Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Interview About Learning 2.0

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 28, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 28, 2007.

Ido Hartogsohn wrote:
* What is learning 2.0? How is it different from so to say elearning 1.0?
I discuss this topic in my article 'E-Learning 2.0' -

In a nutshell, the difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is that in 1.0 students are depicted as passive recipients or consumers of knowledge and information, where in 2.0 they are active participants in the creation of that knowledge and information.

In practical terms, the difference is between that of technology systems that lead and present - things like learning management systems and online courses, for example - and technology systems that engage and call for contributions - things like social networks and blogging software.
* How is learning today different from learning in the age before the internet?
The process of learning has not changed. That is to say, the same neural activities that took place before the internet continue to take place after the internet. To 'learn' is to develop a particular neural configuration that results in appropriate pattern recognition and appropriate actions and undertakings. The development of these neural structures is based primarily on sensory input, particularly when accompanied by corresponding actions (such as 'practice') or conscious thought ('reflection').
* How is the thinking of "digital natives" different from the thinking of older generations? Is is better is it worse or just different?
It is very likely that the substantially different experiences had by the younger generation has resulted in neural structures that are different from those developed by their parents. It seems evident, from reading and math test results, that there is less of an emphasis on formal thinking and abstraction by the younger generation. By the same token, younger learners have a much greater exposure to images and multimedia, and multiple simultaneous streams of input, which would result in their being more audio and visually based than their parents - more concrete - as well as more likely to multitask, to bring together diverse streams of input.

That said, I would challenge perceptions that the younger generation is anything like illiterate (though probably traditional texts, such as Dickens and Austin (let alone Shakespeare) probably read like old English to them - I hesitate to think of what they would make of Thomas Hardy without a film like 'Tess' to guide them. In fact, the language has changed substantially in just a few generations: from a complex syntax and expression used to support advanced reasoning in what was actually a very limited vocabulary, to a virtually limitless vocabulary, one that changes every day, and admits easily of new creations, which requires a much lesser role of syntax. It is as though English were morphing into Chinese, which has a symbol for every thought.

Take the lolcat for example: 'I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER'. These are garbled and syntactically incorrect English phrases, frequently in ALL CAPS, superimposed on images, typically of cats or other animals. The expression is very simple and deliberately distorted, however, a lolcat is a complete expression of a thought. The 'original' lolcat is here: If you read the comments (102 of them as I type) you can see the concept expressed by the photo evolve - the cat is typically called 'happycat', there are overtones of hope and satisfaction, it is very funny, but at the same time commentary on temptation and restraint. And at the same time, it is also a commentary of grammar and expression. This response captures that perfectly: "egsllnt..nowz we uz da stikee ta goes to beginin n getz to see hapy kittah frum eziness!! 100+ chezbrgrz n tofubrgrz!!! =)" There are dissertations to be written (in old English) on lolcats.

I write more about this here:
* How does the net encourage critical thinking in comparison to the classroom?
Neither the net nor the classroom inherently encourage or discourage critical thinking.

I should also preface this response with the comment that there are wide differences of opinion as to what constitutes critical thinking. My own view is that it essentially encompasses the practices of comprehension and evaluation. I expand on these thoughts here:

That said, education, as it is typically conducted in the classroom, tends to be more in the presentation mode, as discussed in the first question above. This means that there is a tendency for students to be expected to be passive consumers of information. This tends to argue against the practice of critical reasoning. Obviously numerous exceptions must exist, and a quality teacher can foster critical thinking even in a generally presentation-bound environment.

Online, there is no pretense that there is only 'one way' to view an issue or a problem, and the reader is confronted with numerous and contradictory voices. This is true even in a relatively closed environment, such as an online course, where in addition to the presenter the student will be exposed to other students' expressions. In order to gain any comprehension from the online environment at all it is immediately necessary to assess points of view and to identify credible voices.

Online, as well, there is greater opportunity to present one's own point of view. This immediately exposes it to the expressions of other writers'; assessments, any of which will demonstrate the principles of critical assessment. Even poor critiques - such as though that attack a writer personally, misrepresent what is being stated, or change the subject - offer an object lesson in critical reasoning, as the writer comes to understand what ti feels like to be unfairly criticized. It is certainly true that some people - known commonly as 'trolls' - never advance beyond this low level of reasoning. But, as they say, the exception proves the rule.
* What is meaning making? How do net surfers study in a different way than people in the past?
In the roughest sense, 'meaning making' is the placing of perceptions or information within the context of a perspective, point of view, or world view. In other words, the 'making meaning' of something is to show or to understand how that something assists or contributes to one's understanding of the world.

