Learning in the Information Age

Challenges of the Information Age

The shift in the role of the citizen from that of industrial age “factory fodder” to empowered individual brings unprecedented potential and opportunity, but it also bestows greater responsibility. It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but now we all have access to considerably more than a little. This suggests the need for appropriate learning opportunities to be accessible to all.

For many the case of having access to insufficient information has been replaced by the new problem of having access to an overwhelming amount of information, so much so that it can be almost impossible to find what we need from the morass of irrelevance clogging the metaphorical superhighway. This has been termed “information overload”. The ease with which anyone from college professor to disturbed adolescent may publish “information” demands a high degree of discernment on the part of the seeker.

This paper has thus far considered the impact of the information age on humanity as a whole. In technologically sophisticated countries it is now reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the population will have some form of access to information and communication technology. However, it is sobering to reflect that some 90% of the world’s population does not have Internet access, based upon figures by Global Reach [http://www.glreach.com/], September 2002. These tend to be the people of the world’s least developed countries. For them, far from being a liberating and empowering force, technology threatens to exacerbate their disadvantage by further excluding them from the information-centred world.

What is Learning?

Learning may be defined as the process of gaining knowledge, skills or experience. Meaningful learning is that which equips the learner to apply his/her newly acquired abilities in authentic and novel situations.

We all learn throughout our lives as a result of our experiences and our reflections upon them. However, this paper is concerned only with learning as a process that has been consciously chosen by the learner and/or educator.

Learning is an active process. Learning cannot occur without the involvement of the learner. The best educators are those that most successfully create the conditions under which learning may take place.

People learn for a variety of reasons. The most basic of which is survival, this is why we learn what’s good to eat and what isn’t and who we can trust. A further reason is societal pressure. In most developed countries the law requires that children receive full time education for a decade or so. Family and peer pressure can also be a powerful motivator. The realisation that increased knowledge and skills lead to a higher status and better-paid job also drives us to learn. And many choose to learn purely out of interest and/or enjoyment.

There are a number of (competing) theories of how learning take place. Additionally, a number of different learning styles have been suggested. Whilst psychology has yet to provide a definitive explanation of the learning process, it seems clear that learning can be of different types, and that different people learn best in different ways.

Learning and Education

The vast quantity of information freely available to anyone seeking it, raises the question of what role education may play in the information age. The following suggests some possible answers:

  • Often, learners are unaware of what it is that they need to learn. Education can guide the learner through the mass of available knowledge towards that which is most appropriate to their particular needs.
  • Whilst children are born naturally curious about their world they might not have the natural desire to acquire the basic literacy, numeracy and other skills essential to modern citizenship. Education can “sell” the advantages of mastering these basics as well as providing a taster of the broad range of fields of human endeavour with a view to enabling the individual to identify those he/she wishes to pursue further.
  • Education can provide feedback on the learner’s progress. It can identify strengths and weaknesses, provide more detailed explanation in the case of difficulty, and provide remedial pathways where appropriate.
  • Reputable educational institutions can provide learners with certification as proof they have attained a certain level of competence in a given discipline.

Learning Theories

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is associated with the approach to learning known as behaviourism. Skinner conducted experiments in which pigeons and rats were taught to obtain food pellets by performing certain actions, eg pecking a lever a certain number of times. Skinner asserted that learning occurs through operant conditioning. This is based upon the idea that organisms operate on their environment. If an action has positive consequences for the organism it is more likely to repeat that action, if the consequences are undesirable then the action is less likely to be repeated. [PageWise, 2002]

Skinner’s approach has been used “to teach mentally retarded and autistic children, … in industry to reduce job accidents, and … in numerous applications in health-related fields.” [PageWise, 2002]. However some kinds of learning are not easily explained by conditioning, eg “those cases where skills are used in a highly flexible way, as in the use of language; … where people do things that lead only to intangible rewards; … where people appear to learn passively by observing others’ actions”. [Tennant, 1997]

Skinner’s 1971 work “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” drew criticism because it appeared to deny the essential human attributes of free will and dignity and declared “man’s actions were nothing more than a set of behaviours that were shaped by his environment, over which he had no control.” [PageWise, 2002]

