More relevant than ever…Information plenty, but knowledge famine: are we succumbing to an illusion?

I am curious about knowledge, not in philosophical sense, but in a practical one. I worry about what it means to know something in a world that is increasingly complex, ill defined and interconnected: a world that demands that we develop, and that we ensure that our children develop, the knowledge capacity to solve the problems it manifests and those that we create.

The first recollections that I have of my own curiosity about knowledge date back to 1966 when I was eight years old and growing up in Manfred Mann’s semi-detached suburbia: dad, mum, older brother and me. My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother taught typing and shorthand to women whose working lives were about to be dramatically changed by the word processing power of the digital computer. My brother was 3 years older than me, and his lack of interest in formal education was causing my parents some concern. Their reaction was to invest in ‘knowledge books’, or at least that’s how they saw the children’s book of knowledge and the encyclopedia that now filled up the bureau bookshelf. To keep us up to date, there was also the weekly general knowledge magazine that plopped on the doormat with a reassuring thud: the weight of its knowledge there for all to hear.

I suspect that my parent’s reaction to their son’s educational malaise was not an unusual one amongst the aspiring middle class families of our neighbourhood. My brother’s reaction to the new literary arrivals was cool; he was far more concerned with exploring the world of the woodland around our housing estate, than with sitting at home and reading about it. My father however, became quite addicted to the weekly general knowledge magazine. He did not have a great deal of time to read, but each evening when he went to bed he would sit in his paisley pyjamas and thumb through the pages. The stock of copies soon grew on the nightstand as his pace of reading failed to match the frequency of their arrival. The corners became slightly curled as the months and years passed and the dust gathered in and around the pile that now extended from the nightstand to the floor. His interest never waned and I do believe there were a pile of old issues by his bedside when he died many years later.

Forty years on and it’s a sunny day and I’m walking along the Euston Road in London. I pass the entrance to the British Library and a sign catches my eye, the sign says: “Step inside – Knowledge freely available”. I dislike the suggestion that one can walk into the British Library and just pick up some knowledge like going into Tesco and buying some bananas. I can relatively quickly formulate an explanation for myself about why the sign irritates me, because I have a clear idea about what I believe knowledge to be. I have moved on from the conception of knowledge loved by my father and represented by the pages of his books and articles. I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can certainly help me along the way, and that I can aspire to continually increase my knowledge by weaving together the information resources distributed throughout my world.

This is not the case for many of the youngsters who attend our schools and colleges. For them knowledge is still to be found in the dusty concepts in the out of date magazines on my father’s nightstand or on the shelves of a library they never visit.

“But what of the internet and world wide web?” I hear you wonder. These technological masterpieces offer information resources wherever we are and whenever we need them. These must surely pave the way for us to become more knowledgeable, both personally and as a human community?

The sheer abundance of this information has thrown into sharp relief our understanding of the relationship between information and knowledge. It makes my modest collection of childhood encyclopedias and my father’s overflowing magazine collection look like a speck of dust on the library shelf. I fear however that our understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something has not progressed in tandem with this technological progress. This puts us at risk of succumbing to the illusion that we know more than we actually do, because the more information we have the more we become certain that we know something.

Without helping young people to develop an understanding of what knowledge is in a digital age they cannot progress beyond the well meaning, but limited conception of knowledge promoted by the books and magazines that appealed to my parents. Those of us who understand what we mean by knowledge can indulge ourselves, as my father did with his magazines. But, without actively engaging people in the excitement of connecting the knowledge construction process to their own particular context, we merely encourage them to pass the opportunity by in the same way as my brother did all those years ago.

In a time of information plenty we are at risk of a knowledge famine.

I wrote thsi piece originally for  Learning to Live – Creativity, Money and Love

From User Generated Content to Learner Generated Contexts: the power of technology to build connections

I was reminded earlier this week of the interesting discussion we had at the Learning Technologies exhibition in January about User Generated Content (UGC) and how we can do even more than encourage people to generate their own content: we can encourage them to generate their own contexts for learning.  This is the idea of Learner Generated Contexts (about which you can read more in this book chapter) A Learner Generated Context (LGC) is generated through people (learners, teachers, parents, peers etc.) using technology to organize and interact with their learning resources in a manner that best meets the needs of learners. It is an enterprise that is driven by those who would previously have been consumers in a context created for them.

