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    Entries in learning (12)


    A Shallow Argument: Nicholas Carr and the Internet

    Among its many errors of logic and argument, Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains suggests that the plasticity of the brain — its malleability, means that the generation now heavily involved with, and indebted to the Internet, is having its brains rewired. Aside from the obvious problems in talking about the brain as an electrical system, the supposed plasticity of the human brain is far from being proven although it is in an important area of research in the neurosciences. It is true that the brain is far more capable of adaptation than previously thought, and there is evidence to suggest that learning at all stages of life contributes to a "healthy" brain. However to draw the conclusion, as Carr does, that we are in the midst of a crisis which is redrawing the boundaries of how people think (and most importantly what they do with their thoughts) is alarmist and counter productive.

    Carr's panic at what is happening to "us" — distracted multitaskers who no longer read or experience the world with any depth or rigour — perpetuates the century's old hysteria about the effects of new technologies on humans. Stephen Pinker, who actually does research in the neurosciences skewers the simplicity and reductiveness of people like Carr in a recent New York Times article. He says, "Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill, the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience."

    Of even greater interest is Carr's transformation of Darwin's theories of evolution into claims about the speed with which the Internet is altering human biology. This fast forward approach to human evolution has its attractions. After all, humans were not around to witness millions of years of evolution, so it is easy to draw simplistic solutions to explain shifts in human activities and modes of thinking.

    Carr's moral panic (taken up and reproduced by hundreds of journalists in newspapers and blogs seemingly desperate for some explanation as to why they are hooked to a medium they haven't thought about with enough depth and historical range) suggests that evolution is like Lego blocks. Once you put a few blocks into place, you have a structure, and once you have a structure, presto! you have evolved!

    Carr's argument is just a variation on intelligent design. Replace god with the Internet and you have a power so great that humans are not only its victims, they are growing new brains to accommodate its vicissitudes.

    Why do balkanized versions of genuinely interesting and important research projects into human adaptability get transformed into this type of discourse? It is probably not sufficient to suggest that every new technology generates panic among those who least understand either its present use or future transformation.

    After all, had Carr taken even a minimum peak at the 19th century, he would have noticed that among other assertions, the telephone was described as a killer of conversation and human interaction (an attitude that lasted well into the 1960's). He would also have noticed that the cinema was described as a terrible distraction that among its many effects would probably lead to the death of literature and theatre. Photography was lambasted for its potential to lie and convince the gullible masses that the truth of an event could be found in images.

    But, Carr is not the problem here; he is merely symptomatic of an ever growing and worrying trend to ahistoricism among so called public intellectuals. Those who should be the most sensitive to the nuances of change and the shifting relationships among individuals and their communities and the communications technologies they use are now sanctimoniously declaring that the public is being dumbed down. Carr, of course, never spent any time doing an empirical study because it would have taken him years to complete. He accuses internet dwellers of swimming in a sea of illusions without asking any hard questions about how he came to that conclusion.

    His lack of attention to history is what he suggests internet users have devolved into, and, in so doing, he imposes on this vast and ever changing community with all of its diversity and multi-national character a superficiality of intent that he himself creates with his own very shallow arguments.


    President's Convocation Speech of 2010 - Emily Carr University

    Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests, Grads, Colleagues, Dear Family and Friends - All —

    Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to express my thanks to Dr. George Pedersen for his extraordinary work on behalf of Emily Carr. Dr. Pedersen is finishing his term as Chair of the Board of Governors. He has been steadfast, insightful and generous not only to me and to the Board but to everyone at Emily Carr. We love you George, thank-you.

    I also want to thank our Chancellor for his very generous donation to Emily Carr that will support awards to graduating students in perpetuity. I also want to thank Jake Kerr for all his help in securing a new campus for Emily Carr. I look forward to working with Jake over the next few years as we realize the dream of building a 21st Century Art and Design University. Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank Monique Fouquet, our VP Academic for leading the complex transition and planning process that is transforming us into a fully-fledged university of Art and Design.

    Graduations are always auspicious occasions, special moments in time for you, -- students of Emily Carr University, and for us, faculty, staff and administrators — special because this event marks the both the beginning and the end of an important period in your lives and in ours. Emily Carr as an institution is small enough that we know many of you personally and have witnessed and in some cases participated in your struggle to become artists, designers, media creators — and because that struggle is so important to the future — yours and the society we live in, my comments today will deal with the future and your potential contribution to the betterment of society.

    Universities fuel social, cultural and economic growth and change. Universities are at the heart of what we mean by freedom and democracy. It is within the university context that we can freely share not only ideas, but also develop solutions to some of the challenges that we all face. To be a creative person in this context is both a privilege and a burden.

    We cannot exercise our creative talents in a vacuum but must connect what we do to where we live, connect our visions to the communities we share, link our imaginations to suggesting solutions to the vexing problems of the day, explore and innovate with the hope that we will also communicate values that have an impact, values that we can believe in and support.

    Over the last four years, many of you have witnessed some dramatic changes in our society. We have all lived through a major economic downturn and seen an extraordinary election in the United States. We have watched the emergence of China and India as important powers and lived through more and more examples of climate change. These are but a few of the many events during this compressed period in time. Throughout this period you have had to learn how to balance your personal lives with being a student, and to find a sense of equilibrium as our social context has become more and more complex. Whether you have desired it or not the history of this period has affected your art and it is one of our shared responsibilities as artists to understand these effects.