Beyond that rough outline, the topic of 'making meaning' is fraught with dispute and conflicting accounts of 'meaning'.

The term 'meaning' is of semantical origin. The word 'meaning' traditionally applied to words. The idea of 'meaning' is that one thing - the word, or the 'sign' - stands for, or represents, something else - the 'signification'.

Words can obtain meaning in numerous ways. Tarski's theory (which forms the heart of logical positivism) fixes the meaning of a term in what the term refers to. The famous phrase "'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white" expresses this idea. The 'meaning' of a sentence, therefore, constitutes the conditions under which the sentence is true. Expanded, this comes to be the theory - called 'verificationism' - that the meaning of a word constitutes the process by which the truth of the sentence is established.

But the meaning of a word (or sentence) may extend beyond what the words directly refer to. Frege captures this idea by distinguisging between 'sense' and 'reference'. Other writers speak of the distinction between 'denotation' (ie., what a word 'denotes', or refers to) and 'connotation' (ie., what a word makes you think about, or what a word is associated with). Such a distinction is necessary to understand metaphor. 'The early bird captures the worm' is either meaningless or false when understood strictly by reference, but understood as a metaphor, may well be true.

In either case, there is presumed to be a strong correlation between what a word means and the state of affairs in the world. The idea is that, without a corresponding state of affairs, a word is, literally, meaningless. This opens the way, substantially, to a way of understanding the world, by understanding how we describe the world. While logical positivists are willing to accept that the utterances of some people (specifically, priests and metaphysicians) are literally "meaningless", others are not willing to believe that what we say about the world comes from nothing, and hence, to find the larger sense of the world, through which to understand the meaning of our expressions of it.

This approach has a long tradition, stemming from people like Descartes ("I think," he says, "therefore, I exist,") to Kant to Husserl to Chomsky, who employs the 'poverty of the stimulus' argument to postulate the existence of a capacity for generative grammar innate in the human mind - the meaning he finds in language, which may or may not express a truth about the world, nonetheless inescapably expresses a truth about the self (and therefore, the world).

And this tradition has allowed writers to expand the domain of 'meaning' to expand w6ell beyond the semantical realm. Just as the utterance of words can sometimes constitute actions (cf JL Austin, speech acts) by the same token actions can have meaning. Sometimes an action - such as a protect or a fast or a self-immolation - can be symbolic, while in others (walking across a frozen lake (thus signifying a belief that the ice is thick) can be literal, or referential. This has in common discourse come to allow us to attach meaning to pictures, objects, works of art, to life itself. Only now, as often as not, people express 'the meaning' of something semantically, that is, with words. This, 'making meaning' comes to mean some sort of process of encoding or representation - the 'truth' lies in the understanding of the expression.

All of this is represented as a deliberate, intentional act, where there is a separation between the person and the 'meaning' being made (much less the signification). It creates a hierarchy of either (modernist) 'world-representation-self' or (post-modernist) 'self-representation-world' (where, in the latter case, 'world' is an optional, and highly individualized, construct). The relation between these entities is structured, logical (or, at least, can be understood, though some process (criticism, say) to be logical), syntactical, formal. Hence the idea of *making* meaning - no matter how one looks at it, whether as a modernist (realist) or post-modernist (idealist) the meaning can never simply *be*.

This is probably collapsing in online thought. If pressed, people would probably say that both the 'world' and the 'self' are constructs, things we create in order to understand the world. This is what writers like danah boyd are seeing when they look at things like MySpace, or for that matter what people say when they saw people trying on various identities in the old MUD worlds or today's 3D versions, Second Life and World of Warcraft. Our actions, our constructions of self and world, may be intentional, but we don't construct meaning, we *grow* it or (better) we *become* it. The recent work on the stimulation of disembodied experience is an example of the sort of work that could not be conceived in an earlier age - how can we create an experience where we are something other than what we are? How, indeed, unless our very existence is something we create.

We are not structured, syntactic, creatures. The sentences we create neither represent the world, nor are they represented by states of affairs in the world. We obtain a greater clarity of expression through the non-sentential, through the concrete figurative, like the lolcat. These things don't 'stand for' anything, they just are - their meaning is self-contained, and insofar as they have representational value to the viewer, it is in evoking an aspect of the web of connections that already exists in their own mind. The lolcat is a synthetic whole, that evokes different perceptions from different people, the meaning growing organically on the viewing, through recognition ('oh yeah, my cat has an expression exactly like that') rather than being created or constructed.

