Is Individual Learning Really Outmoded?

This post refers back to the post (below) of May 14, 2010, and the post of August 25.

In those posts, I mentioned Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia) and his article Individual Knowledge and the Internet.  Sanger analyzes three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.  "First is the idea that the instant availability of knowledge online makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary."  The second strand claims that "individual learning is outmoded, and that "social learning" is the cornerstone of "Learning 2.0"  (The third two strand will be examined more fully in a later post.)

Why do I return to an article published a year ago?  I believe that Sanger is on to something: a superficial, misleading articulation among certain educationists that learning has become fundamentally different with the advent of social web tools.  On the contrary, Sanger see such tools as fancy tools, but only as tool towards a very similar end: the content and method of liberal learning which remains to be done, no matter what the technological environment.  I agree with him.  I think that Sanger's argument is worth continuing, if only because, as the bloom seems to be coming off some Web tools, this is a teachable moment to ask, what does it mean to be truly educated?

But back to Sanger's critique of a second strand of thinking about learning adn the Internet: that individual patterns of learning are outmoded, and the new pattern of learning (thoroughly invested in and enabled by Web social tools) is collaborate, social group learning.  Just as some educationists' first claim that the Web has made memorization unnecessary (by in part caricaturing all remembered content as mere rote, unreflective memorization), so this strand caricatures individual learning as –well, individualistic— as lonely, uncreative, and private to the point of solipsism.

Now group learning and social learning using social web interaction –wikis, online conversations, online fora of all sorts, can certainly be valuable.  They can also have problems, and carry costs and benefits which a wise teacher can choose to use as time, attention, and the situation suggest.  This is to say that these tools are exactly that: tools; that other tools (reading a book, an article, summarizing a paper, writing a poem, translating a passage, or other traditional activities) might also be useful, or not, as the situation suggests.

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, however, go much further (in the article cited above).  The go on to claim that "collaborative learning" is "the core model of pedagogy," and that of course digital platforms alone enable this.  Asking what is meant by social learning, they claim:

Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

In other words, social learning shifts focus from content to process, which "stands in sharp contrast to the traditional Cartesian view of knowledge and learning."  This view (according to Brown and Adler) views knowledge as a kind of "substance" and that pedagogy –the art of teaching– concerns how to transfer this substance from those who know to those who do not yet know, i.e. from teachers to students.  This "transfer" contrasts with the "constructed" knowledge students arrive at collaboratively.  How "substance" differs from "construction" is left unsaid.  As Sanger points out:

One could just as easily, and with just as much justification, assert that what is constructed in social learning is a "substance" that is socially shared. One can simply say instead that Cartesian learning involves the teacher causing the student to believe something that is true, by communicating the true thought.

In any case, Brown's and Adler's understanding of "Cartesian" (by extension, of Descartes) is laughably superficial.  "Substance" is not a prominent term for Descartes, who though that each person's mind is a substance, not knowledge itself.  Brown and Adler have simply adopted an idea from widely repeated (and vague) academic discourse that knowledge is a social construction (certainly a problematic idea –just ask a physicist).  Knowledge as a kind of "substance" is much more Aristotelian or even Thomist, but those thinkers are too intimidating to serve well as a kind of fashionable foil for social constructivists.  Thankfully Brown and Adler did not drag Kant into this.

The distinction boils down to learning with or without the presence and support of peers.  Certainly some people need peers in order to maximize their abilities to learn; others need solitude.  Isn't this obvious?   The view that social learning is therefore superior is easy to claim, but very difficult to verify in any meaningful manner, because "social learning" simply lacks the definitional heft to test rigorously.  The several tools which Brown and Adler present as examples of social learning are interesting, but cannot bear the entire weight of presenting an alternative to a straw-man "Cartesian." 

Ultimately, you have to do your own reading, no matter how the Decameron or the Divine Comedy come to you (to think of two classic texts with extensive online tools).  You may post your thoughts in essays on a blog or wiki (as I am doing), but the act of writing is still solitary, and needs practice for mastery.  (I certainly don't claim the latter!)  Discussion in any forum, whether face-to-face or online, is a great thing –but I agree with Sanger that a true scholar needs the ability to think independently.  A scholar is not automatically a member of a herd.  You might get a lot of help from peers to learn maths, science, management, economics, or a host of subjects –but if you don't master the material yourself, then you haven't learned it.  If you can't do the problems yourself, you haven't mastered them.  Your peers will not be omnipresent, whether in an examination, or on the job.

