Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Where will learners gather to learn?

Today we had a discussion about the effectiveness of lecturing over at G+. Below is one of my responses. Meg Tufano originally suggested that online learning was the way forward.

+Meg Tufano I agree that online looks like the way to go but I'm not sure on the approach yet. As a learner I find online a smorgasbord of things to learn but, like +Michael Franzwa I'm a very independent learner, I can learn with or without others. But I think we are a rare breed. Most people need some sort of community to follow in order to learn and that takes a lot of interaction. Being forced to sit in a lecture hall or study group ensures group connections, not necessarily good ones but connections nonetheless. Even the discussions about how boring the lecture was is a time of reflection. Knowing that others feel the same way about the terrible lecture gives a learner confidence because they know they are not alone. How do we emulate that community online? Remembering, of course, that most learners do not understand their own needs for community while learning.

The elder Indigenous people of Australia used to sit and sing songs about the environment around them. They would layer knowledge onto the land, sky, animals and waterways, knowing that at some point in the future the child who could hear them, but was not listening, would remember the knowledge when the time came. As the child grew and walked the land they deepened their knowledge. As they strengthened their bonds with the people and land, they strengthened their understanding of the interconnections of the knowledge. When the child showed the beginning of understanding they were initiated into and given access to the next level of knowledge. These initiations continued through life until they too become an elder.

In our cultures we build the knowledge as libraries and edifices. A lot of the knowledge is gathered and stored, a thing to be dug up. This is why we have lectures. The learner sits in the spray of knowledge, collects the droplets and then goes away to imagine how these things interconnect. Sometimes these interconnections are written down and then added to the library. The Dewey system and other ways of organising knowledge are like the pathways of old. The professors the elders.You could happen upon knowledge while wandering the corridors of the library. Happen upon a book in a section while looking for a different book. It is a solitary endeavour unless you imagine the books as friends which a lot of good learners do. Having access to professors and the vaults of deeper learning depends on the learner proving their worth via exams and papers. Graduation is the initiation ceremony, except only a few are actually allowed through. Most leave the edifice with the label "educated".

Where are the pathways through online learning? Where are the elders sitting? Where are the gathering places? Where are the ceremonies that celebrate initiation? Who are the people that the learner needs to connect with to gain deeper understanding?

I've yet to see a truly online learning environment that answers these questions. It all just seems like a clumsy attempt to digitise the lecture hall, classroom, study group and associated materials. We have the new social environment online and we have the new data stores but where do the people gather to learn?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Knowledge as landscape.

Looking around at a landscape one experiences the shapes and context of the physical environment. As we sweep our vision across the vista we take in the different views and develop a picture in our mind of what it is that we are seeing. We never see the whole vista at once, yet in our mind we can piece it all together. We move our vision across, imagining the parts now out of sight as we see the parts that are coming into view, piecing it all together by blending memories and vision into a cohesive whole. It is this built vision of the landscape that we know, not the actual landscape itself.

Knowledge of a landscape can act as a metaphor for knowledge itself. It can be something outside of ourselves that we can traverse and experience. It doesn't have to be something we own, it can be something we interact with. And like the physical landscape, we can build pictures of different detail and perspectives of that knowledge. The knowledge we build in our minds is not the things we know, it is our interpretation, or vision, of that knowledge. The more we traverse the landscape of knowledge the richer the experience becomes.

When knowledge is viewed this way the debate on the importance of content in education become superfluous. The content is the landscape. Do we shackle learners to stand facing a certain direction so that they learn only that content? Or do we point out the importance of the different aspects as they themselves scan and move about within the landscape?

Image: EA / FreeDigitalPhotos.net