In silico veritas.

Latter-day learning

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Tech | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Responding to this New York Times feature, MG Siegler reflects on learning in an age of constant connectivity:

I’m tempted to be cautious in the way I say this, but I can’t come up with a real reason to be, so I’ll just say it: I have definitely learned a lot more on the Internet than I ever did in high school.

High school, at least when I attended it, was much more about learning social skills than educational information. The education side of things was more like one big game. You had to figure out how to play the game so you could get into a good college. It was about memorizing things for tests that you’d forget a week later, and figuring out how you could do your homework in the free period before the class in which it was due. I more or less remember nothing from high school beyond the times I spent with friends. And I know I’m not alone there.

One major problem with high school learning is that you are forced to take certain classes which you couldn’t care less about. I understand that the rationale behind this is that it makes you a more “full” person, and you might learn you love something that you didn’t realize you would. But that mentality is from a pre-connected world. I would guess that a lot of students these days know what they’re really passionate about at a much earlier age, thanks to the Internet.

Certain people will need to go to places of higher education for the access those institutions have to tools that a person would otherwise not be able to get access to. And there’s no denying the value of a good teacher/professor. And certain people will definitely always benefit from the combination of social environment mixed with structured learning. But not everyone learns the same way.

If you’re a self-starter, why shouldn’t you be able to get your education on the web? Because there are too many distractions?

I personally find it remarkable that it’s 2010 and we haven’t yet had a serious discussion along these lines. MG’s summary hit the nail on the head in my case.

Certainly I enjoyed the social aspects of high school, but like MG, I hardly remember much, if anything, from the classes I took. As I enter my final semester of college, I find that I remember less of the specific content I learned about earlier in my undergraduate career and more of how it affected my thinking. And certainly my wonderful alma mater has afforded me a variety of tools and opportunities to which I would have not otherwise had access. But some of my most rewarding pedagogical experiences have taken place during my own free time; that I was physically on campus during these experiences is merely incidental.

Former classmate Ben Casnocha recently wrote about the four qualities necessary to be an outstanding scientist, citing among them “[d]ual abilities, both to generalize and to concentrate on the particulars.” Although I’m no scientist, I found this an interesting way to frame my own mental tendencies. My intellectual interests often follow the same trajectory as my musical ones — discovery of an intriguing new topic (or artist), followed by a period of intensive, almost single-minded, study (or listening) until I am sated, and the process repeats. If I go too long without stumbling across a new idea or concept (or musical artist), I inevitably find myself bored, restless, dissatisfied. Fortunately, this is not often the case — the breadth and depth of the Internet has allowed me to broadly expand my thought processes and worldview as I hone in on specific topics across disciplines. Thematically, they tend to hew to a specific theme: the yawning gulf between the disorders of humanity and the order of the universe, and our potential to reconcile the two. To date, my Wikipanion bookmarks span across such disparate concepts as anagnorisis, brane cosmology, the Dunning-Kruger effect, hysterical realism, post-scarcity, saudade and sehnsucht, and wage slavery.

Now, it’s possible that some classes I could take would touch on some of these subjects. But if such phenomena as these are discussed in more “focused” classes, their mention is inevitably fleeting. There is no intellectually omnivorous option available for the curious student — something I was disappointed to find out about higher education. Independent study, perhaps the one option closest to this ideal, doesn’t lend itself well to cherry-picking highly specific topics of interest across disciplines because such diffusion makes it increasingly difficult to obtain the all-important quantitative results of one’s studies. I’m no polymath, but that seems to be the closest existing word for this phenomenon with which I identify. Perhaps “polypiqued,” or something similar, would more accurately describe it.

Where exactly do the polypiqued fit in? Are we really to relegate them to either self-educate with regards to their interests or otherwise slip through the cracks?

[Image: Flickr/samwebster]

One Comment on “Latter-day learning”

  1. 1 David Dreshfield » Blog Archive » A slice of the ‘net, vol. 1 said at 1:57 AM on February 2nd, 2012:

    […] primarily — as well as nod in agreement/self-recognition in the segment about how education must change in the face of an increasingly digitalized generation. What’s your perception of time, and […]

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