Learning is what?

This past week or so I have been wondering what I am talking about when I refer to learning. I have a simple, succinct definition of teaching that I stick to, and it has served me well: Teaching is fostering learning.

However, what is learning? I read about simple slugs with only a few neurons learning, and I think, that’s not

Slug (Photo credit: Michael of Scott)

what I am fostering when I am teaching. At least I don’t think that is what I am fostering. I read about robots learning to do various tasks and wonder if that kind of learning would result from my teaching? I read about organisations learning, and wonder if my teaching fosters that?

Psychologists have identified two broad categories of knowledge, and there has been extensive studies done working out the differences between the two: procedural knowledge (knowing how) and declarative knowledge (knowing what). A third type of knowledge has emerged in recent years that has not been as extensively studied: conceptual knowledge (knowing why). The conceptual knowledge can come in a couple of varieties, shallow knowledge (oh, that’s why), and deep knowledge (I understand why).

The first two types on knowledge (procedural and declarative) come with associated learning (procedural learning and declarative learning). Studies surrounding conceptual learning has been limited to the ability to categorise items – not exactly the knowing why that I am interested in, however, there must be a learning that leads to both shallow and deep conceptual knowledge.

With all of these different types of knowledge and learning, what exactly is it that we talk about when we talk about learning in higher education? What is it that businesses are asking for when they say that students haven’t learned? When we are asked to focus on skills, what type of learning is being referred to? When we hear that students graduate, but can’t think, what are they talking about? When we look at connectivism as a learning theory, what kind of learning is are we talking about?

I know that when I am talking about my teaching, I am talking about conceptual learning for my senior level psychology in education module, with procedural learning in my statistics class (with a bit of conceptual learning thrown in) as I equip my students with the necessary tools to study psychology.

I think there a couple of blogs that arise from different perspectives on exactly what learning is about: students’, employers’, educators’, and theorists’.


Social Learning in University

“In the age of information abundance, networking and social learning are critical skills that need to be mastered for a person to move from labor to talent. As Harold Jarche wrote this morning, “…social business is organizational survival, because enterprises must be able to share knowledge quicker than before.“. His observations define some of the changes that have arisen because of the emergence of information abundance. The more that low value work is automated and outsourced, the more important it is for people to be able to develop talent and move into high value, creative jobs. These type of jobs require more high level skills than ever before. Critical thinking, creativity, synthesis – all these buzzwords that are favourites in HE assessment – we really need to find ways to effectively teach them. In addition, we need to teach people the skill of social networking.

Steven Hart pointed out the obvious when he recently said that “Ever since we were wandering around the savannah, showing things to one another and learning from each other how to survive we’ve been learning socially.” He is right that we have and do all practise social learning, however, how do we optimise the necessary skills? How do we move from a university education being a solo endeavour to fostering social learning.

I’m not talking about group work, or even group assignments. There is a well developed area of study surrounding working in groups, the roles assumed, and how things are accomplished. Social learning is not group work – although social learning can take place in a group.

I’m talking about real social learning. The kind of learning that takes place when I sit down at my computer and read through 15 or 20 blogs in the morning, and then think about what has been written. I then swish it around in my head (good thing there’s lots of space), and see what comes of it. I think about my own approach to the subject of learning in the age of information abundance, and how that fits with social business, learning 3.0, MOOCs and anything else that has been written about that day. After that, I sit down and record my thoughts for you to read and look for your view on my thinking, either in the way of comments or in what you are writing. And then I do it all again tomorrow. That’s my view of social learning (it also includes talking to colleagues, giving talks, and going to seminars/workshops/conferences).

How can I foster that kind of activity with my students? Are 12 weeks enough time to build up a community of practice that will allow for that kind of activity? What is the assessment that will satisfy the system? What about the learning outcomes, the weightings, the deadlines – all the things that ensure that learning is a solo endeavour? Building up a formal social learning network (kind of an oxymoron) is what I need to figure out how to do. Attaching some kind of metric to the outcomes will be necessary. Interesting problem.

