Saturday 24 November 2012

Learning, Society and Absence

If we believed that the social aspects of learning demanded some sort of physical proximity between individuals, then we would never have thought that e-learning was a good idea. Given that the experience of e-learning is generally still terrible - solitary individuals hunched over computers, knots in the stomach as they try to work out "what am I meant to do?", "where do I click?", "why am I doing this?", etc... dealing with the mantra to "engage socially" (which generally means exposing yourself through text messages that everyone else can see - more knots in the stomach), what do these experiences tell us about the deficiencies in the way we think about learning?

First of all, it is important to say that given sufficient determination and effort by learners, these terrible experiences can work. However, little is known about the conditions within which it works, and the conditions within which it doesn't. Given that the e-learning brigade is generally self-serving and has a vested interest in 'talking-up' the experience, it is very difficult to get a handle of the differences between actual experience and success.

I think physical proximity really matters in this process. And so I'm going to have a guess: things work online when learners are supported by those who are physically close to them. It works when the learners engagement online, at a distance, becomes part of the 'family project', or the 'work project'. Progress in the online course becomes an important factor in maintaining local conversations which people who matter in day-to-day life, rather than individuals represented as pixels on the screen. These attachments counter-balance (even compliment) the crappiness  of the online experience. Some research needs to be done here.

Conversely, when this is not the case, when the learner is really on their own, then I think it may not work. Although, there may be exceptions: the very lonely individual for whom online communities offer their only social outlet, for example. But I'd be willing to bet that such an individual would crave proximal (probably intimate) communications instead and the online vehicle might become a way of achieving that (or maybe a surrogate).

Thinking, attachment, emotional management and strategic engagement with technology are deeply entwined. What I may be saying is that attachments are a key factor in success in e-learning. The fact that attachment seems to be significant raises a number of questions. Simply comparing attachments to internet use, or to success in e-learning or participation on forums may be to over-reduce complex causal relationships. If we think with others, and our thinking relates to the management of attachments, then the strategies we pursue (whether face-to-face or online) are related to those relationships. But if this is the case, what does it tell us about thinking itself and physical relationships? What is the involvement of the body in intellectual life?

I've been making some suggestions here recently (see Our understanding of learning as "mental process", or learning as "connected mental processes", or learning as "practice and reflection in the light of models" all appear suspect. None of them acknowledge that for each individual there  are other individuals who are deeply important to personal viability: parents, partners, children, colleagues, etc. This oversight is largely responsible for some big mistakes in e-learning, including MOOCs, Learning Design, Instructional Design, etc. Maintaining attachments with those we love is essential for establishing sufficient emotional management to engage in challenging processes of learning. Ironically, many thinkers in e-learning themselves seem to plateau-out, no longer wishing to challenge themselves or their current knowledge, but preferring instead to believe that they are right and to become evangelists. But then, that's why e-learning is dead.

I'll return to this, but to illustrate my point, just imagine someone you deeply love standing alone on the precipice of a cliff. Most typically this might be your child. Think how you feel. The terrified anxiety which turns the stomach; the frantic search for ways of reaching them and dragging them back; the desperate instinct to protect; the fear that something might happen which threatens not only them, but you too. The bodily sensation here is fundamental and, I believe, ontological. The intellectual challenge brought about by the situation drives us to new thinking, new ideas. And this, I submit, is a better way of thinking about learning than the coordination of mental models, or whatever other mechanism might be suggested.

The difference between this scenario and the descriptions of learning that have be proposed to us by e-learning aficionados is simple: My scenario focuses on the negative, on what isn't there - all that we know is the churning of the stomach. All other descriptions attempt to assert a positive mechanism - what is proposed to be there (interestingly, positive descriptions often turn my stomach - I think of what isn't described!)

If there is a priority in the theoretical development in education, it lies in understanding the logic of the negative and the absent. That this theoretical development is urgent is underlined by the terrible things we are currently doing to education.

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