Reconceptualizing Learning III
Bill Long 11/15/06
Learning that Honors the Learner
Key to the new Web 3.0 technology, which is still only a glint in researchers' eyes, is the observation that learning ought not only to be learner-directed but to be subject to learner demand. Though they are only thinking now only of commercial applications, I think the stakes are much larger. What I mean by these statements is the subject of this essay.
As we know, even with the beauty of Internet learning our searches, no matter how skillfully done, will yield knowledge organized according to the way that the documents discovered organize the knowledge. Internet learning at this point, then, is superior to book learning only if the material online is of similar quality to book learning. It becomes superior because we can get quickly to the heart of what we want to know in few minutes without having to have huge research libraries in our back yard. Most searching in life is for "quick learning," I believe.
But real learning takes place not simply when we read another's book or an article on something online, but when we learn to frame our own questions and come up with answers that help us answer, refine, replace or enhance our questions. That is, learning is not simply learning a body of knowledge but is, fundamentally, learning how to ask questions we think are important and then finding answers to those questions. Learning, then, becomes a series of conversations with the world in which we pose the questions and the world, represented by the World Wide Web, answers our questions. Thus, the key Baconian insight is that the Internet must eventually be set up to answer my questions and guide my questioning. When this happens, knowledge will explode, relationships will be different, degrees will be awarded differently, and how we conceptualize what is important will change for all of us. When we truly learn how to make the learner central we will have crossed a threshold into learning that has hitherto not been possible in this world.
Let me illustrate three "searches" I would love to do, searches that would enhance my learning multi-fold. These could be multiplied, without end, into any field.
1. A Philosophical Search. Everyone who studies Western philosophy comes across Whitehead's statement that all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato and Aristotle. Using this statement, I would do the following basic search. I would ask, "What are the leading ideas of Plato's philosophy?" Then I would say, "What is a form?" "What language, and in what passages, does Plato use language of forms?" Once these results are given and tabulated, I would ask, "How have some leading scholars throughout history explained the nature of the forms?" I would see that one might have to use analogies inorder to understand the forms--such as participation language or sharing language. Then I might ask what other images have been used to describe the nature of the forms. I could then go down the road of metaphorical language--what it is, what are its limitations, etc. In all of my questions in this first search, the Internet would take my question, search through the billions of pages at its disposal with lightning speed, and isolate those sentences in what has been written that are germane to my questions. Maybe an algorithm will have to be developed for "a form is" or something like that, but I am sure that the technical folk, with some guidance from us learners, will be able to develop what we want. But, in fact, at this point, the technical people need our insight. As you see, this is only beginning my search on the first topic. I could branch out to other passages and ideas in Plato. I could learn what scholars ancient and modern have thought about an idea. I could have it all in brief and pungently expressed sentences, I could print it out and then have something that answers my questions. I, the learner, am in control.
2. A Literary Question. Once you see how the method works, you can apply your questions to any area of human endeavor. Let's take an author like Shakespeare. We may want to ask questions, first of all, about the Shakespeare canon. What is recent thought on the extent of the canon? What do scholars believe is the date when X was written, etc.? But then we can go on and ask more specific questions. How does Shakespeare use the Bible in one of the plays? throughout his work? Which Bible does he show reliance on? How does classical mythology function in a particular play? Across his works? In the context of 16th-17th century English literature? The questions, as you see, are endless, and the Google, as President Bush has famously called it, will go right to work to answer my sovereign questions as I search.
3. Other. I could ask the Net to come up with the history of editions of various books; to explain variant textual readings; to tell me when the first usage of a particular phrase appeared; to tell me how a word has evolved over time. In other words, the limit of my learning will be determined by the limit of my imagination. But, whenever I can come up with a question, the Internet will search for an answer to my question that is not a "stack" of documents but, rather, is a thought-through organized answer which is historically and textually based. Of course, the system will still be dependent on the quality of the material in it, which argues for putting more and more material online.
The unadmitted truth in most of life today is how little anyone really knows. Even professors know only a little on the subject on which they publish books and spend several years. The reason is that information is fundamentally very difficult to gather and organize. The reason? Because people put together information which we use for purposes other than the ones that motivate us. When we learn that the world exists for us in our learning, we will have revolutionized the world. And, the revolution starts here, with a head full of questions.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long