    As creative people, we balance mastery of materials whether they are real or virtual with the creation of artifacts. When you become an artist or a designer or a media creator you commit yourself to this balance, to the shape and form of meaning, to the translation of meaning into form and shape and this commitment is sometimes difficult and other times seems to flow intuitively. The ability to balance all these elements teaches us something about balance in general, about the need to find and maintain some poise as the complex swirl of everyday life circles around us. There is an exquisite beauty to this balancing act — exquisite because we are privileged enough to be in a context where we can dream and where it is possible, even a requirement to translate those dreams into reality. Emily Carr University permits and encourages the imaginative leap from idea to reality! What an extraordinary thing! A place that actually opens up the possibilities of self, transformation and personal growth — a place that historically over 85 years has helped build the creative culture of BC and Canada —a place of freedom that has nurtured and supported some of Canada’s most important creative people.

    This heritage is what we all have a responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate. This is the present and the future.

    I want you to imagine yourselves inside a room with the sounds of twittering everywhere, the chatter and exchange of ideas, disagreements, agreements, information and misinformation, think of that room as a large public square where we have assembled to talk, create and talk some more. Think of that room as a studio where the smells and tastes are integral to releasing the energy of creativity. Think of yourselves during that silent moment in front of an empty canvas or a blank screen and that chance, that rare chance to create, to imagine and to produce. At each stage of your learning experience you have had to overcome that emptiness, the sense that there is meaning even if it is not immediately apparent. And each time that you have productively found a solution, you have validated your education, and reinforced the importance of what we do collectively and individually. This creative heritage is your responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate.

    We live in a city that by virtue of location and history extends Canada eastwards to the vast nations of Asia. We live in a city that is small by comparison to the large cities of Europe and America. Yet, we have produced some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century and hopefully will continue to produce even greater artists in the 21st Century. Perhaps it is the fact that we are the mediators between Europe and Asia. Perhaps we have always been not so much a gateway to the East as a cultural point of transition between east and west. And perhaps that hybridity has given us a unique advantage — the advantage of understanding how cultures come together and how diversity is at the very core of our identities, at the very core of most creative acts.

    So, graduates!!! You now bear the burden of carrying on some great traditions. You now have the chance to become what you imagine, you can translate your hopes into action, but you will also need to relate what you do, what you imagine to who you are and WHERE you are. You will need to connect to the community and understand where you can contribute. Now more than ever there is urgency to how we interpret the present and how we see the future. And, as you engage with these challenges remember Emily Carr. We are and always will be your extended family.

    Good Luck and all the best for the future. [This speech is also available in PDF.](/~rburnett/Weblog/Grad_2010_Speech.pdf)


    Learning, Informal - Formal

    An editorial in the April 8th edition of Nature raises some important issues about student learning experiences in the sciences. [The] "evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment." (Nature 464, 813-814)

    The same argument can be made for many other disciplines. The relationship between informal and formal learning is characterized by extreme fuzziness. As I have discussed in recent articles (particularly, The Radical Impossibility of Teaching) classrooms and formal lectures may well be the last place in which empowered and empowering learning takes place. The formal schedules of schools, departments divided into sometimes highly contested disciplines, and the credit system all discourage the value and importance of informal learning.

    In fact, learning informally is at the heart of how people discover new things and new ways of understanding the world. For example, a visit to a museum combines the experiences of viewing with the challenges of interpretation. It would be difficult to summarize or quantify the relationships that viewers developed with Mark Rothko's work at a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. Something was happening, although it was difficult to know what. Many visitors sat and stared at the paintings for quite a while. Were they wasting time? Or were they exploring the canvases, their brilliant colours and careful shading?

    "An Ad Hoc Committee of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching
    (NARST) stated in 2003 that there are three “important characteristics of learning… First, learning is a personal process, second, it is contextualized, and third, it takes time…Learning occurs when people reconstruct meaning and understanding; a different way of thinking, perhaps, or a different way of responding to an idea or event. Learning that occurs today depends on yesterday’s learning and is the foundation for tomorrow’s learning. The cumulative, iterative process of learning emphasizes the importance of time.”. Our own research in this area reinforces the importance of iteration." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

    Learning takes time and follows many pathways. A good teacher can create a map with destinations, but the routes have to be developed by the students. Those routes may meander for a while because the iterative process is not the same for everyone. Knowledge and information can be shared along the way. Wisdoms can be imparted through discussion and interaction, but these travels will always be characterized by the richness of the unexpected sometimes colliding with the expectations of teachers and other times producing engaged and engaging dialogue.

    The tyranny of schedules in schools is that they artificially 'locate' learning at a time and place that may not be convenient for everyone. The schedule cannot account for iterative processes because it generates a linear type of learning that goes against its very essence.

    "To summarise: learning rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. It is cumulative, emerging through diverse experiences. It is a dynamic, never-ending, and holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. Much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derives from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)


    Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education

    by Henry Jenkins, Professor at USC.

    An important and timely discussion that explores the growing interdependence of learners with digital media and the need to examine how these media are working, what their influence is and how to teach in this new environment.

    Jenkins interviews, Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher. His first question is: "Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools." Read more……


    Networks of Knowledge/Networks of Learning

    These are difficult and challenging days for education. We are in the midst of a sea change which will affect many of the assumptions which we have about how students learn and how teachers, teach.

    Read on in the following PDF.

    Networks of Knowledge: Networks of Learning.pdf