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A thought on the e-teaching/learning relationship

July 1, 2011

While reading a number of texts on e-learning, an idea keeps coming back every once in a while: “learning is greatly enhanced when it is anchored in authentic and meaningful activities”.  This kind of statement is usually then followed by a long list of references to support the claim.  Don’t get me wrong, I greatly respect many of the authors usually listed.

The problem with the statement is simply that it is positioned from a traditional teaching perspective, and a teaching perspective that “was” based in memorisation but that this can be “enhanced” by some activity.  Realizing that memorisation is insufficient and does not necessarily bring understanding also entails that simply reading or hearing about something will not be as good as actively doing something “authentic”.  If, on the other hand, we consider learning to be a process of accommodation and assimilation, it is a process that occurs within the cognition of the learning being as it interacts with perceptions of the external world, or the “authentic”.

If we insist on looking at it from the teaching perspective, then let’s examine the facilitation of the linking between the perceived component and the assimilation/accommodation process. This is the role of “analogy”: the highlighting of the similarities between the “new” perceptual experience and the “known” past experience in memory. Then follows the analysis of the differences between the two to accommodate the new and the known so they will still “fit” together.  On their own, “facts” in memory get you nowhere if they are not connected in a well-organised cognitive structure. It is in the ontological connections that the potential for reuse resides. Without these connections, these memory bits merely occupy space and will fade rapidly as they will not be repurposed.

Here is where the teacher-learner interaction can help: by prompting this highlighting of the similarities and analysis of differences, not by simply stating “facts”…  The interaction between learners can also generate different opportunities to call upon a greater number of possible analogies.  This would also suggest that any teaching agent should also be, first and foremost, a learning agent.

How does this work in e-learning or online learning, or mobile learning?

As digital technology offers us the opportunity to interact with the “outside world” in a modified and sometimes enhanced manner, the possibilities are also modified – but the role of “analogy” remains.   This means that learning online is a process where the learner, is using the technology to:

  1. Facilitate or enhance the communications between learning agents: Social media, and the “Social Web” combined with the mobile generation of connectedness makes it possible to enhance these communications from anywhere anytime – therefore changing the concept of where and when as well as the who you ask or speak to about anything.
  2. Facilitate or enhance the access to parts of the “external” world: we can access documents in any form from anywhere – the concepts of “information access” are being completely rewritten with the idea of a “Semantic web”.  You no longer have to go looking for information, “it” can come to you, in a constant stream of highly targeted, multimedia documents, specifically selected and tailored for your individual or personal needs and wants.
  3. Facilitate or enhance the creation of “analogies”: the process of highlighting of the similarities and analysis of differences between the new and the known is now the subject of developments of an entire class of technological developments around the concept of “augmented reality” on mobile devices.  The potential for these kinds of technologies, is just being explored as learning tools, as these actually allow the real-time linking between access to live, recognisable objects, people and surroundings, and additional information, either automatically computed and generated or pulled from cloud-based databases.  The known and the new.

I would therefore reword the initial statement: “learning is (almost) impossible in the absence of interaction with an external world – with or without digital technology”.

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