing, etc. have all had their impact. They have changed what it means to "learn". The challenge for education... Sorry! Scrub that cliche! So how have they changed what it means to "teach"?

(I recividistically** and opportunistically try to weave too many themes into a post, but this is about "reflection" and this does reflect how I think, for better or for worse...)

My colleagues and I have just been subject to a (insert derogatory adjective of your choice but don't forget nugatory) review of a course. One perfectly proper and reasonable question focused on the assessment strategy. "Why don't you use a wider variety of assessments? Quizzes? Timed tests?..." etc.

We didn't answer in these terms, but it did occur to me that the choice of assessment is an epistemological issue. What kind of knowledge/skill/value do you think you are testing? And on this kind of professional course, sheer memorization as assessed by a multiple choice test does not matter very much.***

It's a matter calling for thoughtful consideration, not knee-jerk answers.

[Although the other book I've just been reading--which poses similar questions from a very different angle--is Matthew Syed's (2011) Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice London; Fourth Estate, which touches on similar material to that I've discussed earlier.

What I don't see in much of the popular literature--and the textbooks, indeed--is much recognition of how fundamentally different the learning issues are in different disciplines and contexts.]

 * ...and of course my discovery of these links and references relied heavily on the availability of the linked material online.

** I'm not sure if this is a "proper" word (it only gets three hits on google, at the time of writing, in the adverbial form) but I commend it as "in the manner of a repeat offender".

*** which is not to say it doesn't matter a great deal on other professional courses, such as medically or perhaps legally-based programmes, where there is indeed a body of knowledge to be acquired for instant access--"there's a fracture of the thingy-bone and a puncture of the whatsit-artery. Sorry! On the tip of my tongue! I'll just go and look them up..."

and--great minds think alike corner--here is another piece.

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