Learning in the Digital Age: The Reality and the Myth
Let me tell you story of the great bear. It's a story from First Nations People who lived near where I was born in Canada, the Iroquois people. It's a story from long ago.
They didn't have very much. They had a small community around a campfire. They lived on deer and rabbit.
Time passed and a great bear came to plague their campground. Every day when they woke up, they could see the tracks of the bear around their campsite. The bear was eating all the game, eating all the deer, eating all the rabbits. The people began to starve.
They sent hunters out to shoot the bear, but when they shot bows and arrows at the bear, the arrows just bounced off. The bear would kill the warriors. One or two would straggle back and say, "The bear killed us." They were getting desperate and they didn't know what to do.
Finally, three warriors on the same night had the same dream. They said, "I dreamed that I killed the great bear. I dreamed that we went together and we shot the bear. The bear bled and the bear died."
The chief decided that it's a spirit dream; it must be true. He sent the three warriors, even though they were his best three warriors.
They went out and they shot the bear. They were able to draw blood. They chased the bear. The bear was bleeding. They continued to chase around and around, but they never caught the bear.
To this day, when you look up in the fall sky, you can see the stars, three hunters chasing the bear. You know that they're chasing the bear because the leaves all turn red, which is the blood of the bear that they shot.
It's through the creation of myths that we talk to each other. Our myths are not just explanations of where the stars come from or why the leaves turn red. They're the expressions of the full range of human emotion, from human reason to irony, to anger, to argument, to explanation.
We speak in myth because reality is ineffable. It cannot be expressed in words. All language is, as in the first instance, based in myth, based in some idealization, some abstraction.
We forget this. We think today as though what we say expresses reality in some way. It's as though our words were fully and literally true, but this is seldom the case. Even the words themselves are metaphors, capturing reality through myth.
You might think, how can this be? When you look at language itself, you can see this. There's a French word, croc. I'm picking French because it's not English and it's not Estonian. It's neutral. You can think of your own language and see if this is true.
We have the French word croc, which means tooth or fang, something crooked, something hooked. We have the idea of the crocodile, an animal with fangs. We have in French the idea of crochet, and to crochet is to create a rug using hooks. We have the idea of entre crochet in French, between the brackets, between the hooks. You have crochet a bouton, or button hooks, the things you use. Or, in French, a crochet du gauche, a right hook.
You see this over and over, in French and in other languages, how the single root morphs and twists. The single concept creates the image that underlies all of our concepts into the future.
We comprehend the future in terms of what we understand today. This is the basis of the origin of these myths. This is really important to understand.
When we start talking about what cannot be known we lose our place or we experience only confusion. We are lost in a swirl of chaos. It's chaos that, in fact, characterizes all reality.
We project our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs, our features onto the chaos. This is how we understand the chaos. We look at the chaos and we see ourselves. In seeing ourselves in the chaos, we comprehend the chaos, but it's a myth. A lot of the time these patterns, these projections, are primal and basic like bears, like tragedy, like fangs and hooks.
At the same time, as we try to comprehend the future, we also make the future. We strive to make tomorrow safe and comfortable as it was for us in the past, or at least a mythical past ‑‑ a hearth, a home, a story, a family, a community. Another myth.
Sisyphus, you may know, sought to cheat death and he succeeded.
But he was caught by the gods and punished by being sentenced to push the boulder up the hill forever.
When he gets the boulder to the top of the hill, of course, the boulder rolls down the hill. He goes down the hill after it, and has to push the boulder up, and so on for the rest of time.
"The Myth of Sisyphus," it's very famous, very well known.
When we worry about the future, when we worry about the Internet, when we worry about e‑learning it's not because we don't know what to expect, it's not the unknown. It's because when we project into the future, we project a future like "The Myth of Sisyphus." We project a future that has been taken away from us by some nameless form, e‑learning, and replaced with pointless labour at the service of the gods.
In a future that's constantly changing, a future that we can never comprehend, a future where our degrees mean nothing a year or two years after we got them. That's a future we saw described just yesterday. It appears to be a future where we have no hope like Sisyphus.
In such a scenario, e‑learning does not appear to be a solution at all. Rather, it seems to be a surrender, a ceding of our authority, our independence and our autonomy.
