Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 4 of 4): Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading

March 23, 2012

Let’s take a quantum leap in rethinking what a learning space is. Without abandoning anything that is already effectively in place, let’s think beyond the physical classroom. Past the online learning spaces we inhabit now via platforms including WebEx, Skype, and many others. Let’s think about a world where learning spaces can be almost anything that facilitates learning. And then laugh when we realize how full circle we have come.

At least one idea comes sharply into focus as we move through the rethinking process via books by John Medina, Seth Godin, Cathy Davidson, and others, including Bruce Wexler: the “places” where we learn are in a dynamic state of change, and they all benefit from being stimulating rather than static. When we look at what Michael Wesch is doing at Kansas State University and documenting on his Digital Ethnography site, we see engaged and effective learning facilitated by an engaged teacher-trainer-learner. When we turn to the YouMedia project at the Chicago Public Library, we see a learning organization blending online-onsite learning in incredibly innovative ways. When we see how colleagues are using LinkedIn discussion groups, live online conversations linked together via Twitter hashtags like #ASTDChapters or #lrnchat or #libchat, or through Google+ hangouts, we see our idea of learning spaces expand even further since each of them creates a sort of space where learning can and does occur.

When we consider how effectively wikis are being used to draw teacher-trainer-learners together asynchronously to actually produce learning objects like the annual New Media Consortium Horizon Report, we can see those wikis as learning spaces. When we see how individual blog postings on topics ranging from various learning styles to learning in libraries include extensive links and references and serve as self-contained online asynchronous lessons, we have further expanded our horizons. When we use smartphones and tablets as conduits to sites such as Smarthistory while we are standing in front of a work of art in a museum, we viscerally understand that the learning space is a blend of the museum gallery and the website and the device since they combine to provide a more comprehensive learning opportunity than would be possible without that combination. And it’s just one small additional step to move ourselves to the concept of blended learning spaces along the lines of the onsite-online social learning centers a few of us are promoting, or to see the newly created TED-Ed site as a dynamically innovative learning space.

But there’s still one obvious oversight, and it comes to our attention as we rethink what knowledge is through books like David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, which examines our move from print-based knowledge to online knowledge. Or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which suggests that using the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that make it difficult for us to read book-length works. Or William Crossman’s VIVO [Voice In/Voice Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers, which is predicated on the author’s belief that text and written language will be obsolete by 2050. The oversight for many of us may be in not seeing that books themselves (in print as well as online) remain a form of learning space—a place where we encounter other trainer-teacher-learners, learn from them, react to the ideas being proffered, and even, at a certain level, engage with them through our reactions to their work and through the conversations they inspire. Which makes it tremendously ironic, as I have repeatedly noted, that these wonderful thinker-writers still are drawn to express themselves most eloquently within the very containers—the books—they think are being replaced by other options.

If we were to travel down a similar path of overlooking what so clearly remains before us, we, too, might look at all that is developing and lose sight of a valuable learning space: the physical learning spaces that have served us in the past and will continue to serve us well if we adapt them and expand them—and ourselves—to reflect and respond to our changing world as well as to our learning needs. And our desires.


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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