Separating knowledge from the learner

I’m going to make what will sound like an absurd suggestion: future learning endeavors need to separate knowledge from learners. Here’s my rationale:

Over the last three years, XML has grown substantially in use for data organization. HTML tied together content and presentation (i.e. the data and presentation were treated largely as one entity). When a company decided a new website was required, both data and presentation had to be created. XML separates data and presentation. Data can be managed in one document, and the presentation handled by CSS. It allows a designer to alter a web page simply by writing a new style sheet.

In a learning sense, we have treated the learner and the content as one entity. We fill the learner with content and release them into the corporate world. As their content runs low, they attend evening/continuing education classes in order to “refill”. This model works fairly well when the half-life of knowledge (how long it takes for knowledge to lose relevance) is long. In today’s world, knowledge is short – it survives only a short period of time before it is outdated. Most individuals need to spend an enormous amount of time in continuing education classes to stay current. It’s not good for business, and it’s not good for employee’s sanity.

We need to separate the learner from the knowledge they hold. It’s not really as absurd as it sounds. Consider the tools and processes we currently use for learning. Courses are static, textbooks are written years before actual use, classrooms are available at set times, etc. The underlying assumption of corporate training and higher education centers on the notion that the world hasn’t really changed.

But it has. Employees can’t stay current by taking a course periodically. Content distribution models (books and courses) can’t keep pace with information and knowledge growth. Problems are becoming so complex that they cannot be contained in the mind of one individual – problems are held in a distributed manner across networks, with each node holding a part of the entire puzzle.

How do we separate the learner from the knowledge? By focusing not on the content they need to know (content changes constantly and requires continual updating), but on the connections to nodes which continually filter and update content. Instead of buying a book on elearning, subscribe to Stephen’s site, Maish’s or Jay’s blog (or elearnspace :) ). Read a few wikipedia articles (and contribute), join discussion forums, a list serv, follow tags on technorati or del.icio.us, attend a virtual conference, take a few workshops…you get the idea. When we stop seeing knowledge as an entity that is possessed within a person and start to cast it as a function of elements distributed across a system, we notice a dramatic impact on the education process: the educator becomes a supporter (not the center), the content is not as critical as the connections, learners find value in their aggregated perspectives, learners become content creators, and learning is continuous, exploratory and sustained (not controlled or filtered by only one agent).

8 Responses to “Separating knowledge from the learner”

  1. Dave Lee says:

    George: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I disagree with you! It seems to me that you are confusing knowledge with content. As many people in the western educational tradition have done for centuries. Content indeed is static and outside the learner.
    Personal knowledge, the concepts we use to interpret the world or connect to the world and the various procedures we use to make sense of the world, is very much a part of each of us. Personal knowledge is highly unique to each individual. It’s a part of us as much as the length of the bones in our arms or the color of our eyes. That’s why you and I might walk down the street and remember a totally different experience if we were asked to recall the walk individually. I may recall the buildings and the color of the sky because I enjoy architecture and nature. You might recall the people and what they are wearing because you are more socially oriented. It’s our personal knowledge seeking out more of what we know and like.
    Now other people’s knowledge is separate from me. Often it is transmitted through contact artifacts. But this doesn’t take the knowledge out of the individual any more than natives unfamiliar with cameras in the past believed the devises would steal your soul.
    Group or shared knowledge would seem to be a combination of aligned personal knowledge that has been represented as singular in content. If I’m part of the “authoring” group I have similar personal knowledge. If I don’t and come into contact with the content, I’d view it as others’ knowledge until I learned the content and my knowledge would then align into the group knowledge.
    That we refer to the result of humans’ ability to share our knowledge through representing it in writing, digitally, linear audio and video tape or any other means we can find as “knowledge” might be the confusion. Technically, I’d argue that Wikipedia is not a compendium of knowledge, but rather a compendium of representations of knowledge.
    I think this understanding of knowledge as personal and a vital part of the individual yet shareable through content representation (you might think of it as a Networked Cartesian view) is completely in line with your opinions on what learning and teaching needs to be in the future.

  2. Jay Cross says:

    George, I sense a disconnect between this post and the one before it. The first post (and commentary) concluded that learning hasn’t changed. This one says the nature of what is learned has changed; that implies learning differently. I love your concept of distributed intelligence; knowledge without connections is meaningless.
    It seems to me that we have hit the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Learning. Pragmatist that I am, I don’t care if food consists of waves or particles; if I’m hungry I’ll eat it. And if I have a need to know, I’ll learn it one way or another.