One thinks of Adam Curtis' videography "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace." If you're not familiar with it, I certainly recommend you look it up and set aside several hours.
What Curtis is saying is the Internet age brings us into an age where we lose our independence and autonomy and become parts in this large machine, that our contribution to knowledge is beyond our control, that there is no room for the individual, the thinker, the creator, the idealist. The only future is the one that's created as society as a whole that is, as Curtis says, all watched over by these machines.
Some would have a say it's a future that we have to accept. Camus would say, "The struggle itself is enough to fill man's heart." One must imagine Sisyphus as happy.
These days we say, "Well, at least Sisyphus has a job." We forget. We forget that Sisyphus achieved his objective. He set out to defy death, and in the end that's what he got, but it was at the cost of eternal labour. It's this cost that makes us wary.
When people point to things and say, "It's just a myth, you're wrong," it's almost like they're asking us to surrender to this inevitability like Sisyphus. What we hope and dream has no meaning or, worse, will be realized and shown not to be gold, but to be worthless dross.
It's funny how most myths seem to finish this way. The hunter forever chasing the golden bear, Sisyphus forever pushing the boulder up the hill.
For all that, we never stop creating these myths. We never stop trying to understand the world, trying to comprehend the world by drawing pictures, telling stories and imagining what it could be.
Steve Wheeler tells us the idea of the digital natives or the net generation is a myth. Of course it's a myth. It's just a story that Don Tapscott tells and you should not believe that what Don Tapscott tells is true. It's a myth. We shouldn't think of it as true.
It's also a way of understanding the world and that's the value we need to draw from it. It's a way of saying that our children are different from us. They have different experiences, they have different ways of seeing the world, they are different people.
Simply saying, "This is a myth," washes all of that under the bridge, reassures us that our view of the world is on solid ground. Why worry about change? It's all just illusion, it's all just a myth. You may have dreams, but the reality is it's all just a myth.
We are warned by the story of Adam and Eve; we are warned by the story of Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from the gods, to be aware of the dangers of too much knowledge. As Plutarch, so we are told, says, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled."
Again, we can look at these myths as not-real representations of the story of creation or the story of the discovery of fire. Or we can look at these myths as cautions, not against education in general, but against a certain approach to education.
We can see these myths as telling us, with some clarity, that knowledge is not something simply to be consumed, like an apple, that knowledge is not something that can be stolen from the gods like fire. I thought Christian Port yesterday expressed this really well. I think we were all interested to hear his presentation.
"Imagine," he said, "we built a robot." I love the myth making in the middle of a talk.
"Imagine," he said, "we built a robot and sent it to a planet where there's something we need like some ore. We programmed the robot, the more you mine the better you feel." Remember that?
The robot learns, over time, to know itself. It comes to realize that there's a button that makes it feel better, so instead of learning how to mine the ore, it learns how to press the button.
Port asks, "What is it that motivates a human being to develop, to move on?" He says, "It's in the central nervous system where we get dopamine. We press the dopamine button and the outcome becomes a culture of cheating." It's like artificial sweetener. It's like caffeine. I love caffeine. It's like drugs, it's like green, it's like Facebook friends, it's like e‑learning.
The concern that e‑learning is this thing that our myths warn us about. It's a shortcut. It's the pressing of the button. It's the activation of the dopamine, but it's not really the learning.
What is this feeling? It gives us a confused feeling. The myth gives us two elements. It's an expression of what we want, but it's a warning about getting what we want too easily.
Steve Wheeler talking about myths, I counted seven in all. I probably could have kept going. You analyze his talk; all of his myths really are cautions against the easy score.
Consider what he says about learning styles. They're a lot of nonsense. You'll read that. There's all kinds of studies that say learning styles are nonsense.
He says, "There is one true thing. There are as many learning styles as there are people. The problem," he says quite accurately, "with learning styles is they try to pigeon-hole students into categories. They try to define students by the activities you impose on them based on what you believe as teachers."
If we think about learning styles as the magic shortcut to more effective learning, we are deluding ourselves. Even if it is true that people learn differently, and it is true that people learn differently, we don't achieve magical results simply by catering to that.