The resources that can be organized to generate the LGC are the People,

Places: the social and physical environments;

Things: such as digital technologies, books, equipment, and

Knowledge: the subject or skill being learnt.

All these resources exist and are part of a learners’ interactions with the world, the point is that a Learner Generated Context connects and inter-relates them a way that supports learning. The Learner Generated Context can be generated by groups working together or by individuals acting alone. Often teachers, mentors or peers have a key role to play in helping to generate the context, but sometimes a learner can act alone to generate a context that pulls together the People, Places, Things and Knowledge they interact with in a way that meets their learning needs.

For example, I was learning French a while ago and I wrote a blog about my experiences. My blog entry for the 28 April discusses how I was completing a particular piece of homework for the language school I was attending. The People and Things are highlighted in blue, the Knowledge and Skills in green and the Places in red:

“As I sat in front of the TV doing my homework ready for class I was amused to note that I find the gentle flow of French conversation in the background useful. This is a very different situation to that in force when I last learnt French many years ago when TV and homework certainly did not mix. I feel I am benefitting from my decision to spend a section of the day in French immersion as far as possible. This was helped with a good start from William, who was on good form this morning and aided by my understanding a little more of the one o-clock news. I was very amused to see the tractors in Paris as farmers protested about falling prices and stricter regulation: they would prefer to return to the EU rules. The farmers had taken their tractors to Paris and had travelled from Place de Nation to Place de la Bastille and from Place de la Bastille to Place du Republique If I understood the bulletin correctly the Parisians who were interviewed seemed, as ever, patient and understanding of the protest despite the fact that it seemed to be blocking much of the traffic. Mind you I don’t think any motorists were amongst those interviewed. Now that I am back in France, after coming from England, I continue to notice the difference in people’s attitudes to industrial action here.”

With a little bit of thought and some fairly ordinary and readily available technology I can connect and link these resources in a way that supports my needs as a learner to generate my own learner generated context.

As I walk from Malmousque to the French language school my mobile phone beeps to indicate a diary entry that reminds me to try to learn some vocabulary as I walk. The words appear on the screen of my mobile phone and these are linked to their pronunciations from forvo.com. Some of the words are picked from the TV report about the farmer’s protest that I saw on TV yesterday and there is an audio recording of the broadcast for me to listen to that has been taken from the TV station’s website.

Vision for science and mathematics education, but what role for technology?

The RS are  calling for views for the ‘Vision for science and mathematics education 5-19’ project and yet there is little mention of a role for technology and technology enhanced learning expertise is not abundant on the advisory panel. Why I wonder? We clearly need to communicate the value of TEL for science and maths much more effectively.

For example, last year in response to the Education White Paper colleagues and I concluded that we know that well-designed technologies can be used to good learning effect through:

  • the creation and use of microworlds and simulations e.g. simquest, RoomQuake;
  • dynamic computational modelling to support software that adapts itself to the learner. This is effective for well-defined subject knowledge domains (including professional practice), and procedural and thinking skills e.g. Cognitive Tutors, for maths
  • participatory and personal toolkits to support inquiry-based learning e.g. participate, nquire;
  • games and game development, if carefully designed can motivate learners, including those who are currently marginalised or underperforming, e.g. UrbanScience, ZombieDivision;
  • versatile representational spaces to help people to see things differently and tackle the  unlearnable representations that can characterises ‘unlearnable’ material e.g. Migen.

Squares in a round world: has research about technology and learning passed its sell by date?

I really enjoyed my trip to see the David Shrigley Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward. And was amused by the endearing hand drawn animation about new friends in which a square enters a round world and … well I won’t spoil it for you. But it made me wonder if researchers run the risk of being squares in a round world. This was prompted by the comment I mentioned in my last post that asked if technological pace was “making traditional research models and institutions look a little archaic?”So has research passed its sell by date in this fast-moving technological space and do we need to re-fashion ourselves out of our squareness, or help squareness to be better appreciated? What do us squares have to offer? Four sorts of research come readily to mind and I am sure there are more.

