02 July 2011

The Language of Learning

In catching up on a backlog of reading, I have become aware of a controversy regarding the nature of learning. One writer, Downes, an advocate of connectivism as an approach to learning, has taken some criticism from Wiley for unnecessarily complicating the issues of learning. Downes seems to have problems with notions of learning that are characterised as transfer, transmission, or replication. Much of what I have to say regarding their argument probably has more to do with my background in linguistics and philosophy, rather than a genuine deep reading of Downes and Wiley, but still, it may contribute something of worth to the discussion.

Michael Reddy has articulted some of the difficulties inhent in characterising communication as a transfer of information. The chief objection is due primarily to the grounding of understnding in experience and the essential non-linear nature of experience. While a view of learning as the accumulation of information and skill at handling it may provide us a simple metaphor to characterise our relationships in learning communities, it represents an oversimplification. Eistein has encouraged us all that our theories should be as simple as possible, but he goes on to warn us that they should be 'no simpler'. It is necessary for us to have a deeper insight into learning than would be satisfied with a definition of it as transfer or transmission of information. Part of the problem with this is a faulty segregation of the experience into a content stream and a form (medium) stream.

A superficial study of the field of education as it exists in the world today may lead people to conclude that democracy is inherent in the education process, that education breaks down the divisions of society and allows educated people to better themselves. However, the traditional forms of education tend to perpetuate distinctionand division in the world between authority and citizen, master and disciple, degree-holder and degree-seeker. This current system in education is petuating elitism, rather than democracy.

All this is not to say that the education system has been harmful overall. There was a time when information was scarce in the world and when people needed considerable time to learn how to find reliable data. In such a restricted world, it was easy to conceive of the classroom as the proper construct of a learning environment. However, today's world of social media has changed the imperative of the classroom from 'inform' to 'connect'. This, I believe is where Downes' approach would take us.

At the same time, Wiley's call not to entirely scrap a working system has value for us in the sense that many currently successful scholars will not willingly shift from the old paradigm to a new one, when the old one seems to be working for them. For example, when the Duke Univ. School of Nursing set up its online school virtual learning environment (see DUSON in Second life) and could have chosen from a wide range of interactive frameworks, they chose the metaphor of a classroom. We have a need for familiar contexts, even when new frameworks would better serve us.

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