Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Knowledge Transfer

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 01, 2011

I'm so much in a "not writing" mode these days it pains me to put metaphorical pen to paper to author these words. Maybe I'll be more interested in writing when it's fun again.

So we have this discussion back and forth about the merits of MOOCs. We have the Chronicle acting as though the MOOC has just been invented by some American, Wiley complaining that “MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems” and now this piece of nonsense.

Did I say nonsense? Yes, I said nonsense. There's no call for this sort of condescending and catty response to people who are trying their best to work through some difficult issues.

The problem, of course, is that Wiley doesn't think it's a difficult issue. "By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story."

It brings to mind "a reader" Keith Harmon's response to Wiley. "Well, of course MOOCs favor sufficiently prepared learners. All classes favor sufficiently prepared learners." The totality of Wiley's example works only if both questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.

At the risk of being pedantic, let's actually look at Wiley's simple examples.

- when someone asks me "what time is it" my first response is to ask back, "where?" Half the people I talk to in a given day live in a different time zone. Also, when people as me what time is it they are often asking about a specific event, such as an online forum. "I'm doing a session today," I remark to a friend on Skype. "What time is it?" he asks. "Where?" I respond. Oh I know, Wiley had a wholly different scenario in mind. The point is, this entire scenario needs to exist in order for the question "what time is it" to even make sense, let along constitute the trigger for a knowledge transfer (about which we'll get to in a moment).

-when some asks me "who won the game last night?" my usual response is, not surprisingly, "what game?" In some few instances - the Vancouver-Boston game, for example - I might have a clear idea. But Wiley was probably not talking about that game. I imagine he's a basketball fan. I hate basketball. I don't even know whether Wiley likes sports. If he asked me that question I'd be genuinely confused. What could he possibly mean?

- when someone asks "do you know where I left my keys" I invariably answer "yes". The joke, of course, is that I know that the person wanted an answer to the question "where are my keys" but is signifying so in a less direct manner intended to be more polite. I read once that in Spanish it's rude to simply say "yes" or "no" so I would be less direct to a Spaniard. In other cultures I have read that I should be less personal. So depending on circumstances I could answer "That knowledge is to be had." Wiley, though, would probably find such an answer rude.

- if someone asks "are there any tissues left in that box" I would answer "do you need a tissue?" To which the answer could be an obviously exasperated "yes, why do you think I asked?" but there is an equivocation between being unsure of our tissue supply, perhaps just prior to going to the store, and a request for a tissue expressed in the more passive polite voice. My wife often uses expressions like "You could close the door." She means "Close the door," but won't say it directly. Anyhow, note that while this example and the previous are structurally identical they actually demand differently-typed responses.

- if someone asks "where would you like to go for dinner?" my first (unspoken) response is "who's buying?" Just kidding. But going to dinner is one of those context-laden activities that blends place and time with location and the need for nutrition, dietary concerns (especially for me) and social circumstances. Where I'd like to go to dinner is the local pub where I can sit by myself, read the paper, watch the game (never mind which game), and enjoy a stack of barbecue ribs. For reasons too numerous to mention, that's not an appropriate response (I still haven't lost the poundage I gained in Edmonton). But that's what I like.

- if someone asks me "Who's your favourite author?" (favourite spelled with a 'u' because the asker is probably from a Commonwealth country) I typically respond that "it varies depending on the day." Often, my favourite author is the person I'm reading now (because what better evidence of being 'favourite' could there be?). But if pressed I equivocate because there's really no comparison between Tolstoy and Gibbon, say, and Hume or John Stuart Mill, or Robert A. Heinlein or Bruce Sterling. Or Ernest Hemingway. So I'd probably respond, "it's not a competition." Leaving people from that certain perspective where everything is a competition perplexed and puzzled.

- if someone asked me "what's the weather supposed to be like today" I would respond "I didn't think anyone was planning it." I would then enter a disputation on the question of whether the way the weather is supposed to be is the way I want it, the way the farmers want it, or the way some person paid to read Environment Canada forecasts off a teleprompter said it would be. The whole equivocation between 'want', 'need', 'ought' and 'will be' inherent in a word like "supposed" is a source of fascination to me. And I'm supposed to think it's simple?

- if someone asks "When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book?" my response is, "Who?" Because I genuinely don't know who Brandon Sanderson is, and doubly don't know why anyone would think I know when his publisher will allow people to purchase his book (I'm not sure even Brandon Sanderson knows this, so I don't see why I would be expected to know"). OK, now I'm going to look him up on Google. ... OK, I assume this is him? Now I'm even more puzzled.

