Learning is abandoning us.

Back when I was a philosophy student, one of the most talked-about books was Douglas Hofstadter’s The Mind’s I – fantasies and reflections on Self & Soul. First published in 1981 it consists of a set of thought-experiments that tend to make you unsure of some of your most fundamental beliefs.

One of the chapters is called ‘A Conversation with Einstein’s Brain’ and you can read it for free here although I should warn you it is written in the long, reflective form that has now become obsolete. Put simply, the argument is that if you could scan every cell and connection in someone’s brain before their death, you could continue a conversation with them long after their demise – it would just be a matter of calculating inputs and outputs.

As a generalisation it is fair to say that education describes a set of techniques aimed at forcing people to recall unimportant information. Within the world of education it is also fair to say that spaced repetition is effective - as are tests and other forms of intimidation. But judged as a whole this is a peculiar and inefficient activity - our minds were not designed for it, and it says almost nothing about normal learning.

I felt I ought to write this piece, after reading today that investment in e-learning is due to grow to 107 billion in 2015 & this Andreessen Horrowitz podcast on the ‘software eats the world’ theme – referencing education. Yes, I know I said it’s a zombie conversation, but with headlines as big as these, I just can’t resist taking another stab at it.

Why is there a problem with online education?

Because we’re throwing money at something that is broken.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines learning as 'knowledge acquired by study'

This is not true. Learning is not the acquisition of knowledge. Not in the sense of 'storing information in your head'. Learning is the encoding of reactions. A collection of reactions (what I have been calling 'affective context') make up an episode - or a story. We use these stories to generate 'knowledge' when it is needed.

The ‘Zombie Conversation’ is a concept I’ve found helpful in recent months. One of the characteristics of online discussions is that the same conversations keep coming up again and again – long after you thought they were dead and buried. And they’re dangerous: you find yourself compelled to finish them off – driving point after point through their lifeless hearts – only to find that they struggle back to their feet the moment your back is turned.

Armed with a provisional understanding of learning, it becomes possible to consider education and the role it plays.

The role of education now seems clear: it is to adapt the complex matrix of concerns that make up each learner to fit with the complex system of concerns that comprise a society (or an organisation). Yesterday I saw a child’s drawing entitled ‘What I want to be when I grow up’. They had drawn a vampire. Society does not need vampires, it needs accountants.

I reckon I spend about an hour a day learning online. I get in early, so I have time to look at blogs, posts and tweets from the people who have something interesting to say. I have always found listening a great way to learn. 

Tools like Twitterfall enable me to listen to what people are saying about specific topics - such as elearning - and I learn something about elearning by listening to those people who use it, and those who produce it.

The diagram to the left represents another way of illustrating the Affective Context Model, which explains how learning takes place.

As we experience the world our brains need some way of deciding what to encode and how to encode it, so as to retrieve it in a way which is useful. Our minds solve this problem by encoding information along with its affective context – that is, our affective response to what we experience.

You’ve seen these, right? Lots of people have them: ‘Lucky Cat’.

I am not actually aware of any evidence that they make you more lucky – but they sell ok. They run on two AA batteries, so they’re not terribly expensive and if there is a chance they might make you more lucky… well, why not? There might even be some kind of placebo effect. Imagine if you did some research and found that statistically ‘lucky cat’ owners reported feeling more lucky? They probably do.

As Roger reminded us recently, Online Education is dead. Online learning though, has become a way of life for most of us - almost overnight. For knowledge workers most of their learning (I.e. Informal learning) is now done online (I estimate that I average 90 mins a day, learning online). And as Jane's research shows networks, blogs and Google are now how we get things done.

I’m not going to waste any time circling the black hole of the ‘Future of Education’ debate.