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Learning in the Information Society

Limits to pre-packed learning

One of the major underlying messages of the institutionalised learning system in our society is that learning comes in a specific pre-packed form, delivered in a predetermined place bearing public recognition, dispensed by people certified as capable of doing so. On the positive side, this has undoubtedly made it possible to extend teaching way beyond the chosen few. Yet one of the disadvantages of mass pre-packed education is that it embodies the idea that satisfactory, accredited learning can only take place in specific institutions. It shifts the emphasis from learning to teaching and subsequently disempowers the would-be learner. Learning, however, is most efficient when it is anchored in the context of the learner's life, whereas institutionalised learning de-contextualises it and removes the foundations on which learning can meaningfully take place.

A shift from stabilised, formal knowledge

In modern society the relative importance of stabilised, formal knowledge - on which institutionalised education is based - is decreasing. The decline of hard and fast values, the rise of such scientific paradigms as indeterminancy, relativity, fuziness and chaos theory and last but not least the impact of extensive distributed multimedia networking are indicative of and contribute to such a shift. What's more, in the field of professional know-how, the need to constantly change and adapt in a cut-throat competetive world puts a premium on other types of knowledge than those that take years to materialise.

Beyond "learning"

This state of things is so taken for granted that it becomes extremely difficult to use the word "learning" to mean anything other than a measurable commodity. Much of the talk about education in the Information Society - in particular with Open and Distant Learning (ODL) - is based on such an assumption. Are not such expressions as "virtual classroom" significant of the way "home education" is seen: learning that takes place in a controlled, limited environment. Yet learning can and does take place in the most unexpected circumstances. See Seymour Papert's book "The Children's machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer". Moreover, much of the most significant knowledge in relation to the use of telematics is in the hands of the users themselves and is developed both individually and via informal peer exchange.

Delivering the goods

In considering learning in the Information Society, considerable emphasis is put on "delivering" the goods, but there is no guarantee that providing affordable access and teaching everybody basic operational skills will avoid discrimination. Once again the metaphor here is that of supplying the pre-packed commodity rather than creating the meaningful learning experience on a personal or collective basis. Despite lip service paid to "learner-centred" education, it is no easier to achieve in the current institutional context than is the client-centred approach in a traditional product-centred industry.

The role of technology

Technology is taken as being a pre-requisite to learning in the Information Society. Clearly the shift to a society based on massively mediated communication must take steps to minimise the undesirable social repercussions, in particular exclusion due to lack of access and basic know-how in the use of the tools. This is why a strong case is made by some education providers and by advocates of technology in general for having access to improved equipment and communications infrastructures. Technology alone, however, is no solution. Papert argues (Op. Cit.) that the nature of computers - and one can add distributed networking - render possible a much more open, non-institutionalised approach to learning. Yet although technology can be a catalyst, if not a great help, it is not an end in itself. Migration to the Information Society is seen as a way to stimulate growth, to combat unemployment, to enhance social cohesion and to generally improve the quality of life. The promoters of this change in Europe tacitly recognise that its success depends very heavily on human factors. See the Delor's White Paper "Growth, Competitiveness. Employment. The Challenges and ways forward to the 21st century" and the Bangemann High-Level Group report "Europe and the Global Information Society". Education and training are seen as major factors in dealing with the human aspects of migration to the Information Society.

Keeping abreast of change

Confronted with the acceleration of changes in products and standards, the task of "keeping up" becomes ever more costly and time consuming, if not impossible. The current institutionalised system of education may well not be the best model for keeping abreast. As products, in particular information products, take on an unfinished nature (being constantly up-dated and improved) and their use becomes experimental (users discover and employ as yet unused aspects of complex products on a trial and error basis) and educational (learning about use is incorporated into the product itself) the model of formal syllabus-based education becomes less and less appropriate. In many cases solutions learnt yesterday can become tomorrow's obstacles. Some educational institutions have attempted to shift the emphasis to meta-level skills like learning how to learn. However they have difficulties providing satisfactory answers to the dilemma of dealing with change, in particular when it is fast and often unpredictable. Their very structure makes it impossible for them to deal with the problem for themselves let alone for their students. Moving to the Information Society aggravates these difficulties, yet at the same time the tools of the Information Society provide a possible answer so long as the nature of the learning process is understood and so long as we are prepared to seek and implement other less formalised ways of encouraging and enabling this learning process.

Setting aside preconceived ideas

Migration to the Information Society could be an excellent opportunity to set aside preconceived ideas and to take a fresh look at what learning is, what needs to be learnt and how. This is unfortunately no easy task. Institutionalised learning plays an all-pervasive role in our society and it is difficult to avoid being led astray by certain deep-seated assumptions that are an integral part of the words we use to talk about the problem. Whether or not the opportunity of the advent of Information Society is taken advantage of also depends very much on our ability to convince those groups of society with a vested interest in keeping learning methods and structures as they are, that considering a change would be worthwhile for everybody including themselves.

Alan McCluskey Share or comment
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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: January 15th, 1996 - Last up-dated: July 7th, 1997