A learning style isn't a shortcut to memory because learning isn't about remembering at all. It's a myth, but it's useful. It's a myth that tells us, that warns us, that not all of our students are the same. They're not going to react the same, and most importantly, they're not like us.
There's a deeper lesson here that Wheeler touched on when he noted that learning styles motif had been visited over and over by people like Mumford and COLT. We could add Gregorc, Myers‑Briggs. We can also add that the stage‑based learning models, Piaget, Bloom, method‑based approach in Gagne, or I saw this morning the SECI model from Nonaka and Takeuchi ‑‑ I'm never good at pronouncing names ‑‑ described by Carayannis.
All of these things where learning is described by slicing and dicing, categorizing, drawing into stages, outlining a process. It's the same model in each case where we're taking something very complex and trying to find little bits in it. We're going to try to study these little bits, these little segments, these little categories and that will be the shortcut to understanding the difficult process of learning.
It's modeling. That's fine if we understand that modeling is myth making. In general, the approach of trying to pigeonhole students, pigeonhole stages of learning or whatever leads to methodology. It leads to, on the one hand, a struggle to understand the world, albeit without science, and on the other hand, an attempt to realize our objectives more simply, more easily, an attempt to create a shortcut.
It's nonsense to say that there are no categories. There are categories. The world is filled with categories. What it's nonsense to say is that these categories are fundamental to learning, that they express the fundamental nature of perception. It's nonsense to say this categorization will, by itself, magically lead to some new understanding as though our mythical categorizations somehow expose the nature of reality.
We do not make things simpler by multiplying entities. We do not make things clearer by breaking them down into parts, though we are tempted to do so.
Today's candidate for breaking things into parts and making them simpler, so‑called, is competencies, as though we can understand the really difficult nature of mathematics by understanding 10 subsets of mathematics or whatever. In my mind, searching for competencies is taking one really difficult problem and breaking it down into 10 really difficult problems.
Another myth. I was up this morning preparing this presentation, watching the news in English. You may have seen this if you were listening in English.
You may have actually seen this commercial from DuPont and this is a quote. "The need for science‑based solutions is more pressing, as is the collaboration to find them. Coming together is how we will better protect the Earth and the billions on it."
So says DuPont. So says, in her own way, Alison Littlejohn. She tells us, "People first connect, then they consume and use the knowledge, then they create new knowledge, an artefact, a conversation, a trace, etc."
She gave us the use case of Sally, the new chemist, who has to create a new substrate for drilling a new type of rock. I don't know what that means because I don't know much about drilling. She needs to create a new tech. I'm drawing that from "Star Trek."
She says that you draw from a whole range of different resources. You also draw from knowledge of different range of people and, at any point, you may be working as an individual, group, network, collective, etc. You connect, create, contribute, or you join with others with similar goals. This turns out to be central to the presentation.
"What are the binding forces," she asks, "that draw people or resources together?" Via social constructivism, people communicate via knowledge objects. People communicate working in networks, etc.
I'm sitting there. I'm asking myself, how do I understand this? I can't understand it literally. She's talking about binding forces that draw us together as though we must succumb to being joined together by some external force like what, gravity?
The myth somewhere through the talk has become the reality. She says, "We need something, an object, that brings people together, but what is this object? In turning, we use a goal as that object." I loved this. I really did.
There's in English two words, objective and objective, and object and object. You can have an object, which is a thing, or you can have an object, which is a goal. You have the same word with two different meanings and it's interesting to see how the two different meanings slide together here.
We have very traditional outcomes of this, various social objects such as work or learning activities, reports, patient health case report, common problems, learning goals, things that would be familiar to us from 20 years ago. The myth making has served its purpose and brought us back to the comfortable and familiar.
There's another myth you may be familiar with. It's the story of King Midas.
King Midas was a very greedy king, as you know, and was granted a wish based on a most thoughtless fantasy that everything he touches turns into gold.
Of course, he starts turning things into gold.
Everything seems really good until his daughter comes for a goodnight kiss. He gives her a little kiss and his daughter turns to gold.
As the web page where I got this from, "Freezes solid like an Oscar statue." I love the way they use metaphor in order to describe a myth.
