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I recently read the July 2006 edition of FutureLab’s Vision magazine – yes much of my printed ‘stuff to read’ pile really is 18 months old – and one particular article caught my attention.

It was entitled ‘Here, there and everywhere; The impact of pervasive and ambient technology in education’. The article broadly covers the 21st century environment in which information is permanently at our finger tips from a variety of devices and through a wealth of different modes of connectivity. One quote that succinctly captures the nature of the challenge that this presents to educators is as follows: 

We are going to be living in vastly enriched learning spaces – both inside and outside the school – and we must find a way to maximise their use for effective and engaging education”. 

FutureLab has a particular focus on learning technologies in the schools sector but it got me thinking about the nature of the information age that we live in and the way in that this also affects how we design for adult learners. 

I studied for an A-Level in Art between 1986 and 1988, a course which included the studying of the history of art. I distinctly remember my teacher describing how, just a few centuries ago, it was conceivable for a person to know just about everything known by mankind. I doubted that this was entirely true but the message, that ‘in those days’ the total sum of human knowledge was a tiny fraction of what it amounted to in 1988 is undoubtedly true. If you think about it; it is now practically impossible for one person to know (almost) everything about even a single area of human endeavour. 

The relevance to pervasive and ambient technology is thus; that with almost instantaneous availability to digitised information anywhere and at any time and with the ever increasing power of search, why do we still very frequently build learning strategies around the acquisition of information rather than the acquisition of information literacy skills? 

There is more information out there than we could ever amass and certainly more than we, as human beings, could ever absorb, retain and accurately reference. Furthermore the speed at which this global digital information repository grows is staggering and very probably exponential. If you are overwhelmed by information now – think about how many SMS, email and IM messages you get each day now compared to five years ago – consider how you will feel in another five years time! 

I am totally convinced that our education and adult learning focus should be upon building and reinforcing foundational skills around media and information literacy; giving our children, students and employees the base skills that they need to be able to locate, organise, synthesises and apply this information at the point of needing it. At the risk of ‘going all Donald Rumsfeld’, we need to know what it is we don’t know, and know how to know it. 

Search tools like Google and next generation search, semantic web and natural language processing tools like Powerset, Twine and True Knowledge will give us ever faster, easier and more accurate information finding capabilities which will, despite the prosaic scaremongering of people like Andrew Keen, become ever more relevant to those of us who know how to use them. Whilst memory capabilities are important and should certainly be nurtured and protected, it is the abilities we possess that allow us to work out what we need to know, how to find that information and how to apply it (e.g. to solve unfamiliar problems or to fulfil new tasks) which will define our performance potential and, ultimately our value as employees and employers. 

So if you buy this argument (or even if you don’t) ask yourself this; does your classroom instruction or technology-based learning strategy foster these competencies…or do you just focus on telling learners ‘stuff’ and testing whether they could recall it or not? 

Am I advocating that we in the adult learning world should suddenly scrap all of our subject domain-specific training? Of course not. It is our schools, colleges and universities that should have provided these foundational skills. It should nonetheless strongly inform our adult learning approaches.

Consider how complex the ubiquitous software tools, such as MS Vista and Office have become. Think about the bewildering depth and breadth of features these software behemoths now offer. Should we try and tell users everything that they do and exactly how to launch and appropriately use each of these? Should we then have to re-teach this with every new release of these tools? No, we should teach users how these applications are organised and structured, how the generic navigation tools work, how the in-built help features work and how to find online sources of assistance. Teach people that and they will have the ability to find what they need when they need it i.e. they will search for it intelligently, effectively and confidently. They will be able to transfer these skills to the use of other similar software applications without intense further training effort. They will be efficient, effective and productive….those “little” metrics at the heart of the decision to pay for nearly all the training activities that keeps us all gainfully employed.  

So to summarize, pervasive and ambient technology have changed the landscape that our employees live and operate in. They have already delivered a world in which the importance of enquiry skills far surpass the ability to simply memorize by rote. So why do we still very often fall back on treating learners as the stereotypical ‘vessels that need to be filled’?  That approach is now outdated, irrelevant, ineffective and down right patronizing.

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