- if someone asked me "Is there any pizza left in the fridge" I would respond "I thought we agreed we weren't eating pizza any more." OK, so I'm not likely to be asked this. If it were a food I actually eat these days, I'd probably say "no" or "I'll get you some," because this is again possibly one of those passive requests for pizza. It's always a mystery with these sorts of questions.

And that's kind of my point, isn't it? It's always kind of a mystery when it comes to these sorts of questions. Pick the simplest example you want - or stay with these putatively simple requests - and even the slightest investigation reveals that the questions are not simple at all. In fact, they are questions that would totally stump a computer. Or - more likely - would elicit a literal and highly inappropriate response. The stuff that dozens of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes trade on.

But that's not even the main point. The main point - and I'm sorry for burying the lede - is that the concept of 'knowledge transfer', although superficially simple, is, just like those questions, fraught with difficulties. And that I really find it frustrating and even offensive that someone who should know this like David Wiley would respond in such a callous and high-handed fashion to someone who was making an honest effort to make the point in a brief comment.

Let me put the point in terse, plain language: people who say that there is such a thing as "knowledge transfer" cannot make the first coherent point about what it is that is transferred.

Seriously. Try it some time. Tell me what is transferred. You'll start by saying "knowledge is transferred." As though eliding one of the central questions of 2,500 years of philosophy will somehow make your response more believable. "Knowledge?" I'll ask, wilily. Do you mean 'justified true belief?' Not because I'm trying to lure him into a Gettier problem, but because I want the amusement of watching him now explain how not only belief will be 'transferred', but also truth and justification. Because, after all, if you believe P, and you have justification for P, and you say "P" to me, the justification does not come with it.

Let's go back to one of those simple examples to make the point. "Is there pizza in the fridge?" Let's suppose that context suggests to me that this is a genuine request for information, and not a passive request for restaurant service. So I say "Yes, there is pizza in the fridge." Now, note carefully, it is not redundant to ask, "How do you know?" So the justification did not travel with the answer. And I reply, "I looked." Now that is not the same as you looking. The justification still resides with me. If you want justification, you have to either get up and look yourself (in which case, our attempt to transfer knowledge has failed utterly) or you have to tell some longish story (to yourself, please) about why you trust me.

Of course, we know that knowledge is not justified true belief. We know that it's a lot more complicated than that. We know that what constitutes "the knowledge that P" depends very much on what P is, how it was expressed, what relevant alternatives there may have been, what is the state of the world, what is one's doxastic state (ie., are we in a position to know?), and whether we have the capacity to distinguish that P.

Does my asking of these questions make me a snob? Seriously? Because I have actually taken the time to work through what is implied in a common everyday presumption, and to show that it is empty, does that somehow make me a snob? Well, let's suppose it does. I've been called worse. What it doesn't make me is wrong.

Let's get back to knowledge transfer. Let's get back to the question of what it is that is transferred. Let's forget about the whole problem of knowledge. Maybe it's just data, or information, or some such thing. Let's look at what's there, what can be observed, and see if we can work it out for ourselves, you know, non-elite like.

The first and probably most important thing that leaps out at you (it certainly leaps out at me) is that there is no physical thing that is transferred from me to you when you ask "is there any pizza in the fridge" and I answer "yes". Not even pizza (which was, by stipulation, in the fridge, not in me). Reconstruct it with me:

- sound waves enter my ears, stimulate some hair cells and cause a cascade of signals to be sent through my auditory cortex.
- neural activity occurs. I form the intent to respond, assemble a response into words, which I now utter.
- these waves travel through the air, possibly through walls or telephone lines, and enter your ears
- these sound waves stimulate a cascade of electrical signals to be sent through your auditory cortex

Pretty basic. I could probably have expanded on the details, but I think the point is pretty clear. No physical transfer, not one atom, has taken place. Whatever it was that was 'transferred' from me to you is not physical.

So if it's not knowledge that's transferred, and it's not something physical that's transferred, what can it be? We can run through the list of possibilities. Maybe it's data. Maybe it's information. Maybe it's functional awareness. Maybe it's a depression in the noumenon. We can run through the full list of theories. I've studied them all, David. I'll punch holes in every one of them. It's not hard.

My answer, and it's a perfectly reasonable and well-research answer, is that nothing is transferred. That the whole idea of "knowledge transfer" is a handy fiction that we have created over the years, as simple folk, to function as shorthand for what we know is a much more complex process.

Probably the best intermediate position a person can attempt here is something like "knowledge replication". That's what's actually happening in a lot of people's theories. We know that the sending of a message from one person to another involves a state change. The signal (another handy fiction; let me have it for now) crosses through several media en route from sender to receiver. Thus questions of signal integrity arise, the problem of distinguishing signal from noise, and all the rest of it.

