When I was first being exposed to the wonders of marketing memes, a popular slogan was “New and improved!”. The internet has not only accelerated and amplified communication, it has also inflated the standards for marketing hype. These days, new information technology products routinely roll out with flashy taglines such as “This changes everything!”. In the specific context of human learning, does online learning have the power to “change everything” or does the internet simply allow us to keep learning in the same old ways, maybe in just a faster and cooler iLearn kind of way?
Most animals can learn, even insects. The first “this changes everything” revolution in learning may have been the evolution of social learning, the ability of animals to learn by interacting with other members of their own species. The human species has evolved along a lineage where the capacity for learning from members of a social group has been taken to extremes. We are genetically programmed to develop brain circuits that include mirror neurons, cells that are active either when we perform a particular behavior or when we see other people perform that behavior. Such innate features of our brains allow us to anticipate the behavior of others by assuming that other people have minds like our own. Young chimps and human children can effortlessly learn complex behaviors simply by observing and playing with others. Social learning allows chimp tribes to pass memes from generation to generation, the first glimmer of a transmissible culture.
Another “this changes everything” revolution in human learning came from the evolution of an innate capacity to learn language. Young chimps can learn the basics of human language, but at the age where the vocabulary of a human child explodes and the capacity for parsing complex grammar expands, chimps hit a wall and cannot attain a full ability to use language. Spoken human language behavior is fundamentally social, a communications system designed (evolutionarily) to be used during direct person-to-person interactions.
The invention of written language perverted the human learning landscape. Writing made possible text artifacts that are easily separable from their human contexts. The existence of texts created a need for priests and teachers who could interpret written texts and translate them for the uninitiated. Historically, texts have been rare, expensive and difficult to share. Our new internet culture is contaminated with many habits pertaining to the written word that developed before the era of electronic communications. The old “printed text model” was 1) a few creators of texts, 2) a cumbersome and expensive industry for distributing texts and 3) many consumers of expensive texts. Large amounts of effort have gone into forcing that model of text creation and consumption into the tubes of the internets, but does doing so really change everything?
Some observers have divided the internet era into two parts. The “web 2.0” has seen introduction of a new model for internet content. 1) everyone creates internet content, 2) expensive and lumbering middlemen for content distribution are not needed and 3) we all need new tools to assist us in searching through the avalanche of online content so that we can find exactly what we are each individually looking for.
Another feature of the early internet was the static webpage, created by one author. Newer web 2.0 technologies facilitate the collaborative creation of webpages and other kinds of cultural artifacts. The ability of the internet to bring physically distant collaborators together in a shared creative workspace is a feature that strikes me as having the potential to “change everything” and shake us out of the strange perversion of learning that written language has inflicted on our species. I can’t think about the tortured and isolated writer without remembering Wittgenstein‘s heroic creation of his Philosophical Investigations, or Darwin struggling to give birth to On the Origin of Species, or Rosalind Franklin struggling alone in her notebook, trying, and failing, to understand the structure of DNA. I have fantasies about alternate universes where such people had access to an internet and collaborators and did not have to labor in isolation with their words.
Another cultural artifact of the print era is the practice of placing texts under copyright “protection”. In the internet age, the alternative is for creators of cultural works to liberate their creative works and cooperate in building an open community of freely shared culture. Freely sharing cultural works does not imply that the creators of cultural works will not receive payment for their creative efforts. There can be new economies in which widely shared cultural works are identified and their creators compensated financially.
Is human learning better promoted by using the internet to perpetuate the old printed text model or should we be emphasizing new collaborative, learn-by-doing opportunities that can be facilitated by our global communications network? Should the internet be a means by which ancient bricks-and-mortar educational institutions continue to propagate scarcity models for cultural works or should the internet allow a flowering of opportunity for everyone to participate in the creation of cultural works?