Lydia Plowman, Patrick Carmichael and Steve Higgins
Picasso is reputed to have said: ‘What good are computers? They can only give you answers.’ Answers may provide information, but it’s knowledge that really matters. The knowledge to frame questions, make connections and to help us work out whether the answers are the ones we’re looking for. Search engines can be a quick route to information, but they sometimes close down rather than open up possibilities. We are still finding out how technology-enhanced learning can help students and adults become skilled finders of information and discerning consumers of it. More than ever before, people need to be able to evaluate the credibility and validity of what they find in the digital world.
Technology has contributed massively to the problem of too much information, but it can also help. For instance, Amazon’s recommender systems use information about our prior purchases to suggest books or DVDs that we might like based on what people with a similar profile have bought. This may help with wading through the oceans of online choice, but it can be a bit hit or miss. On TripAdvisor, knowledge about hotels and destinations builds cumulatively as a result of social interaction, but we need to be careful and learn how to interpret it.
One reason that computers aren’t very good at differentiating information and knowledge is that knowledge is built socially. The culture that we live in determines what we need to know and what we value. This knowledge comes from lots of sources: our parents, our friends, our education and our experiences. We tell stories about all these things and construct knowledge for ourselves and others in the process.
Technology speeds things up. Useful knowledge changes quickly and has become more fluid, contingent on local circumstances and requirements. This has eroded the concept of a standardised body of knowledge or an agreed canon of what should be taught.In fact, thinking deeply about what knowledge we need to teach in the 21st century is one of the great contributions that technology enhanced learning research can make.
The storage and transmission capacities of computers enable us to share information more readily than in the past, but if knowledge = information + meaning, where does the meaning come from? Computers excel at retrieving something from memory. But they’re not so good at reflecting or drawing on experience, yet.
The worldwide web is growing ever larger. This growth has prompted much discussion of how it might evolve to provide access to useful, timely, trustworthy information, while not overwhelming its users with vast amounts of data. Tim Berners-Lee, an inventor of the web, and others have proposed remaking what already exists as a ‘semantic web’ of resources. Clear description of the meaning of web content would allow better linkage of online content, search engines would apply the same kind of reasoning that people use, and web users would be offered a more seamless experience.
This grand vision of a ‘next-generation web’ has been slow to develop. But increasing numbers of government and public bodies, research organisations and museums have recognised the potential benefits of linking data from multiple sources. This has enormous educational potential, but it is naïve to assume that simply bringing data
into the classroom will enable new, or better, or faster, learning.
Governments often refer to the knowledge economy. They aspire to an economy that is driven by innovation, change and growth to ensure global competitiveness. Increasingly, this is a digital economy – the result of digital networking and communication infrastructures that provide a global platform over which people and organisations can interact, communicate, collaborate and share information.
It relies on skilled labour; even manual jobs now need people who are comfortable with technology. Grappling with vast amounts of information and being able to transform it into knowledge requires an education that encourages creativity, clear thinking, independence and ingenuity. Technology can help, but it alone is not the solution. Teachers are still vital in the translation of information into knowledge. And students must be actively involved too – technology can support the process, but it cannot do it for them.
Technology-enhanced learning research is helping us to rethink the nature of knowing by changing the ways in which information is presented and understood, challenging our prior knowledge and helping us to seek out new directions and associations.
In 1910 the educational philosopher, John Dewey, wrote: ‘The distinction between information and wisdom is old, and yet requires constantly to be redrawn. Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life. Information, merely as information, implies no special training of intellectual capacity; wisdom is the finest fruit of that training.’ (Dewey, . 1910 ‘School Conditions and the Training of Thought, Chapter 4 in How we think. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, (1910): 45-55)
The Ensemble TEL programme project explored how web-based resources might be incorporated into teaching and learning in higher education. It examined how teachers and learners use the web, and how data and other linked online resources are mobilised to meet learning aims and suggest new directions for enquiry. Various ‘mediating’ practices help students make good use of the vast amount of data. These range from teachers making selections and recommendations to students (for example, by helping them to narrow down the results of semantic web searches) to rich web interfaces and visualisations which present large, complex data sets in more accessible, explorable formats.
For instance, the Ensemble team worked with teachers and undergraduate plant scientists to develop an interactive timeline of plant evolution which brought together datasets, texts, images, maps and publications, allowing students an overview of trends and patterns before exploring particular aspects in depth.
The team also worked with environmental education teachers to develop an assessed ‘case study’ in which undergraduates decided the best location for a hydroelectric power station. To do so, they had to draw on authentic data such as climatic records and measurements of river speeds and heights over time. They were helped by a combination of linked data and visualisation tools that enabled them to see patterns and resemblances in what might otherwise seem intractable, dense or vast amounts of information. These, plus crucially the teacher’s expertise in shaping and ‘bounding’ the case study – not too broad, not too directed – made for an engaging yet challenging activity.