Midas pleads to the gods for nullification. He's able to wash away his gift and lives a virtuous life thereafter.
We can read the myth very superficially. You don't always want what you wish for, or some things are worth more than gold.
I draw a slightly deeper lesson, or at least to me it's deeper. I'm going to say it's deeper because it's me. We often hear about gold of one sort or another described as a prescription for everybody.
I was thinking of Stephen Harris's school and these terms that he described it just before this talk. Imagine if everybody had Stephen Harris's school. Would that even be possible? Would it make sense or would it bankrupt the education system? Can you imagine the furniture companies giving every school furniture? Who would they sell to?
It's not just that. In the North American context, there's this idea that everybody should learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or the so‑called STEM courses, but if everybody learns science and technology, nobody's an artist.
It's not that there's no art in the world after that, there's no conception of art. There's no way to represent art because we've lost the words. It does not scale, cannot scale.
The principle of the categorical imperative tells us when somebody prescribes something as a solution, to imagine everybody in the world adopting that solution and then to ask whether it makes sense.
Everything turning to gold does not make sense. Everything turning into that one special school does not make sense. Everything turning into science, technology, engineering and mathematics does not make sense.
Sameness is a myth. Sameness is the shortcut. We think, we are tempted to think, if everything could be the same, it would be so much easier. It's inevitable, as we learn from Prometheus, that in our efforts to make everything the same, we destroy everything that we value and we come to discover that sameness is meaningless without that value.
It's classic myth formation. The approaching presence of some evil or danger, globalization, the end of energy, I don't know, too many penguins. The only way to respond to that danger is to become part of the whole, to work as a team, to subsume our personal interests.
Why, I would ask, should we suppose that sameness or subsumption to the whole will solve the problem? Why is the push to collaboration, shared objectives, shared goals, somehow the answer to whatever it is that's coming on us?
There was a comment. Somebody made a comment in the session just before this one. There are too many convening theories, incommensurable vocabularies, and we could solve this if we had one vocabulary and one theory. That would fix that.
I remember the RSS standards wars of the late `80s, early `90s. RSS was a syndication format and there were too many different flavours of RSS.
Somebody said, "Let's create a new standard and there will be just one standard covering them all. We'll call it Atom." Then after that we had RSS and Atom, two different standards.
Then somebody said, "Let's create one standard that will bridge the gap between RSS and Atom." Then we had three standards, and so it goes.
The attempt to standardize creates multiplicity. Myths of conformity, as though conformity makes better.
In 1793 they came up with the idea of interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney first put this into practice in the manufacture of muskets. Saying this really worked, it created more guns. We had the idea that in the long run, if we have sameness of production, all the changes that need to be managed by management.
Here's something from Duncan Kennedy. "Legal education is training for hierarchy. Because students believe what they are told explicitly and implicitly about the world they are entering, they behave in ways that fulfill the prophecies the system makes about them and the world. This is the link‑back that completes the system. Students do more than accept the way things are and ideology does more than damp opposition. Students act affirmatively within the channels cut for them, cutting them deeper, giving the whole patina of consent, and weaving complicity into everyone's life story.
It's Sisyphus all over again. Sameness simply brings us back to doing the same thing over and over again at, if you will, the behest of the gods. If we lose our difference we lose our meaning.
George Orwell put it well. "It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete soaring up terrace after terrace 300 meters into the air. From where Winston stood, it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering the three slogans of the party. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Sameness breaks down the distinctions we need even to have a goal, or an ambition or a dream.
An Indian legend, again.
I'm sure you're all familiar with this legend, the six men of Hindustan who went to see the elephant. The problem was, these men were blind and so they could not see the elephant.
Each man touched the elephant.
One man touched the side of the elephant and said, "It's huge like a wall."
Another man touched the tusk of the elephant and said, "It's sharp like a spear."
Another one touched the ear of the elephant and he said, "It's flat and floppy like a leaf."
Another one touched the trunk of the elephant and he said, "It's like a snake."
The myth ends with these men fighting amongst each other, each of them sure because they had the experience for themselves of what the elephant was like.
Of course, as the myth tells us, none of them were wrong, but none of them were right.