Qualifications R US!

Why are we here? I’m asking this from a students’ perspective. The two reasons set out as fundamental reasons for entering a HE institution are to learn or to get an education (a degree). Gibbs (2006) says that “assessment frames learning, creates learning activity and orients all aspects of learning behaviour.” From a student’s perspective, the grades and qualifications are the primary drivers in education today. Joughin (2009) would argue that this is but a small part of the story, however, in work of my own (Martin & Beverley, 2006), I found that significantly more than half the students were in university for career purposes, and fewer than 25% were there simply to learn (there was a significant minority there to understand themselves). It is difficult to dismiss the drive for qualifications (as hyped by governments, businesses and universities) as a significant reason that the majority of our students enter higher education.

When qualifications become a primary drive, learning becomes an obstacle to overcome to reach a goal rather than an end in and of itself. Learning becomes a secondary activity. Students attend university for a list of reasons (social life, great fun and activities, living in halls, sports, getting away from home – and of course getting a qualification) with learning wrapped up in the qualification part. As a package, this is the student experience. Universities exist to provide the student experience. Roger Shank points out that “Most students take four or five courses at a time as full time students at a university. While they are doing this they play football or work for the student newspaper, or maybe even hold down a real job. Plus there a great many social events to attend, in addition to the constant action of dormitory life. In the life of your average college student, a lecture course is something to be barely paid attention to at best, or slept through at worst. The fact that a friend can make a video recording of them for you means you can skip them all together.”

The reason I am bemoaning this emphasis away from teaching and toward the student experience (and obtaining qualifications) is because this is what the majority of our stakeholders want. As far as students are concerned, qualifications are the priority for the university stakeholders. Students want qualifications. Businesses want graduates with qualifications (although they are beginning to make unsettling noises about skills). Governments want prestigious research monuments (as a non-university person to name the top three institutions in a different country) and a place for students to obtain qualifications. Universities want to have world-class research infrastructure, and are in the qualification business to pay for it. Hence, Qualifications R US!

The recent flurry of excitement in the on-line education world is really about qualifications and funding. The xMOOCs being trotted out are transparent marketing tools. The massive funding available through venture capitalists is about selling qualifications. Bill Gates is supporting making qualifications available to more students.

Why is this important. Because I wonder if those of us who care about learning and higher education are existing is an ivory tower. Just because we are excited about new models of real learning that information abundance and digitisation has made possible, is there anyone out there (other than ourselves) who really cares? Is there anyone interested in real learning opportunities? For many years, the world of education has managed to ignore most of the research about how people think and learn, and they are the people who should care. I know that my students get very excited about what we do in my classes in using connectionist theories and information abundance to learn in a fundamentally different way from what they have experienced in other classes, but these are a self selected subset of the students making up about 20% of our student population. Whenever I have tried to introduce initiatives in compulsory classes that include the other 80%, I face massive resistance from the students. They want lectures, podcasts of lectures, and essay and a final exam. They want the most passive route to a qualification that they can get, and aren’t about to let real learning opportunities get in the way.


Gibbs, G. (2006). How assessment frames student learning. In Bryan, C., & Clegg, K. (Eds.), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (pp 23 – 36). London: Routledge.

Joughin, G. (2006). Assessment, learning and judgement in higher education: A critical review. In Joughin, G. (Ed.), Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education (pp 13 – 28). London: Springer.

Martin, J. & Beverley, M. (2006). Learning Styles and Student Performance in Psychology. Plat Conference, York.

Learning 3.0 fear

I was reading Steve Weeler’s blog entry on Learning 3.0, and really enjoyed the insights and comments that it has generated. I was going to comment, but decided I needed to expand on my thinking a bit to get my point across. In October, I blogged on the difference between talent and labor and the impact this has on learning. My fear is that Learning 3.0 will multiply and legitimise labor type learning.

