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Monday, May 04, 2009

New Way of Learning

This month's Big Question - Social Grid Value and a comment by Ken Allan on my Learning Goals post really got me to thinking. Ken said:
I don't really think there's any new way of learning, but we may need to experiment with its delivery.
At first I nodded my head, but then I started to wonder...

Is there really no new way of learning?

This is similar to the question raised in Brain 2.0 and I'm not really sure where we landed in that discussion. At the time, I said:
I'm not claiming that the brain itself has changed, but instead what's changing is:
  • metacognition
  • metamemory
  • access to information
  • access to other people
  • access to smart systems
And I still feel we are vastly underestimating what is happening around all of this.
In fact, I still believe that this is THE challenge of the next 50 years plus. How do we accommodate the dramatic changes in the ways that humans interact with computers, information and each other? In 30 years we will be able to have implants that give us full, instant access to the web (no typing) including the social grid. Today, our access to all that information and other people is just a bit slower (we have to type). Sorry, I digress ...

So, back to the original question - new way of learning?

Part of the answer of whether there are new ways of learning is how we interpret the "way of learning." What is learning? Some definitions:
  • the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge
  • refers to the acquisition, and transfer to long-term memory, of experience, Information, and Knowledge, which may subsequently be used for solving problems, making decisions, and creating new knowledge
If we are talking about brain function, I don't know enough to know whether there really is something different going on in how the brain works. So, if we interpret learning to be purely at that level, then an argument can be made that there's not anything different here because the brain still "learns" in the same way. Therefore the "way of learning" are the same. It's still some kind of physical activity within the brain. Once we are able to bypass visual / reading as our input mechanism from computers and have direct input into the brain that may be interpreted separate from those normal brain signals, then we can be assured that learning is different at this level. But I'm not sure that should be the hurdle we need to achieve in order to start to claim "new way of learning."

If I look at the result of learning which according to the above definitions:
  • skill or knowledge
  • subsequently be used for solving problems, making decisions, and creating new knowledge
I believe that so much is changed around this that it really has a profound impact on learning. We are already beginning down the 30 year path I'm describing above. Essentially we've begun to use computers as an extended brain. The social grid represents a Borg-like extended brain that gives us incredible access to expertise and problem solving. All of this changes:
  • what we learn
  • how we choose what needs to be committed to long term memory vs. electronic memory
  • what we need from a future look up standpoint
  • how we solve problems and make decisions
So while the physical level of learning may not be changing, the context has and is changing. It's changing enough that while it's technically accurate to claim there is no "new way of learning" - it feels misleading.

I believe the way I learn today is very different than the way I learned 10 years ago. And dramatically differently than I the way I learned 25 years ago.


bschlenker said...

As always in our field of choice, it boils down to semantics. Lose the word learning and then the argument begins to make sense. What your saying sounds and feels misleading because we keep USING the term LEARNING.
All of the brain data shows that in fact our brain still functions the same way it long time ago. I'll leave it at that.
The thing that has changed is our behaviors. The sensory input is hyper active compared to our early ancestors. But all we are talking about are changes in how we behave as human beings. We take in information and we create...stuff. The brain doesn't care if it is "sensing" learning content or just content. Actually, EVERYTHING is learning content to the brain, right? Any new experience activates the brain the same way each time.
I'm certainly not a brain scientist either, but stimulus is stimulus no matter how you look at it.
If we tie the word learning to the activity of the brain then we should have a different word for what happens outside of our mellons.
And no, I don't know what that should be...I'm just sayin'.

Tony Karrer said...

Great point - and isn't that other word the important word? Bad news that we don't have a name for it.

Nick Howe said...

I'm sure this has been discussed elsewhere and much more elegantly than I can express it, but there are related but different forces at play with regard to learning knowledge and skills.

I find that as the 'augmented reality' - the always on connection to data sources - becomes more pervasive, there is less incentive to 'learn' knowledge. Why lean 'about' something when it can be recovered from the web in seconds? Memorization of facts becomes if not useless then vastly reduced in value. Meta-cognitive skills become paramount. The change is not a new way of learning, but of changing the emphasis from the cognitive to the meta cognitive.