It's interesting where Janssen is talking about in omnia, talking about it being lifelong learning, serendipity, but also entrepreneurship, e‑learning, m‑learning, etc., helping people meet their goals. She points to, I think quite correctly, adding value by combining competencies.
She said, "In Nokia, they hired only engineers and that's where their problem started." What they tried to do instead was to bring together people who were young, people who were old, people who were students, people who were professionals. I think that was a good idea.
The idea here was that people would do their learning in context, so it would have real meaning for them. They would have opportunities to succeed and to fail, where the intent was to bring out the expertise in everyone, the different types of expertise.
The other side of her story was that these teams were to be entrepreneurial. They were to create entities that would compete in a marketplace. We have also in this picture this myth of the marketplace, this myth of the commercial approach solving the problems that the management approach cannot solve. It's the invisible hand of the marketplace, the myth created by Adam Smith. Surely, we don't think that this is real.
I ran in my newsletter just the other day a report showing that study after study has looked for evidence that the marketplace moves forward toward some advantage, some stable position, some progress, but there is no built‑in advantage to the invisible hand of the marketplace. The invisible hand of the marketplace is a myth. There is no guiding hand. There's just chaos.
Here's a model for understanding this chaos. It's just a myth, but it's a good myth. It will help us see through some of these other myths. It's called the TIMN theory, tribes, institutions, markets and networks. It describes the evolution of organization over the years. It may well be familiar to many of you.
It also describes forms of learning. When you think of tribes and apprenticeships in the same light, institutions representing the model of professors, scholars and scholarship. Markets representing the model of arguments, debate, the clashes of ideas, classes, categories and theories, etc., and networks as communications. I put in my notes here creativity.
The first two models are built on a kind of sameness, the sameness of genetics, the sameness of family. The last two are based on types of diversity. One type of diversity results in Atomism. The other type of diversity results in networks.
Putting somebody into entrepreneurship programs is putting them into competitive markets. It's preparing them for, I would say, the world of the 1990s, the world before the Internet, the world before we began communicating with each other in these networks.
It's interesting. Steve Wheeler talking about the flipped classroom, talking about the real flip, the flip toward what he called bear pit pedagogy, having them fight it out, debate it, arguing from both sides.
I listen to that and I think of the competitive market approach. Having students argue and debate is like having students try to create companies, try to compete against each other and, again, preparing for the market model of the 1990s.
What I want to say about myths is the same thing that I want to say about learning. It's that the content of the story is, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. That doesn't mean that there's no content. It just means that the content is the thing that moves the learning forward.
What matters in learning is not what is said, but how it is said. As McLuhan would say, the meaning is, in fact, in the message or, maybe to paraphrase him a bit, the meaning is in the mode of the message.
The TIMN model, again, different ways of teaching. The tribe model, story by the campfire. The institution model, a lecture by a university professor. The markets model, a shouting debate. The network model, a conversation.
People like Weinberger and others tried to say this in the "Cluetrain Manifesto," markets are conversations. What he should have said, in my mind, is that our markets are becoming networks. Competition is becoming conversation.
Networks aren't a shortcut, either. Networks aren't the magic solution any other than markets are the magic solution, any more than professors are the magic solution. Networks have to avoid two forms of what might be called network death.
On the one hand, collapsing into sameness. That might be called the collaborative principle where every entity in the network becomes the same and, consequently, all dialogue, all meaning, ceases.
On the other hand, the network has to avoid disintegration into atoms. That might be called the competitive principle where the network falls apart. Both the social and the individual are forms of network death. What we want is that happy middle ground where the network is dynamic and capable of reacting, adapting and adjusting to the future.
I've tried to describe in my own work methodological principles that allow networks to do this. Of course, these are myths as well, but they're practical myths. As long as we don't think of them as describing reality, we can use them the way we can use other myths. The principles are autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity.
It's interesting when we look at the myths, when we look at the myths that I've talked about so far in this talk, that in many cases, arguably all of the cases, the myths are warning us against abandoning diversity, against abandoning openness. They warn us against trying to make everything the same. They warn us against trying to determine the objectives, the goals, the values of people.
