February 23, 2005

Situativity: Internet, Information Flow, and Implications for Education

Situativity: Internet, Information Flow, and Implications for Education
Thought-provoking stuff, so I'm posting the whole entry. Can I be sued for copyright infringement?

Internet, Information Flow, and Implications for Education
Jay Cross gives a brief history of internet facts that are always an eye-opener in his recent CLO article - reposted on his blog (e.g. 10 years ago 38 million people used the net, today 1 billion; 1999 23 bloggers, today 4.5 million, etc.). I call these kinds of nuggets "grains-of-sand" facts from my days in the planetarium. We would always try to get the attention of our learners by putting the vastness of the universe into some mind-boggling terms that our earthly patrons could understand the (e.g. there are more stars in our galaxy than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world). Even if they oversimplify, gaining attention can be useful.

Jay opens with these facts but moves on to discuss some of the implications. One of which is:

Outboard brain. You don’t need to memorize something if you know where to find it. For the past 30 years, I’ve been collecting tidbits of knowledge, frameworks for thinking and useful algorithms, at first on paper and now in bits. Most of this is on the Net. It helps me avoid reinventing the wheel. Haven’t you started building your self-help portfolio? Never mind, soon we’ll have the Library of Congress on our PDAs.
This is one of the intriguing notions I have been pondering as I teach and think about learning strategy. What does this realty mean for educators and trainers? Should we start to deemphasize factual information and focus on frameworks and processing skills? The thought being that we allow these "augmentation" devices to replace much of the cognitive load we currently carry for retaining factual information and we teach and design to support increasingly higher-order thinking skills.

A look at How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice yields three principles we need to consider. One is connecting to previous knowledge, another is a need for deep factual information, and a third is metacognitive skills (a vast oversimplification, you should read the book for the whole story). The need for deep factual knowledge means that we don't stop teaching basic information but what is different?


An overused example is the calculator. I can remember when my dad brought home one of the first handheld calculators. The little red LED numbers and small size of the device (I think it weighed about 3 pounds) was a modern marvel. Within just a few years teachers feared the devices would undermine teaching math and I can clearly remember all of the rules instituted to stop the possibility of cheating with calculators. But now, in 3rd or 4th grade, kids are augmenting basic math with the use of calculators. Some will lament that they are "losing" basic skills and I am sure they are. But does it matter if we can move this cognitive load to external sources?

The biggest change is that we must shift to emphasize the third principle: metacognitive skills. People must learn to learn, unlearn, and relearn as quickly as possible. They therefore must aware of how they learn best. This self-awareness is often what is lacking and, if Jay's notion of "outboard brains" is going to become increasingly important, then metacognitive skills will increasingly become the most critical component we should teach.

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