  3. Hi Jay, a point of clarification – the act of learning (i.e. how our brain stores, manages, and holds knowledge) has not changed. The process of learning has (namely method, new tools, etc.). Our need for learning (as a process, not the events in our heads) has changed because our external environment has changed, and as Stephen noted, our understanding of the learning act itself has also changed. One of my points of resistance to learning 2.0 is that it leaves the impression that it is learning itself (the act in our head) that’s different, when really, it is our external environment and ongoing need for learning that has been altered. Hope that clarifies what I’m trying to communicate…

  4. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for your post. I have defined, in earlier posts, a continuum of data, knowledge, meaning, learning (http://www.connectivism.ca/blog/34) . In that respect I’ve described knowledge as information that is in context and internalized. Knowledge has, as its foundation, data and information. There is no knowledge without that base. The challenge arises when the underlying data/content changes (as it’s doing at a fairly intense clip these days). If we don’t have a means of updating the content, then our knowledge is obsolete. Knowledge in this sense (with the exception of the internalized element I have mentioned previously) is capable of being separated from the learner – in fact we must.
    The simple, foundational element challenging our education system today is the rapid growth of content…and that our education system view learning as content acquisition. But we can’t simply change our content delivery systems. Learners can’t handle much more content. They need more knowledge (contextual and capable of rapid internalization…but flexible enough to be updated as core data/information/content changes – simple task, right? :) ). It’s like the rise of ready to cook food. Life is simply too busy for some people to allow for daily meal preparation. Enter ready to heat meals. On weekends, when life slows down, they may enjoy preparing gourmet meals. During the week, it’s often a restaurant or simple prepared meal. Stretching that analogy a bit, our knowledge needs are similar. When content (the basis of knowlege) is abundant, we need help in translating it into knowledge. “Ready to know” content…just add thought and it’s knowledge :) .
    With regards to knowledge representations (i.e. your wikipedia example), Stephen Downes and I had a long, at times painful, discussion on this yesterday. When the audio is available, I will post it here. I imagine you’ll find his views much more in line with the thinking you provide. I have a bit of an objective bent to my thinking, Stephen is more subjective.
    I am guilty of blurring lines between content/knowledge/learning. I will post at length on this in the future (hopefully within the next few months – things have been a bit too busy to tie the ideas together in an essay).

  5. Brad Hoge says:

    What you are describing as learning to make connections over content knowledge is, simply put, literacy. I teach pre-service elementary teachers their science content. In my introduction, I show them the Sidney Harris cartoon in which a graduation speaker is saying “…and so, as you go out into the world, I predict that you will, gradually and imperceptibly, forget all that you ever learned at this university.” I then tell my students that it is the process thinking and conceptual frameworks that will stay with them. This is science literacy, and it is what we need to be teaching in our schools, not rote knowledge. Science lore grows too fast to keep up unless you learn to do so. Your insight is that all areas of knowledge share this dynamic. Adaptive learners have always succeeded better in the “real world” and their advantages are growing. The disconnect between those who can adapt and those who cannot will only widen if we don’t heed your call.

  6. Dave Lee says:

    George: I look forward to your clarification on the content/knowledge/learning continuum. I think you are right that our difference of opinion is heavily in the semantic domain.
    However, after checking out your previous post on meaning-making (my apologies for not having done so before), I’d like to suggest a candidate for your “missing link” that is leaving you dissatisfied. I’ll suggest the piece you are missing is the fact that data and information are connected, by humans or machines, into relationships which we call concepts, theorums, classifications, tenets, canons, etc. These relationships, which indeed did involve knowledge in their creation, are separate new pieces of data or information but not knowledge. They fit in the grouping I referred to as representations of human knowledge (ie, Wikipedia again) in my previous comment.
    Does that bring us closer together?

  7. Chas Martin says:

    Great conversation(s)! Consider these points: Content/knowledge is perishable. It may be accurate for the context in which it is originally presented, but this is a dynamic world. Things change. Content and context have to be continually updated.
    Knowledge isn’t a fact, it’s a relationship. If not refreshed continuously, it grows stale and fails to provide value. I’ve recently discovered a company named Qmind. The term “mashup” may apply here on many levels. It is a collaborative environment for creating courseware. Think: PowerPoint, Flash and social software combined.
    If there is a “next generation” of web tools which will leverage the power of the medium, I consider this a great example. If there is a new model for how knowledge transfer should evolve, this is a giant step in that direction.

  8. Chas Martin says:

    Great conversation(s)! Consider these points: Content/knowledge is perishable. It may be accurate for the context in which it is originally presented, but this is a dynamic world. Things change. Content and context have to be continually updated.
    Knowledge isn’t a fact, it’s a relationship. If not refreshed continuously, it grows stale and fails to provide value. I’ve recently discovered a company named Qmind. The term “mashup” may apply here on many levels. It is a collaborative environment for creating courseware. Think: PowerPoint, Flash and social software combined.
    If there is a “next generation” of web tools which will leverage the power of the medium, I consider this a great example. If there is a new model for how knowledge transfer should evolve, this is a giant step in that direction.