Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Three Pillars of Wisdom

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 05, 2000

I am well aware that the title of my post, "Three Pillars of Wisdom," is already the subject of a widely read and respected book on Buddhism. I borrow the title with a proper reverence, but also with an eye to the idea that we need to look at learning and wisdom from a wholistic perspective, to see wisdom and especially social wisdom as a synthesis of a number of related areas of discourse.

My divisions are somewhat arbitrary but I believe that we can represent the domain in terms of three overarching "pillars" of wisdom: knowledge, community and learning. I present these in no particular order, for each feeds into the other. And in this
email I would like to present them in the context of contemporary and future educational and communications technology: a rethink of what the future holds for those of us in the field of education.

* Knowledge Management

This first of the three domains has become a bit of a buzzword in the last year or two, but it represents a concept essential to both individual and social learning. By "knowledge management" is meant the collection, categorization, description, evaluation and storage of a wide range of knowledge, including description, explication, definition, and case studies or examples.

- Collection: the collection of new and existing knowledge is fundamental to wisdom. Many kinds of knowledge exist and despite the best efforts of philosophers no single definition of the term emerges. But for the sake of discussion, I divide knowledge into four major categories: 

a. Description - the heart of empirical sciences lays in observation, and consequently any knowledge base requires an element of direct observation. Important technologies related to description include data gathering systems, automatic metering and recording, filtering mechanisms and more.

b. Explication - or explanation - this is the science of identifying laws of principles which govern observed phenomena. To date the best available technologies here are neural networks; science in practise relies on human brains for this important phase.

c. Definition - knowledge is represented in words or symbols, and as such are socially defined, we require a mechanism for stating the meaning of key terms or symbols. Internet technologies for managing definitions include schemas and resource       description formats (also known as 'namespaces').

d. Case studies or examples are the application of definitions and principles to predicted (or observed) sets of events with the intent of modelling projected outcomes. Emerging technologies for case studies and examples include modelling and simulation programs and various types of collaborations.

- Categorization - this is essential for the intelligent storage and retrieval of knowledge. Traditional categoization schemes include the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal; we will find that in the future we need a wide range of adaptable schemes to represent new, varied and emerging knowledge. While most categorization today is done manually, work in automatic classification will help us automatically sort information from a wide variety of sources into usable chunks.

- Description - humans and computers will need to be able to determine whether a piece of knowledge is relevant to the task at hand; descriptions, sorted into structural fields, will make this possible. Emerging XML description languages allow resources - including people, buildings, software applications, images, essays and more - to be precisely described.

- Evaluation - although peer review has long been a hallmark of academic enquiry, it is slow and undemocratic; moreover, readers have no direct means of evaluating the evaluators. New initiatives, such as epinions, point the way toward a more distrinbuted mechanism of peer review; automatic submission and approval mechanisms will also help knowledge base managers filter the input into their systems.

- Storage - is the physical and database layer of the system; developments include distributed databases, peer-to-peer databases (such as Napster and Gnutella), and new database formats.

* Sectoral Community

Also known as a "community of practise", a sectoral community may be identified as a group of people with a shared vocabulary, set of assumptions, areas of enquiry or learning, shared methodologies and more. Sectoral communities resemble Kuhn's scientific communities but should be understood in a much wider sense: for secretaries, store clerks, custodians and pipefitters each form individual sectoral communities.

What makes a group of people a sectoral community is the set of interactions and shared assumptions (and hence, vocabularies) of people working in similar or related disciplines. Hence, included in the concept of sectoral communities are the concepts of community building and of interaction and communication.

It is now possible to build sectoral communities in a wide range of sectors where community building was previously restricted or impossible. The community of secretaries, for example, was once facilitated only by printed newsletters and the occasional conference; today a secretary may engage in a real-time and ongoing discussion with his peers in other companies or other countries.