We know that it doesn't really matter what happens to the signal between sender and receiver, so long as what has arrived is (reliably and knowably) the same as what was sent. That's why the electronics industry invented mechanisms like checksums and callbacks. It's like double-entry book-keeping. Call-and-response. It allows for errors in transmission, enables the transmission to actually occur in parts, and ensures that what has arrived is the same as what was sent. Thus, I think, and then say "There is pizza in the fridge." Stuff happens. Then you hear, and thus think, "There is pizza in the fridge." Communication has happened, everyone's happy.

This would be great, except for one problem. The sentence "There is pizza in the fridge" is the medium of communication. It is not the thought, either of sender or receiver.

This is important, and is the foundation of modern education theory. If what was received in your head was exactly what was originally in my head, it would be useless. Even if we allow the theory that we have sentences in the head, that the idea of 'brain writing' is true (I don't, I think it's ridiculous, but people like Fodor do) these sentences are still composed of a neural substrate, and this substrate is very different for you than it is for me.

All very good, you may say, let's forget the neural substrate and just focus on the sentence. If we can just make sure the sentence is the same, then we're find. That (in my cynical estimation) is the foundation for direct instruction. And it's as foolish as it is stupid. It's easy to get someone to remember a sentence. We do it all the time; we force people to recite prayers and oaths or play popular songs over and over until their etched on people's minds. But being able to repeat the sentence "there is pizza in the fridge" is very diffierent from knowing that there is pizza in the fridge (if this needs empirical support we've both travel to China and I'll teach the phrase to a unilingual Chinesde speaker and then wait for you to show me he understands there's pizza in the fridge).

The substrate matters. The relation of that sentence to all other sentences (or if we're really really lucky, a significant subset of those sentences) needs to be the same, or at least relevantly similar (for a relevantly sufficient understanding). But this is not something you can transfer. Or at least, not in any simple manner as implied by the question-and-answer set posed at the outset.

You know what makes a snob, for me? The person who says, "oh well, of course, everyone knows such-and-such." The person who presumes this his or her 'simple' and 'basic' understanding is obviously the right one. The presupposition that there is only one way to understand the world, and that he or she has it. I stand up to such people and say to them, "You think you understand the way the world works, but you don't." And I hate such people telling me what to learn, and how to learn, as though they really believed their magic carpet theory of learning actually worked, as though if they just willed it enough, I'd become just like them. Well it's not going to happen, and that's why we (George and I) invented MOOCs.

Because if learning is not knowledge transfer, as I'm arguing here, that leaves open the tremendously exciting question of what it actually is. If you are open to the idea that learning isn't transfer, isn't transmission, isn't even replication, you are open to the idea that the person doing the learning can actually become something more than the person doing the teaching (there's also the possibility that he or she could be something less, but that was always a risk, even in the transmission theories, which is why there's so much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the "state of education" and the "crisis in America's schools" over in that camp.

You have the nine billion theories of constructivism to guide you, each an interesting way people can create, or (somehow) 'construct' their own knowledge, with more or less support from teachers, coaches, guides, or brilliant instructional design (people sufficiently educated will recognize the reference to Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favourite authors). Me, I don't think it's something we can just make happen, as though knowledge were a building or even a well-tended garden (though it's much more like the latter than the former). But people are welcome to try, and sometimes they perhaps over-engineer their environments, or their instruction (that's what I think has happened in eduMOOC, but I'll wait for some data before criticizing).

People always think they can engineer things for a precise result. To me, that's a bit like imaging there's some way the weather is supposed to be. I don't think it's random, I definitely don't think it's value-free, but it's not magic either, and fairy-theories of "knowledge transfer" and other fictions do not suddenly make it snap into some predictable form. And - frankly - I get offended when someone pompously claims that someone is ignorant and uneducated for not buying into the fantasy.

Yes, you can make a person utter the words. If you have a sufficiently large rifle, you can also make them goose-step and murder their enemies. You can hound them into submission, you can brainwash them, make them believe in nutty causes and blow themselves up, make them memorize the spelling of fifty thousand words, lull them into believing that the Grand Canyon was created by a giant hand, convince them that people of a different skin colour are animals, almost anything. You can shape people with no end of methods and mechanations physical and psychological.

But you can't use any of this to make them learn. You can't make them understand. Understanding is a voluntary act. It is the act of a free person, inhabiting a world in which he or she can interact with a stimulating and diverse environment, creating a rich fabric of what we would call thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, and all the rest of it. Understanding and learning are the results of a life-long process of experience and growth. You can present the things you think are important and should be valued, but people must accept these for themselves. Freely.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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