Wednesday, July 06, 2005

New Basics of IT

Stephen Downes posted quite an article on his blog and commented on at elearnspace and Seblogging. Most of it talks about a variety of theories that impact instructional design (including transactional distance - one of my areas of interest). But the last part of the article is a little more interesting for me (and seems to be the crux of the article): What online learning does is not merely to communicate information but to create such a network [of distributed knowledge]. Prior to the advent of online learning, all such networks were local - they were, even in instances of distance learning, physically constrained. But with online learning comes not only a much wider, more diverse network, but also the idea that (a) the network may be based on non-physical (or emergent) properties, (b) that the individual may choose to belong to or not belong to a network, and (c) that an individual may assume multiple identities or memberships in multiple networks. The theory of distributed representation has a profound implication for pedagogy, as it suggests that learning (and teaching, such as it is) is not a process of communication, but rather, a process of immersion. Put loosely, it suggests the idea of teaching not by telling or even demonstrating but rather through the creation (or identification) of an environment into which a learner may be immersed. Indeed, pushed further (as the concept should be) it suggests that the traditional distinction between teaching and practice ought to be collapsed, that there is no distinction in kind between, say, being a 'practicing physicist' and 'practising being a physicist'. Learning to be a physicist is to place oneself inside the community of practice (as Etienne Wenger would say), to learn as if through osmosis how to solve 'the problems at the end of the chapter' (as Thomas Kuhn would say). In contemporary learning theory, it involves the design of such environments as games or simulations (Prensky, Papert, Gee, Aldrich) or the explicit immersion of the workplace into the communty (Cross). After all is said and done, it seems that the article suggests that the new IT designs should really look into the social elements as well as paideia (life long learning) to succeed in a world that is becoming increasingly saturated with information. One of the things that this article suggests and understands (as it seems to me) is that one person does not and effectively cannot know everything there is to know about any given topic anymore. At best individuals can know the essentials that allow one group of knowledge holders to communicate with others. Designing for this environment is certainly going to be a challenge, but looking at MUDs/MMORPGs there may be an answer in how quests are designed. These quests are designed so that a group of specialized content experts can get together to solve a problem. This is (or may be) another area where games are leading instructional design (as Downes mentions in his last sentence).