Monday, May 7, 2012

Remarks on the Pace of Technology Change and Learning Expectations

By way of background:

·       I am an editor for a premiere journal in educational technology – Educational Technology Research & Development; we get peer review feedback to authors in 60 days or less and the typical paper that is accepted (about 12% acceptance rate) goes through 3 revision cycles; once accepted, the publisher (Springer) typically has the paper available online with a DOI in Online First within two weeks and the article is formally published in less than a year; this record is not bad for a top tier academic journal, but many authors and readers complain that it still takes too long from original submission to publication (even in Online First), partly because technologies change so fast that the study being reported is more than two years old and the technology involved has since evolved in significant ways.

·       I am an instructional design scholar and researcher; when I started out in this discipline area more than 25 years ago, I was able to keep up with most of the main educational technologies then available; today I am probably only aware of perhaps 25% of the main educational technologies available and able to make productive use of perhaps 10% (optimistic estimates).
·       I was formally trained as a philosopher – my first and only academic love. I regard philosophy as thought in slow motion. I was trained to critically examine seminal writings in philosophy. I often mention some of the short sentences that have captivated my thinking in my classes. For example, there is Wittegenstein’s remark that “we picture facts to ourselves” (“Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen”) in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (2.1). One may stumble across such an innocent sounding sentence and wonder what it means. At first, one might think to oneself “of course we do.” Then a question may bubble up from those thin pages, such as “what is the form of the picture we create internally?” or “what is the relation of the internal picture to that which is pictured?” which is presumably some external reality. One then looks further into the text and into various commentaries searching for clarification. The likely outcome is still more questions, such as how and why did this ability to create internal representations develop or what internal structures and mechanisms are required to support that ability. “We picture facts to ourselves.” Of course. Keep reading. It is all too obvious. But wait. Sometimes I picture to myself things which are not facts – things that are erroneous representations (“I saw Elvis in the grocery store yesterday”) or altogether outrageous (I refuse to elaborate on the grounds that I might insinuate myself) or even impossible … really … is it possible to imagine something altogether impossible, such as a square circle? Well, I do know several very square egg-heads. I can say things that refer to impossibilities, such as “What I am now saying is false” (I used to be a politician) or “Yesterday I suffered a fatal heart attack” or “The day before yesterday I ate the last cannibal” (yes, nonsense can be distasteful) … or, more appropriate for polite company, “There is someone in this room who loves all and only those persons in this room who do not love themselves.” We picture facts to ourselves. Sometimes we also picture to ourselves things that are not facts. How do we distinguish the two? Well, other philosophers have speculated about this, so the journey from this small, innocent sentence takes us perhaps to Descartes’ Mediations on First Philosophy – for many that was their last philosophy course and they never had the pleasure of delving into Wittgenstein. Oh yes, the Meditations – six to be precise. Perhaps those ideas that are clear and distinct are the ones that represent facts. But suppose one has a vivid imagination – that must be you if you managed to read this far. Can one not have a clear and distinct internal representation of something that does not exist or that is erroneous or outrageous? Yes, quite so – that ferocious lion I found in my bedroom yesterday caused my fatal heart attack … that was a very clear and distinct impression … how could it have been misleading? After all, it was the lion’s roar that did me in.

I know … I have tried your patience too much already. You may already have guessed my point. There is occasionally pleasure and insight to be had by going slow and dwelling on one small thing. Just a single sentence, such as “we picture facts to ourselves.” Thought in slow motion. But in today’s fast-paced world of change and innovation, where is there time to pause and contemplate and explore such a small thing? One must keep moving … keep learning new things … keep trying out new technologies … keep on keeping on …

Of course I am not the first one to have such thoughts – not even the first educational technologist to have such thoughts. I am reminded of the following from the opening stanza from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock:”

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Here is another sentence which lends itself to the thought in slow motion treatment: “I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.” Try that one on for size.