According to Tennant [1997] the influence of behaviorism on adult education is “most apparent in the literature on behavioural objectives”. Behavioural objectives are formulated using language that refers to observable behaviour only, eg “describes”, “identifies”, “explains”, “predicts”… Criticisms of such predefined objectives include:

  • they are inappropriate for certain types of learning, eg music, drama etc.;
  • they fragment learning into many narrow categories and in so doing fail to address the “big picture”;
  • they are concerned only with the outcomes and not the process of learning;
  • they cannot describe the acquisition of general ideas which are applicable in a variety of contexts;
  • they cannot account for subjective outcomes, eg the development of self-concept;
  • they ignore peripheral learning, ie that which lies beyond the formal syllabus but frequently occurs in any course of study;
  • they do not account for changing learner needs as learning takes place.

The theory of cognitivism was developed in response to observed deficiencies in behaviorism, eg Bandura and Walters [1963] found individuals could produce behaviour without it being reinforced, merely from observing it in others, and this behaviour could appear some time after the initial observation. Cognitivism seeks to understand the internal processing which takes place between stimulus and response.

A key feature of cognitive theory is that of the schema, our internal knowledge structure. The schema concept was described by Piaget in relation to infant and childhood learning, but is also applicable to adults. When we encounter a novel idea we may, if it fits our existing schema, assimilate it into our current understanding. Where it conflicts with what we believe we must change our schema to accommodate the new knowledge. [Hayes, 2002]

A particular challenge to behaviourism came from Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition. Chomsky argued that human beings are endowed with an internal understanding of the fundamental rules of language that allow us to develop language skills far in excess of those which would result purely from environmental conditioning. Gross and McIlveen [1997] give the following evidence supporting Chomsky’s view:

  • language acquisition appears to occur in a culturally universal and invariant sequence of stages;
  • native speakers use language creatively, i.e. they are able to produce sentences of a form they have not previously encountered;
  • children spontaneously use grammar rules they have never heard or been taught;
  • the meaning of a sentence is more than the meaning of its individual words and varies according to context;
    babies as young as two days have been shown (by Eimas) to be able to discriminate between ‘ba’ and ‘pa’ sounds;
  • studies of twins (by Malmstrom and Silva) have shown the existence of private languages intelligible only to the twins, such languages share certain features with ordinary languages.

Knowles (1913-97) differentiated between the needs of adult learners and juveniles and used the term andragogy to describe the specific methods which should be employed in the education of adults. Smith [1996] summarizes Knowles’ andragogy thus:

  • The adult learner moves towards independence and is self-directing. The teacher encourages and nurtures this movement.
  • The learner’s experience is a rich resource for learning. Hence teaching methods include discussion, problem-solving etc.
  • People learn what they need to know, so that learning programmes are organized around life application.
  • Learning experiences should be based around experiences, since people are performance centred in their learning.

Andragogy requires that adult learners be involved in the identification of their learning needs and the planning of how those needs are satisfied. Learning should be an active rather than a passive process. Adult learning is most effective when concerned with solving problems that have relevance to the learner’s everyday experience.

Constructivism asserts that people construct their own individual mental models of the world in order to make sense of their experiences. Learning is the process of adding to or refining this mental model. The key to effective learning is thus to involve the learner as actively as possible in the learning process.

On Purpose Associates [Constructivism] describes how constructivism impacts on learning:

  • There is no standardized curriculum. Curricula are customized to the students’ prior knowledge, and hands-on problem solving is emphasized.
  • Educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students.
  • Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyse, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
  • Assessment is part of the learning process and students play a larger role in judging their own progress. There are no grades or standardized testing.

Significant proponents of the constructivist approach include Bruner and Jonassen.

Kearsley [Constructivist Theory (J. Bruner)] identifies three key principles arising from Bruner’s work:

  • Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
  • Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (this may be achieved by “spiral organization”, in which the same concepts are revisited multiple times with greater detail and complexity being added with each treatment).
  • Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and/or fill in the gaps (the learner should be encouraged to go beyond the information given)

The importance of dialogue is stressed by Jonassen, quoted by Mergel [1998], who states “Constructivists … believe that much of reality is shared through a process of social negotiation…”

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One comment on “Learning in the Information Age
  1. Erlinda says:

    Normally I do not learn article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me tto take a look at and do it!
    Your writing style has beedn surprised me. Thanks, quite great post.

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