Q&A with David Weinberger
Q&A with David Weinberger
Q. There are many resources in front of learners today; how do you see the learner navigating them?
Learners today not only have unlimited resources, but also the ability to connect between them, to jump between them at a moment’s notice. If learners can’t immediately find a link, they’ll go to a search engine and find it. They’ll also find large numbers of video and “paper-based” tutorials. There’s never been anything like this richness of material, coupled with its inter-connection.
It’s becoming more common that if you run into a problem, you go to a site that will fix that single problem without going up levels to theory and abstractions. If you’re a developer and you want to learn a new language, you can take one of the many online tutorials. Most of them were written by other developers, not professionals, and some of them are fantastic. You might start with one, to learn the basics. As soon as you hit a problem –“I wonder how I do this” – it’s simple to go to a site like Stack Overflow. This is a community of millions of developers answering every conceivable question at an incredible level of specificity. You get your answer, move on. At your next problem, you pop in, get your answer, move on. It’s learning by problem solving rather than by learning and applying theoretical frameworks.
Q. Can you expand on the communities?
We have communities, in the traditional sense, that are online. They comprise a group of people who know each other and do more for each other than they “have” to. They are caring communities, and they show up in all kinds of places, for all sorts of interests.
We also have mass communities, where people don’t know each other because there might be millions of people. They are learning from each other, more or less from a sense of mutual obligation regarding a shared interest.
When I was a child, and for thousands of years, learning was done with a teacher. It improved you as a person; you became smarter and a better citizen. By having lots of educated citizens, the culture became better. This obviously still happens, but now learning by yourself just seems selfish. If you figure something out, and you know how to do it, and you don’t tell others, well that’s just being selfish. To know and not share feels wrong.
Thus, millions of people go online and post answers. They might not do it on an organized site like Stack Overflow or its equivalent in another field, but they post it somewhere. Far more learning happens in public as a public service. The communities might have thousands or millions of people who don’t know each other, but feel obligated to the others, whether they’re interested in programming, or model ship building, or whatever. There’s a fantastic fountain pen community at Reddit.
Q. You’re speaking about real-world examples; how might this translate to a new learning space?
The sense that learning ought to be a public activity, that holding onto knowledge is selfies, is becoming prevalent. It manifests itself in different tools and different sites. I mentioned Stack Overflow and Reddit. The gaming world is less organized but you can still find a way to post, “How do I do this? I’m stuck.” And you’ll only be stuck if you want to be stuck.
When computer gaming started, there was no place to turn. Now you’ll find walk-throughs, some of them very detailed and well done pedagogic instruments. There are tons of videos and YouTubes of people playing the game. Sure, people like the credit, they like to see their counters going up because they’re still human beings. But it’s also done, I believe, because people feel, “I know something therefore, we should all know it; why should I be the only one?”
Q. Is this how you also envision learning?
A lot of attention is focused on machine learning. This is a tremendous advance, because it’s one of the first times we’re able to advance without having a theory first.
It’s not entirely true, but true enough that we can gather data and learn from it without having to start with a theory and hypothesis. We can do it because everything is a sensor now, our phones, everything we carry. We have sensors feeding information to a global network attached to incredibly powerful computers. With all this data, we’re able to start understanding and predicting things without having a theory about why they work.
I believe this is changing our Ideas about how the world works. Traditionally we thought the world works based on a theory, on laws. Yeah, the laws still apply, but if our kids are growing up in a world where they succeed without starting with theories, then this suggests they’ll learn in the same way. When they have a question, they’ll go out and get an answer. When they have a problem, they’ll go out and see someone’s video about how to fix it. They’ll have less of a sense that they can master the world from the top down. They’ll be less inclined to approach problems by understanding and applying theories, less of a sense that this is how the world works. The world is a giant, fantastic, beautiful, incredibly complex machine. The idea that we can conceptualize it is going to seem a bit arrogant, because we have these little tiny brains. It suggests that attempting to educate by means of evoking theories may become less important.
The new way is more on-demand and less coherent than the alternative, but in some ways, it’s also more realistic.