The technologies which enable community building are widely enumerated and well-understood: email, discussion lists, chat rooms, desktop and interactive audio or video, and more.

The mechanisms and methodologies for community building are less widley acknowledged, but essential components, such as member centeredness, member ownership, distributed management, and more are discussed by such authors as Hegel and Armstrong, Figello, Rheingold and others.

Central to the concept of community are the concepts of communication and interaction; the former, as a semantic discipline, is reasonably well understood, but the latter, as an information-based discipline, is less well understood. For interaction to occur, there must be a means of communication (McLuhan's famous "medium") and there must be semantic content, where semantic content is best understood as "information" as the term is used by Dretske and others.

* Sectoral Community and Knowledge Base

We can think of a sectoral community as a group of people who contribute to the same knowledge base, where a knowledge base is understood in the wide sense described above.

The purpose of communication between members of a sectoral community is to establish the vocabulary, principles, case studies and examples, and accepted practises which define "knowledge" in that community. While today much of this knowledge is tacit and unrecorded, better data collection technologies and better communications technologies will enable a more explicit and widespread retention of community knowledge.

The members of a sectoral community are not only the creators of knowledge, they are also the assessors or evaluators of knowledge. Sectoral communities are self governing (no outside entity, for example, could define what constitutes "knowledge" for a secretary, certainly not in the wide sense of the term; at best an external agency, such as "managers" can describe only "outcomes").

* Learning Objects

The discussion of learning objects involves a discussion about the delivery (usually online) of learning materials, where learning materials have their origins in the knowledge base and are supplemented with pedagogical and delivery mechanisms.
The concept includes online courses but also includes just-in-time and desktop learning, periodicals and journals, accreditation
and testing mechanisms.

Current discussions - for which DEOS is famous - of such topics as online courses or classes, grading, accreditation and even of the value of distance learning in general form only a small part of the discourse around learning objects. For all people, learning takes place on a continuous and daily basis, whether it be by reading messages on DEOS, consulting a help file, reading the instructions on a bottle of shampoo (the infinitely recursive "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."), checking stock quotes and analyses, watching television commercials, and more.

The purpose behind learning objects - and hence, the need for pedagogy - is to shape the contents of the knowledge base into an easily accessible format and to deliver that knowledge in such a way that it is retained by the person obtaining the
knowledge. And where classes and lectures were formerly the best means of accomplishing this on a society-wide level,
new technologies allow learning to take on new forms: customized, personalized, any place, any time.

Technologies today defining the discourse of learning object delivery include the IMS protocols, similar metadata intitiatives such as Merlot and ADL, and a wide range of supporting technologies such as XML, RDF, RSS and more. Delivery mechanisms now include wireless technology, intelligent appliances, and topic-specific interfaces (such as the GPS-enabled mapping system in your car).

* Knowledge Base and Learning Objects

The knowledge base should be thought of as containing the raw materials for learning objects; the core of content which is dressed in a cloak of pedagogy and delivered in learning management vehicle.

Because knowledge is dynamic, there must be a continuous connection between a knowledge base and a learning object, so that the learning object is also dynamic, adapting to changes in the knowledge base as they occur. A course in law, for example, needs to be dynamically connected to the legal opinions database so that a new decision is immediately reflected in course content.

* Sectoral Community and Learning Objects

The sectoral community is at once the community which consumes (or uses, or is taught by) a set of learning objects; courses, programs and other aids help initiate new members into the community. The delivery of learning objects, along with the discussion and discourse taking place in the community, combine to instill in the new member the same vocabulary, set of practises and shared assumptions as other members, and over time, to contribute in turn to the growth and development of the knowledge base.

The sectoral community is also the body which determines whether learning has taken place. Such evaluations may be formalized, as through a certification, or even assigned to a third part, as through a college or university degree, but will also over time be informal, through demonstration rather than testing. In a communicative and dynamic environment, the cream - as it were - rises to the top.

A diagram of this discussion is available here:

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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