Thoughts on: Learning in the digital age


The system in which we learn and teach any discipline tends to value originality and “the next big thing.” I have recently begun to wonder if that system has started shifting ever so slightly toward a mentality that values one’s ability to cultivate knowledge and meaning from the plethora of already existing sources of knowledge. In general, a vast knowledge pool is available on any topic via the seemingly infinite online network of information that is the Internet. The knowledge that is static (think concrete events) has been discussed and rediscovered over and over by people via collaboration tools like Wikipedia. Even historical events, information that has been long accepted as static, have been questioned and discussed through new lenses. The book A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown is something I’ve mentioned before, but I can’t help but think of their vision of our constantly changing world and how we continue to adapt and learn within it after reading a review of the book Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith on Brainpickings. Uncreative Writing seems to address the abundance of information (texts) within the literature world and how “genius” is no longer defined by adding to that pool of information, but by effectively navigating through the information and cultivating new literary insights. It might also address how new skills are being used to redefine literature and how people engage in the field of literature.

In my mind, the consequences of this line of thinking with regard to education would at most lead to an overhaul of the entire education system and its values, and at least lead to the consideration of the skills that we teach our learners (in any discipline). It seems that the “traditional” view of the learner is no longer valid in this world of infinite information and collaboration. Ok, then which skills should be imparted to our students in a new vision of education?

With an ever changing blob of constant information being evaluated and reviewed by people around the world with myriad perspectives, is it reasonable to ask students to treat knowledge like a static entity?

Perhaps the skills needed to effectively navigate information in the digital age are very similar to those discussed in Kristen Swanson’s Professional Learning in the Digital Age: curation, reflection, and contribution. Curation is a buzzword that can be defined as the careful collection of relevant sources (relevant to whatever it is you desire to learn). Along with the collection of information, one must evaluate the validity of the sources of information (that’s a whole other blog post). Once information is collected, the learner can engage with it by actively reflecting on how the information applies in their context. Reflection can take on many appearances, but it ultimately means sifting through the information gathered and applying it to your own experiences. After (and perhaps during) the reflection process, the learner is free to contribute to the online discussion and add his or her perspective to the pool of information. This collaboration and user-driven framework is not something that appears predominantly in the current state of education.

Questions to consider:

There are plenty of implications to considering these skills as valuable in education. First, while this framework may provide a place in which learning is facilitated for topics like history, math, and the like, would this system of information exchange and negotiation of meaning benefit language learners? Next, how would this method of learning account for the various learning styles of students? Within this new system of values, what is the role of the teacher? Would taking up this perspective put me out of a job? What impact would this collaborative view have on the strict lines of authenticity and ownership that prevails in the written world (think plagiarism)? Last (for now), what are the benefits and limitations of putting all our eggs in the technology/online information basket?

More thoughts to come, I’m sure.