I think Steve is right when he says that “the social web… will become more ‘intelligent’, and will recommend to its users the best ways to find what they are looking for. It will also recommend things that users don’t know they need yet, predicting their ‘needs’ based on their previous behaviour and choices…“. This is happening already, to a greater or lesser degree, in many aspects of our online lives. We get recommendations for books, music and films based on our past purchases and friends recommendations. As the recommendations become better, we blindly accept what the algorithm is telling us. Fewer numbers of movies, books and music end up being watched/read/listened to by greater and greater numbers of people. We haven outsourced our choices.

The fear that I have is that as Learning 3.0 develops, it will be easy for talent and curiosity to shrivel up and become a smaller and smaller part of the world for to many people. Because our brains are conservative organs (don’t want to waste processing power), we are more and more willing to rely on the brain tools that are available to us to offload anything that can be taken care of by an algorithm. We rarely (if ever) check that the algorithm is right, because it is good enough. The long tail of everything else that is available for us to watch/read/listen to, is accessed by fewer and fewer of us. I’m afraid that the same thing will happen to ideas as Learning 3.0 becomes more pervasive.

I am already seeing this in the work of my students. I give them the freedom to bring back what they want, and most of the ideas come from the first page of a google search. The references accessed for writing essays are the most frequently accessed references. The ideas are the ones easiest to find in Wikipedia. As Learning 3.0 refines the suggestions we receive,w e are all going to end up looking at and thinking about the same ideas.

In a different post, Alec Couros wrote about bananas (it really is a good post), and how he was concerned that quick and easy internet access can quash curiosity. Although several commentators argued that access to the answers can enhance curiosity, I worry that the norm is for curiosity to be dampened. I fear that Web 3.0 will provide us with too many easy answers. Web 3.0 learning will enhance learning for algorithmic labor in the many. While enabling the learning for talent as well, learning for talent is difficult and if there is an easier way, I’m afraid it will turn out the way most often trodden.

Absurdity of Numbers

After my post on content yesterday, I got to thinking about the concept of information explosion that I was writing about. Talk about a lack of critical thinking.

First – information is not the same of knowledge. What I started out writing about was the doubling of knowledge.

Knowledge will make you free
Photo credit: tellatic

What we have ended up with is the doubling of information. Information becomes useful as it helps us to understand the world around us. That is when information changes and becomes knowledge. The information that is being accumulated at an incomprehensible rate today largely remains information and fails to become knowledge – it does not help us understand the world around us, and is just information.

Second, the rate of information acquisition in the world can’t be as great as has been forecast, and is not sustainable. Even at the linear rate I chose as the premise of my arguments, very shortly we begin to double information at an impossible rate. As an example, let me use pieces of music – songs.

If there were five songs in 1965 (I know there were more, but let’s just pretend), and if the number of songs were to multiply at the rate that the information explosion rate would have us believe, we would have in the range of 5.25 million songs today – hardly unbelievable in anyone’s world. However, as the rate of information doubling continues, even at the linear rate used in yesterdays blog, by 2015 we are experiencing two doublings of information per year and five doublings per year by 2020. I know there will be some out there who are saying Yes! Yes! Bring on the Singularity! (that’s when people use telepathy and pigs fly). However, going back to our songs, if the rate of information explosion is applied to music, by the beginning of 2021 (January 2021) we will have 22 trillion songs.

Bars 1–7 of John Philip Sousa' Washington Post...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

There are still some of you who are asking why this might be unbelievable. Well, if we look at March of 2021 (I’m not certain of which day in March), we will have 44 trillion songs produced, as the rate of information doubling is down to 2 point something months. I can see some of you with scrunched up faces and squinted eyes saying Well, that is possible until you think through the logistics. What this means is that with a projected populatioon of 7.5 billion people, we would have to produce 5866 songs per man, woman, and child during the January to March period of 2021. I’m not that great at producing any songs, and to come up with 5866 during that two month period will take some doing.

