New Librarianship MOOC: Information, Knowledge, and the Conversations in Our Heads

July 24, 2013

Trainer-teacher-learners, including those working in libraries, need not worry or shy away from those conversations we have with ourselves within our own heads, if R. David Lankes is to be believed.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_LogoThose conversations, he suggests in his “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies— and his book The Atlas of New Librarianship, are part of our learning process and support our efforts to transform information into knowledge.

Building upon the Conversation Theory work initiated by cyberneticist Gordon Pask in the 1970s, Lankes takes us through a fascinating exploration of how knowledge is created through conversation. Then, bringing us full circle through that exploration of knowledge and conversation rooted in the cyberneticists’ fascination with studying systems, he leads us through a summary of how the various levels of language we use—ranging from basic non-contextual language to subject-specific jargon—affects the systems we develop for those we ostensibly serve. (Lankes uses library online catalogs as an example of one less-than-elegant system for his learners in the New Librarianship Master Class; we could just as easily look for examples among the systems used to deliver massive open online courses—MOOCS—along the lines of the online master class that is inspiring this series of reflections.)

There is a depth and richness to all of this that is, quite frankly, inspiring comments from course participants about how opaque the entire field of Conversation Theory is. But none of it is completely foreign to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning—as so many people working in libraries increasingly are. Lankes notes that New Librarianship promotes a shift in focus from information to knowledge, and there clearly is a similar shift, in some ways, within the larger field of learning that so obviously is part of what library staff pursue daily with library members. He also helps us to understand that the internalized conversations we have as we engage in learning—asking ourselves questions along the lines of “Do I really agree with what I just read?” or “Does what I just heard from that instructor make sense?”—are an integral part of the process of transforming information we have obtained into knowledge that we can apply as we attempt to attain a state of wisdom.

In the course of his explorations, he brings us back to the libraries and librarians who are at the center of the master class and The Atlas: “The quiet room within the library for quiet reflection is not quiet to prevent conversation. It is to enable individuals to converse with themselves more readily,” he says in his “Knowledge and Conversation” lecture online.

He also, in an effort to set an even broader context for library staff and others involved in facilitating the learning process, reminds us through an “Introduction to Knowledge” lecture online, that “We need to move away from the whole idea of information and think that we are in the knowledge business, that librarianship is very much about helping people learn…We need to focus on how people learn…how data is used….We also have to be in the conversation business…if we’re seeking to help people learn, we have to facilitate conversations” both overtly in our communal learning settings and through those wonderfully productive conversations in our heads that too few of us take the time to think about, nurture, and utilize to our own benefit and to the benefit of those we serve in our day-to-day work as learning facilitators.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.


David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: Ideas, Expertise, and Knowledge

February 19, 2012

Since knowledge is the playing field for trainer-teacher-learners, an entire book exploring the theme of knowledge is a much appreciated gift for us.

David Weinberger’s gift—Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room—is everything we’ve come to expect from him: engaging, thought-provoking, introspective, and even gently self-effacing.

As we consider the bodies of knowledge we must assimilate in the course of preparing learning opportunities for others, we gain a lot through Weinberger’s ruminations on the nature of knowledge at a time when knowledge is far from defined solely by what is between the covers of books or peer-reviewed journals. It “is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge,” he writes (p. 182).

This is placing us in a “crisis of knowledge,” he maintains. We have to face the fact that the “Internet simply doesn’t have what it takes to create a body of knowledge: No editors and curators who get to decide what is in or out. No agreed-upon walls to let us know that knowledge begins here, while outside uncertainty reigns—at least none that everyone accepts. There is little to none of the permanence, stability, and community fealty that a body of knowledge requires and implies. The Internet is what you get when everyone is a curator and everything is linked” (p. 45) and yet that is where many of us currently turn for knowledge.

We can’t read Weinberger’s book without thinking of how often we are faced with the challenge of trying to distill large amounts of information into the all-too-short learning opportunities we are asked to design and deliver. We can’t, furthermore, proceed with designing and delivering those learning opportunities without acknowledging the diverse sources of information and range of differing opinions available to us. Which is why a book-length exploration like Too Big to Know offers such a valuable opportunity to pull ourselves away from the day-to-day challenges we face, reflect a bit upon those challenges, and look for ways to make some sense of all we are encountering so we can help our learners do the same.

It’s not as if we haven’t been down this road before (and won’t need to go there again). Weinberger, in fact, acknowledges traveling a path followed by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Weinberger, like Carr, writes a book that in some ways argues against the continuing existence of books as containers for our most highly valued knowledge—then acknowledges the irony of putting his knowledge into a book.

“I am aware that it is at best ironic, and at worst hypocritical, that I have written a long-form book, available only on paper (or on paper’s disconnected electronic simulacrum), that is arguing for the strengths of networks over books. My apology is of the unfortunate sort that does not justify the action so much as humiliate the perpetrator, ” he says (pp. 96-97).

And this frank admission—like a similar one from Carr—is part of the reason why we would be making a huge mistake by laughing at the discomfort he has created for himself instead of diving into this thoughtful exploration of the state of Knowledge with a capital K (p. 44) in a world where print and online resources continue to dynamically exist side by side.

“Long-form writing is by no means unnecessary or ‘dead,’” he acknowledges. “But the fact that it is improved by being placed into the Net’s web of connections means it is being dethroned by that web as the single best way to assemble ideas” (p. 116).

And having read Too Big to Know, we stand closer to assimilating those ideas—for ourselves as well as to the benefit of the learners we so often strive to serve.


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