First, there is basic research about how people learn and about the nature of learning itself that can be applied to education in a digital world, both in terms of how to develop technologies and in terms of how to use technologies for learning, both informally and formally. This research does not go out of date but gets better and better, for example John Bransford and others work on the nature of transfer is mature and well grounded, it is rigorous and has developed over several decades. Perhaps one the reasons that research like this is timelessly useful is that it has a focus upon an ever-present issue: the nature of learning, rather than a changing space: the nature of a particular technology, category of technologies, or indeed particular practices. It is also the case that all those who are doing this research and all those who want to use this research share a common need: to understand more about how people learn. However, there is perhaps a need to better communicate this research in a way that makes it accessible and relevant to technologies as they change.

Second, there is research conducted by those who want to see how the learning and/or teaching process might be better supported through the use of technology. This research can also maintain its value, for example, if it has a focus upon the interactions that are important for teaching and learning and the manner in which different technologies do or don’t support that, rather than how to use a particular technology. Good example here are example Diana Laurillard’s classic work in her book Re-thinking University Teaching and the community of researchers who consider the nature of Instructional Design.

Thirdly, is the work done by those within research labs both in universities and companies that involves developing a technology and using it with learners and teachers, usually in small numbers, to see if it helps them to learn or teach so that learners learn more, or feel more motivated, or collaborate with others in a more supportive manner, or in answer to many other varieties of question. It is harder to see from the usual outputs from this category of research how it can be easily applied within practice, either informal or formal. One of the main reasons for this is that such research is about generating new technologies that are not yet in classroom and may not ever make it outside of the research lab. I have seen hundreds of such research projects very few of which see the light of real application. Sometimes they are only ever intended as a proof of concept to motivate some further research activity, but sometimes they are fit for purpose, but it is not the role of the research lab to take them into a development phase. There is a huge gap here between research and practice that means that many valuable research projects never get tested outside of small scale studies, but that is the subject worthy of more space than I have here.

Fourth, and finally for now, there is research that has a focus upon a particular technology, Video, Integrated Learning Systems, or Learning Platforms, for example. The currency of this research is more limited to the particular technology in question and therefore much more likely to go out of date. Although it has to be said that such research can also provide more generalisable findings: such as that about Integrated Learning Systems, which highlighted the impact of a learner’s context upon the efficacy or not of the technology, in this instance Integrated Learning System.

Research may be square, but most of it is not archaic. Squareness is good, but its beauty is currently only appreciated by a small community and that community needs to find better ways to get the word out to the wider world. At the same time that wider world has something valuable to contribute in the form of innovative practice and communities of people who use technologies in innovative ways and record their experiences in blogs, tweets and forums. Us research squares could do well to pay more attention to what this research in action has to contribute.

Still off my trolley? Reflections on technology to refresh the parts other forms of learning cannot reach

After a few days of contemplation I remain convinced about the potential of Augmented Reality to support learning,  particularly when combined with a range of other technologies through mobile phones, and embedded devices, for example.

Our own research has demonstrated that AR has the potential to promote learning and to motivate children to engage with learning activities. There is evidence that specific skills can be improved, that learners are motivated and challenged through  interactive problem solving activities and that AR can offer many opportunities for collaboration. Previous research projects, some of them quite old now, have also shown the potential of AR to enhance the presentation of knowledge across a range of real-world settings and the creation of engaging ways of interacting with simulations: demonstrating the broad potential of this technology across a spectrum of learning activities. See for example, Ambient Wood, Savannah, Environmental Detectives and there are more general lessons to be learned from studies with Ubiquitous. Augmented.Reality User Interfaces.

It is clear that to be effective, developers of AR for learning will  need a rich skill set in order to create applications that offer the necessary learner control, challenging interactivity and experience coherence. As previously noted this seems like a perfect task for participatory design with young people being an integral part of designing their own current and future technology rich learning experiences.