8 Oct 2007

E-learning: from hard to easy to hard

Learning used to be very hard. In a lot of places in this world it still is. After you made it to school, which could well take several hours, you have to stay awake even though you already were since 4 a.m. Teaching often occurs in a language quite unlike your own. Different accents, pronunciation or a different language altogether, it's all very common.
Even in my own country, up until 50 years ago the majority had to take its education in the language of one of the minorities. It should come as no wonder this kind of stifled development of this majority and led to numerous problems, one of which is a still existing feeling of inadequacy among its members. And I should warn you that this group has since long become the major economic as well as cultural reference point in the country. Only in recent years has the suppressing minority woken up to the fact that it is wise to learn some of the language of the majority in my country.
But, as this shows, I digress. After going to the classroom and learning all this very valuable and interesting knowledge, all was not well. The learned had to be put to work. And by this I mean both the knowledge and the person. And as educated people tend to get better jobs where they can use the acquired wisdom, this has always been a sure way of socially upward movement - up to a certain point, on which I will elaborate later.
In the 1960's a small elite of citizens climbed the social ladder for the first time in recent Western history. Since I am not a historian and also don't know about other periods when this type of event occured, I guess it was unique. It was a very revolutionary activity which was the result of years of social struggle achieved by the social-democratic and communist tendencies in the West.
They had to overcome the European language barriers, the corporatism of the higher classes and their own cultural background. Those who achieved this hard ordeal, were convinced that for their struggle to succeed, the education system had to become more democratic. This means very specifically that access to education had to become guaranteed and progress through the school had to be detached from cultural and hereditary background. the first was done by heightening the compulsory schooling age to first 16, then 18. The latter was never reached. Steps were made in the right direction but the corporative organizations were and are very reluctant to give up their natural born power in society. And, of course, men were unwilling to yield to women.
So those with better educations now started working and moving up the social ladder. Two systems held them back. One is the glass ceiling, the other is fear. These are well known phenomena and I will not talk about them here. Just ask any Muslim if they know about fear and they will tell you about it. Don't use the word racism as this is just fear-induced behavior. Ask any woman about the glass ceiling and she will say what she experienced. Don't use sexism as this is also about fear of becoming irrelevant.

Thern, all of a sudden, there was so much learning going on in the 1980's and 1990's that learning had become easy. There have never been more books, experts and public information about learning as there have been in the last twenty years. The yuppies came and they were convinced learning, just like everything else, was easy, though still not much fun. What they figured out is that even though learning wasn't necessarily fun, the same tools could be used for fun things. I'm talking about computers and learning via computers or e-learning.
As a life-long learner I have worked with computers since age 14. I owned my first at 16, second at 20 and third, fourth etc. up till now, when I use my 4 computers alternatively. I lost count of all the computers I've used and they go well into the hundreds. And I'm not exaggerating, I tried to count them and lost track at 700.

And guess what? Every single one of them was useful and has been used for learning, by me. Not all were fun, though. Let me try to give some examples. The first one, an Apple II (in secondary school) taught me how to draw in colour by mixing coloured planes. The second one, clone IBM PC, showed me how it would not keep anything in memory when switched off. I learned a valuable lesson about electronics. After several others in school, at friends places, I used an Amiga which has learned me probably 10% of what I know today. I got hold of the Internet when it was still Usenet. Then there are hundreds and hundreds of computers, each teaching me something about themselves and the world. In China, I learned to use the Internet in Chinese in several internetcafés. I learned some Chinese words on my computer before going there.

So after this personal biographical history class (What have you learned?) I know that learning has never been easier.

I'll repeat it: learning is easy. By this I mean using the tools for learning has become easy. Most people can click a mouse, while pointing the thing may still be a challenge to some. The combination of internet and computing has brought a wealth of information to our homes, this is certainly not new. To acquire knowledge, we only have to use the available information. Grab it, digest it, arrange it.

So how come I've managed to go back to hard in my title? Well, that's because of the role of the teacher. When I grew up, the teacher claimed he or she knew everything we could learn. It was a very comforting world, especially with the Russians on our doorstep (but not inside the house because our intelligence forces kept them out).
Now we know the truth is not as simple. We know from our plentiful sources that a supply of information is not enough to assure us knowledge. From all of the available information, I know that the communists were harmless, murdering bastards, who failed economically while shooting capsules into space with technology that has until today never been bettered, all the while reading the most refined philosophical treatises and sitting on the most advanced designs in cars everybody in the Western world is now regarding as the most sought for object that doesn't drive and was never owned by any of the people that built them in terrible conditions and inhospitable factories which now leave behind wastelands which will remain deadly for decades to come.
You think I'm exaggerating? It's all checked and verified on the Net. The key word here is obviously complexity.

When information is written into knowledge, people transmogrify it. They transform it while adding some of their own insight, history, opinion. And if you already knew what I meant by transmogrify, this means I have not been telling much news. The information after transformation becomes more interesting to me while apparently losing none of its verity. It still seems to contain the same informational truths as before I started editing it. I could add some of my new knowledge to a wiki and as long as others don't call me a liar, my version of what I gathered is verifiably truthful.

While we lose the authorities (the authors until the early sixties) we gain a multitude in which everyone is looking for a personal aspect to internalize the mass of information while still maintaining the belief that any truth is first and foremost personal. Personal as in attributable to me or somebody else as a person. And so we make our own unique truth while we look for others to tell us our truth is a more interesting one than the one next door. As Wired wrote in "Capturing Eyeballs", getting others to regard you as someone worth looking for becomes the highest value.

But when you're 14, and are used to computers as being all around you since age 2, parents lose focus as primary eyeball catchers and information agents. Then you are faced with the biggest challenge in your life: Where shall I look for my knowledge? What shall I learn and how high will I value it? And how volatile will I allow it to be?

And that, undoubtedly, is hard.

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