Even learning (some) skills is affected in a similar way. The requirements for skill in practical technique have not diminished, but any tasks that can be accomplished in a rote fashion can probably be found somewhere on the internet. Memory of tasks and sequences of tasks therefore diminishes. The need to learn skills and techniques may also be somewhat diminished, but to a lesser extent.

It might even be the case that there is a greater requirement to learn a broader range of skills, since the tasks to which those skills can be applied no longer need to be taught or memorized. I call up a sequence of tasks from an external data source and apply my learned techniques.

So, not a new way of learning but a change of emphasis.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

As usual, you are quick to take the lead :-) . I'd be inclined to go along with Brent & Nick - kia ora - but I also know what you're trying to put here Tony. I applaud your optimism, and I'm not being pessimistic in choosing to say that.

There are ways of learning that, though not necessarily new, are known and used for specific purposes that I'd say have limited application when it comes to what we are talking of here.

Dr Jacob Bronowski, who was a renown scientist, intellectual, expert code cracker, mathematician and author, used to give celebrated lectures on BBC TV. One of his interests was the human memory. He himself specialised in so-called memory tricks, only, he always showed how they were performed for he was a teacher, not a con-man.

I think we will all agree that learning needs memory for it to happen.

In one of his lectures, Bronowski demonstrated simply how a feat of memory could be performed through association and he demonstrated this both by his own memory acumen and with a trained member of his audience.

The 'trick' involved some preparation: a list of (say) 20 commonly known items, personal to the memoriser, was committed thoroughly to memory so that not only the list order could be recalled but also the position in that list of any of its component items.

Once this is accomplished, the memoriser could then be shown a series of up to 20 new items in sequence, such as cards drawn randomly from a full pack of playing cards. For each new item shown, the memoriser simply ticked it in the mind by associating it with each of the previously memorised personal items in sequence.

The memorisation happened by association so that when complete, the memoriser could be asked to name item number 15 in the list and know what that item was.

As splendidly amazing as this act appears when first seen, it is based on learning by association.

THIS is the only distinct learning method that I've come across. It is similar to rote learning where a list of things are memorised in a rhyme or acrostic. Nothing new here at all. And for as amazingly spectacular as it can be as a memory feat, its fundamental basis is used by many in school and kindergarten who unwittingly coach young minds to learn things by association.

No Tony. I don't think that there is any fundamentally new way of learning. But there may be a few old tricks that could be dusted down and used as new.

Catchy later

The upsycho said...

Hmm. Siemens tells us that there has been a shift in what it means to know. I have to say I agree with him. If we *know* things differently nowadays, perhaps the way we move from not knowing to knowing, which is the process I would refer to as learning, has changed too.

I'm a bit skeptical about equating learning with memory, as you probably know. So acquiring techniques for committing things to memory does not strike me as learning. I am always concerned when a test to establish learning takes the form of a memory test.

Let me cite a single example here. My grandparents' generation valued retrieval from memory as a skill and set much store by it. To be able to name the capital cities of every country in the world was a Very Good Thing. My kids would wonder why anyone would want to do that when (a) the boundaries and names keep changing and (b) you can google the information any time you want it... from the phone in your pocket!

The amount of information available to us today and the rate at which much of it becomes obsolete hardly allows us time to process (learn?) it before it is replaced by something else. Siemens's book Knowing Knowledge talks about the process of making connections and about knowledge residing in the network rather than within an individual's head. Acquiring the skills to work with distributed knowledge must surely be different from acquiring the skills to commit something to memory and retrieve it from one's own head.

But as Brent says (which Jay Cross often says, too) we have this one word: learn, which applies to so many different skills, so many different processes, that perhaps we end up being like the three blind men describing an elephant (while each touching only one part of it)

Tony Karrer said...

Wow - this is already some great thoughts.

Karyn - you just floored me with the statement:

"If we *know* things differently nowadays, perhaps the way we move from not knowing to knowing, which is the process I would refer to as learning, has changed too."

That's what I think of as learning as well. And absolutely that's changed.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora tātou!

