Monday, September 10, 2012

Myth #2: Digital Learning is Non-Linear

Access: the student can access an array of information

8 Myths About Digital Learning

Myth #1

Digital learning is neither uniquely non-linear nor always non-linear.  In fact, I maintain that digital learning is no different in linearity from other learning activities.  Which is to say: it is generally linear.

Hyperlinking and 1-device access to a multiplicity of information resources (tweets, blogs, nings, feeds, media, pinboards, etc.) provide many options for non-linear information collection, but  does the fact that a student can stumble upon and collect multiple information points create a non-linear learning experience? 

Collection: similar information in the array is linked by category

If you believe the answer is yes, you believe a myth.

Result: information is "in the head" but no new learning is created

Information that is collected is the result of a linear process (see illustration above).  Like a coin or Thomas the Train collection, an information collection serves the purpose of expanding a student's content knowledge by providing multiple instances of like information.  Does this expand deep knowledge, or learning?

Learning, especially deep learning, requires not just collection and ordering (or arraying), but the creation of new connections between unlike and even disparate information points.

This is non-linear learning.

A digital device can not creatively "connect the dots" for the student, but it does provide excellent support for ordering.  The act of collecting a digital array of information about medieval weapons, for example, does not result in learning about medieval weaponry, but it may result in a life-time encyclopedic content knowledge of it.

A box of 3 x 5 cards does the same thing.

The Digital Kit, provided by teachers and described in this post by Bill Ferriter, uses digital tools to provide a path to information collection.  Unfortunately, it does not require that students take part in the gathering of resources. 

Gathered is the key word here - as opposed to collected.  The difference is connotative. One gathers flowers for the purpose of creating an arrangement or display of unlike blooms.  One gathers supporters from different walks of life to achieve an end goal.  Gathering implies a connection or comradeship that is not haphazard, but purposeful, yet also a diversity and spontaneity that is unified by the vision of the gatherer.  

Information gathering is essentially non-linear. 

Deep learning requires curiosity but also the persistent pursuit of a goal.  This goal is often an amorphous, moving target that gains shape as the learner pursues a topic, makes connections, and draws conclusions.  Serendipity plays a significant role.

The fit between the digital environment and this moving target is a good one, but the likelihood that a young learner - or an impatient learner of any age - will not persist in the task is high. In fact, the reality of the classroom is that most students will fix upon a linear path to information - and call this learning.  After all, the most common search strategy is to Google a specific question.  What is more linear than that?

The nature of the learning experience depends entirely upon the inclination of the learner and the guidance he receives.  Left to their own devices, so the speak, students will be as linear as they have always been.  And, sadly, few teachers are skilled in developing curriculum and learning activities that support and spur students to learn otherwise.  Few schools have adopted educational models that support and encourage non-linear learning.

There has been little significant change in this over the last 15 years.

I am concerned about the long-term effects of Myth #2.  Teachers who have little experience with  non-linear learning believe that a digital device by itself provides something new, exciting and important.  They believe that apps proclaiming to be "non-linear" are new, exciting and important.  They are not trained to critically evaluate digital learning or its apps.

At the same time, they develop the same linear learning activities and lessons for this "new" learning experience that were developed on paper a teaching generation ago - linear expectations, linear lessons.

Moreover, they believe that creating a multi-media digital product is a demonstration of non-linear learning and they embed these products as assessments.

Alas, the digital tools available in most classrooms generally serve to present a collection of linear learning bits, rather than a creative product of deep learning - a true gathering of learning.  Peruse student digital products with a critical, rather than an "aha," frame of mind and you will find that they are generally shallow and imitative collections - linear responses to linear expectations masquarading as creative mashups.  The good news is that the best of these can provide other students with non-linear paths to understanding.  The bad news is that few teachers use student products for this purpose. 

Educators need to work harder and differently in the digital world if non-linear is the goal.  Instead of looking to iPads and other digital devices as the change-maker in the learning experience, we should look to teachers and school environments/structures as the change-makers.

1 comment:

  1. Shouldn't we just be happy that somebody, kid or adult is learning something? Preferably learning how to do something, but learning about something is ok too.

    Learning about things is ok. Before you can go off exploring something, you have to have a few facts given to you so that you have a foundation of knowledge, to develop an interest in the thing.

    Example: I tell you how Henry Ford started out, an his assembly line (I know he was not the first or only one). That might get you interested in cars, manufacturing, auto mechanics, writing a biography on Ford, or something.

    But had you not gotten that first story, or those first few facts, you would not have gotten interested in that topic. It does not matter if the person I told you about is Henry Ford, or Napoleon. Obviously, the paths of Napoleon & Ford would divert strongly. But it could be Ford, or Wozniac, or Chrysler...

    Whether the device is electronic or not, does not matter. It is the interest generated. We often put too much emphasis on toys, and too little emphasis on the activity, and the benefits.

    When I was young, I had some truly horrid penguin nuns, who claimed to be teachers. They were going to teach us music. The high-tech tool of the day was a stereo record player. They kept playing the same set of records, a lesson plan blamed on a horrid piece of junk called Peter and The Wolf. Hearing these 30 some second long bits of music, was supposed to teach us an appreciation for Opera. FAIL! It was supposed to teach us all the various Instruments. FAIL! It was supposed to teach us music. FAIL! It was supposed to make us like music. FAIL!

    It taught ME a DIRE hatred for all the above. I learned nothing about any great composers, and lost interest in them. I lost interest in music. Most of us kids were the same. One kid finally sabotaged the speaker cords.

    As a result of their teaching and their favourite tech, I hated music most of my life. I lost track of the other kids years ago. I doubt any of them like music. The tech sucked, the lesson plans sucked, the teachers sucked.

    Today, I tolerate SOME music. I still do not like record players! I hate opera. And they taught me to dislike teachers. Well, in that, their lesson plan worked beautifully.

    Beware the tech. Beware the lesson plan. Beware the kids. If you are not careful, you can teach kids to hate music, or math. Chemistry or history.

    Forget linear or not. Concentrate on finding out what the kid is interested in, and nurture that interest.

    I learned more about drawing from an architect, in one year, than I learned about anything art related in over 1.5 years or art classes, taught by teachers who should not have been allowed within 50,000 miles of a student.

    Concentrate on the students. Not the tech or the theory.