Knowledge grazing in an information age
The information revolution has shifted learning away from ordered hierarchies toward a much messier, disorganised and self-directed learning paradigm. But has this disrupted education yet?
Look at the world we live in – the ways in which we access information have changed beyond all measure. If we think back to those awful events of September 11, 2001, we watched the unfolding drama on news channels, morbidly glued to our TV sets as the tragic events of that awful day unfolded across our screens. Fast forward a few short years to 2009 and we watched Captain Sullenberger land his Boeing 737 on the Hudson River on our screens, but the size had dramatically decreased.
These events were brought to the world first, not by 24-hour news channels, but by Twitter and YouTube, and we watched the first reports not on our TV screens but also on our smart mobile devices. Of course the TV stations quickly caught up, but the story broke across social media first. And that’s the way it is now. We are used to hearing or reading about the big news stories of the day on Twitter rather than our morning papers or the TV. All the media businesses, be they television or newspaper have Twitter accounts. The Chinese government first learned about the 2008 Szechuan earthquake from Twitter rather than its own news agency. And remember the 2012 Arab spring when revolution raced across a continent brokered by images from mobile phones and live conversations on social media?
'Digital information can be altered, mashed, changed or trashed in minutes'
According to Angela Schaerer, Teacher Engagement Lead for Microsoft South Africa, our world is evolving. New ideas spread the whole way around the world in less than 24 hours. That's the power of the YouTube video clip! It’s even quicker on Twitter.
“Social media is global and ubiquitous. And today, in the middle of the second decade of this 21st century information age, we are now all reporters, sharing, creating, changing and critiquing the news as it happens,” she adds.
This is evolution, but not as we've previously understood the word. Now the term is used to describe changes that occur much more rapidly than Darwin could ever have dreamed about. Digital information can be altered, mashed, changed or even trashed in minutes, in ways previously impossible. Digital textbooks will rarely be out of date in the way their printed versions are. And it seems our brains might be changing as well. Brain plasticity is a well-documented phenomenon.
Some people have written about the possible change in the way our brains have been made to work differently over the past few years, as information arrives at our consciousness via short, sharp simultaneous bursts. And media changes have come hand in hand with the ways in which we consume them. The biggest box-office successes nowadays all rely on the "flash, bang, wallop" effect. It seems we need instant gratification and fast-paced action full of dazzling special effects and noise which appear to trump the great narratives and plot lines of the past. Neural pathways do change. But is this change not to be embraced? After all, it's how the brains of most of our learners work. In fact, their brains probably know no other way of working. The world has changed, and there is no going back.
'It's not what you know but what you do with what you know'
All educators need to do is set the parameters, then work individually with students, helping, providing advice, and yes, even teaching them that it's not just OK to recycle and mash up knowledge. The real goal is to reboot it, make it work, and truly own it. By this we mean evaluating what is discovered and commenting on how relevant it might be to the project, benchmarking it against the set parameters.
The days of old-style factual regurgitation are long gone, left behind by the post-industrial information age. We should be in the business of helping learners to become consummate knowledge rebooters and problem-seekers. It's not what you know, but how you use it and how you figure it can address global challenges. Bloom's hierarchical, level-upon-level paradigm of learning is well and truly disrupted by this knowledge-grazing paradigm.
Educational institutions and governments all around the world are latching on to this knowledge grazing and are making their learning resources freely available online at an incredibly rapid rate. Some of these courses, known as Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs, attract thousands of eager learners to each course, and many thousands more graze on these fantastic learning artefacts, using, recycling, mashing and rebooting them.
And so this self-directed learning leads to increased confidence to mess about with what we discover. John Seely-Brown calls it "Tinkering". He believes that this tinkering brings thought and action together in a very magical way. It's what we do when things won't work and we get over the fear of getting it wrong. If we get in there and tinker – to try and sort it out – we generally manage to get things going. And yes, this is how our kids play computer games: where failure is just one step on the way to really powerful learning.
This "getting things going" strikes right to the heart of what learning really means. We learn when we engage with whatever we discover. It’s our level of engagement which leads to depth of retention and, therefore, true learning. The world-wide education establishment is waking up to this new paradigm. It can't come a moment too soon.