I’m going to be fearfully dogmatic here:-)

I’m also going to refer to the cognitive apprentice theory, that experts in a skill often don’t consider hidden processes involved in learning complex skills.

It is well known that before any skill can be acquired in learning a language, knowledge of vocabulary is fundamental. Check out ANY language tutor for absolute beginners.

It is also becoming recognised by educators that the language of a subject (the vocabulary in particular) is required learning for the learner to be able to think in terms of the subject and also to converse with others. Without the vocabulary of a hitherto unknown subject (in whatever language) it is impossible for a beginner learner to acquire any skill in that subject.

Motor skills have similar fundamental elements when it comes to the first time learner picking up the ropes of a new skill (or concept?)

There is no evidence to suggest that the memory required to learn and remember a vocabulary is fundamentally different from that needed to learn and remember certain skills. True, when concepts or skills to be learnt become more complex as the learner progresses, a stage is invariably reached where the learner has to work harder and harder to make the leaps. But once made, these too can be learnt and remembered. It’s just that higher thinking skills (which also must be learnt and developed) are required to continue to progress. This is often forgotten by the expert who is addressing learning in their subject (cognitive apprentice theory).

We talk of intelligence. The term is becoming synonymous with thinking ability and I think it’s valid to say that whether we’re referring to a huge computer process or an Einstein, there is always some limit to what they are able to tackle – even Einstein conceded that.

If we perpetuate the idea that memory is not linked with learning, we may as well say that making bricks is not linked to building a house with them. You can’t have one without the other. When it comes to learning, the computer’s fundamental unit is the bit (or byte). I posit here that there is no real evidence to suggest that it’s not similar for the human mind. Learning and memory use are intrinsically linked.

Ngā mihi nui
from Middle-earth

Bill said...

Your question is like an optical illusion. Seen one way, the basic brain structures and processes that support learning haven't changed in the last few thousand years.

BUT, seen another way, how the mind is stimulated and information is presented to it has changed greatly. And "Blogger-in-Middle-Earth" is right when learning and memory are linked.

More specifically, working memory and learning are the vital points here. I just "The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory" by Torkel Klingberg which is a fabulous book and very germane to this topic. Essentially, we may be shorting out our learning circuits due to the social network and firehose of information that we keep trying to pound into our heads.

IMHO, I think that an important part of learning is being left out nowadays. And that is the time to reflect on what we learned and how to incorporate it into our mental schemas so we can make practical use of what we learned.

V Yonkers said...

I think we have to go back to the distinction Karyn made between "knowing" and "information". My sister is a speech theorist specializing in pre school children with special needs. Many of these children have vocabulary, but put them together in ways that clearly demonstrates that they don't "understand" the vocabulary or the entire communication process. Giving them discreet pictures, they can repeat the word for that picture. However, they cannot put words together to communicate to others what they are thinking.

I was just in the middle of reading a great article by Scott Cook and John Seely Brown (Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing) in which they contend that it is not enough to know what is POSSESSED in the head (traditional way of looking at knowledge) but also the work done by human action (either individually or collectively).

In other words, learning, per se, I don't think has changed, what we learn and value as the process of learning, how we assess the learning that has taken place (therefore deciding if someone has "learned") has changed and always will. As a result, we will need to change "teaching" (which includes assessing learning and developing curriculum to meet the needs of the change in valued information) forever as times change.

Staying healthy through swimming - Strength, Flexibility and Technique said...

I agree with Brent about the role of the brain in learning.

The following link describes a study which suggests that when we learn certain parts of our brain are active. The example provided in the link revolves around a story told one word by one word. As specific instances of the story come up (such as a location) the predicted areas of the brain that should be activated are observed to be activated.

This in a way follows along some theories proposed by Brunner about narrative learning. If I extend this thought one step further each person has their own experience representing their own brain's awareness of knowledge and personal experience (aka PLE), their own version of the story if you will. With the extension of this thought it makes sense a person will prefer a certain learning environment over another depending on their brain's capacity to aggregate, remix,repurpose ,or feed forward(Downes, 2009)


Dowes, Stephen, New Technology Supporting Informal Learning., Half an Hour blog, last accessed on May 12,2009.