Virtual/Real/Virtual (3)

(This is the third and final part of a presentation to DIGIFEST in Toronto in late October of 2011)

"An Ad Hoc Committee of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching
(NARST) stated in 2003 that there are three “important characteristics of learning… First, learning is a personal process, second, it is contextualized, and third, it takes time…Learning occurs when people reconstruct meaning and understanding; a different way of thinking, perhaps, or a different way of responding to an idea or event. Learning that occurs today depends on yesterday’s learning and is the foundation for tomorrow’s learning. The cumulative, iterative process of learning emphasizes the importance of time.”. Our own research in this area reinforces the importance of iteration." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

Learning takes time and follows many pathways. A good teacher can create a map with destinations, but the routes have to be developed by the students. Those routes may meander for a while because the iterative process is not the same for everyone. Knowledge and information can be shared along the way. Wisdoms can be imparted through discussion and interaction, but these travels will always be characterized by the richness of the unexpected sometimes colliding with the expectations of teachers and other times producing engaged and engaging dialogue.

The tyranny of schedules in schools is that they artificially 'locate' learning at a time and place that may not be convenient for everyone. The schedule cannot account for iterative processes because it generates a linear type of learning that goes against the essence of learning experiences. We have created schools where the mapping from experience to learning is not fluid enough to match the needs of a new generation.

Iteration, non-linearity, informal learning. These are all characteristics of networked environments which by their very nature encourage what has been achieved by the Khan Academy for example. Here is one individual without any resources other than his own skills and intelligence, who decided to create a learning environment through video demonstrations. He has 2600 hundred courses up at this site and receives thousands of learners every day. Students use the site to move at their own pace. Khan is pointing to something very important. Courses and their contents can now be customized to the needs of learners and learners can choose when and where to learn. 

"To summarise: learning rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. It is cumulative, emerging through diverse experiences. It is a dynamic, never-ending, and holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. Much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derives from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

So, it seems clear to me that the digital age is emphatically about informality — learning through multiple means in multiple ways and in many different contexts. A key question remains. Can all of this informality be structured? Should it be? How can the dots be connected between learning that is driven by personal concerns and areas like mathematics and writing that need some formality in order to be mastered? Must all learning be governed by choice? Or are there certain basic subjects that require mastery through more formal strategies?

I made the point earlier that digital experiences encourage and support the creation of imaginary environments and imaginary connections. This is not a pejorative comment. Rather, what is exciting about these informal spaces for learning is that they are so imaginative, so full and rich with many choices and many possible avenues of exploration. Informal learning then combines with imaginative projection to allow learners and the public to engage with their ideas in many different ways. The challenge for schools is how to frame and harness these various and sometimes different learning strategies. Teachers need to be as adept as learners in a new and engaged multi-disciplinary ecosystem.

Epilogue (The 21st Century Student)

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools from Twitter to Facebook to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto YouTube.

He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Smart phones are expensive, but he finds the money and uses his phone constantly. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications and learning to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence.

He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications.

So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum will lead to connectivity and interaction and to new forms of learning and knowledge acquisition.

Part 1

Part 2