More and more, I think, processes that resemble 'making meaning' will be thought of and dismissed as 'phoney' and 'fake' by net generation viewers (the way a corporate blog is 'phoney' or 'fake').
* What is the importance of learning to learn in our information age?
It's like the importance of being able to swim (to navigate through a moving current of water) as opposed to being merely able to float (to be supported by the water).

Being able to learn allows a person to set their own direction. This is important in a world where things are constantly changing (but not exclusive to that world). Otherwise, one must depend on being taught, which place them in the hands of the teacher, unable to set their own direction or path in life.

People often depict 'being able to learn' as essential as a strategy for coping with change. It is not. People can be (and frequently are) swept along with change. Sometimes this works out well, other times it doesn't. But people - at least some people - survive. Being able to learn isn't about survival. It is about freedom. It is about being able to chose where and when change sweeps you. It allows you not only to adapt, but also to say 'no', and also to create a new environment, to which others will adapt.
* How is learning from blogs and social networks different than learning from a book?
First, the book is a presentation of a single, synthetic voice. It is (insofar as it represents multiple points of view, which it may not) the fusion of thoughts into a single, definitive, expression. It is a transmission of that expression. A person can interact with a book (by taking notes, by writing to the author, by arguing about it with friends) but cannot see the same point of view represented in multiple modalities, from multiple points of view. A conversation with a book is like a conversation with one person (a relentless, logical person, a Mr. Spock). By contrast, the process of learning from blogs and social networks will present a perspective from multiple (and often contradictory) points of view. There is no fusion; the combined content has not been processed into a consistent and homogenized whole. If there is a synthesis (and there might not be; the viewer may choose to identify with a certain perspective (we call these 'fanboys') it will be on the part of the viewer.

Second, the book is a logico-syntactical structure, a linear representation in abstract form of something (like, say, the world) that may be non-linear and non-abstract. The book therefore represents not only a particular perspective, it represents that perspective as a series of abstractions, as a series of instances of general principles. A book that reports 'The Cat in the Hat came back' reports on the event as 'An instance of the category 'Cat' instantiating an instance of the action 'wearing' an instance of the article of clothing 'hat', the whole instance of which is given the name 'The Cat in the Hat' (a clever use of definite description as nomenclature) is an instance of the infinitive 'coming back'...' Which is why the book has pictures. But in ever increasing contexts, the representation, by means of this abstract structure, is being seen as superfluous. It is seen, not as advancing our understanding of something, but rather, of obscuring it. The internet represents the decline of the universal, the decline of the infinitive - and hence, the decline of those modes of expression based on, founded on, and hence, dependent on, the existence of the universal. The lolcat isn't a universal anything. People understand that. It's just a funny picture.
* What about hypertextual learning such as surfing Wikipedia for learning. How is this different from reading a book? What are the advantages and disadvantages of that sort of learning experience?
In addition to the two things mentioned just above, the big difference is that a reader reading Wikipedia has the ability (and the obligation) to amend the text at any time, should it be necessary.

Though that said I should comment on the fact that Wikipedia has been slowly drifting toward the development of two castes of contributors, an 'author' caste, consisting of people who contribute, and an 'overseer' caste, consisting of people who remove contributions. The recently added ability to 'flag for deletion' of articles based on grounds such as relevance, completeness, significance, and the like, is creating a situation where the encyclopedia is created through a process of reference to (external) authority, rather than as an organic creation by its authors. The owners of Wikipedia should reconsider (or perhaps the authors of Wikipedia should fork).

The capacity to author the text, in addition to reading the text, places the reader into the perspective, for every sentence, that 'this sentence may be wrong' (or misleading, or poorly worded, or unclear, or offensive, and the like). It shifts the balance of power from that which is written to the person who is doing the reading. It changes the status of the content, from 'knowledge' or 'information' to 'perspective' or 'opinion'. It is not possible for an informed person to simply accept a Wikipedia article as a 'presentation'. The reader - even if he or she makes no changes - has become an active participant in its creation.

I should point out that this perspective is (like all others) a learned perspective. People do not automatically become critical or evaluative readers, and they do not automatically become participants in the creation of something. This is expecially the case for people who have an authority-driven background in teaching and learning, for people who have been taught from an early age that learning amounts to listening and remembering. Such people will need to learn, through practice and example, that the act of learning through an interactive medium such as Wikipedia is different. That is why we have the phenomenon, today, of a person who can contribute to Wikipedia citing it uncritically. Sometimes contradictions are not evident to a person until they are pointed out or (more often) made manifest by the hard light of experience.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 12:48 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.