The Disconnection in Learning in a Structured Environment

This is a Friday Bonus Article

For a couple of years now I've been thinking about how learning happens and how it happened and continues to happen for myself. Why would I contemplate such a topic? For the single reason that the amount of knowledge is expanding at a logarithmic rate and I'm fascinated in the discoveries of others. Smattering bits of knowledge from one area seems to spark new ideas in me about what I'm more interested in and a different perspective is often revealing to me. It reveals how very narrow my vision about a singular issue is, when it needs to be more broad in every respect. Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of social anthropology at Kansas State University studies social issues and uses the vast resources on the internet to bring relevance to the study of anthropology to his students in classes with enrollment of over 400 students. A daunting task to find ways to engage students in a way that they activey engage with anthropology.

The following Lecture was delivered in the UK at a conference put on by the Association of Learning Technology in 2009. Professor Wesch delivered this talk as the opening keynote address for the conference. I think you will find plenty in the talk to encourage thought provoking reflection about learning, our current educational environment, the use of the internet for positive change and how the internet shapes our lives and the activities we engage in. Even the idea that the internet may encourage a new level of creativity, not seen in our culture since the days of learning a craft to support yourself. So enjoy the hour of Michael's address and we'll follow up with a few ideas I came away with from the talk.

I'll take a couple of minutes to open a couple of ideas. One is connected with the built environment related to the physical space Michael talks about. First he mentions that the typical 400+ lecture hall just does not encourage participation between students. It is a singular use space, intended to deliver information, not interact with others and information at the same time. The second is that space is not nearly so important to them as the tools they use to build a community of relationships. This is a telling account of the effectiveness of tax and private monies being spent on learning environments which have largely failed to deliver the kind of supportive learning environment which encourages students to engage with the learning they are ostensibly at university to acquire. It's not that they don't like to learn, It is apparently they don't understand what they are supposed to learn. The quintessential conundrum of not knowing what you don't know and not knowing the importance of not knowing the value of what you don't know.

In a later post I'll get to some other interesting points in Michael's address but I wanted to lead with these two points since they probably have the most direct context with previous entries in this String of Connections with the Built Environment. So let's start with the effectiveness of spacial design and the relationships we build into those space and the inherent value, or not we achieve by relying on established norms.

There are several volumes that direct the norms for 'good design' in educational and other environments. They are guides to provide a safe, recognizable solution to educational space. I refer to the Architectural Graphic Standards and the Time Saver Standards. Most architectural design and construction companies have one of both of these tombs in their libraries or they are owned by employees who use them from time to time for various needs. While they are good reference materials, often designers fall back on established formula for solutions. You don't have to think much, just copy and move on. Check off another requirement from the list of needs the client presents you. So lecture halls become the same kind of environment they've been for the past 200 years. A stage for a sage. Come and learn at a particular time and place. Gain knowledge from a recognized sage who holds the keys to knowledge. They talk, you listen, you learn new stuff and eventually there will be a test to see if you did really listen. Perform well and you get a good grade. Such is the design paradigm we are stuck in. I say 'we' since both the educational owner and the designer have colluded to provide the space, thinking it will work, but in reality it isn't working very well at all.

What is so sad about the information being presented in these venues is that an expensive textbook isn't needed at all. All the information presented in most textbooks is available from several sources on the internet. Textbooks have a very tenuous existence in today's electronic age and the didactic delivery of that information is just as perilous. So what is a recognized expert, knowledgeable in an area of study and experience to do? How do they engage the populous coming to learn?

So far the answers are few but the suggestions are many. Open University in the UK is almost entirely online. It is a knowledge delivery environment focused on students engaging in learning at their level and pace, not a pace dictated by an artificial schedule. It seems to work. Open University has been operating since being established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971. It is a recognized accredited institution in Europe and the US. That's no small feat when you consider a large segment of their enrollment is graduate studies from around the world. While OU, as it is often known, is one of the leaders in distance learning, their experiments in collaborative and open coursework is legendary in educational circles. So what does this mean for the physical edifice of our alma maters? Will they go out of business? Will some of the disappear? Are they stubbornly holding on to an out-dated paradigm to be replaced by something not yet considered?

I'm not sure I have answers to any of the above questions. But one thing is for sure, Universities and Colleges are in the midst of significant change. The large subsidies state sponsored institutions have received in the past are just about gone. Research and public services, patent rights and licensing are the basis for survival of many institutions. Some saw the writing on the wall decades ago and have built reserves which make them financially independent and able to select what they will investigate and build programs that more closely meet the needs of our cultures and economy.

My second point is that the relationships that are built during learning become lifelong relationships. That is nothing new, but under the uber-connectedness of the internet today there is the reality of creating collaboration efforts between interested parties without regard to distance or time. It may not be the most convenient, but is is proving to be effective. No longer are the boundaries of departmental requirements important. The importance is the ability of people to communicate on topics of mutual interest and knowledge. New insights from others with seemingly no prior interest have given several fields of study tremendous breakthroughs in the past 10 years. Neurology and brain science has made great strides through the joint studies of biology, physics, mathematics and even music and the arts. Visualization technologies have made great advances by looking at the arts, biology and chemistry and physics. All with significant cross-fertilization of ideas and viewpoints. University learning centers can and I believe should be centers of encouragement for these associations, not the fragmented departmental and collegiate silos of the past. All should have something of interest to bring to the collective table of learning to assist others to see breakthroughs not realized in the myopic centers of thought of traditional departmental learning.

To me this is what is so engaging about what Michael is doing with his social anthropology students. He opens the possibility for them to see the world in a different way through leveraging what they already know to expose what they don't know. Isn't that what we are all doing with learning? Taking one set of experience and a lens of understanding and then looking around the corner at something we have never seen before and making the leaps of understanding from what we already know. When we have someone come along side to open new ways of looking at an issue, new understanding opens up and the peak around the corner isn't based on what we knew before, it's a completely new vision of reality.

That's why I beg, borrow and steal from others. It refocuses the lens of understanding about new ideas, processes and discoveries I'm interested in, revealing new ways of understanding issues I thought might be impossible to understand. It is a way of collaborating to gain new insights. It is why I always remember "Collaboration is the Glue of Success."

This article is a continuing series of articles which are Connections of Strings which have to do with the Built Environment, social issues, public education and the difficult and wicked problems all of live with every day.

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