Archive for August, 2005

Centering Agents

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Aggregation of knowledge/information sources has really changed over the last few years. Until about three years ago, most of our information was delivered through a centering agent – a television, newspaper, magazine, or radio. In this model, our primary task was to absorb or consume the structure of information created by a third party. The level of trust attached to this third party largely determined how much we valued the information (for example, Forbes suggesting investment in Apple carried more weight than hearing it from a stranger at a bus stop).

Recently, the centering agents have come undone. I no longer read newspapers or watch the evening news. I used to go to one source of information to get a thousand points of information. Now, I go to a thousand sources of information to get one point of information. I have become the filter and mediator.

While this process is effective on many levels, it has its challenges. Going to one source of information is much simpler than attempting to consume many different elements. It’s less stressful. And requires less thought (or foraging for needed knowledge). Questions of validity and trust are answered with each information source (at least until a relationship has been developed).

Centering agents provide significant value in creating come focal points for members of society. These agents serve a diverse base and are structured to provide appeal to many different individuals (race, religion, politics, etc.). People of different political stripes, for example, are able to dialogue (in some cases at least :) ) because of the common language and understanding created by centering agents.

What happens when we no longer share centering agents? What happens when all of my information comes only from sources that promote view points I already hold? I am concerned that this process is creating a serious divide in the ability of people to dialogue and share common understandings. Now, if I’m so inclined, I can listen only to perspectives of my own political party. If I follow Rush Limbaugh or Daily Kos, I can receive a constant message that assures me that I am right, and the other side is wrong. I think this is dangerous. The breakdown of common understanding and dialogue poses a real risk to the civility of society.

Educators have a role to play in encouraging learners to consume information from differing spectrums of thought. We are starting to see the emergence of some centering agents for individuals (bloglines) and rudimentary centering tools for groups (del.icio.us). Whatever our view or perspective, as learners in a global stage, we need to move (at minimum) to dialogue with those around us. The closing of public information spaces into private, like-minded thought communities is discouraging.

Learning as Network-Creation

Wednesday, August 10th, 2005

I’ve grappled with the inefficiences of what learning is and how it occurs on this blog in the past. Over the last year, my thoughts of learning have been significantly influenced by the study of networks. I’ve written an article to address this concept: Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. Essentially, the act of learning involves creating personal networks (nodes and connections). Each node in a network is influenced by principles of flow, connectivity, weak links, etc. I was surprised at how a network-creation view of learning provides insight into learning and knowing in today’s information environments.

When technology manages the complexity…can we become reflective?

Monday, August 8th, 2005

We do many tasks which would best be handled by computers. Systematic, lower level information tasks should be automated so that we can focus our efforts on the more advanced functions of the human brain – socializing, pattern recognition, and extracting meaning.

Google (or pick any other intelligent search engine) is a great example of this. Google applies it’s algorithms to the information on the web…and as end users, suddenly our ability to locate needed information becomes much simpler. A task that used to take days, weeks, or longer, can now often be researched and the large aspects of the field framed within a few hours (or less). Or consider an application like Bloglines which allows users to aggregate different information sources into a central platform. Tasks which previously required hours can now be completed in minutes (unless you suffer from “RRS-itis” – which is a psychological conditional that seeks to subscribe to additional web feeds for every minutes saved by using an aggregator:)).

What do we do with the time saved? We produce more; more learning, more knowledge, more integration, more everything. We take the time saved and work harder in other areas. This approach sucks. Apparently Pascal once stated that “all of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. In a learning sense, we have a similar challenge. It seems that we will utilize virtually any tool of distraction to prevent a “quieting of our minds”. Save a few minutes by using Google, spend more time searching other resources. Save time by having technology manage part of our information, immediately set out to read even more.

Learning has a reflective component. I’m convinced that most people are smarter than they think. They’ll trust a bad idea they read in a book sooner than a good idea they arrive at through reasoning and reflection. Our restlessness is a challenge to learning. We rarely slow down enough to begin to use our advanced thinking skills. Instead we skim the surface of knowledge, learning to distrust our own intuition and cognition.

This is why I find blogs and wikis to be very valuable learning and knowledge tools. When a learner sits down and blogs, she/he is engaging in a reflective process. Nebulous thoughts and feelings are put to words. External ideas are scrutinized. The natural capacity of harmonizing our emotions and thoughts with ideas and concepts is evoked. A small cognitive and emotional oasis in the desert of busynes. And, I imagine more learning occurs in only a few minutes here than hours any where else…

Linking back to original knowledge source

Thursday, August 4th, 2005

Learning is not a static activity. Unfortunately, the way most learning is designed in the formal school systems contradicts this view. Courses have a set start/end time, leaving the impression that once they are completed, the learner has learned. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Learning designers are in a difficult spot. Any learning they design today is subject to the constant advances and alterations within a field. In many cases, this means that by the time the course is designed, parts of it may already be obsolete. More challenging is how to keep the course relevant and current beyond the first offering. The half-life of knowledge is a tremendous stress inducer for designers and learners.

Regardless of how challenging the design process is for the designer, the greater concerns center around the learner. As a learner, I need a way to have a connection back to the original knowledge source. Knowledge reflexivity is simply a means of ensuring that as the original knowledge source changes, we have a connection which ensures we remain current. The way most education is designed today makes this very impractical (imagine a designer emailing each learner who has taken a course informing them of a core knowledge change). The issue stems from the left over remnants of learning design from a society and era of greater stability. But reality has changed for learners. If I take a course, I should have some level of reflexivity for some period of time.

How can knowledge reflexivity be designed into existing learning processes? Probably the easiest method is some type of variation of RSS. Those who follow blogs (and use an aggregator) will understand that RSS is simply a means of staying aware of changes in blogs (or any other information source). Rather than requiring a learner to continually access a resource to determine if it has changed, an aggregator automatically performs the function. It’s a time saving process, but more importantly, ensures that the learner remains current and aware on a particular subject.

Learning, memory, and the brain

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

I’ve talked previously of connected specialization – the notion that we gain greatest value by permitting connections between elements, rather than attempting to upgrade the “whole”. The entire learning network is far more adaptive when an individual element/node is able to learn, and then pass the knowledge back through the larger network. A recent NPR broadcast explores the concept of how our brain is wired in this manner: Learning, Memory, and the Brain. Numerous systems exist within the human brain. These systems are connected but not entirely dependant on each other. Individuals who have suffered some brain injuries may lose certain functions (in the case of the study cited in the broadcast – a certain type of memory), yet retain related but different function.