Thursday, 9 June 2005

What is Learning?

An upcoming article for the eLearning magazine. This is a draft only.

Data is individual statement. Data is the kind of thing we found using the search engines. Data is external to my being. Information is a network of coherent data. It may be stored externally (e.g. I can search for some information on the web) or memorized. Information may include procedural know-how or my favourite recipes. For example, September 13 is just a piece of data. I also know that my wife was born on September 13. These two pieces of data connected to become an information, “my wife’s birthday”. Again, “Albert’s wife was born on September 13” is also a piece of data, an irrelevant piece of data to most of you.

Let’s say we have agreed that “Albert’s wife was born on September 13” is an important knowledge that all readers of eLearning magazine needs to master. What does this mean?

There are several assumptions made. We have agreed, implicitly without further negotiations, that time is divided into intervals called “years” and there are 12 months in a year. One of the months is called September and 13 is the thirteenth day of that month. We also have a common understanding of “wife”. Somewhere, some time ago and somehow, we have come to a common understanding of the concept of “wife”, so without seeking explicit clarification, you may have correctly assumed that my wife is a female human being.

The key words in the last paragraph are “knowledge” and “understanding”. Knowledge is an understanding of a network of information. This understanding is community based. It may have been explicitly negotiated or implicitly “learnt”. Understanding is anchored on information and language. Without them, there is no common ground to build a community of practice who shares the understanding. Every single word is the result of some common understanding. Words may be ambiguous, but overall, any effective communication and building of common understanding depend on mutually agreed meanings to the words.

Understanding is part of our being. Understanding of a body of knowledge is coherent within a larger framework within each individual self.

Unlike information, knowledge and understanding cannot be externalized. When externalized, knowledge becomes information. Its utility depends on the understanding of the words making up the information. When meaning and sense can be made out of the information, the individual who makes such meaning and sense acquired the knowledge related to that information. In other words, when information is interpreted basing on all our previous knowledge and our language, the information becomes part of our knowledge.

What is “know-how”, e.g. the procedure to fill up the tank of our car? Is it knowledge or a piece of information? In a written form, it is information. But if I know what it means and can follow the procedure to achieve the objective of making my car move again after running a long distance, it become a knowledge, a knowledge to me alone.

So, what is my definition of learning? To me, learning is the process that builds understanding and coherent network of knowledge. This process occurs within me. You cannot stop me learn, nor make me learn. You can present me with information. You can introduce me to a community of practice. You can show me how to do thing. It is me who learns.

I had been helping people to learning. I was a Physics teacher for nearly 20 years. I presented information to my students. Some might be sitting closer to me, others not so. They could all hear me and see my writing on the board. But some obviously “picking” up the concepts much better than others. Why? If teaching is equal to presentation of information, all my students should have exactly the same performance! Teaching is obviously not just presenting information. Teaching is the act of helping others to learn. We can motivate the learners so that they are more ready to. We can present the information in some sequence so that the information can be integrated and understood more easily, at least to a broader group of learners.

Education is the business of providing learning. Training is a special case of education. The kind of learning that is occupationally oriented, with specific outcome which trainees would be able to demonstrate.

What is e-learning? E-learning is learning at which technology has played a role. At eLearning Magazine, we look at the technologies that purport to support learning. We reports on good practices that individuals, companies and communities learn and learn better. Future articles in this column will describe different “art forms” of teaching. We hope that you may pick up some tips. Other sections in this magazine cover important aspects of the business of providing learning (i.e. education and training. We also cover “informal” learning, how technology may help us develop ourselves.

Side Notes:
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued against “private language”. Basically, there is not any language which is used by only one individual. Language is always negotiated to create a common understanding within a group which James Paul Gee called “Semiotic Domains”. Here we are using “community of practice” in a general and less vigorous way. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 1958) and James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Macmillan, 2003)


ps Please also see a new post in Conversation With My Evil Twin on Apple's Colossal Disappointment

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