I agree with Sanger that those four activities –reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculating– are crucial to liberal education.  A person who can't do them can't really be called educated.  Social learning is an important supplement to, but not a replacement of, individual learning.

Why does this matter to me as a librarian?  I am involved with planning a library renovation –I am making sure that there will be both group and individual spaces for study.  Part of liberal learning includes memorization, reading, writing, independent judgement, calculating –exactly the kind of independently responsible learning so much in demand by knowledge workers today and in the future.  What goes on in a library is individual learning, supplemented by group learning.  Individual knowledge is still necessary in the internet age, and "social learning" without individual knowledge is insufficient to the tasks of reading, writing, critical judgement, and calculating.  At the end of the day, you have to wipe your own nose, say your own prayers, reading your own texts, and work your own problems.

Three Jeremiads: a second look

Darnton-1-122310_jpg_230x1010_q85 Robert Darnton's The Library: Three Jeremiads (New York Review of Books, December 23, 2010) is a wonderfully written, rather gentle set of Jeremiads –for those of us used to reading the real Jeremiah.  He finds research libraries (and by extension, the rest of us) facing three crises, but he ends with hope, not doom.  (In that sense, he more like the original Jeremiah than many would realize.)

Darnton's three jeremiads are, in compact phrases:

  • Hard times are inflicting serious damages on scholarly publishing.  Scholarly publishers can no longer count on selling 800 copies of a monograph, and so many university presses have stopped publishing in some smaller fields (colonial Africa) altogether.  The scholarly monograph is becoming too expensive to sustain, and this back up the entire line from graduate-student research to publish-and-perish for newer faculty.  The pipeline is very seriously clogged.
  • University journals have experienced excessive pricing as control of critical scientific journals have passed to private hands.  The average price of a annual journal subscription in physics is $3,368; the average price in language and literature is $275.  Publishers impose drastic cancellation feeds, written into "bundled" journal subscriptions (sometimes hundreds) over several years.  Publishers seek to keep the terms secret, although a recent case in Washington casts doubt on that ability.  Academics devote time to research, write up the results as articles, referee the articles, serve on editorial boards, and then buy back the product of their labors at ruinous prices.  In order to break the monopologies of price-gouging empires such as Elsevier, scholarship needs open-access journals which are truly self-sustaining.  The Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity attempts to create such a sustaining coalition of universities.
  • The Google books settlement offers some hope for breathing new life into monographic publishing, according to Darnton.  (I disagree — see below.)  A Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) could succeed should Google fail, but the primary obstacles are not financial but legal.  Those works published between 1923 and 1964 are often in a copyright limbo called "orphaned works," because no one knows who actually holds copyright, if anyone.

Darnton's last Jeremiad offers hope, but is, I find, not a sustaining hope.  Recently I was helping my staff to shift part of our small collection because our shelving is at 100% of capacity and we do still desire to purchase some new monographs in print.  By chance I was shifting our modest collection of books on feminism and its development –but all the essential texts were there, starting with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (English translation 1953).  All of these titles are in print; the subject remains of great interest to many in the university; all of this material remains in copyright, but much of it is now old enough that the identities of the rights-holders can become difficult to trace.  Given the legal problems, little of this material is likely to be digitized on a large scale any time soon.

There may come a time when the sheer need for digitized texts will overwhelm the vested rights of very numerous rights holders, and society will enforce an equitable arrangement –the Google Books proposal would assign 63% of profits to authors and publishers, to be held in escrow by a trust persuant to a Book Rights Registry.  This proposal cuts the Gordian knot: the Copyright Act granted a long-term license which the government in turn never attempted to track, insofar as enforcement was to be carried out by a (presumably aggrieved) rights-holder.  This promises, however, endless litigation, and by the time that is ended, interest in almost all texts from the 1923-1964 period (or even later) will have faded further.

The sustainability problems for scholarly writing and publishing are very real, and remain.  For a smaller, teaching-oriented University, the reality that these problems are first dealt with by the Class-1 research universities is little comfort: we all live with the results of the mess society and technology has made of rights, copyrights, and the ubiquitous threat of litigation.  Predatory journal pricing structures remain, and it is little comfort for a teaching university that the prices are so far out of the realm of the possible that only a few mourn the impossibility of major scientific journal subscriptions.  The only way forward, as I see it, is to offer support to organizations such as the Public Library of Science, SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition), and the evolving identities and offerings of JSTOR and ITHAKA.  But this is not an answer.  It merely joins Darnton's appeal to change the system.