Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Creating and Capturing New Knowledge

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 06, 2004

This Magazine Column published as Creating and Capturing New Knowledge in LearnScope Apr 06, 2004. Australian Flexible Learning Framework [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

In the previous article, I discussed learning in communities, describing some of the essential features of a successful learning community. This article followed from a series of articles describing the generation of knowledge, its codification in the form of learning resources, the syndication of these resources, and the use of them in learning communities. Now, in this, the last article of the series, we come full circle.

Twelve months ago, I began with an observation from Noam Chomsky to the effect that it is astonishing that we know anything at all. But as has become evident during the course of the past year, we do know things. In fact, we know so much that a great deal of our effort must be devoted to the passing on of knowledge in the form of learning.

It is tempting, indeed, to say simply that the answer to Chomsky's paradox, the answer to the question of how we come to know so much with such limited means, is that we teach it to each other and to our children. But that would be to gloss over the mechanism by which this happens, the creation of what we call knowledge from the activity we call community.

This, of course, is the Golden Hind of the knowledge management community, what they call the ‘capture' of what they call ‘tacit knowledge', the codification of same, and the storing and forwarding of this knowledge in the form of new learning. But tacit knowledge, by its very nature, is something that cannot be captured. It is, by definition, ineffable. This means that it cannot itself be rendered into words, no more than could the teaching of how to ride a bicycle.

In Quebec City just recently, several speakers repeated this same point over again. James Paul Gee, for example, argued that while traditional education is based on what he called the "content fetish" genuine learning occurs within an interactive and immersive environment, such as a game or simulation.[ ] And researcher Geneviève Robillard provided evidence that learning by immersion is effective, so much so that we must, with Gonzalo Frasca, ask ourselves about the ethics of using simulations for teaching and learning. [ ]

What is it about a community that causes it to not only produce, but also transfer, knowledge? It is certain that a community produces artifacts, codifications of the knowledge it creates – look at any academic society and the first evidence of its work is the set of journal articles and other publications it produced. But belonging to (and earning membership into) such a community requires much more than merely learning the content of its discourse. It requires immersion into the practices of the community, learning, as Kuhn said, how to do the problems at the end of the chapter.

Knowledge is not, cannot be, merely a set of isolated facts. We've seen this already in this series: knowledge and learning occur within a domain of practice, within a world view, within a context. In order to understand the psychology text, one must begin to think like a psychologist, indeed even, to be a psychologist. The process of acquiring knowledge is not like a transfer, as though knowledge were a set of blocks, but a process of immersion, as through knowledge were a body of water.

This is why content – whether in the form of textbooks or in the form of learning objects – can never be at the center of a learning environment, but may only form a part of the surround. They way people learn, quite literally, is to swim in knowledge, and the way to swim, is to have a direction to swim to. Learning communities provide that direction, and a new learner is, as it were, swept up with the school as it swims in a certain way, in a certain direction.

I tried to get at this in my paper, The Aeffability of Knowledge Management. [ ] What happens when learning occurs is not that the experience or perception is passed from person to person, for experiences and perceptions are not the sort of thing that can be transferred. Rather, the objective is to create the same perceptual state in the learner as in the teacher. And this involves much more than merely transferring facts; it requires replicating the experience in the student, based on the instructions of the teacher.

Now if this is true, then when knowledge architects attempt to capture knowledge, they are attempting to capture exactly the wrong thing. They should not be trying to capture the knowledge itself, but rather, the set of environmental cues and conditions that would prompt in the learner the same experience as previously existed in the teacher.

As I said in my paper, "the challenge of knowledge management, and hence of online learning, therefore consists in this: of being able to capture those artifacts, of being able to recognize the salient features of the context of transmission, of being able to store them in digital form, and of being able to recognize new contexts in which the same transmission would be of value. Though this sounds daunting, it has already been accomplished in simple form; the trick is to make it work with the complexity and richness of actual human communication."

This would seem like an impossible task were we starting from scratch, but we have since the beginning of history developed a rich and complex set of cues designed to invoke experiences. A sentence, spoken as a description, is intended not so much to convey information as to evoke an image, an experience, or an empathy in a listener. The forms of art flourish because our desire for communication isn't for the purpose of transmitting facts. We say what we want to say very deliberately, without words, with the Mona Lisa or the 1812 Overture.

If the teacher ever forgets that the purpose of a classroom is to create an experience, a society, a metaphor, then she has lost the art of teaching. In a similar manner, if our learning design abstracts so much from the experience that all that remains is bits and data, then we too have failed in our mission. It is for just this sort of reason that skeptics such as Dreyfus and Noble question the validity of online learning.

But we can remain true to the objective. We can remain honest and effective teachers and learners, by understanding that in the end our purpose is not merely to speak and to listen, not merely to show and to tell, but to create music, art and life. We need to communicate not only the mechanics of biology, mathematics or psychology, but also the special society created by these practitioners, and above all, the joy and delight they feel when they see the correct solution to the problem.

Because, it is like riding a bicycle. Once you've felt it, you need never go back. There are not success conditions. You'll just know.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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