Sunday, May 15, 2011

Learning locally

I’m a fan of online learning and learning via the Internet. The treasury of knowledge that resides in “the cloud” magically captured and reproduced via a series of “1” and “0” is simply staggering. Despite a lifetime of reverence to the printed page I have become an enthusiastic user of electronic learning. If you know what you are looking for and know how to ask the right questions you can discover basically any thing you want on the Internet in less time than it takes for your coffee to cool.

I am an neophyte member of any number of electronic communities - some incredibly useful and which provide me with all sorts of useful information and educational techniques. I have a secret passion for mathematics education - and am able to access rich information from all around the planet. Such is my involvement in the online community that I considered letting my membership of my state mathematical association lapse - after all, I can access more information more easily on the web; why should I continue with an organisational structure with procedures older than me?

I decided to attend the annual conference and then retreat to my laptop for ideas when I need them. I made the trip to the state capital and was staying with relatives. I noticed that my relatives had the same brand of TV that I do - but that it was tuned differently. It did not have an annoying “beep” every time I pressed a button, nor did it show a host of “empty” channels. It took perhaps a minute for my relative to show me how to retune my TV to remove these features.

My point is that this learning, as simple as it was, is unlikely to have taken place online. I have been frustrated with the “beep” and empty channels for months - but I had been unable to find a solution (I had tried to find one via the manual with no success). Sometimes we can learn things of personal significance in the most unanticipated places...from people.

I was reminded of the infamous press conference by Donald Runsfeld in which he spoke about “unknown unknowns”. As tortured as his terminology was he made a sound point - sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. The Internet is brilliant for discovering what you want to find out - or, as Runsfeld would put it, “known unknowns”. However, for that incidental knowledge, for those happy productive coincidences, it seems that we need to remember the “social” in “social constructivist” learning.

It’s been said better before by environmental group Greenpeace - “Think global - act local.”

(And yes, the conference had some gems too - I’ll be continuing my membership.)

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