Technological tools and psychological tools of the Internet
Written by: Michael Glassman
Choosing a platform to use for integrating Internet tools into educational settings can be a difficult and complex task involving consideration and balancing of a number of competing factors. Is the goal of the anticipated educational activities transfer of specific knowledge/skills? Is it to increase problem solving capabilities in an information age? Is it to increase learners’ long term capabilities in using the Internet for extending their minds out into the larger information universe? Is it to change individual and/or group perspectives of information from more linear authority based to more distributed, fluid, and influenced by multiple sources? These aren’t always mutually exclusive goals (although sometimes they are), but the choice of platform, the way it is used, the way the learning processes are envisioned by the educators may give primacy to one.
If the educator is simply looking to transfer information/skills between expert and neophyte(s) they might choose what has been referred to as one to many platforms that create centralized learning networks with a single authority dispersing information to a distributed population. It is important to recognize that even though the potential learners in this type of network are distributed across space and time, this type of platform usually does not lead to distributed networks (where information is passed through multiple horizontal links). These types of one to many platforms, often used in direct online instruction scenarios (including xMOOCs), tend to create more centralized networks similar in nature to many traditional classrooms where the instructor serves as the primary many times only relevant hub for information development and dissemination. The instructor posts content of different types for students to respond to. One of the great benefits of online instruction is because the content is transferred digitally there is little chance of corruption as it makes its way from the original source (instructor/hub) to its destination (student/node), extending the reach, efficiency and mobility of the learning network. The digital content remains completely intact over space and time – students have the ability to access and re-access it any time (and anywhere) and get exact replication of the content. There are however a number of downsides to this type of platform that must be grappled with. Perhaps most important is that while the content/information is digitized, human thinking, and learning is not. I am writing this blog post with a certain idea about what I want to say in my mind. The words (my best attempt to represent these ideas – i.e., an analogous representation) have been recreated in digital form so they appear to you exactly as they appear to me at this moment. I can be confident that what you are looking at is the same thing I am looking at no matter where or when you are accessing this post. But as you read the words they are not being transferred digitally into your thinking, instead you are making another analogous connection with the ideas based on your own thinking at the time and in the place where you are reading it, creating a continuously evolving, unique mixture of information and knowledge. The closer your experience to mine perhaps the closer your analogical interpretation. The further away the greater the possibility for misinterpretation (corruption) as you make the transfer from the digitized word on the page to the analogous information scheme in your mind.
So then can the Internet make this analogous learning richer using digitized information? It requires I would argue a combination of more dynamic platforms and advanced information skill sets (what I have referred to as Open Source Intelligence). It must be both, the platform as teaching device is a starting point, but only a starting point – adding a dynamic application to a one to many platform does not in itself change the character of the platform. The issues the Internet raises for education are at least as psychological as technological. Theoretically this particular (community) blogging platform can lead to richer dispersal of knowledge and information dependent on analogous thinking for understanding. There is a box at the bottom of the page labeled comments (a descendant of request for comments). This is ostensibly the most important part of the platform; a primary purpose of the Internet as originally conceived is to use this opportunity to respond to and expand these initial ideas through your own experience – bringing your unique analog thinking to the larger discussion of the ideas. Maybe a second and a third person will also respond (creating a many to many learning scenario). I might return and rethink my position, offering a comment, or a new post that incorporate my own analogies to this thinking. The ideas take on a life of their own separate from individual contributors. This evolution is preserved in digital content so any or all can go back to understand how the idea developed at any point in time.
Based on my experience with these types of platforms this probably will not happen. The platform is not dynamic because we do not treat it as dynamic – it usually takes on the character of a one to many platform despite intentions of design (I’m sure you have an idea in your mind as you are reading this – why not send it out into the information universe?). We see our thinking as our own and hesitate to intermingle it with others. We fear the clash of analogies. We have (for the most part) not yet learned to grasp that intellectual opportunities offered by the Internet and ride the proverbial intellectual tiger. But we can – if we educate for this new type of intelligence.