The next thing that I know will come up is the fact that computers can now write music, and they will get better and better as time goes on. What that really means is that computers will be able to generate patterns of notes and even be able to generate pleasing patterns of notes tailored to individual tastes – however, it remains information until someone chooses to listen to it and incorporate it into their lives. I listen to music all the time, but I’m not sure about wanting to hear 5866 new songs, many of which will have to be computer generated, between January and March 2021.

This leads me back to my first point above – the production of information does not mean the production of knowledge. I think that in many ways, we are already well down this pathway already. Tens of thousands of blog entries are written daily, most of which are never to be read by anyone but the writer. Thousands of journal articles are produced weekly, most of which are never read by anyone other than the reviewers who are involved in the game of producing more journal articles. Thousands of PhDs are awarded monthly, most of which are so specific that they interest only the person who produced the work (and then only for the first two years of study – most of us hate their

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November ...
John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308)

PhD work by the time we are finished). As an example, there is the work referred to by Mark C. Taylor where a colleague “boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations”. Is this knowledge or information? Who, besides the supervisor and the poor examiners who have to judge the thing, are ever going to read it? How does this help me understand the world around me?

This is why we need to re-examine what we are doing in HE. We are supposed to be about knowledge and understanding. The storehouse of wisdom and the place to ask WHY. With the explosion of information, and our complicity in becoming qualifications factories, we risk becoming irrelevant and empty institutions that are integral to the functioning of the brave new world we are entering.

Content! Content! Content!… It is all about the Content stupid!

This is the mantra that is played out in thousands of curriculum planning and departmental developmental meetings in HE all across the world. For historical reasons, content is all there is.

So where is this taking us? I had a trawl through the knowledge doubling estimates that are out there, using the year 1CE as a starting place, and the doubling goes something like this:

Doubling Start Date Finish Date
1 1Ce 1500
2 1500 1750
3 1750 1900
4 1900 1950
5 1950 1960
6 1960 1965

After 1965, the estimates kind of mush together ranging from estimates of every five years (indicating another nine doublings), to an increase that has us doubling every 11 months in 2010. If the increase to doubling every 11 months is linear (which it is not), we get a slope of -1.08 that gives us a further 19 doublings since 1965 as the table below shows (in approximations):

Doubling Start Date Finish Date
7 1965 1968
8 1968 1972
9 1972 1976
10 1976 1979
11 1979 1983
12 1983 1986
13 1986 1989
14 1989 1992
15 1992 1994
16 1994 1996
17 1996 1998
18 1998 2000
19 2000 2002
20 2002 2003
21 2003 2005
22 2005 2007
23 2007 2008
24 2008 2010
25 2010 2011

That’s a lot of knowledge. The content for a five minute lecture segment from 1965 expanded to become a 90 minute lecture by 1979, and could fill an entire 15 week course by 1990. To fully explore the 1965 five minutes of content today would fill a lecture lasting five years – non stop.

Not all areas of knowledge have expanded at this rate, but even so, some areas might have.

Given that this information is now (more or less) freely available, why do we insist on trying to cover it in our teaching? How can we hope to find published textbooks that can give us an up to date picture of a field of study?

And yet, content is the heart of everything we do. I was going over some reflective practise for a HE teaching qualification recently, and shook my head as the lecturer lamented the fact that he was having difficulty finding a textbook that he could teach from because the textbooks are all out of date. He also wondered about how he could teach when he knew that in his particular field, the content he was teaching would be out of date before the students graduate. Another colleague was voicing her frustration about questions being asked in a lecture because it meant that she couldn’t get through her planned content. In the same conversation someone else lamented that she was expected to write a single piece of assessment that would cover the content of her entire module – an impossible task given how much content she was teaching.

If we are to keep up with the explosion of information, we need to both double the text on our powerpoint slides (which regularly happens), and speak twice as fast. This will take care of this years information growth. Questions are out, and curriculum planning means we need to offer double the modules in the next academic year, which will take care of next years information growth. After that, we will have to see. I guess I better organise some meetings so we can get this going and not fall behind our sister institutions.