In my own work with a number of my colleagues, people like George Siemens, David Cormier, Rita Kop and others, we've created a type of online learning called the MOOC, or massive open online course. What a MOOC is, is a recognition. It is first of all a recognition that there are no shortcuts, that we are not going to try to design e‑learning as simply a faster way of cramming content into people's heads.
That would be failing to heed the lessons from the past, the lessons that go all the way back to Prometheus, Sisyphus and the rest. A MOOC in the parlance of this talk is about creating a future, not succumbing to it. Kristjan Korjus talked about the open organization of the students at Tartu. This is the same principle, only applied to a single course.
Success in the course is what you determine it to be. Participation in the course is what you want it to be. There is no content in the course. There are topics. We talk about different things. Each week we may bring in a guest or we may talk about some concept or idea, but it's a lot like the artist that was described, I forget which talk it was. I think it was Stephen Harris's.
The artist, instead of teaching his students how to paint, went to the class and painted and led his class all the way through the process from painting all the way to hanging it in the gallery. Yeah, it was Steve Harris.
The content is like that. It's what the instructor does, but it's not something that the student has to consume and memorize. There is no content or, conversely, there's too much content. The student needs to navigate or learn to navigate through this by connecting with themselves, by connecting with other people.
The idea here isn't to teach content, but to start as a starting point for our thinking. You might ask, what's the purpose, what's the objective if there is no content? There is no purpose. There is no objective. More accurately, each person decides what their own purpose is. The idea here is to promote diversity and promote autonomy.
There is a process that we talk about and recommend. It's only talked about and recommended, it's not required, of aggregation, remix, re‑purpose, feed forward. Very similar to what Alison's proposal talked about, but without filtering, without creating, without evaluation.
I was going to say I’m more interested in people creating, but that would be incorrect. I’m more interested in people conversing with each other, using objects to express their hopes, their fears, their ideas, their dreams, creating their own myths.
Not pedagogy, there is a way of talking about the skills that would be required to flourish in such an environment. I sometimes talk about them under the rubric of critical literacies.
They range all the way from the skills involved in arguing, as Steve talked about, to skills involved in recognizing patterns, motifs, principles, organizations. Also, the pragmatics, the use of symbols and images, the context, the placement, and the frame in our world view and understanding change, dynamics, evolution, and prediction in this environment.
These are skills you don't get in front of a classroom, say, "OK, we'll start with skill number one, part A." These are skills you acquire only in an environment where you see them and you acquire them by doing them, by practicing in them, by conversing, using the language in which these skills demonstrate success.
I'll finish off with one more myth.
It's a story by Arthur C. Clark called "The Nine Billion Names of God."
There were some monks in the Himalayas. They'd been working for the last 300 years and they developed a new language. They're laboriously writing down, one by one, each of the nine billion names of God.
It's calculated it will take them another 13,000 years to finish.
When some Westerners arrive at their monastery and they talk about computers, the monks think and the Westerners think this could be a really good shortcut.
We could get the computers to write out all the names of God for us. That's what they do. They set up computers.
The Westerners are very careful because what's going to happen after you write out the nine billion names of God? Well, nothing.
The Westerners set up the computer to print out the names of all the nine billion names of God, but to finish printing only after they've left so the monks won't be mad at them.
The story ends with the Westerners are climbing down the hill and the computer finishes churning out all the nine billion names of God.
They're walking down the mountain. They look up and, one by one, very simply, the stars are all going out without any fuss.
I was thinking about Arthur Harkins' talk, cyborgs and preparing for the Information Age, preparing for the 1970s, and thinking about preparing for an age when computers take over. That's the future I was asked in the previous session, what's the future you most fear? It's the future where the nine billion humans are each, one by one, replaced by a computer.
It's conceivable. We can think about it, but you know that there's a new myth here as well.
The myth is that, one by one, each human is replaced by a machine, nine billion of them. After all this time, the machines are able to have perfect conversation with each other, no ambiguity, no misunderstanding, an ideal language, complete comprehension. They discover with all the humans gone there's nothing left to talk about.
We can imagine a future filled with machines. We can't imagine a future without meaning. We have to continually hope for the impossible, not the possible, because if our ambitions were actually achieved, it would be a disaster.